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From the NS archive: Letters from two islands

18 June 1949: I remember once arguing throughout a lunch with HG Wells about Mussolini.

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JB Priestley wrote periodically for the New Statesman, and in this piece from 1949 – by which time he was well known for his strong left-wing views as well as his writing – he reflects on miscellanies in a letter from the Isle of Wight. He praises the collection “Years of Wrath” by the political cartoonist David Low, who is both a “pleasant and easy companion” and, in his work, “genius”. Priestley laments the ubiquity of loudspeaker announcements (with particular reference to the Isle of Wight ferry), wonders if he does too much telling off, then segues to his dislike of American parlance and the state of UK wine lists. This is Priestley at his cantankerous yet considered best.

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… I am sending you David Low’s Years of Wrath, in which he has given us our history from 1932 to 1945 in terms of his cartoons, with his own commentary. Perhaps because of the immediate and powerful impact of these superb drawings, I have found this book more disturbing than any ordinary contemporary history, as I believe you will, too. In these adroit balances of black and white, the gigantic folly of our age reveals itself nakedly and without shame. Low’s insight is extraordinary. Consider his caricatures of the leading figures of this tragic farce. In a few strokes he contrives to make a searching historical comment. And he seems to me always to have been right.

For example, his Mussolini. It was easy after 1940 to see Mussolini as a posturing charlatan, a pantomime giant, with more than suggestion of the comic opera brigand about him. But there is all this in Low's drawings of Mussolini back in the earlier Thirties, when Mussolini was taken very seriously indeed. And by some surprising people, too. I remember once arguing throughout a lunch with HG Wells about Mussolini. Wells had declared that Mussolini was a greater man than Napoleon. Now I shared HG’s dislike of Napoleon, who must be held responsible for many of the dirtier devices of our modern civilisation, but I said at once that you could cut several Mussolini s out of Napoleon, and there would still be some formidable human stuff left over; and we argued away until the coffee came. Low’s pencil, wiggling a kind of silliness and fundamental weakness into that deliberately brutal head, from the first made the point better than I could have done. And look at his Ribbentrop, a pompous muddler from the very first sketch of him; at his Goebbels, infinitely more dangerous, the malevolent, troll; or at the cruelty that lurks behind the false bonhomie of his Goering. Our politicians, instead of reading long, dull and misleading reports, should have stared hard at these drawings. The best of them seem to me works of genius.

And what a strange thing it is, this genius! I have known David Low for years. He is a pleasant and easy companion, with much shrewdness and dry humour in his talk. But the genius of these cartoons is elsewhere. When he goes to his studio, brooding over the current scene, and when he gazes at the piper that he has to cover with a bold composition that must survive the rough handling of newspaper printing, some mysterious transformation and enlargement of personality must take place. As a craftsman he is patient and conscientious; but, nevertheless, I suspect there must be some short-circuiting between his unconscious and the pen or pencil in his hand. Hence the extraordinary insight of many of these drawings, which tell us more than he himself could have told us in words. It does not always work, of course; and, backed by a formidable gang of family and friends, I am prepared to say that it was not working when, a few years ago, he did a drawing of me. But his Years of Wrath, as you will discover, is a triumph.

What regularly happens on the ferry boat between Portsmouth Harbour and Ryde Pier seems to me symptomatic of what is happening all over the world. First, the behaviour of the passengers. When the holiday crowds are crossing, so many of them rush to one side to be off first that the ferry boat lists badly and so must be much harder to steer properly. If they were all less eager and a little less like sheep, they might, in fact, be off the boat all the earlier. Secondly, the behaviour of the officials. We are not provided with enough gangways, and those we have are very narrow, making it difficult to pass along them quickly, especially when one is carrying luggage. But loud voices, sometimes coming out of loud-speakers, bellow at us to “Come along! Hurry along!” as if it were our fault that the arrangements to transfer us from ship to pier were inadequate. And I think something like this happens in many other places besides Ryde Pier.

[see also: From the NS archive: The ministry of emotion]

And isn’t it time some people recognised that the human ear is a delicate instrument, easily outraged, together with the mind that uses it? These monstrous inhuman voices bullying us through loud-speakers everywhere seem to me intolerable. Men are regularly sent to prison for committing offences that I for one could more easily tolerate. Nobody has the right to batter our eardrums in this fashion. At times it is as if gigantic mechanical hands banged us on the back. I should like to organise a campaign against any candidate who made use of loudspeaker vans, condemning him as a barbarian not fit to represent anybody. We like to think that the world is now divided into communist and anti-communist zones. But this noise idiocy has conquered both East and West. Blaring loud-speakers have kept me awake both in America and Russia. Perhaps there is, after all, some significance in this image of an iron curtain, because whatever else an iron curtain may be, it is bound to be fiendishly noisy.

Do I do too much scolding? A correspondent, who says I used to be a nice jolly chap, suggests I do. I should say that I grumble rather than scold. And I have this excuse, that mine is at least genuine disinterested grumbling, the honest and truthful response of one man towards the world, at a time when so much scolding and grumbling and denouncing is faked, part of a propaganda campaign either to keep one set of chaps in power or to turn them out in favour of another set of chaps who could do with more power. And somebody ought to do a bit of disinterested grumbling, not designed, in my case, to give authors more money, privilege, larger motor cars.

If I had used the word alibi instead of excuse above, and the purists had seen it, what a fuss some of them would have made! But I am rather tired of being told that alibi does not mean excuse. In this use of words, I belong to Humpty-Dumpty’s party. We can make our words mean whatever we decide they shall mean. If a lot of us decide that a certain kind of excuse shall be called an alibi, then there is no point in any purist thumping his dictionary, if only because the next edition of that dictionary, if it is a good one, will have to admit that alibi is not only a legal term but also defines a certain type of excuse, a rather pedantic, anxious but slightly shady kind of excuse. I imagine that alibi was first used in this sense not by an ignoramus but by a wit, and that it is almost common usage now because people found they needed the term. Face up to is messy, and no favourite of mine, but it is absurd to declare, as the purists do, that it is merely a sloppy way of saying face. To face up to opposition is not merely to face it but to face it in a special kind of way. Any one of us might have to face a tiger, but few of us could successfully face up to a tiger. But this does not mean that unnecessary prepositions are not finding their way into our common usage. They are, in fact, our greatest import from America, together with a peculiarly nauseating type of popular song that I hate to hear our youngsters singing.

There is much talk here now of removing tile five-shilling limit on the cost of meals in restaurants and clubs. This limit never did apply to the more expensive West End hotels and restaurants, which have been allowed to add house charges, bringing the cost of dinner, without drinks, up to twelve-and-sixpence. It is argued that tourists do not understand these arrangements. But I have long thought we had equally strong arguments ourselves against this limitation. Thus, as usual, the maximum becomes the minimum. A man who may want only one course (but good) finds that he still has to pay for three courses, all rather bad. Again, caterers are not encouraged to be enterprising. (I should like to see some restaurants that specialised on one magnificent dish, varying it day by day, but offering nothing else and thereby saving money and time.) Again, many restaurants under this limitation do everything possible short of sheer hypnosis to compel their patrons to spend heavily on drink, with wine lists that are monument of impudence. Actually, there is plenty of good French wine to be obtained now from wine merchants at not unreasonable prices; but anybody looking at many restaurant wine lists would imagine that the war was still on and France still occupied by the Nazis.

Somebody told me the other day that you can buy bitter French brandy in England now than you can find in France. And I am certain you can buy more and better Scotch whisky and tweeds in Los Angeles, where you do not really need them, than you can in Edinburgh, where your need for such warming liquor and stout covering is most urgent. In the world of economics all this wild exporting may be sensible, but in the more important world of sensible human living it is blank idiocy. What has been produced for a long time in any region generally represents the fulfilment of some important need there, and therefore only any surplus of it, not the bulk of it, should be shipped abroad. Sane trading can only be the exchange of surpluses. And if economists cannot see this, they should be locked up and fed on bread and water (and not even local bread and water) until they do. You will probably retort that this is strange doctrine from an Englishman, condemned to an Export or Perish policy. I agree. But then I do not believe in our Export or Perish policy, except as a desperate makeshift, and I am waiting for some statement, even if it were only the merest sketch, of a possible long-term policy for this country. I am even prepared to cheer any politician who will stand up and say: “I don't know, and I'm worried.”

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)