Saturday, 9 January 2010

Angel Pavement by JB Priestley

Priestley, of course, isn't a forgotten figure like James Curtis – his play An Inspector Calls is currently enjoying another West End revival – but he's one of those figures who, like W Somerset Maugham, was hugely well-known and popular in his day but whose stock seems to have fallen in recent years (a phenomenon perhaps not unrelated to that very popularity). Now chiefly remembered for his theatre works, of his novels perhaps only The Good Companions is still widely known.
But his great London novel Angel Pavement, published just a year after The Good Companions in 1930, and nearly as long at 500 pages (in the above Penguin edition), deserves to be far better known than it is, for it's a fantastically readable piece, as well a being a marvellous evocation of London at that time.
For an account of the plot (but beware spoilers!) this should suffice. I guess you're either the sort of person who's attracted by the notion of a novel centring on a small company in the City that sells inlays and veneers for furniture… or you're not. But, of course, there's so much more to it than that. Exactly what Priestley's intention was here isn't always clear – while parts of the book play out like comedy, the overall tone is far from optimistic and, in common with most of the writers I'll be dealing with here, Priestley's view of human nature – his socialism notwithstanding – appears less than sanguine. The catalyst for the action, Mr Golspie, looks upon those with whom he throws in his lot - the characters whose separate stories make up the narrative - for the most part with barely disguised contempt. Yet Priestley makes us care deeply about every one of these people, even in the very depths of their inadequacy and failure. (The story of Miss Matfield - in her late twenties, intelligent, slightly haughty and yearning for a more fulfilling life but dangerously close to giving up hope, and who is both repelled by and attracted to the middle-aged, vulgar but larger-than-life Golspie - is especially affecting.) But memorable, intricately drawn scenes and characters abound: the pathetic clerk Turgis's disastrous entanglement with Golspie's spoilt, coquettish daughter Lena; the story of middle-aged accountant Mr Smeeth, forever haunted by the spectre of unemployment (all too real a fear then, on the brink of the Depression); Miss Matfield's New Year adventures in London with Mr Golspie…
On reading Angel Pavement, one also can't help but be struck at various points by a sense of plus ça change…. The loyal, steady employee Mr Smeeth despairs at the fecklessness of his own children as they flit uncaring from one job to another with no thought for the future. And as Christmas approaches for Miss Matfield and the others, Priestley writes:
“The shops she passed every day in the bus along Regent Street and Oxford Street had been celebrating Christmas for some time; and it was weeks since they had broken out into their annual crimson rash of holly berries, robins and Father Christmases. The shops, followed by the illustrated papers, began it so early, with their full chorus of advertising managers and window dressers, shouting 'Christmas Is Here,' at a time when it obviously wasn't, that when it did actually come creeping up, you had forgotten about it.”


  1. I am lucky enough to own the above illustrated copy published by Penguin Modern Classics perhaps as long ago as the 70's, and out of print for ages.
    It is Dickensian updated to the 1920s. It is a brilliant read.

    Christopher Maton

  2. Thanks for the comment, Christopher. I've lent my copy to so many people (as well as having bought copies for other people) that it's looking somewhat tattier than pictured. But yes, it's an enduring favourite.