Time and The Rose Garden: Encountering the Magical in the Life and Works of J.B. Priestley, by Anthony Peake
Reviewed by Robert A. Charman
J.B. Priestley (1894-1984), a bluff, gravelly voiced, pipe smoking, Yorkshireman with strong socialist, but not communist, convictions, was probably the most well known and most popular speaker and author from the 1920s to the 1970s. His wartime broadcasts helped rally the British nation during and after the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. His huge body of work includes some 26 novels. 39 plays, dozens of essays, autobiographical ruminations, and travel books. Now rather relegated to the past Anthony Peake is determined to reverse that judgment and show that Priestley was a creative thinker whose ideas still influence present thought.
Priestley was fascinated with the implications of J.W. Dunne’s theory of time as having many dimensions as set out in his An Experiment with Time (1927) and The New Immortality (1938), and with P. D. Ouspensky’s theory of eternal recurrence as set out in The Fourth Dimension (1909), Tertium Organum (1919), and New Model of the Universe (1931). These ideas combined with his study of Eastern philosophy lay behind practically everything that Priestley wrote concerning the nature of ourselves, altered states of consciousness, psi phenomena and our traversing through different time dimensions. Peake points out that Priestley’s prescient writings have influenced modern sci-fi fiction including blockbuster films such as The Matrix and Vanilla Sky.
Peake is a very engaging and lucid writer who takes us through Priestley’s work showing how his fascination with the nature of time and the possibility of recurrence, déjà vu and precognition was woven into practically everything that he wrote. In particular he takes us through Priestley’s four major and still widely performed plays on the subject of time and recurrence and its influence on the characters at different periods in their lives. These are Time and the Conways (1937), I Have Been Here Before (1937), Johnson Over Jordan (1939), and possible his masterpiece An Inspector Calls (1945). For those interested in Priestley’s large body of work Peake is an excellent guide. He also presents a well written account of Dunne’s precognitive experiences that led to his theory of time dimensions in which Time One, of everyday not knowing what will happen next, can be overlooked by an observer in Time Two, and so on. Ouspensky’s theories about our different states of consciousness associated with different time dimensions within a recurrent universe are also well presented. Like other leading writers of the period T.S. Eliot was also fascinated by the implication of Dunne and Ouspensky’s ideas on time as repeatedly referred to in his Four Quartets. Reference to the rose garden occurs in the first quartet Burnt Norton (1936), named after a manor house:
Footsteps echo in the memory/Down the passage we did not take/ Towards the Door we never opened/Into the rose garden.
I think that for SPR members the really exciting material of the book commences in chapter ten on The Man and Time Letters and chapter eleven on The Unpublished Letters.
On the 17th March, 1963, Priestley appeared on the BBC television arts programme Monitor to discuss his ideas for his forthcoming book Man and Time describing one of his own precognitive dreams that then lead into a lively studio discussion on time past, present and future and whether a precognised future can sometimes alter the present. At the end of the programme Huw Wheldon, the presenter, suggested that viewers may like to write to Priestley describing their own precognitive experiences. Priestley expected a few hundred responses at most, but instead he received thousands of letters describing precognitive and other psi experiences that had often left the writer frightened as to their own sanity. He and his secretary sorted them into different categories and he then selected some striking examples for inclusion in his book as discussed by Peake.
In 2009 Peake was invited to speak to an audience at the National Theatre, London about Priestley’s ideas on time and recurrence before a new production of Time and the Conways and heard that Priestley’s son Tom would be speaking at a similar event in Liverpool. They met and Tom said that he had donated boxes containing thousands of unused letters to the SPR and that they were held in the Cambridge University archive. In 2010 Peake was granted permission to examine these letters, all dating from the 1960s, and presents some fascinating examples in chapter eleven.
Here is one of the cases discussed in chapter eleven. You might feel that if this was not a precognitive dream beyond all reasonable doubt you don’t know what is. The background to the letter is that by the early 1950s Britain was leading the world in advanced aeronautical technology from air liners to fighter jets generating huge public interest and national pride. Test pilots were household names and the annual Farnborough Air Show was packed with spectators watching thrilling air displays including breaking the sound barrier.
David P, the writer of the letter, was an aviation enthusiast and had booked tickets for himself and his wife for the 1952 Farnborough Air Show. On the 5th September they left early from a holiday in Dorset to join 120,000 other spectators for the first day of the air show. As they were driving to Farnborough his wife said that she really did not want to go as during the night she had experienced a very vivid dream in which one of the aircraft had exploded in mid air and crashed into the crowd. He convinced her that it was only a dream and that everything would be okay as normal so she reluctantly agreed to attend. Halfway through the show the then famous test pilot John Derry demonstrated a brand new, black painted, DeHavilland DH.110 night fighter prototype with its sweptback wings and distinctive twin boom tail. As it flew over and commenced its display she grabbed David’s arm and said “That’s the plane I saw in my dream – only it was silver not black”. She remained uneasy throughout the rest of the show but nothing happened, so with a sigh of relief they returned home to Welwyn Garden City. David had been right after all, it had just been a bad dream..
Next day the evening papers carried the sad news that the DH.110 John Derry was piloting in full supersonic display had suddenly exploded in mid-air killing John Derry, Anthony Richards his co-pilot and 29 spectators as well as injuring 60 others. The same black plane that he had been expecting to fly again was found to be unserviceable the next morning, so they had hurriedly flown to the factory at Hatfield to pick up another DH.110 that was still silver as there had been no time to paint it black and flew it back over Farnborough for the display. Readers can see a film of the accident on YouTube.
Peake has now discovered that hundreds more unseen letters are in the J.B. Priestley collection at Bradford University, and readers will be delighted to know that he has undertaken to study and analyse all of these letters and his next book will be devoted to their contents.