BBC Radio 7, 8-13 November 2009, 25-28 May 2010
During a five-month period from June to October 1940, J. B. Priestley made a series of ten-minute broadcasts on Sunday nights for the BBC General Overseas service entitled Postscripts. He recorded his impressions of the developing conflict, while at the same describing the changing scenes around him - the armies preparing for war, the once-teeming streets of London now deserted, the crowds of women and children at the mainline railway stations preparing for exacuation, and the consequences of bombing raids on his home city of Bradford. In this five-part series of readings, read by Sir Patrick Stewart, we were given some insight into why Postscripts had such a powerful effect on listeners all those years ago.
In the broadcast dated 7 July 1940, he described the tranquil scene around him during the so-called 'phoney war,' which led him on to reflect on Winston Churchill's suitability as a war leader to nullify the threat of the "evil magician" Adolf Hitler. In another broadcast dated 28 July 1940, he mused about the aircrew risking their lives to save Britain from invasion, which provoked him to look forward to a better world once the conflict had ended.
On 28 July 1940 he reflected on the emotions experienced by those left at home, as their patners flew off to fight the Nazis. Given the sacrifices they were making, Priestley hoped that the post-war world would be one they could enjoy; that it would not be the same as in 1918, when service personnel returned to a Britain which could offer them nothing - no jobs, no prospects, no financial security. On 4 August he reflected more on the social and cultural changes Britain had experienced since 1914; the people had undergone the depression; now they were fighting a new kind of war - total war. However he fervently believed that they would gain renewed strength through the experience; unlike the Nazis who suffered under a totalitarian regime, the British had the prospect of freedom to look forward to.
On 22 August Priestley reflected on the role of women in the war; their job was in a sense harder than their male counterparts, as they not only had to go to work, but made every effort to ensure the survival of the home. All women were involved in this work, save for a few bourgeois renegades who snobbishly refused to accept any evacuees. However Priestley hoped that by the end of the conflict such prejudices might be removed in a world dedicated to the pursuit of equality. Priestley's final broadcasts in September and October 1940 saw him returning to Bradford, the city of his birth - whose citizens were determined to continue their work, despite the ravages of German bombs. In the final broadcast of the series Priestley detected a sea-change in the British people; whereas once they needed buoying up, they were now more optimistic, having survived everything that Goering's Luftwaffe could throw at them. In this situation, perhaps it was better to find another broadcaster rather than Priestley himself.
In Patrick Stewart's reading of the talks, produced by Emma Harding, Priestley came across as a man of the people, who shunned the political or military aspects of the war, and talked rather about the efforts of ordinary men and women to survive. Through a series of long, descriptive sentences full of subordinate clauses to set the scene, Priestley vividly captured the world of the Battle of Britain - a place of unbearable carnage yet also distinguished by hope - hope that the Nazis would eventually be repelled and hope for a new social order.
But what kind of order would that be? Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Priestley's talks was his political views. Although not claiming membership of any specific party, he was an old-fashioned socialist in the sense that he hoped that a brave new world would emerge from the conflict - a classless society devoted to equality of opportunity for men and women alike, where the old social hierarchies would be destroyed. In this world people would take care of each other: the snobbery that dominated pre-1939 Britain (especially amongst the middle classes) could no longer return, particularly after the experience of war, where everybody looked out for one another's interests. In many ways his political views anticipated those of the Labour Party in the post-1945 period, which created the Welfare State in an attempt to fulfil these objectives.
Viewed from today's perspective, Priestley's politics might now seem archaically naive. In a world dominated by capitalist interests, whose banks exist solely to make money and pay their executives unbelievably inflated bonuses, the idea of a classless society is nothing but a pipe-dream. Perhaps we need another global conflict on the scale of the Second World War to remind ourselves of the importance of mutual concern at the expense of self-interest, a concept that inspired Priestley all those years ago, and helped establish his reputation as a commentator on the contemporary scene.