A few weeks ago, discussing John Crowley’s Four Freedoms, I referred to an obscure, long out of print, long-forgotten novel of J. B. Priestley, Daylight on Saturday, on a similar theme, the recollection of which overshadowed my ability to enjoy Crowley’s work. The novels have nothing in common save their setting, which is that of a munitions factory during the Second World War, but the love I’ve long had for Priestley’s book made it impossible to approach Crowley’s novel with a completely open mind.
There’s a world of difference between the two books, on every level, and not merely the contrasting backgrounds of America – free from direct assault from either protagonist – and Britain – victim of air raids and attacks, close to the edge of the battlefield. Curiously, both writers go for a similar type of background: Crowley’s factory-cum-mini-city is in the midwest, between the poles of each coast and its differing characteristics, whilst Priestley’s factory is in the Midlands, an often neglected region because it is neither the North nor the South.
In their differing ways, the settings represent neutral areas, between extremes.
But the two books couldn’t be more different. Priestley’s was written on the spot, as it were, in the middle of the War when no outcome was yet known or knowable. And it is confined to the factory itself, every page taking place within its walls, every character seen only in relation to their role in the factory, in the urgent need to work for a victory that, with all due respect to Americans, is far closer to them. Crowley writes from the future, looking back, recreating an era and an atmosphere. Priestley writes from within, reflecting what he sees about him.
Daylight on Saturday is, unavoidably, a less literary book. Some might call it a potboiler, though I think it’s far better than that. It certainly has its propaganda aspect, but then Priestley was a passionate Englishman who gave greatly of his time and effort to what could support the war effort: his Postscripts series, a weekly talk on BBC Radio, was one of the most popular programmes in the War Years (until it was stopped because it’s political stripe did not match that of Churchill).
But it’s also a social document, a record of what people did and thought during wartime. That alone lifted it far above one of Priestley’s other wartime novels, a thriller entitled Blackout in Gretley, in which wartime England was no more than a backdrop – an accurate one, naturally – to a story whose sole intent was entertainment.
Since you’re highly unlikely ever to find a copy of Daylight on Saturday unless old copies still exist, in bookshops of the mind that rarely exist any longer, I’d better be more forthright than usual about the contents of the book. The title alone sets a tone for the story: just as the action takes place entirely within the factory walls, so too is everybody’s lives. Literally, they only see daylight on Saturdays, for their working day at the time of year this is set begins before and ends after dark.
The factory is building planes, or rather parts for planes. It is full of men and women doing repetitive, unending tasks with complex, noisy machines, working with different levels of skill and competency at things that, in another, better day, they would never have gone near, never have had to go near. For women, it is an entry to a workforce that was previously all but banned to them. Over and again, just by showing you people doing these things, Priestley emphasises that the war has changed things and, even once won, it will continue to change things in a way no-one expected. The genie is out of the bottle, the worms are out of the can, look at it as you will, there will not being a going back, no matter how much people expect and want it, to before.
Priestley opens the book with a bravura sequence of eight chapters. The whole story is told from multiple viewpoints: all the important characters, and there are neither stars nor heroes within, become eyes for us to see through, several times over, and there is a continual interchange between our understanding of what is inside a person and the visions others around them have of them.
But Priestley sets things up by applying this approach to a daisy chain. A succession of characters lead us first one way, then another, their viewpoints interlocking to inform us of all we need to know, the baton passing in turn from our inside man or woman to someone encountered near the end of their chapter, who will in turn take us in a different direction, until we have seen enough to understand where we are and who we are dealing with.
The order runs through James Cheviot, general manager of the Elmdown Aircraft Company Limited, Bob Elrick, its Works Supervisor, Joyce Deerhurst, a rather nice and genteel machine worker and former milliners’ assistant, Alfred Cleeton, the foreman, Edith Shipton, Women’s Welfare Officer, Nelly Ditton, a former country girl and machinist, with a lop-sided face, Sammy Hamp, odd-job man, and Francis Blandford, Progress Development Manager.
There are others seen along the way, who form a vital part of the narrative: Stan Ogmore, charge-hand, shop steward and communist, Gordon Stonier, a machinist who is steadily going insane, Blandford’s assistant, Maurice Angleby and his secretary (and cousin), Freda Pinnel, and we see through their eyes at different times.
We see through many people’s eyes, including those of a pair of ageing music hall comedians, ding a Worker’s Playtime show in the canteen. Everyone goes to build up a mosaic image of this place at this time, what people think, what they expect, what they love and hate.
But it’s a moving mosaic: this isn’t just a portrait. The factory isn’t doing well. Production is dipping, despite everything everyone can do to try to push it back up again. Things are so dire that, in a few days time, a Ministry Delegation is coming to inspect the factory, a delegation consisting of a career Civil Servant with absolutely no qualifications to assess what he will see, and a former assistant manager of the factory, sacked for incompetence. There are difficulties regarding supplies that force Cheviot to tour subsidiary operations, creating an absence that has disastrous results.
If there is a hero, or at least a central character, it’s Bob Elrick. He’s a passionate, aggressive, bad-tempered, hard-drinking man with a temper that usually denies him allies at the wrong moment. He’s convinced that the factory’s trouble is the war, the absence of news, the absence of some sort of development that will involve and excite the workers, be it good or bad. Elrick harks back to Dunkirk, when he personally worked like a trojan, driving, directing, urging, performing miracles, and it’s not to difficult to see that he personally is lacking something like that, some crisis, some reason, need, excuse to hammer at things at full bore.
He’ll be proved right too, before the book ends. In the background of the news, there is a clash going on in Africa, at a place called El Alamein, where a glorious victory and an upsurge in morale will change everything at the factory.
But Ellrick’s frustration with life, his gut-deep opposition to the snobbish, aristocratic, autocratic Blandford, who sees society as permanently stratified and everyone below him as disposable, his choleric inability to use his advantages over Blandford to his advantage, his growing obsession with Joyce Deerhurst, who’s totally in the wrong place, become the story of his gradual, but inexorable downfall, a common man’s tragedy.
There are other stories. The shy, unpretty Nelly grows in confidence and stature as the book progresses, picked to go to London to appear on the radio opening her up and starting a confidence that she’s never before been allowed to develop. And Angleby, who starts as a protege of Blandford, seemingly no more than a conscientious and dedicated worker, lifting himself up by his bootstraps, who grows rapidly to become Elrick’s replacement as Works Supervisor, and more than a match for the haughty Freda, who initially planes to give him nothing but acid condescension, but who learns that she herself has depths and qualities never dreamed of.
There’s Gwen Ockley, a gifted, intelligent mechanic, veteran of the pre-War days, lost in a hopeless love for Bob Elrick, there’s recent arrival Arthur Bolton, cousin of the wife of Edith Shipton’s married lover, a man frozen inside by the loss of his entire family to a Nazi bomb, to whom Edith, in trying to explain herself, starts trying to transfer her feelings.
And then there’s Stonier. Who is mad, mad with a kind of religious fervour, hearing voices in his head, from the machines, especially the new one, that squeals and screams, with all the cutting edges over which blood must flow, and Stonier can see the young woman with the lop-sided face who has been chosen as the sacrifice, who works opposite him every day…
Elrick finally loses it over Joyce Dewhurst. He’s already been replaced by Angleby, but Cheviot had other plans to use Elrick to advantage, but Elrick knows it’s too late, you can’t take Elmwood out of him. His clumsy, obsessive lunge at Joyce destroys all that, destroys his future and then Stonier grabs Nelly and starts dragging her to the machine, but Elrick intervenes, at the biggest cost of all…
Yes, go on, say that the ending’s melodramatic, that it’s just a means of closing off a story that, without it, might have lacked a satisfactory resolution. But Priestley takes Elrick’s final moments off-stage, lets them be relayed afterwards, with commendable brevity, concentrating upon the aftermath for everyone. And in a way the ending is a triumph, for the horror of Stonier, the fear for the naïve Nelly, who nevertheless could contain more in her than she even hoped to dream, has been a steadily growing theme for so very long that it’s deflection is in itself a victory. A war victory, at cost, great cost.
For a very long time, John Boynton Priestley was a great English author, and he was decidedly English, a native of Bradford, a Socialist at heart, a man with certain quasi-mystical appreciations of Life and of Time. I know of him long before I read him, out of the library, beginning with a piece of whimsy entitled The Thirty-First of June. Reading out of the library, I went through most of his contemporary novels, many of which were undercut with a bitterness at the age, with what he saw as the perversion of England’s character by various influences, mostly those of cheap Americana.
Even then, there were still great books: 1968’s The Image Men, a great, sweeping, scathing attack on advertising, hypocrisy and politics, 1965’s Lost Empires, an evocation of the Music Hall days. But the best ones were older ones, closer to their time. My favourite remains 1948’s Bright Day, which one day I’ll talk about in more detail, Priestley’s own favourite until The Image Men, and all the way back to the book that made his reputation, The Good Companions.
I began to collect his work, which is what led me, after several years of diligent examination of second hand bookshops, to Daylight on Saturday. Eventually, I read it all, most of it in old hardbacks that are now all the evidence that the books existed, because unless a true, universal print-on-demand service comes into being, no-one will reprint such books, and not this moment of a specific, thankfully gone time.
Eventually, I kept a handful. I wanted to read them all, but over forty plus years of writing there were those that were better than others, and I kept the ones I knew I would want to re-read. Some good books went because, at the end of the day, I had better ones to keep: The Good Companions is structured around three completely disparate persons coming together in an unanticipated exercise, and Priestley used that formula a few times over, on books that were good, but not better.
There’s a case for ignoring Daylight on Saturday as a minor work by an author who, like so many others, has ceased to matter since his death in 1984. It’s not a case that will ever influence me.
As an addendum to the above, a quick check on eBay reveals a dozen available copies of Daylight on Saturday, not to mention myriad others of Priestley. You may wish to indulge…