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Reading JB Priestley’s ‘Delight’

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Chris Mills

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I have recently been reading collections of essays that have lurked on my TBR Pile for quite some time. The latest volume to come under scrutiny is a collection of short essays from JB Priestley (1894-1984), called ‘Delight’. He put this collection together in 1949 when life was still very bleak and gloomy in post-war Britain, with austerity, and rationing continuing to dampen spirits. As the title would suggest, Priestley was concerned with exploring the things that gave him delight. These were mostly small simple things, as befitted a post war world. During the Second World War, Priestley had contributed to the morale boosting radio broadcasts called ‘Postscript’, so I suppose this collection was a logical continuation. I am not sure, wherever in the world you happened to be living, what today’s equivalent morale booster would be. I suppose we are more likely to turn to our favourite blog or magazine than to pick up a book of essays.

You could say that the essays are prose versions of the song ‘These are a Few of my Favourite Things’, as Priestley talks about pleasures such as watching fountains, unexpectedly seeing a familiar face, reading detective stories in bed and enjoying a bit of family silliness. All of the things that make you less sad than you were before experiencing that fleeting moment of delight. I particularly liked his piece, written from a mature perspective, about the sheer delight of wearing long trousers as a fifteen-year-old schoolboy. Times have changed to be sure, but you can still imagine how the young lad must have felt: ‘I joined the world of men; and even without doing anything more than wear these trousers…I could feel my whole nature expanding magnificently. On the occasional days when I was allowed to wear the adult trousers to go to school, I almost floated there’.

After reading a few of the essays I began to think about some of the small things in which I delight. Some of my delights are probably universal, such as the smell of new mown grass and the sight of a lovely sunset. Others may be common, but for me they have a specific memory attached, such as in the case of smelling baking bread. This reminds me of my early career in bakeries and always catches me sharply in the gut. Many of Priestley’s delights (such as the trousers) were of past delightful memories but others were regular current small treats such as lying in a hot bath and smoking a pipe (I’m more a glass of wine in a bath kind of person myself but I see what he means). I haven’t finished the essays yet (there are 141 in total) but even so, I have read several that chime with me. They have also set me pondering, about how it is often the smallest parts of life’s tapestry that add the most colour to our experiences. I am not being literal minded (well not completely) and thinking merely of sunsets and autumn leaves, but of more intangible delights.

Finally, I was interested that Priestly wrote in several of the pieces about the delights of being a writer. He wrote about the delight of having his first article published, the ‘Coming of the idea’ and the delight of re-discovering someone else’s good writing. He also wrote about a conversation that he had once had with a critic who was baffled that Priestley deliberately tried to simplify his writing. The critic thought that complicated ideas could only be conveyed with a difficult style, but Priestley knew better. Then, there was the sense of release after completing a long piece of work, ‘I have been in prison with this one idea, and now, I feel, I am free. Tomorrow, ten times the size of last Tuesday, is suddenly rich with promise. Time sand space are both extended. I catch a glimpse of fifty new ideas, flickering like lizards among the masonry of my mind; but I need not bother about them’.

I wonder what JB Priestley would have thought about the modern-day writers’ promotional round and whether he would have found delight in that. I would love to know.

Christine Mills

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