1 SEPTEMBER 1939, Page 23

Literary Lives

Rain Upon Godshill. By J. B. Priestley. (Heinemann. 8s. 6d.) Heaven Lies About Us. By Howard Spring. (Constable. Ss.) One Way of Living. By James Bridie. (Constable. 8s. 6d.) NIL J. B. PRIESTLEY'S " further chapter of autobiography " has a passage which is perhaps intended as a warning to its reviewers. His previous book, Midnight on the Desert, was, he says, generally liked ; but there were exceptions—" queer young men, who never seem to create anything much them- selves but who pop up for a season or so to be the guardians of the gate of true letters." Mr. Priestley attributes the loss of influence of the modern literary review to its inclusion of " these bits of desiccated superciliousness," and warns editors that they " alienate the public " by printing them. Mr. Priestley objects to these Queer Young Men, because they are " too timid and respectful in personal intercourse " and " much too ferocious and arrogant in print." I think I have an idea of whom he means, and I object to them as strongly as he, on much wider and deeper grounds ; but I think it is fair to them to point out that it is not an unnatural form of good manners to be somewhat diffident when introduced to someone with whom, one is convinced, there is no possible common ground for frank discussion. However that may be, it is chilly work to start reviewing a book with the doom of " loss of influence " hanging over the paper for which one works. One must avoid " desiccated superciliousness " at all costs ; but, in the present case where sincerity forbids raptures of praise, shall one attempt juicy suoerciF.ousness or desiccated commenda- tion? For this is not a very good book. On the happy occasions in the past when I have met Mr. Priestley I do not remember being struck timid, but I hope I was as respectful as is suitable to an older, more industrious and vast:y more prominent writer ; a writer, moreover, for whose plays and earlier novels I have an admiration. If we ever meet again I shall certainly be respectful and perhaps timid, too ; for I am obliged to say that I find Rain Upon Godshill acrimonious, loosely built, trivial, selfish and totally charmless. That is not to say that it is devoid of interest. Mr. Priestley as a novelist is very nearly as good as Arnold Bennett, and his " chapter of auto- biography ".is very nearly as good as Bennett's journals. The trouble is that you cannot, as Mr. Agate has demonstrated, fall far short of that latter standard and remain respectable. The cocksure Philistine staring about him and firing off pungent comments is only tolerable when he is in corking form. Genius is thrilling in all its vicissitudes. Mr. Priestley has enormous talents, but we are only interested in the exhibi- tion pieces of his workshop.

Oh dear, I have lapsed into just that tone of superiority which Mr. Priestley most resents. " All I ask," he says, " is to be treated as an equal." But there are snags there, too. For instance, he says that he does not find it necessary to walk across Mongolia to prove that he is really alive ; " I am lucky enough to have a profession that has its own adventures and excitements." If I say, as an equal, "Has it really? Is it possible that you have adventures and excitements in your workroom—and, incidentally, I could not write a word in the room you describe. I like an old-fashioned library with a musty smell and a great deal of mahogany furniture—is it possible that in that airy, brand-new room of yours, writing your admirable plays, you are having adventures comparable to a walk across Mongolia? It is quite contrary to my own experience." If I say that, he can reply, " Of course, there is nothing exciting for you in writing your kind of book. Of course, you don't have to build a special room to work in. Off to the Gobi Desert, my dear fellow, and leave writing to those who understand it." That is irrefutable, and it is com- pletely crushing for the Queer Young Men who, as he says, have written nothing at all. That is why they, and to some extent I, find it convenient to be superior. Forgive us, Mr. Priestley, and write another Laburnum Grove. We get your books free from the Editor, but we pay for our theatre seats.

From the reviewed to the reviewer: if, smarting under criticism, the author speculated on the character of the critic and on the brutalising circumstances which had produced the Insensitive monster, he might have constructed for him a childhood in the blind alleys of a Welsh city where his earliest recreations were in tormenting those weaker than himself,— slashing at little girls with his belt over the partition of a railway carriage, driving an old shopkeeper to frenzy with

unprovoked insults—of parents who brought him up without the knowledge of God, of schoolmasters who are themselves barely. literate, of failures to win scholarships, of menial, ill- paid labour ; this, he might think, was the environment which produced the rancorous literary critic, and this was, in fact, the early environment of Mr. Howard Spring. There, however, the construction falls to pieces, for Mr. Spring is the least rancorous of men, and the tale of his childhood—Heaven Lies About Us—is a delightful little book, the first chapter, I hope, of a full-length biography. Mr. Spring tells his story of the Cardiff slums without resentment or melodrama or senti- mentality. Its most moving feature is the passion for know- ledge and culture which burned in the odd little office-boy and found gratification by heroic means. Here Jude the obscure overcame his disabilities and emerged into fame. The follow- ing passage, somewhat abridged, gives a fair sample of the temper of the book : " The boys used to yell, ' Your mother takes in washing! ' and, by heaven, she did! But these things worried her not at all. She was a realist . . . and when the rest of us were lying abed we could hear her down- stairs laying into the beginning of the day's washing . . . and when I complained that boys were yelling after me in the street, she replied with a favourite saying of hers: Let them call you what they like so long as they don't call you pigeon- pie and eat you. . . .' Her only relaxation in those arduous days was on Sunday nights. We carried on wit'.' the readings —and it was only during those few hours that I read anything that was good . . . I'll tell you all about my 1 some day,' she used to say to me. Then you can write a book that'll make people laugh.' I don't know where she got the idea that her life had been comic . . . One night there was illness in the house. I was told to run for the doctor. I was to say to him, Come at once. It will be all right. We can pay you. . . .' For the first time I realised in a concrete way how poor we were."

Mr. James Bridie's autobiography, One Way of Living, is not easy to read, both by reason of its plethora of conversations in Scottish Lowland dialect and its gratuitous complexity of design. There are pages in italics which seem to refer to some kind of delirium of which I cannot for the life of me make sense. The bulk of the book is discursive and, I think, humorous in intent, rich in anecdotes which perhaps need to be told aloud by one Lowland Scot to another Lowland Scot for their full point to be clear. Pawky is the word. Towards the end

there are some theatrical reminiscences told in more intelligible form : "Cocky appeared in one box and was cheered. Bernard Shaw appeared in another and the audience roared. Elisabeth Bergner appeared in a third and they went quite mad. The curtain went up to an audience who felt they had had their money's worth already. At the interval I went to pay my respects to Shaw. He was holding court in the little room behind his box, &c., . . ." Perhaps Mr. Bridie is better in the decent obscurity of his native language.