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Bright Day by J. B. Priestley
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Bright Day (original 1946; edition 1980)

by J. B. Priestley

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1081111,760 (3.88)9
Member:PaulCranswick
Title:Bright Day
Authors:J. B. Priestley
Info:HarperCollins Distribution Services (1980), Edition: New edition, Paperback, 304 pages
Collections:Your library, Classic Fiction (pre 1945), To read
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Tags:1000 AUTHORS

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Bright Day by J. B. Priestley (1946)

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J. B. Priestley’s Bright Day is a thoughtful portrait of 1913, recalled 30 years later by a man in middle age. Although now rediscovered and republished, the book, like many of Priestley’s, was forgotten for years; and I should not have known of it had I not found an ancient copy some 20 years ago in a secondhand bookshop in the Middle East, and bought it purely because I had little to read. It was a lucky accident, to the extent that I have read it again it two or three times since. This is one of the best novels I have ever read; it might actually be the best.

The book opens in an expensive but bleak cliff-top hotel in Cornwall. It is the spring of 1946 and a successful but jaded middle-aged screenwriter, Gregory Dawson, has been sent there by a producer to finish an urgent script. Dawson is English, but spent many years in Hollywood, then returned at the start of the Second World War. At the hotel, he works; there is not much else to do; the weather is mixed, the (rationed) food mean and dull, the other guests old, wealthy and sclerotic. However, one older couple catch his eye. Discreet enquiry tells him they are a wealthy and titled couple, Lord and Lady Harndean; the husband, a businessman, received a lordship for services rendered to the prewar Chamberlain government. Dawson is sure they have met, yet he cannot place them. Then a day or two later the band in the lounge play a Schubert trio that jogs his memory, and he remembers who they are.

Dawson is back in in 1912. His father, who is in the Indian Civil Service, and his mother both die suddenly of a fever in India just as he, an only child of 17 or so at school in England, is preparing to take his entrance examination for Cambridge. Too shocked to sit the exam, he finishes the school year and is then taken in by an aunt and uncle in Bruddersford (a thinly disguised Bradford); and instead of attending Oxford or Cambridge, as befits the son of an ICS officer, he finds himself working for – in effect, apprenticed to – a wool merchant in a Northern city.

This does not trouble him, for the sudden loss of his parents has rendered everything meaningless.In any case, he already knows that he wants to write. He reads widely, especially poetry; and in Bruddersford he discovers some of the magic of being young as well as its oppression: “At the time when verse becomes magical to us, there is also another sorcery, created by glimpses, brief and tantalizing, of people we do not know... Later in life we merely see interesting strangers ...the mystery, the magic, the sense and promise of unexplored bright worlds, no longer haunts us.” On the tram he often notices a group of people, probably a family, with lively intriguing young people, that fascinates him. And then he starts work; and finds that Alington, the local head of the wool merchant for which he is working is the father of that family. Bit by bit he comes to meet them all, including the three attractive daughters; and there is an air of adolescent magic discovery. In the winter and spring of 1912-1913 the young Dawson accompanies this magical family to the pantomime, to classical concerts, and finally out to the high moors beyond the city limits, where long days are spent in bright sunshine.

It is after one such day on the high, bright Pennine moors that the Alington family, with Dawson, return to Bruddersford on a May evening in 1913, and decide to have some music. Three of them are playing the Schubert trio when a youngish couple enter unannounced: “And then there were two strangers standing in the doorway, among the splinters of the Schubert.” They are the Nixeys. Malcolm Nixey has been sent by the London office, ostensibly to learn the business, but actually to force Alington out. What they actually do is best not discussed here as it might spoil the book. But when Dawson leaves for the Western Front just over a year later, the Alingtons’ lives have been changed irrevocably.

Dawson never returns to Bruddersford. But when on a cold spring day in 1946 he hears the Schubert and sees Lord and Lady Harndean at the same time, he knows that they were, before ennobling, the Nixeys. Over the next few days he tries to recall, for the first time in years, his life in the last two years before the first war, and in so doing, tries to make sense of the life he has led since. The book switches between 1946 and 1912-1914 and leads Dawson to change his life, absorbing hard but decent lessons from a past that he had thought he had understood.

Bright Day must be partly autobiographical. Priestley, who was from Bradford, went to work for a wool merchant at 16, and left aged 20 to fight in the First World War – an experience that marked him, as it did the fictional Dawson. Priestley too never moved back to Bradford (though, unlike Dawson, he never cut his links with the city). Although more a novelist and playwright than a screenwriter, he did have contacts in Hollywood and visited the US a number of times in the 1930s, spending many months there. However, he spent the Second World War in Britain, and was very active in the media and in public life. He was more or less the same age as his Gregory Dawson and the book was published in the year it was set, 1946.

Priestley wrote several books about parts of his life, but never wrote a proper autobiography. The closest he got was Margin Released (1962), a series of three autobiographical sketches, each of 100 pages or so. The first concerns the time when, as a very young man, he did indeed work at a Bradford wool merchant’s in the years just before the First World War, and there is a clear sense of a time when the world was new. Bright Day itself drips with the remembrance of things past; seen from the bleakness of 1946, Christmas 1912 is “a vast Flemish still-life of turkeys, geese, hams, puddings, candied fruit, dark purple bottles, figs, dates, chocolates, holly... It was Cockaigne and ...there has been nothing like it since and perhaps there never will be anything like it again.” A concert in the city’s main hall, Dawson’s first and thrilling night out with the glamorous Alingtons, is lit by gaslight, so the hall is steeped in a golden October-like light. A bright spring day on the moorlands begins “in an almost empty little train, chuff-chuffing towards the Dales through the vacant and golden Sunday morning. (There don’t seem to be any trains like that any more... All transport now seems to be fuss, crowds, rain and anger.)”

This is the key to Bright Day: remembrance. It is not mere nostalgia; there is no weird yearning for a country that never existed. In 1914 Britain and Europe were heaving with social unrest. It was a tense world with rotten underpinnings, brought wonderfully to life by the late Barbara Tuchman, herself born in 1912, in The Proud Tower; and recently by Michael Portillo in the radio series 1913: The Year Before. There was no Cockaigne. Priestley was not so daft as to believe otherwise. He was on the Left, and was a fierce social critic, most notably in his 1934 travelogue English Journey. At about the same time, in a satirical novel about the Press, Wonder Hero, he hinted he had no great love of Empire either. His work was rarely divorced from reality. Bright Day is not a paean to some prelapsarian Edwardian heaven stolen from us by the Great War. Rather, it is a very personal journey back through that time of one’s life when everything glittered with the unexplained and undiscovered.

Priestley died in 1984. By that time he was not as widely read as he had been. He was not a perfect writer; as a technician, he was inferior to many of his contemporaries, including Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, or Graham Greene. Priestley could be pompous and wordy. He could certainly write for the gallery and could, if he wished, serve up more ham than a wholesale butcher.

But Bright Day is one of the best novels in the English language. It is deeply personal, a far-off place of bellowing Yorkshiremen and enormous lamb chops and cricket and bright sunlit moorlands, tinged by the magic of youth and remembered by a tired man in a pinched bleak world. The world of 1913 is remembered in relief, at length, from a seat on a high fell as the bright day turns into late afternoon and then to dusk, the shadows climbing slowly towards us across the fields and the bracken and the dry-stone walls. ( )
  mikerobbins | Sep 30, 2014 |
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It is the bright day that brings forth the adder...
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To my wife for September the Fourteenth
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It was Brent, the film producer, who suggested that I should go down to Tralorna and stay at the Royal Ocean Hotel.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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