J. B. Priestley’s childhood home was in Saltburn Place, Bradford. In 1904, in Lister Park, a short walk from Priestley’s home, Bradford staged a grand exhibition with the best textile technology the city had to offer, with music, displays, and imaginative – some might say, fantastical – amusements.
In Autumn 1933, while researching for his book, English Journey, Priestley diverted to Bradford to attend a re-union battalion dinner. He was hoping he might see some of his childhood friends, ‘but the men who were boys when I was a boy are dead. Indeed they never even grew to be men. They were slaughtered in their youth…’ (165) ’…I find it hard to remember who still walk the earth and who have left it: I have many vivid dreams, and the dead move casually through them: they pass and smile, the children of the sword.’ (167): English Journey (1934)
In early 2019 I walked from my home up through the park to Priestley’s childhood home and back down again. A walk where my reading of ‘English Journey’ and Bradford’s twenty-first century streets conflate.
I was under the low cloud of winter, the sort that hangs like a blanket all day, and sometimes into the next, when the sun never appears to rise. I’d been reading Priestley’s ‘English Journey’ late on into the afternoon. I thought I’d better dust off the cobwebs, so cut up into Lister Park past Cartwright Hall. Stood under the portico while a few spots of rain passed. Under glass by the entrance there was an old map of the 1904 exhibition – a grand exhibition of the best textile technology Bradford had to offer, with music, displays, and imaginative – you might say, fantastical – amusements.
The sun, wherever it was, begun to pull the plug so I didn’t hang around. Found myself top of Lilycroft Road by Saltburn Place; cars wedged into the side of the road. Delivery vans squeezing down the middle dodging wing mirrors and pedestrians, looking to escape into the main road at the top, only to join the slow, grinding crocodile heading into town, with its hissing air brakes and crunching gears.
And this is when I saw JB tumbling down the steps into the street. Not the callow youth he was before the war to end all wars, but Priestley in later life, rotund, flying eyebrows, comfortably stuffed in crumpled suit beneath his Macintosh, heading for Lister Park. Carrying his memories of childhood friends playing football, larking about on the half built houses, as he ambles down Lilycroft, dobbing in a dealer at the Motte and Bailey police station on his way past the apartments that inhabit the silk warehouse and velvet mill. Rather than going the other way, down Scotchman where he could see forever – once this blasted blanket lifts – or at least to Shipley, and where if he were quick he could glance to his right and spot the horse and cart doing circuits before they tumble from the top of Lister’s Palladian chimney.
Drawn downhill into the park, red faced, flushed, he makes his way past the Palace of Illusions, and the Crystal Maze glistening through the rising smoke of a thousand pipes and cigarettes as lost youth promenade beneath the Royal Terrace. He dwells awhile by the empty bandstand under winter trees, and listens to the military band, watches them playing proudly in their new red uniforms. Time is short. He rolls on down past the crossbeams and scaffolding holding up the sky. He looks up to see those childhood friends looking back down at him before they are tipped down the water chute, squealing, and screaming, and lost, like the children they are. It’s late and light is almost gone. He walks on between squawking geese that will leave soon for Hollingworth Lake off Otley Road, or when summer comes, the Arctic.
He disappears up the long pull past the Gravity Railway, to Victor Road, past the mill and the police station and on to Toller Lane where the dead warehouse lads, wool combers, dyers, labourers, foundry men and fitters played their football and larked about.
Back in the house he once called home, up in his attic room, he lays on his bed between upended orange boxes piled with seedling books in his writer’s nursery, and looks up through the sky light searching for gaps in the cloud to watch the stars shimmer and fade. But the clouds don’t part and he turns to write his piece on Atlantis.
Bradford: A ‘Lost City?’ Available at:
Cartwright Memorial Hall and the Great Bradford Exhibition of 1904, available at: http://www.bradfordhistorical.org.uk/cartwright.html
J. B. Priestley (1934) English Journey, Robert Hale: 16