J B PRIESTLEY, a name once fondly recalled by virtually anyone of any sensibility in Britain, but now lying in a quiet literary siding, suddenly sprang from the news pages this week.
Priestley had turned down a peerage and a Companion of Honour, we learned.
|J B Priestley 1894-1984|
He died in 1984 when he was almost 90. But even those in their 40s will be able to recall his TV broadcasts. Like the historian AJP Taylor, he could address lofty themes and make them not only understandable, but hugely entertaining to the average man.
Which makes his current obscurity slightly baffling.
The same fate befell Sir Laurence Olivier. Feted as the greatest actor of the 20th century, when he died in 1989, ITN ran a 25 minute news bulletin on News at Ten.
That sentence is worth repeating. When he died, ITN ran a 25 minute news bulletin.
Now he is regarded as very old hat. Even old ham. Too declamatory for those who prefer their actors to grunt, mumble and swagger across the screen as they do in the BBC's version of Birdsong this week.
During his centenary year in 2007, I studied the TV listings expecting some form of major tribute. Nothing.
Priestley’s sudden fall from grace among the fashionable literati can be traced to the time when Old Labour was cast into ignominy first by the electorate and then by the Labour party itself.
Like Olivier, he suddenly became dated simply because he was wedded to an old style. And there is nothing as unfashionable as the last style to be ditched. Better to wear a frock coat and a top hat than platform shoes and a kipper tie, heaven forbid.
My journey to Esher library today illustrates my point.
I wanted to re-read his English Journey. Printed in 1934, it was a journal of his journey through England in the autumn of 1933. It was a masterful and seminal piece of social commentary.
Sadly they didn’t have a copy. Worse, there were only three copies in the whole of Surrey. The one at Guildford was lost and the other two were in remote, rural outposts.
I did try and my cuttings service is not what it once was, so please bear with me!
What I do remember about this book was its astonishing relevance to today.
The character, the attitudes, hopes and aspirations of a nation are little different from now.
It’s not what has changed in England but what has remained the same which is part of its joy.
As a reporter, I travelled to most of the places Priestley described and they were reassuringly similar.
In Birmingham, he describes a queue of scores of working class people filing into a hall to sit around tables and play bridge with packs of "greasy" cards for money.
They never break into a smile and every move is calculated to win the next thruppence.
It wasn’t until 1960 when Bingo made its first entry into Britain.
But in 1933, the populace were still determined to have a flutter on the way from the factory to the hearth.
There is the overwhelming sense of, “T’was ever thus” in Priestley's work.
The costumes and set might have changed but the characters remain the same.
It’s a theme I will return to another time.
For now, let’s hope JB Priestley’s principled stand on establishment baubles nearly half a century ago propels him back onto the reading map.