Category Archives: Priestley’s Finest Hour

Series following Priestley’s 1940 Postscript broadcasts, as they happened.

JBP, the BBC and Churchill: Inside Out discusses the end of the Postscripts

Why did J.B. Priestley’s Second World War Postscripts come to an end?   Did Winston Churchill have him taken off the air?

This intriguing and perennial question was aired again on the BBC’s Yorkshire Inside Out programme on the 21st, which discussed a recent book by Richard North.  I showed materials from the J.B. Priestley Archive that might shed light on the story and we also saw Churchill’s own Archive at Churchill College.  If you missed the programme, catch up on the iplayer until Sunday – we are about 10 minutes from the end.

I should point out that North’s book and the interpretation put on the Priestley/Churchill story by the programme are controversial.  If you’re interested in exploring this further, check out my Postscripts exhibition and Nicolas Hawkes’ pamphlet which used the BBC’s own archives and many scholarly sources (available to purchase from the J.B. Priestley Society).

Postscripts and Vera Brittain’s Letter

First in an occasional series in which I compare J.B. Priestley’s wartime Postscript broadcasts to other regular WW2 publications, an extension of the Priestley’s Finest Hour project.

I recently catalogued Vera Brittain’s Letter to peace-lovers.  As an absolutist pacifist of the Peace Pledge Union, Brittain had a different view of the War from Priestley.

The audiences for the two series would have experienced them in different ways: text versus audio (though Priestley’s broadcasts were also printed).  Brittain’s audience had to subscribe; Priestley’s much larger audience had to expend less effort to hear him, and may have heard him by default – the radio happened to be on, or someone else chose to listen.

Actually, though, in a skim through Brittain’s Letters, I noticed the similarities between her pieces and Priestley’s rather than the differences.

The broadcasts and letters start in similar ways, with a letter, incident, idea leading to deeper thought about the War.  Both use everyday detail tellingly.  For example, this by Brittain about Hyde Park in August 1940 would have made an ideal Postscript: “I could not help wishing that Herr Hitler and Dr Goebbels could be transported here to see the vast London population which they have so often described as panic-stricken.  So accustomed has that imperturbable populace now become to military preparations of the most sinister type, that they have ceased to think of their meaning or even to notice them – except as props for their backs or convenient sandpits for their toddlers”. Both praise British stoicism and courage, and call for the energy put into war to be put into building a better world.

I ended up thinking about what the authors had in common.  Both of course were talented professional communicators, though clearly sincere in what they said.  The most important similarity is that both had experienced the horror of the First World War.  Priestley spent five years on the Western Front and lost all his boyhood friends.  He alluded to these things in his political writings of the 1930s and in the Postscripts, though he did not write about them in detail until Margin Released in 1962.  Brittain, as she described in the unforgettable Testament of Youth, worked as a VAD at the Front.  She lost her fiancee, her brother, and many friends.   Both knew what war meant.  Their life-changing experiences underlie both the Letters and the Postscripts.

A Postscript to the Postscripts

Writing this series has been a remarkable experience.  I thought I knew the Postscripts well, but exploring them in this way has revealed so much more, which I have been delighted to share with readers.

Working to the weekly deadline, which clashed with other deadlines and commitments, has given me greater respect for Priestley’s achievement in creating such simple, sincere, well-pitched pieces under pressure.

I feel as if I have experienced events alongside Priestley and the British people and understand better how they unfolded.  So much happened in such a short time.  My immersion in 1940 was greatly helped by other archives and museums sharing their collections in real time via social media e.g. the Imperial War Museum Duxford and the National Archives War Cabinet Papers.

The series has been viewed by several hundred people already, and will be maintained online indefinitely for others to enjoy.  Please comment, or contact me directly, if you have any feedback.  I will continue adding to the series: I have several pieces in mind already.

Want to know more?  I’ve sent a more detailed, scholarly version of this post to the J.B. Priestley Society Journal. I also write about the project for a professional audience on my personal blog, Collections in a Cold Climate.

Postscript Sunday 20 October 1940

“This is my last Sunday postscript for some time, perhaps the last I shall ever do.  The decision was mine and was in no way forced upon me by the BBC “.

In this final Postscript, Priestley said goodbye to his listeners and gave his reasons for ending the series.

It is often stated that the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had Priestley “taken off the air”,  for using the Postscripts to discuss building a better world post-war.

The real story was more complex.  Priestley’s calls for social justice worried certain politicians and journalists.  However, the decision to end the first series of Postscripts appears to have been his, as he explained:

Firstly, he didn’t want listeners to become bored of hearing him.

Secondly:  the “situation of the country and also the mood of the country” had changed.   Priestley had started his Postscripts after Dunkirk and had made them during the strange heightened atmosphere of the Battle of Britain summer and autumn, followed by the start of the Blitz.  Britain had been in grave danger of invasion, and Priestley had expressed and helped inspire the people’s magnificent response to that threat.  Now the immediate danger was over, the War was entering a different phase, less compelling to him as a broadcaster.  Maybe other speakers could do better with this new phase?

Priestley gave a second series of Postscripts in 1941.  This series was brought to an end by the intervention of Duff Cooper, the Minister of Information.  The full story of the roles of the BBC, Ministry of Information, government and journalists, has been researched by academic Sian H. Nicholas: her findings are probably most accessible in The Echo of War (1996).  I can also highly recommend a pamphlet by Priestley’s stepson, Nicolas Hawkes, “The story of J.B. Priestley’s Postscripts”, published by and available from the J.B. Priestley Society.

In this last Postscript, Priestley defended himself against the various attacks on him.   He had not, as accused, brought “party politics” into his talks: he had called for what he believed to be right, what the country claimed to be fighting for: democracy, social justice, decency. After a last call for the country not to sink back into privilege and apathy post-war, he offered his listeners thanks or apologies, as appropriate:

Apologies if they didn’t like his accent,  “if they wearied of me talking about myself, though sometimes the most honest way of discussing general topics is to be personal about them; if they became impatient because I couldn’t … convert a ten minutes postscript into a six hour … lecture”, or if he hadn’t replied to their letters.

Thanks for writing the letters,  and for listening. “I’ll always be proud to remember how many times I caught your ear as we all marched through the blitzkrieg together.  It might have been worse, mightn’t it?”

Postscript Sunday 13 October 1940

J.B. Priestley began his Postscript broadcasts at a time of great danger for Britain: Dunkirk.  This broadcast was made at another terrible time, as mass  bombing designed to break the nerve of the population took its toll across the country.  “Autumn is with us, and the shadow of winter already darkening the horizon”.

Now more than ever Priestley emphasised the value of arts, recreation, entertainment, all the things that made life rich and worth defending.  “We mustn’t allow ourselves to be reduced to living on an ever-narrowing edge of wartime existence, with nothing to think about but planes and tanks and guns”.  Hard work, of course, but also “high jinks”, a Lancashire phrase according to Priestley.  He had been visiting the North West of England so the piece has some nice asides about Lancashire – from a Yorkshireman.

He ended the broadcast with another of his memorable vignettes of everyday life: the story of a woman who owned a cafe in Liverpool, who accepted hat bands from French Fleet sailors in lieu of payment for cakes, to the delight of the customers.    Not good military discipline, but fun.  “If a hundredth part of the goodwill and sense shown at the little cafe round the corner were imported into our international affairs, …then all these chest-thumping screaming lunatics, and all their insane paraphenalia of destruction, would vanish …”

Postscript Sunday 6 October 1940

This Postscript has a distinctly autumnal feel.   JB and an engineer from “a well-known public corporation” (presumably the BBC, though I haven’t confirmed this) were on a long drive to the west of England one “chilly, damp” evening.

Warned by the engineer’s past experiences, they stopped early for the night to try to find a bed.   But the hotels were full of resident guests who had no particular work and had moved out of London away from the Blitz. The evening ended happily, as Priestley and his companion managed to persuade a landlord to let them have a room.  But the incident made Priestley realise that something was wrong.

The people most in need of “nice, quiet rooms in pretty places” were women and children bombed out or others suffering from shock and trauma, but there was no room for them.  Instead, the spaces were taken by “pleasant, able-bodied persons who, because of some system of private incomes or pensions and all kinds of snobbish nonsense, are condemned to yawn away their lives, forever wondering what to do between meals”.

Priestley concluded that this unfortunate situation showed that “we are at present floundering between two stools”: everyone for himself, or sharing and fairness, everyone for each other.

This Postscript is the most politically inflammatory one yet.  He is very critical of the idle rich, although fair in saying the situation is not their fault.   Priestley did not use any -ism for his suggested society, but he did use a very particular phrase when he explained that the second stool “has some lettering around it that hints that free men could combine, without losing what’s essential to their free development, to see that each gives according to his ability and receives according to his need”.

The phrase at the end is almost exactly Karl Marx’s famous “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” which appeared in the Critique of the Gotha Programme.  Of course the concept is much older: the 5th edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations cites 18th century French thinkers, and Priestley sets it in the Christian tradition, suggesting that it could have come from any sermon.  His family and in particular his father Jonathan came from a West Riding tradition of nonconformist, public-spirited, practical socialism, and this appears to some extent throughout Priestley’s life and works.

Cover of Voices on the Green

Cover of Voices on the Green

Priestley’s politics and religious ideas require far more room to discuss in detail.  But I would like to share a piece that I think complements this Postscript: The Swan Sings Tirralayo,  originally written for an American compilation called London Calling (New York, Harper & Bros, 1942).  I have read it only in its later publication, slightly abridged and moved into the past tense, in Voices on the Green (Michael Joseph, 1945), a collection of writing about childhood whose profits went to Saint Mary’s Hospitals for Women and Children.

In Swan, as so often in the Postscripts, Priestley started from a small experience of his own and used it to make radical conclusions palatable and familiar.  During the War, his wife Jane ran hostels in Herefordshire for bombed out women and children.  One night, when Priestley was staying at one of the hostels, three professional musicians working as “music travellers” for the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, forerunner of the Arts Council, gave a concert.  They taught the women how to sing rounds, including one with the refrain “The Swan Sings Tirralayo”. “In a minute or two the hall was filled with singing swans … You could see a vista of birds floating on dream rivers.  One curve of women’s voices followed another.”

Priestley, who loved music, was deeply moved: “Nothing I had seen, heard, read, imagined, those many months, stirred me more deeply.  I tell you it was magic.”

The magic came out of what was actually “an experiment in communal living”, a rich man’s home requisitioned to house some of the poorest people, musicians paid by the government to entertain the people …  The moment would have been impossible pre-war, when the house would have contained a few rich people playing bridge, and their servants bored in the kitchen.  Priestley argued that the moment showed that socialism was already happening, not a fantasy, but a response to the needs of the war, and that a fairer society would not have to be drab, dull-eyed conformism.

(Incidentally, Priestley writes about the song the women sang as if it was well-known, but I have been unable to trace it.  I will add details if I find out more!  Perhaps that doesn’t matter, the mystery adds to the magic?)

Autumn News

The Special Collections e-newsletter for Autumn 2010 is now available online, with plenty of great stories and images about J.B. Priestley’s World War  II Postscript broadcasts, Jacquetta Hawkes events at Ilkley, a farewell to Communal Building at the University of Bradford and lots more.  Regular readers of our blogs or twitter feed were first to see versions of many of these stories, but some are new.

Cartoon plane

Cartoon plane

This cute plane illustrates one of our regular features: Caring for the Collections.  In this one, I show how our induction for new visitors to Special Collections resembles an inflight briefing, but designed for safety of both people and the unique materials themselves.