Throughout this summer, I have tried to set aside ten minutes each Sunday evening, at nine-fifteen, if I can manage it, to read the appropriate installment of JB Priestley’s Postscripts, the talks that he gave after the Sunday nine o’clock news throughout the summer of 1940. The last time I did this was 2008, five years ago, and over the years, I suppose, I have completed the game four or five times. So, why am I drawn to repeat this exercise? Well, of course, part of it is a game, reading an essay close to the time and day of the month when it was originally broadcast. I’m sure it’s nothing about connecting with the Dunkirk spirit; I haven’t any. Neither is it simple nostalgia for a time I never knew, although I do think it says something about the audiences, then and now. I’m sure that I’m hooked, simply, by the quality of the writing.
When someone has the perspective to write the history of England’s literature during the 20th Century (and that won’t be yet awhile), they will surely recognise the twenty years 35-55 as the golden age of “the talk on the wireless.” These years presented a fine but challenging opportunity for the writer. There were, in England, only three radio channels and no television until after the war and then only one channel. So, before the proliferation of choice, the broadcaster could fairly assume that he was talking to the nation, as one, literally, gathered around the hearth to listen. This meant that the talks had to be good. But more than that, they had to be expert, not necessarily in their subject but certainly in the skills of essay writing. They wrote, knowing that most of the nation would listen to their piece and many would discuss it in the coming days. The talk had to be accessible to everyone, but also interesting and the arguments had to be sufficiently robust to withstand the challenge of folk who knew what they were on about.
Those circumstances gave us JB Priestley, AG Street, Alistair Cooke, Herbert, Forster and even Orwell. What a shame that it couldn’t give us Wilkie Collins, Dickens or Lawrence or that it didn’t give us Raymond Chandler, John Buchan and E V Lucas.
The proliferation of choice reduced competition for the chair at the microphone. The airways became so open that they eventually had to give way to characters who were famous only for being famous and, eventually, user-generated content. The circumstances of the golden age cannot return but I do think that during those twenty years English Lit came as close to matching the quality of the coffee house essayists as it is ever likely to achieve.
You can listen to my reading of this post, as part of my fortnightly podcast on Spreaker