Book: Bloody-minded of Bradford

PRIESTLEY by Judith Cook Bloomsbury pounds 22.50
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SOME writers die long before their deaths. Others are still walking in step with us, bright as a button, even centuries, later. Take Jack (JB) Priestley for example, that bluff, pipe-smoking Yorkshireman from Bradford - or Brudderford as he fondly fictionalised the place name in his best-selling novel The Good Companions - whose tell-it-like-it-is, gruff-and-straight broadcasts over BBC Radio during the early years of the Second World War were so popular that Churchill envied his common touch with the British people.

And these broadcasts were only a tiny fraction of Priestley's output; over a literary career spanning half a century, from the early 1920s onwards, he published a great torrent of popular novels, plays, essays, biographies, travel books and volumes of social and literary commentary. But by the year of his death, 1984, he seemed a figure of the past, so much more antique, and so much less of a contemporary than James Joyce, for example, who had died 40 years before him.

A long-time family friend, Judith Cook has had privileged access to sources, relatives and acquaintances, including all the Priestley children. The consequence is that the book unpicks better than ever before the tangled web of his private life; it describes his relationship with his last wife, Jacquetta Hawkes, with fascinating thoroughness; it chronicles his feverish patterns of work; it makes him more fully alive as a human being than ever before.

What it does not do is stand back and explain why exactly he vanished as a literary influence with such speed; what it was about the England that he represented that came to be increasingly out of key with the reality of the country in which he was living.

One small anecdote will serve to demonstrate quite how far Priestley's stock has fallen. Three years ago, the year of the centenary of his birth, I went to Bradford to do some research in connection with an article I was writing for the Economist about the decline of literary reputations. The substantial Edwardian terrace house where Priestley was born - 34 Mannheim Road - is in Manningham, a part of Bradford that had once been settled by German and German-Jewish families (there had once been strong trading connections between Bradford and Germany; the area is now largely occupied by Asian families). There was nothing to indicate that Bradford's most famous literary son had been born there, and the house was for sale at a modest asking price of pounds 24,000. Manningham itself is about eight miles across the valley from Haworth and the Bronte parsonage, that most revered of literary shrines ...

Though born and schooled in Bradford, Priestley didn't live there for long - in the Twenties he went to live in Oxfordshire. A few years later, encouraged by his friend and fellow novelist Hugh Walpole, and enjoying the material success that came to him with the publication of The Good Companions (1929) and Angel Pavement (1930), he moved to London, where he bought Coleridge's old house in Highgate.

But popular success seldom went hand in hand with critical approval. Some critics of his work hardly bothered to disguise the fact their so- called literary responses were little more than thinly veiled snobbery. Virginia Woolf dubbed Arnold Bennett and Priestley "the tradesmen of letters". Fellow northerner Anthony Burgess analysed what he regarded as Priestley's principal failings a little more astutely, and without Woolf's unpleasant admixture of social scorn. He said that the problem was largely to do with the fact that Priestley didn't have any unusual gift for - or love of - language for its own sake. Language was nothing more than a vehicle, a means to an end. Nor could Priestley distinguish between "what was immediately important and what would be important in the long run". He had the capacity to convey some savour of the present, but no more. When that moment had passed, the savour of his words would disappear too.

Priestley kept Bradford at a distance for much of his later life and Bradford repaid the compliment. The local press excoriated him for his divorces, and for the fact that he chose not to live amongst his kith and kin. It was not until 1973 that the city grudgingly made him a Freeman of the City at the age of 78 - and this was largely due to outspoken interventions on his behalf by another popular Yorkshire entertainer, the comedian Wilfrid Pickles. The Bradford Trades Council agreed with Pickles: "J B Priestley is as much associated with Bradford as Joyce with Dublin and Lawrence with Nottingham," it declared in a motion defying the expressed views of the city council.

Priestley, like Lawrence, was an awkward, opinionated cuss who freely expressed unpalatable views - his dislike of Bradford's embargo on Sunday entertainment, for example. When Prime Minster Harold Wilson, then vice- chancellor of Bradford University, conferred an honorary degree on him in 1969 to celebrate his 75th birthday, Priestley marked the occasion with a speech that took a swipe or two at the city itself: "It is no good teaching children to read Shelley and Wordsworth," he said, "if there isn't a good bookshop in the city; it is no use learning to enjoy Shakespeare if there is nowhere to see the plays."

Today, in the city centre, a statue of the Grand Old Man, overcoat blowing back behind him, stands beside the Alhambra Theatre, the very model of civic virtue - and without a single awkward word for the birds. But there are precious few of those books of his still in print.