Our image of J B Priestley as the avuncular oddball author of middle-class period pieces takes a tumble in this review of his time-twisting and prescient ideas. And he wrote a play about tulpas…
Time and The Rose Garden
Encountering the Magical in the Life and Works of J B Priestley Anthony Peake O Books 2018 Pb, 248pp, refs, $21.95/£12.99, ISBN9781782794578
To those who imagine the author and playwright JB Priestley (1894–1984) as an avuncular, pipe-smoking, worsted-wearing eccentric whose pre- and post-WWII plays featured old-fashioned people in stuffy drawing rooms endlessly discussing incomprehensible ideas, here is an intelligent and impassioned plea to think again. Anthony Peake’s entertaining and thorough exploration of the man and his writings sensitised me to the extent to which we forteans, and perhaps society in general, have underestimated Priestley’s cultural contribution.
Such dramas as Donnie Darko, The Butterfly Effect, The Matrix,
Sliding Doors, Vanilla Sky and The Amazing Mr Blunden are just a very few of the many that have benefited from such ideas as multiple timelines or viewpoints ‘outside’ our narrow experience of ‘linear’ time.
I remember, as a teenage SF geek and embryonic fortean besotted with the idea of time-travel, stumbling upon the books by Priestley’s friend and colleague, John Dunne (1875– 1949) in my local library. Like Priestley, Dunne was a military veteran, yet both transcended crass materialism to wrestle with the enigma of our conscious experience of time, especially in dreams or déjà vu.
I know I’m not alone in being both fascinated by the ‘serious’ discussion of what for me, up to then, were futuristic concepts (i.e. as I imagined it, beyond contemporary science), and at the same time baffled by the esotericism of the underlying theories and discussion. The outcome was that I began to think there may be something to
déjà vu, ‘time slips’, precognition and perhaps even the feeling one has lived before.
As Peake shows, Priestley was a solid Yorkshireman. Born in Bradford, he went to Cambridge, and after serving in WWI, became a committed socialist and a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He began writing in his 20s, graduating from articles in local papers to novels, plays, essays, biographies, lectures and broadcasts which spanned more than six decades. Besides his temporal vision, he gained a considerable reputation for skilful characterisation, thoughtful dialogue and comic observation. Priestley’s BBC Sunday talks had such a positive effect on the morale of Britain on the eve of WWII that Graham Greene described Priestley as “a leader second only in importance to Mr Churchill. And he gave us what our other leaders have always failed to give us – an ideology.”
The sense of hopefulness in adversity that shows through Priestley’s writing and through the words of some of his characters very likely originated in his wartime experiences. He particularly mentions being buried alive in 1916, when a mortar hit the trench he was in, resulting in months in military hospitals. But as a young writer, it was his early discovery of esoteric notions within Hindu philosophy (e.g. that time and existence are illusions), that affected
“He gave us what our other leaders failed to give us – an ideology” – Graham Greene
him, flowering throughout his subsequent writing – such ideas as a ‘self’ greater than our everyday consciousness; that our experiences of time could be variable, glimpsing past or future events; and that multiple possibilities could exist in parallel time-lines. He added to these thoughts, the hypotheses of ‘serial time’ and the multiple co-existent observers that Dunne proposed in An Experiment with
Time (1927) and its sequel. Here is where Peake comes very much into his own. Having explored – in his own books on out-of-body experiences – the idea that consciousness can transcend space as well as time, he is probably better placed than many to appreciate the way that Priestley interpreted the notion of a transcendent and ‘non-local’ consciousness through his plays and writings. In ‘drawing back the curtain’ and revealing to the reader both the methodology and the message behind such memorable plays as Time and the Conways (1937), I Have Been There Before (1938), and his masterpiece An
Inspector Calls (1945), we can better appreciate them for the masterpieces they are.
While Peake explores the temporal themes of many other works by Priestley, including many less-well known or still unperformed, he should also be remembered as a serious writer on such topics: for example, his extended essay on precognitive dreaming and meaningfulness (synchronicity), which was added to the Aldus 1964 edition of Carl Jung’s Man and his Symbols. And Priestley, through the medium of his 1963 radio interview, directly appealed to BBC listeners for their anomalous experiences.
Priestley and Dunne were good friends with HG Wells; but where Dunne’s ideas have been said to have inspired Tolkien’s abandoned novel The
Notion Club Papers (in which a colleague dreams of Númenor), Priestley is said to have been such a ‘fanboy’ of Dunne’s that he asked him to brief the cast of Time and the Conways before one of its first nights. Bizarre enough to tickle a fortean’s fancy is Peake’s discovery that Priestley wrote a play involving a tulpa, a materialised thoughtform. The inspiration for this came via Priestley’s step-daughter, who married the Dutch writer Jan de Hartog and shared with him an interest in Tibetan religion, which regards tulpas as objects created during deep meditation. The result was a screenplay called Tober and the
Tulpa, which, in 1963, attracted the attention of the comedian Norman Wisdom, who wanted the film rights.
Peake tells me that, in the course of writing the book, he became interested in bringing to the West End, the as yet unstaged Priestley play called
Time Is, Time Was (a phrase attributed to James Joyce. Should it ever manifest, do read this book before you see it.