PRIESTLEY’S WARS: Edited by Neil Hanson.
Great Northern Books.
No doubt about it – this is a great book about a great writer and thinker.
I have long admired Priestley’s dramatic writing – hence the inclusion of this review on this theatre reviews site. Priestley is recognised as being a superb craftsman in his field. I was also aware of his political philosophy and knew about his radio broadcasts during WWII. I was not, to my shame, aware of how significant and dynamic his political thinking was nor was I aware of his presence in the front line during WWI.
The book is mostly Priestley’s words from letters, broadcasts and other sources. These are augmented by concise and helpful editorial notes that help create a narrative, fill in gaps or focus what will follow. There are four broad sections in the book; WWI, the period between the wars, WWII, and the post war years. Each has a different flavour, none of them overtly contains comment about Priestley’s fiction and drama, and each has a rich store of surprises and revelations.
Priestley joined the army as a volunteer soon after WWI was declared. Much comes from his letters; there if often a matter-of-fact quality about them that belies the emotion that lies beneath. Detail is the key, whether it be about uniform, training camp conditions of the full horror of the trenches – ‘old trenches full of heads, legs and arms, bloodstained clothing . . . The place is one vast morgue.’
Priestley is at his most fascinating and insightful as war approaches once more. He returns again and again to the notions of class and of democracy, that political power resides in the hands of too few people, and whether or not the general population has has the tools to shape their own destinies. His writing is moving, direct and often frighteningly prescient: ‘We are being asked to give up more and more of our freedom in order to preserve our freedom. A compromise is possible . . . ‘
During the war, Priestley gave a number of broadcasts – Postscripts. The BBC was (and is) proud of these; many are published here for the first time. These were immensely popular – as well as the quality of his writing Priestley brought another quality to his broadcasts. He never lost his Yorkshire accent – this must have seemed friendly and comforting against the BBC’s RP. Although a life-long Socialist, Priestley was able to see that Churchill would be the best war-time leader. During the Postscripts Priestley constantly campaigned for a ‘peace plan’ which annoyed Churchill. The BBC promptly sacked Priestley; it’s not clear whether or not Churchill was responsible but implications are strong. What we can’t ignore is that Priestley’s thinking and influence was considered a threat by the Conservative establishment.
JB P continued his political involvements into his later life – was one of the founder members and Vice President of CND. His perceptiveness didn’t wane; he wrote in 1972: ‘In the West we are under the spell of Admass. (I coined this term to describe a system, not the victims of it.) We are supposed to be Consumers, and not much else; surely the lowest view mankind has ever taken of itself.’
Perhaps the time has come for us to look beyond same production of An Inspector Calls that tours and tours and tours; to reassess Priestley’s work. This was a man who not only commented on the state of our society but who also helped formulate our political thinking.
Here’s the Amazon link: