The University of Bradford’s JB Priestley library building contains the archive of the Bradford-born playwright, novelist and broadcaster.
Priestley lived from 1894 to 1984 and his works total 169 books.
Most of them, in their various editions, are on display in the special collections reading room, two floors below the library, and can only be examined under supervision.
But like an iceberg, the bulk of Priestley’s archive is stored in boxes elsewhere, along with the complete bound collection of the Reynolds News newspaper, said to have been passed on to the university by its first Chancellor, Harold Wilson.
Curator Alison Cullingford estimates that material from the Priestley estate, excluding the books, occupies about 20 metres. Every item is listed in a large booklet. Scrutinising this alone would take a couple of hours.
Browsing the array of paperback and hardback editions reinforces what Priestley’s enemies and admirers commented on: he was prolific.
Aside from the 39 published plays and 26 novels – subject of two short books by Michael Nelson for The Priestley Society in 2002 and 2009 respectively – J B wrote other kinds of books too, different editions of which can be found on the shelves.
English Journey, Literature & Western Man, Man And Time, The Edwardians, Victoria’s Heyday, The English, on top of Priestley’s numerous essays, indicate a one-man Open University, a commentator on social and literary history, in the manner of George Orwell, rather than a literary critic or social historian.
They are all big books. The ones published from 1964 to 1973 are lavishly illustrated too, unlike English Journey and Literature & Western Man.
This year being the bi-centenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, a book of illustrated essays published in 1962 marking the centenary caught my eye.
Priestley’s contribution was a lengthy piece on Dickens as the self-promoting ‘Great Inimitable’, a phrase Priestley didn’t much care for but was inclined to believe Dickens applied to himself ironically, as though he was a theatrical child prodigy.
Given the recent controversial Channel 4 programme Make Bradford British, the final chapter of The English in which Priestley sums up what he thinks the essence of Englishness is and what it isn’t.
What it isn’t belongs to the commercial world of conspicuous consumerism that he calls Admass. The United States, he says, is littered with the fallout from Admass – suicidal executives, burned-out and embittered salesmen, for example.
Admass belongs to the exterior world of things, whereas Englishness is altogether more deeper.
He writes: “Now Englishness, with its relation to the unconscious, its dependence upon instinct and intuition, cannot break its links with the past: it has deep, long roots.
“Being itself a state of mind, it cannot ignore other states of mind. Furthermore, while Englishness is not hostile to change, it is deeply suspicious of change for change’s sake, rejecting the idea that we are now committed to some irreversible mechanical progress... To face the future properly they need both a direction and a great lift of the heart...”
* Requests for admission to the special collections is by appointment and should be made to special-collections @bradford.ac.uk.