‘They’ve been too long about giving me it,’ growled JB Priestley, when he joined the ranks of the Order of Merit - never more than 24 strong - after Benjamin Britten’s death. ‘There’ll be another vacancy very soon.’
He was wrong. It was not until Tuesday this week, nearly seven years later, that the Grand Old Tyke of English letters died peacefully at home, one month short of his 90th birthday.
Apart from the Order of Merit and the freedom of his native Bradford, John Boynton Priestley spurned major honours, among them a knighthood and a half-hour attempt by Harold Wilson to persuade him to become a peer. But his canon of more than a 100 plays and books guarantees him a lasting place in 20th century English literature.
He will be remembered, too, for his wartime radio broadcasts, which are among the finest material in the national sound archive. He was uncharacteristically modest about them - indeed, on one occasion he forgot his script and Sir John Reith had to play gramophone records instead; but they doubled the fame he had won with his best-selling novel, The Good Companions.
Published in 1929 and never out of print since, the success of the book transformed Priestley’s standing from a noted but not widely read critic, a respectful friend of Arnold Bennett, H G Wells and George Bernard Shaw, to a literary lion in his own right.
Angel Pavement followed in 1930, English Journey in 1934, and a long and prolific stream of publications which continued, at the rate of roughly one a year and amid his own grumblings of ‘I write too much’ until the late 1970s.
Priestley was the son of a Bradford schoolmaster and was educated in the city before enlisting as a private in the Duke of Wellington’s regiment on the outbreak of war in 1914. He was buried by a mortar bomb explosion and wounded three times, but survived five years in France and graduated in English literature from Trinity Hall, Cambridge after the war.
He dallied briefly with his native city’s staple industry but his head was too full of stories and plots and he confessed to being ‘the worst clerk in the history of the wool trade.’ He acknowledged the powerful influence of Bradford and the West Riding on his writing but his relationship with the place was famously touchy.
He was rejected for the freedom of the city once and when he finally won it he noted:’ I got nothing concrete out of it at all, not even a free ride on the buses.’ On another occasion, when the local council was enthusiastically demolishing the city centre, he told a civic lunch: ‘I may not have put anything up in Bradford but at least I can say I’ve never pulled anything down.’
He expected the same bluntness in return and disliked first nights for his plays in London, where he thought the audiences too easy to please. He said: ‘I always preferred if possible to open plays in the North, where they sat with tightened lips and narrowed eyes, grimly awaiting their money’s worth.’
Through newspaper articles and political platforms - usually Labour or Liberal, although he joined neither party - he developed a reputation for truculence which he encouraged.
‘I have always been a grumbler,’ he said. ‘I am designed for the part - sagging face, weighty underlip, rumbling, resonant voice. Money couldn’t buy a better grumbling outfit.’
In later years his face, which he compared accurately to a ‘potato with eyebrows,’ could be seen at a variety of odd ceremonies whose quirkiness he enjoyed. A large diesel train was named after him and he was presented at the ceremony, mysteriously, with a rosewood box containing a fragment of Liverpool’s oldest railway station.
The title of Pipeman of the Year, which he eventually added to the Order of Merit, brought him a hideous trophy of a model pipe
He was married three times. His first wife died of cancer. His second divorced him. His third, the archeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, joined him on the early Aldermaston marches and encouraged his support for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
After trying to settle in various parts of the South, including the Isle of Wight where he ventured unsuccessfully into farming on 2,000 acres, Priestley found Kissing Tree House, half Georgian, half Regency, in beautiful countryside near Stratford-upon-Avon, where he died. He leaves his widow and a son and four daughters from his previous marriages.