SELECTED SOJOURNS ON THE ISLE OF WIGHT

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

‘The notion that the writer’s is an easy, glamorous life, filled with luxurious travel and rich living, is nonsense. It is an overcrowded and very severely competitive profession. If your young friend wants to write, then he should not be discouraged, but if he merely wants to be a writer, then he would be well advised to take this somewhat gloomy view of my profession.’

The above extract was taken from a letter dated May 25th, 1948, typed at B4, The Albany, W.1., and received by the late Reverend Constantine Sinclair, then the Rector of St Andrew’s Church, Chale. The ‘young friend’ to which it referred was myself. It was from J. B. Priestley, whom the Rector had hoped in vain to interest in my writing, and who, for £2,000 in 1933, had bought Billingham Manor and fifteen acres of land situated about two and a half miles from the old Chale Rectory.

The letter, which mentioned also the current paper shortage and the limited number of magazines publishing short stories, was I suppose a typical response from an author whose daily postbag no doubt contained many requests for sponsorship. And, from what since I have learnt of Priestley’s character, I think he was not the right man for a tyro to approach. Many years ago I read how he condemned a play shown him by a young playwright – a play which, after being approved by others, became a great success in France.

Having bought Billingham Manor, Priestley had a study built on the roof – a room with five large windows (those at each end curved) from which lovely views were visible. A generator supplied the manor with electricity. There is no record of the Priestleys being confronted by any of the various ghosts which, as Gay Steedman and Ray Anker have told in their most interesting book, Ghosts of the Isle of Wight, have been seen and heard by other occupants. In 1977 J.B.P. told the authors he had seen nothing and had enjoyed living there. In 1937 his play, Time and the Conways, was planned and written there – the work being completed in a remarkably short time, the second act taking only two days. Also written there or at Highgate Grove during a period of ten years were ten more plays and five novels. During the ‘Fifties the Island’s heaviest snowfall for a century found Billingham Manor short of fuel, and the captive author, eating, sleeping, and writing in one room, passed the time in writing The Linden Tree. In his excellent biography Vincent Brome has told how the Black Watch Regiment, billeted in the manor in 1941, were guilty of much vandalism and how, after their departure, an Augustus John painting and other things were missing.

Unlike some biographers, who gloss over their subject’s imperfections, Vincent Brome has revealed what appear to be all sides of Priestley’s character. Many of the millions who listened to his wartime radio talks would, in spite of his Left Wing tendency, have thought him a sterling citizen embodying the qualities of a good family man, and would have expressed astonishment to hear him confess that he was ‘a fat, conceited chump, bumptious, aggressive, and tactless’. That he could be gratuitously rude was told me by one of the Island’s successful writers who, on meeting him for the first time was greeted surlily with the remark that he had no intention of discussing the weather. When his visitor, a mettlesome lady, informed him sharply that she too had no wish to waste time, his attitude changed. That Priestley occasionally drank heavily was no secret. That he admitted to being a lecher was, perhaps, not so widely known. Apparently he made the outrageous claim to his illegitimate daughter, Mary, that he had slept with half the women in London. On the credit side we have the opinion of Diane, the wife of Canon Collins, who pronounced him to have integrity, honesty, loyalty to friends, generosity, and independence. An indication that the penultimate quality was capricious was given when Ralph Richardson was offered claret and his host berated the butler for serving the best instead of an inferior wine. It has been suggested that Priestley was a manic depressive. Undoubtedly his moods ranged from that of a brilliant raconteur and exhibitionist to that of a grouchy pessimist.

John Priestley (the Boynton was an addition of his own) was born in Bradford in 1894. His father, Jonathan, was a schoolmaster: his mother, Emma (née Holt), had probably worked in one of the local mills. Her son was only two when she died, leaving his father free to provide him with a stepmother, Amy (née Fletcher) who, fortunately for the child, was a kindly woman and a loving substitute for the deceased Emma. Belle Vue School in Bradford gave him his education.

After leaving the school he entered a wool firm as a clerk – a junior position that sometimes entailed doing the work of an office-boy. During this period he experienced calf-love by falling for Mabel Sealby, the Principal Girl in a pantomime at the Bradford Theatre Royal, whom he saw only once and presumably never met.

With the advent of the First World War, in common with so many young men who had no conception of the hell into which they were going, he volunteered for the Army, and became a private in Number 8 Platoon, B Company, the 10th Duke of Wellington’s 69th Brigade, 23rd Division – an adventure which culminated in his being blown up by a German minenwerfer. After the war his education was continued at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

Concerning his first marriage I have very little information, apart from the fact that while Emily (née Tempest), who was known as Pat, was terminally ill with cancer her husband was having an affair with Jane Wyndham Lewis who gave him out of wedlock the above mentioned daughter, Mary, and after Emily’s death became his second wife. It seems highly probable that Jane was Emily’s intellectual superior, for her university education enabled her to read French, Russian, and Portuguese. The consensus of evidence indicates that this marriage, too, was not entirely happy. Regarding this point, all people do not agree. It seems certain, however, that J.B.P. was unfaithful.

To set further against the bad reports of his character, we have more people (including his children) who said that, although thrifty to the point of meanness, he could be extremely generous; although sometimes surly and difficult, he could be kind and gentle; and although sometimes depressed, he could be a splendid host and excellent company.

To be continued.

T. C. Hudson

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

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