When I was a child, there was a fat blue book in the bookcase called Festival at Farbridge. Because I read everything in the house, I read it. All I remember of it is a lot of men arguing about how Farbridge should celebrate the Festival of Britain. I’ve tried more than once to read Priestley’s most famous novel, The Good Companions but have never got through it. Wonder Hero (1933), is much shorter than either of those books and I whizzed through it in no time.
Charlie Habble is a pleasant, ordinary working chap from the Midlands, lucky to have a steady job. One fateful night, a fire breaks out in the works where he should have been keeping watch. The fire could have set off an explosion which would have taken out half the town. Due to misunderstandings, Charlie is hailed as a hero, taken up by the mighty Tribune newspaper and run by it as a ‘stunt’. He’s taken to London, put up in an expensive hotel, kitted out with new clothes and given £500.00. In return, he has to make public appearances and be interviewed for film and radio. Luckily, he’s a level headed type and quickly tires of the shallowness of that part of London society he’s introduced to. Meanwhile, pretty Ida has won a beauty competition. She’s a Midlands lass but has far less sense than Charlie and imagines that her looks and success are going to make her a film star. She and Charlie meet because they’re being put up at the same hotel.
Half way through, the book becomes political, as Charlie goes north to visit relatives who have fallen on hard times. The town is dying; grass grows where once ships were built and skilled workers are laid off with no hope of future employment. His family live close to starvation and while Charlie helps them out, it’s left to the fiery local doctor to rage against what’s happening and propose measures to deal with it; that is, to spend some money. Interestingly, in view of recent world events, banks are top of his list of targets. The book ends as a love story but with the author’s proviso: ‘Good luck.’ Nothing suggests that Charlie and Ida will have an easy time of it.
I found this entertaining and it must have been popular, as my copy is the fifth edition in the first year of printing. It’s been described as a satire on the newspaper industry, but it fails there, as Scoop is so much better. Its main interest lies in the social history and the sometimes Dickensian characters. The boarding house where Charlie stays for a while in London is very similar to Todgers. J B Priestley was once a household name; a bluff, pipe-smoking Yorkshireman who had an opinion on everything and could write a book on any subject. He was a popular broadcaster during the war, until the BBC dropped him for being ‘too left wing’. It seems to me that he was a man with a keen sense of social injustice who distrusted all governments, isms and ologies. In other words, he didn’t like the status quo but was not sure how things could be improved. He seems to be little read or mentioned these days; perhaps it’s time to try some of his books again.