Uplifted by a pond in wartime London
By the time World War II began, British novelist and playwright J.B. Priestley had achieved considerable popularity. His plays are still performed today.Skip to next paragraph
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This Yorkshireman was what Diana Collins (in an affectionate account of his life) describes as "a man of the people."
On June 4, 1940, Churchill gave the world his remarkable rallying speech that ended with "we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." The day after, on June 5, Priestley gave the first of his weekly wartime radio broadcasts. They came to be called "Postscripts" because they followed the Sunday night 9 o'clock news.
Reading them now, they are obviously morale-boosters meant to encourage a people in grave peril. Their sincerity stirred hearts. If they were propagandist, they were so in a rather British sense. They were meant to encourage his friends, his compatriots not to lose their national self-worth ... or their sense of humor.
He talked about Dunkirk just after it happened, when almost-defeat was turned into a remarkable rescue of the British Expeditionary Force by the notable efforts of ordinary owners of little ships.
He talked about when the war would be over (remember, it had only begun), quoting a rustic poem by Thomas Hardy that concluded: "Yonder a maid and her wight/ Come whispering by; War's annals will fade into night/ Ere their story die."
And, living in London as he was, he talked firsthand about the Blitz. He described St Paul's Cathedral standing unharmed above the desolation, an image of good triumphant.
But earlier than that, on July 7, Priestley had talked about one of the "most heartening and inspiring things" he'd seen that week: a duck.
I wish I could quote the whole story, but here's a taste of it. Priestley and his wife were coming home late one night when, passing Whitestone Pond, they noticed some people "standing and staring."
"We stopped," Priestley said, "and heard a solicitous quacking and a great deal of faint squeaking. Then we saw on the pond, like a tiny feathered flotilla, a duck accompanied by her minute ducklings, just squeaking specks of yellow fluff. We joined the spectators; we forgot the war.... Our eyes, and ears, and our imaginations were caught and held by those triumphant little parcels of life."
Priestley described how this duck and her brood seemed completely independent of the difficulties and restrictions so prevalent to humans at war. This duck "hadn't asked anybody's advice or permission; she hadn't told herself it was too late or too difficult; nobody had told her to 'Go to it' and that 'it all depended on her.' She had gone to it, a triumphant little servant of that life, mysterious, fruitful, beautiful...."
It was "as if by that pond we'd been given a sign. For reduced to its very simplest ... this is a war between despair and hope; for Nazism is really the most violent expression of the despair of the modern world. It's the black abyss at the end of the wrong road.... It is at heart death-worship."
And then - and this is why it isn't hard to connect Priestley's duck with today - he said: "But there flows through all nature a tide of being, a creative energy that at every moment challenges and contradicts this death-worship of despairing, crazy men."
The last of Priestley's Postscripts was broadcast on Oct. 20, 1940, but years later people still came up to him to say thank you. I might have thanked him too - but on the day he gave his last Postscript I was only three days old.
The ducklings, on the other hand, would by then have shed their down and, fully feathered, were doubtless planning to have families themselves when spring came again to war-torn London.