Tag Archives: World War II

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:

Phyllis Bentley, Thomas Hardy, Sunlight Soap … new in the Society Journal

There’s plenty of good stuff in the latest issue of the J.B. Priestley Society Journal (October 2012, volume 13)

Blue plaque for J.B. Priestley at 34 Mannheim Road, Bradford.

Blue plaque for J.B. Priestley at 34 Mannheim Road, Bradford. The family didn’t move from there straight to Saltburn Place as has traditionally been thought …

  • JC Eastwood on Priestley’s family homes in Bradford – clearing up a mystery!
  • Professor Maggie Gale of Manchester University on Priestley as a “man of the theatre” – the text of her 2012 Society lecture.
  • Priestley’s bibliographer Alan Day on JB’s links with novelist Phyllis Bentley and their opinions of each other’s writings.  Alan Day also looks at a series of “short uplift articles” Priestley wrote for Lever Brothers in 1940 as part of a promotion for Sunlight Soap.  Fascinating parallels to the Postscripts!
  • Trevor Johnson writes about Priestley and Thomas Hardy, in particular the former’s use of Hardy’s poem in the Postscript about the Isle of Wight Volunteers of 16 June 1940.
  • Philip Scowcroft surveys music in Priestley’s writings.

There is also a reprint of a Priestley rarity, “The Soul of Revue”, originally published in 1925 and hitherto unknown.

The Journal isn’t available online*, but is sent in print form to all members of the Society and is available in libraries, including ours of course.

*yet, watch this space!

N or M? A 1940 boarding house

In his Postscript of 6 October 1940, J.B. Priestley reflected on hotels.  Many hotels and other establishments in beautiful parts of Britain had no room for those on urgent war work or homeless, traumatised Blitz survivors, who might benefit from a visit to the country or the seaside.   They were full of the sort of people who had nothing particular to do.

Since reading this Postscript, I’ve been on the look-out for stories or accounts about people staying in these places to see how they match up to Priestley’s discoveries.  Agatha Christie’s 1941 thriller N or M is set in a boarding house during the era of the Postscripts, featuring characters illustrating Priestley’s comments.  Tommy and Tuppence, an ebullient couple who appear in several of her thrillers, go undercover to “Sans Souci” to track down a Nazi spy.  The boarders include a mother and child escaping London, a German refugee, an idle hypochondriac with no interests in life except his own health, his put-upon wife, a fretful spinster  …  I usually find T & T rather annoying – the stories in which they feature are not my favourite Christies – but in this one the 1940 atmosphere, the paranoia and sense of menace over-ride this.

Tweeting the West Yorkshire Air Raids

Here’s a new Second World War historical project from our neighbours over in the West Yorkshire Archives Service (WYAS) which should interest anyone who enjoyed Priestley’s Finest Hour.  Among the amazing collections held by WYAS is the West Riding Air Raid Precautions (ARP) log for 1941-1944.   ARP services were set up by councils to protect the public from air attack.  Over the next four years, the twitter account WR_ARP will be sharing incidents from the log as they happened, along with photos, films and other documents relating to the work of ARP.  You can find out more about the West Riding ARP and the project in this post from the WYAS Catablogue (another archive using Coraline I notice – this WordPress theme works so well for visual collections!  Really shows off strong images).

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?)

Postscript Sunday 29 September 1940

This may be the most famous of Priestley’s Postscript broadcasts on the BBC, certainly among the people of West Yorkshire.

Priestley told his listeners about the aftermath of an air-raid in Bradford, where he had grown up.  He found the comparatively minor damage more shocking than anything he had seen in the London Blitz because, as he said, of the collision of “the safe and shining world of my childhood, and this lunatic and insecure world of today”.

But to Priestley’s delight, one of the most exciting shops of his boyhood had survived: a pie-shop, whose window featured a giant pie which mysteriously steamed all day.  The shop window was boarded up, but through it, Priestley could glimpse “the great pie, still brown, crisp, succulent, and steaming away like mad.  Every puff and jet of that steam defied Hitler, Goering and the whole gang of them.  It was glorious”.  In the broadcast, the pie became a symbol of everyday life and normality in defiance of the turmoil of the world, part of what Priestley called “the bright little thread of common humanity”.

He learned from the shop-owner that the pie had been put away in the back and so had escaped harm.  The owner was at first brusque with Priestley, but after his wife recognised Priestley’s distinctive voice, he became more friendly and told Priestley the secret of the pie’s steam.  Of course, Priestley could not share the secret with his listeners …

A Postscript to a Postscript:  The shop was Roberts’ Pie Shop, and the air-raid took place on 31 August.  Bradford fortunately escaped heavy bombing during the War: this raid caused a great deal of damage to property, including Rawson Market, the Odeon Cinema and Lingards department store, but few casualties.  Sadly, although the shop and the pie survived the Blitz, they did not survive the postwar city centre redevelopment.  The location is now part of the Kirkgate Centre.