This little pamphlet made a welcome appearance in our post-tray today. The Town Major of Miraucourt is a short story by J.B. Priestley, reprinted by Turnpike Books, and on sale from 1 December 2017. Nicely timed for Christmas present-giving!
The pamphlet is now part of the J.B. Priestley book collection at the University of Bradford, where it and copies of all the other titles mentioned in this piece are preserved and made available to the public.
I’d like to reflect a little on The Town Major of Miraucourt and its unique place in Priestley’s immense output. It is the only fictional work based on the author’s experiences during the First World War.
Why was this Priestley’s only fictional account of the War? Surely the five years Priestley spent in the Army were rich in potential incidents and characters and ideas for a novelist or playwright to explore? Yes, but he decided not to pursue this approach. As he later explained in his memoir Margin Released, first of all, he wanted to forget about the War and get on with the life so shockingly interrupted. Then he came to realise that as a writer he was not drawn to war: it did not inspire him. He found it impossible to reconcile the two faces of war, the grotesque mixture of murderous slaughter with the “slapstick, so much gigantically solemn, dressed-up, bemedalled custard pie work” of Army life.
Yet he did (I think) manage to reconcile these elements in ‘Carry On, Carry On’, the unforgettable middle section of Margin Released. Priestley tore into the folly and ignorance that sent his generation to its mechanised death, while documenting the fun, silliness, quirks and everyday humanity going on at the same time.
In Town Major, written over thirty years before Margin Released, Priestley also captured the humour and reflected on the meaning and implications of war. The story is set in 1918, beginning with a barely fictionalised account of Priestley’s life at that time. He, like his surviving contemporaries, had been through so much by then: trench warfare, serious injury, brutal training camps, the loss of his friends and comrades. In 1918 Priestley had returned briefly to the Front, been gassed, rated B2 by the medical board (fit but not fully fit), and sent to work with the Labour Corps depot. His protagonist has the same experiences, which then however take a weird turn. En route to Rouen, he finds himself in Miraucourt, a mysterious French village seemingly untouched by war. There he meets a group of soldiers who echo Shakespeare’s own larger-than-life creations: are they Falstaff and his company …?
Town Major shares the woozy, dreamy quality of ‘Carry On, Carry On’: Priestley and his fictional counterpart are traumatised and weary, adrift in a chaotic, devastated and disconnected landscape where anything might happen and time has little meaning. “There was perhaps always a suspicion in one’s mind that the whole thing might be slipping out of any kind of control, even that of roaring death. Sanity, one concluded, might easily be bombed away for good and all.”
This evocative story has been relatively inaccessible until now. It was first published in the London Mercury of October 1929 and reprinted as a limited edition in vellum with slipcase by Heinemann in 1930. Its only later appearance in full was in the compilation Four-in-Hand (Heinemann, 1934), although parts were included in Priestley’s Wars (Great Northern, 2008). So the reprint is most welcome and will (we hope) bring this glimpse of Priestley’s war to new audiences almost 100 years on.