Grumbling at Large: Selected Essays of J.B. Priestley
Introduced by Valerie Grove

You might be forgiven for thinking that the art of essay writing is either dead or in decline; after all, the format of mainstream periodicals, read by large swathes of the population, simply doesn’t exist any more. Essays can still be found in smaller, niche magazines; and of course it could be argued that online platforms and blogs have superseded the essay. But a quick look at the catalogue of Notting Hill Books should dispel that notion quite quickly, as not only do they produce beautiful collections of classic essays, they also publish some intriguing new titles covering a wide range of subjects. They also produce some gorgeous little notebooks, but that’s another story for when I’m having a bit of a rant about my stationery obsession…

However! I’ve just been reading one of the volumes in their Classic Collection, the fabulously titled “Grumbling at Large” by J.B. Priestley, and a real joy it is too! I’m not quite sure where Priestley stands in the current scheme of things: his plays are still performed but are his novels read nowadays? And his essays and non-fiction works seem to be quite highly regarded, but have they dated? Whatever – this is a treasure of a collection and makes me keen to at least pick up one of the two copies of his “English Journey” which I have lurking on the shelves…

Priestley (1894-1984) was a Yorkshireman from an ordinary background; after fighting in the First World War, he went on to study at Cambridge and thereafter made his living from his pen. Wikipedia notes him as “novelist, playwright, scriptwriter, social commentator and broadcaster”, which oddly enough ignores the essays; and he certainly was very prolific. The selection featured in this pretty little book span a long period from “On Beginning” in 1925 to “On Happiness” in 1977, ranging far and wide in subject matter.

Priestley’s style is amusing, easily digested, loquacious and deceptively simple, as he often has very strong points to make. He puts on a wonderfully lugubrious front, presenting himself as a bit of a pipe-smoking, Northern grumbler; and yet under that surface he’s wonderfully droll and pithy, often waxing lyrical about the countryside, the landscape, the simple things in life. Again and again he hits the nail on the head; his wonderful essay “First Snow”, which I read while the country was being hit by ‘the beast from the east’ is spot on, capturing exactly how we feel about the magical first arrival of snow, the waking up in the morning and seeing the world white and changed, and then the fact of how quickly we become fed up with it.

The first essay in the book, the aforementioned “On Beginning”, actually deals with the process of the writing of that essay itself and is a glorious start to the book. Priestley reveals that he struggles to concentrate, “for I am of a discursive habit of mind, with strong but eccentric powers of association” – a statement that rather resonates with me! I also strongly identified with his comments on the ideas that occur to us in bed, the sentences we construct in our mind, the important points we want to make that have, of course, all disappeared by the time we get up the next morning. I’ve written many a review in my head while dropping off and woken to find that all of my thoughts on the matter have flown into thin air overnight…

Curmudgeonly Northerner…

Priestley has trenchant views on many subjects, and I didn’t always agree with his points. As he aged his opinions of course changed and he had a certain lack of sympathy with progress and the modern world. This is crystallised in a couple of essays where he deals with what he calls the yin and yang of Logos and Eros, which he defines as the masculine and feminine principles. Priestley connects the progress he abhors in the modern world with an excess of what he sees as masculine values, instead wishing for more of a balance and more of a simple world defined by what he sees as feminine values, a love of home, family and the like. This is perhaps a restrictive viewpoint to our modern eyes, but it’s certainly interesting to watch him argue it and it’s obviously something he felt strongly about as he returns to the subject again and again. I wonder whether this is something that affected men of a certain age who were after two world wars under the shadow of the atomic bomb, as I sensed a similar reaction in recent readings of Beverley Nichols. However, in other essays he seems remarkably prescient, particularly in “Another Revolution” where he predicts how the importance of the visual will overtake all other media forms; and looking at the modern populace, glued to screens of various sorts, it’s hard not to think he was right.

I’ve read that Priestley’s “Postscripts” war broadcasts are regarded as more influential than Churchill’s; two extracts are included here, and they’re powerful stuff. I actually listened to a recording of one whilst reading the book, and ever afterwards heard Priestley’s wonderful Yorkshire accent in my head (I do *love* a Northern accent!) He had such a wonderfully comforting, matter of fact voice that I can well understand how popular and essential the broadcasts were.

I’ll end with a few favourite quotes from some of the essays to give you a flavour of the treats in store in this lovely collection. Needless to see, it’s as gorgeous a book as is every Notting Hill hardback – cloth cover, bookmark, thick creamy paper, red page numbers – all these little things give you a sense of weight and quality which goes so well with the contents. If you haven’t read any Priestley, “Grumbling at Large” is a wonderful way to get to know him – it’s most definitely left me wanting to read more! 🙂

from “Coincidences”:

Even the smallest things, so trifling that we do not consider them worth mentioning to our friends, are not without their effect. The old wondering, peering, superstitious creature that crouches at the back of all our minds sees them as light straws born along the wind of fortune. Even the most trifling of all will yet induce a mood, a mood that may lead to a quarrel or a reconciliation, to the revocation of a will or the beginning of a masterpiece. It is very foolish and even dangerous to imagine that we are reasonable beings; such notions, in view of what we think we know of the history of our species, are themselves highly unreasonable.

from “Having Covered the Card Table”:

I spend my days poring over the records of men’s thoughts and dreams, wondering at their courage and timidity and impudence and vanity, praising here and blaming there, losing myself in the shadowy Walpurgis Night that we call literature.

from “Carless at Last”:

I was never at ease in that world. True, the first car I had was an unusually incompetent, if not downright malicious, vehicle. It was a very good argument for mass production, for it was of a make so rare that I never found anybody who had ever heard of it, and most people seemed to imagine that I had invented the name – and probably made the car.

from “Different Inside”:

Are other people, I wonder, as plagued by their faces as I am by mine, which thus monstrously exaggerates and distorts every feeling it is called upon to express; or do I suffer alone – a man with a calm philosophic mind but with a face that long ago decided to go on stage, and the melodramatic stage at that, a man with his heart in the right place but with his features in Hollywood?

from “Postscripts, 9th June 1940″:

It’s as if this English landscape said: ‘Look at me, as I am now in my beauty and fullness of joy, and do not forget.’ And when I feel this, I feel too a sudden and very sharp anger; for I remember then how this island is threatened and menaced; how perhaps at this very moment, thin-lipped and cold-eyed Nazi staff officers are planning, with that mixture of method and lunacy which is all their own, how to project onto this countryside of ours those half-doped crazy lads they call parachute troops.

(Review copy kindly provided by Notting Hill Editions, for which many thanks!)

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