Grumbling at Large – Selected Essays of J.B. Priestley, introduced by Valerie Grove

Review by Mike Sansbury, Manager of The Grove Bookshop, Ilkley

OF all the Yorkshire-born writers to have graced the twentieth century, none seems to embody the supposed characteristics of this county more than John Boynton Priestley. Born in Bradford in 1894, he seems now to exist in public memory as a grumpy, pipe-smoking purveyor of common-sense but, as this new collection makes clear, his talents were many and this curmudgeonly persona seems to be something of a myth which he himself delighted in propagating. “I have a sagging face, a weighty underlip, a saurian eye and a rumbling voice,” he explained. “Money could not buy a better grumbling outfit.”

Valerie Grove has collected pieces of Priestley which show him in youth and age, offering us opinions which range from angry diatribes to wistful musings, from social comment to humorous observation. The earliest is from 1923, the last from his eighty-third year. Within these pages Priestley expounds on the joys of moorland rambles, the mysteries of fairground fortune tellers, the shabby treatment of war veterans and even his reasons for hating airports. We are treated to two of his infamous wartime Postscripts broadcasts, the first bringing to life the legend of Dunkirk, while the second contrasts humanity, personified by an English Spring, with the Nazi ethos which cannot treat men as human beings. These powerful radio programmes, delivered in a deep, warm, Yorkshire voice, are often credited with strengthening national resolve in 1940 when the country’s very soul was at risk.

If I were to try to encapsulate the breadth of appeal of this book, I would probably find myself referring to three essays in particular. In First Snow from 1928, Priestley somehow pinpoints the magical appeal of a sudden snowfall, something that is as relevant today as it was ninety years ago. A glance at Twitter whenever the country is unexpectedly caught in a blanket of white will reveal as much excitement among grown adults as Priestley recalls here. As he explains, “It is not the snow itself... that is so enchanting, but the first coming of the snow, the sudden and silent change.”

More relevant to readers of this newspaper is the piece entitled On the Moors, written in 1932. In it he recalls a ramble across Bingley Moor to Dick Hudson’s, fearing that if he turns his back on the inn , “ they may begin monkeying with the old place, turning it into an ice-cream parlour or some such horror.” He need not have worried! This essay is deceptive, for what starts out as a hymn to the glories of his Yorkshire youth changes gradually to an exclamation of joy at his present situation. Priestley left Yorkshire after the First World War and never lived here again, but was free to enjoy its charms as a visitor, one with inside knowledge.

The last essay in the book is simply called On Happiness. Written in 1977, it reveals a man who delights in the simple things as well as the sublime, “ from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis to any fine large pork pie with a darkish crust.” He ends by admitting that his true genius is a genius for being misunderstood. To delight in the joys of grumbling is very different from being one of life’s grumblers, and this handsomely-bound book will delight anyone who values the opinions of a man as talented as J.B. Priestley.