Seventy years ago, at 9pm on 11 May 1945, the author J.B. Priestley made a very special broadcast on the BBC to mark VE Day: war was over in Europe; Nazi Germany had surrendered.
J.B. Priestley at his typewriter, a little later in 1945.
The piece, “Journey into Daylight”, feels like a Postscript to Priestley’s Postscripts, which spanned the summer of 1940 from Dunkirk to the London Blitz. Like them, it is a moving and personal account, warm, inclusive, and rich in everyday detail which emphasises the sense of shared experience: titles of popular songs, spam sandwiches … It also gives the impression of natural speech while actually being consummately crafted to raise Priestley’s political and social ideas in a gentle way acceptable to the BBC and the government.
In Journey, Priestley compares the experience of VE Day to waking up in a railway carriage after a long dark journey: now, at last, a “thin grey daylight” is appearing round the edge of the blinds and it is time to get up and move on to the next stage.
But first, “let us go back – and remember”. First the phoney war of bewilderment and waiting, then the spring of 1940 when countries fell and victory was salvaged from defeat at Dunkirk …
“We put on LDV* armlets and took a few old condemned rifles to the tops of hills: we were alone, and the world thought London had joined Babylon, Nineveh and Carthage; but we knew better.”
The summer of 1940: a terrible, glorious time in which the community worked together for a common purpose – and there was a glimpse of the possibilities of such action in peacetime. The grim struggle of 1941, new allies in the USSR and the United States, the terrible lows of 1942 when Singapore fell and all seemed hopeless. Then hope: the battles of Alamein, Stalingrad and D Day …
J.B. Priestley standing by a car, 1940s
Priestley warns that the shocking discoveries about Nazi atrocities show the dangers of mechanistic thinking leading to loss of humanity. This could happen to any society: the Allies after all had won not by virtue but by out-doing their enemies’ technology: “we made bigger bombs than they did”.
With this in mind, the piece is far from triumphant: Priestley, a veteran of the Great War trenches, knew the price of victory in lives lost and shattered. He knew, too, that the War was far from over (fighting continued in the Far East, to be ended only by the dropping of two atomic bombs in August, and the starving people of Europe in their devastated cities desperately needed help). Characteristically, however, Priestley ends with a ray of hope: the spirit of communal effort of 1940 could be repeated, and society changed for the better.
* LDV = Local Defence Volunteers i.e. the Home Guard or “Dad’s Army”. JBP was indeed one of the volunteers and in a beautiful Postscript meditated on the fellowship he felt with Wessex men throughout the centuries protecting the land from invasion.
Read/hear for yourself
The piece was printed in The Listener 17 May 1945 and reprinted in that magazine on 18 January 1979. The radio broadcast survives and has often been used in BBC programmes. It is worth looking out for it over the next few weeks as the Corporation marks the VE Day anniversary: if it is used, it is likely to be available on the iplayer for a while. As far as I know, neither version is currently freely available online. The Listener Historical Archive is available to subscribers.
In some ways, Priestley’s call was not in vain. The Labour government, elected in July 1945, instituted the modern welfare state and the National Health Service. However, this was top-down state bureaucracy rather than the communal efforts that Priestley valued … and in other ways, society returned to its previous patterns, elites still on top and Cold War developing between the War’s two great allies. During the 1950s he became increasingly disillusioned as a result. However “Journey into Daylight” stands alongside the Postscripts as JBP the broadcaster at his most inspiring.