THE ACTUAL AND THE REAL: PRIESTLEY, DOCUMENTARY, REALISM AND DEMOCRACY 1930-1945
This one-day conference, sponsored by the J B Priestley Society, will take place in the Priestley Room of the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 10.00 until 17.00 on 25 October 2014. The conference fee, payable by all participants, will be £15 for JBPS members and £22 for non-members. This will include morning coffee and afternoon tea but not lunch which may be purchased at the theatre buffet or elsewhere nearby.
It is eighty years since the publication of English Journey. The book influenced a whole generation on its appearance and has since inspired numerous responses and sequels. This conference aims both to do justice to that impact and also to consider wider issues raised by the documentary and social-realistic work of Priestley and his contemporaries in the Thirties and Forties. The keynote will be given by Professor Chris Hopkins of Sheffield Hallam University in his conference lecture ‘Documentary, Realism and Democracy 1930-1945’.
The actual and the real, key concepts for John Grierson founder of the British documentary film movement, encapsulate key aims of British writing and film after the Great Crash of 1929. The actual meant an emphasis on what we would now call the ‘nitty-gritty’; the fishing boat, the factory and the mail train. But the real meant something beyond the vivid reportage of the newsreels. The artist sought for what was representative, typical, behind the cluttered detail of life. In English Journey, Priestley could render both the actuality of the eccentric landowner or skilled potter and the deeper reality of his ‘three Englands’.
Truth proved more elusive than was at first hoped. The Thirties began the uncertainties about reality that we associate with postmodernism. For example, the GPO was a benign paymaster but this was an age of advertising and propaganda. Were those paid by it really freer than the commercial film-makers? And could left-leaning artists, who were middle-class almost to a man and woman, portray the truth of working class without condescension or idealism? If World War II resolved many creative dilemmas — Priestley, Orwell, MacNeice, Grierson and other radical artists partly inside the big tents of the BBC and the MOI — it posed new ones as direct and indirect censorship bore down on them.
Throughout, the documentary impulse had an ambiguous aesthetic and cultural status. Was documentary (aiming to show ordinary people to themselves) the embodiment of middlebrow humanism? Or was it rather, with its interest in montage and multimedia, the one indigenously British contribution to modernism? Was realistic fiction still a more flexible means of conveying social experience? With its tendency to support moderate social democracy, was documentary the radical force in society that some on the left fondly imagined or a search for lost social consensus? Finally, did its larger relevance die with the era of individualistic affluence in the 1950s or did it bequeath significant lessons for our own period?
CALL FOR PAPERS
Offers of papers in the areas listed below are welcomed. The standard length of paper will be 20 minutes but in the specific case of English Journey shorter 10-minute papers on particular aspects of the book will equally be welcomed. These shorter papers will be gathered together in a ‘round table’ on English Journey.
PRIESTLEY TOPICS; English Journey: its origins, content, reception and influence; Priestley’s social-realistic fiction from Angel Pavement to Three Men in New Suits; his broadcasts, social commentary and film work of the period.*
*Priestley’s plays of this period are so rich and complex a topic that it is suggested detailed discussion of them should be reserved to a future occasion.
BROADER TOPICS (For all papers in these areas a substantial cross-reference to Priestley’s comparable work of the period should be included): Orwell’s documentaries and social-realist fiction of the period 1930-1939; Female Perspectives — Phyllis Bentley, Winifred Holtby and the Yorkshire social novel; Auden, MacNeice and the documentary impulse in poetry; The documentary film from Grierson to Jennings; Fiction of contemporary working-class life (e.g. Walter Greenwood, A.J. Cronin).
Abstracts of papers should be sent to the conference organizer Dr K E Smith, either as Word attachments to email@example.com or in typed hard-copy to Dr K E Smith, 7 Cockley Hill Lane, Kirkheaton, Huddersfield HD5 0HH. For 20 minute papers include paper title and a c.100-word summary; for 10 minute round-table papers include paper title and a c.50-word summary. Your name, postal and email address and any affiliation should be included. Closing date for submission of paper proposals is 14 June 2014. Acceptance of titles will be notified by 12 July 2014, though contributors should note that final acceptance of papers into the conference programme will also be dependent on pre-payment of the relevant conference fee by 13 September 2014.
Further, alternative payment arrangements for the conference will be notified later, but early registration of a place at the conference may be confirmed by sending a sterling cheque for the relevant amount, made out to ‘The J B Priestley Society’, to the conference organizer at the above postal address.
K E SMITH