John Boynton Priestley was a fecund but second-rate man of letters who was lucky. In 1929 he published what he called a picaresque novel, The Good Companions, about a jolly troupe of travelling entertainers. Written deliberately against the fashion of the time, it was an unexpected best-seller, and put him on the road to becoming a public figure. During the Second World War, when he made morale-boosting broadcasts for the BBC, it seemed that everyone in Britain knew about J. B. Priestley and his tweed jacket and his pipe, and his large, avuncular, baggy face. But not everyone was fond of him. George Orwell placed him among Communist sympathizers who could be “very dangerous” because of their public position. This, however, was an extravagant opinion. Like many of his contemporaries, Priestley was one of the soft-headed bourgeois Left, harboring a streak of contempt for...


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