Tuesday, April 19, 2016

J.B. Priestley well seen...almost...


The jovial, hail well met image of a bluff, direct but kindly Yorkshireman that emanates from this, and other, photographs of J. B. Priestley was not anywhere near the truth. A useful persona but like any mask also a limitation, one in which you can only too quickly become trapped.

Priestley, as his biographer Judith Cook wants to show, was significantly more complex than this. This in large measure she does with one unfortunate failing, redeemed at the very end of her well written, engaging text.

One of his complexities was his family life. He was married three times and at one point as his first wife is dying, he is conducting an affair with the woman who is to become his second. Jane, his second wife, was herself untangling herself from a failing marriage and was to have a daughter, born of Priestley, but a fact only revealed to the unfortunate girl, Mary, at a much later, too late, stage. As one of Priestley's six children remarks many of the aspects of their lives would have been simpler if their parents had only spoken to them about context and feeling. Cook's handling of this complexity is always sympathetic to all parties; and, indeed, one of the remarkable features of Priestley was his ability often to live 'double' lives with a curious generosity to all.

This generosity, however, broke down in divorcing Jane where he wickedly projects onto Jane that it is her pulling away and seeking out a partner that is responsible for the breakdown of the marriage when he had already embarked on a long standing, deeply passionate engagement with Jacquetta Hawkes, the archaeologist and writer. Happily for all concerned, it was third time lucky for both Priestley and Jane (and their respective partners) for finally they had both found their matches.

Complexity too in that Priestley's life was haunted by his experience of the First World War (in which he served from 1914 until invalided out in early 1918, mostly serving in the ranks before belatedly accepting a commission). Except in one brief autobiographical memoir, he never wrote about it, yet even in his eighties, his secretary would find his gaze lost, his eyes misted and knew instinctively he was thinking of the war. Cook speculates what kind of writer would he have been had he decided to write on this, his most traumatic experience, and, how different a book it might have been from, say, Robert Graves' ''Goodbye to All That'' given their differences of class and perception. For Graves the war was a scaring adventure, for Priestley it was a bludgeoning horror, Graves saw it as an officer from the very class whose mismanagement had led to the chaos, Priestley saw it as one of the fodder led to slaughter.

It was not to be - and Cook quotes one friend and critic of Priestley's that suggests that all his subsequent words - millions of them - were efforts at forgetting - of strangely seeking to renew a vision of the world without staring into that abyss. This is obviously unprovable but suggestive. For one of Priestley's concerns was how do we write ourselves into a vision of the world that allows us to be of our better selves - and his famous Postscript talks on the BBC in World War II, listened to by an incredible one third of the total population, asked a simple question, at their heart, would the world be different this time? After this war? And asking that was a significant contributor to the triumph of Labour in the 1945 General Election (so much so that Priestley's talks were eventually spiked by the Establishment, rightly fearing them).

The unfortunate failing in Cook's telling is an inability to truly convey Priestley's deep engagement with what the critic, Gareth Lloyd Evans, perceptively sees as Priestley's seeking after explorations of conscience and of ultimate human meaning, outside the boundary of religion. Like many biographies of figures of the last century early faith is lost (and unless as in the case of, say, a C.S. Lewis or an Aldous Huxley very obviously reacquired), this losing goes virtually unremarked. Was it as casual as this neglect suggests? It is rather like being at a dinner party where any mention of anything too serious, let alone, religion is taboo.

But as Cook rather beautifully illustrates at the end of her book the question of meaning pursues Priestley and time and again it threads its way through his novels, essays and dramas as a real core. Time being an apt analogy because, significantly, time and its workings were an important clue to life's meaning. The illustration is a dream on which the biography ends and which we are told haunted Priestley throughout his life.

The dream has Priestly standing alone on a tall tower watching millions of birds fly past in one direction. It was a beautiful sight until a gear changes and time quickens - now all he sees is an accelerated process of birth, growth, death and decay in which meaning is drained out in a simple blind struggle for existence. Until the gear is changed yet again such that time flowed so fast, Priestley saw an enormous plain sown with feathers through which magically danced the 'lambency of being' - a white flame of life that imparted reality to everything, embodied in everything.

What you see depends on where you stand and when, in what frame of time or eternity.

It is no doubt understandable that Cook finds this a difficult landscape to explore, bound as it was with Priestley's concern with Dunne's theory of time, Ouspensky's concern for recurrence, Maurice Nicoll's Living Time and Jung's synchronicity - sufficient meat for anyone, some of it difficult to digest - but it is a pity that she did not, except in this final image, allow it better to play in the fabric of Priestley's life and work. Ironically (given the dimensionality of time), it is a whole dimension missing.

Nevertheless, Cook's biography is a fine telling of a grand life, a life whose work deserves to better known. Let us hope the key plays continue to be performed, reinterpreted anew, and that in their trail the central novels and essays (and the great 'English Journey') continue to find the discerning reader.

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