Wednesday, 27 April 2011

On Thinking Well of Yourself

Anyone who doesn't have the wit to think well of himself is a fool; but anyone who is foolish enough to think too well of himself is a conceited ass.

This aphoristic profundity passed through my brain after reading an article in a 1958 edition of Encounter, the Anglo-American cultural magazine (1953-1991) by up-and-coming Bradford novelist John Braine. It was an account of a post-prandial Q&A between the author of Room at the Top and J B Priestley, Bradford-born author of numerous novels, plays, essays, newspaper articles and radio broadcasts.

Braine was clearly of a mind to think well of himself in the company of the creator of works as various as The Good Companions, An Inspector Calls, English Journey and Postcript. Priestley, born in 1894, the year the Independent Labour Party was founded in his home town, was the grand old man of English letters even if the dons of Oxbridge didn't think him worthy of a footnote in their fabricated great traditions: he was beyond thinking well or badly of himself.

Braine's self-imposed mission was to explore his mixed feelings about the legend of "Jolly Jack, the successful Bradford businessman who dealt in words instead of wool."

After a "very good lunch" at Priestley's apartment in the Albany, Braine fired his opening shot. Priestley had been on the Western Front during the 1914-18 War; why hadn't he used his experiences in his writing? Priestley ducked the shot, saying by the time he had accumulated the necessary experience as a novelist a number of very good books about the War had appeared; then he fired back: "Incidentally, I wonder if you remember my account of the battalion reunion in English Journey? If you don't know the book, you might take a look at that chapter sometime. You'll find your War there."

First blow to Priestley. Braine then changes tack, raising the subject of the the snobby division of literature into popular best sellers and serious novels. "...haven't you suffered from it?" he concludes.

"Yes," says Priestley. 'Best-seller' is a trade term and should not be used by critics as if it had some literary significance. Some bad books have been best-sellers, but then so have all the world's best books too...The books I published before The Good Companions were generally praised in the weekly reviews. Then by accident - for what I wanted to do was to write a long picaresque novel and neither my publishers nor the booksellers, who only subscribed three thousand copies, thought it would be popular - I brought out a novel that everybody's aunt wanted to buy and read, so that six months after publication it was selling five thousand copies a day - and in the sight of the weekly reviews I stopped being a promising literary man and became an adroit Bradford businessman...If I'm left out of those solemn lists and assessments of contemporary English authors, it serves me right, partly for doing so many different things and also for not caring a damn."

Room at the Top was on its way to first-year sales of 35,000 copies. Braine would be receiving royalty cheques for anywhere between £12,000 and £15,000: riches that, in 1958, would have turned almost anyone's head, let alone the creator of Joe Lampton, who lusted after his own Aston Martin.

As though to establish his bone fides as a serious man of letters, Braine asserts that Bright Day is Priestley's "very best novel". Priestley counter-punches: "Well, that's what you say. Somebody else would say Angel Pavement...I've been told so often that only some particular book or play has justified my existence, that I've lost interest in the subject."

Braine tries to recover ground by including Priestley's observation. "As long as a lot of people all like different ones among your books or plays, that seems to me quite a satisfactory state of affairs." He goes on to ask the great man if writing should always be a full-time job and receives what could be a back-handed complement.

"I think you ought to make it a full-time job - you have the right temperament, the right attitude," says JB. "But I also think that a great many young writers, by no means without talent, would be happier not trying to earn a living with their writing. Delicate temperaments and talents are better off as amateurs. A professional writer should be tough and copious."

Braine had started out delicate - he had been in a TB sanitorium for more than a year - but after many rejections, had learned to be tough - and unpleasant with it. As though to demonstrate his toughness he tries again to take Priestley on.

"...You've never done anything better than An Inspector Calls...But They Came to a City, to my mind, is a classic of how not to do it. In the first, real people expressed a universal truth; in the second, abstract ideas were stated by puppets."

Priestley, rather like a literary Matt Busby, responds benignly, apparently. "They Came to a City was a play written for a specific period - the middle of the war. It said something that needed to be said at that time, when, by the way, it was enormously successful. I try to discourage people from producing it now. Incidentally, aren't you in danger of being rather negative in your criticism, or worrying too much about work you don't like?"

There is more, but this exchange gives a flavour of what I mean by thinking well of one's self. John Braine, whose debut novel I both like and admire - Priestley did too, although he said it wasn't "big enough" - concluded by saying he had to his own satisfaction exploded the legend of Priestley as "Jolly Jack, the Hard headed Yorkshireman". Priestley's reputation in England as a serious writer was far below what it deserved to be.

1 comment:

Russ Hipkin said...

John Braine, proud Bradfordian indeed. But he was working at the Library in Newbiggin-by-the-sea in Northumberland whilst working on Room At The Top. He also met his wife there ......... Boring but true.