On Radio

Remembering an unfashionable writer

BBC Radio 4 attempts to resurrect fallen literary figures.

How the lauded ones fall from favour is a mystery. It seems only the day before yesterday that Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch were accorded an honoured place in our literary life. Now they have dropped off fashion’s cliff, though it’s always wise to remember what Tom Courtenay said of fashion, “when you see who is considered to be ‘in’, it’s such a relief to be out”.

For three decades after the publication of The Good Companions in 1929, Jolly Jack Priestley was an unignorable presence. These days his novels are read by few, and the only play anyone cares to revive is An Inspector Calls. So it was a bright idea of Stuart Maconie, one of Radio 4’s favoured hummingbirds, to ask “Whatever Became of JB Priestley?”

First, he went to Bradford, where Priestley was born in 1894, and got blank looks from locals. Mind you, it’s not only in the West Riding where ignorance is king. A letter writer to the Daily Telegraph once said that to be seen reading a book in parts of Manchester would be regarded as an act of provocation.

he has never quite shaken off the equally malign curse of inverted snobbery

Yapping away in his “I may read books but I’m from the East Lancs Road” manner, Maconie did not really answer his own question. The man he championed was the cosy radio essayist, chronicler of England, and small-s socialist. “Someone,” Maconie didn’t quite say, “like me.” The only novel he ticked was the picaresque romp which made Priestley’s reputation.

He pushed the boat out too far when he tried to pass Priestley off as a maverick and a public intellectual. He was really a weaver of well-made tales which swam against the tide of modernism, and a broadcaster with a reassuring voice. As for the scoffers like Virginia Woolf, he would probably have gone along with Noël Coward: “I was forced to console myself with the bitter palliative of commercial success … which I enjoyed very much indeed”.

Maconie is no snob, as he reminds listeners every time he addresses them, which is often. However, as a man who once damned rugby union as “a game played by solicitors”, he has never quite shaken off the equally malign curse of inverted snobbery, and it was on parade here, shaded by the “scholars” he summoned.

One lady thought Priestley contributed more usefully to the fight against Hitler than Winston Churchill, who was a good war leader only “in some respects”. Another 40-watter, regretting the absence of well-known figures in public debate, suggested that Gary Lineker was Priestley’s successor. Where do they find ’em?
Maconie also consulted teenagers at an Altrincham school, who were studying An Inspector Calls. They trotted out familiar platitudes about that warhorse, and “tolerance” is indeed a quality to be admired, but they were mouthing lines fed to them by a man who sought confirmation of his own views. Then, rather feebly, he told them Priestley liked young people, so they skipped home wearing broad smiles.

It could, and should, have been better. Still, if he persuaded readers to go back to the books, Maconie served a noble cause. The Good Companions is a rollicking read, and Lost Empires, from 1965, makes a lively pendant. Of the plays, The Linden Tree is worth a revival, and there was a time when the National Theatre would have had a go. Until fashion’s wheel turns, however, Jolly Jack will languish in the doghouse.

The other Amis, Martin, popped up on The Last Word, when Matthew Bannister asked Dan Franklin, the writer’s publisher, to summarise his client’s achievements. Amis fils, he declared, captured the sulphurous mood of the Eighties, when greed was good. Boilerplate stuff we’ve read a hundred times before.

You would expect a writer blessed with so keen an ear to know we say “arse” on this side of the Atlantic

It’s striking that father and son were both 73 when they died. But whereas Kingsley entered middle age at 40, and was ancient at 60, ruined by booze, Martin looked forever young. He also wrote young. Did the marvellous boy, shoved by friends towards an Alpine peak he could not conquer, ever escape the foothills of adolescence?

He was clever, sure, but it was a closeted cleverness, which failed to attract the general readership his father enjoyed. The young man read a lot of Saul Bellow, another cold fish of impeccable intellectual gifts, and never got over it. His dish was a metropolitan ragout, sprinkled with flakes of condescension.

It didn’t help that he spoke in such an affected manner. Interviewed on television by Melvyn Bragg, he drawled about “a pain in the ass”, dragging the word out so extravagantly that it sounded like “airsss”.
You would expect a writer blessed with so keen an ear to know we say “arse” on this side of the Atlantic, though he might have marked that down as a Little Englandism he left this island to avoid.

A writer’s reputation, he said, is settled after death when “the colander of history” (Bernard Levin) catches what is valuable. It’s a fair bet Lucky Jim, Jake’s Thing and The Old Devils will remain, because Kingsley at his best was so funny. It’s harder to predict a safe journey for Money, because its creator didn’t care much for people. Though as the man with the wooden leg told his doctor, it’s a matter of opinion.

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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