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…

Fortean Times - - CONTENTS - Bob Rickard

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.

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