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Dreams, detective stories, long trousers and the Marx Brothers! #jbpriestley #delight

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Delight by J.B. Priestley

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been indulging in some polyreading – and this is the reason why! “Delight” is a book I picked up on a whim a little while back; I’d read Simon’s review of it, and thought it sounded perfect. I love Priestley’s rather grumpy writing persona (which I explored in a wonderful collection of his essays from Notting Hill Editions), although this promised to be less of him grumbling and more of him celebrating what gives him pleasure. And if ever a book lived up to its name, this one did!

First published in 1949, “Delight” contains one hundred and fourteen short pieces where Priestley reveals a particular aspect of life which does indeed bring him delight. This can be anything from a gin and tonic plus packet of crisps, through dreams, tennis and detective stories, to Not Going (out); and there’s a lovely piece on the Marx Brothers (whom I also adore)! It’s a funny and entertaining concept, all realised in Priestley’s wonderfully lugubrious prose, and it was indeed a real delight dipping into it.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

For dipping is what you need to do with a collection like this; because attempting to read the whole lot in one go would really dilute the effect and spoil the fun. So I read this alongside “Zoo…”, and they made perfect and constrasting companions. Priestley comes across as a down-to-earth, commonsense man, which is particularly refreshing in these days of lies and obfuscation; and his celebration of simple pleasures captures what is in many ways a lost world. However, although he’s happy to present a fairly genial exterior, several of the pieces do look a little deeper; Priestley wears his socialist heart on his sleeve, as a champion of the struggling classes; and there’s a very moving piece on old photographs and how they capture someone frozen in time.

One of Tabitha Wykenham’s delightful illustrations !

My copy of “Delight” is a beautiful 70th anniversary edition which was issued by Great Northern Books (and bought with my hard-earned pennies). It’s a gorgeous hardback, printed on quality paper, and enlivened with some lovely little colour illustrations by Priestley’s granddaughter, Tabitha Wykenham. So as an object, it’s also delightful!

Rather than witter on about how lovely this book is, I’ll end this post by sharing a few favourite quotes from it. I do feel that dipping may be the way forward when I’m struggling to engage with anything of substance and structure, and this was certainly perfect lockdown relaxation reading! ๐Ÿ˜€

*****

On the joys of grumbling: The feminine view appears to be that grumbling only makes things worse, whereas I have always held that a fine grumble makes things better. If, for example, an hotel gives me a bad breakfast, I have only to grumble away for a few minutes to feel that some reasonable balance has been restored: the grumble has been subtracted from the badness of the breakfast. So it is no use crying to me โ€œOh – do be quiet! Itโ€™s bad enough without your grumbling.” My mind does not move along these lines. If I have not had a good breakfast, I argue, at least I have had a good grumble.

On the joy of reading snugly inside during bad weather: There is a peculiar delight, which I can still experience though I knew it best as a boy, in cosily reading about foul weather when equally foul weather is beating hard against the windows, when one is securely poised between the wind and rain and sleet outside and the wind and rain and sleet that leap from the page into the mind.

On the compulsion to shop: โ€ฆ spending money in shops has gone on so long that it is now an instinctive activity. Drawing free rations is not a substitute for it, which is something Communist governments often fail to understand.

On the joy of detective stories as escapist: As thoughtful citizens we are hemmed in now by gigantic problems that appear as insoluble as they are menacing, so how pleasant it is to take an hour or two off to consider only the problem of the body that locked itself in the study and then used the telephone.

If it’s London, there must be books…. @Foyles @secondshelfbks @JuddBooks

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Unfortunately for the shelves in my house, visits to London are inextricably linked with bookshopping, and Saturday was no exception to the general rule… My BFF J. and I managed to miss out on our usual pre-Christmas get-together back in December, and so as it was her birthday yesterday, we decided to have a catch-up, a gossip and a general bimble round London (as she puts it) on Saturday – which turned out to be a relaxing, fun and profitable trip! ๐Ÿ˜€

The KBR tote came in handy as always….

Inevitably there were bookshops and after we’d done a bit of general browsing (clothes, fabric and art shops!) we decided to give Second Shelf Books a look, as I’d been very impressed by what I’d seen and heard about them (and Ali thought very highly of them on her visit!) We rolled up fairly early (we’re morning birds), wondering if they’d be open and even though they weren’t officially, the very nice person behind the till let us in! And what a lovely place it is! We had a wonderful browse through all the wonderful rarities and first editions, with me eventually settling on purchasing this:

It’s by Elaine Feinstein, who translates Tsvetaeva wonderfully and whose biography of Anna Akhmatova I have lurking and it’s a mixture of novel set in Russia amongst real writers as well as her poetry. So it was most definitely coming home with me… ;D

After interludes for getting vaguely lost, stopping for lunch at Leons (with much gossip and catching up) as well as a very tempting visit to Paperchase, we headed for Judd Books in Marchmont Street. They’re a stone’s throw from Skoob (which we managed to resist) and I can’t recommend them enough. Judds is a shop always stuffed with unexpected treats and I was lucky to get out with only these:

I’ve wanted to add Marianne Moore to my poetry pile for yonks and this was at a fraction of the price it is online (bricks and mortar shops win out again!). As for the book on Peake, I’m not sure how I missed out on this when it originally came out, but it’s absolutely stuffed with the most amazing artworks, essays and writings, and a steal at the price. Both J. and I left with copies…

Inevitably, we ended up at Foyles – well, how could we not? – and partook of tea in the cafe, while J. finished reading a book she’d brought with her for me. Yes, she’d managed to procure me a beautiful first edition of a Beverley I needed!

As it comes with a dustjacket, I was doubly pleased and now I can get on with reading the rest of this particular house/garden trilogy of Bev’s! Dead chuffed!

We didn’t get out of Foyles unscathed, needless to say. Although I *did* exercise restraint, picking up and putting down any number of books. J. indulged in some poetry in the form of Roger McGough and Willa Cather (two of her favourites), whereas I eventually settled on these:

I’ve been circling the Gamboni for a while and finally decided to go for this new, reasonably priced edition (the old ones were priced at scholarly book rates…). As for the Kate Briggs, it’s all about translation and I love translated books and I love translators so it’s a no-brainer. Very excited about this one…. ๐Ÿ˜€

That’s it book-wise. We were in any number of stationery and art shops, and bearing that in mind I certainly think that the small haul I have was very well-behaved of me…

The tea is green with mint (my favourite) which I decided to treat myself to from Fortnum and Mason (yes, really!) We were in there to pick up some favourite marmalade for J.’s hubby, and I decided to treat Mr. Kaggsy to some posh coffee flavoured choc (not pictured). The tea just fell into my hand as I was queuing to pay…

So a fun day out gossiping, playing catch-up and shopping – lovely! It *is* nice to live close enough to London to pop up there (and especially go to Foyles, although those visits always bring a sense of despair at the *mess* of construction that’s going on in the area). Now it’s just a case of deciding what to read next… ๐Ÿ˜‰

However, before I finish this post, there was *one* more book which sneaked into the house at the weekend, and that was a volume I ordered online after reading a review of it here. Kate Macdonald picked up her copy, oddly enough, at Second Shelf, and wasn’t so enamoured with Priestley’s grumbling. However, I’ve found his grumpy narratives oddly entertaining, so I though I’d give it a try! ๐Ÿ˜€

Curmudgeonly Cogitations

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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! ๐Ÿ™‚

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!)

…and I was doing so well!

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I certainly was! I have been trying (and succeeding) not to buy any books lately. Not only is the festive season (and my birthday!) approaching, a time when I’m very likely to receive books, but also the shelves are still bulging despite my clearing out earlier in the year. So apart from sending off for the final book I need to complete my set of C.P. Snow’s “Strangers and Brothers” series, I had been very good up until the weekend…

Unfortunately the Oxfam Shop was the instrument of my downfall. They’ve revamped the shelves I like, which were Modern Classics and Classics, into just one section and added some new titles. So I ended up coming home on Saturday with these:

chapter journey

… for which there really is no excuse, particularly as I already have a perfectly acceptable copy of “English Journey”. HOWEVER – this is a lovely 50th anniversary (book club) edition with lots of period illustrations and it was only ยฃ2.99.

journey illus

I mean, it *is* lovely, isn’t it? And here is Priestley on the back cover:

journey back

The other book was a whim, nothing else:

chapter hats

I know not a thing about it, but was intrigued enough to risk ยฃ1.99. And if anyone has any thoughts on the book, I’d be interested to hear them, because I’ve never heard of Machado de Assis!

Incidentally, I was surprised at the prices of both these books, as the Oxfams often charge more than the other charity shops, but both of these were very reasonable. There is a new guy behind the counter so maybe he’s decided lower prices will stimulate sales – which could be a very dangerous trend…. ๐Ÿ™‚

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