Grumbling at Large: Selected Essays

JB Priestley

(Notting Hill Editions, £14.99)

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IF you want to get a handle on how much Britain and, in particular, England has changed in modern times you might like to start with the work of J.B. Priestley. Born in Bradford in 1894, Priestley died in 1984. Throughout his long life he was feted for such novels as The Good Companions (1929) and Angel Pavement (1930) and highly regarded – by audiences if not always by critics – as the author of plays like Time and the Conways (1937) and An Inspector Calls (1947). He was no less popular as a writer of non-fiction. His Literature and the Western Man (1960), a survey covering five hundred years, was a huge bestseller, which would be unimaginable today for such a work on that subject.

The book of Priestley’s to which I most often return is called English Journey, published in 1934, in which he travelled often by “motor coach”, i.e. bus, throughout the length and breadth of a land suffering from real austerity. In it, he devoted a substantial chapter to the town of his birth. What is striking about these pages is that the only mention Priestley makes of immigration is a reference to a “friendly invasion” of German and German-Jewish merchants in the mid-nineteenth century. “Bradford,” recalls Priestley of his boyhood spent in what is now the UK capital of curry, “was determinedly Yorkshire and provincial, yet some of its suburbs reached as far as Frankfurt and Leipzig. It was odd enough. But it worked.”

It is tempting to speculate what Priestley, who was never wanting of an opinion, would make of post-Brexit Bradford, Yorkshire and England. As Valerie Grove points out in her elegant and thoughtful introduction to Grumbling At Large, a bijou selection of Priestley’s essays, he was never an enthusiast of the European project and was no advocate of the Common Market. Writing in 1967, when the clamour for Britain to join was growing, Priestley opined that one of the reasons he was against joining was because “most of our practical, hard-headed, no-nonsense men are strongly in favour of it”. These men, he added, wanted us to believe that somehow things would be different but would still somehow contrive to remain the same. “Some of these Marketeers,” he blustered, “are like a woman doctor trying to become a member of a club of male barristers.” When he wrote Britain, by the way, Priestley had uppermost in mind England and the English, “a nation of hobby-horse riders”.

Reading Grumbling At Large you get more than a whiff of the old fart, a much-misunderstood breed. When he writes that he has heard “many times” that “too many American women are sharply aggressive in an unfeminine way” you suspect he may have been talking to himself. Considering – in 1957 – television, he feels disengaged and unimpressed. “Somehow I no longer care about what happens about Oil or Married Women At Work or Youth and the Churches Today or What We Do With The Old People or Whither Britain. I just view them.” Like my father, Priestley was an unreconstructed pipe smoker, believing that pipe tobacco improves the further up the map you go. “It is better in the north of England than it is in the south. In Scotland it is better still. The Scots like to boast, but it is strange they never mention the debt owed to them by the world’s pipe smokers.” Writing in 1977, he unleashed his hatred of airports, throwing in for good measure the bus that conveys passengers to the plane and the trek across the tarmac. “We might be on our way to some kind of concentration camp. We are in the grip of the machine.”

Hyperbole is a handy item in the essayist’s cutlery drawer. Like Dickens, with whom he was invariably – if not always justifiably – compared, Priestley’s curiosity was rapacious. He was interested in everything and anyone and was never afraid to give vent to his prejudices. The 26 essays reprinted here cover topics as diverse as snow and happiness, old age and the joy of being carless. They are often provocative, deliberately so, and revel in contumaciousness. Occasionally they are repetitive, giving the impression they ought to have been edited more carefully. Mostly, though, they are a pleasure to read and a reminder that the demise of the essay – “a prose masterpiece in miniature” – is as much to be mourned as the passing of the age of enlightenment.