Jolly Jack

J.B. Priestley was known to the public as as a grumpy old man, but that was just a mask

You might say that Grumbling At Large, a slim pocket collection of J.B. Priestley’s essays (edited by Valerie Grove, Notting Hill Editions, £14.99), just confirms the image, known to millions for half a century, of a grumpy old man (“Jolly Jack”). Even the cover quotes his own self-portrait with “sagging face, a weighty under-lip, a saurian eye and rumbling voice”. But for me that was a mask. His early volume Delights shows the intense joys of his long life —  self-congratulation, hilly views, “magical moments”, the Adagio in Elgar’s First Symphony, “a meeting of eyes above tea-cups”.

Our friendship began in 1957 when, as a nervous new wife of Paul (then assistant editor of the New Statesman) Johnson, we were invited for the weekend to Kissing Tree House, the first and grandest of many Priestley homes, a mile or two from Stratford-on-Avon. Cocktails were served from a walk-in cabinet concealed among fine shelves of books in the library. Jacquetta, his third wife, a stately lady with a wry smile, hosted a three-course dinner during which Jack and Paul discussed the recent Priestley article which inspired CND.

“Ye can coom dawn in y’dressing gawn, Marigold,” I was told, “breakfast is at 8.30.”

“Don’t you dare,” said Paul in bed.

So, dressed and on time, I came down and gazed at a huge sideboard of silver salvers with kippers, sausages, and fishcakes.

“What’ll you ’ave?” growled the old man in his huge brown robe.

“Could I just have coffee, please?”

“Hrmmph — I can see you never served in the trenches.” Silence until Paul appeared.

But two hours later, work done to an escort of loud symphonic music, Jack took my arm for an hour’s walk round the village green, a benign and witty granddad.
At intervals, such weekend friendship revived, with glamorous dinner guests such as Peggy Ashcroft as well as the CND leader Canon Collins. I even hosted 20 or so marchers myself for a night en route from Aldermaston. Paul was, luckily, on a US speaking trip.

None of these essays sounds gloomy or outrageous today. Priestley hated airports, old age, Las Vegas and conferences; he loved tobacco, “real life” as opposed to “the classroom”, and women. He considered America and Russia (in 1957) too full of masculine values; yang not yin. The plays continue to please (specially schools), maybe the long novels too. All 26 essays in this most readable little book convey the mix felt, and engendered, by Priestley the man, who ends in 1977: “I have a genius for being misunderstood, for instance, about happiness.”

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