JB Priestley and the return of elegant grumbling

A new collection of the great writer’s essays arrives at a timely moment for the form

In the days after Brexit, some newspapers experienced a sharp lift in sales, people being in need both of information and, perhaps, the relative calm of newsprint, a realm so much less frantic than that of the internet. At the time, I was reading a new collection of essays by JB Priestley – as it happens, initially a sceptic when it came to the EEC – and I couldn’t help but wonder: in the weeks and months ahead, will this particular form, long out of fashion, also experience a renaissance? I hope so. A good essay is like a good cocktail. It goes down relatively quickly, and yet it perks you up no end.

The publisher of the collection, Grumbling at Large, is Notting Hill Editions – founded by Tom Kremer, the man who discovered and licensed the Rubik’s Cube, specifically to reinvigorate the art of the essay – and like all its books, it’s a lovely thing to hold in the hand. It also comes with an entertaining introduction by its editor, Valerie Grove, in which, among other things, she explains how she came up with its title. Priestley was a West Yorkshireman, built for a certain kind of carping. As he put it: “I have always been a grumbler. I was designed for the part, for I have a sagging face, a weighty underlip... ‘a saurian eye’, and a rumbling but resonant voice from which it is hard to escape.”

Grove wasn’t able to include Priestley’s essay on the Common Market; his son, Tom, a passionate Remainer, forbade it. But the book does include several of the stirring Postscripts he broadcast on the BBC during the war (“this land that is ours… is at this moment only just outside the reach of the self-tormenting schemers and their millions who are used as if they were not human beings but automata, robots, mere ‘things’,” he writes, moved by the lovely June weather of 1940). I think my favourite piece, though, is the one he published in 1977, on old age (he was then 83, and hating it). In it, he writes of how all his old Fleet Street friends are now dead, leaving only him and one other pal to exchange letters – an experience he likens mournfully but beautifully to “two small ships flashing signals across a huge darkness”.

Grumbling at Large is published by Notting Hill Editions (£14.99). Click here to buy it for £12.29

Contributor

Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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