Out of the wilderness: how J B Priestley is enjoying a revival

As a “grumbling and growling” columnist for the NS, J B Priestley inspired the formation of CND. Now, 30 years after his death, his only son tells Valerie Grove why his once neglected work is making a comeback. 

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No 3, the Grove – a handsome 17th-century terrace near the pinnacle of Highgate Hill, lately inhabited by the likes of Jude Law and Sting – has always been an inspiring house. On its façade, one plaque states that here the poet Coleridge died in 1834, aged 61; another plaque informs us that here lived the novelist, playwright and essayist J B Priestley. And here, in 1932, was born Tom Priestley, JBP’s youngest child and only son.

On this August day, 30 years since his father died, Tom has taken the 390 bus from Notting Hill to revisit his birthplace. At the centuries-old Flask pub across the road, he reminds me (in this First World War-obsessed year) that it is 100 years since his dad joined up with the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment. Young Jack Priestley spent his 21st birthday in the trenches of the Western Front, under bombardment and surrounded by mud, lice-infested filth and the sickening stench of death. His experiences there remained “an open wound that never healed”.

By the time Tom was born (“a fine lad”, said his father) and baptised at St Michael’s Church nearby, with J M Barrie standing godfather, Jack was a prospering and prolific writer. He had ended his affair with the 23-year-old actress Peggy Ashcroft and moved with his wife, Jane, and their family (of four daughters, two from an earlier marriage) to this nine-bedroomed house overlooking Kenwood and the Heath – and Gladys Cooper in pyjamas in her garden next door. Jack would sit in Coleridge’s study working on his first play, Dangerous Corner – the baby Tom was taken to rehearsals in his carrycot – and writing reviews for the Evening Standard at the handsome fee of £60 for 1,200 words. “Every morning,” as Priestley said, “you have to go in there and lift the elephant off the typewriter.”

Picture the familiar image of J B Priestley: burly, black-hatted, blunt, saurian-eyed, heavy-jowled, somewhat threatening. Tom looks nothing like his father. At 82, he is lean, suntanned, faintly piratical, still wearing the raffish moustache he grew in 1969 when he gave up smoking. He is celebrated in the movie business as an award-winning film editor, that most secret of professions. He edited some fine films: John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979), Karel Reisz’s Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby (1974), Michael Radford’s White Mischief (1987), inter alia. He became a tutor at the National Film and Television School and, after 37 years in the industry, he is a happy user of his veterans’ card (which grants him free tickets before 6pm) at art-house cinemas. For part of the year, he is at his house in Morocco but he keeps a basement flat in Notting Hill, furnished like a Marrakesh bazaar.

He was a shy boy in a household of women and slightly intimidated by his father, who “could be, without meaning to be, quite frightening”. After attending Bryanston School in Dorset, Tom went up to Cambridge – not to his father’s old college, Trinity Hall, but to King’s – to read classics and English. He spent hours in the Rex cinema or at a play-reading group called the Ten Club, attended by E M Forster – “a lovely man but a bad reader, so he was always given two-line maids’ parts. He sent me a charming letter after Cambridge about keeping in touch – ‘Why do I never hear from you?’ . . . I’m sorry to say I didn’t.”

Around the Christmas of 1950, Tom’s adoring mother “effectively took to her bed. There was some silly row. My parents weren’t speaking, so it was no surprise to me to be told they were going to divorce.” In 1953, J B Priestley married the archaeological writer Jacquetta Hawkes and Tom made his dash for independence. “It was the time in a boy’s life when he wants to lead his own life,” he tells me, “preferably somewhere completely different.”

For a year, he taught English in Athens, having fallen in love with Greece during a long vac. “The key thing about Greece was learning to be poor. I’d never been spoiled but my education at prep and public school was so conventional, part of me always felt I was an outsider. I loved being in a peasant country – which is why I later bonded with Morocco – among people living close to the soil.” To illustrate his love of Greek rebetika song, he sings me one about Charon gathering another soul.

But what to do with his life? He felt that it had to be something creative but, he says, “My father had covered so much territory, there wasn’t much left.” Jack got him a pass to the Lime Grove television studios but only through a series of chance adventures through actor friends did Tom arrive at Ealing Studios, where he worked in the library before learning sound editing. His mother vaguely disapproved of cinema; his father saw it as a branch of the music hall, one of his great loves. But father and son never discussed it. “My father came just once to my flat,” Tom recalls, “and talked of general matters and then told me, ‘Don’t be a writer, it’s a terrible business.’ I read that as, ‘This is my patch, you go somewhere else.’”

In a 1971 letter to Tom, Priestley admitted he had seemed too detached from his children: not because of his work but from not wishing to influence or restrict them. “It is not easy to be the children of a well-known father – I have always realised that,” JBP wrote, “but equally it is not easy to be the well-known father, either.”

Not long ago, when Tom was given an honorary degree at Bradford University and was asked to say a few words to the graduating students, he said: “There are two ways you can live your life. If life is a river and in the river is a rock, you can either say, ‘I’m going to get to that rock,’ and dive in and swim towards it; or you can float. And you never know what wonders you will find as you float. I’m a floater!” The next speaker was Imran Khan, the chancellor of the university. “And if ever a man was driven, it’s Imran Khan,” Tom tells me. “He thought he was picking up my line and said, ‘Yes, you have to go for it!’ Got it all wrong.”

In films, Tom Priestley found his true vocation. He edited Deliverance mostly during the three months on location in northern Georgia. It was “a great adventure” and he felt quite at ease with the “hillbillies” of the Appalachian Mountains. His Hollywood colleagues, however, were “terrified . . . They were the opposite of what California represents.”

It was shortly after Tom’s birth that J B Priestley wrote English Journey, his classic work of reportage. In no other book is he so outspoken. In Birmingham, he notes, nobody ever called him handsome, yet observe the downright ugliness of Birmingham’s people: “lopsided oafs, gnomes, hobgoblins”. At the Goose Fair in Nottingham, he sees “syphilitic faces, children dragged around like sacks”. At a boxing match in Newcastle, there is “not one intelligent or sensitive face in sight”. He may be out of sorts owing to a heavy cold, or the endless rain, or a tram ride through squalor. But, for him, people are “the vast, oafish, lay public” and he is honest Jack Priestley, telling it as he sees it. He is quite free, in those pre-PC days, to declare that the Irish bring “ignorance and dirt and drunkenness and disease wherever they go”.

His home truths about rebuilt cities – Gateshead seemed to have been “carefully planned by an enemy of the human race” – are as true today. Priestley was definitely happier surrounded by visible prosperity, preferably achieved through putting in a hard day’s honest work, as his was.

At the New Statesman he found a natural home. Here, in 1955, he coined the word “admass” to refer to the way the masses are influenced by advertising, market forces and profits, turning them all into consumers: “surely the lowest view mankind has ever taken of itself”. His neologism entered the dictionary (something that is often unacknowledged, especially online).

Then, an editor at the magazine, John Freeman, suggested that Priestley should write an essay on “Britain and the bombs”. When it was published on 2 November 1957, it brought to Great Turnstile such an avalanche of letters that it led to the foundation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. This column appeared too late for his 1957 selection of NS essays, which he entitled Thoughts in the Wilderness – referring to his political wilderness as persona non grata with both the right and the left. He was an avowed socialist, causing the BBC to be censured in the Commons for airing his wartime Postscripts. In 1949, George Orwell secretly advised the Foreign Office to blacklist the more famous Priestley – the two were not acquainted – as too sympathetic to Stalin. JBP was revered in Russia, where his play An Inspector Calls first opened in 1945. Yet he never toed a party line. “He was a totally independent person,” Tom says. “He could say what he pleased.”

The nuclear bomb essay was reprinted in 2008 in Priestley’s Wars (by Neil Hanson, with a preface by Tom). In it, Priestley demolished pro-bomb arguments about deterrence and warned that in the “idiot game” of playing with ultimate weapons of destruction, the players, “hag-ridden by fear”, might, after three glasses too many of vodka or bourbon on the rocks, push the wrong button. “In plain words,” he wrote, “now that Britain has told the world 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.”

Sacks of readers’ letters were passed to the embryonic CND, whose meetings were held chez Canon John Collins and his wife, Diana. They became the Priestleys’ closest friends. As vice-president of CND, Jack spoke at the first Aldermaston rally in 1958 but soon left the campaign over squabbles with Bertrand Russell about direct action. He never cared for committees and resolutions.

“I am always grumbling and growling in these columns,” he wrote in one NS piece. He grumbled about cities becoming vistas of concrete and growled about our gullibility – “People do not really want anything until they are told they want it.” He complained about the young preferring television to books. Yet he also wrote lyrically of advances in classical music recording – for instance, Schubert’s last and noblest chamber work, the String Quintet in C, which “brings a gift so precious that it almost redeems the noise and idiocy of the time”.

In John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Jimmy Porter is caught reading Priestley in the NS and dismisses it as Edwardian nostalgia. JBP’s response was to point out flaws in Osborne’s play, such as: what childless young woman would be ironing on a Sunday evening? Priestley’s plays were falling out of fashion, like those of Terence Rattigan and Noël Coward and other practitioners of “the well-made play”. To that taunt, Tom says, his father would retort, “You wouldn’t mock a table for being well made, would you?” (Priestley’s plays today outscore Osborne’s in the repertory: Dangerous Corner opened at the Theatre Royal Windsor this month; Time and the Conways starts its run at the Nottingham Playhouse shortly; Stephen Daldry’s revival of An Inspector Calls returns next year.)

An astute critic, Priestley had no self- delusion. This is clear in his NS essay on F R Leavis, who had declared in a lecture that: “No time need be wasted on Priestley.” He was right, declared Jack – but if our time is too precious to waste reading reputable authors from Fielding to Day-Lewis, why should we waste any time at all reading or listening to Dr Leavis?

Just before he died, when he was nearing 90, his son interviewed him for an affectionate ITV film, Time and the Priestleys. They concentrated on the distant past, about which his dad’s mind was still sharp. “The West Riding of Yorkshire,” Priestley said, “was a great place for discouragement.” And, most tellingly, “I’m more a writer than a human being, I think.”

Not until after his death did a biographer, Vincent Brome, bring up the subject of what J B Priestley (the erstwhile womaniser, thrice married) might have felt about his son’s confirmed-bachelor status. Brome rang Tom to ask: “What was your father’s view on homosexuality?” Tom replied that he didn’t know, as they’d never discussed it; he’d better ask Jacquetta. Brome did so. “Then, of course, it all came out. As far as I was concerned, my father was ‘disappointed’. He found it ‘difficult to adjust to it’. And I thought, ‘Well, so did I!’”

Tom now manages the Priestley estate on behalf of its nine family beneficiaries. On the centenary of his father’s birth in 1994, he unveiled the English Heritage plaque on No 3, the Grove (and was not invited inside). The nearby great house Witanhurst, which with its 65 rooms is second in size in London only to Buckingham Palace, remains a building site with a mystery owner. In the Priestleys’ day, Lady Crosfield, a former tennis champion whose soap tycoon husband built the mansion, would invite them to tennis parties – tennis was J B Priestley’s game – along with Wimbledon players.

In his preface to Thoughts in the Wilderness, he recalls a friend’s indignation when a poet referred to Priestley’s second-rate mind. But “I could not share my friend’s indignation. I have a second-rate mind – and so has this poet.” What he also had was an intuitive insight into the popular mood, sharing people’s hopes for “a better England, in a nobler world”. Michael Foot called him “one of the best friends mankind had in the 20th century”. Yet, about the society mankind had created, he was a far-seeing critic. “He is studied in schools, rediscovered as a novelist and perennially popular in the theatre,” his son says. “He still speaks to us.” Thirty years after his death, Priestley is no longer “unfashionable” but timeless. 

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood