Oakroyd and the Dervishes
By JOHN MORTIMER Wnil a perceptive phrase in a recent article, Miss Doris Lessing deScribed the figure that the contemporary writer is required to cut. He must bee a dervish, she said, thereby conjuring up a vivid picture of a thin man with a rolling eye and a prophetic utterance. Only with dervishes, so Wild and keening are the times, do we feel entirely at home. Our lives are so mixed with horror and fantasy, our efforts to communicate with each other appear so frequently pathetic and our hopes So patently absurd, that only the lost cries of a Pinter or the frenzied logic of a Simpson can mirror our situation. A writer now can afford to be proud, remote, involved, apocalyptic, hysterical or even boring. He is at a grave dis- advantage if his chief attribute is common sense. In these circumstances it is fascinating to consider a writer whose eye rolls not at all; but whose gruff voice has continued, ever since we can remember, to jolly us along in tones now irritable, now jocular. Whatever the opposite of a dervish is it surely includes Mr. J. B: Priestley, and he now turns up, according to Penguin Books, as a Modern Classic.*.
It is true that they have chosen, with an un- erring eye, the least modern of all his books, The Good Companions. This work concerns, if you don't remember, the picaresque wanderings of a concert party once called the Dinky Doos whose name is changed to the more purposeful, and indeed socially conscious, -title of the. book. The theme is apparently pleasure, or more accurately,
fun. What the author clearly feels to be desirable , is happiness, the sense of belonging and mutual aid: but it is interesting to observe the forms these Pleasures take. Sex is almost totally absent. Eating seems the most acute delight, followed by singing and travelling about. At the end of the book, the impression of sadness is peculiarly strong.
The two most important characters in the book may be considered the two poles of Mr. Priestley's World: they are Inigo Jolliphant, the Intellectual, and Jess Oakroyd, the Common Man. Inigo, with his flapping Oxford bags, his unpublishable essays in the manner, of Robert Louis Stevenson, his bow tie and cherry-wood pipe, represents the hopeless aspiration of the artist's life, although it is noteworthy that he finally makes a good deal of money by writing popular songs. He falls in love With Susie, the prettiest girl in the concert party, but not only does he never go to bed with her, he never so much as plans to go to bed with her, Even When they are both wildly successful and in the West End, and 'they go here, there and every- Where together,' there is no hint that poor old [nip ever gets anything but a rather grateful kiss which leaves him suitably breathless for the next five Pages. It is difficult not to feel that Mr. Priestley has liltle respect for Inigo's essays, appealing, as they must, to a limited public, and that the * THE GOOD COMPANIONS. By J. B. Priestley. (Penguin Modern Classics, 6s.)
character at this stage of his developmerit has been made symbolically .impotent.
Jess Oakroyd, the Common • Man, is a figure nearer to the author's heart. He is often silent for long periods, smoking his pipe of Old Salt, his wife irritates him beyond endurance and he leaves his job afterquarrelling with both his boss and his union. However, his face lights up at the prospect of a bit of honest carpentry, and he finally leaves to join his daughter in Canada. a lifelong ambition.
Whether he is as happy there as hc thought he would be I do not know, though not for the world would he venture far from Lily and the ' two children, for they are all for ever having a 'bit o' fun.' We must leave it at that. In this place, whether we call it Bruddersford or Pitford Falls, -perfection is not to be found, neither in men nor in the lot they are offered, to say nothing of the tales we tell of them, these hints and guesses, words in the 'air and gesticulating shadows, these stumbling chronicles of a dream of life.
This passage is deeply revealing of its author. Fun is the aim, family life, good companionship, happiness and jollity and let the people sing. But a nagging doubt remains. Mr. Oakroyd is not as happy as he thought he would be. Is there, per- haps, some nightmare missing? Can it be that in every honest craftsman, pulling away at his pipe, there is a dervish screaming for release?
The Good Cant pardons is far from Mr. Priestley's best novel (Angel Pavement is an altogether more ambitious , work) but ever since he wrote it Oakroyd and Inigo have been, indefatigably, marching on. Oakroyd, blunt and optimistic, burdened by incurable common sense, appears in the plays, again in search of some strangeness or dream-life which continually eludes him. To provide him with it his author arranges for him to be a secret forger, or whisked back- Wards and forwards in time, or even dead : but neither death nor the unnerving mechanical reversals in the time plays, provide the required frenzy, Mr. Priestley's plays, read in bulk, are a tribute to a monumental industry. They have much to commend them, they are never chic, and although often giving the impression of having been written too fast, they are always honest, sometimes eloquent, and often planned with much theatrical skill. Sometimes, as in the moment when John- son, the dead Jess Oakroyd figure of Johnson over Jordan, goes out across an empty stage to meet eternity, they achieve moments of moving theatre. At a time when the theatre was at its most trivial, in the full-evening-dress-and-French- window, era of the Thirties, they provided a serious comment.
, The last war was, however, Jess Oakroyd's perfect Period. The battle between sanity and lunacy was then clearly defined, there was no doUbt that the nightmare world was wicked and would be defeated, and that the future belonged to the Common Man who would govern it with common • sense. Therefore it was Jess Oakroyd who stoke to us with calm reassurance Over the wireless, while we sat in the air-raid shelter ,missing prep, hugging our gas masks in their cardboard boxes, strangely uncheered. And it is Jess, younger, rejuvenated by the triumph of optimism, who turns up as Joe Dinmore in They Came to a City.
Joe: We've been changing human nature for thousands of years. But what you can't change in it, Alice—no not with guns or whips or red hot bars—is man's eternal desire and vision and hope, of making this world a better place to live in . . . there are millions of us . . . enough to build our city where men and women don't work for machines and money . . . where greed and envy and hate have no place
But while Jess appears so youthful and full of zest, Inigo has deteriorated into the dried-up intellectual progressive, Peter in Music at Night. Peter no doubt has the same political ideals as Joe Dinmore, but being an intellectual, Inigo-type character, his author has little patience with him. He is called a 'Communist, Poet from Oxford.' He is now dreadfully promiscuous and when he suggests that men and women can be comrades he is well and truly sent up by a girl called Ann.
Ann (cutting in with cheerful rudeness): I know, you'll all march round in shorts, waving flags and being comrades. And everybody'll sleep with anybody and nobody'll care and it won't matter—just like one big farmyard.
So when the day actually dawned, and peace, the Welfare State and the Labour Government arrived, Jess was grumbling again. He had an un- comfortable suspicion that it was Inigo and not he who had got into control. He was not as happy there as he thought he would be, and Mr. Priestley wrote his Thoughts in the Wilderness.
Not that he will ever give up, and this is his most likeable, .admirable characteristic. Once therels a movement of great optimism, such as unilateral disarmament, Jess will be there. Not going to prison, as Inigo might, but solidly there, interested, hopeful and, sad to say, increasingly just a little cross. Like Canada the .future seemed so bright and desirable from a distance, now it is here it is irritatin$ that the world is still hopeless and irrational, and possessed with writers who have bad dreams.
Recently Mr. Priestley wrote, hopefully, 'There are signs of a turn from introversion and strange- ness to extraversion and breadth and vitality.' He also wished that he might meet the younger play- wrights, if possible. over a sandwich. Inigo and Jess might then make things up. But the truth is that at such a meeting now, neither would be entirely comfortable. The fact that our world has so disappointed Mr. Oakroyd is not altogether to our credit. In his way he longed for the right things and, tease him as we may, his grumbling now has become part of our guilt.