JB Priestley: On wireless sets and world politics

“Supposing your wireless set suddenly stopped working.  Well, perhaps you understand wireless sets.  If so, you set about mending it yourself, and if you have a glimmer of sense, you would go to work fairly slowly, methodically, patiently.  If you don’t understand wireless sets, you would call in somebody who does.  But I don’t imagine you would call in a large angry man with an axe who would give one yell and then reduce the set to broken glass and firewood.  He might be a fine strong brave fellow – you might take a pride in the set of his shoulders and the thrust of his chin – but… he would not mend your wireless set. 

..Now, the political, economic and social systems of this world are far more complicated than any wireless set.  And they are not working properly…. What are we going to do about it?  Well, I suggest we don’t want any strong men with axes.  They are not going to mend complicated world systems…. Like the broken set, the broken systems are going to need knowledge and skill and patience to put them together again.  

…With the world as it is, we are not in need of fine brave eager fellows who are ready to die for something or other, their country, their flag, their leader.  What we are in need of is people with knowledge, sense, good humour and patience who are willing to live and work for humanity.  At the moment, one wise teacher is worth fifty dashing cavalry generals.

…Our need is desperate.  But a lot of things simply won’t do any good at all, any more than the angry man with the axe.  Among these things, in my opinion, are uniforms, flag waving, fiery speeches, patriotic songs… secret police, murder, bombs, lies for propaganda’s sake…”

JB Priestley statue, Bradford

At the moment I’m reading a book called “Priestley’s Wars by Neil Hanson – a collection of the Bradford playwright J B Priestley’s letters, articles and essays written during and after World War I and II.  The paragraphs above were written by him in a piece called “I’ll tell you everything: what the world needs now” in the Listener, in 1933.  Since the horrible terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris and Kenya in the last few days, I’ve been thinking about them a lot.

When I read the news now, it makes me feel as I imagine people like Priestley must have felt in the years leading up to 1914, and again in the 1920’s and 1930’s – a sickening sense of fear that we are seeing a chain of events which will eventually lead to a horrible conflict.  This time, instead of being between European nations, it may be between West and East – at least that’s what ISIS and the Islamophobic right wing in Europe and America both seem to want.  I don’t know what, if anything, can be done about it.  But I suspect that bombing Syria or Iraq in retaliation for what suicide bombers in France have done will take us further down the road to war, further away from peace.

I’m not sure I would have voted for Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, and I’ve written about my reservations elsewhere on this site.  But with his expressed wish on ITV this morning to see a political solution rather than a call to arms, he struck me, as he always does, as a man of “knowledge, sense, good humour and patience… willing to live and work for humanity”.  Will we listen to him?  Or will we be allowed to listen to him?  It seems as though JB Priestley’s “stupid man with an axe” is in charge of most of our media these days, so when people like Corbyn say that they’d prefer peace to war, justice through the courts rather than taking out alleged terrorists with drone strikes, they’re demonised as terrorist sympathisers.

I’m going to quote Priestley again, as he closes his article far better than I ever could:

“Here’s a tip.  Welcome every appeal that is made to you as a rational individual.  Suspect every appeal to herd instinct, no matter what side it takes.  We have all gone roaring and trampling in herds too long, destroying in one silly made rush what it may have taken years and years of patient work to construct.”






4 thoughts on “JB Priestley: On wireless sets and world politics

  1. Fantastic Kirsty! I fear there are rather more stupid men with axes than there are sensible and rational beings. The more I see of Jeremy Corbyn, the more I hope that people will take note of what he says, rather than what they hear in the media and read in the papers.


  2. Thank you for the quotation from Priestley, who puts it very well. As you tell us he was writing in 1933, I imagine he was responding to the rise of Hitler? The only piece of advice I felt confident about offering my students as I moved towards the end of my career was to beware of anyone who came along offering easy answers to our problems. I’m afraid I increasingly feel that we are not that intelligent a species, which is rather sad, really.


    • I read this essay as a comment on the harshly punitive conditions of the armistice after WW1, creating such hardship in Germany that the rise of someone like Hitler became all the more likely. Ironically of course, having created a situation in which Hitler could flourish, Germany’s opponents then ultimately had to resort to the “strong man with the axe” approach. Of course we’re still doing the same 80 years later…


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