13th April – J. B. Priestley and World War One

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Good afternoon blogworld! It’s about time I shared what was a great experience for me recently – helping our Special Collections team set up an exhibition!

 

The exhibition is about J. B. Priestley’s time as a soldier in World War 1. There are hundreds of WW1 events going on this year, and our contribution is part of the Bradford Industrial Museum‘s new exhibition for the occasion. (I think it’ll be a big one, it was all hands on deck while I was there!)

 

I must confess that I don’t – or didn’t – know a lot about J. B. Priestley, other than that he was a British writer, and that I missed out on doing An Inspector Calls in our English GCSE lessons. I have learnt quite a lot about him since I started at Bradford, but it turns out he was also a survivor of WW1, having enlisted in 1914(!): he missed the Somme by a matter of days. He didn’t write about the war explicitly until much later, in Margin Released (1962). I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to articulate the experience of coming home when so many of your friends and fellow soldiers were left behind.

The J. B. Priestley Archive holds some fascinating things – letters that he wrote home from the front, medals (that apparently he never asked to have), a notebook he had with him, some photos from the hospitals that he spent time in while recuperating from injuries, and his officers commission. I learnt a lot about WW1 at school (mostly Sassoon and Owen, in terms of literature, and my father has dragged me round many a battlefield in Normandy), but I’ve never really seen that many personal objects belonging to a soldier and it really humanises the whole thing in a different way. Everything has a certain rhetoric, which I think is very different to how things are now:

 

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I think my favourite items are his letters: it’s still a strange and awe-inspiring experience for me when confronted with people’s personal correspondence. I love things like this – anything manuscript-y or letter-y! I think the fact that these are so personal is what fascinates me – you can find out people’s real thoughts and feelings through what they created, rather than what was given or attributed to them. There’s a real sense of immediacy you get with letters, rather than published material that’s been revised time and time again. The green letter at the top has a wonderful bit of writing at the side that Priestley has signed, concerned with a soldier’s honour and integrity (I’ll have to find the exact text from somewhere as the photo is a bit blurry!):

 

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The objects are very fragile so I didn’t handle much, I was quite happy looking! I have learnt, however, about the special weights used to keep the objects in position – no using mugs or putting heavy books on them, as I do! – and how photos are stored properly. (It also shocks me that some of these objects are a century old now. A century!) It was good to get involved with the discussion about what should and shouldn’t be in the exhibition, in terms of including text and visual objects, how to place splashes of colour to complement the more monochrome objects, what items and shapes fit together, which things need prominence. We put the portrait of Priestley in uniform in the middle: I think it works really nicely as a centrepiece as it draws the eye and the exhibition is all about him (he looks so young in it, it’s scary to think he was going off to war!). Lots of children go to the Industrial Museum, so while some of his writing was worthy of a place, we decided to leave it out in the end as it’s a bit text-heavy. I think the personal items, rather than the books, are more eye-catching, especially for those who don’t want to spend hours bending over cases reading text. Like I said, I also think they show the person, their milieu, what their world looked like to live in. The officer’s commission is a page full of text, but it is a beautiful bit of paper, and the language it’s phrased in was fantastic – very archaic [to me, anyway], so that stayed in (it’s at the top of this photo):

 

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We were also careful about not being polemical, as WW1 is still a very real and sensitive subject to many people. There’s no overtly political aspect to the J. B. Priestley exhibition – I think we wanted to present the young man and the soldier, rather than a message (which, I suppose, should be left up to the writer in question!). But here is our effort in all it’s glory:

 

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P.S. The views in this post are all mine, and mine alone. Also, please correct me if any of my facts are wrong!

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