After my break from reading essays to tackle Vanity Fair (inspired by the John Sutherland essay collection), I am now reading yet another essay collection, having been inspired to do so by reading a novel. A nice bit of circular inspiration I feel. To make all clear, I recently read JB Priestley’s Angel Pavement that I bought second-hand in Blessington, which reminded me that I had his essay collection Delight tucked away on our shelves, unread since 2009. After finishing Angel Pavement, I had an urge to re-read something of Priestley’s (English Journey perhaps) but then remembered I had the essays. As always, it’s amazing how often serendipity comes into play when deciding what to read next. At least, by reading Delight, I am actually reducing the TBR Pile (which of course, I had previously increased by buying Angel Pavement etc). At this rate, there will always be a humongous TBR Pile (but then you knew that already, didn’t you?)
To return to the book in question however, Delight is a collection of short essays, originally published in 1949 by Heinemann. The edition I have is an attractive sixtieth anniversary edition, published by Great Northern Books with an introduction by Priestley’s son Tom. There are 114 short pieces, varying from three to just one page in length. The background to the essays is that Priestley wanted to write something to help to cheer up the post-war gloom. He also had something to prove to his family and friends about the perception that he never found pleasure in anything. JB Priestley’s preface is subtitled ‘The Grumbler’s Apology’ and he goes on to explain how he acquired a reputation for being a bit of grumbler.
I have always been a grumbler. All the records, going back to earliest childhood, establish this fact. Probably I arrived here a malcontent, convinced that I had been sent to the wrong planet. (And I feel even now that there is something in this.) I was designed for the part, for I have a sagging face, a weighty underlip, What am I told is ‘a saurian eye’, and a rumbling but resonant voice from which it is difficult to escape. Money could not buy a better grumbling outfit.
In the West Riding of Yorkshire, where I spent my first nineteen years, all local customs and prejudices favour the grumbler. To a good West Riding type there is something shameful about praise, that soft Southern trick. But fault-finding and blame are constant and hearty. The edge of criticism up there is sharpened every morning…I have grumbled all over the world, across seas, on mountains, in deserts. I have grumbled as much at home as abroad, and so I have been the despair of my womenfolk.
As I don’t hail from Yorkshire, but the Midlands I was intrigued by this portrayal of the Yorkshire attitude. I have always viewed Yorkshire folks as a no-nonsense breed and the idea that they were sparing of praise makes sense to me. But any Yorkshire people out there are welcome to put me straight. Since I’m not of ‘soft Southern’ breeding either, I will keep out of the argument. The only thing I will add is that I do feel that having a good old grumble can be quite therapeutic in its effect. Oh, and furthermore, that I tend not to go overboard on praise either (‘not too bad’ is high praise in my book); but whether that is a Midlander’s trait or not I cannot say with any certainty. I can say that I enjoyed roving through Priestley’s many and varied delightful experiences.
In Delight then, Priestley set out to prove that despite being a right old Yorkshire grumbler, he was still able to find pleasure in many things. Not only that, his aim was to share his ‘Box of Delights’ with the post-war readers who wanted something to smile about. The collection of short essays mainly focuses on the small, simple things in life that give us delight. A Guardian review of the reprint points out that some of the ‘delights’ would most likely be lost on a modern audience, but that many would still resonate. I’m not sure I agree with that, after all I have never been a pipe smoker but I can appreciate Priestley’s fondness for choosing just the right tobacco mixture.
Part of the pleasure in reading in these pieces comes from a sense of recognising and sharing the emotion caused by the sight of fountains, waiting for the curtain to go up or buying books. I can also understand and share Priestley’s delight in the pleasure of unearned income, whether it is a small windfall or his profit from selling review copies to a local bookshop. The rest of the pleasure comes from Priestley’s writing style, which is clear and simple but not ‘dumbed-down’. His voice has humour lurking just behind it as he talks about the comparatively ordinary delights of life. This humour may however, harbour a spike should the occasion demand it, such as in recalling a critic who told Priestley that his writing ‘always seems to me too simple’. Priestley referred to this man as a ‘youngish fellow whose personality (though not his values) I respect’. He went to say that to the critic and his ilk, ‘Writing that was hard to understand was like a password to their secret society’.
Priestley genuinely wanted to be able to reach anyone and everyone with his ideas and clearly felt that writing in a clear style that excluded nobody, was the way to do it. He wrote, ‘Some contemporary critics would be better occupied solving chess problems and breaking down ciphers. They are no customers of mine, and I do not display my goods to catch their eye’. Well, you can’t say fairer than that, I suppose that’s the Yorkshire sharpness coming out. Priestley seems to have written for real readers and not fashionable literary critics who thought that you couldn’t be an intellectual without making things complicated. He sounds like my kind of man (and writer) despite the grumbling…
Additional picture credits: Wikipedia, with thanks