This article was first published in the March 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine
John Boynton Priestley was a man of many vocations: playwright, novelist, broadcaster, essayist and social commentator. Best known for his play An Inspector Calls, he was an extraordinarily prolific writer, publishing scores of plays and books, both novels and non-fiction. He also found time to make regular broadcasts on the BBC during the Second World War; these Postscript broadcasts attracted audiences of over 15 million, second only in popularity to Churchill’s addresses to the nation. A co-founder of both the Common Wealth Party and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Priestley unsuccessfully stood for parliament in 1945 as an Independent Progressive candidate.
When did you first come across Priestley?
I did an English degree but only knew that he wrote An Inspector Calls and that he was a Yorkshireman with a pipe who talked about England. Barry Cryer of all people turned me on to him. I went for a curry with Barry, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor after recording I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue about eight years ago. Barry and Graeme started talking about Priestley and were both horrified when I said, “I know the name but I know little else about him. Where do I start?” Barry told me to get The Good Companions, which he described as “a great big armchair of a book that you could curl up in”. I loved it from the first page.
What kind of person was Priestley?
The inaccurate perception of him is of this stolid Yorkshireman who spoke as he found. But while he was very patriotic and loved cricket and beer and football and the British landscape, he was not at all a conservative. He was a man of progressive views, he was a liberal, he was left wing. I met his son recently who told me he was also quite a private man. He comes over in his writing as larger than life and jolly, but I think he was quieter and more thoughtful.
What makes him a hero of yours?
I love the plays and the fiction, but it’s the non-fiction that I really like – the journalism and the reportage. That’s become the touchstone for me, why I really admire him. As I’ve got older, I’ve become very interested in Englishness – what it means. Englishness is often misrepresented as being conservative. I don’t think it is. Dissent and supporting the underdog are very English traits as well. And without being a tub-thumping ideologue, Priestley seemed to be on the side of the little guy, which I think is a good place to be.
What was Priestley’s finest hour?
I love his book English Journey. It’s a snapshot of England in the 1930s and is absolutely brilliant. He didn’t interview anyone like politicians or the head of the chamber of commerce. He just hung around in pubs and cafes, eavesdropping on people’s conversations.
The finest hour of that book is a passage called ‘Rusty Lane’ where he witnesses some kids throwing bricks around in a rundown part of West Bromwich. Where this would be a cue for lots of people to go, “Terrible young people today”, he actually says, “I completely understand. I felt like chucking a few bricks around myself. People should not be living like this”. Then he goes off on this fantastic rant about how people sitting on leather-backed armchairs in smug London clubs pontificating about the nation should come and see this.
To what extent has Priestley influenced your own work?
I think I was halfway through writing Pies And Prejudice when I thought, “Ah, this is a bit like English Journey, isn’t it?”. Although I would never put myself in such distinguished company, Priestley and Orwell are the two writers whose works my books are most similar to – travelogues that try to reflect something of the British character. And that are readable and easily accessible. I have no problem with selling books and neither did Priestley. He was both a brilliant writer and popular. That’s a great trick if you can pull it off.
Stuart Maconie was talking to Nige Tassell
Stuart Maconie co-presents the nightly Radcliffe & Maconie show on BBC Radio 2 as well as being a columnist for the Radio Times. He is also the author of several bestselling books, including Pies And Prejudice: In Search Of The North and Adventures On The High Teas: In Search Of Middle England (both Ebury Press).