Monday, 28 June 2010

Book Review : Wonder Hero by J B Priestley

"The world whose antics are satirised in certain chapters of this novel is a very small one, but that does not mean there is no room for invention in it or that I have attacked, under the cover of fictitious names, actual persons, establishments, institutions. Any reader who persists in thinking that actual persons, establishments, institutions can be discovered here will be wilfully misreading my text and misunderstanding my intention."

 - J B Priestley, `Author`s Note` to Wonder Hero

So that`s clear then. Or is it ?

Published in 1933, Wonder Hero addresses itself to many of the problems of the `30s and, while it`s very different in tone from what we mean today when we talk about `satire`, it`s pretty clear that Priestley did consciously satirise one institution, that being the press. One wonders if his rather defensive note was actually intended to draw attention to that aspect of the book. 

The plot is fairly straightforward. Young Charlie Habble, a decent but uncomplicated young working class man from the northern edge of the Midlands, finds himself lionised by the press for his supposed role in preventing an explosion at his place of work. The exact part he has played in the matter is not entirely clear, and he himself makes no special claim to greatness, but soon he is whisked off to London by a national newspaper keen to boost those all-important circulation figures.

The world he now inhabits is unfamiliar to Charlie, and not entirely to his taste, but he muddles through as best he can.

At this stage the book is really quite engaging, and lollops along like a friendly labrador. Charlie is not JBP, and is not primarily a character designed to act as the author`s mouthpiece, but on  occasion he is not entirely unlike our literary Yorkshireman. 

Eventually, Charlie finds himself savouring the night-life of London. Here, although the wheels do not actually come off, they do begin to seem imperfectly aligned. The night-club acts and party guests encountered here do indeed seem superficial and affected as the author clearly intends, but the scenes seem unconvincing and a little mannered. Knowing that Priestley was not a lover of night-clubs, (he mentions this in `Outcries and Asides`) I suspect he`s basically made it up according to his own preconceptions. Worse than that, one begins to feel that Charlie (and the author ?) can be a bit of a prig, or possibly worse ( Charlie concurs heartily when another character complains that an American singer who intersperses his act with `blue` jokes is "a dirty, conceited, damned impudent, doped half-caste who ought to be back where he belongs", and broods disapprovingly on "the young men who were trying to look like girls and the girls who were trying to look like young men." ).

At this point we get a feeling that having got here, Priestley does not really know where to go next. He`s had some fun at the expense of the press and arguably had a pop at the inhabitants of that strange world south of the Trent along the way, but what happens to Charlie now ? 

What actually happens is that he encounters Lady Catterbird, an enthusiastic admirer of virile young men. Resisting her womanly whiles ( "Here I say...I`ve had enough o` this." ), he then meets her husband, who invites him to have a drink and discuss the world of the City financier, as artificial a plot development as you`re likely to encounter.

Here at least, Priestley is getting back to familiar territory. "Once you begin to work with nothing  but money, the real things seem to whither away" the man tells Charlie, "You`re only one degree removed from those poor devils in asylums who think they`re Julius Caesar or Napoleon."   

Our hero takes himself off to visit relatives. Is it me, or is it the author as well as his character that`s happy to leave London behind ?

"As the train gathered speed and went shrieking into the northern darkness, he found himself free from the heaviness that had oppressed him...he could breathe again. He was anxious, tired, but singularly lightened at heart." 

In the fictitious shipbuilding town of Slakeby, a shock is waiting for our hero, but our author is back on form ; 

"The sheds were there and a crane or two, and that was all. Everything else - finished, gone. He looked at the tall chimneys on every side. Most of them might have been so many monuments, for not a wisp of smoke was coming out of them... There was an unfamiliar glimmer of green in the empty spaces between those rows of sheds and the black mud of the river. He stared hard. That was grass. The grass was growing where they used to build ships. This wasn`t an industrial town any longer : it was a graveyard." 

Tensions within the Slakeby community are nicely captured in an exchange between Charlie`s Uncle Tom, bewildered by the turn things have taken,  and cousin Johnny, a recent convert to the Communist cause ;

Uncle Tom was rattled. "When they start doing proper jobs again, they`ll have to have proper tradesmen to do `em. And where they`re going to find `em, I don`t know. They`ll be a bit surprised wi` themselves, I`m thinking, when they want men that can use their hands properly and then can`t find `em. I know. "

Johnny shook his head. "Don`t need `em any more, father. World`s moved on since your day, don`t forget that."

"Happen it has, but where`s it moved to, answer me that ?"

If Priestley had left it at that, a decent man`s wail of bewilderment at the injustices of the Hungry Thirties, we`d be on to a winner, but he just can`t let alone. Within a few pages,  Tom is commenting that he doesn`t share his son`s views or even pretend to understand politics,  "But them that says we`re governed for the benefit of the banks seem to me to know what they`re talking about." Turn a few more pages and the local doctor, with no prompting at all, volunteers his own thoughts  ; "Try another financial system. It couldn`t be worse than this one..We`ll have grass growing in the City of London, just as we have it here in the shipyards." You begin to feel that poor Charlie daren`t so much as start a conversation for fear that every other person he meets will have some personal manifesto to share with the world !

After a few more encounters and misadventures you`ll be happy to know Charlie finds true love ; 

"At first the emotions drowned the words. Their hands, for ever coming together and then gripping hard, were more eloquent. They might have been - as indeed they felt they were - the only two real flesh-and-blood beings in a huge city of ghosts."

I`ve probably placed a little too much emphasis on the book`s shortcomings, but as I hope I`ve demonstrated, there is some very effective writing and some very real and genuine concerns and beliefs that are addressed. In true Priestley style, there are a motley collection of larger-than-life characters to encounter along the way, and in the end, the hero gets the girl. Having said that, if I had not known that our Jack was a very experienced  writer by this time, I`d have assumed this was a youthful work. I`m pretty sure I`ll read it again, and equally sure I`ll enjoy it, but it does have it`s flaws as well as it`s virtues.


For more On Priestley, you might like to visit .  Or, if you`ve not had enough of me, you can visit and read two other postings of mine ; Blasts From the Past ; J B Priestley on Democracy (29 May 2010) and JBP Gets it Right (12 April 2010).

No comments:

Post a Comment