A Siblinghood of Personkind


by Esmerelda Weatherwax (April 2010)

A few weeks ago I settled down to re-read JB Priestley’s The Good Companions.

The book was published in 1929 and is set in real time, say the previous year, and my copy, bought from a second hand bookstall at the Brick Lane end of Petticoat Lane in the 70s is the Crown Library edition published 1931. For a book that is 79 years old it is in much better condition than books on the same shelf that I purchased new in the 1990s.

From the first page, a description of soaring above the Pennines to home in on Jess Oakroyd as he makes his way home through the streets of Bradford (which he calls Bruddersfird) after a Saturday afternoon football match I was hooked. Those first 4 pages are some of my favourite writing in the English language. At that time I had no idea that I would marry a man from that area of Yorkshire but I had been part of a crowd streaming from a football ground, in the company of my father who wore a similar flat hat.

The England he described in 1928 didn’t seem much different to the England I was living in 50 years later. But nearly 80 years on and so much has changed.

JB Priestly was a socialist and a founder member of CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) CND has diversified in the last 15 years into a general pacifist group somewhat different from his original aims. Margaret Thatcher had this to say about him in 1995 in The Path of Power.

The command economy required in wartime conditions had habituated many people to an essentially socialist mentality. Within the Armed Forces it was common knowledge that left-wing intellectuals had exerted a powerful influence through the Army Education Corps, which as Nigel Birch observed was ‘the only regiment with a general election among its battle honours’. At home, broadcasters like J.B. Priestley gave a comfortable yet idealistic gloss to social progress in a left-wing direction.

It was therefore something of a shock to read the word ‘nigger’ even in the context of the speech of a character who was describing the Minstrel shows he had worked on in Alabama in 1904 and who was not using the word as an insult. It was then even more of a shock when another character accuses a young man of being a cheapskate using a word which was already an insult to Jews in 1928. There was a new edition of The Good Companions published in 2007 and I must seek it out to see if it has been bowdlerised. Some might say the words should stand as part of the historical record of a different age; others that the words are so offensive that they will detract from all the good in Priestley’s writing.

JB Priestly was so left wing that even the left wing George Orwell considered him too far to the left for his liking. Perhaps those left wing credentials have saved him from modern criticism.

The world he described had changed little during 50 years then changed out of all recognition in the last 30. This change accelerated apace in the last 12 years, even since the childhood of my own teenage daughter. 

While watching a modest amount of television with her my husband began to develop strong opinions on the children’s programmes shown in the 1990s. He could see much good in the Teletubbies for their loving ways and how they could make even a trip in the lift of a block of flats interesting.  He loathed Trumpton for its conformity and obedience to authority and that video soon made its way to the charity shop. But their absolute favourite was Postman Pat.

It wasn’t just because it is set in a northern village the (fictional) Greendale. My husband loved what he called the subversiveness of the community. They were independent and  resourceful. When something happened in Trumpton the little people waited obediently to be told what to do by someone in authority.

Help we must call the fire brigade! Help us, help us!

The people of Greendale weren’t helpless. If something is broken Ted Glen will fettle it. They had their community institutions of course.  Pat himself is a Postman, Mrs Goggins the Postmistress, the vicar Revd Timms, PC Selby but they showed independence and initiative. Follow the links to watch these clips of a 90s episode – Postman Pat’s Finding Day. Part one here. Part two here.

Note how Pat is confident enough to play hopscotch with the children waiting for their school to open. The oldest pupil uses his initiative to take the post in ready for the headmaster and he is trusted to do so. Pat sets the whole village looking for Katie’s missing doll and all manner of other lost items are found and reunited with their owners. And at the end his reward is a large piece of birthday cake.

The animation technique may be old fashioned now but it’s the little details that are wonderful. The way the van shudders as the engine is started. The way Pat removes his cap as he enters the church.

But it couldn’t last. I caught husband and daughter watching television last week. They said they were waiting for Top Gear to start but I wasn’t fooled. Top Gear is on Dave channel and this was CBBC. Postman Pat Special Delivery takes Postman Pat on a promotion as head of the SDS into Pencaster a ‘big town’.

Postman Pat SDS features an expanded and diverse cast, new vehicles and the new bustling town of Pencaster. . . Postman Pat SDS continues to teach children the same values and lessons, whilst injecting high energy action, laughter and fun to resonate with children and adults of today.

So there are ethnic minority Asian shopkeepers, disabled people using wheelchairs etc. I knew that there had been later stories featuring Pat’s wife and child (lest anyone think he and Jess the cat were an item – that would be taking diversity a bit too far). It’s all wizzy and digital but still seems fun and wholesome. The van retains its old fashioned shudder even if the helicopter doesn’t. One of the reasons I hate the PC agenda, especially when it comes from the BBC, is that having it constantly pushed at us means that my hackles are automatically raised at what should just be a natural organic development. I must take a deep breath because surely it is good to show that a child who uses a wheelchair is at a mainstream school with able bodied friends. The Indian keepers of corner shops work damn hard and are an asset to a town.

Ditch the drum‘n’bass beat to the theme song, don’t replace the birthday cake with a fair trade, low fat, celebration fruit bar, and we should get along fine.

And then the final sop to political correctness rewriting a standard work is from the Bootleg Beatles who we saw recently. And very good they were too.

For the encore ‘John Lennon’ came on stage in a white suit and said, ‘Well now that we have split up and taken our careers separate ways, I wrote this’ and he sat at the piano and sung Imagine. Now from a practical point of view as an encore it was simple to do – one man and a piano.  ‘Paul McCartney’ had already performed two solo songs and ‘George Harrison’ and ‘Ringo Starr’ one each but as I hate Imagine and was waiting for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds it was a disappointment. Except that even this PC paean to pacifism, atheism and emptiness had to have a little tweak for the 21st century.

Imagine there’s no heaven, It’s easy if you try, No hell below us, Above us only sky
Imagine all the people, Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too
Imagine all the people, Living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer, But I’m not the only one, I hope some day you’ll join us, And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can, No need for greed or hunger, A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people, Sharing all the world . . .

‘A brotherhood of man’ became ‘A brother and sisterhood of man’. Only two extra syllables to be fitted into the bar. Thankfully they kept ‘man’ and didn’t attempt to fit ‘a siblinghood of personkind’ into the musical phrase.

And then the rest of the band and the supporting musicians all came on for Back in the USSR.

Which was unchanged.

No ‘former Soviet republics of’ to be heard.


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