I can remember, as if it happened last week, more than half a century ago, when I must have been about four and, on fine summer mornings, would sit in a field adjoining the house. What gave me delight then was a mysterious notion, for which I could certainly not have found words, of a Treasure. It was waiting for me either in the earth, just below the buttercups and daisies, or in the golden air. I had formed no idea of what this Treasure would consist of, and nobody had ever talked to me about it. But morning after morning would be radiant with its promise. Somewhere, not far out of reach, it was waiting for me, and at any moment I might roll over and put a hand on it. I suspect now that the Treasure was Earth itself and the light and warmth of the sunbeams; yet sometimes I fancy that I have been searching for it ever since.
From "Delight" by J B Priestley, first published 1949
|John Boynton Priestley by James Barraclough (1891-1942)
Bradford Museums and Galleries
With the Christmas festivities disappearing behind us and the unremitting gloom of the northern winter still ahead, it is easy to give in to the influence of "Blue Monday", the Christmas debt hangover and the dreaded Seasonal Affective Disorder. Doctors surgeries are packed, Universities brace themselves with counter-measures against the spring suicide peak. On top of all this we may expose ourselves, however accidentally, to The News, Social Media and a whole depressing view of life in the first few decades of the 21st Century.
But let's remember that our society has been through austerity before. Seventy years ago, in a Britain recovering painfully from the Second World War, the new National Health Service was only just beginning to tackle the severe health inequalities in the country. Air pollution was killing people who had survived the bombing raids, large areas of our cities had been blasted into wasteland. Food, fuel and clothing rationing were still in place and the country was struggling with the burden of a huge loan from the USA that would not be fully repaid until 2006.
Certainly, there was much to grumble about in this grey and smog-filled landscape. Priestley, a self-confessed inveterate grumbler, chose this time to publish a collection of short essays on the theme of Delight, subtitling his introduction as "A grumblers apology" (he obviously took delight in having a good grumble). Rather than succumbing to despair or outrage at the austerity all around him, he found much delight in small things, done at a gentle pace.
We can dip in and sample such delights as making stew, inventing games with children, reading detective stories in bed, engaging in "cosy" planning or the joys of working with wood. While some activities now seem dated, a product of their time (pipe smoking in the bath, graduating into long trousers), others are timeless (walking on the moors, "The Treasure" - as copied in full at the start of this article to give you a taste of his writing). Much of the delight is in Priestley's writing style, which ranges from joyful whimsy through to insightful social commentary.
While the snow lies thick outside, and our world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, this little book gives me warmth and compassion; it restores my sense of perspective. For a short while, all thoughts of global warming and financial tsunamis are banished. The future can take care of itself, let's abandon ideas of future success and appreciate our world as it is now.
J B Priestley, if known at all today, is usually remembered for his plays. "An Inspector Calls" draws us in to a world of social injustice, making us think about our responsibilities to each other and the dangers of labelling people as from an inferior class. One of his best-known plays, it has been filmed several times and is studied in schools in England as part of the GCSE. Like his contemporary George Orwell, Priestley toured England in the Depression of the 1930's and published his reflections in "English Journey". They are as insightful and also as distressing as Orwell's work, although I think Priestley is the more readable. JB also became famous for his radio broadcasts during the Second World War, which rivalled Winston Churchill in their popularity. Later in the war, the BBC cancelled his talks, under pressure from the government who considered them "too left-wing".
His essay "The Delight that Never Was", included in the Delight collection, is a more muscular piece of writing than its neighbours. It provides a gentle criticism of socialism and outlines his aspirations for a peaceful future which I found intriguing and would like to explore further.
Priestley continued to write short pieces of social commentary up to the end of his life. As the consumer revolution strengthened its hold, he wrote essays such as "On Education", "Eros and Logos" and "The Unicorn" (which has tingling relevence to England's current predicament). These deserve serious study and discussion. The language of the 50's and 60's may appear a little old fashioned, but the ideas are certainly not.
But where does this grumbling pipe-smoking middle-class creative writer fit into a publication that has its focus on permaculture? Well, first and foremost he is a master of observation. From there, he develops insight and he can express his observations and insights clearly and firmly. He shows that he cares about other people, especially those less fortunate than himself. And he encourages us to value art, music and nature over and above status and the "rubbish and hysteria" of a consumer lifestyle.
Here I have found a fellow-traveller who is passionate about the importance of the small and the intimate, a prophet for the move towards a more localised and productive society where life is not dominated by things but rather by creativity and expression, where public life is full of civil discussions, and our public spaces delight us with such luxuries as "graceful fountains, exquisite fountains, beautiful fountains".
You can find many of Priestley's essays on-line, but I think that good writing reads well from an old-fashioned book. Seventy years after publication, Great Northern Books have just brought out a new edition of Delight to celebrate the anniversary, with new illustrations from Priestley’s great granddaughter Tabitha Wykeham.
At the time of writing, sales of books appear to be increasing again. In spite of our obsession with the digital world and our concern about trees, this book, with its hardback cover and fine layout on crisp paper, should last for another century. Those of us with a home bookshelf will treasure it. Well-written, enduring and sustainable, it's a delight.
|“My uncle Alex said that when things were really going well, we human beings rarely notice that we are happy. He was talking about simple occasions, not great victories: we could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, or smelling the aroma of a nearby bakery; or fishing, and not caring if we catch anything or not; or hearing somebody all alone playing a piano really well in the house next door.|
|"Uncle Alex urged me to say this out loud during such epiphanies: 'If this isn't nice, what is?'”|