J. B. Priestley

J. B. Priestley

John Boynton Priestley, the only child of Jonathan Priestley (1868–1924), and his first wife, Emma Holt (1865–1896), was born in Manningham, a suburb of Bradford on 13th September, 1894. Despite being the son of an illiterate mill worker, his father became a school teacher. His mother died when he was only two years old and in in 1898 his father married Amy Fletcher, whom Priestley described as a loving stepmother.

Priestley was educated at Whetley Lane Primary School, and then, on a scholarship, Belle Vue High School. Bored with school he left education and the age of sixteen and found work as a clerk for a wool firm in Bradford. He joined the Labour Party and began writing a column in their weekly newspaper, The Bradford Pioneer.

On the outbreak of the First World War Priestley immediately joined the British Army. He later recalled: "It is not true, as some critics of the British high command have suggested, that Kitchener's army consisted of brave but half-trained amateurs, so much pitiful cannon-fodder. In the earlier divisions like ours, the troops had months and months of severe intensive training. Our average programme was ten hours a day, and nobody grumbled more than the old regulars who had never been compelled before to do so much and for so long."

Priestley was sent to France and served on the Western Front. He wrote to his father on 27th September, 1915: "In the last four days in the trenches I don't think I'd eight hours sleep altogether. It is frightfully difficult to walk in the trenches owing to the slippery nature of things, the most appalling thing is to see the stretcher bearers trying to get the wounded men up to the Field Dressing station. On Saturday morning we were subjected to a fearful bombardment by the German artillery; they simply rained shells. One shell burst right in our trench - and it was a miracle that so few - only four - were injured. I escaped with a little piece of flesh torn out of my thumb. But poor Murphy got a shrapnel wound in the head - a horrible great hole - and the other two were the same. They were removed soon after and I don't know how they are going on."

Priestley took part in the Battle of Loos and in 1917 he accepted a commission. After being wounded later that year he was sent back to England for six months. Soon after returning to the Western Front he endured a German gas attack. Treated at Rouen he was classified by the Medical Board as unfit for active service and was transferred to the Entertainers Section of the British Army. He wrote over 40 years later: "I felt as indeed I still feel today and must go on feeling until I die, the open wound, never to be healed, of my generation's fate, the best sorted out and then slaughtered, not by hard necessity but by huge, murderous public folly."

When Priestley left the army he became a student at Trinity Hall. While at Cambridge University he gained valuable experience by writing for the Cambridge Review. After completing a degree in Modern History and Political Science, Priestley found work as theatre reviewer with the Daily News. He also contributed articles to the Spectator.

Priestley married Pat Emily Tempest on 29th June 1921. His first book, Brief Diversions (1922) a collection of epigrams, anecdotes, and stories. His second book, Papers from Lilliput, was a series of essays on personalities past and present.He also contributed articles to the Spectator, The Bookman, the Saturday Review, and the Times Literary Supplement.

In March 1923 Priestley's wife gave birth to their first child, Barbara, to be followed prematurely in April 1924 by a second daughter, Sylvia, when it was discovered that Pat was suffering from terminal cancer. Priestley wrote to a friend that he was "so deep in despair I didn't know what to do with myself". However, it was not long long before he was having an affair with Jane Wyndham Lewis, the wife of D. B. Wyndham Lewis, which resulted in the birth of a daughter, Mary, in March 1925. Priestley had a number of affairs and in later life he admitted he "enjoyed the physical relations with the sexes … without the feelings of guilt which seems to disturb some of my distinguished colleagues". Pat Priestley died on 25th November 1925. The following year he married Jane Wyndham Lewis.

Priestley's early critical writings such as The English Comic Characters (1925), The English Novel (1927) and English Humour (1929) established his reputation as an important commentator on literature. With financial support from his friend, Hugh Walpole, Priestley wrote, The Good Companions, a novel 250,000 words long. It was completed in March 1929, and published in July. As his biographer, Judith Cook pointed out: "Sales started slowly, but by Christmas the publishers Heinemann had to use taxis to rush copies to bookshops, so great was the demand; it became one of the best-sellers of the century."

Priestley followed this with what some consider his best novel, Angel Pavement (1930). He also wrote several popular plays such as Dangerous Corner (1932). Priestley also became increasingly concerned about social problems. This is reflected in English Journey (1934), an account of his travels through England. The author of J. B. Priestley (1998) has argued: "He travelled from the south to the north of England, brilliantly describing in bitter prose the poverty and unemployment of the time." Priestley followed this was the plays, Eden End (1934), I Have Been Here Before (1937), Time and the Conways (1937), When we are Married (1938), and Johnson over Jordan (1939).

During the Second World War Priestley became the presenter of Postscripts, a BBC Radio radio programme that followed the nine o'clock news on Sunday evenings. Starting on 5th June 1940, Priestley built up such a following that after a few months it was estimated that around 40 per cent of the adult population in Britain was listening to the programme.

On 21st July, 1940, he argued: "We cannot go forward and build up this new world order, and this is our war aim, unless we begin to think differently one must stop thinking in terms of property and power and begin thinking in terms of community and creation. Take the change from property to community. Property is the old-fashioned way of thinking of a country as a thing, and a collection of things in that thing, all owned by certain people and constituting property; instead of thinking of a country as the home of a living society with the community itself as the first test."

Graham Greene pointed out: "Priestley became in the months after Dunkirk a leader second only in importance to Mr Churchill. And he gave us what our other leaders have always failed to give us - an ideology." Some members of the Conservative Party complained about Priestley expressing left-wing views on his radio programme. Margaret Thatcher has argued that "J.B. Priestley gave a comfortable yet idealistic gloss to social progress in a left-wing direction." As a result Priestley made his last talk on 20th October 1940. These were later published in book form as Britain Speaks (1940).

Priestley and a group of friends now established the 1941 Committee. One of its members, Tom Hopkinson, later claimed that the motive force was the belief that if the Second World War was to be won "a much more coordinated effort would be needed, with stricter planning of the economy and greater use of scientific know-how, particularly in the field of war production." Priestley became the chairman of the committee and other members included Edward G. Hulton, Kingsley Martin, Richard Acland, Michael Foot, Peter Thorneycroft, Thomas Balogh, Richie Calder, Tom Winteringham, Vernon Bartlett, Violet Bonham Carter, Konni Zilliacus, Victor Gollancz, Storm Jameson and David Low.

In December 1941 the committee published a report that called for public control of the railways, mines and docks and a national wages policy. A further report in May 1942 argued for works councils and the publication of "post-war plans for the provision of full and free education, employment and a civilized standard of living for everyone."

Some members of the Labour Party disapproved of the electoral truce between the main political parties during the Second World War and in 1942 Priestley and Richard Acland formed the socialist Common Wealth Party (CWP). The party advocated the three principles of "Common Ownership", "Vital Democracy" and "Morality in Politics". The party favoured public ownership of land and Acland gave away his Devon family estate of 19,000 acres (8,097 hectares) to the National Trust.

The CWP decided to contest by-elections against Conservative candidates. They needed the support of traditional Labour supporters. Tom Wintringham wrote in September 1942: "The Labour Party, the Trade Unions and the Co-operatives represent the worker's movement, which historically has been, and is now, in all countries the basic force for human freedom... and we count on our allies within the Labour Party who want a more inspiring leadership to support us." Large numbers of working people did support the CWP and this led to victories for Richard Acland in Barnstaple and Vernon Bartlett in Bridgwater.

Over the next two years the CWP also had victories in Eddisbury (John Loverseed), Skipton (Hugh Lawson) and Chelmsford (Ernest Millington). George Orwell wrote: "I think this movement should be watched with attention. It might develop into the new Socialist party we have all been hoping for, or into something very sinister." Orwell, like Kitty Bowler, believed that Richard Acland had the potential to become a fascist leader.

Negotiations went on between the Common Wealth Party and the Labour Party about the 1945 General Election. Acland demanded the right to contest 43 selected Conservative-held seats without opposition from Labour in return for not contesting all other constituencies. After this offer was rejected, Tom Wintringham met with Herbert Morrison, and suggested this be lowered to "twenty middle-class Tory seats". Morrison made it clear that his party was unwilling to agree to any proposal that involved Labour candidates standing-down.

Tom Wintringham was commissioned by Victor Gollancz to write a book, Your MP. The book sold over 200,000 copies and was a best-seller during the 1945 general election campaign. The book contained an appendix detailing how 310 Conservative MPs voted in eight key debates between 1935 and 1943. However, this book seemed to help the Labour Party as they ended up with 393 seats, whereas only one of the CWP twenty-three candidates was successful - Ernest Millington at Chelmsford, where there was no Labour contestant.

In 1946 Priestley wrote one of his best-known plays, An Inspector Calls. It was later turned into a film starring Alastair Sim. However, as his biographer, Judith Cook, has pointed out: "While Priestley's plays have always been popular outside London and abroad, it became fashionable over the years to consider them too old-fashioned for metropolitan audiences."

Priestley began an affair with Jacquetta Hawkes, the wife of the archaeologist Professor Christopher Hawkes. This resulted in a divorce case and the "judge's subsequent scathing remarks about Priestley made headlines in the national press". On 23rd July 1953 he married Jacquetta and the couple moved to Kissing Tree House on the outskirts of Stratford upon Avon.

Priestley continued to write on politics and literature. His article for the New Statesman entitled Russia, the Atom and the West, attacked the decision by Aneurin Bevan to abandon his policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament (2nd November, 1957). The article resulted in a large number of people writing letters to the journal supporting Priestley's views. Kingsley Martin, the editor of the magazine organised a meeting of people inspired by Priestley and as result they formed the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Early members of this group included Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway, Victor Gollancz, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot.

In his later years Priestley wrote the highly acclaimed, Literature and Western Man (1960) and two volumes of autobiography: Margin Released (1962) and Instead of the Trees (1977). Diana Collins, was a fellow member of CND. She later argued: "He (J. B. Priestley) was a lovely man. He believed and practised some of the best virtues: integrity; honesty; loyalty to his old friends. He was kind, generous, immensely understanding and I never heard him flatter anybody. He was a wonderful giver but not a good receiver because he didn't want to be beholden to anybody. Behind the big public figure he was really a shy man who believed in old-fashioned courtesy. And what a lovely father figure he made. Deeply aware? Of course he was deeply aware. Sometimes in the afternoons I noticed a great melancholy overtaking him. He would talk then of the individual being a bubble on the stream of life which quietly burst when its day was done and disappeared downstream, but he stopped short of the idea of complete annihilation."

Judith Cook has pointed out: "J. B. Priestley was a big man in every respect, in bulk, in his prodigious appetite for work, and in his generosity of spirit. He was a man of many loves; he loved women and women loved him, not only his wives and those with whom he had affairs, but also those who became his friends. He loved the old music-hall, theatre, music, particularly the great German composers (he was a good pianist), classic literature, and the English countryside, especially the Yorkshire dales. In his later years he also became an accomplished painter in watercolour and gouache. He was a confirmed grumbler, could be extremely difficult when the mood took him, and never suffered fools gladly, even when it might have been politic to do so. The darker side of his nature never left him, however, and in later years he increasingly fell prey to depression."

John Boynton Priestley died on 14th August, 1984.

Primary Sources

(1) In his book, Margin Released, J. B. Priestley described his training as a young British soldier at the beginning of the First World War.

It is not true, as some critics of the British high command have suggested, that Kitchener's army consisted of brave but half-trained amateurs, so much pitiful cannon-fodder. In the earlier divisions like ours, the troops had months and months of severe intensive training. Our average programme was ten hours a day, and nobody grumbled more than the old regulars who had never been compelled before to do so much and for so long.

(2) J. B. Priestley met Lord Kitchener in 1915.

I had a close view, finding him older and greyer than the familiar pictures of him. The image I retained was of a rather bloated purplish face and glaring but somehow jellied eyes. A year later, when we heard he had been drowned, I felt no grief, for it did not seem to me that a man had lost his life: I saw only a heavy shape, its face now an idol's going down and down into the northern sea. Yet it was he - and he alone - who had raised us new soldiers out of the ground.

(3) J. B. Priestley, letter to his father, Jonathan Priestley (27th September, 1915)

In the last four days in the trenches I don't think I'd eight hours sleep altogether. It is frightfully difficult to walk in the trenches owing to the slippery nature of things, the most appalling thing is to see the stretcher bearers trying to get the wounded men up to the Field Dressing station. On Saturday morning we were subjected to a fearful bombardment by the German artillery; they simply rained shells. One shell burst right in our trench - and it was a miracle that so few - only four - were injured. I escaped with a little piece of flesh torn out of my thumb. But poor Murphy got a shrapnel wound in the head - a horrible great hole - and the other two were the same. They were removed soon after and I don't know how they are going on.

(4) J. B. Priestley, letter to his father, Jonathan Priestley (26th October, 1915)

We have been digging trenches since we have been here; it is very hard work, as the soil is extremely heavy, the heaviest clay I have ever dug and I've as much experience in digging as most navvies. You may gather the speed we work when a man has to do a 'task' - 6 ft long, 4 ft broad and 2 ft 6 ins deep in an afternoon. Yesterday afternoon I had got right down to the bottom of the trench, and consequently every blooming shovelful of clay I got I had to throw a height of 12 ft to get it out of the back and over the parapet.

(5) J. B. Priestley, letter to his father, Jonathan Priestley (December, 1915)

The communication trenches are simply canals, up to the waist in some parts, the rest up to the knees. There are only a few dug-outs and those are full of water or falling in. Three men were killed this wee from falling dugouts I haven't had a wash since we came into these trenches and we are all mud from head to foot.

(6) J. B. Priestley, Postscripts, radio broadcast (5th June, 1940)

I wonder how many of you feel as I do about this great Battle and evacuation of Dunkirk. The news of it came as a series of surprises and shocks, followed by equally astonishing new waves of hope. What strikes me about it is how typically English it is. Nothing, I feel, could be more English both in its beginning and its end, its folly and its grandeur. We have gone sadly wrong like this before, and here and now we must resolve never, never to do it again. What began as a miserable blunder, a catalogue of misfortunes ended as an epic of gallantry. We have a queer habit - and you can see it running through our history - of conjuring up such transformations. And to my mind what was most characteristically English about it was the part played not by the warships but by the little pleasure-steamers. We've known them and laughed at them, these fussy little steamers, all our lives. These 'Brighton Belles' and 'Brighton Queens' left that innocent foolish world of theirs to sail into the inferno, to defy bombs, shells, magnetic mines, torpedoes, machine-gun fire - to rescue our soldiers.

(7) J. B. Priestley, Postscripts, radio broadcast (21st July, 1940)

We cannot go forward and build up this new world order, and this is our war aim, unless we begin to think differently one must stop thinking in terms of property and power and begin thinking in terms of community and creation. Take the change from property to community. Property is the old-fashioned way of thinking of a country as a thing, and a collection of things in that thing, all owned by certain people and constituting property; instead of thinking of a country as the home of a living society with the community itself as the first test.

(8) J. B. Priestley, Britain Speaks (1940)

It so happens that this war, whether those at present in authority like it or not, has to be fought as a citizen's war. There is no way out of that because an order to defend and protect this island, not only against possible invasion but also against all the disasters of aerial bombardment, it has been found necessary to bring into existence a new network of voluntary associations such as the Home Guard, the Observer Corps, all the A.R.P. and fire-fighting services, and the like ... They are a new type, what might be called the organized militant citizen. And the whole circumstances of their wartime life favour a sharply democratic outlook. Men and women with a gift for leadership now turn up in unexpected places. The new ordeals blast away the old shams. Britain, which in the years immediately before this war was rapidly losing such democratic virtues as it possessed, is now being bombed and burned into democracy.

(9) Sir Richard Maconachie, head of BBC radio talks, letter to A. P. Ryan (6th September 1940)

Priestley has definite social and political views which he puts over in his broadcasts and through these broadcasts is, I think, exercising an important influence on what people are thinking. These views may be admirable or otherwise, but the question which I wish to raise is whether any single person should be given the opportunity of acquiring such an influence to the exclusion of others who differ from him merely on the grounds of his merits as a broadcaster,

which are, of course, very great.

(10) Graham Greene, The Spectator (13th December 1940)

Priestley became in the months after Dunkirk a leader second only in importance to Mr Churchill. And he gave us what our other leaders have always failed to give us - an ideology.

(11) Richard Acland, letter to his son (1977)

In 1941 J. B. Priestley was responsible for sustaining the morale of the people through the worst months of the war. His thinking, though not identical to mine, was often parrallel to it.

(12) Margaret Thatcher, The Path of Power (1995)

The command economy required in wartime conditions had habituated many people to an essentially socialist mentality. Within the Armed Forces it was common knowledge that left-wing intellectuals had exerted a powerful influence through the Army Education Corps, which as Nigel Birch observed was "the only regiment with a general election among its battle honours". At home, broadcasters like J.B. Priestley gave a comfortable yet idealistic gloss to social progress in a left-wing direction. It is also true that Conservatives, with Churchill in the lead, were so preoccupied with the urgent imperatives of war that much domestic policy, and in particular the drawing-up of the agenda for peace, fell largely to the socialists in the Coalition Government. Churchill himself would have liked to continue the National Government at least until Japan had been beaten and, in the light of the fast-growing threat from the Soviet Union, perhaps beyond then. But the Labour Party had other thoughts and understandably wished to come into its own collectivist inheritance.

In I945 therefore, we Conservatives found ourselves confronting two serious and, as it turned out, insuperable problems. First, the Labour Party had us fighting on their ground and were always able to outbid us. Churchill had been talking about post-war 'reconstruction' for some two years, and as part of that programme Rab Butler's Education Act was on the Statute Book. Further, our manifesto committed us to the so-called 'full employment' policy of the 1944 Employment White Paper, a massive house-building programme, most of the proposals for National Insurance benefits made by the great Liberal social reformer Lord Beveridge and a comprehensive National Health Service. Moreover, we were not able effectively to take the credit (so far as this was in any case appropriate to the Conservative Party) for victory, let alone to castigate Labour for its irresponsibility and extremism, because Attlee and his colleagues had worked cheek by jowl with the Conservatives in government since 1940. In any event, the war effort had involved the whole population.

(13) In his autobiography, Margin Released, J. B. Priestley explained why he was taken off the BBC during the Second World War (1962)

I received two letters - I kept them for years but may have lost them now - one was from the Ministry of Information, telling me that the BBC was responsible for the decision to take me off the air, and the other was from the BBC, saying that a directive had come from the Ministry of Information to end my broadcasts.

(14) J. B. Priestley, New Statesman (2nd November, 1957)

In plain words: now that Britain has told the world that she has the H-Bomb she should announce as early as possible that she has done with it, that she proposes to reject in all circumstances nuclear warfare.

We ended the war high in the world's regard. We could have taken over its moral leadership, spoken and acted for what remained of its conscience, but we chose to act otherwise. The melancholy consequences were that abroad we cut a shabby figure in power politics and at home we shrug it all away or go to the theatre to applaud the latest jeers and sneers at Britannia.

Alone we defied Hitler: and alone we can defy this nuclear madness there may be other chain-reactions besides those leading to destruction: and we might start one. The British of these times, so frequently hiding their decent kind faces behind masks of sullen apathy or some cheap cynicism, often seem to be waiting for something better than party squabbles and appeals to their narrowest self-interest, something great and noble in its intention that would make them feel good again. And this might well be a declaration to the world that after a certain date one power able to engage in nuclear warfare will reject the evil thing for ever.

(15) Diana Collins, interview with Vincent Brome (26th June, 1986)

He (J. B. Priestley) was a lovely man. He believed and practised some of the best virtues: integrity; honesty; loyalty to his old friends. He was kind, generous, immensely understanding and I never heard him flatter anybody. He was a wonderful giver but not a good receiver because he didn't want to be beholden to anybody. Behind the big public figure he was really a shy man who believed in old-fashioned courtesy. And what a lovely father figure he made. Deeply aware? Of course he was deeply aware. Sometimes in the afternoons I noticed a great melancholy overtaking him. He would talk then of the individual being a bubble on the stream of life which quietly burst when its day was done and disappeared downstream, but he stopped short of the idea of complete annihilation.