At the end of Rain Upon Godshill (1939) JBPriestley tells us that he had been thinking about ‘the chapters of a story, based on an idea I had had for years…’ In nineteen days after returning from a rough excursion in Arizona to the ranch where they were staying he had written The Doomsday Men (1938), which ‘…described how three crazy brothers… tried to destroy the world…’ He tells us how he enjoyed writing it but he knew that ‘…any plot involving the destruction of the whole world must end in an anti-climax, for clearly you cannot destroy the world and still tell the tale…’ thus demonstrating how his novel-writing meshed with what might be called ‘real life’. He supposed that The Doomsday Men was a mistake; yet he could not see that it did anybody any harm.
Indeed, it is a glorious romp. Chapter One takes place in France. It is a vivid account of a tennis doubles match, clearly written by somebody who plays tennis, in which Malcolm Darbyshire & Andrea MacMichael, daughter of the very rich Henry MacMichael are partnered. He is smitten by her but for some reason she suggests that this is the last time she’ll ever see him. Chapter Two in England is an account of American George Glenway Hooker’s quest for a Professor Paul Englefield. He is caught breaking & entering the Englefield place in a frame-up by ‘brother’ Henry – that makes him Paul McMichael – ‘Englefield’ is a pseudonym. In Chapter Three we’re in Los Angeles and Jimmy Edlin, another completely unconnected character, in a search for the murderer of his brother Phil, meets up with a bizarre religious sect whose leader is one John MacMichael. It’s a hundred pages before the three separate events are drawn together with Malcolm, Hooker & Jimmy meeting in the Mohave Desert.
This is a good example of JBP’s novelistic modus operandi: many separate characters in their own context beginning to relate together as chapters unfold. Incidentally, I do wonder if the pattern was set as a result of the experience of the construction of Farthing Hall (1929), the splendid epistolatory novel JBP wrote with Hugh Walpole.
JBP had come across Ouspensky once more in a bookshop in Arizona and it’s surely no accident that the MacMichaels more or less represent Gurdjieff’s three ways of being: Henry the Doer & money-maker (Fakir), Paul the Thinker & scientist (Yogi), John the Visionary Feeler (Monk). The world is saved by Malcolm who represents the sly man, the Good Householder of the Fourth Way, combining the more positive elements of all three separate ways – capable of putting thinking & feeling into action.
JBP said he’d had this idea for years – the positive intention of the MacMichaels is Bakunin-type activity to destroy the world in order to create a new one. JBP perhaps subscribes to the philosophical position of a Bakunin as an intellectual fantasy? I wonder if this has been in his mind since his challenging experience in the trenches in 1916. Did the experience prompt the same question that Gurdjieff asked himself on the bombing range – ‘what am I doing here? The destruction of the world might well be an objective correlative for the Gurdjieffian notion that until you understand that you are a nothing going nowhere you will make no progress. As things are, even in 2020, the conduct of the Power Possessors is so criminally embedded that the only way to correct things would be to smash everything up and start again. It’s my own understanding that it’s a perfectly reasonable intellectual position to hold even if the practical application might turn out to be rather extreme. You can see how the idea works out in JBP’s writing in minor ways; for example, during the course of his English Journey (1934) he comes to Rusty Lane in West Bromwich. In a neighbourhood that’s mean and squalid
…this particular street seemed the worst of all. It would not matter very much – though it would matter – if only metal were kept there; but it happens that people live there, children are born there and grow up there. I saw some of them. 1 was being shown one of the warehouses, where steel plates were stacked in the chill gloom, and we heard a bang and rattle on the roof. The boys, it seems, were throwing stones again. They were always throwing stones on that roof. We went out to find them, but only found three frightened little girls, who looked at us with round eyes in wet smudgy faces. No, they hadn’t done it, the boys had done it, and the boys had just run away. Where they could run to, I cannot imagine.
Significant is JBP’s comment on this: ‘…They need not have run away from me, because I could not blame them if they threw stones and stones and smashed every pane of glass for miles. Nobody can blame them if they grow up to smash everything that can be smashed…’ And then he goes on to berate those who continue to pursue their own agendas without regard for lesser beings; their noses ought to be rubbed in Rusty Lane, West Bromwich.
There ought to be no more of those lunches and dinners at which political and financial and industrial gentlemen congratulate one another until something is done about Rusty Lane and West Bromwich. While they still exist in their present foul shape, it is idle to congratulate ourselves about anything. They make the whole pomp of government here a miserable farce. The Crown, Lords and Commons are the Crown, Lords and Commons of Rusty Lane, West Bromwich. In the heart of the great empire on which the sun never sets, in the land of hope and glory, Mother of the Free, is Rusty Lane, West Bromwich. What do they know of England who only England know? The answer must be Rusty Lane, West Bromwich. And if there is another economic conference, let it meet there, in one of the warehouses, and be fed with bread and margarine and slabs of brawn. The delegates have seen one England, Mayfair in the season. Let them see another England next time, West Bromwich out of the season. Out of all seasons except the winter of our discontent.
By comparison with small boys smashing windows to protest the conditions they live in, the upper crust with all their hope & glory are despicable gnomes, hopping about in their palaces & fine robes. This is a familiar pattern in JBP’s thinking process: start with a series of observations or reminiscences and end up cursing the Power Possessors.
In Bradford, his home town, JBP laments the fact that his boyhood pals were killed by WW1. Most of them had joined a Bradford Pals battalion after he had joined up. Usually, he tells the reader, ‘…the young men in the Pals Battalion were well above the average in intelligence, physique and enthusiasm. They were all sent to the attack on the Somme on 1 July 1916, when they were butchered with remarkable efficiency’. There’s an awful justified bitterness when he considers that
…I spent my boyhood in a rapidly growing suburb of Bradford, and there was a gang of us there, lads who played football together, went ‘chumping’ (collecting – frequently stealing – wood for the bonfires) just before the Fifth of November, played ‘tin-can squat’ and ‘rally-ho’ round the half-built houses, climbed and larked about on the builders’ timber stacks, exchanged penny dreadfuls, and sometimes made plans for an adventurous future. If those plans had been more sensible, they would still have been futile; for out of this group there are, I think, only two of us left alive. There are great gaps in my acquaintance now; and 1 find it difficult to swop reminiscences of boyhood. ‘The men who were boys when I was a boy’, the poet chants; but the men who were boys when I was a boy are dead. Indeed, they never even grew to be men. They were slaughtered in youth; and the parents of them have gone lonely the girls they would have married have grown grey in spinsterhood, and the work they would have done has remained undone. It is an old worn topic: the choicer spirits begin to yawn at the sight of it; those of us who are left of that generation are, it seems, rapidly becoming mumbling old bores.
In August 2020, there are millions dying of the Plague, bomber planes practise over the Wash for the continued annihilation of innocents all over the world and Tory politicians plan to use Navy gunboats to prevent migrants risking their lives to float in dinghies across the Channel to escape the chaos they themselves cause (Iraq, Syria, Libya). When we mumbling old bores, people who think, complain that human life is becoming an expendable worthless piece of trash compared to the continuing piling up of Profit, we are dismissed as ‘left-wing extremists’. But JBP points up the hypocrisy of the Power Possessors who after the war rapidly adjusted things back to their definition of ‘normal’ and easily manage to dupe their easily brain-washed populations into celebrating what they called ‘victory’.
[The] …subject has strange ramifications: probably I should not be writing this book now if thousands of better men had not been killed; and if they had been alive still, it is certain that I should have been writing, if at all, about an other and better England. I have had playmates, I have had companions, but all, all are gone; and they were killed by greed and muddle and monstrous cross-purposes, by old men gobbling and roaring in clubs, by diplomats working underground like monocled moles, by journalists wanting a good story by hysterical women waving flags, by grumbling debenture-holders, by strong silent beribboned asses, by fear or apathy or downright lack of imagination. I saw a certain war memorial not long ago; and it was a fine obelisk, carefully flood-lit after dark. On one side it said ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’; and on the other side it said ‘Lest We Forget’. The same old muddle, you see, reaching down to the very grave, the mouldering bones.
And JBP has other reasons for smashing it all up and starting again: when he’s in Nottingham he makes his way to the Goose Fair in Nottingham.
Between me and the fairground was a line of trees, dead black, with their foliage sharply silhouetted against the mist of light that hung above the actual glitter of the roundabouts and shows. The fair itself was coloured radiance. Staring hard at it, you could just see the tiny jewelled ostriches and whales and dragons curving round the switchbacks. The hooting and the grinding organ tunes dwindled and were blended by distance into a faint symphony of gaiety. Down there, you felt, was enchantment. If I had not been allowed to go any nearer, if I had looked and then been driven away, I would have sworn that I had been robbed of a glorious evening of pleasure. Never have I seen a few hundred yards of darkened space work such a change. This was the fair as it ought to have been, as it really was not, as it probably never had been, the fair that sparkled and sang in the minds of children. It was a superb romantic illusion glittering in the night.
Romantic childhood illusions, things as they ought to be, set against harsh realities. The bus back to the hotel ‘was noisy with a young woman who was drunk…’ and the porter in the hotel was quietly drunk too.
Some time later I wished I was also drunk, for I spent the next three hours or so listening to the shattering noise of motors being started up in the street outside my bedroom window. It will not be long before quiet is the most luxurious commodity in the world. Even now I doubt if wealth can buy anything better than a little extra privacy and quietness. That night I turned from side to side in my bed, tired out and aching, and I cursed the internal-combustion engine. If my Cotswold friend had asked me then, I would have joined him in a crusade to destroy the whole modern world, which cannot make a movement without rending the air with frightful sounds.
Modern technological inventions which are supposed to signal ‘Progress’ in fact have the effect of changing the human brain – it becomes patterned in a different way, one that is not all that dedicated to making sense of the world as it really is. Travelling by car, for example, changes the way we construct the idea of the event called ‘making a journey’. JBP is being driven in a car ‘like a precious parcel in a glass case’ from Nottingham to Chesterfield.
Somewhere about half-way we passed through the main street of a very small town, and each side of this street was lined with folk, old and young, who were all looking in one direction. Possibly there was a big funeral or perhaps a wedding among the notables, but there was no sign of either, and the staring crowd gave us no clue. It was very odd and rather disquietening to see all those faces and not to know what was the matter. It was as if we were not really there or alternatively as if we had gone rushing on into some mad England, not on the map. To travel swiftly in a closed car, as so many ot us do nowadays, is of course to cut oneself off from the reality of the regions one passes through. When people moved slowly in their travel there was time to establish proper communications with what was strange, to absorb, to adjust oneself. Now that we are whizzed about the world, there is no time for absorbing and adjusting. Perhaps it is for this reason that the world that the traveller knows is beginning to show less and less variety. By the time we can travel at four hundred miles an hour we shall probably move over a dead uniformity, so that the bit of reality we left at one end of a journey is twin to the bit of reality we step into at the other end. Indeed, by that time there will be movement, but, strictly speaking, no more travel.
One might very well wish to jettison modern technological ‘advances’. Only the other day I was accused of being well out of touch with ‘modern life’ when I said that I refused to have any truck with a very small e-gismo that would permit the owner to watch a football match without disturbing the company he was in while remaining apparently sociable.
Smash it all up and start again… A poet might well think this is a good idea without necessarily engaging with Doomsday tackle to accomplish it.
In the Potteries, JBP found that there was no memorial to Arnold Bennet who had put them on the literary map. He wonders why ‘…third-rate politicians in this country [are] still considered to be far more important than first-rate artists of any kind? It is because there is always a chance that the politician may be able to wangle something, whereas no real good can come of artists? 1 wonder if there is a country in Europe in which musicians, painters, authors, philosophers, scientists, count for less than they do in this country…’
I suppose that the right kind of scientists will make good use of technology but the rest of the ‘artists’ in JBP’s list will probably suffer from it.
And things are not what they used to be in Bradford: in 1933 the big merchanting houses had disappeared and the same xenophobic, racist, monster that lurks the corridors of the House of Excrement now was around then.
I can remember when one of the best-known clubs in Bradford was the Schillerverein. And in those days a Londoner was a stranger sight than a German. There was, then, this odd mixture in pre-war Bradford. A dash of the Rhine and the Oder found its way into our grim runnel – ‘t’mucky beck’. Bradford was determinedly Yorkshire and provincial, yet some of its suburbs reached as far as Frankfurt and Leipzig. It was odd enough. But it worked. The war changed all that. There is hardly a trace now in the city of that German-Jewish invasion. Some of the merchanting houses changed their names and personnel; others went out of business. I liked the city better as it was before, and most of my fellow-Bradfordians agree with me. It seems smaller and duller now. I am not suggesting that these German-Jews are better men than we are. The point is that they were different, and brought more to the city than bank drafts and lists of customers. They acted as a leaven, just as a colony of typical West Riding folk would act as a leaven in Munich or Moscow. These exchanges are good for everybody. Just lately, when we offered hospitality to some distinguished German-Jews who had been exiled by the Nazis, the leader-writers in the cheap Press began yelping again about Keeping the Foreigner Out. Apart from the miserable meanness of the attitude itself – for the great England, the England admired throughout the world, is the England that keeps open house, the refuge of Mazzini, Marx, Lenin – history shows us that the countries that have opened their doors have gained, just as the countries that have driven out large numbers of their citizens, for racial, religious or political reasons, have always paid dearly for their intolerance. It is one of the innumerable disadvantages of this present age of idiotic nationalism, political and economic, this age of passports and visas and quotas, when every country is as difficult to enter or leave as were the Tsar’s Russia or the Sultan’s Turkey before the war, that it is no longer possible for this admirable leavening process to continue. Bradford is really more provincial now than it was twenty years ago. But so, I suspect, is the whole world. It must be when there is less and less tolerance in it, less free speech, less liberalism. Behind all the new movements of this age, nationalistic, fascistic, communistic, has been more than a suspicion of the mental attitude of a gang of small-town louts ready to throw a brick at the nearest stranger.
JBP could have made the same point yesterday as the whole world now seems hell-bent on tipping towards fascism.
In East Durham JBP finds yet another reason for smashing everything and starting again: the mining industry that’s provided so much profit for the owners is no place for genteel living.
I could not blame him if [a Durham miner] detested the whole coal-burnmg public: he is isolated geographically; more often than not he lives in a region so unlovely, so completely removed from either natural beauty or anything of grace or dignity contrived by man, that most of us take care never to go near a colliery area; the time he does not spend underground is spent in towns and villages that are monuments of mean ugliness.
Another example of expendable humanity.
I shall be told by some people that this does not matter because miners, never having known anything else, are entirely indifferent and impervious to such ugliness. I believe this view to be as false as it is mean. Miners and their wives and children are not members of some troglodyte race but ordinary human beings, and as such are partly at the mercy of their surroundings… But the channels of the senses are open to them just as they arc to the rest of us. Their environment must either bring them to despair – as I know from my own experience that it frequently does – or in the end it must blunt their senses and taste, harden the feelings and cloud the mind. And the latter is a tragic process, which nothing that calls itself a democratic civilisation has any right to encourage.
No doubt layabout Tories, the upper layers of the Government, look down on the plebs and rest content in their beds with the notion that we’re all used to poverty and having to scrape a living and that’s our place in the world; one such despicable has suggested that the poor are responsible for the plague owing to the conditions they’re used to; another has suggested that we pensioners should be made to work for our pensions, picking fruit (or sweeping the streets maybe…) or have what we once worked for withdrawn.
Let us rid ourselves once and for all of this still familiar, fallacious and despicable ‘getting used to’ argument, which even now some people use to preserve their own mental comfort at other people’s expense. We know that man is one of the most adaptable of creatures. He can exist in deep caves, up in the tree-tops or in the snow and ice; by feeding on nothing but blubber or raw fish and coconut; by wandering naked in tropical jungles or sewing himself up in skins in the Arctic darkness; be has been known to exist for years and years shut up in iron cages or perched on the top of pillars; he can make some sort of shift to live without eyes or legs or arms. No doubt man can ‘get used to’ almost anything. But what, in the name of Justice, has this to do with us?
There have been civilisations of a kind that were deliberately planned so that a few persons could live like demi-gods while all the rest toiled as their slaves, with no rights as human beings. That is not our plan. It is to us an impossible civilisation, if only because our demi-gods would soon begin to think about the slaves; and the more they were worth working for, the more anxious they would be to associate themselves with their less fortunate fellow-creatures. We are on another and better road. We are not so far along it as we generally pretend to be, but there we are. And every time one of us complacently announces that people can ‘get used to’ notoriously bad conditions of work and living, he or she has taken a step back. Even if the people in question are adapting themselves to a dwarfing and distorting mode of life, it is our business to try and put a stop to the miserable process. If we do not choose to do this, then let us at least be honest and bold and instead of being smooth and glib about people ‘get ting used to’ things, say boldly: ‘Well, 1 don’t care. Damn them, I’m all right.’
The worst place JBP visited was the colliery village of Shotton.
The publican did not know the height of the giant ‘tip’, but said that the atmosphere was always as bad as it was then and that sometimes it was a lot worse. And it had always been like that in his time. So it must have been, for a pile of smoking refuse as big as a hill cannot have grown in a year or two. There must have been a lot of labour put into the ground and a lot of wealth taken out of it before the ‘tip’ began to darken the sky and poison the air. I stared at the monster, my head tilted back, and thought of all the fine things that had been conjured out of it in its time, the country houses and town houses, the drawing-rooms and dining-rooms, the carriages and pairs, the trips to Paris, the silks and the jewels, the peaches and iced puddings, the cigars and old brandies; I thought I saw them all tumbling and streaming out, hurrying away from Shotton – oh, a long way from Shotton – as fast as they could go.
Never having heard of the place before, I looked up Shotton on the Internet which is, I have to admit, quite useful as a modern version of HGWells’ World Brain!
It seems that Old Shotton goes back to 900 AD when it was called Scitton, Old English meaning ‘of the Scots’, It appeared in 1165 as ‘Sottun’. By the 16th century, it had become known as Shotton. There is a Shotton Hall built in 1756.
Wikipedia goes on: ‘In 1833, the Haswell Coal Company began to sink a colliery to the west of Old Shotton, near Shotton Grange Farm. This pit began producing coal the following year and the village of Shotton Colliery soon started to develop. The pit was initially prosperous, but closed on November 3, 1877, causing people to leave the village to work at other pits in the area. In 1900, the pit reopened and grew rapidly, leading to an increased population in the village. More housing was built, making other industries, including the Coke Works and the Brick Works, less popular. By 1947, the original houses, east of the railway line were in disrepair. Most of the bottom of Front Street was demolished…
‘In 1972, the National Coal Board announced that it was closing the colliery, at a cost of 800 jobs. Easington District Council built new housing in the 1970’s, pulling down most of the remaining pit houses in an attempt to improve the village. Throughout most of the 1970’s, work was done to remove the pit heap, which was at one time the largest in the country. The Brick Works and Coke Works went with the pit.
‘The village is now almost empty of work. On the colliery site a few small industrial units survive, but the main sources of employment are call centres which opened east of the village, dividing Shotton Colliery and Old Shotton. Most of the parish’s pubs, cinemas and the railway station were demolished or converted to other uses. A small number of shops are left…’
After 23 years Priestley returned to The Doomsday Men theme in 1961 with Saturn Over the Water. This time there’s a single ‘hero’ on a quest to find the missing husband, Joe Farne, of a dying cousin; this involves a journey from England to New York to Peru to Chile to Australia following scribbled clues jotted down in a letter from Joe Farne to his wife. Ticking off the clues involves Tim Bedford, whose story this is, in a long series of coincidences that involve him in a plot to blow up the world and start again.
Sam Harnburg (art dealer in New York) advises Tim (painter who has samples of his work in Sam’s gallery), to go for it, follow his quest without stopping to think about it. He says: “If you’ve walked into something, Tim – and it’s my guess you have, and to hell with coincidences – don’t go kidding yourself that something can’t be happening because it doesn’t seem to make sense. It hasn’t to make sense, not as we used to understand things making sense, not any more. There are fellas up top now, making big decisions, that would have been locked in padded cells when I was young. And nothing’s firm under the feet or solidly nailed down any more. It’s all melting, dissolving, slipping down the side, turning into liquid and bubbles. Talk about flying saucers! We’re in one. I swear to God only pictures keep me sane and in one piece. And even then half the new talent’s nutty. Maybe you are for leaving your work to go slewfooting in South America…”
I made this paragraph into a Found Poem:-In Peru Tim goes to the Arnaldos institute where, from Rosalia Arnaldos, he learns something about its secret intentions and its world-wide associated groupings.
She was in fact genuinely devoted to [her grandfather] as a person – she’d often behaved stupidly, perhaps downright badly, just because she’d felt so frustrated all round, a useless girl – but she thought that all that money and power and certain ideas he’s always believed in had unbalanced him, so that in his own way he was as mad as the others. She’d begged him to explain to her what they were trying to do. He said he was only able to tell her a little, but what he did tell her, and what she repeated to me, did throw a new light on the whole mysterious Wavy Eight business. Old Arnaldos, it appeared, believed that our whole civilisation – and Capitalism and Communism were only two different aspects of it – would have to be destroyed to make room for a new and better one, which would not be concerned with material benefits for vast urban masses, would never again build enormous cities, would reject all the political and social ideas of our time, and would create some kind of religious-authoritarian system rather like that of the Incas, except of course that it would make use of science and technology. This was to happen, he told her, chiefly in South America and Africa and Australia.
Later in Australia, Tim explains what he’s found out to Joe Farne whom he has been seeking through the whole novel.
“This is what we know now. At least what I know, from what I’ve learnt myself, from what Steglitz said earlier, that night, from what Rosalia was told by her grandfather. These Saturn types believe our whole civilisation has gone wrong. So they want it to destroy itself. They want total war – nuclear, biological, the works. It’s their plan that explains what’s been so puzzling – that while everybody talks about peace, this total war comes nearer and nearer. The Saturnians see to that. They use all kinds of methods. They control some key people. I know they use individual and mass hypnotic techniques, subliminal messages in films, drugs they make themselves, and all the usual propaganda channels. Whenever possible, though, they don’t bring new forces into play but simply direct forces that already exist…”
Sounds like the contemporary secret Fascist cliques who are currently trying to smash everything up to start again in their nasty way, the Bilderbergers, the New World Order people, the D Cummings, Trump & Johnson people.
The Wavy 8 plot is, of course, foiled because it was a fiction. What will stop the Right Wing extremists in these troubled times? It’s not a fiction.
Towards the end of English Journey, JBP travelled from Boston to King’s Lynn, not thinking much of the countryside and not mentioning the swing bridge at Sutton Bridge where I live. Must have been asleep at the time, dreaming about the next novel.