SELECTED SOJOURNS ON THE ISLE OF WIGHT

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 12:38

It was on a Saturday afternoon in August, 1929, that my father and I found ourselves apparently marooned on the platform of Evercreech Junction – a situation which was a consequence of my having read in a Sunday newspaper an article by John Boynton Priestley whose pen had invested the city of Wells with such magic that I felt compelled to see, inter alia at the first opportunity, the swans that rang a dinner bell at the Bishop’s Palace and the automaton on Lightfoot’s clock in the cathedral.

That Priestley justly deserved the honours bestowed upon him after he reached the pinnacle of his profession in undeniable. From Bradford University he received an honorary doctorate, he was an M.A., Litt.D., and an Honorary Fellow of Trinity Hall. In 1973 he became a Freeman of the City of Bradford, and in 1977 an O.M. When offered a peerage by Harold Wilson, his socialistic principles would not permit him to accept it – a renunciation not lightly made, for his acquired wealth enabled him to live like a lord.

In spite of his interest in the theories of Dunne, Gurdjieff, and Ouspensky – theories in which he might have found a substitute for religion – and the introduction of abnormal time sequences into his novels and plays, very little of his work could be regarded as being profound; although in Man and Time we find a chapter on Gurdjieff. But it says much for their quality as entertainment that today his plays are still staged by both amateur and professional companies. As I write, Time and the Conways occupies a London Theatre. Dangerous Corner, too, which not so long ago appeared on TV, is as popular now as it was when, many years ago, I saw it performed by The Gateway Players at the Northwood W.I. Hall. In keeping with those of Noel Coward, his plays may be adapted to suit different media. The Inspector Calls, for instance, has been performed as a film (with Alistair Sim as the mysterious stranger), a television play, and in November 1990, it was broadcast on the radio.

To qualify my remark concerning the lightweight nature of Priestley’s work I must add that it did not ignore sociological problems – evidence of which appears in Angel Pavement, English Journey, and Wonder Hero. Vincent Brome writes of his tendency to ‘convert the normal into the abnormal’. Unless my memory is at fault (I read them sixty years ago) Adam In Moonshine and The Thirty-First of June are examples of this proclivity.

If asked to name the most popular book in the Priestley canon, most people would plump for The Good Companions, the best seller which was translated into forty other languages, and made more than a million pounds. Two films were made of it and, in 1931, it was converted into a musical with John Gielgud as the banjo-playing ex-schoolmaster, Inigo Jollifant. I remember seeing it on the television, but am not sure which version was screened. In the theatre the musical, with a score by Andre Previn, ran for half a year. I recall also the frustration I felt when my father returned the book to an East Cowes library when I was only half way through it. It did not come my way again until 1956, by which time I had read Midnight on the Desert (A Chapter of Autobiography) and his autobiographical traveller’s tale, Faraway. When interviewed by Vincent Brome for a magazine, Priestley said he regretted ever writing it. In view of the fact that it made him famous and brought him a fortune, one is inclined to take the statement with a pinch of salt.

In 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, Priestley wrote a novel of two hundred thousand words on the same theme called Festival at Farbridge. It is one of his books I have not read, but when it was broadcast as a radio play I enjoyed every episode.

A later work to appear in another medium was Lost Empires. When I saw it on a library shelf I had no idea it did not deal with overseas possessions, but with Empire Theatres. Of all the author’s works, it is the one I like the least, and when in 1986 it was serialised in eight parts for TV every ounce of eroticism was extracted from the text and its unpleasant characters. The book is now available in paperback but, although the film rights were sold, the project was dropped.

For a long and successful career to pass without a failure would be almost unprecedented. Priestley’s came when, in collaboration with Sir Arthur Bliss, he wrote the libretto for an opera called The Olympians.

Another clandestine love affair (one which lasted five years) was between him and Mary Hope Allen of the BBC. At what period this took place I have no information.

Although an ardent socialist, J. B. Priestley was intelligent enough to see more sides than one of a question. During the Second World War, for instance, when serving on a committee concerned with post-war politics that included common ownership, he was not happy with the idea of being cut off from international capitalism. And when he saw the conditions in Ceylon after independence had been granted, he began to think freedom from British domination might not be so beneficial as he had imagined. In later years, disillusioned, he regretted writing the article which initiated the C.N.D. campaign.

In 1948, leaving Billingham Manor, he moved six miles west to occupy Brook Hill House which stands on an eminence about a mile inland from Brook Bay – a house with splendid views but one exposed to south-westerly gales and fog from the English Channel. While exploring the garden one Sunday afternoon my mind dwelt on the entertaining done there during the author’s tenancy, and on the house-parties with the New London String Quartet engaged to play.

By this time Priestley’s romance with Jacquetta Hawkes had begun, and before taking her to Brook Hill House surreptitious love-making took place, according to Vincent Brome, in venues as diverse as flats, theatre boxes, and public gardens. Meanwhile Priestley was playing a double game by simultaneously writing love letters to his wife, Jane, and to his future wife, Jacquetta. At fifty-three the author had not (as the song from The Maid of the Mountains tells), ‘passed love’ at forty, but having met his ‘last love’ it is possible that he loved ‘as he’d never loved before’.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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