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Posts Tagged ‘J B Priestly’

I’m in Hubberholme today, in Upper Wharfedale, by the church of St Michael and All Angels. There’s an old, stone bridge over the river, here, and beyond that, a whitewashed pub called the George. So,… church, pub, bridge. That’s Hubberholme. That’s always been Hubberholme. If it wasn’t for the few cars dotted about, and the farmer roaring by on his quad, there’d be nothing to date this idyllic little corner of England much beyond the middle of the last century.

Perhaps that’s why its easy to imagine I’m also seeing this guy standing on the bridge looking down into the river while he chews morosely on an unlit cigar. I picture him wearing a forties suit and, even though he’s clearly at his leisure, he wears a tie and a hat, like they always did, or at least like they did in the movies, in my grandfather’s day.

We’ll have a chat with him in a minute, but only in passing, because I already know his story. He’s a Canadian engineer by the name of Lindfield, come over to supervise the building of a machine his company has commissioned from a firm in Blackley. Blackley’s a made up name. It spares the blushes of a Blackburn, or a Barnsley, or some other generic post-war manufacturing town up north, a place where it rains all the time and the lights burn dim.

In case you were wondering, we’ve walked into the opening of a short story called The Other Place, by J B Priestly. Hubberholme, though a fine setting for our opening scene, isn’t actually the “other place”, but a place very much like it. Lindfield found himself magicked there once, and briefly, but through his own impatience, he blew his chance and he’s been searching for a way back ever since. And if we enter more fully into that story, we’ll take pity on Lindfield, throw a paternal arm around his shoulders, and we’ll walk him back to the little village of Kettlewell, downstream, where we both happen to be staying. Then, after buying him dinner, we’ll settle into a cosy nook over drinks, and there, amid manly clouds of aromatic tobacco, we’ll have him tell us that story.

Its a story about the world we’re building, and the pressures we put ourselves under, such that we no longer know how to relate to one another properly. And if only there was “another place”, a rural idyll, where time had stopped and the sun always shone, and the air was clean, we could relax with one another, open up and realise at last the rapture of simply “being”. Or could we? Would we not carry something into that other place, a poison that would have us turn it all to dust and return us to the bleak environs of our Blackley – poor Blackley – where it’s always raining, and its always winter, no matter what the calendar says to the contrary?

I’m fond of Priestly, and have long identified with his more metaphysical musings, though his fiction does read a little dated now, its dialogue especially. The idioms, the “I say, old chaps” and “Look here’s”, are very much of their time, but not without their charm. There may even be accusations of corniness, especially from the avant guard reader, or even, dare I say, something inappropriate, in his concern for the plight of the character of “Englishness”.

But Priestly saw something emerge in the post war years, something devilish in its nature, coming initially out of America, but swiftly enveloping the whole of the western world. It was a culture of materialism, consumerism, automation and mass advertising. He called it Admass. He didn’t like what it was doing to the soul, he saw it displacing the mood of cooperation and common purpose, that had held England together throughout the war years, and he wrote against it.

In that sense then, this guy standing on the bridge, staring morosely into the chattering waters of the river is Priestly himself, with the history of the twentieth, and now the early decades of the twenty first century, with its free for all, free market culture weighing on his mind. He’s thinking the other place is further away from us than it ever was, that his vision of Englishness, something along the lines of a compassionate, humanist socialism, is doomed.

Speaking of which, the long awaited Sue Gray report finally broke as I was setting out this morning – such as it turned out to be. It revealed a culture of jolly, boozy parties, and quiz nights in which all and sundry affected to act silly, in order to fit in with the higher ups – this in the highest office of the land, in mid pandemic, while the rest of us were confined to barracks on pain of eye watering fines. It speaks of staff drunk to the point of vomiting, and altercation, and sounds more like the back street pubs of Blackley at chucking out time, on a Saturday night – places to which only the lowest sort of empty headed buffoon, would ever be drawn.

But it speaks also perhaps to the emotionally suppressed nature of the English that it takes a bit of alcohol before we start to feel normal. Hence the reverence with which we regard the public house, as much as we once regarded the church, and without which no place, no matter how perfect, including Hubberholme, can be said to exist at all. So lets all get a drink and be merry, but woe betide any Englishman who cannot hold his drink – and it strikes me few of us can – for therein shall lie his reputation.

In those first few sips of frothy beer, in the summer-shimmering gardens of the Olde Oakes, the Queens Heads, and the George Inns, we might imagine we catch glimpses of the Other Place, but it’s an illusion. By the second pint it spits us out, like it spat out poor Lindfield, back to the hung-over dawn of Blackley on a bad day, and to the bald truth that the devils have had their way and we let all our collective post-war good intentions slip through our fingers.

So I’m tempted to say to the England, as depicted in the Sue Gray report, stay the hell away from Hubberholme, and thereby allow me, this moment at least, the illusion of an England still worth half the candle. Let me fool myself, while I’m here, the Other Place Priestly wrote about isn’t so far away as it seems.

As for the guy on the bridge, poor Lindfield, I’ll not say to him: “Look here, old chap, why so glum?” because, really, I get the picture. I’ll just bid him a polite good morning, and be on my way.

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J B Priestly was a writer with a broad scope. He was also a social commentator, playwright, broadcaster and literary critic. Born in Barnsley, he began his working life as a clerk in a wool firm. Writing in the evenings, he found success with articles placed in London newspapers.

He was badly wounded in the first world war, and indeed experienced much at that time that was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Post-war, he gained an officer’s scholarship to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he studied literature, and from there he went on to become a well known, and rather well-to-do English man of letters.

Published in 1971, Over the Long High Wall is, as he describes it, a reflection on the nature of life, death and time. Time is where Priestly and I meet, both of us having an interest in the precognitive nature of dreams, a subject it’s easy to lose one’s way with, but to which I find him a sober and sensible guide.

He was a powerful dreamer, occasionally stumbling across things in his dream life that subsequently happened, and could not easily be explained away as coincidence. This is a difficult subject to deal with, since there is no explanation for it, and indeed much scepticism. Readers of a hard, rational bent will understandably reject it out of hand. But when it happens to you, you’re compelled to take an interest, which inevitably leads to questions concerning the nature of time and being, and here we need a steady hand if we are not to fall foul of crack-pottery. Better we acquaint ourselves with the thinking of a no-nonsense, pipe smoking Yorkshireman, like Priestly.

If we can dream ahead of time, it suggests the mind is not as firmly fastened down in space or time, as we suppose. It can wander some way ahead, which begs the question, do we have free will? If we have already dreamed a thing, is it inevitable we shall encounter it? Or, being forewarned, can the future be changed? And if it can, what happened to the version of things we saw? It also begs the question, if the mind is not so firmly coupled to brain function, can some part of it survive beyond bodily death. These are interesting questions, but anyone, particularly a famous person, bringing them into the open, is liable to be attacked by rational sceptics, and pilloried as a fool, or charlatan.

J B Priestly – 1940

Throughout the book, Priestly describes the world, as constructed by rational sceptics, and goes on at some length to explain why he doesn’t think very much of it. Written in 1971, he could easily be describing the world as it is now. He calls it narrow, and life-shrinking. These sceptics, these zealous debunkers of all speculative forays of the mind, are the architects of the long, high wall of the title. It is a construct, he says, which prevents us from gaining a view of a higher, more noble, more meaningful mode of being.

His interest in the time question placed him within the orbit of the time theorist, J W Dunne, whose book “An Experiment with Time” (1927) was very popular, and indeed, still is. Like Priestly, Dunne had also run into precognitive dreams. Dunne was not what one might call an artistic, literary or dreamy type. He was a former military man, a man of science and engineering. Building on the theories of the mathematician Howard Hinton, and physicists Eddington, and Einstein – very much in vogue at the time – Dunne suggested the dreaming self operated in a so-called “fourth dimension”, one at right angles to our familiar three dimensions of space and linear time.

The fourth dimension allows the dreaming mind a full view of our line in time, while our waking mind is restricted to awareness of a single slice of space-time, this being “now”. But here’s where Dunne is an infuriating character to get a handle on. His book is fascinating up to the point where he goes on to explain his theory of precognitive dreaming, which, though he claims is simple, has me wondering if I have not suffered some sort of brain injury, since my own college days. His later books, intended to further simplify things for a more “popular” audience, I find even more bewildering. Reassuringly for me, Priestly is of a similar view.

He warns us that Dunne provides little service to brevity, no matter how hard he tries, but their friendship helped nurture the plot of several of Priestly’s plays, in which he “played” with the idea of time. “Time and the Conways” and “An Inspector Calls” are perhaps the most famous, though my personal favourite is the strikingly Ouspenskian: “I have been here before” set in a remote inn in the Yorkshire Dales, and archived (along with the others) as MP3 here.

Setting aside the entanglements of theory, the idea of there being a looseness to time opens up the human psyche to a more speculative field of enquiry, one into which the spirit soars, while the rational sciences tend only to shut it down. There is no such thing as precognition they say, there is a single line in time, we live, we die, and there is no point to anything. They create a closed world, in which the seedlings of spirit find only stony ground. Of course, science is correct to build itself up from foundations of solid evidence. But by this same yardstick, spontaneous cases of precognition in dreams must always be dismissed as anecdotal, as mere stories.

Which brings Priestly to the phenomenon of the professional sceptic. This is a person who sets themselves up as investigator and debunker of phenomenal claims. They are not necessarily of the scientific profession, often conjurers and showmen, or psychologists. He calls them the “camp followers” of science, who see it as their role to ruin the reputation of anyone daring to stick their necks above the parapet. And, whilst often the most shrill, their explanations, explaining away things like precognition, can also be the most tortuous and ridiculous, yet, having the “rational” on their side, the tortuous and the ridiculous are, sadly, the only explanations we are allowed to arrive at. Anything else is dismissed as bunk.

Clearly then, Priestly stuck his neck out, but there was more of an appetite for this kind of thing in the early part of the twentieth century than there is now. As for the evidence, or the theoretical expositions, he writes he didn’t much care one way or the other. He deals in greater depth with Dunne, and his own insights into dream precognition, in his longer work “Man and Time” (1964). Over the Long High Wall is more a rallying cry to the artists, the writers and the dreamers to dream their dreams anyway, regardless, because their lives will be all the larger and the richer for it, and to never mind the debunkers and life-shrinkers. For Priestly, there never was a long, high wall. He used his powers of imagination and intuition to simply walk right through it, and he invites us all to do the same.

Acknowledgements: Photo of J B Pristly by courtesty of – By National Media Museum from UK – J B Priestley at work in his study, 1940.Uploaded by mrjohncummings, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26198117

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mending clock 5I was walking along a corridor in a familiar office block, thinking to myself: what if I found some money on the floor? How would I reunite it with its owner? If I put up a note to say I had found ten pounds, anyone could come to me and say it was theirs, that they had lost ten pounds, and how would I know they were telling the truth? So I thought I could write a note instead saying I had found some money, without saying how much, and leave it to others to tell me what they thought they had lost. But this wouldn’t work either. Would anyone know exactly how much they had lost? And if they said they had lost fifteen pounds, would it be reasonable for me to say the ten pounds I had found was not at least some part of what they had lost? How would I best write that note?

This conundrum of hypothetically lost money and the note announcing it was a thing I pondered for no reason. I had not found any money. I had not lost any money. My mind had simply begun to ruminate on the problem spontaneously. There was nothing strange in this; I often ponder spurious things for no reason. I’m sure I’m not alone in doing so. And the punchline? Well, it was then I came to a notice pinned on the wall, and it said: Money found, please contact,…

To the rational mind, it was a coincidence, or I had perhaps seen the notice before, but registered its presence only subliminally, in other words without actually being conscious of seeing it. The latter explanation is more tenuous, but I admit it is plausible. To my own mind though, there is another explanation and has to do with the mysterious nature of time. It also requires a less rational approach and that we allow for the possibility we can sometimes be influenced by events that have yet to happen, that my pondering on the question of lost money was prompted by the as yet future sighting of the notice announcing lost money.

My anecdote hardly qualifies as evidence of déjà vu. All such occurrences are, by their nature, anecdotal and therefore inadmissible in the court of the scientistic pedant. And yes, I could have made my story up – I am a writer of stories after all. I suggest you have no choice then but to be sceptical, unless something similar has happened to you, for only then are the non-peer-reviewed anecdotes of time anomalies of any interest. And I bet most of you reading this have experienced something odd about time and the occasionally back to front sequencing of events.

It’s happened to me before. I find the dream a good place for encountering the influence of events that have yet to happen. I once dreamed repeatedly of a time – twenty past seven – then woke groggily from a deep sleep to hear my wife telling me I was going to be late, that it was already twenty past seven.

It doesn’t happen a lot – just now and then. I mean, I’m not a freak or anything. Moreover, you don’t have to believe in any of this. I’m not claiming a penetrating scientific insight, now will I be attempting an explanation. But if it’s happened to you, you may find such musings of interest.

For a time, between the world wars, the question of time anomalies, time slips and dream precognition were pondered openly and in all seriousness by intellectuals, by artists, writers, poets, and the general pre-soap opera public, all of them inspired by publication of a book called Experiment in Time, by J W Dunne (1927). Post war however, it was a fascination the popular world quickly grew out of. I don’t know what happened, but dreams, precognition, time anomalies and such were suddenly embarrassing topics of conversation to be having at parties. Instead we became ensnared in the theories of Freud, at least in so far as they pertained to advertising and trivial want, and we became docile consumers thereafter, with never questioning thought in our heads as regards the nature of time and reality. But the question has not gone away. And the anecdotes continue to mount. Can our thoughts be influenced by a future event? Can we visit the future in our heads before it happens?

I come back to Dunne and his book “Experiment with Time”. In it Dunne writes about time anomalies, and a kind of low level dream precognition. Then he presents a theory which attempts an explanation but which reads like a textbook exercise in geometry. I was always good at geometry, but try as I might Dunne’s lecture on it doesn’t make sense at all. Only the anecdotes stick. Thus Dunne manages to be both visionary and annoying at the same time.

Priestly (JB) writes of Dunne along similar lines in “Man and time” (1964), in which he too explores the time-haunted world, while wisely avoiding too much theorising and geometrical diagrams. Priestly had plenty of his own time-slip anecdotes, plus an archive of anecdotes sent to him by the public. Priestly is more content to rest in the philosophy and the mystery, that these things happen, and we don’t know how or why, only that it opens a door into the unknown through which many things become possible. We are wise I think, to follow his example.

But the critic will argue it’s absurd to claim we can see the future, because by seeing it we might then take steps to avoid it. But if we’ve seen it, how can we possibly avoid it? This attempt at paradox is rather a feeble one, however, presupposing as it does a single linear line in time. It does not allow for the idea of multiple lines, of the possibility that what we see of the future is only one possible version of it. We take our permission for such speculation from the Many Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and by so doing also usher in a semi-scientific basis for our idle postulations, but without actually explaining anything. Quantum Mechanics is endlessly useful for us dreamers in this respect. We can use it to prove anything.

This is where the way becomes strange and all explanations equally valid. If these slips in time are real, and I have no choice but to accept they are, it points to something perhaps, to a future evolution of consciousness where the actual nature of time is revealed and becomes useful to us. Or it may be there’s just something a little frayed around the edges of the consciousness we posses, that it is only an imperfection that allows sporadic glimpses of a place outside of time, beyond the curtain so to speak, a place we do not belong and can never explain within the limited paradigm of which we are a part and spend our entire lives.

But if we are trapped for the most part, in a purely linear flow of time, while being capable of more, we must ask ourselves what purpose does it serve, this self imposed imprisonment, this pedestrian view? And what nightmares would it unleash, were we ever to break free and see the universe as it really is?

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