ON PRIESTLEY, ORWELL & GOLLANCZ
I came to the City in 1942 in a state of high excitement and with my head full of left-wing journalism. My sentiments were those of a furious anti-diehard rather than those of a convinced radical who knew what he wanted from the world, and my original impressions were overwhelmed by the uproar of left-wing publicists at the time. I became an enthusiastic reader of the "New Statesman" I followed, wherever possible, the broadcast talks of J.B.Priestley, I became steeped in the yellow books of Victor Gollancz and I was struck by the journalism of such men as George Orwell and Michael Foot.
It is now generally admitted that Gollancz's yellow books played a major propaganda part in the election of 1945. Most of them were cleverly written, and had the advantage of authenticity. The black record of the Tories from 1920 to 1940 was plain for all to see, and the relentless analyses of these books cleared the issues for an electorate confused by the excitable claims, denials and prevarications of Tory interests. The Gollancz books broke down the iron curtain of hypocrisy and exposed the "guilty men" as what they were - guilty men. They have never recovered from that exposure.
Since then Gollancz has dropped his left-Wing Book Club, as he had dropped earlier enthusiasms. A man of fitful interests, his own writings betray a clouded, abstracted, theoretical point of view about everything, nevertheless he sticks to his socialism, whatever shape or form it may take. He can rejoice at having beaten the mercenary Press-lords at their own game; after Rothermere's fatal association with the fascists, a man who understood public opinion and shared it was bound to have the advantage in political controversy, and since 1945 the Press has largely ceased to count as a political force.
Priestley in 1940 was an outstandingly popular author with a lot of successes to his credit. His outlook was left-wing, derived from a sincere sympathy with society's underdogs, and for that sincerity he was respected. Like everyone else he was aroused by the tremendous impetus of anti-Tory feeling in 1940, and a series of strongly-worded radio talks brought him a flood of letters from ordinary listeners who appeared to look to him for "leadership." These letters misled his enthusiasm, surprised him into illusions that approached delusions of grandeur, and upset his judgment. The idea entered his head, all of a sudden, that he had a "mission," and that radio broadcasting had put power into his hands.
In time there came the inevitable squabble with the B.B.C., who had been quite willing to let him have his head until they too began to receive letters - letters protesting against this radical being given freedom of speech, in sufficient volume for them to call him off the air. By now he could easily persuade himself that this was a conspiracy, in which the B.B.C. were willing tools, and he gave up with bad grace.
Then came Priestley's flirtation with amateur politics in the Hulton-Gollancz "1941 Committee," which broke up like all other groups composed of self-assertive individuals brought together by theoretical beliefs. Priestley's dogged nature, however, saved him from this debacle. He wrote away indefatigably; plays like "Desert Highway" and "They Came to a City" continued the earnest essaying of radical thought, and they were very successful on the stage. In 1945 he even achieved a world-premiere in Moscow, whence "An Inspector Calls" was produced, and the play repeated its success in London at the Old Vic.
Priestley took something of a blow in the election of 1950, when he made a routine left-wing broadcast for Labour and was re joined by a personal attack by Charles Hill, the "radio doctor." Hill's talk was a slimy piece of work, and though it failed to turn the electoral tide for the Tories it gave them just the sentiments they wanted to hear, and made Priestley, who had no opportunity for rejoinder, look rather a fool.
At the time of the election George Orwell was a dying man, and in any case he was a spent force in journalism. However, between 1935 and 1945 he had stirred up considerable excitement in radical circles and was widely admired or detested, according to preference. After publishing several books he began to write steady articles for the "New Statesman," "Tribune" and the like, wherein he shattered many illusions of theory-ridden intellectuals with his show of robust commonsense. As forthright a left-winger as anyone else, he pointed out that too many radicals were taking their example from continental models, that in criticising the Government they were presuming to criticise their own countrymen, rather as if they were superior foreigners and the people they tried to convince were ignorant natives. His blusterings probably did much to cure other left-wing writers of their extremes of silliness, but they accomplished little else.
Orwell's career offered me some unexpected lessons. In a vague sort of way I fancied myself as doing the same sort of thing, in 1942. I too was very excited by the state of the world, and wanted to toss my opinions about gratuitously. With excited agreement I followed Orwell's writings until. I began to notice that he was writing with the same cocksureness about all subjects, whether he knew anything about them or not. In his own way he proved to be as big a fool on paper as any other left- wing intellectual; and gradually the obvious dawned on me - that he was chucking his opinions about, not because they were important or could possibly influence anyone, but because he could write entertainingly. As I took my own opinions too seriously for such nonsense I lost interest in and respect for the man. In the end Orwell joined the anti-Russian chorus, and became respectable to all the right-thinking people of yesterday.
From the successes and failures of these men I learnt the biggest lesson of my own experience: that I am foremost an author, and not a journalist. I have always sensed that opinion, however important, is useless in literature unless presented with all the force of artistic vision.
- Frank Arnold, 1957.
(Edited from a longer article. Sections on Edward Hulton & Michael Foot omitted for this appearance. - Rob)
Also by Frank: