I should have written more, something JB Priestley probably never said. But I should. I thought, because I was told by my family over and over again, that nobody would want to read anything I wrote. Nobody should.
I started reading books that took me out of my rubbishy, circumscribed world when I was maybe twelve or thirteen. By fourteen I lived in books to an extent that I couldn’t really tell which was their reality and which was mine. I read Lonesome Traveller and loading the bag for my after-school paper round priced-up how much toffee you’d need to buy in the Frome Road post office to keep you going doing that stuff, hi-balling a frieght out of Fresno, whatever that turned-out to actually mean. When Kerouac was writing about being on the road I thought that somewhere down the A361, maybe just over the hill at Farleigh castle, that would be where the desert started, where Springsteen’s passing stranger would put up his sign about counting so many foreign ways to the price you pay. But they didn’t seem foreign to me.
Nor did England when I read Priestley’s English Journey. For me, despite the fact that Jack rode flatcars (we didn’t have those in Trowbridge) and hitchhiked (people still did that then, but not at fourteen) and JB Priestley was chauffered around in a Daimler thirty years before I was even born, the spirit was the same. Both of them looking for the new in the old, the new places and faces and stories locked up in the old brick and smoke and sadness of their times. Both of them had cast themselves as outsiders; I got the idea that maybe both of them weren’t actually that much good with people, or at least the people all around them. Maybe that was why they had to keep moving. I could do that part of being a writer fine well. Gizza job.
And I shared something else with JB that I couldn’t articulate, mainly because I didn’t know about it until this morning when I read in the rubbishy Guardian. Well sorry, but no newspaper has room for sentences like “In it he describes his lifelong search for something ineffable.” None. But there was a JB quote stolen by the ancient male professional hypocrite Muggeridge who bafflingly dominated the TV when I was a kid, alongside Thunderbirds and Crossroads. It was about that feeling I got, a looking for something I couldn’t name, something so nearly under my fingertips. Something I couldn’t name that I’d recognise like it was my own hand or foot when I found it, if only I could say what it was.
“It was waiting for me either in the earth, just below the buttercups and daisies, or in the golden air. I had formed no idea of what this Treasure would consist of, and nobody had ever talked to me about it. But morning after morning would be radiant with its promise. Somewhere, not far out of reach, it was waiting for me, and at any moment I might roll over and put a hand on it. I suspect now that the Treasure was Earth itself and the light and warmth of the sunbeams; yet sometimes I fancy that I have been searching for it ever since.”
Last year I read the same thing written in a different country by someone else who didn’t fit. He liked JB too and put on two of his plays, but his face was the wrong face. The Nazis burned his books because they thought he wasn’t Nazi enough so he joined the Party to keep his head on top of his shoulders. Then they lost and and the Soviets thought he wasn’t anywhere near part of the people’s movement. They made sure he couldn’t be the teacher he’d trained to be, couldn’t be the theatre producer they’d made him be and they weren’t generally that happy with his entire existence. Maybe because reality was all too close he wrote about the First World War, not the Second.
“But he was a young man, and the song of the lark made him blissfully happy, stirring the the old longing thst had accompanied him from Haumont. He felt as if someone was walking behind him with light footsteps, calling his name softly and tenderly. When he stopped and turned to listen, the voice stoped calling out, but when he turned back he felt the presence behind him again, as if it were trying to play a trick on him. Schlump continued on his way, a faint smile on his lips, stroking the ripe corn with his fingers. He didn’t tell anyone about this, and when he was with friends he forgot it altogether.”
That’s how it felt, those times I’d be about to go out, or to start a journey, or just alone in the house I knew and my step-sister knew was haunted, when I’d have combed my hair, done my boots, got the clothes I wanted and suddenly, keys in my hand, knew I had to look for a thing I couldn’t go without, a thing I couldn’t name. It made me smile, but like Hans Grimm, I never found it. I hope he did, before he felt so shut-out that one day he went home while his wife was out and shot himself. It was 1950 and East Germany. He was in the wrong place and definitely in the wrong time. I still look for it occasionally, now and then when the light is right. It still puts a half-smile on my lips.