J. B. Priestley

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Priestley at work in his study, 1940

John Boynton Priestley OM (13 September 189414 August 1984) was an English playwright, novelist, social commentator, biographer, literary critic, screenwriter and broadcaster. During his lifetime, he combined popular success with critical respect.

See also An Inspector Calls, I Have Been Here Before and Time and the Conways.


  • Those no-sooner-have-I-touched-the-pillow people are past my comprehension. There is something suspiciously bovine about them.
  • I suppose -- in the last resort -- you trust life -- or you don't. Well -- I don't. There's something malicious . . . corrupt . . . cruel . . . at the heart of it. We don't belong. We're a mistake.
  • I have lived longer than you. I have thought more, and I have suffered more. And I tell you there is more truth to the fundamental nature of things in the most foolish fairy tales than there is in any of your complaints against life.
  • Remember what we once were and what we thought we'd be. And now this. And it's all we have, Allan, it's us. Every step we've taken -- every tick of the clock -- making everything worse. If this is all life is, what's the use? Better to die, like carol, before you find it out, before Time gets to work on you. I've felt it before, Allan, but never as I've done tonight. There's a great devil in the universe, and we call it Time.
  • But the point is, now, at this moment, or at any moment, we're only a cross-section of our real selves. What we really are is the whole stretch of ourselves, all our time, and when we come to the end of this life, all those selves, all our time, will be us -- the real you, the real me. And then perhaps we'll find ourselves in another time, which is only another kind of dream.
    • Time and the Conways, p. 60.
  • Living in age of advertisement, we are perpetually disillusioned. The perfect life is spread before us every day, but it changes and withers at a touch.
    • "The Disillusioned", in The Balconinny, and Other Essays ([1929] 1969) p. 30.
  • It's silly for young men to announce themselves as new types of humanity. . .and then give you nothing but stale communism. Old H.G. Wells has more new ideas than the lot of them.
    • Letter to Hugh Walpole (21 April 1933). Quoted in Roger Fagge, The Vision of J.B. Priestley. London: Bloomsbury Academic (2013), (p. 9).
  • I wished I had been born early enough to have been called a Little Englander. It was a term of sneering abuse, but I should be delighted to accept it as a description of myself. That little sounds the right note of affection. It is little England I love.
    • English Journey (1934). Reprinted in Judy Giles and Tim Middleton Writing Englishness: An Introductory Sourcebook,Routledge, 2003 (p. 26).
  • It should be realised that men will take enormous risks rather than be bored. War has been used before now to prevent a bored populace from getting into mischief, at the expense of its rulers.
    • "The Public and the Idea of Peace", in Challenge to Death, edited by Storm Jameson, E. P. Dutton & Company, Incorporated (1935).
  • Shaw presumes that his friend Stalin has everything under control. Well, Stalin may have made special arrangements to see that Shaw comes to no harm, but the rest of us in Western Europe do not feel quite so sure of our fate, especially those of us who do not share Shaw's curious admiration for dictators.
    • "The War - And After", in Horizon magazine (January 1940), reprinted in Andrew Sinclair (ed.) War Decade: An Anthology of the 1940s (1989)
  • Our great-grand-children, when they learn how we began this war by snatching glory out of defeat, and then swept on to victory, may also learn how the little holiday steamers made an excursion to hell and came back glorious.
    • "Postscript to the News", broadcast on BBC Radio (5 June 1940); published in The Listener (13 June 1940).
  • We cannot go forward and build up this new world order, and this is our war aim, unless we begin to think differently...one must stop thinking in terms of property and power and begin thinking in terms of community and creation. Property is the old-fashioned way of thinking of a country as a thing, and a collection of things in that thing, all owned by certain people and constituting property; instead of thinking of a country as the home of a living society with the community itself as the first test.
    • BBC Radio Broadcast (21 July 1940). Reprinted in Postscripts, William Heinemann Limited (1940), and All England Listened: The Wartime Broadcasts of J.B. Priestley, Chilmark Press (1968).
  • Although we talk so much about coincidence we do not really believe in it. In our heart of hearts we think better of the universe, we are secretly convinced that it is not such a slipshod, haphazard affair, that everything in it has meaning.
  • The more we elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.
    • Thoughts in the Wilderness (London: William Heinemann, 1957), p. 201.
  • In plain words; now that Britain has told the world she has the H-Bomb, she should announce as early as possible that she has done with it, that she proposes to reject, in all circumstances, nuclear warfare. This is not pacifism. There is no suggestion here of abandoning the immediate defence of this island . . . No, what should be abandoned is the idea of deterrence-by-threat-of-retaliation. There is no real security in it, no decency in it, no faith, hope, nor charity in it.
  • No matter what is willed by consciousness, that which belongs to the depths can only be restored in the depths: the numinous lies outside the power of collectives, cannot be subject to state decree, created by a resolution at an international conference, offered to all shareholders and employees by the board of Standard Oil or General Motors.
    • Literature and Western Man (Harper, 1960).
  • I can't help feeling wary when I hear anything said about the masses. First you take their faces from 'em by calling 'em the masses and then you accuse 'em of not having any faces.
    • Saturn Over the Water (1961) ch. 2.
  • It is hard to tell where the MCC ends and the Church of England begins.
    • The New Statesman (20 July 1962), p. 7.
  • In spite of recent jazzed-up one-day matches, cricket to be fully appreciated demands leisure, some sunny warm days and an understanding of its finer points.
    • The English (1973).
  • Most writers enjoy two periods of happiness – when a glorious idea comes to mind and, secondly, when a last page has been written and you haven’t had time to know how much better it ought to be.
  • Much of writing might be described as mental pregnancy with successive difficult deliveries.
    • International Herald Tribune (3 January 1978).
  • To say that these men paid their shilling to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink.
    • Bk 1, Ch. 1. i
  • A man can afford to let himself go in a hen-house.
    • Bk 1, Ch. 1. iii
  • She seemed to have had a sudden terrible glimpse of life as it really was, and was ready to weep at the thought of its strange dusty littleness.
    • Elizabeth Trant in Bk 1, Ch. 2. i
  • By the time they reached the hall, they were not so much friends as fellow-conspirators, for Youth, when it is exiled into the kingdoms of the old, at once turns itself into the strongest of secret societies.
    • Inigo Jollifant and Freda Larch in Bk 1, Ch. 6. ii
  • Mrs Bevison-Burr, the commanding woman, came next. Her subject was Unbelief. She referred to Unbelief as if it were a very obnoxious person who was in the habit of insulting her every morning and evening. Mrs Bevison-Burr commanded them to do all manner of things to Unbelief.
    • Bk 1, Ch. 6. ii
  • Cathedral cities, market towns, ports forgotten by the sea, spas long out of fashion, all these can decay beautifully, and often their charm increases as the life ebbs out of them. Industrial towns, like steam-engines, are only even tolerable if they are in working order and puffing away.
    • Bk 2, Ch. 6. ii
  • In this place, whether we call it Bruddersford or Pittford 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.
    • Epilogue (the concluding sentence of the novel)
    • Bruddersford is a fictional town, rather like Priestley's native Bradford, in Yorkshire, England. Pittford Falls is a fictional town in Ontario, Canada.
  • He was quite capable of talking just as men talk in bad stories in popular magazines, and Miss Matfield had sometimes wondered whether it was because he had read a great many bad stories or because the stories were nearer the truth than one thought and were worked up, on the fringes of Empire, out of men like Major Ansdell.
    • Ch. V. ii
  • Your mother knows no more about organization than a — a prize rabbit.
    • Major Ansdell to his daughter Evelyn in Ch. V. ii
  • Miss Matfield liked her fiction to be full of jungles, coral reefs, plantations, lagoons, hibiscus flowers, the scent of vanilla, schooners on the wide Pacific, tropical nights. So long as the young man was first shown to her dressed in white and lounging on a veranda, while a noiseless brown figure brought him something long and cool to drink, she was ready to follow his love story to the end. If the story had no love in it but had the right exotic setting, she would read it, but she preferred a fairly strong love interest. She had not bad taste, and if the story was written for her by Joseph Conrad, so much the better; but she was ready to endure if not to delight in authors of a very different cut from Conrad if they would only give her the jungles and lagoons and coral reefs and mysterious brown faces. The worst story about Malaysia was preferable to the best story about Marylebone.
    • Ch. VIII. iii
  • She examined his face in that special detached way that all women seem to have at times, looking at your face as if it was not part of you, but something you were showing them, like a picture or a piece of china. Then she nodded wisely at it.
    • Poppy Sellers and Harold Turgis in Ch. X. vii

Faraway (1932)

  • [Y]ou've got to put up a show of being tough nowadays, especially if you're a girl, or else they'd all be walking over you with nailed boots. They do that anyhow, in the long run, if you're a woman.
    • Terry (Patricia Teresa) Riley in Ch. 5. 3
  • We know only too well that there are times when everything goes wrong, but, in our haste to make the worst of life, we are apt to forget that there are also times when everything goes right.
    • Ch. 5. 5
  • There was some unknown reality, into which the mind retreated at these moments of smiling detachment, and from the standpoint of this unknown reality it seemed as if this real life, as we call it, was no more than a dream, only a few shades more solid and consistent than the dreams of the night.[…] What was this other and deeper reality? You never looked about in it, you only looked out of it, to smile at the tissue-paper drama of ordinary reality.
    • Ch. 10. 4

London: William Heinemann, 1951

  • But then we assume on our paper that nobody thinks. Which is all right. But where we're wrong—and of course I'm not really including myself but mean the top boys—is in thinking that our readers, dumb as they are, take us seriously.
    • Lionel Chesbey on p. 48
  • "I've been up and down and round about," said the Commodore, "and I've seen a lot of religions at work. And I don't like them. With all due respect, padre. As a matter of fact I'm not thinking about the Church of England, which is something different, something intended to keep the English decent and fairly comfortable and not likely to go tearing off into religion and making nuisances of themselves—"
    • Commodore Horace Tribe on p. 112
  • "… It's funny about England," he continued thoughtfully. "Once you're outside London, you seem to meet all kinds of people you never expect to meet, people you can't imagine meeting just from reading about England in the papers or most of the books. Not only odd characters but people who seem to belong to other periods. You never imagine, when you live a long way off, that all the other Englands—Victorian and Edwardian, for instance—still survive in certain people."
    • Theodore Jenks on p. 180 (Ellipsis in original)

Man and Time (1964)


Man and Time (London: Star, 1978)

  • In spite of its size and range, this is […] a personal essay. It is a Time-haunted man addressing himself chiefly to all those people he knows from experience to be also Time-haunted.
    • Introduction, p. 7
  • The appalling difficulty of examining the Time problem seems to me to be chiefly due to the fact that Time either changes into something else or quietly disappears from the examination room. Trying to keep it fixedly in view is like playing Wonderland croquet.
    • Ch. 2, p. 50
  • [P]ursuing Time, we are like a knight on a quest, condemned to wander through innumerable forests, bewildered and baffled, because the magic beast he is looking for is the horse he is riding.
    • Ch. 2, p. 51
  • Fifty years ago I seemed to myself older than other people assumed me to be; now I seem younger.
    • Ch. 3, p. 80
  • If what we are all trying to do is to describe reality, an intuitive interpretation of actual experience, however loose the terms it employs, may bring us closer to it than the most rigorous linguistics and the severest logic. These last may leave so little room to manœuvre that they cannot capture any experience outside an accepted narrow pattern; and indeed they may operate (for philosophers do not live in a vacuum) to insist upon that pattern and to deny everything outside it.
    • Ch. 3, p. 80
  • I […] thoroughly detest [novels that] fasten on to some historical figure, offering me bogus biography, an unpleasant mixture of fact and fiction.
    • Ch. 4, p. 83
  • Fully to appreciate a play we have to maintain a delicate balance between what is taking place apparently on two different levels of the mind. On one level we are involved in the drama, are living imaginatively with its characters. On the other level we are enjoying a performance by actors on a stage, being fully aware that we are in a theatre.
    • Ch. 4, p. 85
  • In the same way, the dramatist has a double task, creating the imaginary life of his characters and at the same time writing for a certain number of players on a certain kind of stage. It is this mixture of sheer creation and a highly skilled technique that makes playwriting difficult. Even in plays considered worth a production, nine times out of 10 there is an obvious deficiency on one side or the other.
    • Ch. 4, pp. 85–86
  • We tend quite rightly to associate an age with its newest and most original ideas, and there is no harm in this as long as we remember that only a few men, at that time, may have actually held those ideas, and that many decades, often amounting to centuries, may pass before those ideas have seeped down to wider and commoner levels of belief, thought, and feeling. So many 'hard-headed and realistic' men of today repeat what scientists were saying 100 years ago, and may know nothing about the outlook and prevailing moods of scientists today. And men in the street now assert beliefs originally found among the intellectuals of the 18th century. We may expect time-lags of various lengths.
    • Ch. 6, p. 140
  • I have pointed out already how ideas seep down to wider and commoner levels of intelligence and feeling until at last they are believed to be solid realities. It is precisely the 'hard-headed and realistic' who all too often exist in cages made out of largely discredited hypotheses. They serve prison sentences behind walls and doors they only imagine are there.
    • Ch. 7, p. 159
  • Conquest is all. having conquered land and sea, we are now conquering space, more and more of it. As soon as we have conquered the moon, we must make plans to conquer the planets. I am not denying that there is in all this a fine mixed element of enterprise, ingenuity and adventure. But the repeated use of these terms conquer and conquest is worth noting. It offers us a picture of modern humanity as a restless and ruthless immature male. He is restless and ruthless because the relation between the conqueror and the conquered is rarely satisfying. The conqueror has to push on because he soon finds his victories hollow and disappointing. Nature, nothing if not feminine, seems to take a sly pleasure in outwitting her conquerors.
    • Ch. 7, p. 170
  • The very newspapers that celebrate the latest conquest in their largest print also keep asking us what is the matter with Woman nowadays, when she has so much she never had before. The answer is that she is tired of having to live with neurotic, immature conquerors.
    • Ch. 7, pp. 170–171
  • [I]f self-deception has to be risked anyhow, it might be better to risk it to take a broad view than a narrow view. It may be foolish, perhaps even dangerous, to wander too far from the highway and then be the dupe of fantasies; but it may be even more foolish, even more dangerous in the end, to be so determined to keep to the well-tested road that you wear blinkers, see nothing of the surrounding landscape, and find the road itself, all that you can see, more and more wearisome and detestable.
    • Ch. 7, p. 176
  • It is, of course, men who are more likely to inhibit themselves for the sake of appearing to be sensible and dependable.[…] If pressed, I will agree that more women than men wish to appear wonderfully sensitive and intuitive, and may stop being realistic […] in order to deceive themselves and other people. On the other hand, women in general tend to be more realistic and yet in certain matters more open-minded than men, more ready to resist that pressure of opinion. They are less likely to be put into blinkers by ideas.
    Moreover […] as a rule the average woman notices far more than the average man; she has a better eye for detail than he has; she makes a more alert witness.
    • Ch. 8, p. 182
  • In our secret depths, wherever we do our unspoken wishing, either we want life to be tidy, clear, fully understood, contained within definite limits, or we long for it to seem larger, wilder, stranger. Faced with some odd incident, either we wish to cut it down or to build it up.
    On this level, below that of philosophies and rational opinions, either we reject or ignore the unknown, the apparently inexplicable, the marvellous and miraculous, or we welcome every sign of them. At one extreme is a narrow intolerant bigotry, snarling at anything outside the accepted world-picture, and at the other is an idiotic credulity, the prey of any glib charlatan. At one end the world becomes a prison, at the other a madhouse.
    • Ch. 8, p. 183
  • Science can function only by abstracting from the reality in which the scientist has his being. In spite of the astonishing complications it discovers, with which it dazzles and almost blinds us, science is compelled by its own terms of reference to be a drastic simplification.
    • Ch. 10, p. 253
  • [A] man must be either conscientiously scientific in his approach or frankly speculative. What he must not do is present his speculative untested ideas in a manner and style of dogmatic certainty that they are not entitled to claim. This is being pseudo-scientific.
    • Ch. 11, p. 271
  • Because most children are highly imaginative, it is supposed by some that to reach maturity we ought to leave imagination behind, like the habit of smearing our faces with jam or chocolate. But an adult in whom imagination has withered is mentally lame and lopsided, in danger of turning into a zombie or a murderer. It is the creative imagination that has given our ruthless bloodthirsty species its occasional gleams of nobility, its hope of rising above the muck it spreads.
    • Ch. 12, p. 305
  • I am not an atheist, but I cannot agree with men who talk about God as if He had once attended a Speech Day at their theological college.
    • Ch. 12, p. 316

London: William Heinemann, 1967

  • So Tom was left alone again, this time for quite a spell. The place had filled up now and he was gradually pushed back from the bar counter until he found himself closely ringed round by men and girls, nearly all talking hard. They were wildly different in appearance, ranging from the slovenly to the excessively smart, but they were all alike, it seemed to him as he listened to them, in being on the edge of things. They were nearly doing a television series, almost about to have a play done at the Arts, just missing a commission to photograph Sicily for a coffee-table book, possibly writing two songs for a new musical, being asked to try again for that super modelling job. And while they might be all on their way towards ultimate disillusion and misery, just now they were gay and excited, full of enthusiasm for themselves, their work, their enchanting style of life. Tom had met a few men and women of great and widely-recognised talent, large personalities a long way from these edges, people bang in the centre, and they had displayed little or none of this enthusiasm, often seeming dubious, disenchanted, melancholy, weighed down by the sense of responsibility a great talent and reputation bring. But these types, with fuzzy little talents at best and with only the faintest glimmer of reputation, were still enchanted - at least at this hour with drinks in their hands. And not for the first time, Tom wondered about the drinks, which demanded a constant passing of pound notes. Nobody he had overheard so far appeared to have earned any money recently, yet here they were buying double gins and whiskies.
    • Ch 4, pp. 44–45

Quotes about Priestley

  • Then, above all, the English people have a curious sense of humour, rather than wit. Humour comes from the heart; wit comes from the brain. We can laugh at ourselves. ... Well, laughter is one of the best things that God has given us, and with hearty laughter neither malice nor indecency can exist. And of all men who have shown us what that laughter can mean, none was like Dickens, every one of whose characters is English to the marrow; and if I might mention a living writer, I think the truest Englishmen are found in Mr. Priestley's novels.
    • Stanley Baldwin, broadcast from London (25 September 1933), quoted in This Torch of Freedom (1935), p. 13
  • Priestley became in the months after Dunkirk a leader second only in importance to Mr. Churchill. And he gave us what our other leaders have always failed to give us – an ideology.
    • Graham Greene, The Spectator (13 December 1940), quoted in J. Baxendale and C. Pawling, Narrating the Thirties: A Decade in the Making, 1930 to the Present (1995), p. 134
  • Priestley's broadcasts are excellent. I am astonished that the BBC allow them. He says insistently that this war is not to restore the old order, that we must not return to the old muddle and injustices. It is in our order to commence a period of reconstruction and new activity, so exciting and absorbing that Hitler and his Nazis will be forgotten in a few years. Already, he says, he has had letters telling him to get off the air before the government puts him where he belongs.
    • Jean Lucey Pratt, diary entry (31 July 1940), quoted in Simon Garfield, We Are At War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times (2005; 2009 ed.), p. 320
  • During the war after the 9 o'clock news on Sundays there was Postscripts, a short talk on a topical subject, often by J. B. Priestley, who had a unique gift of cloaking left-wing views as solid, down to earth, Northern homespun philosophy.
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