Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Dunkirk and J.B. Priestley

We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. (The Inspector, J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls)

We're not really civilians any longer but a mixed lot of soldiers - machine minding soldiers, milkmen and postmen soldiers - and what a gallant corps that is - even broadcasting soldiers. (J.B. Priestley, Postscript)

I've just been listening the J.B. Priestley's Postscripts on Radio 4. These were broadcast during wartime. There was a place in the schedule after the news, when Germany was broadcasting its "Lord Haw-Haw" radio programmes, and a surprising number of people tuned in to listen to it. The BBC riposte was to set up a short broadcast of its own called "Postscript", which would allow a reflection upon news and events.

The first Postscripts were rambling, and while pleasant, did not really address the darkest days of the war; it was almost as if they had been broadcast from another planet. A variety of presenters were tried. Then the BBC asked J.B. Priestley to do a series of "Postscripts", and this is part of the one from Dunkirk; Priestley captured the mood of the nation, and with his regional accent, in sharp contrast to the cut glass received pronounciation of BBC presenters of the day, came across as "one of us",
and one who had seen wartime service - he had been in the trenches twenty five years earlier:

I wonder how many of you feel as I do about this great Battle and evacuation of Dunkirk. The news of it came as a series of surprises and shocks, followed by equally astonishing new waves of hope. What strikes me about it is how typically English it is. Nothing, I feel, could be more English both in its beginning and its end, its folly and its grandeur. We have gone sadly wrong like this before, and here and now we must resolve never, never to do it again. 

What began as a miserable blunder, a catalogue of misfortunes ended as an epic of gallantry. We have a queer habit - and you can see it running through our history - of conjuring up such transformations. And to my mind what was most characteristically English about it was the part played not by the warships but by the little pleasure-steamers. 

We've known them and laughed at them, these fussy little steamers, all our lives. These 'Brighton Belles' and 'Brighton Queens' left that innocent foolish world of theirs to sail into the inferno, to defy bombs, shells, magnetic mines, torpedoes, machine-gun fire - to rescue our soldiers.

But now - look - this little steamer, like all her brave and battered sisters, is immortal. She'll go sailing proudly down the years in the epic of Dunkirk. And our great grand-children, when they learn how we began this War by snatching glory out of defeat, and then swept on to victory, may also learn how the little holiday steamers made an excursion to hell and came back glorious.

But as one who had been in the First World War, Priestley was acutely aware of how the ideals of "a land fit for heroes" had been so betrayed in the inter war years. He survived that, but was partially deafened for the rest of his life by a mortar shell explosion, and in 1918, before the end of the war, gassed and discharged as unfit for active service. So he knew the nature of sacrifice. As he saw this, it was "The open wound, never to be healed, of my generation's fate, the best sorted out and then slaughtered."

So in his Postscripts, he was also telling people that they must see what they are fighting for, and if they are making sacrifices, it must be for a better world, and not just the status quo

We cannot go forward and build up this new world order, and this is our war aim, unless we begin to think differently one must stop thinking in terms of property and power and begin thinking in terms of community and creation. Take the change from property to community. Property is the old-fashioned way of thinking of a country as a thing, and a collection of things in that thing, all owned by certain people and constituting property; instead of thinking of a country as the home of a living society with the community itself as the first test...

And I'll give you an instance of how this change should be working. Near where I live is a house with a large garden, that's not being used at all because the owner of it has gone to America. Now, according to the property view, this is all right, and we, who haven't gone to America, must fight to protect this absentee owner's property. But on the community view, this is all wrong. 

There are hundreds of working men not far from here who urgently need ground for allotments so that they can produce a bit more food. Also, we may soon need more houses for billeting. Therefore, I say, that house and garden ought to be used whether the owner, who's gone to America, likes it or not.

During his broadcasts, the Blitz was raining a hailstorm of bombs nightly over London. He kept broadcasting through the Blitz, and only narrowly escaped death, as he relates in his reflective semi-autobiography, "Margin Released".

I refer to my wartime broadcasting, or at least to those broadcasts I made for listeners at home. This qualification is necessary because my chief task on the air, which I had to undertake on top of a lot of other work, was broadcasting several times a week, always very late at night, to America, the Dominions, and in fact, through recordings transmitted every hour or so, to all parts of the world where English was understood. These were longer than my home talks; there were of course far more of them; and the conditions in which they were written and delivered, especially during the Blitz periods, were not always easy.

Nevertheless, it was an extra broadcast to Canada, which I undertook with much grumbling, that probably saved my life. This was in September 1940. I had just moved into the Langham Hotel, to be close to Broadcasting House and the ate-night job. I had done two broadcasts on the Sunday, and would be up late again on Tuesday, so, being free on Monday night, I decided to go to bed early for the sleep I badly needed. 

But then a message came from across the road, begging me to do an extra broadcast on the Blitz specially for Canada. Growling and cursing, I agreed to do it, and left the Langham for Broadcasting House while the going was still good. I never returned to the Langham. 

That was the right when bombs fell all round Broadcasting House. The room in which I had planned to enjoy an early night was in that part of the hotel which was sliced off by a bomb. Probably that early night would have lasted for ever.

Sadly, Priestley's bluff way of speaking his mind made him powerful enemies from those members of society who did want to very much keep the establishment just as it was, and they didn't

The head of BBC radio talks, Sir Richard Maconachie noted that "Priestley has definite social and political views which he puts over in his broadcasts and through these broadcasts he is, I think, exercising an important influence on what people are thinking."

Priestley was not unaware of that, and in his final Postscripts, he hit back at his critics:

Stupid persons have frequently accused me in public of taking advantage of my position to bring party politics into my talks. This is extremely ironical because I am not a member of any political party. I've no close personal relations with any prominent members of any party, and no expectations from the success of any particular party. Whereas it is obvious to me that these critics of mine are members of a political party and that their criticism comes from them taking a narrow party line. 

It is not I, but they who put party before country for I've never even learned to think in terms of a political party. And the most I've asked for in these talks is that we should mean what we say, be really democratic while fighting for democracy and that we should make some attempt to discover the deeper causes of this war and try and find a remedy for them. 

If all this, together with certain elements of social justice and decency, seems to you socialism, communism or anarchy then you are at liberty to call me a socialist, communist or anarchist though I would implore you to stop pasting on labels and instead think a little.

I think that Priestley is still timeless today, and speaks to those of us who want to fight suffering and injustice, but are not happy with party ideologies, and want to think a little beyond the labels.

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