J.B. Priestley was a superlative and prolific essay writer. Getting started as a professional author after the First World War, he produced hundreds of pieces for newspapers and periodicals. These were often in a belles-lettristic style which was even then falling out of fashion: “personal in tone but elaborately composed”, whimsical, mannered, self-deprecating. But the demands and restrictions of such writing helped Priestley learn his craft. Gradually he found his natural voice, a style which appears personal, even chatty, but which is really carefully thought out and precise.
By the end of the 1920s, as Susan Cooper observed, Priestley was “writing as well in [essay] form as any man alive and a great many dead”. His journalism, his broadcasts, and much of his non-fiction – in fact, many of his finest works – have the same mix of precision and personality as his essays. Priestley wrote in essay form to share what delighted him; to reflect on society, culture and politics; to publicise his opinions – and sometimes to have a good grumble.
It is therefore a joy to report that a new collection of Priestley’s essays is about to appear in print, under the excellent title, Grumbling at Large. The volume should be a Delight to own and to read, as its publisher, Notting Hill Editions, specialises in essays and pays great attention to design, typography etc. I love their typographic covers!
But how to condense a lifetime of miniature gems into one slim volume? The editor, Valerie Grove, has had a difficult task. I’ll be keen to see if my favourites (“Gin and Tonic” and “Quietly Malicious Chairmanship“) have made it in!
Quotations from Margin Released and J.B. Priestley: portrait of an author.