Recently I asked if my mother wanted something to read, and she instantly requested Priestley. "The plays?" I suggested. "No," she replied, "the novels." If John Boynton Priestley has undergone something of a rediscovery lately it's because of his theatre work. But Priestley was known to the older generation for some 26 novels that contained an astonishingly rich amount of social realism. He first found fame as a master of the short essay, working in a wool firm by day and writing at night. He had grown up in a respectable suburb of Bradford, a graceful Victorian town whose destruction at the hands of property developers he later decried.
The First World War broke out when Priestley was 20, so he joined the Duke of Wellington's Regiment and was wounded by mortar fire, an event that inspired fierce criticism of the officer class in his autobiography, Margin Released. Initially developing a reputation as a humorous writer, his novel Benighted was transformed by James Whale into the bizarre Gothic satire The Old Dark House. This was followed by the vast picaresque novel that turned him into a national celebrity, The Good Companions, about a trio of malcontents who join the Dinky Doos, a failing concert troupe that tours around the rundown towns of Middle England. Beloved by the reading public, it received only lukewarm critical reviews, probably because it was written from a middle-class viewpoint at a time when the Great Depression proved so devastating to working-class families.
Even so, The Good Companions proved remarkably durable, surviving two film adaptations and its inevitable transformation into a musical. Its subject matter mitigated the book's longevity, as the genteel Pierrots became part of a vanished world at seaside resorts, to be replaced by pinball machines, Mods and Rockers. Priestley's next novel, Angel Pavement, is even better; a dense, sweeping portrait of London during times of economic hardship, seen through the swindled employees of the veneer company Twigg & Dersingham. His pungent descriptions of poverty, unemployment and the fundamental unfairness of English society pointed the way toward a more critical and idealistic left-wing viewpoint, later disdained by Margaret Thatcher. Priestley reached huge audiences on radio during the Second World War and continued to develop his playwriting career, delivering his best-known play, An Inspector Calls, in 1946. This difficult, generous, grand lover of life (and a great many women) is undergoing re-evaluation, but Angel Pavement, one of the great London novels, is still missing.