Adventures in time: Magical adventures with J.B. Priestley

J.B. Priestley was a myriad-minded man whose outward appearance -gruff, blunt Yorkshire man birthed in the Edwardian era - and authorship of popular novels and plays of social realism disguised deeper veins of interest - in metaphysics, in time and in depth psychology.

The outward form has tended to contribute to a decline in his reputation. The inward life at the cutting edge of thought should revive it.

This point is admirably argued by Anthony Payne in his new book on Priestley's inner interests, "Time and the Rose Garden: Encountering the Magical in the life and works of J.B. Priestley".

It outlines Priestley's engagement with Indian metaphysics that convinced him of the unity of consciousness - we belong to one body that is mind- what we do to another, we do to ourselves. His life as a time haunted man both reflecting on his own and others' experience - of precognition, of time slips, of deja vu and of emotionally anticipating the future - and contemporary speculations on time - in J.W. Dunne, Ouspensky and quantum mechanics. One of the fascinating aspects of the book is Payne's own discussion of the letters Priestley received after a BBC program where he requested people's accounts of 'abnormal' time experiences. These letters deserve a fuller analysis that Payne hopes to do in due course. They are deeply moving not least for how many times the author tells Priestley that he is the first person they have ever told. Our dominant reductionist paradigm exerts a repression on exploring the possible. Finally, his experience of a vivid dream life and an ability to make sense of this in the depth psychology of Jung of whom he was one of the first popular expositors in English and a friend. And how, critically, these three fields overlapped, resonated, and deepened, one another.

These understandings are unfolded both in relationship to Priestley's own life story and in an examination of many of Priestley's works - novels, essays and plays - some of which have had little critical examination - including Priestley's last play, unperformed until very recently: "Time Was, Time Is."

The text well-establishes that Priestley recognised the importance of dreaming, how it (and other experience) gave access to a deeper self than the surface ego, how that self had the capacity to observe from a higher perspective that included embracing a person's past and the future; that past, present, future are continuously present seen from this observation point; and, that a recognisably individual consciousness survives bodily death; and, that this individual consciousness is enfolded in a collective, unified field of mind.

It, also, well-establishes that Priestley was an experimenter after truth, who explores these notions vigorously and engagingly in the varied patterns of his art so that we approach them not as 'dogmas' but as enlightening thought experiments that help you re-explore your own experience and conception of the world. I remember my own reading of his, 'The Magicians' that granted me an act of 'objective remembering the past' similar to the one granted Charles more than once in the novel. A novel that actually triggers a 'metaphysical' experience is, well, novel!

I did have a number of quibbles with the book.

First, Payne possibly over-labours Priestley's neglect. I lost counting how many times he reminds us of this. His neglect is real but that is not simply because his ideas were unconventional (and one hopes ahead of their time) and he had a metaphysical depth for which the English are not known. He wrote a great deal, probably too much, and not always under the inspiration of compressed, unconscious imagination (which was real). His dominant chosen vehicle - social realism including thrillers and putative science fiction - sometimes have a sense of haste, of loose plotting and a characterisation, especially of women, that is thin and carries a definite aura of their age. These can create real obstacles to appreciation. You need to sift the oeuvre and be alert to its depths for sometimes they are too casually on display.

Second, though Priestley attempts a 'theory' of time and bodily survival in his remarkable book, "Man and Time" and in his essay collection, "Over the Long High Wall", this is never directly addressed by Payne (unless I am missing something) which is a mite odd. One thing to explore the intimated patterns in the art, another to explore the author's tentative conclusions laid bare.

Third whereas Priestley's indebtedness to Dunne and Ouspensky is acknowledged, there is no mention of Maurice Nicoll. Nicoll was highly important to Priestley as both a student of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, an early follower of Jung; and, the author of a remarkable book on time, "Living Time" whose influence Priestley acknowledged. I happen to own Priestley's copy (sadly without side notes)!

None of which should detract from a highly admirable account of how dream, time/eternity, and Self play a seminal shaping role in Priestley's life and art and a spirited and successful defence of the importance of that art and of recognising it as a major artistic and spiritual achievement. It happily adds to the Priestley revival that gathers pace, if slowly, and does what all good secondary literature should do return you to the source with your perceptions enriched and your enthusiasm stoked.


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