The Good Companions by JB Priestley, book of a lifetime

 

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The Independent Culture

Last year, searching for inspiration and, yes, instruction, I re-read The Good Companions. I was entranced all over again.

J B Priestley was a world-famous critic, essayist, broadcaster and writer of highly experimental plays, but it was this gloriously simple and unpretentious tale, published in 1929, that made his fortune and his reputation.

It is usually described as a "picaresque" novel. But my Oxford English dictionary describes picaresque as "denoting an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero". Well, The Good Companions deals with the adventures of Jess Oakroyd, mill worker, Elizabeth Trant, spinster, and Inigo Jollifant, schoolmaster. Two appealing heroes, one appealing heroine, and not a rough and dishonest person among them.

These three people, united in their characters only by their likeability, walk away from their varied lives in which they are in differing degrees unhappy and unsatisfied. They meet not only each other, but some struggling members of an appealing (of course) theatrical touring company with a name that isn't appealing at all – "The Dinky Doos".

Miss Trant saves the company with her money, Jollifant plays the piano and Oakroyd is invaluable as an odd-job man. They rename the company "The Good Companions", and the rest of the novel is the story of the varied fortunes of the renamed show.

Miss Trant's decision to use her money to save the company is the beginning of the main story. It comes on page 252. We live in a world in which people pay huge amounts of money for theatre seats and then say, "Oh good. It ends at 10 to 10. Plenty of time for a drink." A modern editor, presented with The Good Companions would say, "Right. Let's see how we can get to page 252 a whole lot quicker. Then we'll have cracked it."

This book contains no mystery, no amazing revelations, no tricks and deceptions, no apparent artifice, no specific message, no metaphoric significance. It's a story. A story pure and simple, though perhaps not quite as pure and not quite as simple as it looks.

I can only think of two reasons for reading this warm, optimistic book, and to me they are the best reasons of all for reading fiction. The first is that we want to know what happens next. The second is that we are enjoying being with these people. Priestley knew this and never takes us away too soon from scenes we are relishing.

It has taken me a long time to write this short piece. I dipped into the book – and got hooked.

David Nobbs's 'The Second Life of Sally Mottram' is published by HarperCollins (£8.99)

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