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Thursday, 5 March 2015

DORIS GRUMBACH The Missing Person (1981)

WW Norton & Company, 1993

True to her credo, events came to Franny as she waited for them, her drifting, dazed self biding its time.  She had known this self since her girlhood.  But everyone kept telling her she really was Someone because she looked the way she did.  There were times when she was able to forget her secret knowledge that there was no direction to her days, no meaning to her beautiful face, that in the long catalog of human beings she was a missing person.

The Book:  Franny Fuller is a star, the brightest and most frustratingly elusive star in 1930s Hollywood.  Books are written about her, fan magazines are filled with photographs of her, yet she remains an unapproachable enigma, the mythical American 'Golden Girl' that every man dreams of possessing and every woman wishes they could be - or at the very least resemble - for just one glorious hour before they die.

Born 'Fanny Marker' in the small New York town of Utica, Franny is destined for stardom from birth, it seems, by virtue of her intoxicating beauty and the disturbing, sometimes dangerous effect it has on the men that her mother - a once attractive beautician barely able to conceal her jealousy of her daughter's stunning good looks - brings home to share their various cheap apartments with them.  One of these boyfriends - a man her mother calls Jerryboy, a dirt-encrusted sheet metal worker whom young Franny finds physically repulsive - can't seem to decide if he likes the girl or loathes her, if her habits of chewing her blonde hair and daydreaming about becoming a movie star are habits he finds appealing or merely irritating.  Only one thing is certain and that's the lust that being near Franny inspires in him, a lust that sees him rape her on her mother's bed one afternoon - a crime the girl responds to, not by screaming or crying out for help, but by losing consciousness, only to be awoken hours later by her mother furiously slapping her face 'first one side, then the other, like a funny man attacking the straight man in a vaudeville act.'

Seeking to avoid the judgmental wrath of her mother, Franny quits school and begins hanging round the lobby of the local hotel - the perfect place, despite her age, to be picked up by the traveling salesman who are more than glad to buy her a drink or a meal, and sometimes both, in exchange for sex.  In time she finds her way to New York City, where she's approached in a restaurant one night by a man named Eddie Puritan who claims to be a talent scout for a movie company - a claim, in Puritan's case, which happens to be true rather than being the same predictable pick-up line she's heard a thousand times before.  At first wary of Puritan's friendliness and enthusiasm, Franny eventually agrees to hire him as her agent and moves into the one bedroom apartment he shares with his literary agent lover Lou Price, never suspecting that the two men are homosexuals whose interest in her is confined solely to their desire to make her the star they're convinced she was born to be. 

It's Puritan, a man who 'made her feel whole and valuable for a while, not like the others whose eyes always seemed to be examining her parts, like people who only buy the pieces of chicken they like to eat,' who takes her to Hollywood, arranges a screen test for her at Premium Pictures and changes her name from plain old 'Fanny Marker' to the beguilingly alliterative one of 'Frances Fuller.'  Her new agent patiently grooms the inexperienced Franny for stardom, eventually gaining her her first major role in a silly but wildly successful adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles before dying, in a hospital room she's afraid to visit because she can't bear the thought of watching anybody suffer, of leukemia right at the moment when she's most in need of his kindness, understanding and well-intentioned guidance.

Her dead agent's place is soon taken by Dempsey Butts, an Iowa preacher's son who has recently become the star quarterback of the San Francisco Mavericks football team.  Butts quickly comes to feel, just as Puritan did before him, that it's his mission to protect this gorgeous, wayward, seemingly helpless waif of a girl from the problems and invasive personal scrutiny her newfound stardom have suddenly thrust upon her.  'His chest ached with longing, with love, as he looked at the sleeping actress...The Beautiful Girl was lost, inexplicably deserted and in some nameless trouble, and he had found her and carried her to an enchanted white castle.  By virtue of all these things she was, by the rules of fairy legend and sport, his.'  The fairytale qualities of Butts's feelings for Franny are subverted, however, by the decidedly unromantic location of their first meeting.  The football player picks her up in a Hollywood bar he's patronizing with his drunken teammates, a place where Franny sometimes comes to drink away her fear and uncertainty in anonymous solitude, her beauty disguised, if not completely nullified, by sunglasses, old clothes, heavy boots and a thick layer of dirt.  This desire for total anonymity, it turns out, is the true key to Franny's personality, her way of making herself feel protected and shielded from being 'found out for what I am, whatever that is.'  

After taking her back to her palatial but empty Beverly Hills home, where he spends most of the day watching her sleep and listening to her murmur anxiously to herself, Butts eventually gets to live out his (and every other man's) fantasy by making love to her, with the compliant Franny lying completely still while he moves 'gently, even quietly, afraid of frightening her or hurting her, feeling instinctively that she could be hurt, or frightened, during this act.'  They part company after spending a few blissful days playing hooky from their pressure-laden lives, yet Butts finds it impossible to rid himself of the feeling that Franny must be protected and he's the man fate has chosen to become that protector.  Within a few weeks he's arranged to marry her, agreeing to her request that the ceremony be held in New York City while she's appearing there on a publicity tour, never suspecting that the marriage will be over within two years, a victim of their conflicting work schedules and Franny's chronic inability to live what he considers to be a normal married life.  Even a miscarriage, with Butts flying across the country to be at her bedside while she recovers, fails to reunite them.  He promises to drop whatever he's doing and come back any time Franny says she wants or needs him, but this eagerly anticipated call is one she never makes.  Within months of their divorce, his ex-wife has found herself a new protector in the form of Arnold Franklin, a successful poet and playwright who happens to be represented - as she now is - by Lou Price, literary agent and former lover of the sorely missed Eddie Puritan.

Franklin, eager to show off his new conquest, introduces her to his friends Patrick and Mollie Cairns - acting teachers whose offer to 'coach' the world famous Frances Fuller in the more 'demanding art' of stage acting could make them almost as famous, they quickly realize, as their awestruck would-be pupil.  Their plan comes to nothing, however, when Franny - already spooked by the thought of formally studying what has always been an instinctive art to her - impulsively returns to Hollywood to complete the re-takes on her latest picture.  It's here that Franklin finds her a few days later, stretched out beside her pool in Beverly Hills, the ultimate shiksa goddess he feels compelled, in his meticulous Jewish way, to propose to right there on the spot.  Franny accepts his proposal and they're married in New York a few weeks later, the bride dressing demurely as a mark of respect to the religious beliefs of her new, silently disapproving in-laws.

GP Putnam & Sons first US edition, 1981
Like Dempsey Butts before him, Franklin finds it no easy task to be married to a woman as shy, elusive and mysterious as Franny Fuller.  Their life in Hollywood - where he's taken a job adapting one of his plays for the screen - sees him reduced to the role of her sexless companion and on-call night nurse, required only to watch her drink herself to sleep each night and play unwilling host to the crowds of blathering 'guests' who invade her empty home each day.  'He was never able afterward to remember the exact moment,' the dissatisfied playwright remembers at one point, 'when the pleasure of being married to Franny started to diminish, when delight in having captured the American Dream Girl gave way to apprehension about what he would do with her, and how he would survive her shriveling aura.  His sense of triumph had been acute but short-lived.'  Frustrated by Franny's remoteness, his inability to enjoy the kind of sexual intimacy with her that, in his view, a husband should be entitled to enjoy with his wife, Franklin can do little except stand powerlessly aside as his wife alienates her bosses and co-stars by being continually late for work and frequently not bothering to appear on set at all.  

The situation, already difficult, becomes impossible for Franklin when Franny literally goes missing one day, disappearing without a trace without telling him or anybody else where she's gone or how long she plans to remain incommunicado.  Frantic for news of her, he turns to Butts for help, only to spend an evening swapping stories about her various peculiarities with the ex-football star over drinks in the same seedy bar Butts first met her in so many years before.  Confused and slightly ashamed of themselves, they leave it up to Franny's current director - yet another fiercely protective male 'savior' named Reuben Rubin - to continue the search for her without them.  Finally, her erratic behavior proves too much for Franklin, who boards a train to New York, using the long cross country journey to compose a new poem about her while she languishes, alone and possibly dead, somewhere in Los Angeles. 

But Franny, it turns out, isn't dead.  She's simply taken up residence in a 1940 Cadillac that happens to be the cleverly modified, proudly maintained 'home' of a black civil servant named Ira Rorie.  It's Rorie's nightly habit to park his car in a different 'safe' white neighborhood, where he's  free to use it as his kitchen, bathroom and bedroom without arousing the suspicions of either the residents or the local law enforcement authorities.  He meets Franny when she literally bumps into his car's right fender late one night, telling him, when he emerges from his backseat bed to help her to her feet, that she's lost and has just hauled herself out of somebody's unseen backyard swimming pool.  Rorie helps the dazed actress remove her shabby wet clothing and invites her to rest a while in his cozy home on wheels, beginning what's arguably the happiest phase of Franny's life as, anonymous and untraceable, she finds herself treated as the black man's honored guest, sharing his Cadillac (which he's lovingly christened 'Jeanette' in honor of his favorite movie star Jeanette Macdonald) and its fold-out bed while he brings her food and gossip magazines to read to help while away the hours.  He calls her Beauty, never realizing that he's playing host to the famous movie actress Frances Fuller because she refuses to wash herself even after submitting to sex with him as 'payment' for everything he's done for her.  Their idyllic life together comes to an abrupt end, however, when Rorie arrives 'home' one night to find a note waiting for him on the driver's seat, politely explaining that Franny has moved on and thanking him for 'having her.' 

Franny's next stop is not her palatial estate in Beverly Hills or the soundstages of Premium Pictures, but the home of her stand-in Dolores Jenkins, who tells her of the desperate but thus far unsuccessful efforts the studio has made to locate her.  Dolores, who's dying of breast cancer and in one sense could be considered Franny's only real friend, is struck again by the contrasts between them and the very different lives they've led since coming to Hollywood as naïve starstruck girls.  Life seems to be a kind of hazy soporific dream for Franny, a state of existence in which she's rarely, if ever, obliged to take responsibility for herself or her frequently irrational behavior.  She can flee from grim realities like cancer and death because the world doesn't want her, its Golden Girl, to be tarnished by such ugly, sordid yet inescapable truths.  It wants, indeed demands, that Frances Fuller rise above such mundane concerns and remain, in essence, what she is and always has been - a pretty, somewhat vacant-minded child encased in a voluptuous woman's body, a walking fantasy object whose appeal shows no signs of waning despite having been suspended by the studio and the winding down of the war which had so much to do with making her a star in the first place.

Franny's popularity does eventually decline, of course, placing her in the same 'has-been' category as the silent stars - forgotten, alcoholic actors like Willis Lord - whom she idolized and sought to emulate as a child.  In the meantime, the Hollywood studio system unrelentingly grinds on, creating new stars for a public ever-greedy for novelty and glamor, prompting Mary Maguire - gossip columnist and Franny's biographer - to write her and everything she's meant to the American moviegoing public off in just a few glib sentences:

'This reporter gives up. Studio officials will say only that she has broken her contract.  Her ex is in New York, reportedly.  At Premium no one knows anything about her whereabouts.  So what else is new?  Phone at the Dolores Jenkins (once her stand-in-friend) residence is no longer connected.  Last night at Romanoff's I asked Brock Currier if he knew where FF was.  He laughed and said:  "Not me."  Later spotted him at the bar with young and beautiful Honey Moon on his arm...'

Penguin Books, c. 1982
The Missing Person is one of many superb American novels - a list which includes masterpieces like Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (1939), F Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished The Love of the Last Tycoon (1941), Norman Mailer's The Deer Park (1957) and Joyce Carol Oates' Blonde (2000) to name just a few - set in the tinsel-coated fishbowl that was and remains Hollywood.  Franny's story, while clearly based on the troubled life of Marilyn Monroe (Dempsey Butts is based on her second husband, the baseball player Joe DiMaggio, while Arnold Franklin is an ungenerous if not contemptuous portrait of Monroe's third husband, the playwright Arthur Miller), is nevertheless compelling enough in its own right to stand as a powerful indictment of a system which transforms nobodies into universally recognized fantasy objects overnight, only to toss them aside like broken dolls once they cease to possess what the studio bosses regard as being an exploitable commercial value.  

What makes Grumbach's novel unique is her clear-sighted, thoroughly unsentimental dissection of the process of stardom itself, her ability to expose the phenomenon as the sham it is from the inside out by deliberately making her main character as enigmatic to the reader as she is to her legions of adoring fans and those, like Dolores Jenkins, Arnold Franklin, Ira Rorie and Mary Maguire (another portrait drawn from life, this time of famed Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper), whose lives she affects without ever becoming genuinely affected by them in return.  Franny is a face and a body, an ethereal image projected onto a cinema screen, a 'missing person' in the sense that she lacks a separate life or even a definable identity of her own beyond that which the studio and men like Eddie Puritan and Reuben Rubin prove so adept at creating for her.  She remains as mysterious to herself as she does to everyone who fails to recognize the dysfunctional woman hidden beneath the beautiful and glamorous facade, an internationally beloved celebrity whose greatest comfort lies in assuming a kind of grubby anonymity, a symbol of sexual abandon who, in what could be the novel's ultimate irony, remains incapable of deriving any form of pleasure from the sexual act herself.  

Franny's is a tale that cuts right to the heart of what it means to be a celebrated woman in an emotionally bankrupt, fame obsessed culture where physical appearance matters far more than talent or intelligence and an endless supply of wannabes are forever waiting in the wings, desperate to take the places of those whom a fickle, whim-driven public has grown bored by or become otherwise disenchanted with.  Frances Fuller is more than another casualty of fame and the emotional emptiness which so frequently accompanies it.  Alternately adored and despised, a maddening paradox whose box-office appeal is as undeniable as the money it can be counted on to earn for her studio, she's the American Dream personified in all its tacky and evanescent glory.

The Author:  Doris Grumbach (née Isaac) was born in New York City on 12 July 1918 and spent her childhood there.  An exceptionally gifted student, she was able to skip a grade and start high school at the age of eleven, where she quickly found herself overwhelmed by her fellow students, causing her to lose her self-confidence and develop a terrible stammer as a result of her inability to successfully interact with them.  Although her parents agreed to keep her out of school for a year so she could  'catch up' to her peers emotionally and physically, she proved to be an indifferent student when she eventually resumed her studies, forsaking what had been a promising academic career to foster her burgeoning interests in drama and creative writing.  

Grumbach showed early promise as a writer, winning a city wide short story contest during her senior year which secured her a scholarship to New York University, where she majored in philosophy and graduated Phi Beta Kappa before going on to earn her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1939 and her Master of Arts degree in medieval literature from Cornell University two years later.  It was while she was attending Cornell that she met her future husband Leonard Grumbach, whom she married in October 1941.  She spent the early years of World War Two working as a subtitle writer for Loews/MGM (on films intended to be screened in war torn, non-English speaking countries like France and the Netherlands) and then as a proofreader for Mademoiselle and Architectural Forum magazines, eventually rising to the position of assistant editor at the latter publication - a position she retained until her husband, a medical student, was drafted in 1943 and she volunteered to serve in the female branch of the US Navy known as the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service).  She soon became an officer and remained in uniform until hostilities ended in 1945.

After the war, Grumbach and her husband traveled round the country for several years while he worked to complete his medical degree.  She also became the mother of four daughters during this period, which cannot have been easy given the amount of traveling her husband's choice of career obliged her to do.  The family eventually settled in Albany, New York, where Leonard Grumbach taught at that city's medical college while his wife took a position as teacher of junior and senior English at the Albany School for Girls.  She left the school in 1960 to become Professor of English at the nearby Catholic College of Saint Rose and at the same time began working on her debut novel, published in 1962 as The Spoil of the Flowers.  A second novel The Short Throat, The Tender Mouth appeared in 1964, as did Lord, I Have No Courage, her only book for children.   

Until 1971, when she decided to separate from her husband, Grumbach successfully divided her time between teaching and writing essays, articles and non-fiction pieces for a variety of academic and non-academic publications.  Her third book was not a novel but a biography of her friend and fellow novelist Mary McCarthy titled The Company She Kept: A Revealing Portrait of Mary McCarthy (1967).  Although well received, the biography proved to be far more revealing than its subject had bargained for, with Grumbach including lengthy extracts from McCarthy's personal letters to her without first gaining her subject's approval to do so.  (It's not recorded if this breach of literary etiquette permanently damaged the friendship but it's very likely that it did, given McCarthy's legendary fondness for feuding with her fellow writers.) 

Grumbach spent most of 1971 in Saratoga Springs helping to organize an external degree program being offered by Empire State College.  The following year saw her divorce her husband and begin a relationship with Sybil Pike, who thereafter became her permanent life partner.  Grumbach was also offered and accepted a position as literary editor of The New Republic at this time, remaining with the magazine until it was sold and its new owners fired her.  By this time she and Pike had moved from New York to Washington DC, where in 1975 she became Professor of American Literature at American University, supplementing her academic income by writing a regular column for The New York Times Book Review.  She retained her Professorship until 1985, when she resigned from the school so that she and Pike could open Wayward Books, a secondhand bookstore on Capitol Hill.  They successfully ran the store together for the next five years, when they relocated it and themselves to the small Maine fishing village of Sargentville.

Grumbach's writing career began again in earnest during the late 1970s with the publication of her third novel Chamber Music (1979), a tale based on the unhappy lives of homosexual American composer Edward MacDowell and his lesbian wife Marian.  Her next three novels - The Missing Person (1981), The Ladies (1984) and The Magician's Girl (1987) - were all inspired by the lives and struggles of real women, specifically Marilyn Monroe, a Welsh lesbian couple named Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby (who bravely defied Victorian convention by living together openly as gay women for close to half a century), the doomed American poet Sylvia Plath and legendary New York photographer Diane Arbus.  These novels, in which lesbian love was treated as a natural and positive part of life, established their unflinchingly honest author as one of America's foremost GLBT writers and helped to create a market for her six volumes of memoirs, beginning in 1991 with Coming Into The End Zone and ending with the 2001 publication of The Pleasure of Their Company.  All this work did not prevent her from planning an unwritten biography of Willa Cather, accepting teaching positions at the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa or appearing regularly to review books and discuss literature on National Public Radio and the PBS current affairs program The McNeil-Lehrer Newshour.

Doris Grumbach celebrated her ninety-sixth birthday in July 2014 and now lives in an assisted care nursing home in upstate New York.  A self-described 'hermit' who published a non-fiction book titled Fifty Days of Solitude in 1994, she may not find the loneliness of old age as burdensome as it no doubt feels to many of her fellow nonagenarians.  As she once told a reporter:  'It seems to me - this sounds very odd - the life that you lead in your mind - with your eyes and your ears in one place - serves you well in old age.'

Click HERE to read The View from 90, a thought-provoking essay about solitude and the aging process by DORIS GRUMBACH originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of The American Scholar.  Many of her novels and non-fiction works remain in print and are still available via your local bookstore or favorite online retailer.

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WILLA CATHER A Lost Lady (1923) 
GABRIELLE ROY Bonheur d'occasion [The Tin Flute] (1945)
BENTLEY RUMBLE The Second Chance (2004)

Thursday, 26 February 2015

THINK ABOUT IT #2: C Wright Mills

The media provide much information and news about what is happening in the world, but they do not often enable the listener or the viewer truly to connect his daily life with these larger realities. They do not connect the information they provide on public issues with the troubles felt by the individual. They do not increase rational insight into tensions, either those in the individual or those of the society which are reflected in the individual.

The Power Elite (1956)

Click HERE to visit the website of US sociologist, writer and political theorist C WRIGHT MILLS.  To read a short article explaining why the issues he examined in his groundbreaking study The Power Elite (1956) remain as relevant as ever in the twenty-first century, please click HERE.

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Thursday, 19 February 2015

POET OF THE MONTH #25: Josephine Miles



All our roads go nowhere.
Maps are curled
To keep the pavement definitely
On the world.

All our footsteps, set to make
Metric advance,
Lapse into arcs of deference
To circumstance.

All our journeys nearing Space
Skirt it with care,
Shying at the distances
Present in air.

Blithely travel-stained and worn,
Erect and sure,
All our travelers go forth,
Making down the roads of Earth
Endless detour.

Trial Balances (?1960)

The Poet:  'Her work may begin,' critic David Shapiro wrote of American poet, educator and academic Josephine Miles, 'with an appearance as diminished or domestic as the doily, upholstery or curtains, but it ends as much more...It is generous and full.  Abundant and not merely copious, it reminds us that the domestic scene is as rich as any wilderness.'  Another critic, Stephen Mooney, noted that Miles' poetry is 'always content to know reality on a human scale...They are the words of a survivor.'  

Miles was a survivor.  Born with a degenerative arthritic condition which forbade her from using a typewriter, drinking from a cup and even being left alone inside her own home, she nevertheless went on to forge successful careers for herself as both a poet and an academic, eventually becoming the first woman to receive tenure from the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley.  In addition to publishing many highly regarded works of literary criticism - including studies of William Wordsworth, John Donne and Ralph Waldo Emerson - she also published twelve volumes of poetry between 1939 and 1983, including a Collected Works which included poems dating back to 1930.

The poet was born in Chicago on 11 June 1911 and moved to San Francisco soon afterwards when her father, an insurance agent, received a promotion which obliged him to base himself in that city.  Noticing that her hips were crooked, her surgeon grandfather operated on her to correct the problem when she was nine months old - an operation which led to further complications after an intern failed to bandage a incision properly, causing infection to spread throughout her body.  Her father's employer soon transferred him again - this time from California to the much colder state of Michigan, which saw Miles' body suffer further depredations as the arthritis which was to plague her for the rest of her life now manifested itself and rapidly worsened.  Following a brief return to Chicago her parents moved again, this time to the warmer climate of Los Angeles where she was placed in traction, unable to sit normally or lie down for a year.  Her condition also prevented her from attending school, obliging her mother to tutor her until a suitable professional tutor could be found.  This proved to be an educational challenge for the super-intelligent Miles, as the majority of her tutors chose to regard her as an invalid, ignoring the fact that she had a sharp and lively mind and was, by the age of ten, a discriminating and wide-ranging reader.

Miles' condition improved enough by her teenage years to allow her to attend high school in a wheelchair.  She graduated in 1927 and enrolled at UCLA the following year, receiving a Bachelor's degree in English Literature in 1932 before moving north to complete her post-graduate degree at UC Berkeley.  She earned her PhD in 1935 and became an instructor at Berkeley in 1940, one year after publishing Lines of Intersection, her first book of poetry.

Being an English Professor at a 'progressive' campus like Berkeley brought Miles into contact, via her students, with poets either directly or indirectly aligned with the emerging Beat movement.  One of the first 'new' poets she met was Allen Ginsberg, who had traveled to California from New York to give readings of his work and consider the possibility of enrolling as a graduate student at the university.  Ginsberg did not become a student but he did give Miles a copy of Howl, a new poem he told her he had recently completed.  When another visiting New Yorker, the scholar and poet John Eberhardt, asked Miles to recommend a new poet to him, she gladly gave him her copy of Ginsberg's soon-to-be notorious poem.  Eberhardt was impressed and wrote a glowing review of Howl for The New York Times - a review which in turn encouraged a small, San Francisco based press known as City Lights Publishing to publish a short selection of Ginsberg's work.  Many critics still believe that the 1956 publication of Howl marked the beginning of mainstream literature's grudging acceptance of what, until then, had been viewed as nothing but a passing fad if not some kind of sick literary joke.

While she never became a Beat herself, fully accepted by the movement as one of its own, Miles did become influenced by the work of poets such as Ginsberg and her fellow Californian Gary Snyder.  'I think my poetry has gotten looser and freer in form than it was,' she once confided to an interviewer.  'I think I don't write as many clear endings.'  Throughout the 1960s and 1970s she continued to combine writing poetry with her academic activities, publishing many papers and book length works of criticism in addition to founding and editing several magazines devoted to poetry and other intellectual pursuits.  Her moderate political views made her something of an anomaly in Berkeley during the 1960s, when the struggles for civil rights and, in time, women's rights saw its students and her fellow faculty members become increasingly outspoken and, in many instances, politically and socially radicalized.  She served as an important link between the radical and conservative elements on the campus and, after becoming Berkeley's first tenured female Professor of English in 1972, took a leading role in the campaign to ensure that more women would be hired to serve on its faculty.  

Miles herself was named Professor Emerita in 1978, one of many honors - including a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, The American Council of Learned Societies and The Guggenheim Foundation - awarded to her throughout her long and distinguished career.  She continued to live and write in Berkeley - in the house she bequeathed to the university which is now used to house the visiting Roberta C Holloway Lecturer in the Practice of Poetry - until her death from pneumonia on 12 May 1985.  The PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award recognizing achievement in multicultural literature was established in her honor in 1991.

Click HERE to read more poetry by JOSEPHINE MILES at

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Thursday, 12 February 2015

WRITERS ON WRITING #61: Charmian Clift

This [job of writing a weekly newspaper column] involves even stronger disciplines than I've ever faced before.  In a way I enjoy it, I find it terribly demanding...I know that I am writing faster and better than I ever did because of this.  I think a great deal of writing is to do with the more one writes, the faster and better one can write.  This doesn't mean I believe in sloppy writing.  I go over every draft, over and over, I sometimes make five drafts, six drafts, of everything I do before I'm satisfied.

Taped interview for the National Library of Australia by HAZEL DE BERG [8 June 1965]


Click HERE to read an essay about the tragic and fascinating life and career of Australian novelist,  journalist and travel writer CHARMIAN CLIFT written by her 2001 biographer NADIA WHEATLEY.  Those interested in exploring the time that CHARMIAN CLIFT and her husband, the Australian novelist GEORGE JOHNSTON, spent living on the Greek Island of Hydra - where their friends and neighbours included Canadian poet and singer/songwriter LEONARD COHEN - can do so by clicking HERE.

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Thursday, 5 February 2015

JB PRIESTLEY Wonder Hero (1933)

William Heinemann & Company, fifth UK printing, 1933


Half an hour later, Kinney was talking to Shuckleworth on the telephone: 'Well, my idea is for us to make a figure out of him...Yes, that's it...Oh, all kinds of uses...Yes, something like that...And political...And, of course, for advertising...No, I don't suppose we can keep it up for very long, but what does that matter?...Yes, the minute it's cold, we can drop the whole thing...Why should it?  Think of the advertising and publicity value.  And we get up a fund for him...Well, you'll see what the Chief says.  But I'm certain he'll like the idea.  Anyhow, I shall bring Habble up with me tomorrow...Oh, he seems a decent docile little fellow...No, no trouble at all...What.  Oh - to the News - yes.  Good night.  Hello, is that News?  Oh - is that you, Tom?...Can you? Good!...Yes, splash...Ready?...right - Wonder Hero-'

The Book:  JB Priestley's seventh published novel tells the ironic and, considering its age, still oddly relevant tale of Charlie Habble, a young single man employed as a chemical engineer in the fictional English Midlands town of Utterton.  Charlie, who is described as 'a decent boy who is still not sure of himself and a bit sulky,' is feeling slightly out of sorts after being jilted by his girlfriend but isn't too upset about it because their relationship, in his view, 'had been cooling off for some months past.'  He lives contentedly enough with his landlady Mrs Fawset and takes pleasure in all the things - boxing, football, films, smoking, drinking his nightly pint of beer at his local pub The Blue Bell and reading the Daily Tribune - that a man of his age, class and temperament is expected, indeed actively encouraged, to take pleasure in.

Charlie's humdrum life undergoes a change, however, when he meets an inventor named Otley while drinking at The Blue Bell one night.  Otley has come to town to sell some of his energy and fuel saving patents to Associated Chemical Products, the same company that Charlie himself happens to be employed by - a fact not lost on their other drinking companion, a Communist named Kibworth who's considered a 'good sort' by Otley despite his radical affiliations and the unproven belief that men like him possess a 'direct line' to Moscow.  (Wonder Hero appeared at the height of the Depression, when to be a Communist was to belong to a small but growing minority of unemployed and otherwise disenfranchised working people for whom its ideology represented their only chance of creating a brighter future for themselves.)  Kibworth, it turns out, is on the run from the authorities, who consider him a dangerous subversive and want him and his kind kept securely under wraps.  The three men leave the pub together and return to Otley's lodgings, where their mostly technical-based conversation continues over several glasses of whisky that leave Charlie - soon due at the factory to work the nightshift - feeling tired, confused and considerably drunker than he wants to feel.  

When Kibworth, needing a safe place to spend the night where the police won't think to search for him, turns up at the ACP factory a few hours later and asks if he can lie down quietly in a corner somewhere, Charlie reluctantly but good-naturedly agrees to let him do just that.  The next thing Charlie knows he's waking from a deep, alcohol-fuelled sleep to find himself putting out a fire that could literally be moments away from blowing not only the factory but the entire town of Utterton completely off the map.

News of Charlie's heroism soon reaches the ear of Hal Kinney, star journalist of the Daily Tribune who's come north in search of a 'love gone wrong' suicide story which, much to his chagrin, has not panned out.  Unwillingly stuck in Utterton for the night, he hears the fire engines roaring past his hotel window and becomes curious to find out where they're going.  Is this a story he can take back to his editor Shuttleworth in London, something that could make his trip north worth the cost of his railway ticket after all?  Happily, it is.  He meets Charlie and decides he's the perfect candidate for instant, circulation-boosting stardom, a young man who selflessly saved an entire town and in doing so earned the right to be known - for as long as it's convenient to the editor and proprietor of the Daily Tribune to have him described as that, of course - as Britain's new 'Wonder Hero.'

Charlie, stout sensible fellow that he is, wants only to be left alone by Kinney and his kind.  He's not even sure what really happened at the factory that night and, for a time, honourably resists the journalist's offer to whisk him off to London, where his 'heroic act' can be celebrated in the sensationalist style demanded by Kinney's unscrupulous employers.  But Kinney soon makes it clear to his latest 'phenomenon' that he's having none of this.  The editor and owner of the Daily Tribune have already agreed to pay Charlie ₤500 cash (a colossal sum in 1933) for the exclusive rights to his story and to set him up with a room in a posh new hotel, The New Cecil, located in the bustling heart of the metropolis.  With Charlie's consent finally if grudgingly gained, Kinney sets about arranging a publicity tour for Britain's latest man of the hour, culminating in his Charlie's appearance in the box of a West End theatre with Miss Ida Chatwick, winner of the Morning Pictorial Silver Rose Beauty Prize, seated photogenically beside him.  

Like the new 'Wonder Hero,' Ida is overwhelmed by the city and her exciting if sometimes disconcerting new life as a celebrity.  She also turns out to be a native of Pondersley, a town not too far removed from Charlie's own Midlands birthplace of Bendworth.  Charlie naturally finds himself becoming smitten with the charming Ms Chatwick, whose 'prize' included ₤150 and a screen test which he's positive will make an international film star of her in no time at all.  In the meantime he's kept to a strict schedule of his own by his minder Hughson, an amiable young chap well aware of what Sir Gregory Hatchland, the string-pulling owner of the Daily Tribune, is up to in seeking to 'push' his story.  Unbeknownst to Charlie, Hatchland wants him to appear at a rally promoting the formation of a League of Imperial Yeomen, a quasi-Fascist organization formed for the purpose of reminding all true Englishmen, via Hatchland's newspapers and his other populist publications, of their proud Anglo-Saxon heritage and the threat being posed to it by all those nasty foreigners over there in Europe.  

Charlie, his future seemingly assured as long as he continues to do exactly what he's told to do when he's told to do it, is ushered from gentleman's outfitters to radio studio to fancy society cocktail party, Kinney's 'handling' of him making his one of the best-known faces in Britain and even an object of desire for a celebrity-obsessed peeress of the realm named Lady Catterbird.  Charlie's new admirer even attempts to seduce him at one of her ultra-fashionable parties, only to have her slightly cracked husband march him off to his study in the nick of time for a glass of beer and a cheering man-to-man conversation about money and the impact the heedless pursuit of it can have on those who were once contented and otherwise rational human beings.

The whirlwind continues - with Charlie becoming every day more smitten with the lovely Ida, despite their busy schedules and the role these play in keeping them apart - until he receives a letter from his uncle, still doing it tough in the depressed northern mining town of Slakeby.  Uncle Tom's letter also informs him that his beloved Aunt Nellie is in poor health and would very much like to see him again before her condition deteriorates to the point where she'll be beyond all hope of recovery.  Although Hatchland expects him to speak at an Imperial Yeoman rally that evening, Charlie drops everything and takes the first train north, throwing away fame and everything that accompanies it in one heedless if admirably selfless stroke.

Evergreen Books UK, 1940
The one thing that Charlie doesn't throw away is the money the newspaper gave him - money he puts to good use by improving the lives of his sick impoverished aunt, her proud but unemployed husband and his understandably fed up, increasingly radicalized cousin Johnny.  (Another cousin, a flighty girl who works in a toffee shop, soon runs off to try her luck in what she believes will be more salubrious surroundings.)  Charlie remains in Slakeby until he can arrange for his aunt to be sent to a seaside nursing home, unsure of what his next move should be until Johnny happens to mention that a man named Kibworth, who recently spoke at the Workingman's Club he happens to belongs to, has just been arrested in a nearby town.  

The mention of Kibworth's name is enough to prompt Charlie to tell the full if still confusing story of what happened on the night the fire broke out to his Uncle Tom, who immediately advises him to do whatever needs doing in order to set the record straight.  It's Kibworth, Charlie soon realizes, who should have been praised as the real 'Wonder Hero' by the press.  The extent of his own heroism, it appears, was only to have finished putting out a fire that Kibworth began to put out soon after settling in to his 'corner' for the night - a fire caused by the same faulty wiring he'd pointed out to Charlie shortly after his arrival.  After pausing briefly to ask for and receive his uncle's blessing, Charlie leaves for London, determined to right the dreadful wrong that's been done to Kibworth and, if possible, spare him the injustice and indignity of going back to prison.  Nor is he averse to the idea of paying a call on Ida Chatwick - and perhaps even telling her how a 'nobody' like himself really feels about her - should the opportunity to do so present itself again while he's in town.

This time, London does not greet Charlie Habble like the selflessly brave hero he never actually was.  Time has moved on and the editor of the Daily Tribune, worried as always about boosting circulation, has moved on with it.  Charlie's name and face no longer mean anything to the newspaper's loyal unquestioning readers and his attempts to see Shuckleworth are no more successful than his efforts to tell the truth about what really happened in Utterton to the police, the courts and an openly contemptuous Sir Gregory Hatchland.  After arranging with a nonplussed Kibworth that he'll pay the latter's common-law wife ₤2 a week for as long as he's locked up, Charlie then turns his attention to the personally distressing problem of finding Ida Chatwick, who, according to the redhaired chambermaid they befriended during their brief but eventful stay at the New Cecil Hotel, appears to have vanished from the face of the earth.  

After taking a room in a cheap and smelly boarding house, where he's regularly accosted by the mad if harmless old woman who occupies the room next door, Charlie begins to make the rounds of the film studios and theatrical agencies, only to discover that Ida - her own prize money nearly all spent and afraid to return to Pondersley for fear of being ridiculed for having 'gotten above herself' - is living in what can only be described as straitened circumstances in an even shabbier boarding house in an even grimier part of London.  Naturally the lad declares his undying love for her, which turns out to be reciprocated, and gathers the scared weeping girl into his arms, aware, even as he does, that theirs will not be the perfect fairytale ending the movies have taught them to expect from life.  'As he held her there the light of certain knowledge broke in upon his bewildered mind: he knew that he would beg her to marry him and that he had only to persist and she would agree; he knew that she was weak and rather vain and would always be quickly dissatisfied, and was not at all the solid sensible girl that would make a good wife for a man like himself; he knew it all, and did not care: he was content with her there, heavy on his heart.  The way they would take now together would not lead to easy content, might bring trouble down on them like rain; but it was his road and hers, and they had to take it or refuse to live.  In this moment, he was not the blind happy lover, but a wise man, one for whom, for a tick or two of time, there is a pattern in the shifting muddle.'  This, it seems, is what Charlie's brief brush with fame has taught him - that happiness is a dearly bought commodity that must be clung to and enjoyed for as long as it lasts because the moment, wonderful though it may be, is bound to end sooner rather than later.

While Wonder Hero is generally not considered to be one of JB Priestley's 'great' novels - he once described it as a 'deliberately polemical, journalistic, social-moral fable' and it's certainly not the equivalent of The Good Companions (1929), Angel Pavement (1930) or his later masterpieces Bright Day (1946) and Lost Empires (1965) - it nevertheless remains a rivetting, expertly-crafted work of fiction which manages to cleverly and entertainingly combine biting contemporary satire, Dickensian humour and poignant social commentary in a way that's not in any sense dour, heavy-handed or difficult to read.  Priestley counted, among his many considerable gifts as a novelist, an infallibly accurate eye that enabled him to create and maintain an atmosphere as memorably and vividly as he was able to delineate a character's personality in just one or two short, superbly crafted sentences.  This often makes the experience of reading Wonder Hero feel closer to that of watching a film to that of reading a novel.  (It's not difficult, in fact, to imagine the book serving as the basis for some superior British comedy of the 1930s starring a young John Mills as Charlie, René Ray as a particularly wide-eyed Ida and perhaps the great Charles Laughton as a stoic Uncle Tom.)  The holes in its plot - the most gaping one being Charlie's largely unexplained decision to allow Kibworth, a known political agitator or what might nowadays be called a terrorist, to spend the night sleeping in his workplace which also happens to be crammed to the rafters with explosives - are somehow mitigated by the sheer inventiveness, verve and unrelenting pace of the narrative, which never flags once for more than two hundred and fifty incident-packed pages.  

But it's ultimately Priestley's understanding of his characters and the shamelessly venal world of what was then (and still is) Fleet Street that makes Wonder Hero so compelling and, unfortunately, so relevant to our own day and its enduring obsession with glorifying the crass, the shameless and the absurdly untalented.  Like ours, Charlie Habble's is a world of glaring social and economic inequality where the rich have all the power and media mogul spin-doctors continually get away with passing off their latest piece of uninformed rumour-mongering as 'investigative journalism.'  It's in the book's smallest and most incidental details - Kinney's self-destructive relationship with his much younger wife, the no-nonsense attitude of the New Cecil's outspoken chambermaid to the whole foolish notion of fame and how little it matters in the larger scheme of things, the descriptions of fashionable Londoners whose lust for glamour and money is matched only by their emotional and spiritual emptiness - that Priestley reveals his true stature as a novelist, one whose ability to show life as it really was without sacrificing his ability to amuse, provoke and enlighten makes him, in my view, the great unsung genius of twentieth century British literature. 

The Author:  'Contrary to some reports,' JB Priestley wrote of himself in the opening chapter of his 1962 memoir Margin Released, 'I have never been at any age a systematic hard slogger.  I have seemed to myself at all times to be lacking in determination and self-discipline.  If I have never been called indolent and irresolute, that is because hardly anybody knows anything.  I have a reputation for energy and fertility, but chiefly among fellow writers who are neither energetic nor fertile, do not want to be, and probably dislike me anyhow.  If I have written a great deal, this is largely because I have always had ideas for work to lure me on and on.  Not all these ideas were good; many were indifferent, some terrible.  But I have never been without them.' 

While these may seem strange words to come from the pen of a writer as industrious as Priestley - he was the author of more than twenty-five novels and close to thirty plays, not to mention well over a dozen works of non-fiction which included criticism, autobiographies and essays during a career which spanned more than six decades - they're indicative of both his innate common sense and his stubborn refusal to toe any line but his own.  He wrote, first and foremost, what he wanted to write, without kowtowing to the critics or making any effort to follow social, literary or theatrical trends.  He was arguably the last of the truly 'great' English writers, as crucial to the future's perception of the first half of twentieth century as Shakespeare and Dickens are and will remain to future human perceptions of their respective eras.  Love his work or loathe it - which many did because his fourth novel The Good Companions (1929) had the misfortune to become a runaway bestseller that helped to cheer up millions of unhappy people at the beginning of what proved to be a long, hard and bitterly cruel Depression - his power to entertain, provoke and ask difficult but essential questions of himself and his readers cannot be denied.

John Priestley, affectionately known as 'Jack' to his family, was born in the Yorkshire mill town of Bradford on 13 September 1894.  (The 'B' in his name stood for 'Boynton,' which he added to it as a young man to help differentiate himself from his schoolmaster father, Jonathan Priestley.)  His mother Emma, who had worked in one of the city's wool mills before meeting and marrying his comparatively well-to-do father, died when he was very young, leaving him to be raised largely by his stepmother, a generous and much beloved woman named Amy.  He was, as he noted in his memoir, 'happy at home...I had a stepmother who defied tradition by always being kind, gentle, loving.'  Priestley was also close to his father, from whom he inherited his lively sense of humour, his strong social conscience and the desire to improve the lot of his fellow men by attacking and, if necessary, dismantling the prevailing status quo.  These socialistic tendencies did not prevent young Jack from enjoying the company of others or indulging what proved to be his lifelong passion for music, access to which was easily gained by visiting Bradford's many concert rooms, theatres and music halls.  Indeed, it was as a musician and actor that he first hoped to make his mark in the world, with much of his early writing being confined to the composition of comical skits intended for the stage.

Priestley attended local schools in Bradford until the age of sixteen, getting his first job - as a clerk with the city wool firm Helm and Company - in 1910.  He did this, he later admitted, to stop his father worrying that he might go through life without a profession and because he had no plan of his own beyond the knowledge that somehow, some way, he was destined to be a writer.  Having read compulsively as a boy, he now began writing in the same compulsive manner with one of his unperformed skits, Secrets of the Ragtime King, eventually being accepted, at the impressive fee of one guinea, for publication by the magazine London Opinion.  This was followed by a series of columns titled Round The Hearth which appeared in The Bradford Pioneer, a local Labour Party publication.  He also wrote a book of poetry which he had printed and bound at his own expense in 1914 prior to volunteering for service in The Duke of Wellington's West Riding Regiment, thinking it would serve as some sort of memorial to him should he be killed in action.  (He later destroyed all but a few copies of this book.)
By 1915 he was in Flanders, serving in the trenches and receiving the first of several wounds, one of which proved serious enough to see him invalided back to England the following year.  He underwent officer training following his convalescence and returned to the trenches in 1917, where he was gassed and once again sent home to England, where he served out the rest of the war in an administrative position while fully expecting to be 'sent back' to the front again at any moment.  Although he never wrote a full-length work about his war experiences, what happened to him and his friends in Flanders would, in a sense, underpin everything he would later write, do, say or stand for as both an author and as a human being.  'Unlike most of my contemporaries who wrote so well about the war,' he once stated, 'I was deeply divided between the tragedy and comedy of it...I felt, as indeed I still feel today and must go on feeling until I die, the open wound, never to be healed, of my generation's fate, the best sorted out and then slaughtered, not by hard necessity but mainly by huge murderous public folly.  On the other hand, military life itself, the whole Army "carry-on," as we used to say, observed closely, seemed to me essentially comic, the most expensive farce ever contrived.'  His war experiences prompted him to investigate the nature of time and related subjects such as predestination and precognitive dreaming - subjects that would later inspire many of his finest works for the stage including Dangerous Corner (1932), Time and the Conways (1937) and his dramatic masterpiece An Inspector Calls (1946).

Priestley's status as an officer entitled him to receive a small, government-provided study grant after the war, money he used to help pay his way through Cambridge University, where he read English Literature, History and Political Science and would remain, feeling very much the unwanted outsider, until 1921.  Although he excelled academically and even toyed with the idea of accepting several teaching posts at foreign universities after gaining his degree, he remained committed to the belief that he must and should become a writer - a belief nurtured by the invitation to become a regular contributor of articles to newspapers published in his native Yorkshire and, in time, to others based in London.  It was to the latter city that he relocated in 1922, taking along his new bride - a former Bradford librarian named Pat Tempest whom he'd known since boyhood and had maintained a regular correspondence with throughout the war years - and the essays that would be collectively published, in 1922, as Brief Diversions. 

The early 1920s saw Priestley juggling his new responsibilities as husband and father with his need to earn a living - a challenge which saw him combine the writing of dozens of essays and book reviews with a job as a reader for the UK publishing house of Heinemann.  (One of the many young authors whose work he evaluated and praised during this period was Graham Greene, an author he would ironically threaten to sue after Greene unflatteringly satirized him as 'Quin Savory, author of The Great Gay Round' in his 1932 novel Stamboul Train.  The case was settled privately, with Greene agreeing to change the character to make him less Priestley-like in exchange for having the case against him dropped.)  He contributed to a variety of publications, including Liliput and The New Statesman, and began to move in the same circles as HG Wells, GK Chesterton, Arnold Bennett and other literary giants of the day.  His most important literary friendship was with the novelist Hugh Walpole, with whom he would later collaborate on the novel Farthing Hall (1929).  His own first novel, Adam in Moonshine, appeared in 1927 and was followed a year later by the macabre tale Benighted, adapted for the cinema as The Old Dark House in 1932.

The joy that should have accompanied the birth of Priestley's second daughter was blighted by the news that his wife Pat, who was only twenty-eight at the time, was suffering from inoperable bladder cancer.  While he did everything possible to help ease his wife's suffering, Priestley could ultimately do nothing to delay her protracted and very painful death - a horror he strove to avoid by throwing himself ever more diligently into his work.  Pat died in 1925 and in September 1926 he married Jane Wyndham Lewis, ex-wife of English journalist and critic DB Wyndham Lewis, with whom he would go on to have three more children before they eventually divorced in 1953.

It was the tragedy of his first wife's death, and the untimely death of his beloved father soon afterwards, which inspired Priestley to write The Good Companions - a long, lighthearted (which is not the same thing as being 'light' or disposable), delightfully picaresque novel about a group of social misfits who combine their various talents to form and run a concert party.  Although his publisher and several of his friends advised him not to write such a lengthy and potentially unpopular book, he characteristically ignored their advice, creating a work - which he described as 'a long happy daydream' - that went on to establish him, virtually overnight, as a major English novelist.  Its success was repeated with the darker, more socially damning Angel Pavement (1930) and from that point on he never looked back, writing and publishing novels and stories that are as diverse in their themes and settings as they are inventive, stylistically adventurous and astute in their dissections of British society in all its hypocritical, class-conscious pretentiousness.  He would combine the writing of fiction with the writing of non-fiction works like English Journey (1934) - an evocative, thought-provoking and sometimes highly critical 'travel book' that's now considered, along with George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), to be a classic of its kind.   

Although he collaborated on a theatrical adaptation of The Good Companions, it was not until 1932 that Priestley produced his first original drama for the stage.  Dangerous Corner, the first of his 'time plays,' was written, he said, 'in a week, chiefly to prove that a man might produce long novels and yet be able to write effectively, using the strictest economy, for the stage.'  It was, at first, loathed by the London critics, but luckily the producer refused to be pressured into cancelling its pre-booked run.  Eventually it went on to have a respectable run in the West End and to become Priestley's most performed work in his own lifetime (a record since shattered, many times over, by An Inspector Calls).  Its success, modest though it was in theatrical terms, encouraged him to write nearly thirty other plays and to form his own production company - an endeavour he was warned, by no less a personage than George Bernard Shaw himself, that would automatically lead to permanent financial ruin.  But Shaw, as he was about so many things, was wrong about that.  Until his best-known novels began to be reprinted by small publishers like Great Northern Books and the Valancourt Press in the early years of the new millennium, it was chiefly as a dramatist that most people knew Priestley if, in fact, they knew of him or of his work at all.  A 1992 revival of An Inspector Calls broke all box office records in London and everywhere else it played, perhaps confirming its author's long-held belief that he was a far better playwright than he ever was a novelist (an opinion that I, for one, would strongly dispute).

The war years saw Priestley conquer yet another new medium - radio.  Beginning in 1940, he offered a series of nightly broadcasts under the title of Postscripts in which he strove to remind people of all that was good and noble about the British way of life and why fighting Hitler and the Nazis was so vital to the continuation of human civilization.  These broadcasts, which aired directly after the BBC Nine O'Clock News, proved so popular that the cabinet of Winston Churchill - a group already suspicious of Priestley's avowedly leftist views and his calls for post-war social and political reform - gave negative reports about them to the Prime Minister, resulting in Priestley being banished from the airwaves despite enjoying what was a large, enthusiastic and extremely loyal following.  

His removal from the airwaves did not prevent the banned broadcaster from accepting the Chairmanship of what came to be known as 'the 1941 Committee' - a group of politicians, writers and other persons of influence who, in 1942, published a Nine Point Plan which called for major post-war reform in the areas of education, employment, health and public housing.  Priestley, who had an instinctive distrust of organisations and despised any form of political dogma, soon stepped down from the Committee (which went on to transform itself into the Common Wealth Party under the leadership of ex-Liberal MP Richard Acland).  The immense popularity of his wartime broadcasts was viewed by many as being a decisive factor in the Labour Party's 1945 landslide election victory - a victory which promised to change the nation for the better but led instead, and much to Priestley's publicly expressed disgust, to the wholesale Americanization of British life and the irresponsible destruction of much of the nation's irreplaceable social, cultural and architectural heritage.  The post-war period also saw him become a cranky and very vocal critic of the Cold War and the escalating arms race - criticism which led to him becoming a founding member, along with his third wife the writer and archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s Priestley increasingly saw himself cast in the unwanted and unpopular role of 'The Voice of the Establishment' - a kind of irascible Northern grandfather figure who, with his ever-present pipe dangling from the corner of his mouth, seemed to represent everything the younger generation felt it necessary to criticize if not vociferously condemn.  Although he never stopped writing - his final novel Found, Lost, Found appeared in 1976 - his work was increasingly seen as belonging to a bygone era that had little, if anything, to do with the 'modern' England of a younger generation of 'Angry Young Men' like John Osbourne, John Braine and Stan Barstow.  (Braine and Barstow were, ironically, keen admirers of his work, with the former, a fellow son of Bradford, going on to publish a critical biography of him in 1981.)  Priestley's became a frequently seen face on television, discussing the CND, the future of the theatre or sharing his memories of the war years, but his work fell increasingly out of favour as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s - despite his collaboration with Iris Murdoch on the well-received 1964 play A Severed Head - with much of it being out of print by the time he died on 14 August 1984, far from his native soil in the Warwickshire town of Stratford-on-Avon.

Priestley's position in the canon of English literature, for so long undefined, now seems secure thanks to his recent 're-discovery' courtesy of the many record-breaking revivals of An Inspector Calls.  But the feeling that he might not be as impressed by his 're-discovery' as he perhaps should be, were he still alive to enjoy it, remains, for me, inescapable.  'I am too conventional for the avant-garde; too experimental for Aunt Edna; too extroverted for the introverts, too introverted for the out-and-out extroverts; a lowbrow to highbrows, a highbrow to lowbrows...The most lasting reputation I have,' he went on to say of himself in the final chapter of Margin Released, 'is for an almost ferocious aggressiveness, when in fact I am amiable, indulgent, affectionate, shy and rather timid at heart.  Thou has no enemy but thyself.  I know; and I have quoted it first.'  Whatever else he may have been, JB Priestley was first and foremost a gifted and courageous writer, unafraid to wear his heart and his genuine concern for humanity and its imperilled future on his sleeve in a way that was abhorrent to those who lacked his commitment and, as time has shown, his talent for showing us the collective as well as the individual errors of our ways.

To learn more about the life and work of JB PRIESTLEY,  visit  You can also click HERE to visit the website of the UK-based JB PRIESTLEY SOCIETY, an organisation dedicated to preserving his work and ensuring it receives at least some of the overdue critical and academic attention it has thus far been denied.

The Yorkshire-based UK publisher Great Northern Books has reissued much of JB PRIESTLEY's best-known work, including the novels The Good Companions (1929), Angel Pavement (1930), Bright Day (1946) and Lost Empires (1965) and selected works of his equally fine non-fiction including English Journey (1934) and Delight (1949).  The US publisher Valancourt Press is doing the same with several of his lesser-known but no less interesting works of fiction, a list which so far includes Benighted (1927), The Doomsday Men (1938), The Other Place and Other Stories (1953), The Magicians (1954), Saturn Over the Water (1961), The Shapes of Sleep (1962) and his only detective novel Salt is Leaving (1966).  (Hopefully Wonder Hero will soon be added to the list.  In the meantime, ABE Books has many copies available on its website, starting from approximately $1US. **Be aware, however, that the shipping fees charged by the Amazon-owned ABE Books are often outrageously high!)  

Classical Comics UK, 2012
A graphic novel adaptation of An Inspector Calls, written by JASON COBLEY and illustrated by WILL VOLLEY, was published by UK publisher Classical Comics in March 2012.  This title, along with those published by Great Northern Books, Valancourt Press and the UK drama publisher Oberon Books - the company responsible for publishing JB PRIESTLEY's collected plays in four volumes - can all be purchased via your local bookstore or favourite online retailer.

You can also visit the excellent Wordpress blog Leaves & Pages to read thought-provoking reviews of several other books by JB PRIESTLEY, including The Good Companions (1929) and Lost Empires (1965), by clicking HERE. 

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