I’ve just read JBPriestley’s They Walk in the City (1936)
Edward Greenfield refuses to go along with the kind of life that his smug brother Herbert has designed for himself.
The latter had made his great gesture when he had determined to be an analytical chemist and, in face of many obstacles, lack of money at home, his father’s opposition, his own honest but not quick brain, had turned himself into an analytical chemist. Since then he had rested securely on life, constantly receiving a grave pleasure from the thought of himself, Herbert Fielding of Sutcliffe Place, as an analytical chemist. Such intelligence as he had, he kept for his work. Outside his work, he was solemnly silly, and dangerously so because his professional training and standing gave a certain solidity to the nonsense he repeated out of the newspapers, the ridiculous flimsy opinions he picked up anywhere, from anybody. In Britain, America, Germany, there are millions of Herberts; little technical men or minor professional men; fellows who used up all their wits and courage and resource-fulness in their teens or early twenties for their training and that precious first appointment; and are decent, kind citizens who never neglect an obvious duty, stout little pillars of their communities, who never mean any harm. But from them flows out a tide of stupidity and prejudice that goes rolling round the world and, when some wind of wickedness lashes it, goes spouting up until it falls in dreadful cataracts of blood.
Herbert is a representative of the half-baked masses, dedicated to wage slavery & ‘fun’, taken in by the capitalist media, unable to think for themselves but imagining that they know it all until they find themselves in the bloody trenches or, as nowadays, conned into the stupidity of quitting Europe when Europe is most needed. Herbert, deeming himself superior to his brother, tries to put him on what he imagines to be ‘the right track’ but he thinks
…Edward was always at his silliest and worst during these attempts at serious discussion. Herbert knew that his brother was by no means without intelligence, and had actually done very well at his secondary school; but now, after several half-hearted attempts to do something for himself, mostly idiotic things like trying to learn to play the saxophone (‘Big Money In Jazz, You Fellows!’ said the advertisement), messing about with home wireless sets, even applying for a job as a forester, Edward seemed to him to have drifted into a planless and mindless state of slackness and mere grousing. He only needed to start drinking, as he would inevitably do in a few years at this rate, to make an even bigger hash of his life than his father had done. To Herbert it was all incomprehensible and sickening; he saw his young brother as a foolish child meandering slowly but almost wilfully into disaster…
Priestley declares that early on in his life he did not know what to do with it, lacked a plan and even at one stage thought about being a forester for no particular reason. They Walk in the City is about the way Edward, while similarly being without a plan, learns from his experience in London.
One thing Priestley does so well in his frequent meta-comments on the events in his novels is to create a large context for the relatively trivial human accidents of being – are they so trivial?
Eight million human creatures. The commercial capital of the globe. But there is commerce here unknown to the Port of London Authority, the Stock Exchange, the Board of Trade. The thoughts, the dreams, the old shuddering fears of these eight millions depart along fantastic wave-lengths, leaving our own familiar space-time continuum, to build little heavens and hells in new time and strange dimensions of space. In exchange, radiations from distant stars penetrate the haze and perhaps bring to the pavements below obscure news that cannot be found in the evening papers. As we know, there are eight million private dramas being acted in this jungle of brickwork and cement, where steel-clawed ravenous monsters like bankruptcy and unemployment and angina pectoris and starvation and cancer come crashing through the thickets, where a favourable bank balance and a good digestion and an easy mind and love-found-and-ful-filled occasionally light the jungle ways with a flash of blue wings. But there are also eight million parts being acted here in a gigantic Mystery, with green globes and moons and suns and black space as scenic sets, a few tattered pages as a prompt book, and two famous illusionists, Here and Now, as stage managers. And what this is all about, nobody knows. The youngest of six half-starved children, listening to the rats in the darkness of a back room in Hoxton, does not know. The expensively educated and comfortably maintained elderly clerical gentleman who writes for the papers telling us all is well (or as well as is deserved) with this youngest of six in Hoxton, does not know… Eight million, with all their houses, furniture, knick-knacks, mortgages, insurance policies, bills of sale, prescriptions and love letters, rolling on in one gigantic Mystery. And eight million busy with their own private dramas, making the whole stone forest steam and hum. And there among them, toiling away with a thousand other organisations to victual them, is the Copper Kettle Café Company, Ltd…
where Rose began work after leaving Haliford up North out of disappointment that Edward, through no fault of his own, had not turned up for a second date. Edward’s search for her and her subsequent disappearances is the source of his learning which, at the beginning is about how to blast through to the commercial world – an image lodged in his mind by futile conversations with Herbert. But it seems impenetrable.
Such is the City on one of these mornings, a place in a Gothic fairy tale, a mirage, a vision, Cockaigne made out of faint sunlight and vapour and smoke. It is hard to believe that somewhere behind this enchanting façade. directors are drawing their fees, debenture-holders are being taken care of, loans are being called in, compound interest is being calculated, mergers are being arranged between a Partaga and a Corona Corona, and suggestions are being put forward for little schemes that will eventually bring revolution into Central America and mass murder into the Near East.
I remember this feeling very well from my first adventure in the world of financial chicanery: in Charing Cross Income Tax Office (144) in 1956, I shuffled the fat files of big businesses, their little scraps of dividend payments, and those of the workers who slaved to make money for capitalists being allowed to take some of it home after being taxed for their trouble; it seemed like an emblem of the ‘real world’ around which my poor suburban sense of being was floating forever on the outside. Harry, who’d been gassed in the trenches of WW1 and still suffered the after-effects, inducted me into the office filing system – that was my very small connection with history.
Another thing Priestley succeeds at in his meta-comments is to move the reading mind skilfully backwards & forwards in time; for example, as in They Walk in the City, having thoroughly wrapped the reader into the narrative and hinted at various disasters, though he encourages to imagine it might not, he subtly indicates that all will turn out well in the end, the characters will be looking back on everything that’s happening to them able to reflect calmly on it at last.
After various individual adventures, Edward & Rose at last manage to arrange to meet for the first time since leaving Haliford. He wonders what he’s going to say to her; she’s wondering what to wear and say; neither could remember what the other looked like so that each rehearsed their speech ‘earnestly to a smiling blur’; nevertheless, all was excitement in spite of
…the fact that one of them was still degrading herself, under a false name too, in domestic service and was still wanted by the police, and the fact that the other had just been sacked by the Belvedere Trading Company, had no further job in view, and not much left out of his windfall. These matters were now seen in their true perspective; they were mere details; fairly entertaining subjects for discussion later. A few learned and conscientious persons, here and there, were even now planning how to turn such careless young people into good citizens, just as a great many other persons were even now planning how to take their money away from them, even if it meant cheating, when they should become good citizens; but they themselves were not bothering at all, and might have been a medieval hind and his lass preparing to walk together in one of the giant forests of that old leafy England…
They meet up with Mr Mantoni to whom Rose had been introduced one evening going backstage with her landlady after he had performed his conjuring act. He asks them to go meet old Alf who used to be in the same business. In his shop they are entranced by all the signs of the conjuring trade, especially a hand-printed notice in the window which said MAGIC TAUGHT! Since ‘magic’ is one of Priestley’s favourite words we may assume that this is what’s going on for Edward & Rose who are ‘learning the magic’ of their relationship.
Alf uses conjuring as a metaphor for something other than magic, related to those who work dishonest swindles, using sleight of mouth tactics to con us into thinking that all’s right with the world, diverting the mob’s attention from the real issues by focusing on something trivial that hits the headlines while dirty undercover work takes place – it’s called ‘hiding the bad news’.
… “I’m not talking about [card] sharpers,” Alf continued, looking solemn now. “I’m thinking about a lot of other people. Illusionists, and they never let on. Doctors and lawyers and politicians and financiers. What are they doing half their time? Tricks – pulling the rabbit out of the hat – sawing the lady in two – asking you to watch their right hands while their left hands are making your money disappear – and not telling you anything about it. We’re honest. We tell you.”
“Alf’s right,” said Mr. Mantoni. “Funny thing is too – we make our living by deceiving people, but I never knew a good magician yet who wasn’t as straight as a die…”
Edward goes for a job with the Westminster Imperial Development Company which
…worked on a big scale. It did not call itself ‘Imperial’ for nothing. Men of all shades, from lemon-yellow to a purple-black, in all manner of distant places, planned and toiled to feed it. The word went out from those fine dignified office buildings, and deserts were torn open, little steamers disappeared up rivers into the dim rotting jungle, whole towns were built in the wilderness, hosts of people – managers, clerks, labourers, pimps, prostitutes – suddenly arrived or as suddenly vanished, machine-guns slashed the façades of tropical palaces. From any reasonable and civilised point of view, a good deal of its activity was sheer brigandage, but most of it was brigandage in a nice, neat, clean-handed style. You could even be a director of the Westminster Imperial and have the clearest conscience. This was because, following the refinements of our civilisation, you and it worked on the limited liability principle. All you did was to demand a certain result – a higher tariff, an increased turn-over, some little monopoly or other, a firm agreement, a definite concession – and then the people under you sent out their instructions demanding this same result, and so it went on, until perhaps somebody, somewhere – but of course a long way from the decencies of Westminster, probably in some God-forsaken place where, after all, nobody knows any better – might be compelled, in order to bring about this result, to do some rather dirty work. But whose fault was that? You did not ask for bribery, corruption, robbery, murder, massacre, revolution, war: had none of these things in your mind; you simply, in the way of business, asked for a certain result, merely a higher tariff or increased turn-over and so on, that you were surely entitled to demand by the very nature of your enterprise. This is the limited liability system, without which we should never get anywhere at all, and the Westminster Imperial people knew all about it.
In this compellingly neat exposé of the capitalist imperialist system, Priestley is setting us up to realise that this is not the job for Edward. His brother Herbert might have fallen for it, but not Edward. He doesn’t get the job anyway!
In Midnight on the Desert (1937) Priestley gives us an account of the physical context for the writing of They Walk in the City. He’s built himself a hut in the Arizona desert to ‘…tap-tap away at my account of life in the rain and fog of London streets…’
There in the middle of my hut, with Arizona glittering round it for hundreds of miles, was a tiny dark London, into which I popped every morning about ten. When people tell you how lucky you are to be a professional writer, they enumerate advantages that you know very well are things not worth having; but they never mention this genuine bit of luck, that you can sit in Arizona and build for yourself a London that has just the people, streets, houses, and weather you need, and can then, months afterwards, sit in Highgate on a dark wet Monday morning and conjure for yourself the bright illimitable spaces of the Arizona desert.
When I taught NLP to high-powered executives, I used to use the example of a similar divided consciousness to illustrate a way of thinking about putting oneself in alternative states of being: my example was that when I was like a sardine in an Underground compartment in the rush hour I would think of standing at the top of my drive, way out in the middle of nowhere; alternatively when I was standing at the top of the drive I would think of being a sardine again; swapping around mentally is what’s needed when you do a meta-mirror exercise, finding out what it might be like to stand in somebody else’s shoes in order to think about how a relationship might be made even better than it is at the moment. Arizona desert/London, Underground rush hour/the top of my drive – mental shifting around.
Priestley says that when he’d gone to Arizona he’d meant
…to spend the winter writing a novel, but I had had only the vaguest notion of the form it would take, and so I had not a single note. I had to remember and invent the London of my story…
At the time reviewers of the resulting novel praised him for his accurate ‘reporting’ but as I turned every page of the novel I was happily walking the London streets he described in such vivid detail. That has to be more than a response to mere ‘reporting’.
To report is to narrate, describe, and repeat as an eye-witness. The reporter is the man on the spot, or he is nothing. Now anyone less on the spot, less of an eye-witness of what he was describing, than myself in that hut can hardly be imagined. A man in Arizona who attempts to describe, with some wealth of detail, what it feels like to be a waitress or a parlourmaid in London, using not one single note, may be a good, bad or indifferent novelist, but he will certainly not be much of a reporter. He has removed himself far from the scene; he has not prepared himself to describe it; and only by a fairly violent use of his imagination can he identify himself with characters so entirely different from himself. If this is reporting, then I no longer understand the English language.
Priestley’s prose wraps you into what’s going on for him at every stage. That’s what makes his novels so compelling to read.
Wrestling with ideas for the novel in his desert hut, Priestley says his
…immediate task was to find the right setting, the most suitable scheme of action, the best manner of narration, for what seemed to me an attractive and not unworthy idea. This was to take two simple young people, typical specimens of the exploited and helpless class, to bring them together, part them, bring them together again, in the fashion of the oldest and simplest love stories, but to place them and their little romance within a strong framework of social criticism. The two youngsters would be symbolic figures rather than solidly created characters. Much of what happened to them would be symbolic of the special difficulties and dangers of the large class they represented. Like a scarlet thread running through the narrative would be the fairy-tale of young love, as this boy and girl saw it; but the reader’s mind would be constantly yanked away from their view point to a wide and critical survey of the social scene. If, for example, they met in a tea-shop, I would try to convey the wonder and glow of that meeting, but at the same time I would examine the institution of the tea-shop itself, relating it to a sharp analysis, which would develop with the story, of our modern urban life. This would not be easy: it meant a double point of view throughout, but as one could not have the simple romance and the social criticism at the same time, there would have to be frequent transitions and these would have to be very artfully done. And I would have to work out a story that could be enjoyed on two different levels. No, it would not be at all easy, I concluded, as 1 scribbled a note or two for what might or might not be future whole chapters. And I was right, I added from my arm-chair in the hut where I had struggled with the thing all winter. I would not have been in that hut at that hour if all had gone swimmingly with this novel. There would have been nothing to destroy, whereas here, at my elbow, waiting to be popped into the stove, was a thick pile of typed sheets. The novel was nearly done now, but it was not quite the novel I planned in the train coming West.
I am so glad he didn’t destroy the novel. We don’t know much about Edward & Rose except that they stick to their guns and she’s entranced by ballet so they are ‘symbolic’ characters but the ‘constant yanking away’ from the narrative works really well – the double point of view that I have related to the NLP process called meta-mirror.