Q. Which well-known British author liked J.B. Priestley’s The Image Men so much he read it ten times? A. Anthony Burgess.
Burgess and Priestley have much in common. Both remain famous on the basis of one iconic work above all: Burgess for the dystopian novella which became a controversial film, A Clockwork Orange (above), Priestley for An Inspector Calls (below). Both were much more interesting and prolific writers than commonly thought. Both wrote novels, plays, non-fiction, and masses of journalism. Burgess also created symphonies and other musical works. Although as far as I know JBP didn’t actually write music, it was so important to him that I think this counts as another connection.
This shared experience underlies a perceptive and generous piece Burgess wrote for The Observer after Priestley’s death in 1984. I could happily quote the whole thing as it shows such great understanding and appreciation of Priestley. Here’s some of the most telling points:
“My generation had been warned off him by the intellectuals, who derided or patronised him … The fact is that Priestley was an intellectual himself, a man of wide erudition … He knew what the avant-garde novel was all about, but he preferred to work in the tradition of Smollett and Fielding … Of course, he was always more subtle than he usually wished to appear. If he scorned experiment in his novels, he produced in the 1930s a series of plays which brought something wholly original to the theatre … He was perhaps the last of the literary men willing to spill out of the confines of his study and dare to be a public figure revered for what he stood for, and not just for what he wrote”.
The connections between Burgess and Priestley are explored in depth by Dr Andrew Biswell of the Burgess Foundation in the 2013 J.B. Priestley Society Annual Lecture, English Anxieties, on 16 March. Taking place at the Foundation, in Manchester, the event is free and all are welcome! Society members are also invited to the AGM that morning. Full details on the Society website.