We’re reading THE OTHER PLACE by J.B. Priestley

12 Jul

Hope Whitmore loses track of time.

The Other Place, and other stories of the same sort
J.B. Priestley, with a new introduction by John Baxendale
Valancourt Books, PPB £10.99

I love the plays of J.B. Priestley for the way he takes unaware characters to a new reality or a different time, exposing them to an experience that will change their perceptions. These cosmic shifts are seemingly incidental: the surreal happens with no fuss or fanfare. It skews time in the guise of too lifelike a dream. It whispers to people as they were in the past. It walks into a family dining room in the shape of an inspector. It is low-key magic, artfully blended with the familiar; in its chill, audiences question their own reality

Many of the stories in The Other Place mix the prosaic reality of post-World War Two life with the fantastical, but here the blend is more startling, less subtle. People are living lives that are familiar – dreary, even – but then they leave a room and take a wrong turning in time. They go through a door which leads to another world. They encounter strangers. They are given glimpses of the future. They emerge from a swim in the lake to realise they have arrived in Edwardian England.

There is something of the fairy tale about this approach, and the characters know it. In “Night Sequence”, Betty stops short: “Vague memories of fairy tales returned to her, tales in which the over-curious, the obstinate enquirers only cut themselves off from the good magic.” This insight rarely saves them. In the title story, “The Other Place”, the protagonist is shown a door to an idyllic world, where everyone is happy and there are no barriers between people. He moves from darkness into light, but asks for too much and is expelled from paradise: he’ll waste the rest of his life trying to reclaim it.

The mistake here is human, sprung from impatience. In other stories Priestley is less forgiving, setting his more arrogant characters up for a fall. Seeing the world all too clearly is an effective punishment: Sir Bernard Clipter in “Guest of Honour” shouts at a “shabby-looking oldish man, probably a foreigner” after his car nearly runs the man down. You can guess the rest.

My favourite story is the final one, “Night Sequence”. It opens as a traditional ghost story: a young couple are, arguing, stranded miles from anywhere after their car breaks down. They follow a light to the nearest house they see. What they discover here holds a mirror up to what they have become. It might possibly save their relationship and make them better people.

Priestley is an old-school storyteller, beckoning us in and introducing us to his characters’ lives with seamless exposition. Reading this collection reminded me of being read to as a child. “What is madness?” he asks “What is time?” “What are we?”

These final two questions, “What is Time?” and “What are we?” were inextricably linked for Priestley,m who understood that where we stand in time bears great relation on who we are. Take away time or alter it slightly and we become different. In “Look After the Strange Girl”, the main character feels completely lost and ill at ease when ripped away from the security of his own time: “Was home, then, more in time than in space?”

In the introduction to this new edition, John Baxendale discusses P.D. Ouspensky, whose theory of eternal recurrence interested Priestley and influenced many of these stories. Is all time happening at once, and if so, what does this mean for us? I’m not sure that Priestley knew, exactly. But his combination of curiosity and decency does not date.

Also on the blog: watch physicist Lee Smolin explain his new model of time.

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