Tag Archives: J.B. Priestley

Rediscover the Inspector online

Studying An Inspector Calls?  We are proud to have assisted the British Library in creating a fantastic new archive-based resource to help GCSE and A-level students, undergraduates and other learners enjoy and understand this work.

PRI 9_1_7 An Inspector Calls Moscow USSR poster

Poster for the first production of An Inspector Calls, in the USSR (archive reference PRI 9/1/7).

The resource, the Discovering Literature website, aims to set the Inspector and other great works of literature in their cultural, social and political contexts.  Two new articles, specially commissioned for this project, explain the story and influence of An Inspector Calls:

Journalist and author Chris Power explores the meaning and structure of the play in his Introduction.  He memorably describes AIC as a  “a morality play disguised as a detective thriller” in which all the characters turn out to be guilty: guilty of selfishness, hypocrisy and callousness.

Special Collections Librarian Alison Cullingford contributed an article reflecting on the ways in which Priestley’s  Bradford childhood and experiences in both World Wars shaped his political thinking and fuelled the anger and urgency that drive An Inspector Calls.

Both articles are extensively illustrated with high quality images from our Priestley archive and other collections, many made available online for the first time.

Do let us know if you find the material helpful in your study or teaching.  We like feedback!

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“There were no men left …” Bradford and the Somme

1 July 1916 was the first day of the Somme Offensive, which became known as the most terrible battle of the First World War, the battle of the Somme.

Two battalions of Bradford ‘Pals’ were among the troops of 93 Brigade crossing No-Man’s-Land at Serre, towards barbed wire and machine guns that were not supposed to be there: artillery had been bombarding the German lines for seven days, but in Serre bad weather had hampered efforts.  The advance went ahead anyway: ‘The Corps Commander was extremely optimistic, telling everybody that the wire had been blown away (we could see it standing strong and well), there were no German trenches and all we had to do was walk into Serre.’ Colonel Howard (93 Brigade Major).

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1st Bradford Pals battalion button-hole badge, IWM (full credit below).

The men did not stand a chance: among the shocking casualty figures of that first day alone, the worst day in the history of the British Army, we see that of 2000 Bradford men advancing at Serre, only 223 survived.

The Pals battalions had been set up during the early stages of the war, before conscription was introduced in 1916.  Allowing men to sign up and serve alongside their family, friends, colleagues etc made them more likely to join, and many such battalions formed around the country. The 1st Bradford Pals, (16th (Service) Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment), began recruiting in September 1914, enthusiastic patriotism ensuring that the battalion reached full strength within the month.  Recruitment for the 2nd Bradford Pals (18th (Service) Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment), which began in February 2015, was much slower as the first fervour gave way to the reality of industrial stalemate trench warfare.

The story of the Pals is particularly heart-breaking because the losses struck whole communities at once: the men joined together, fought together, and died together, leaving cities in mourning.  We should not forget of course that many other Bradford men served (and died) in other battalions participating in the Somme Offensive and throughout the war.

One such was Jack Priestley, the Bradford lad who would become J.B. the famous author, though he survived the war, escaping the Somme by a lucky chance.  He had joined up soon after war was declared, alone, travelling to Halifax on a tram, to sign up for the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment.  His friends joined Bradford’s Pals battalions en masse a little later on. One beautiful morning in June 1916, he was sorting out rations for his men in a small dugout which was hit by a massive trench mortar.  Jack spent the Somme summer convalescing in a country house in Rutland, not returning to the front line until 1918.

Jack (JB) Priestley with concert party at Hambleton Hall convalescent home, Summer 1916 (ref PRI/2/6)

Priestley (second from left) and concert party at Hambleton Hall convalescent home, 1916 (reference PRI/2/6)

Together with the impact of the war on the German community which had contributed so much to the city’s industrial growth, the loss of a generation of young men seriously diminished Bradford’s economy, culture and society.  Much later Jack Priestley bore witness to what he had seen, and who and what had been lost:

“… I should not be writing this book now if thousands of better men had not been killed; and if they had been alive still, it is certain that I should have been writing, if at all, about another and better England.  I have had playmates, I have had companions, but all, all are gone; and they were killed by greed and muddle and monstrous cross-purposes, by old men gobbling and roaring in clubs, by diplomats working underground like monocled moles, by journalists wanting a good story …”. English Journey.

Sources: these stories are richly documented online and in print, and I have drawn on much sources in writing this short account.

The title is from the report of Sergeant-Major Cussins in the ‘1st Pals’ War Diary of 1 July 1916, quoted on the Bradford Pals website.

Colonel Howard’s quotation is taken from the Western Front Association’s page about Serre.

The information about recruitment is from Bradford: remembering 1914-18 by Kathryn Hughes.

Priestley on the First World War: English Journey, Margin Released, key writings collected in Priestley’s Wars, and in my chapter in Bradford in the First World War (contact me if you can’t get hold of a copy).

Credit: badge copyright IWM, full details on this page.  Shared here under IWM non-commercial licence.

 

Mini Masterpieces

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.

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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.

J.B. Priestley’s Lost City

This Sunday, 31 January 2016, a rare chance to see J.B. Priestley’s Lost City, thanks to the National Media Museum and the J.B. Priestley Society.  Lost City is a 1958 BBC documentary.  It shows the Bradford-born author revisiting his boyhood haunts, many of which were soon to be lost in the 1960s remodelling of the city.  If you’ve never seen the legendary Swan Arcade, Priestley’s teenage workplace, this film is a must!

An afternoon with J.B. Priestley also includes other Priestley rarities, plus an interview with Mavis Dean, who accompanied Priestley in the film.

PRI21_11_8Low Res

 

A piece in our 100 Objects exhibition ponders Lost City as an intriguing glimpse of old Bradford and its insights into Priestley’s complex relationship with his home city:

No 55. Whatever happened to Mr Mothergill: J.B. Priestley’s Lost City.

The Inspector’s Russian Journey

Seventy years ago, in September 1945, a great English play had its world premiere.  J.B. Priestley and his wife Jane travelled to the USSR to see An Inspector Calls staged in Leningrad and Moscow.  Since its rapturous Russian reception, and a rather cooler (“almost hostile”) one in London the following year, the play has been seen, enjoyed, and studied by thousands worldwide.

Priestley, JB Russian journey

Front cover of Russian Journey, a pamphlet by J.B. Priestley

It uses the device of a mysterious inspector to explore how each member of a prosperous family contributed to the fate of a young girl who has killed herself.  Inspector combines Priestley’s fascination with the nature of time and reality with a powerful moral message.   While many aspects of the play are ambiguous and open to interpretation, its message could not be clearer – and remains highly relevant: “We don’t live alone.  We are members of one body.  We are responsible for each other.  And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish”.

So why the USSR?  No theatre was available in London, and Priestley’s work was popular in the country.  He was at the peak of his fame, so it would be something of a coup to host his new play.  Not to mention that Inspector would be seen favourably, as it can be interpreted as an expose of capitalism.

PRI21_8_30. Russian Album. Priestley and Jane greeted at Moscow aerodrome, 1945

Priestley and Jane greeted at Moscow aerodrome, 1945 (PRI 21/8/30)

Visiting Britain’s ally so soon after the end of the Second World War was an extraordinary experience for the Priestleys; fortunately both wrote about it.  They found a warm welcome and wonderful cultural life, but also extreme poverty, repression, and squalor.  This weekend’s Guardian Review featured a lively account of their Russian Journey, written by Valerie Grove and based on the vivid letters Jane wrote to her children.  You can find out more about the fascinating poster and photograph album featured in the article (and shown here) in our 100 Objects exhibition.

PRI21_8_30. Russian Album. Priestley's birthday with members of the Kamerny Theatre, 1945

Priestley’s birthday with members of the Kamerny Theatre, 1945 (PRI 21/8/30)

If this has tantalised you, you can see two interpretations of Inspector in the next few months:

  • A new tour of the 1992 production by Stephen Daldry, which led to a great revival in the popularity of the play.  Touring from 5 September 2015.
  • A new BBC Drama, filmed in Saltaire and featuring David Thewlis as the Inspector, will be broadcast on Sunday 13 September 2015.  A DVD will be available from the 21 September.

If you don’t know the play, now is the time to catch up and see what all the fuss is about!

Credits: quotations from An Inspector Calls and Margin Released.

J.B. Priestley and the Little Ships: 75 years on

In June 1940, the British Army faced disaster.  France had fallen to the Nazis and they were trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk.  They were saved by a fleet of “little ships” which sailed across the Channel to rescue them.  A humiliating defeat was transformed into a miracle of survival.  The courage of the rescuers (many of whom did not return) helped inspire Britain as the country faced the threat of invasion during the perilous summer that followed.

PRI21_8_6. Priestley standing by car

J.B. Priestley, circa 1940 (ref PRI 21/8/6)

Bradford-born author and broadcaster J.B. Priestley played a key part in the creation of the Dunkirk story, thanks to a BBC radio broadcast on 5 June, the first of his celebrated Postscripts series.  We see Priestley turning the raw news into history – and legend.  “Doesn’t it seem to you to have an inevitable air about it – as if we had turned a page in the history of Britain and seen a chapter headed ‘Dunkirk’?”.

Priestley doesn’t blame anyone or dwell on the defeat.  Instead, he pays tribute to the little ships, especially the frivolous little pleasure steamers, evoking the English sea-side world his listeners would know so well: “pierrots and piers, sand castles, ham-and-egg teas, palmists, automatic machines, and crowded sweating promenades”.  The steamers had left this to go into “the inferno” and face unimaginable dangers for the greater good.  Some would not come back but would be remembered forever, like “Gracie Fields”, a ship Priestley had taken many times to his Isle of Wight home.   Priestley’s listeners were doing the same:  he was reminding them that it would be worth it, that they were part of an incredible story already turning into history.

Listen to Priestley’s Dunkirk Postscript.

Find out more about the Postscripts:

Journey into Daylight: J.B. Priestley’s VE Day broadcast

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.

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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 …

PRI21_8_6. Priestley standing by car

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.

Postscript

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.