Some Books: J B Priestley’s ‘The Thirty-First of June’

In 2014, responding to some stray thoughts that brought up memories of a small number of books that I had read more than once, borrowing and re-borrowing them from Didsbury Library, but which I hadn’t read again for at least twenty years, I began an occasional series about such books. Curious as to whether I might still find them appealing, for more reason than nostalgia for the times in which I enthused over them, I hunted the books down, finding them cheaply available on eBay and Amazon, thinking to blog about the experience.
The latest of these books is J B Priestley’s The Thirty-First of June.
Like Mark Shipper’s Paperback Writer, this isn’t the same kind of choice that this series represents. Yes, it’s a library book and I borrowed it from a library that, if not actually that in Didsbury, was not a million miles away in space and even less in time. But whilst books in this series have been mainly one-offs, The Thirty-First of June was a beginning rather than an end in itself.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I had something of a restricted childhood and adolescence, and I was closing in on 16, or maybe already there before I was allowed to cross over to the adult half of the library. Once I got there, I had to learn a brand new vocabulary. All my favourite authors lay behind and I had no idea, beyond those books lining the shelves Dad had built in our front room,  which writers were good to read and otherwise.
One of the names of which I was aware was J.B. Priestley, though I doubt I knew anything of why I knew the name. In search of writers to inform me of my tastes, I found up to a dozen of his books on the shelves and thumbed through these, looking for something to trial. I settled upon The Thirty-First of June.
According to his bibliography in Wikipedia, this 1961 novel was the twentieth of twenty-seven in his career, excluding an early collaboration with Hugh Walpole that was primarily a case of literary patronage. Walpole was an established author, Priestley the writer of two relatively apprentice novels: the collaboration was intended to provide Priestley with the money and time to tackle a serious work. It’s outcome was his first acclaimed, and probably most famous novel, The Good Companions, a great and still evocative book.
The Thirty-First of June is by no means a great book, or even a great anything. It aims to be, and admirably succeeds in being a light, breezy, quasi-satirical entertainment, a conflation of contemporary advertising and Arthurian England. What was most important about it then was that it led me to read more of Priestley and, at one point, to have read all his novels and owned some two-thirds of them, after years of pursuit through the second hand bookshops of Northern England.
I still own half a dozen of Priestley’s books, most though not all the heavyweights and classics, but until buying The Thirty-First of June through Amazon, I’d never again read that introductory book.
What do I think of it now? It’s a very slight and slender novel, 168 pages including a dozen or more full-page illustrations (artist uncredited but these are perfect evocations of that Ronald Searle-influenced period, very Fifties), and reading it took me about an hour, which is all the book really deserved. It’s pleasant but it’s empty, and it’s light to the point that only the weight of the paper it is printed upon prevents it from floating away and dispersing.
Basically, the action takes place on the thirty-first of June, a date that doesn’t exist in contemporary London at the advertising agency of Wallaby, Dimmock, Paly and Tooks but does exist in the small Kingdom of Pelladore, a day’s ride from Camelot. It’s an interesting day, the thirty-first of June, indicating all manner of unreality, especially as it seems to still be the thirty-first of June after the night has passed and the following day (the thirty-second?) has dawned.
The story is minimal. In Pelladore, the beautiful blonde Princess Melicent – whose character has been exhausted by the description just given – has fallen in love with the man she has seen in the magic mirror leant her by Master Malgrim the (up-to-date, entrepreneurial) enchanter. In contemporary London, where Progress is demanding that everything be knocked down and something else built instead, artist Sam Penty – another whose character is now completely defined in this description – is dreaming of the ideal model for Damosel Stockings, and has fallen in love with Melicent, who at least has the advantage over Sam of knowing he exists, if not necessarily in her world.
Malgrim, who is after the magically powerful brooch of Merlin, offers to get Melicent to Sam. However, his ancient, tittering, old-fashioned enchanter Uncle, Master Malagram, wants not only the same brooch but also to demonstrate that his nephew is still wet behind the ears. Before you know it, characters are slipping backwards and forwards between London and Pelladore, with a highly improbable equanimity about the completely bizarre world they find themselves in.
Neither Sam nor Melicent has a personality, but then nor do any of the people in this deliberately silly book. They are broad brush characters, one colour sketches with a vaguely satirical intent. Priestley had been writing seriously since the late Twenties. He was a young man prior to the Great War, a lifetime Socialist, a dogged Englishman devoted to his native culture and vocally resistant to the importation of American culture and greatly contemptuous of what England was becoming in the Fifties and, more so, in the Sixties.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking him merely an author out of tune with the times, making sour jokes at its expense, for two of his greatest novels were yet to come, and if one of them was resolutely retrograde, harking back to the Music Halls prior to the Great War, the other was a broad, yet detailed and utterly compelling satire of late Sixties London and England.
But whilst The Thirty-First of June is in keeping with the tenor of his thoughts and writing in those later years, it really is no more than a sketch, a slightly long short story populated by figures who I would go on to recognise as being stock characters in Priestley’s lexicon, who in this book can only gain weight from the recollection of rather more serious representations of the types in earlier novels.
The most vivid of these is the perpetually half-sozzled wheeler-dealer Skip Plunkett, who is a standard Priestley type whose roots go all the way back to the much-travelled (“three times round the world”) Mr Morton Mitcham in The Good Companions. But Plunkett’s a comic exaggeration, albeit a loose cannon deus ex machina that pops up wherever least expected in the minimalistic plot.
I can’t in all conscience recommend the book to anyone who isn’t determined, as I once was, to read everything J.B. Priestley wrote, and not just the stuff where he’s really putting his heart into it. This is no more than a powderpuff amusement, long out of date and lacking in enough body to be useful as an indicator to the times. It could have been covered by a ten minute sketch in The Frost Report with as much depth, and probably more pointed detail. It was reissued, along with another half dozen of Priestley’s lesser work, in 2014, but though it’s an enjoyable experience, and I am even this far on still on Priestley’s side, I can’t for the life of me see why.


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