Uncommon readings: Delightful prose from a grumbler
ODDLY, it's George Orwell – the man who put JB Priestley on a government list as a communist sympathiser – whose reputation stands higher with posterity. Me, I'm with the Bradford man.
By 2006, all Priestley's novels had fallen out of print – even (after 50 editions and a million copies) The Good Companions, the debut novel that propelled him to national fame in 1929 when it won the James Tait Black Memorial Award. Until July, you'd even have been struggling to find a copy of his 1934 English Journey, a classic of not just travel but of social history too.
There's still no fuller portrait of the country in the throes of the Depression. Priestley's radicalism ("I'm a toady in reverse") was lifelong and instinctive, so there's nothing feigned about his sympathy for the miners of East Durham, or his rage against society on finding that, on turning up for a Bradford reunion of his First World War battalion, a couple of his former comrades hadn't turned up because they felt ashamed of their raggedy clothes.
The generation that fought the Second World War and listened to his Postscript radio chats (16 million listeners in 1940-1) knew all about his powerful phrase-making. His was the voice of the Ordinary Man, the bluff down-to-earth Yorkshireman, who spoke for Britain. At the crucial hour in our history, Graham Greene reckoned, Priestley was second in importance only to Churchill.
Yes, he was a curmudgeon, a big, jowly, rumbling grumbler "with a sagging face, a weighty underlip and what I am told is 'a saurian eye'". Yes, he knew his own worth. True, he mightn't always have been the easiest to get on with.
But read his book Delight, written 60 years ago but reissued this week (Great Northern Books, 9.99) and you see straight away what we've been missing.
In over 100 small essays, he picks out some of life's small moments of delight: fountains, pre-war tobacconists; a new box of matches, the Marx Brothers ("like Rabelaisian celluloid"); Edwardian newspapers ("what does Fleet Street offer us now that we can set beside Belloc, Chesterton, Beerbohm, Lucas and the rest?") or seeing his plays spring to life in rehearsals.
Written in that fine Edwardian style that is possibly the clearest, crispest English prose there's ever been, here's a book that lives up to its title. It is, indeed, a delight.