Invisible Ink: No 222 - Death by snobbery


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The Independent Culture

This is the first time I’ve revisited an author, after discovering there’s yet another reason why good writing can vanish. When I first mentioned J B Priestley, most of his novels were out of print. Now they’re returning in new editions, accompanied by fresh critical assessment. With hindsight, it appears that the writer was bullied out of print by the arrogance of the intelligentsia.

Andrew Marr said that Priestley was “once too much everywhere. Now he’s not anywhere enough”. The critical darlings of academia, F R Leavis, Orwell, Greene, Woolf, Waugh and co, conspired to disdain and destroy Priestley’s reputation. He was blanked by them in analyses of great 20th-century works for writing about the human condition from the ground, instead of tackling ideas at a more cerebral level. Priestley thought that novels should look to Dickens, Cervantes and Shakespeare (his social detail is extremely Dickensian) and he paid the price for commercial success. He was disrespected by authors who never had to worry about finding work; Woolf considered him “a tradesman of letters”, just as the Bloomsbury set mocked anyone who sold well.

While pejoratives for some bestsellers are often appropriate, Priestley’s victimisation was wrong. Here was a theatrical giant who helped found the National Council for Civil Liberties, a radical wartime broadcaster, and founding member of CND, who helped set up the Albany Trust counselling organisation during homosexual law reform. He was a popular and familiar figure, then, too familiar not to be dismantled. This would merely merit a historical footnote were it not for the fact that Priestley’s writing has proven durable and prescient.

Angel Pavement (1930) is the story of a genteel company upended by a new employee. The articles Mr Smeeth reads from his paper could be in today’s red tops. He is concerned that his children’s growing independence and indifference to his values will damage them. His staff are fearful and exhilarated at the thought of sudden, irrevocable change. Presenting recognisable behaviour in characters is hardly a talent to be despised, but it would be dull if that were all; it’s not, because Priestley is presenting a forensic, humane indictment of the working English under pressure from all sides. Ultimately, his decency and humanity was considered to have undermined his work, a ludicrous idea that with his victorious re-emergence is now mercifully heading for history’s dustbin, returning Angel Pavement to its rightful status as one of the greatest London novels.