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2 June 2023

JB Priestley’s rules for life

Stay away from the crowd, the mob and the mass.

By Charlotte Stroud

A life-changing discovery should be something that reorients your world. When you look up from your new-found pearl, everything is altered. This is how I have felt since unearthing the essays of JB Priestley from the damp basement of a seaside book shop. He’s taught me that it’s actually not half bad to be alive. It might even be possible to still be cheerful.

Though Priestley was a commercially successful novelist during his lifetime, and became a household name during the war as a broadcaster for the BBC, we know him today mostly as the author of the 1945 play An Inspector Calls – which suffers from being read aloud each year by a room of lobotomised teenagers studying it for GCSE. His essays in particular have been neglected by contemporary readers who perhaps, in Priestley’s words, find them “too obvious for the cleverest fellows, who want to beat their brains against something hard and knotty”. Priestley’s essays are, by design, more cushioned. His aim was always to “write something that at a pinch [he] could read aloud in a bar-parlour”. 

That Priestley deliberately chose to write from a position within the crowd, as opposed to outside or above it, owes much to his commitment to socialism, but also to his belief that “art is not synonymous with introversion”.

In his essay “The Happy Introvert”, he writes that “our civilisation is… so over-extroverted and so ignorant or contemptuous of man’s inner world” that, in an attempt to restore some balance, the arts “are more deeply introverted than they were in earlier ages”. Writers in particular, he laments, are “lost in their inner worlds”, which are “distorted by [their] feeling of frustration and bitterness”. Priestley’s objection, in other words, is to the tendency of some modernist writers to indulge in the feelings of alienation and despair engendered by capitalism

The Marxist literary critic György Lukács said, in his Essays on Thomas Mann, that modern writers face a choice: either they treat alienation as “a tragic destiny to be submitted to” or as “a problem to be solved”. He called this “the Tonio Kröger problem”, after Thomas Mann’s novel (by that name) about the life of a “lonely and aloof” artist who is forever “looking within, [to] the theatre of so much pain”. What Tonio teaches us, Lukács wrote, is that, yes, the artist must present the “negative, fallen, and degenerate” aspects of society – those theatres of pain – but they should also show us those parts of life that are “worthy and noble”. It is these positive images, he argues, that “keep awake the longing for an unalienated life”. 

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Reading Priestley’s essays, it was immediately clear which path he had chosen. Each one is a rejection of angst; an attempt to ameliorate feelings of alienation. If they were a gesture, they would be an out-held hand. 

[See also: Working from home is killing our social lives]

That’s not to say all his essays are about “worthy and noble” things. On the contrary, many of them consist of “grumblings” about such miserly subjects as “terrible novelists”, “hating strangers” and “other people’s accomplishments”. But the presumption he makes, unlike those pained inner-world writers, is that there is someone out there who shares and understands his grievances; he is not alone. That the pronoun he uses most often in his essays is “we” is no accident. It is we who lament that contemporary novelists seem to “enjoy nobody in their books”; it is we who “reserve our real hatred for people we do not know”; and it is we who are hard-pushed to admire “those important persons, who know everything, who can do everything”. If there is angst in Priestley, it is dispelled in the sharing. As he has the inspector say in his best-known play: “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.” 

Even through the grumbling, we feel Priestley has a gargantuan appetite for life. Like his hero, Shakespeare’s comic rogue John Falstaff, he arrives on the page “pulsing and glowing” and with the same desire to “turn all to merriment”. He writes of Shakespeare, but it is equally true of Priestley himself, that he possessed “such a smiling acceptance of the variety of human life”. And though you might pick up any one of his essays and find such jovial tolerance, perhaps the best example of that “smiling acceptance” is his essay on cranks. 

Cranks, those belligerent people “who want to save the world”, Priestley writes, have an “unshakeable belief that [their] own particular crochet” is the answer. Whether it is “by way of vegetarian potted meat” or by sipping “unlimited quantities of hot water”, the crank fervently believes they can lead us “back to Eden”. Seen through Priestley’s eyes, we too learn to smile at the cranks want of “balance and proportion”, their belief that “our streets are paved with Philosopher’s Stones and the Elixir Vitae may be had for the asking”. The laughter, like the grumbling, is shared. 

[See also: Are social conservatives the future of British politics?]

Where we stand to learn most from Priestley, however, is in his rejection of ideology – that secular Eden that claims to restore meaning to our fallen world. Having fought on the front during the First World War, Priestley learned first-hand that ideologies can quite literally be a dead end. Ideologies, he warns, will not deliver us from alienation and despair, they only separate us out into different “Blocks” and force us to “man the guns there”. Though we “seem to live among savage rats and screaming mice”, he writes, “the worst way out of this situation may be to hurry to the nearest Block”. Instead, Priestley invites us to join him in the political wilderness where, free of the labels “left” and “right”, it is possible for people to rediscover their “individuality”, away from “collective imbecility”. According to Priestley, it is only once we see “every man as a person”, away from “the crowd, the mob, the mass”, that we can understand ourselves in relation, as one part of a whole. 

At a time when block thinking is all around us, when the tendency for writers to show us nothing beyond the inside of their own skulls has only increased, discovering Priestley is like finding an antidote. Priestley has shown me (and he lived long enough to write under nuclear threat), that the worst thing we can do during a period of crisis is run to the nearest block, or become lonely introverts.

There may be no route back to Eden, certainly not by way of vegetarian potted meat, but we can still delight in the life we have, together. That delight is the genius of JB Priestley. Though each essay is well-wadded with a layer of humour and conviviality, beneath their Trojan casing is a message of adamantine truth.

[See also: The cost-of-living crisis has changed friendship]

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