Not going

A New Year's Eve message from J B Priestley

In between writing more than 100 novels (including The Good Companions), a number of implicitly socialist plays (including An Inspector Calls) and broadcasting as the "national voice of common sense" for the BBC during the Second World War, J B Priestley also wrote extensively for the New Statesman. A small selection of his articles (including a brilliantly grumpy seasonal message -- "I shall enter 1964 with the conviction that there is too much genius about and not enough talent . . . Happy New Year!") can be accessed here.

He was, unquestionably, one of the 20th century's most prolific men of letters -- and yet he did not see himself as such. In a gloriously self-indulgent little essay entitled "Smoking in a Hot Bath", Priestley reflects:

People still say to me "The way you work!", and behind the modest smirk I laugh secretly, knowing myself to be one of the laziest and most self-indulgent men alive. Long after they have caught the 8.20, opened the morning mail, telephoned to the managing director of the Cement Company, dictated yet another appeal to the Board of Trade, I am lying in my hot bath, smoking a pipe.

This essay can be found, along with 113 others, in Great Northern Books' recently published 60th-anniversary edition of one of Priestley's most popular collections of short pieces, Delight. As a former editor of the New Statesman, Paul Johnson, put it: "His essays, many of which I published . . . were in the grand tradition of Hazlitt and Lamb, Chesterton and Belloc . . . these wonderful essays are among his finest."

So, it makes perfect sense that Cultural Capital (re)turns to Delight for our 2009 New Year's Eve message. Here, courtesy of Priestley on particularly curmudgeonly form, is exactly the justification you've been looking for, for "Not Going" to that utterly uninspiring party at which you'd hitherto felt obliged to make an appearance. Happy New Year, all!

One of the delights known to age and beyond the grasp of youth is that of Not Going. When we are young it is almost agony not to go. We feel we are being left out of life, that the whole wonderful procession is sweeping by, probably for ever, while we are weeping or sulking behind bars. Not to have an invitation -- for the dance, the party, the match, the picnic, the excursion, the gang on holiday -- is to be diminished, perhaps kept at midget's height for years. To have an invitation and then not be able to go -- oh cursed spite! Thus we torment ourselves in the April of our time. Now in my early November not only do I not care the rottenest fig whether I receive an invitation or not, but having carelessly accepted the invitation I can find delight in knowing that I am Not Going. I arrived at this by two stages. At the first, after years of illusion, I finally decided I was missing nothing by not going. Now, at the second and, I hope, final stage, I stay away and no longer care whether I am missing anything or not. But don't I like enjoying myself? On the contrary, by Not Going, that is just what I am trying to do.

Show Hide image

For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood