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Priestley's EnglandJ. B. Priestley and English Culture$

John Baxendale

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780719072864

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719072864.001.0001

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‘Now we must live up to ourselves’: New Jerusalem and beyond

‘Now we must live up to ourselves’: New Jerusalem and beyond

(p.166) 6 ‘Now we must live up to ourselves’: New Jerusalem and beyond
Priestley's England

John Baxendale

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter shows that the New Jerusalem would never be built under trade union rules, because unions are about making the best bargain within the existing system, not building a better one. They would be more inclined to pop in after the job had started to check that the wages and hours were all right. A true revolution would require creativity, gusto and commitment, not regulated hours and wages, and, for this, wider support than the working class and its organisations would be needed. It was from lower middle class, despite their obsession with respectability, and from the cultured minority of the upper middle class, that the most progressive ideas came. The left especially needed the support of ‘highly-trained technicians’ who had a vision of a better society, and the enthusiasm and skill to build it.

Keywords:   New Jerusalem, revolution, working class, lower middle class, highly trained technicians

In that magnificent summer of 1940, when I spent my days collecting information, and my nights broadcasting it to the world beyond the ring of steel around us, I think I felt better than ever before or since. We lived at last in a community with a noble common purpose, and the experience was not only novel but exhilarating. We had a glimpse then of what life might be if men and women freely dedicated themselves, not to their appetites and prejudices, but to some great communal task, and not even the brute threat of war, the menace of the very skies, could remove from that glimpse the faint radiance of some far-off promised land.1

One day in the late summer of ’45, Revolutionary Young England was invited to 10 Downing Street, to be thanked for its election services, and was shot as it went upstairs. Who pulled the trigger, I don’t know.2

Shortly before war broke out, Priestley had declared his despair at the state of prewar Britain. ‘What creative effort were we making now? Where was the noble national idea?’3 Surely, given some ‘shining goal’, people would ‘work day and night like madmen for next to nothing’: but no such goal was in sight.4 In his VE Day broadcast, a whole world later, he gave the answer. The year 1940 had brought out the best in the British people, and its momentum might just carry them through to a new and better world. So, at any rate, Priestley believed, and he was not alone. As he said nearly twenty years later, when the world had indeed changed but the New Jerusalem had not arrived and was no longer expected, ‘there was revolution in the air’ in 1945 – a mild and ‘very English’ one, but ‘bent on changing our society’ even so.5 Much of Priestley's postwar social and political commentary was concerned with explaining why, in his view, these high hopes had not been realised.

This narrative of 1940–45 – from the People's War to the People's Peace – provided the dominant mythology of postwar Britain, which (p.167) Angus Calder has labelled ‘the myth of the Blitz’.6 From the 1940 Postscripts onwards, Priestley had been one of its main proponents. Labour's landslide election victory in 1945, and the reforms which followed, would extend the story into peacetime. The foundation of the NHS, and the establishment of a mixed, managed economy with a commitment to full employment, laid the foundations of a postwar settlement which would endure through the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s, some of its key elements surviving even the Thatcher era. The fact that Thatcherites even in the 1990s were still defining themselves in opposition to supposed wartime ‘New Jerusalemists’ indicates the continued power of this narrative.

Predictably, Priestley's response to postwar developments did not follow the orthodoxies of either left or right. As in all his political writings from English Journey onwards, the two central issues were England, and community. The war had created – or rather revived – a radical understanding of national character and identity, rooted in the people, and based on social cohesion and common purpose. Priestley saw this as an opportunity which must be seized: we had done great things, he told the readers of Picture Post just before VE Day, and ‘now we must live up to ourselves’.7 From the outset, however, he suspected that the opportunity was being let slip. With the coming of the Cold War, the idealistic internationalism of the early 1940s was in retreat. The postwar boom of the 1950s accelerated the cultural process of Americanisation, while leaving intact the structures of power in British society. The global culture of ‘Admass’ seemed to overwhelm both the social ideals of 1945 and the sense of national identity which the war had created. By the late 1950s, Priestley complained, ‘we no longer appeared to know who we were’.8 As in 1940, he did not shirk the task of reminding us.

To portray Priestley after 1945 as a disappointed and disillusioned figure, his hour of glory come and gone, his hopes and dreams unrealised, would be tempting but wrong. When the war ended, he was only fifty, and barely half-way through his career as a writer, with three energetic and productive decades ahead of him. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he remained in the public eye as a novelist, playwright, broadcaster, and prolific journalist, producing some sixteen novels and as many plays in the years after 1945, and writing regularly for left of centre popular newspapers such as The Sunday Pictorial, The News Chronicle, The Daily Herald and Reynolds News. He also became a regular contributor to the New Statesman, where much of his serious commentary on postwar society and politics appeared. Certainly, the different England that emerged after the war was increasingly not to his taste, but he was not a man who expected to be satisfied with what he saw around him, and he engaged with it with characteristic gusto, and across his usual broad canvas – novels and plays ranging from bitingly satirical to deeply (p.168) symbolic to simply entertaining, autobiography, social and political analysis, journalism both serious and trivial, and occasional bouts of political activism. He developed a robust critique of the follies of the Cold War, and of the new social order he labelled ‘Admass’, while his longstanding interest in time, memory and history, and in Jungian psychology, deepened as he grew older. Towards the end of his life we can see his political, social and spiritual preoccupations flowing together in a way which almost, if not quite, makes him a figure of the 1960s counterculture. Throughout this period, though no longer at the centre of the historical stage as he had been in the early 1940s, he remained a notable public figure and a trenchant observer from the wings, feeling ‘sometimes … a depth of sadness; sometimes a new hope for England, the country I no longer much like yet still must love’.9

‘We want a creative community and not an almshouse’10

An Inspector Calls, written during the winter of 1944–45 – and, like many of Priestley's best plays, at top speed – expressed both the idealism and the anxieties of its historical moment.11 The play opened that summer in Moscow – at the time, of course, the capital of an allied power – and since then has been very widely performed all over the world. Today it is probably the best known of Priestley's plays, partly because of its incorporation into the GCSE English Literature syllabus, partly because of Stephen Daldry's acclaimed revival at the National Theatre in 1992, itself intended partly as a riposte to Margaret Thatcher's attempted demolition of the 1945 legacy.12 An Inspector Calls is set, significantly, in 1912. A mysterious Inspector arrives at the home of a well-heeled and complacent Edwardian family to question them about the murder of a young working-class girl. Family members are forced to face not only their own discreditable actions but the callousness of their attitude towards the dead girl and those like her. The Inspector's parting words resonate in 1945 as much as in 1912 – and, Stephen Daldry would no doubt argue, in 1992:

But just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes, their fears, their suffering, and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.13

But, as Priestley's audience knew, ‘fire and blood and anguish’ had not made the lesson stick, and the result was the disaster of the 1930s. Now there was another chance to learn: but were the lessons of wartime to be (p.169) forgotten, Priestley feared, the whole tragic history would be repeated – and he was writing before the unveiling of the atom bomb that same summer. To adapt a later distinction of Priestley's, the play is not a plea for an agenda – a set of political proposals – but for something deeper: an ambience – ‘the total climate of values, ideas, opinions, fears and hopes, in which we live’.14 The Inspector's parting message is a plea not for a National Health Service but for a whole new way of living, glimpsed, Priestley believed, in the experience of 1940.

Priestley was a strong but critical supporter of the 1945–51 Labour government. He campaigned energetically for Labour in 1945 and again in 1950, despite his reservations about much of what had happened in between.15 In a party political broadcast in the 1950 campaign, he restated the idealism of 1945. The Labour government, he declared, still offered ‘a noble example to the world’: because ‘the Labour Party is broadly based, has an ethic, and is not governed by cynical expediency; because it says what it means and does what it says it will do; because it has an outlook, a policy, a programme, that do justice to the whole nation’. But even in an election broadcast (and unthinkably in that context today), there crept in a hint of impatience with the government's style. ‘There's still a lack of flexibility, too much routine Civil Service stuff, too much London School of Economics, too much of the old trade union outlook, too many cups of weak tea and not enough dash and devilment, fire and glory.’16

For Priestley, the welfare and social reforms which define the 1945–51 government – the NHS, full employment, a new state-guaranteed safetynet in place of the mass insecurity of the 1930s – were ‘fine brave things’, which he had spent the war arguing for. But there was something missing, and it had less to do with state machinery than with the human spirit. Looking back from the 1960s, not without a degree of hindsight, it seemed to him that for the young enthusiasts of 1945, ‘Labour was being sent to Westminster not primarily to give the English security and welfare, but to transform our whole society. They wanted – as they said so many times – a different England’.17 The great mistake the government made was to let the spirit of 1940, that exhilarating sense of a ‘noble common purpose’, which could have spurred the nation on to higher things, pass away, replaced with the rule of experts and bureaucrats. However necessary these may be, they could not replace the sense of collective purpose which had made people work night and day under impossible conditions to win the war. They would have done the same, or so Priestley felt, to build a new society after the war was won, but they were not being asked to. True social renewal could only come ‘out of the people’, but the people were not being mobilised. And so late 1940s Britain relapsed into a kind of sullen passive depression. ‘And where there might have been drama, a gaiety of the spirit in taking on the odds, there is now a feeling of drab-ness and monotony, with dismal alternations of irritation and (p.170) boredom.’18

As early as 1946 Priestley detected a souring of the postwar mood. People had grown selfish and cynical. ‘They are trying to take as much as they can and give as little as possible in return. They are cutting themselves off from the welfare of the community. They are losing all pride and interest in the job. They are not behaving like good citizens … They believe this to be a rotten world and they do not propose to do anything themselves to improve it.’ To Priestley, the reasons were plain.

For five years our people were made to feel that they were all engaged in one huge communal task, the defeat of the common enemy. The emotional drive was terrific. We all had parts in a national drama, played on a world stage. There, in a green spotlight, was the super-villain, and here were we, so many heroes and heroines. And then suddenly the curtain came down.

People had been told that a great national effort was now needed to restore things to normal. But what they should have been told was that ‘the vast drama continues, with ourselves still the heroes and heroines of it’.19 So ‘all the nuisances and little hardships of the journey are there, but not the sustaining vision of the destination’. The left had become so preoccupied with means that they had lost sight of the end: ‘a new creative Britain, hard-working but also full of fun, liveliness, colour and intelligence’. ‘They fail to understand that political and economic changes are themselves only so much machinery that will help to create a finer quality of living. And it is this quality of living alone that really matters.’20

The government was criticised not just for losing the wartime sense of common purpose but for its cultural style: too dour, too solemn, lacking in ‘colour, fun and glory’.21 The austerity of the late 1940s is often portrayed as the necessary price of postwar reconstruction, to be succeeded by the frivolous pleasures of the boom years that followed. But for Priestley social reconstruction and popular pleasure should go hand in hand. ‘We English have still a long hard pull in front of us, and, like carthorses on the old May Days, we need a few bells and ribbons on our harness.’22 Visiting a Butlin's holiday camp, he wondered if Butlin knew better than Bevin what the people needed in their lives. But although touched by the enthusiasm of the holidaymakers, and ever reluctant to scorn the pleasures of the people, he eventually found them depressing. ‘Too much noise and fuss on the surface, and too little going down into the depths, to nurture and comfort the hungry and bewildered soul of man. Everything so neat and clever, and everybody so lost.’23 Dog-tracks, pubs, dance-halls and cinemas provided a much-needed escape from boredom, but in the end they merely revealed the emptiness of modern civilisation. At bottom, populist though he was, Priestley believed that only art, ‘enduring and unforgettable’, could really nurture the soul. But he was prepared to take a broad view of what ‘art’ was, and, careful to (p.171) distance himself from any hint of elitism, he asserted that, given the opportunity, all were capable of actively appreciating and creating it, even if they did it badly. A socialist state should open those opportunities, ‘turn a mass of people on to the arts’, and then (in a faint echo of William Morris) ‘we might find it possible to achieve a community in which every citizen felt himself to be something of an artist and every artist knew himself to be a citizen’.24 But in the meantime, what was wrong with more frivolous ways of raising the spirits – a lick of paint, a few flowerpots, and little tables in the sun to brighten up Britain's dreary towns?25

Priestley's cultural politics overlapped with those of the Labour government, but differed in crucial respects. Labour's cultural policy regarded some activities as intrinsically better than others: the active was preferred to the passive, the communal to the individualistic. The government's mission was not simply to patronise the arts but to raise the tone of popular leisure by the creation of theatres, concert halls and art galleries, which it was hoped would eventually attract more takers than pubs, cinemas and dog-tracks.26 So far, so good; but this approach was rooted in something Priestley found less attractive: the tradition of ‘rational recreation’ and the puritanism of the Labour movement, the belief that trivial entertainments diverted energy from really important things, a tradition which was still going strong in the postwar years. We remember the young Priestley in Bradford, open to all these ‘serious’ influences, but entranced by the popular arts of the day, and unable to contain his ebullience within the dour confines of chapel life and his father's standards of respectability. He would be the last man to agree with the old socialist John Burns that music-halls ought to become ‘places of education and instruction’, or feel the need, like another Edwardian socialist, to ‘push football out of heads’ in order to ‘push Socialism in’.27

The cultural world of Bright Day, which embraced the music-hall as well as the symphony concert, and ends up in the cinema, was very different from that inhabited by the Bloomsbury ‘highbrow’ John Maynard Keynes, first chairman of the Arts Council. Priestley was all in favour of state patronage of the arts, but rather than ‘high art’ delivered from above he preferred zest and creative energy welling up from below, along the lines of the finale to Let the People Sing. In The Arts Under Socialism (1947) he proposed to end artists’ ‘exile from the broad community’, and reconnect them with ‘the great common movements of our time’. This was to be achieved not on the instructions of committees and commissars but by the free choice of artists re-established at the heart of communities, and nurtured by the wider dissemination of the means of artistic production and consumption – theatres, orchestras, bookshops, publishers, studios and galleries. Given this encouragement, Priestley argued, ‘a fairly good average audience’ would be built up for the arts, while a smaller number would become enthusiasts or even artists themselves.28 This notion of (p.172) artists nurtured within the community contrasts sharply with the increasing use of Arts Council funds to support a few national, metropolitan centres of excellence. It also conflicted with a tendency Priestley had long ago detected in the culture of the Labour movement itself – ‘something narrow and grudging, puritanical and life-denying, never absent from one side of Labour … ministers never saying Do but always Don’t’ - which had held back the ‘great positive acts, sudden glorious releases, a sense of living in a bigger and better country’ which he felt ought to have accompanied the necessary austerities of the time.29

There was no separation between Priestley's desire to reawaken the creative spirit and his yearning for more zest and gusto in the pursuit of socialism: they flowed into each other, and both chimed in with his conception of the national character. As he reminded radio listeners during the economic crisis of 1947:

We are an inventive, a creative people, with something like genius for improvisation. We do not find it as easy to plan and to organise in an almost brutal large-scale fashion as some other peoples do, if only because we have many individual twists and turns in our character, and are given to producing odd sports and freaks, rum and eccentric types, especially where the dim genteel tradition has least force … They saved us in the war. And they alone can save us in this peace that is as menacing and challenging as a war.30

A national penchant for eccentricity and individualism did not chime in particularly well with the bureaucratic structures of the NHS, or the gospel of ‘the man from Whitehall knows best’ which the Labour government was suspected of believing in. For Priestley, the issue was about not just giving creative eccentrics their head but fostering the growth of community from the grass roots upwards. Some historians have argued that Labour's efforts to promote a sense of community fell on stony ground in a society still deeply divided along class, gender and regional lines.31 Priestley agreed that people had become less community-minded than they had been in 1940, but for him this was because they had not been presented with a heroic challenge to bring out their ‘courage and ingenuity and spirit’.32

This was Priestley on familiar territory, the need for community, which he had mapped out in English Journey a long decade and a half ago, developed in his novels and plays, returned to in the Postscripts and Out of the People, and addressed in An Inspector Calls. In the Slump, he had feared that the nation had ceased to be a community, caring for its own; in the War, he thought he saw that community reborn. In the late 1940s he welcomed what the government was doing, but feared that its rather cautious and bureaucratic approach would stifle the creative impulses of the people. By the end of the 1940s he had come to see the centralised state which had carried out most of Labour's reforms as a problem in (p.173) itself, like other forms of overweening power. ‘Contrary to much report, although I favour plenty of communal enterprise and control, I have never regarded the state with much favour’, he explained to radio listeners after a visit to Coventry. ‘The state is too large and unwieldy a mechanism, can easily become too powerful and clumsy, bruising the heart, crushing the spirit, by sheer size and weight.’ Increasingly, he argued that it was the local society and culture, which he had found so alarmingly attenuated in his journey of 1934, which held the key: not ‘far away, mysterious, but near at hand so that you can see the wheels going round and know who is pulling the levers’.33 A democratic society, he declared, was one in which ‘individual citizens are able to accept plenty of responsibility and play a constantly active part in deciding how they will live and how the life of their community will be shaped and coloured’. As ever, in seeking a better way Priestley looked back to Edwardian Bradford (or at any rate his own version of it) when, he asserted, ‘at the age of nineteen I had more control over my life than I have now, thirty-five years later, as a middle-aged man’. This kind of democracy was, he feared, rapidly dying out: perhaps people didn’t even want it any more. Too much power was passing to small groups: the rich Americans who controlled the media; commissars in Russia; and in Britain politicians and senior civil servants, who were ‘beginning to decide how the rest of us shall live’. Even the NHS, the Labour government's flagship, was ‘fundamentally undemocratic’, whatever its virtues, because the personal relationship between doctor and patient had been turned into official business: ‘you take your pills by permission of the Ministry of Health’.34

This last jibe was too much for Priestley's erstwhile allies. It provoked a front-page diatribe in the left-wing paper Tribune from its editor, Michael Foot, accusing Priestley of cynicism and defeatism, ‘the nihilism of the intellectual who will not deign to join the strivings of the common people’.35 This does seem unfair on Priestley, who, misguidedly or not, was in fact attempting to re-empower the ‘common people’ in a world which he felt was increasingly run by the few. He could have been more tactful about the NHS – which, as he admitted, he did not himself use – but he was not moving rightwards as Foot implied, rather reasserting a different, and older tradition of socialism from the centralised social democracy which had emerged from the Attlee years. This was to be an increasingly familiar theme in the years that followed.

It was hardly surprising that Priestley warmly welcomed one central government initiative, the Festival of Britain in 1951, combining as it did what was to be the last hurrah of postwar Labour collectivism with the spirit of popular pleasure. ‘The best attempt at public gaiety in my time,’ he later called it, ‘which the Tory press attacked when it was there and has sneered at ever since.’36 Priestley delivered an enthusiastic series of talks on BBC radio in which he reported on how the Festival was being celebrated (p.174) in various places, including Bradford, which awoke childhood memories of the Bradford Exhibition of 1904.37 His other contribution to the celebrations was his long comic novel Festival at Farbridge. This ebullient panorama of postwar English life, complete with caricatures of the upper classes, communists, Cambridge literary critics, and others from the contemporary cultural scene, reused the plot device of The Good Companions and Let the People Sing by bringing together a motley group of travelling strangers in a common enterprise – in this case, persuading the people and powers that be in a medium-sized Midlands town to join in the Festival celebrations. Like Let the People Sing, Festival is a call for national reawakening from the grass roots upwards. As Priestley's character Laura protests, ‘what's wrong with us now is that we don’t feel enough. There isn’t enough richness and joy and glory in our lives. We’re all living thin flat sort of existences … Life ought to be wonderful, and now for most people it isn’t.’38 As so often with Priestley, Festival's comic energy, satire and set-pieces belie this downbeat view of contemporary England.

A secret dream

Then it was very quickly decided that we should make atomic bombs, a fateful decision as we know now, and one … far removed from the spirit of 1945, and from the humanity and hopefulness of the old socialist pioneers … Now was that glorious summer changed to the winter of our discontent.39

This was the other source of Priestley's postwar disillusionment. He had never taken much interest in international affairs, but the onset of the Cold War was to change that. In 1949, George Orwell – now virtually on his deathbed – revised and updated a long-standing list of ‘crypto-Communists and fellow-travellers’, and passed it on to his friend Celia Paget, who was employed by the Information Research Department, an anti-Soviet propaganda arm of the Foreign Office.40 One of the 135 names on the list was Priestley's. The revelation in 1991 that Orwell had been involved in what, on the face of it, looked very much like early Cold War blacklisting caused some consternation, as in a smaller way did the appearance of Priestley's name on the list. Orwell, of course, was a longstanding left-wing anti-communist; but so too was Priestley, scorning the 1930s Marxists who uncritically idolised the Soviet Union after having ‘discover[ed] “the proletariat” in late night talks in some tutor's rooms at Oxford’, and putting his faith in an English socialism rather than any alien model.41 What prompted Orwell to list this very English figure, politically so close to himself, as a Soviet sympathiser?

(p.175) One reason might be Russian Journey, a book – or rather pamphlet – which Priestley wrote after a state-sponsored trip to the Soviet Union with his wife in the autumn of 1945.42 With hindsight, some things in Russian Journey appear naive. Priestley asserts that ‘we saw what we wanted to see’, but it is clear from his account that they did not wander freely across the Soviet Union as they might in most other countries, but went where their hosts wanted them to go.43 His claim that Russian writers, though not allowed to criticise the Party line, followed it ‘instinctively’, were free to promote ‘challenging ideas of their own’ and did not ‘feel themselves to be fettered in any way’ is unconvincing to say the least.44

But all this has to be seen in its historical context. Hindsight can easily obscure how fluid and unresolved the world situation was in 1945. The Soviet Union was at the height of its popularity in Britain and the West.45 It was recognised that through great suffering and endurance its people had contributed more than anyone to the defeat of Hitler. Communist Party membership had been at an all-time high since Russia entered the war.46 Priestley's articles on Russia were first published in Beaverbrook's Sunday Express, hardly known for its Stalinist sympathies. Winston Churchill, in the same speech in the United States in March 1945 in which he announced that an ‘iron curtain’ had descended over Europe, expressed the sentiments of the time:

I have a strong admiration and regard for the valiant Russian people and for my wartime comrade, Marshal Stalin. There is deep sympathy and goodwill in Britain – and I doubt not here also – towards the peoples of all the Russias and a resolve to persevere through many differences and rebuffs in establishing lasting friendships.47

It is unfortunate that, in attempting to defend the notorious list, Orwell's biographer accuses Priestley of denying the existence of the Soviet secret police.48 In fact, he spoke unambiguously of ‘political police, sudden arrests, labour camps, and all the grim tactics of suppression’, and had done so since the 1930s.49 His sympathies did not lie with the Soviet regime but with the Russian people, whom he found ‘warm-hearted, impulsive and expansive’, uncorrupted by western commercialism, and eager for culture.50 No doubt the regime was ruthless with dissenters, but, he argued, ‘people cannot be bullied into long spells of sheer devotion and heroism’ such as were witnessed during the siege of Leningrad: unlike Hitler's Germans ‘they have to believe heart and soul in what they are defending’.51 Beneath the regime, beneath Marxism, he found ‘an intense feeling of fraternity, a conviction that men are brothers needing each other's help’, and this leaning towards fraternity rather than liberty was an explanation, though not an excuse, for the ‘startling severity’ with which dissent was treated.52 In the end, Priestley's view of Russia parallels his view of Britain. It was from the people, not from their rulers, that (p.176) the true character of a nation arose; and as in wartime Britain he warmed to the prospect of a nation finally pulling together, so he found in the instinctive collectivism of the Russian people some hope for the future of humankind; and valuing that unity, he wanted the wartime alliance to remain in place after the war was over.

The following year, Priestley renewed this appeal in a pamphlet entitled The Secret Dream.53 In a characteristic rhetorical flourish, he took the French Revolution ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity and applied them to the three wartime allies. The British had no time for equality, were only reluctant fraternalists and preferred individual freedom above all things, though they were currently at a loss as to what to do with it. America, despite its grossly unequal distribution of power and wealth, preferred the principle of equality: every man as good as every other, no one sticking their neck out above the crowd, even at the expense of the liberty to which they paid lip-service. Russia, as we have seen, was the homeland of fraternity, in which freedom was an indulgence, and some people more equal than others.54 The conceit does not quite stand up (Priestley had, after all, hailed the Americans as natural collectivists in the 1930s), but it expresses an underlying idea, that all three nations, though in very different ways, had their roots in the principles of the Enlightenment and the ideals of the French Revolution. Each could learn from the others and thereby ‘create a broad highway for a world civilisation’ – as good a summary as any of the Enlightenment project – but this could happen only if the Soviet Union was brought in from the cold and made to feel secure and wanted. Averting the Cold – and possibly Hot – War in the name of underlying civilised values was Priestley's aim, but the possibility of any such reconciliation, if it ever existed, would very soon be gone, and his next foray into international relations would be in even less promising circumstances.

Admass: ‘a huge, idle show’

If the moment of 1945 soon passed, it was not just because of the Cold War. The 1950s and 1960s saw a huge cultural change, with profound political implications, whose beginnings Priestley had observed in the ‘new England’ of 1934. The postwar economic boom, bringing full employment and rising real wages, convinced many that capitalism had been transformed from the failure it appeared to be in the 1930s, to a great engine of prosperity. This prosperity was now more widely shared than in its 1930s beginnings. With the help of expanding consumer credit, goods such as cars, refrigerators, washing machines and foreign holidays, previously the preserve of the middle class, became accessible to large numbers of working-class people. The structure of the labour force was (p.177) also changing, with a shift away from unskilled manual work towards skilled and white-collar occupations, and the education system was expanding to meet this change. To many observers, these developments signalled the decline of class as the key reference-point in British society – and, by implication, the end of any socialist project that had depended on mobilising working-class consciousness.55 Three successive Conservative election victories in the 1950s seemed to confirm this judgement: against all expectations, after the radical moment of 1940–45, the capitalist right appeared to have recaptured the spirit of the times, and the orthodox left was left wondering what to do about it.

As we have seen in Chapter 4, Priestley had spotted these changes early on, and his response to them was ambivalent. In English Journey he had been among the first to recognise the emergence in the 1930s suburbs of a new consumerist way of life, a ‘new England’ that was now coming to fruition. While he had regarded that way of life as in some respects cheap and tawdry, its inhabitants too passive and lacking in the essential ‘gusto’, he also, like a true radical, respected its democratic aspect: its classless-ness, and its disdain for obsolete hierarchies. When everything costs sixpence, a duke is as good as a dustman.56 Now, it seemed that the ‘new England’ had taken a turn for the worse. Travelling in America in 1954, Priestley coined a new word to describe the system which he saw coming into being both there and in England: ‘Admass’, which quickly entered the vocabulary of public discourse.

This is my name for the whole system of an increasing productivity, plus inflation, plus a rising standard of material living, plus high-pressure advertising and salesmanship, plus mass communications, plus cultural democracy and the creation of the mass mind, the mass man … It is better to live in Admass than have no job, no prospect of one … but that is about all that can be said in favour of it. All the rest is a swindle. You think everything is opening out when it is narrowing and closing in on you.57

Intellectual criticism of consumerism and mass communication was, of course, nothing new in the postwar era, and came from both the left and the right of the political spectrum, both of them suspected of belittling ordinary people. The film director Lindsay Anderson wrote in 1957 of ‘artists and intellectuals who despise the people, imagine themselves superior to them, and think it clever to talk about the “Ad-Mass” ’.58 The Oxford English Dictionary makes the same mistake, defining ‘Admass’ as ‘that section of the community which is easily influenced by mass methods of publicity and entertainment’, although none of its cited quotations support this definition.59 But Admass for Priestley is not a body of people, but ‘an economic-social-cultural system’ within which people – and all of us, not just the ‘masses’ – increasingly have to live.60 ‘It is … a dangerous mistake’, he warned, ‘to imagine that we ourselves are proof against the … sorcery and spells’.61 Under this deadening system of power, the (p.178) people are unable to express the energy from below through which all historical progress should come. And this power is exercised through culture, through spectacle, through the way things are publicly represented, as ‘in our new society everything is becoming part of a huge idle show’.62

In some ways, ‘Admass’ anticipated the debate on the left about postwar social change that would follow Labour's election defeats in 1955 and 1959.63 But there were differences. To begin with, Priestley had never pinned his political hopes on the working class. He was more concerned about the impact of Admass on the old middle class, ‘creative, enthusiastic, vigilant, and combative’, with a sense of social responsibility and suspicion of power – as he had long argued, natural allies of the left but now seduced by Admass along with everybody else.64 Nor did he regard Admass, as many did, as a process of ‘Americanisation’. Shortly after Labour's 1955 election defeat, Hugh Gaitskell, soon to become leader of the party, spoke of ‘a growing Americanisation of outlook’ in British society that could have profound political effects. Priestley, already ahead of this particular game, and with Journey Down a Rainbow about to be published, was scathing. Gaitskell, he wrote, was ‘years and years out of date’: others, including Priestley himself, had been discussing this trend for a decade or more, but politicians had taken no notice – chiefly because they did not keep their ears to the ground, preferring to read the city columns of the Times rather than ‘Mabel's Weekly or Filmfans Pictorial … the frivolities and trivialities, far below the level of a public man's attention’, which told those prepared to listen which way the wind was blowing. But what Gaitskell had also not realised was ‘the interdependence of things in this world’, to which Priestley, an early observer of globalisation, had been drawing attention since the 1930s.65 This new society had begun in America, true, but even in 1934 it had belonged ‘more to the age itself than to any particular country. ‘The new society, which has no centre … is now all around us … it embraces almost all the earth.’ It was a society ‘much further removed from 1900 than 1900 was from 1850. We are always being told about invaders from some other planet. They have arrived, and may be found in the nearest street. They are the children of a new age.’66

But what was the proper political response to this new age? Here lies the main source of Priestley's impatience with Labour. Ever since 1940 he had been asking whether the party had ‘any guiding vision of the kind of Britain they hoped to create when they came to power’.67 Now, after a predictable election defeat, he knew they did not. As he was to put it later, they were driven by ‘agenda-programme’ rather than by ‘ambience-atmosphere’. As the Tories had always known, ‘if you can create the right atmosphere, then the programme can look after itself. Labour had failed to keep alive the atmosphere that swept them to power in 1945, and now (p.179) it was busy proscribing creative rebels like Michael Foot, leaving a vacuum on the left into which demagogues might move. ‘It has now plenty of agenda men, ready to work overtime, but where are the ambience changers? In whose belly is the fire?’68

Interestingly, Priestley here comes close to saying that style matters more than substance: which indeed, under Admass, may well be true. For Admass is, above all, a culture of images and ambiences, rather than hard-nosed practicalities. What many postwar intellectuals (themselves long accustomed to material comforts) deplored about the ‘live now, pay later’ world of the postwar boom was its materialism. For Priestley this missed the point. ‘The Americans, who created Admass … are in fact less genuinely materialistic than most western Europeans.’ The ‘Blue Yonderism’ of advertising appealed not to people's materialism but to their fantasies. ‘It is dreamers of dreams, idealists on the wrong track, who spend more and more trying to reach the Happy Land. It is people still haunted by the vision of a good life whom the advertising agencies bamboozle.’ And since our society no longer had any idealistic goals of its own, ‘the chimera of that Happy Land is about all we have left’.69

Priestley argued this point through in wonderfully comic form in his longest novel, The Image Men, published in two volumes in 1968 and 1969, when he was seventy-four years old.70 Two renegade academics, Owen Tuby and Cosmo Saltana, laying dubious claim to expertise in this business of dreams and images, set up an Institute of Social Imagistics, attached to a new university, from which they proffer advice on image creation and image change to a variety of clients. Social Imagistics is a kind of amalgam of sociology, psychology and what was to become known as cultural studies. The point about it is that it works: Tuby and Saltana are chancers on a heroic scale, but they are not frauds; the advice they give is soundly based in theoretical knowledge and common sense, and it produces results. The butt of the satire is not those who are taken in by the pair – they generally get what they want – but the culture in which happiness and success are achieved by a change of image rather than by what people actually do. At the end of The Image Men a general election is imminent and, in a final triumph of Social Imagistics, Tuby and Saltana rebuild the images of both the main party leaders – who have clearly heeded Priestley's advice that, in the politics of Admass, ambience is more important than agenda.

Analysing the visit to Britain of the American evangelist Billy Graham in 1955, Priestley compared his success to the failure of his 1920s predecessor Aimee Semple McPherson, which he attributed partly to the far more highly developed publicity and public relations methods of the 1950s. The main reason, though, was that ‘what so many of us want now is a show, a show that has been written up in the press, a show that is linked to radio and TV … Many of the postwar British now live from one (p.180) show to the next … Politics, to exist for them at all, must be a show. Patriotism is a show with an expensive regal cast. Sport is a show. The arts are a show on ice. And now … religion is a show.’71 Already the early precursors of ‘reality TV were amongst us, offering

an elaborately contrived exhibition of other people under the stress of sudden emotion – a woman finds her house has gone, a man is brought face-to-face with an old sweetheart, and genuine bewilderment, grief, regret, deep embarrassment, are to be highlighted like juggling acts. We are almost within sight of the Roman Circus, with minds if not bodies being torn to amuse the mob.72

In other words, we were well into what Guy Debord would call the ‘society of the spectacle’, in which modern capitalism transforms itself into a consumer and entertainment society, social life ‘presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles [and] all that was once directly lived has become mere representation’, as individuals live in a world fabricated by others rather than making a life of their own – as Priestley would agree, not materialism but rampant idealism.73

Whether Priestley would have approved of the avant-garde aesthetic strategies employed by Debord's Situationists to try to disrupt the spectacle, we do not know, though he might have admired their gusto; but despite his pessimism he certainly thought resistance was possible: ‘I still believe that what is wrong can be put right … I refuse to accept the sleepwalking fatalism of our time.’74 His supernatural thriller The Magicians (1954) depicted an evil magnate seeking to control the world through mass communications and narcotics, but foiled by an improbable consortium of white witches bent on saving humanity; while The Shapes of Sleep (1962) features a secret society called the Antiants, sworn to uphold individualism and work against the forces of Admass.75 Admass, Priestley argued, created discontent, a sense of having been cheated by the ‘new good life’, especially amongst the young, who were ‘restless, dissatisfied, longing for something they cannot find’.76 Into the complacent world of ‘You Never Had It So Good’, ‘the rebels arrived, and among them were almost all the young men and women gifted with any talent, insight and wit’.77 It is to Priestley's relationship with these critical undercurrents of the 1950s and 1960s that we now turn.

The bomb

This ‘whole new society’ was not confined to the West. Russia did not have Admass, but it had Propmass, much the same thing but with official propaganda taking the place of advertising.78 In parallel with his critique of both these systems, Priestley in 1954 began an onslaught on the nuclear (p.181) arms race that was to culminate in the foundation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. ‘That such societies should be piling up atom bombs should surprise nobody … Soviet propaganda and American advertisements often seem to speak with almost the same voice: the management is different but the enterprise is broadly the same.’ And although ‘I would prefer writing TV advertisements for Cornflakes to lumbering on thin cabbage soup in Siberia’, both sides in the Cold War were unbalanced in favour of Logos, the Yang, the masculine principle. ‘We should really have formed a neutral block, wearing the colours of the Yin, under the banner of Eros.’79

A later article along similar but less Jungian lines, entitled ‘Britain and the bombs’, published on 2 November 1957, was the catalyst for the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, arguably the most long-lasting and coherent of postwar protest movements – and the occasion of Priestley's second and final incursion on to the national political stage.80 The context of the article was the government's 1957 Defence White Paper, and Labour's support for the H-bomb, re-emphasised by Aneurin Bevan's Labour Party conference speech of that year, ‘which seemed to many of us to slam a door in our faces’.81 Those in charge seemed out of control, even out of their minds; the general public was left ‘deafened or blinded by propaganda and giant headlines … robbed of decision by fear or apathy’. H-bombs offered no defence to this country in a nuclear war, and merely made it more likely. Britain should renounce them forthwith, in the hope of at least marginally depolarising the world.82

The huge public response to Priestley's article prompted Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, to call a small gathering of left-wing luminaries – including Priestley and his wife, the archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes – which duly decided, in alliance with existing anti-nuclear groups, to form the CND, in much the same way as a similar gathering summoned by Edward Hulton, and including some of the same people, had formed the 1941 Committee. Priestley became its vice-president, addressed the hugely successful inaugural public meeting at Central Hall, Westminster in February 1958 – the first of many – wrote articles, and organised fund-raising events with the help of his theatrical contacts.83 As if to emphasise the continuity with earlier radical movements, Peggy Duff, who had been the organiser of Common Wealth, became organising secretary of CND. But as with Common Wealth, the committee work and the internal wrangling proved too much for Priestley, and, when Bertrand Russell resigned as president in 1960 over the direct action issue, Priestley took the opportunity to bow out also. But he remained a supporter of CND, and Jacquetta Hawkes continued as an active member of its leadership.

CND was a broad front which contained within it many different political (p.182) and ideological positions, ranging from the Marxist left to Christian pacifism, and most points in between. Within this spectrum, Priestley's position on nuclear weapons has been described as ‘moralistic’.84 This is true in the sense that he saw little point in the long political grind through the institutions of the Labour movement, the committee work, conference resolutions and election manifestos, which for many activists were what the campaign was all about. To him, as always, it was about changing ambience rather than agendas: a real change could only come from the people, and it was to them rather than to MPs and conference delegates that the message should be addressed. Nor, although still a man of the left, did he regard the anti-nuclear campaign as a stratagem for shifting the Labour Party, or British politics, leftwards: such sectional fixations narrowed its message and reduced its impact, just as much as would out-and-out pacifism. But this did not mean that his anti-nuclear stance was apolitical. In fact it was rooted in his critique of the postwar state and the power elite who controlled it, whom he later labelled ‘Topside’: ‘the VIP-Highest Priority-Top-Secret-Top-People Class, men now so conditioned by this atmosphere of power politics, intrigue, secrecy, insane invention, that they are more than half-barmy’.85 His stance was also pragmatic rather than moralistic. Nuclear weapons were an act of collective madness which threatened to destroy civilisation: a situation which Priestley had foreseen twenty years earlier in his pre-nuclear thriller The Doomsday Men.86 The question was, what could Britain most effectively do to avert such an outcome? Since we were no longer an important player in stark geo-political terms, there might be some value in cashing in such prestige as we might still possess by setting an example in unilaterally renouncing nuclear weapons. This argument, which was the core of Priestley's original article, may have been mistaken, but it was, Priestley would have contended, more realistic than the strategies of those with conventional political agendas.

But it was the note on which the 1957 article concluded that was perhaps most significant for Priestley himself. Alone, the British people had defied Hitler: this, indeed, was the source of any moral authority they had left. But since then they had lost their way, ‘hiding their decent, kind faces behind masks of sullen apathy or sour, cheap cynicism’, waiting for ‘something great and noble in its intention that would make them feel good again’.87

We ended the war high in the world's regard. We could have taken over its moral leadership, spoken and acted for what remained of its conscience; but we chose to act otherwise – with obvious and melancholy consequences both abroad, where in power politics we cut a shabby figure, and at home, where we shrug it away or go to the theatre to applaud the latest jeers and sneers at Britannia.88

(p.183) Perhaps this was the opportunity to reawaken the spirit of 1940.

Topside versus the gentle anarchists

CND was a single-issue campaign, but the wide range of people it gathered under its wing implied a critique of the status quo which was as much social or cultural as political. It was the only substantial organised expression of the strong undercurrent of intellectual discontent which ran beneath the affluent 1950s and early 1960s, from wartime radicalism and the spirit of 1945, through so-called ‘Angry Young Men’, the New Left, the early 1960s satire boom, the avalanche of Penguin Specials (another echo of wartime) anatomising power and inequality in British society, and even the modernising rhetoric of Harold Wilson in the general election of 1964, finally erupting in the political protests of the late 1960s and 1970s.89

Although Priestley was no longer young, he was angry enough to share the dissatisfactions of the younger 1950s malcontents. Like them, he planted himself firmly in the political wilderness, still radical in his views, but alienated by the sterility of conventional left politics, and increasingly suspicious of the state and those who ran it. But he had arrived there first. ‘There is a wilderness atmosphere just now’, he complained as early as 1953, ‘with little that appears to be blossoming and fruitful.’90 As in the 1930s and 1940s, he concentrated much of his fire on the British ruling class. In Out of the People he had depicted it as sterile and decaying, a greedy plutocracy concealed behind the tattered ermine of an aristocratic tradition.91 Now, things were if anything even worse. The state was run no longer by a moneyed class in its own interests but by something even more sinister: ‘Topside’, the power system that ‘stands for nothing except itself’, and ‘the idea that administration is the most important thing there is’.92 Confident and impregnable, dominating communication and culture, and playing on the British genius for self-deception, Topside had brought stability and sterility to a nation which needed energy, originality and creativity, passion and belief. It was ‘the reaction against a revolution that never happened’, the lost revolution of 1945.93 Most people, satisfied with their lives and no longer dreaming of anything better, went along with Topside, and the only opposition came from outsiders who believed in something: political extremists, ‘rebellious radicals, saints, philosophers, crackpots’, and the ‘gentle anarchists’ whom Priestley had recommended to radio listeners in 1954, who ‘distrust and dislike the power systems, the immense machinery of authority, believing that men would do better to rely on mutual help and voluntary associations’.94 ‘I wonder sometimes’, he said later, ‘if a few economic charlatans, gaudy fellows over-addicted to women and champagne and (p.184) always lunching well away from the Atheneum, might not save some of the English from being doomed to die by inches.’95

Topside clearly has some affinities with the idea of the ‘Establishment’ which carried all before it in the wave of social and political critique in the late 1950s and 1960s, even giving its name to a satirical nightclub. However, ‘Establishment’ conjures up the ‘sleepy Tory Britain’ of Church of England bishops and Harold Macmillan on the grouse-moor. Topside is something more sinister – not at all outdated but a new and dangerous form of power, a ‘bowler-hat-and-umbrella-fascism’ similar to the ‘hard Corporate State Toryism’ of which Priestley warned in 1945.96 There are also affinities, and differences, with the polemics of younger writers in the late 1950s – the so-called ‘Angry Young Men’ – against what they saw as the stifling conformity and lack of creativity in English life.97 Priestley, as he was wont to point out, had been denouncing this for over a decade, although this did not prevent John Osborne's Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger from dismissing him as a nostalgic Edwardian. Priestley responded by dismissing the ‘Angry Young Men’ in turn as ‘imitation rebels’, and chiding Osborne and Colin Wilson for their negativity and introversion, political quietism and lack of ‘courage, faith, hope’ – echoing his perennial complaints against modernist art ever since the 1920s.98 In fact, their political views were not so distant from Priestley's. Reviewing Declaration, a key collection of ‘angry, young’ writings, Alan Pryce-Jones, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, shrewdly observed that ‘their indictments remind me of long-ago provincial Liberal meetings. They do not make the obvious terms of reference to Hegel, Marx and Lenin, but stick to the generalities of progressive thought forty years ago’ – more like radicals of Priestley's generation, in fact, than the 1930s leftist writers who were Pryce-Jones's contemporaries.99 But Osborne and the others tended to strike the modernist pose of alienated intellectuals rather than political activists: as Priestley complained, none of them had even joined CND, but left the job of rescuing the country from ‘pitfalls and mantraps’ to the ‘old fuddy-duddies’ of his own generation.100 Priestley's own fictional treatment of Topside, however, eschewed the bitterness of his younger contemporaries and turned instead to fairly gentle satire. Sir Michael and Sir George (1964) features two rival senior civil servants, both arts administrators, and the disruptive impact on their bureaucratic manoeuvrings not only of disorderly poets, painters and musicians but of an ‘unsound’ civil servant, Tim Kemp – one of Priestley's ‘gentle anarchists’, who, by following his own nose and disobeying the rules, makes most things in the book happen.101

The creative anarchy of Tim Kemp represented, for Priestley, the deepest kind of Englishness, the one the Topsiders had trained themselves out of. In an essay published in the year of Suez, he put his money on ‘the imaginative, creative, boldly inventive, original, and individual side of the (p.185) national character’, represented by the Unicorn, ageless and magical, as against the once manly and aggressive imperial Lion, now become toothless, blunt-clawed and mangy with age.102 The Lion stood for the blustering ‘Big England’ of the imperial past, while the Unicorn represented the ‘poets and artists and scientific discoverers and passionate reformers and bold inventors and visionaries and madmen’ whom the rest of the world so warmly admired about England.103 This Englishness, with its familiar reliance on instinct and intuition, and its hazy boundary between the conscious and the unconscious mind, could never, Priestley argued, live at peace with Admass.104 While true Englishness leaned towards the feminine, Admass, with its aggressive desire to conquer everything, its lack of concern for personal relationships and inner life, was dominated by the masculine principle, Logos rather than Eros, Yang rather than Yin.105 In the 1950s heyday of Admass, we had almost lost our way. ‘We no longer appeared to know who we were … Suddenly we had lost face, no longer having any image of ourselves.’ We were in danger of getting the worst of two worlds: ‘America without social equality, dash and energy, traditional England without responsibility and respect for herself, a show for the telly, the admen and the tourists’.106 Yet despite Admass, traces of the Yin were still to be found in English life, ‘in the flexibility of our official machinery, in our lingering respect for private life, in a traditional piety towards earth, in the wealth of our odd hobbies and pastimes, in the wide network of our voluntary associations’.107 Englishness endured, despite everything, but its ‘deep roots’ needed nourishment.108

Englishness was under pressure because of an imbalance in the whole civilisation. What it needed was a shift towards the feminine. By this, Priestley did not just mean that women's status, opportunities and prestige should be enhanced – although as a self-declared feminist he believed they should – but that the feminine principle should be properly honoured. Without this, he feared that women would simply move ‘out of the typists’ pool into the boardroom’, abandoning fundamental feminine values in order to exercise power in what remained a male-dominated world, and thus failing to challenge the masculine principle. What we needed was a different kind of society, not a masculine society run by women.109

Conventionally, for this kind of renewal one looks to the young. But in 1956, Priestley despaired at their ‘air of conformity’, their alternating blandness and sullen acquiescence, their lack of ‘revolutionary ardour on behalf of any possible kind of changed England’.110 Hindsight shows that youth culture in 1956 was on the cusp of a change. By 1963, things were looking up: ‘the very best of the young English are out of this official England, spiritually and mentally … they “want out” ’.111 By 1965 youth was in revolt, and there was ‘chaos in the arts … vandalism and violence (p.186) in the streets’.112 Priestley was unconvinced of the value of most postwar popular culture, but as his 1955 comments about Hugh Gaitskell's failure to consult Filmfans Pictorial show, like Orwell he kept a weather eye on it. Popular song, however repulsive, was prophetic, as it had been when he encountered ragtime in 1910:

Out of the depths it suddenly reveals, great and terrible events will come: politicians and historians do not keep their ears open in the right places. (They should listen now [1962], however nauseating they find them, to the pop songs of the teenagers, so full of self-pity, so wandering and rootless and far removed from all public and national life, clinging so desperately to a sexual relationship, all expressing disinherited youth growing up with the Bomb.)113

With the 1960s pop culture just about to burst upon the scene, Priestley had seen nothing yet. But when it did, he was sadly less inclined to analyse its meaning, and reverted to stock older-generation grumbles about ‘shaggy young men playing electric guitars and belting out one idiotic phrase over and over again’.114

The 1960s phenomenon which did attract Priestley's sympathetic interest was the counterculture of the hippy movement, in which he saw not only a rejection of Admass and its ‘gimcrack values’ but ‘an attempt to escape from the dominance of the masculine principle, to re-establish the feminine principle, to confront the Yang with the Yin’.115 As such, it should be welcomed by all who sought a re-balancing of the two. But he had interesting and perceptive reservations about it. The movement may lean towards the feminine, but it lacked ‘some of Woman's most admirable qualities’ – patience, practicality, social responsibility, love (as opposed to sex). These things were absent because the hippy movement had been created not by women but by young men. Girls had joined in, but ‘they might be said to be more or less “tagging along” ’ – a view with which later feminist critics would concur.116 They did not represent the feminine principle, so much as ‘the woman hidden in the darkness of a man … a poor creature, almost a caricature of femininity, when dragged out into daylight … What is missing in this movement is the emergence of Woman herself, of the true and invaluable feminine principle, as distinct from a tawdry version of it arriving from the masculine unconscious’ – a reference to Jung's ‘shadow’, the dangerous form in which repressed personality traits (in this case femininity) re-emerge from the unconscious. Priestley also complained about the counterculture's devotion to popular music – which, he felt, was more an example of successful commercialism and managerial manipulation than of a ‘new free life’. On this last point, the eye for contradiction and ambivalence that he had formerly turned upon popular culture lets him down.

(p.187) Time, memory, history

It may seem surprising that a man in his seventies whose public image was that of a down-to-earth, no-nonsense Yorkshireman should have philosophical and spiritual interests which brought him close to the youthful counterculture. On reflection, though, taking into account his views on the human condition, throughout his life but especially towards the end, the undercurrent of spirituality in his critical thought is hardly a surprise.117 His social and political vision was, as we have seen throughout this book, founded on a deep sense of history, especially the history he had lived through. Beneath this ran a deeper, more philosophical, almost mystical fascination, beginning in the 1930s, with time, influenced by the writings of J. W. Dunne and the Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky, and with the human personality, inspired by Carl Gustav Jung.118

Priestley began reading Jung in 1936, and after the war met him several times, corresponded with him and delivered a BBC talk about him, which Jung heartily approved.119 The influence of Jung's theories of archetypes and the human personality, and the relation between conscious and unconscious minds, are evident throughout Priestley's critique of postwar society, and especially in his view of Englishness, and as we have seen he increasingly framed his critique of modern culture in Jungian terms. It was also in 1936 when travelling in California that he picked up a copy of Ouspensky's A New Model of the Universe, which he read while staying in Death Valley.120 Thereafter, Ouspensky's theories of time and its relation to the human personality were never far from Priestley's mind, and influenced several of his ‘time plays’, notably I Have Been Here Before (1937), but also An Inspector Calls.

Ouspensky argued that our conception of time as linear and one-directional is determined by the way it appears to our consciousness. To our limited perception it seems that past moments are gone for ever (surviving only in memory), while future ones are merely hypothetical possibilities, and only the fleeting present moment is real. But if we could perceive things properly, life could be grasped as a four-dimensional whole, not as an irreversible flow from one moment to the next. Perhaps (and here we enter the realm of science fiction) those who attain this level of consciousness can even change past events: the theme of Priestley's play I Have Been Here Before. J. W. Dunne, whose Experiment With Time Priestley had reviewed in 1927, cited precognitive dreams as evidence that the mind could move backwards and forwards along the time dimension of human life.

These theories were more a way of thinking than a set of clear-cut beliefs, but they were an important part of Priestley's world-view, so imbued with a sense of recent history and of the individual lifestory (p.188) which parallels and intertwines with it. There is a sense in which any novel, any narrative, seeks to escape the headlong rush of consciousness through time – and therefore cheat death itself – by creating a world in which we can know how it ends, something we can never know in the open-ended world we actually live through: and Priestley, as his detractors would point out, had a non-modernist penchant for endings, preferably ‘happy’ ones. Two of his strongest postwar novels, Bright Day and Lost Empires, as well as the first part of his memoir Margin Released, deal with the recapturing in memory and imagination of a particular moment, immediately before the Great War, and the doom-laden shadow which that event casts back over what precedes it: as if the present can, intuitively, know the future, as his own teenaged self in Margin Released unconsciously intuited the coming war.121

Priestley's writing is often imbued with a sense of historic loss, the dropped threads of a history gone wrong: the promise of 1910 lost in the trenches; that of 1940 in the follies of Admass; the whole human species forever selling itself short, not realising what could be. But this is counterbalanced by an insuppressible optimism, and the gusto comes back : maybe those threads are, somehow, still there, waiting to be picked up:

And if the universe is not simply an idiotic machine, grinding out nothingness, then in some queer but cosy dimension of it, my Aunt Hilda is still trotting round to the Miss Singletons to secure the last brown loaf and the remaining six Eccles cakes.122

Perhaps, as Priestley predicted in 1941, the people will at last awaken, ‘freely functioning, zestful, unencumbered, thoroughly alive’. And perhaps there is, after all, a happy ending, in which we make ‘the life of the community the true expression of our real inner life’.123 But for this to happen, as he argued twenty years later in the conclusion to Literature and Western Man, the split between inner and outer worlds signalled by the introversion of modernism on the one hand and the ‘dehumanizing collectives’ of modernity on the other would need to be healed, and this could not be achieved by conscious effort, but only at the symbolic level of the unconscious. But a literature which no longer reflected the whole person could not carry the symbolic load; nor could religion, whose symbols had lost their power in a profoundly irreligious society. All humankind could do was to wait. ‘Even if we believe that the time of our civilisation is running out fast, like sugar spilled from a torn bag, we must wait.’ But all is not lost: if we try to establish justice, order and real community in the outer world, and, accepting the great mystery of existence, openly acknowledge the deepest needs of the inner world, we may yet find the right symbolic tools to restore our wholeness.124 If we were to pick one theme which draws together Priestley's sprawling, many-faceted life-work, it would be this: restoring our wholeness.

(p.189) Notes


(1) J. B. Priestley, ‘Journey into daylight’, Listener (17 May 1945), p. 543.

(2) J. B. Priestley, Topside, or The Future of England: A Dialogue (London: Heinemann, 1958), p. 15.

(3) Priestley, Rain, p. 215.

(4) Ibid., p. 256.

(5) J. B. Priestley, ‘Fifty years of the English’, Moments, p. 213. Originally published in New Statesman (19 April 1963).

(6) Calder, Myth of the Blitz. An early statement of this view of the war can be found in Richard Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (London: HMSO, 1950), p. 507.

(7) J. B. Priestley, ‘Tribute to Britain’, Picture Post (28 April 1945), p. 17.

(8) Priestley, ‘Fifty years’, p. 215.

(9) Ibid., p. 218.

(10) J. B. Priestley, The Secret Dream (London: Turnstile Press, 1946), p. 13.

(11) Priestley, The Plays of J. B. Priestley, vol. 3 (London: Heinemann, 1950), Introduction, p. xii.

(12) ‘Stephen Daldry interviewed by Giles Croft’, Royal National Theatre, Platform Papers 3: Directors (London: Royal National Theatre, n.d.) pp. 5–6.

(13) J. B. Priestley, An Inspector Calls, Act III, in Plays, vol. 3, p. 311.

(14) J. B. Priestley, ‘Ambience or agenda?’, The Moments, p. 7. Originally published in the New Statesman (2 February 1962).

(15) Ibid., p. 213.

(16) J. B. Priestley, ‘The Labour plan works’, Listener (19 January 1950), p. 112.

(17) Priestley, ‘Fifty years’, p. 213.

(18) J. B. Priestley, ‘The challenge of change’, Listener (23 October 1947), p. 711.

(19) J. B. Priestley, ‘The mood of the people: 1 Bad behaviour’, Daily Herald (23 September 1946), p. 2.

(20) Priestley, ‘The mood of the people: 3 Britain remade’, Daily Herald (25 September 1946), p. 2.

(21) J. B. Priestley, ‘We need more than economics’, Daily Herald (10 November 1947), p. 2.

(22) J. B. Priestley, ‘Tables in the sun’, Listener (4 July 1946), p. 12.

(23) J. B. Priestley, ‘Crisis journey: 1 Does Butlin know better than Bevin?’, Daily Herald (15 September 1947), p. 2.

(24) J. B. Priestley, The Arts Under Socialism (London: Turnstile Press, 1947), pp. 18, 22. See also ‘When work is over’, Picture Post (4 January 1941), pp. 39–40.

(25) Priestley, ‘Tables’, p. 11.

(26) Fielding et al. ‘England Arise!’, chapter 6. Chris Waters, British Socialists and the Politics of Popular Culture 1884–1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990).

(27) Waters, British Socialists, pp. 31, 35.

(28) Priestley, Arts, pp. 20–1, 9, 18.

(29) Priestley, ‘Fifty years’, p. 214.

(30) J. B. Priestley, ‘Here are our chances’, Listener (30 October 1947), p. 31.

(31) Fielding et al., England Arise, p. 128, and chapter 5 passim.

(p.190) (32) Priestley, ‘Challenge’, p. 711.

(33) J. B. Priestley, ‘So we went to Coventry’, Listener (1 December 1949), pp. 933–4.

(34) J. B. Priestley, ‘The truth about democracy’, Sunday Pictorial (23 January 1949), p. 5.

(35) Michael Foot, ‘The futility of Mr Priestley’, Tribune (28 January 1949), p. 1; J. B. Priestley, ‘J. B. Priestley replies to his critics’, Sunday Pictorial (6 February 1949), p. 6.

(36) J. B. Priestley, ‘Gay with the arts?’, Moments, p. 111, originally published New Statesman (27 April 1965). Becky E. Conekin, ‘The Autobiography of a Nation’: The 1951 Festival of Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).

(37) Weekly series in The Listener, from 10 May to 14 June.

(38) Priestley, Festival at Farbridge, p. 25.

(39) Priestley, ‘Fifty years’, p. 214.

(40) This account is based on Taylor, Orwell, pp. 408–10.

(41) Priestley, Rain, pp. 253–4.

(42) J. B. Priestley, Russian Journey (London: Writers Group of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR, 1946).

(43) Ibid., p. 4.

(44) Ibid., pp. 39, 29, 37.

(45) See, for example, Andrew Downing, Passovotchka: Moscow Dynamo in Britain, 1945 (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), for an account of one poignant moment before the onset of the Cold War.

(46) Andrew Thorpe, ‘The membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1920–1945’, Historical Journal 43:3 (2000), p. 781.

(47) David Cannadine (ed.), The Speeches of Winston Churchill (London: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 303.

(48) Taylor, Orwell, p. 409.

(49) Priestley, Russian Journey, p. 39.

(50) Ibid., p. 38.

(51) Ibid., p. 29.

(52) Ibid., p. 39.

(53) Priestley, The Secret Dream.

(54) See Priestley's comments on the inequity of the Soviet rationing system as compared to the British, Russian Journey, p. 5.

(55) Stuart Laing, Representations of Working-Class Life 1957–1964 (London: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 13–22. Laing identifies George Orwell's ‘England your England’ (1941) as the precursor of these debates, although Orwell's account is very similar to Priestley's in English Journey seven years earlier.

(56) Priestley, Journey, pp. 401–6. See above, Chapter 4.

(57) Priestley and Hawkes, Journey Down a Rainbow, p. 50.

(58) Tom Maschler (ed.), Declaration (London: Macgibbon and Kee, 1957), p. 172.

(59) The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press 1989). OED Online.http://dictionary.oed.com.lcproxy.shu.ac.uk/cgi/entry/50002810〉, accessed 20 January 2006.

(60) Priestley, Wilderness, p. 148.

(p.191) (61) Priestley, Moments, p. 51.

(62) Ibid., p. 139.

(63) See Nick Tiratsoo, ‘Popular politics, affluence, and the Labour Party in the 1950s’, in Anthony Gorst et al. (eds), Contemporary British History 1931–1961: Politics and the Limits of Policy (London: Pinter, 1991); Laing, Representations of Working Class Life; and Jim McGuigan, Cultural Populism (London: Routledge, 1992), esp. chapter 2, as well as contemporary accounts such as Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (London: Chatto and Windus, 1957); C. A. R. Crosland, The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape, 1956); Mark Abrams, Richard Rose and Rita Hinden, Must Labour Lose? (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960); F. Zweig, The Worker in an Affluent Society (London: Heinemann, 1961); and Jeremy Seabrook, What Went Wrong? (London: Gollancz, 1978).

(64) Priestley, Wilderness, pp. 123–4.

(65) J. B. Priestley, ‘Our new society’, Wilderness, pp. 120–1. Originally published New Statesman (16 July 1955).

(66) Priestley, Journey, p. 401; ‘Our new society’, pp. 124–6.

(67) Ibid., p. 125.

(68) Priestley, ‘Ambience or agenda?’.

(69) J. B. Priestley, ‘Blue yonder boys’, in The Moments, p. 51. Originally published New Statesman (13 September 1963).

(70) J. B. Priestley, The Image Men, vol. I: Out of Town (London: Heinemann, 1968); vol. II: London End (London: Heinemann, 1969).

(71) J. B. Priestley, ‘A note on Billy Graham’, Wilderness, pp. 113–19. Originally published New Statesman (23 April 1955).

(72) Priestley, Wilderness, p. 139.

(73) Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994). Originally published 1967.

(74) Priestley, Wilderness, p. 138.

(75) J. B. Priestley, The Magicians (London: Heinemann, 1954); J. B. Priestley, The Shapes of Sleep (London: Heinemann, 1962).

(76) Priestley, Moments, pp. 50, 131.

(77) Ibid., p. 216.

(78) Priestley, Rainbow, p. 50.

(79) J. B. Priestley, ‘Eros and Logos’, Wilderness, p. 38. Originally published New Statesman (30 January 1954).

(80) J. B. Priestley, ‘Britain and the nuclear bombs’, in David Bolton (ed.), Voices from the Crowd Against the H-Bomb (London: Peter Owen, 1964). Originally published New Statesman (2 November 1957).

(81) Priestley, ‘Nuclear bombs’, p. 38.

(82) Ibid., pp. 40–1.

(83) The formation and early history of CND are dealt with in detail by Richard Taylor, Against the Bomb: The British Peace Movement 1958–1965 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988). See also Diana Collins, Time and the Priestleys: The Story of a Friendship (Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1994), chapters 2 and 3.

(84) Taylor, Against the Bomb, pp. 42–8.

(85) Priestley, ‘Nuclear bombs’, p. 44.

(86) J. B. Priestley, The Doomsday Men (London: Heinemann, 1938).

(p.192) (87) Priestley, ‘Nuclear bombs’, p. 45.

(88) Ibid., p. 41.

(89) See, among many others, Maschler, Declaration; E. P. Thompson (ed.), Out of Apathy (London: New Left Books, 1960); Hugh Thomas (ed.), The Establishment (Anthony Blond, 1959); Harold Wilson, The New Britain: Labour's Plan Outlined: Selected Speeches 1964 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964).

(90) J. B. Priestley, ‘Thoughts in the wilderness’, New Statesman (5 September 1953).

(91) Priestley, Out of the People, pp. 24–6.

(92) Priestley, Topside, pp. 20, 30.

(93) Ibid., p. 14.

(94) Ibid., pp. 24, 17. J. B. Priestley, ‘The gentle anarchists’, Listener (25 November 1954), pp. 897–8.

(95) Priestley, ‘Fifty years’, p. 210.

(96) Priestley, The Moments p. 12; Letter to a Returning Serviceman, p. 15.

(97) See, for example, Maschler (ed.), Declaration, especially John Osborne, ‘They call it cricket’; and Lindsay Anderson, ‘Get out and push!’. Robert Hewison, In Anger: Culture in the Cold War 1945–60 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981), esp. chapter 5.

(98) J. B. Priestley, ‘The outsider’, in Wilderness. Originally published New Statesman (7 July 1956).

(99) Alan Pryce-Jones, ‘The messiahs of the milk bars?’, The Listener (7 November 1957), p. 735.

(100) J. B. Priestley, ‘Young rebels’ anger is misplaced’, Reynolds News (1 June 1958), p. 6.

(101) J. B. Priestley, Sir Michael and Sir George: A Tale of COMSA and DISCUS and the New Elizabethans (London: Heinemann, 1964).

(102) J. B. Priestley, ‘The unicorn’, Wilderness, pp. 162–8. Originally published New Statesman (31 March 1956). See also Orwell, ‘The lion and the unicorn’ – or rather, the title: having hit upon the metaphor, Orwell did not make much use of it.

(103) Ibid., p. 167.

(104) Priestley, The English, pp. 240–8.

(105) J. B. Priestley, Over the Long High Wall: Some Reflections and Speculations on Life, Death and Time (London: Heinemann, 1972), p. 7. Priestley, ‘Eros and Logos’.

(106) Priestley, ‘Fifty years’, p. 215.

(107) Priestley, ‘Eros and Logos’, p. 39.

(108) Priestley, The English, pp. 247–8.

(109) Priestley, Over the Long High Wall, pp. 7–11.

(110) J. B. Priestley, ‘The writer in a changing society’ (lecture delivered 1956), Thoughts in the Wilderness, p. 225.

(111) Priestley, ‘Fifty years’, p. 218.

(112) J. B. Priestley, ‘Doubt about dynamism’, The Moments, p. 131. Originally published New Statesman (29 October 1965).

(113) Priestley, Margin, pp. 66–7.

(114) Priestley, Outcries and Asides, p. 94.

(p.193) (115) Priestley, Over, pp. 10–11.

(116) See, for example, Sheila Jeffreys, Anticlimax: A Feminist Perspective on the Sexual Revolution (London: Women's Press, 1989).

(117) See the Conclusion to Literature and Western Man (1960) for his strongest statement on the relationship between religion, literature and the human predicament.

(118) P. D. Ouspensky, A New Model of the Universe (London: Kegan Paul, 1931); J. W. Dunne, An Experiment with Time (London: Black, 1927).

(119) Brome, Priestley, pp. 182–4; William Schoenl, C. G. Jung: His Friendships with Mary Mellon and J. B. Priestley (Wilmett, IL: Chiron Publications, 1998).

(120) Priestley, Midnight, p. 243ff. Chapter XIII of Midnight is Priestley's most cogent statement of his views on time, but see also Man and Time (London: Heinemann, 1964) and Over the Long High Wall (1972). See also Cooper, Priestley, pp. 219–29, and John Atkins, J. B. Priestley: The Last of the Sages (London: John Calder, 1981), pp. 79–94.

(121) Priestley, Margin, pp. 78–9.

(122) Priestley, Bright Day, p. 19.

(123) Ibid., pp. 123–4.

(124) Priestley, Literature and Western Man, pp. 454–7.