J. B. Priestley by L.R. Reeve

Another piece from the papers of L.R. Reeve*. He never met Priestley but saw him speak and even appears to have been pointed at by the great man.


J. B. Priestley may during his adult life have sometimes failed to reach his usual high standard. Certainly I have at times experienced an uneasy feeling that some passages have galloped along giving a faint impression of superficiality, a suspicion of slickness, pretentiousness, and pot-boiling. Yet I would forgive him half-a-dozen trifling contributions because of the heart-lifting, sustained enjoyment arising from The Good Companions, which I encountered more than thirty years ago, and have read again in 1969 with even more pleasure than at the first reading: a fact which leaves me wondering why thirty years on, when one is supposed to reach a plateau of jaded thrills and fancies, the enjoyment of an earlier book is assuredly enhanced. It may be that one's appreciation of a classic increases after many years of weary persistence in studying second-rate literature which misguided critics have informed us are masterpieces; or it may be that when one's knowledge of the human condition is greater than in early days, the better we are able to appreciate a perfect delineation of real men and women.
  Priestley's Angel Pavement when first read was a disappointment to me after The Good Companions. Yet I felt his evocative power was sure and of the highest grade; and when in my club library soon after the book was published a discussion arose on its merits a number of the members were very impressed when a city man informed us that the author's analysis of the various characters in the novel was uncannily true, and the shrewdest summing up of city types he had ever read. During that discussion I was somewhat sceptical, yet having after all those years read the story again maybe the city man's judgment is a true one, for the portrayed men and women are not puppets or ghostly characters; they are vivid, pulsating, emotional, jealous, generous people whom one meets daily on a suburban line. Given a few months one can assemble chance remarks like a jig-saw puzzle and make a fairly accurate assessment of certain types of people.
  Then what about his plays? When We are Married still makes me smile in retrospect. The gusto, the wit, the touch of cynicism, primitive woman peeping out when the wives wonder if they have after all been living in sin, and their clever portrayal of calculating thought and dawning suspicion of having been about as moral as the uninhibited girls of joy around Albany, all help to create a rib-aching response to the theatre-goer.
  Furthermore, his autobiography. Having lived in the north for a number of years I hear again the robust dialect, quick-witted men and women, welcoming encounters with people who trust you until they find you out, and revive recollections of animated political arguments with realistic folk whose opinions are derived from a genuine study of national government. It is certain moreover that anyone who has read Priestley's memoirs before visiting Bradford would realize repeatedly on arrival that the author's portrait of a Yorkshire industrial town is perfect. In addition, his early days in Bradford, followed by reminders to ex-service men of arduous training, sordid anguished months of necessary, demoralizing servitude for all ranks, from the frightened private to the highest Field-Marshal in a system built up gradually and remorselessly through the ages, until the emergence of a human robot; and then some magic pages of memories of the ancient university of Cambridge, leading to faultless descriptions of contemporary masters of literature, such as George Bernard Shaw, Arnold Bennett, Hugh Walpole, H. G. Wells, Frank Swinnerton are all knitted together in a volume which is a literary gold-mine for the general reader and students alike.
  The Sunday broadcasts by Priestley during the war heartened millions of listeners. Apart from the great Churchill most would agree that whoever suggested that the Yorkshireman should lift up our hearts had a flash of genius.
  I may have already mentioned his speech at a public meeting in the Central Hall, Westminster. When I recall that competent, thoughtful, incisive, really brilliant effort it would be no exaggeration to assert that his arguments regarding the liberty of the press were the most persuasive and original I ever heard; and his pointing finger in our direction was one of the most effective gestures during a remarkable afternoon. Then as regards speeches at the festive board, should some enterprising journal organize a competition to choose the dozen best after-dinner speakers in our tight little island, I should expect Priestley's name to be top of the list. His speech at one of Foyle's fairly recent luncheons was a gem.
  In spite of his obsessional interest in the phenomenon of Time, we still have in our midst one of the most brilliant minds of the century. Should anyone still feel a lingering doubt, try reading Dorothy Whipple's Random Commentary.
  Another highlight was when he returned to England after a lecture tour in America and gave an account of his experiences at a reunion of old students. One of his most enjoyable memories concerned a young American student who informed him after one lecture, that she couldn't understand a word he said, but she just loved to hear him talk.
  This great Devonian chose St Ives, Cornwall, for his retirement. In spite of his failing eyesight his restless spirit permitted no letting up of sharing his well-stored knowledge with students, for he wrote at least one more publication for the benefit of those in the world of education.

* From the papers of the long defunct literary agency Michael Hayes of Cromwell Road S.W.5  - parts of a manuscript memoir by one L.R. Reeve of Newton Abbot, South Devon. Mr Reeve was attempting to get the book (Among those Present: Very Exceptional People) published, but on the evidence of the unused stamp Hayes never replied and  L. R. Reeve published the book himself through the esteemed vanity publisher Stockwell two years later in 1974.

L R Reeve had, in a long life, met or observed a remarkable selection of famous persons. He presents 'vignettes' of 110 persons from all grades of society (many minor or even unknown) they include Winston Churchill, Dorothy Sayers,  H H Asquith, John Buchan, the cricketer Jack Hobbs, J.B. Priestley, H.G. Wells, Marconi, E.M. Forster, Duchess of Atholl, Marie Stopes, Oliver Lodge and Cecil Sharp -- 'it is unnecessary to explain that  many have known have not known me. All of them I have seen, most of them I have heard, and some of them have sought information, even advice from me." Reeve states that the unifying qualification all these people have is '… some subtle emanation of personality we call leadership, and which can inspire people to actions  unlikely to be undertaken unless prompted by a stronger will."

Reeve was a teacher throughout his life and deputy head of 3 London schools, headmaster of Loughborough emergency schools, ex-president of London Class Teachers Association  and very early member of the British Psychological Society (55 years)... I calculate he was probably born in about 1900. His style is markedly unexciting but he has much information unavailable elsewhere.. He sent several typed manuscripts to (from the smell) the chain-smoking agent Hayes…

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