"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."
Social commentator, playwright, essayist, novelist, politician. J. B. Priestley was all of these things, and his legacy remains with us to this day. He was born John Boynton Priestley in Bradford, England to a schoolmaster and a mother who died when he was still young. A promising student, he attended Bradford Grammar School, but left at 16 to pursue a career as a writer. He began by working as a junior clerk, where he began to write poetry and letters for leisure. He was encouraged by other workers at the firm to continue writing.
Like so many other 20th Century writers, the wars made their mark on Priestley. In 1914, he was called up and served in the Duke of Wellington's and Devon regiments, surviving the trenches, but just barely - a friend standing next to him at one point in the war was killed, while he survived.
After the Great War, Priestley studied literature, history and political science at Bradford and Cambridge, attaining an M.A. in 1921. From 1922, he worked as a journalist in London, writing essays for various journals, including the New Statesman. In the 1920s, he also wrote some novels, but it was not until his offering of 1929, The Good Companions, that he acheived great success. He followed this with Angel Pavement, probably his most famous novel.
Not content with success as a novelist, Priestley began in the 1930s to write plays, beginning with light comedies such as Dangerous Corner and Laburnum Grove. During the war, he gained the reputation, through his weekly radio broadcasts, as the voice of the populace. In these he aired his political opinions, which were largely left-wing. At the end of the war, Priestley wrote his best-known stage work, An Inspector Calls, a social fable and morality play with a strong warning at the end:
"I tell you the truth, unless men can learn this lesson now, the time will come when it will be taught to them in fire and blood and anguish."
This warning is made all the stronger when one realises that the play was set at the turn of the century, and Priestley had just seen the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan.
After the war, Priestley stood for Parliament, but was not elected. He was, however, made UK delegate to UNESCO from 1946 to 1947, and was well-known for his vocal support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He wrote many essays at the early stages of the Cold War on various topics, but in particular, socialism and nuclear disarmament. He aimed his essays at the middle brow audience he had become so popular with through his plays and novels.
Priestley married Emily Tempest in 1919, but she died in 1925. After her death, he married Mary Wyndham Lewis (commonly known as Jane), with whom he wrote Angel Pavement. In 1953, he married Jacquetta Hawkes, an archaeologist and writer with whom he wrote Down A Rainbow, a travel book about New Mexico. He refused both a knighthood and peerage, but accepted the Order of Merit in 1977. He published over 120 books and numerous plays. He died on August 14, 1984.