Tag Archives: BBC

This Is Not A Dismal Place! J.B. Priestley’s North East Journey

Mr Priestley goes to the Tyne (and Tees)

In Autumn 1933, a famous young(ish) novelist visited the North East of England, full of cold and cold medicine and missing his home.  J.B. Priestley was travelling around England’s regions, making the observations that would become one of his most significant publications: English Journey.

PRI21_5_7LowResThe sections of English Journey on Newcastle, Middlesborough and the North East of England are among the most powerful parts of the book.  Priestley pointed unforgettably to the devastating impacts on landscape and people of “greedy, careless, cynical, barbaric” industry.  He also said bluntly what he thought of the locals (“I had never seen a crowd of men whose looks pleased me less”) and their accent, a “most barbarous, monotonous and irritating twang”.

A scrapbook of press cuttings (now part of the J.B. Priestley Archive)  shows how passionately people felt about Mr Priestley’s take on their region, which whatever its faults was theirs, not his, a prosperous, wellconnected man briefly visiting and criticising what he saw: “This is not a dismal place!” cried one Middlesborough newspaper.

PRI8_1_11 44 close

Eighty Years On

In 2014, academics and journalists and other readers, like ourselves, are revisiting the book, seeing it in context, examining its impact, see for instance J.B. Priestley Society’s recent conference.  In my talk at this conference I used the scrapbook to explore the marketing of English Journey and how it was received by its original readers.

The response to the 80th anniversary by local media in the North East has much in common with the reaction in the 1930s, picking out his strong criticisms of individuals as well as his social commentary.  Witness this article on the local BBC website and a piece on the local Look North (available online till 7pm on Friday 28 November 2014), both featuring the scrapbook and other contributions from Special Collections.

Chris Phipps, a local historian interviewed for these pieces, will go beyond the headlines about Priestley and English Journey in a talk at the Newcastle Lit and Phil on Saturday 29 November 2014.

Reflecting on English Journey and the North East

It’s possible to make too much of Priestley’s cold and bad mood and general prejudice against the Geordie accent etc.  He was a writer who tended to bring himself into his journalism and he often chose to play the grumpy Yorkshireman card.  What matters more is what he saw and the conclusions he drew about it, his call for a fairer society.  Not just in the North East but all over industrial and post-industrial England.   He knew himself that what he saw on his visit transcended his own discomforts and irritations:

“… remembering that I had a job to do, I climbed out of this morass of silliness and set about exploring the Tyneside.  I did explore the Tyneside and have not been genuinely sorry for myself since; though at times I have caught myself at the old drooping tricks and been ashamed.  There is, you see, something bracing about the Tyne.  After you have seen it, you realise it is not for the likes of us to be sorry for ourselves.”

Priestley was not the first or the last to write about poverty and social exclusion in the North East, but his contribution was certainly memorable and influential, his style at its absolute best, fuelled by his righteous anger.   For instance, this on Shotton,  a coal mining village, where he saw the “tip”, a huge “volcano” of coal dust and slag, breathing out ash and dangerous fumes:

“I stared at the monster, my head tilted back, and thought of all the fine things that had been conjured out of it in its time, the country houses and town houses, the drawing-rooms and dining-rooms, the carriages and pairs; the trips to Paris, the silks and the jewels, the peaches and iced puddings, the cigars and old brandies; I thought I saw them all tumbling and streaming out, hurrying away from Shotton – oh, a long way from Shotton – as fast as they could go”.

An Experiment with Time: Priestley and Dunne on Radio 3

J.B. Priestley, like many of his Great War veteran contemporaries, was a time-haunted man.  He was intrigued by the work of J.W. Dunne, not only to provide plots and ideas for his plays, but because he sought answers to deep questions about time and the meaning of life.  You can hear more about Dunne and Priestley and time in I Have Been Here Before, a recent BBC Radio 3 documentary.

Dunne, Experiment

The broadcast highlights an extraordinary part of the J.B. Priestley Archive here at Bradford.  Lecturer and author Katy Price discusses the “Time” letters written to Priestley by members of the public in response to his interest in precognition, dreams and other time-related phenomena.  The letters show how people trusted Priestley, pouring out experiences and thoughts they had never shared with anyone else.

Further reading: Dr Price recently published an academic article which uses the evidence in the letters to explore mid-20th century mentalities and psychiatric experiences: Testimonies of precognition and encounters with psychiatry in letters to J. B. Priestley.

Great Lives: Cryer and Wainwright on Priestley

New in the BBC Radio 4 Great Lives series: Barry Cryer nominates J.B. Priestley.  Broadcast 11 January at 4.30 pm, repeated at 11 pm and presumably available later via iplayer.

Barry Cryer knew Priestley well.  The programme also features Martin Wainwright, who helped make the Postscripts programme last year work so well.  The presenter, Matthew Parris, will apparently add a sceptical note.

 

Postscript Sunday 1 September 1940

J.B. Priestley’s  Postscript broadcast on the “last Sunday of the first year of the War” is a difficult one to paraphrase because it is pure atmosphere.  Priestley took a day all his listeners would remember, the first day of the War, and reflected on how strange it had been and how he had felt.  No doubt many listeners had seen similar sights, experienced similar feelings: one of Priestley’s great literary skills was articulating such shared experiences.

He had travelled from his Isle of Wight home to London to broadcast the first installment of his new novel, Let the People Sing.  It was a day of fear and contrasts, everywhere far busier or far quieter than usual.  Sirens going off in Staines, the “long vacant roads of Kentish Town and Camden Town, as empty of life as the old cities of the plague”, Broadcasting House (home of the BBC) felt like a First World War headquarters.  Paddington railway station “looked as if it had had six consecutive Bank Holidays”, “reeked of weary humanity, thick with wastepaper, half eaten buns and empty bottles”.

More about Let the People Sing

Looking out of the train window on the way home, Priestley saw a dragon-shaped cloud against the sunset sky,  a magnificent sight.  Did anyone else remember that?

Priestley mused that he could not have foreseen what was to happen in the War, but he had expected the British people would rise to the challenge, and he believed they had: “Talk about giving courage and confidence – you’ve given me more than I could ever give you: not only courage and confidence in the outcome of this war, but also faith in what we can achieve after this war”.

Priestley’s finest hour 4. How can I access the Postscripts?

Print

It is fairly easy to access the 1940 Postscripts, J.B. Priestley’s famous series of radio talks, in printed form.

1. Published first in the journal Answers, the scripts were collected in one small volume, Postscripts, by Priestley’s publisher Heinemann, later in 1940.  This book is widely available in libraries and the secondhand book trade.

Full bibliographic details here in our catalogue record.

2. More recently, Priestley’s Wars, published by Great Northern, also reproduced the scripts.   It is still in print and is highly recommended if you are interested in modern history, politics, or literature.

Amazon details.  Also available from bookshops and elsewhere online.

Individual Postscripts were sometimes reprinted elsewhere, but the two books mentioned here are probably more accessible.

Audio

BBC Archive recording of Priestley’s 5 June 1940 Postscript, about Dunkirk.

The Dunkirk Postscript is available on various records, and is often on sale as an MP3 download.  When last checked (Nov 10) 3 MP3 downloads available on Amazon.

Priestley’s finest hour 3. What were the Postscripts?

The Postscripts were radio talks broadcast by the BBC during World War II, usually on Sundays after the nine o’clock news.  They began in March 1940 and lasted throughout the War.  The talks were intended to counteract the popularity of the German radio broadcasts of William Joyce “Lord Haw Haw”: up to six million people listened to these, out of curiosity or lack of access to reliable news.  The first Postscript speaker was lawyer and author Maurice Healy.  He was replaced by J.B. Priestley after the evacuation of Dunkirk, as the BBC felt that a more serious approach was now appropriate.

Priestley’s first series of Postscripts began in June 1940 in the aftermath of the Dunkirk evacuation, and continued through that extraordinary summer, when the RAF was all that stood between Britain and invasion.  Although he was already well known as a novelist, playwright, and journalist, the power of radio made Priestley a household name, the ducks he mentioned “film stars”, the pie shop he praised a place of “pilgrimage”.  Priestley finished in October 1940, but returned for another series in 1941.

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 full story is more complicated.  Priestley’s talks worried certain politicians and journalists, but the decision to end the first series of Postscripts appears to have been his: he was tired, and felt the War had moved into a different phase, with less imminent threat of invasion.  The second 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 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.

Excess Baggage

The English Journeying continues: Radio 4’s Excess Baggage on Saturday 26th included an interview with Tom Priestley about the new edition of  EJ.  Currently available on the BBC iplayer!