J.B. Priestly had few misgivings about his public image as aninveterate grumbler. The renowned British writer, essayist, and playwright, who was born 100 years ago on Sept. 13, took a seemingly perverse pride in his grumbling abilities. He played the role with relish, describing his own sagging face, weighty underlip, and rumbling voice as the ideal ``grumbling outfit.''But behind the surly facade was a man quietly appreciative of the quirky and commonplace. ``Delight,'' a book Priestly wrote in 1949 as ``my apology, my bit of penitence, for having grumbled so much,'' is a string of a hundred or so short essays about moments that delighted him - some impish, some innocent.He talks of the delight in renting a furnished house for the holidays and ``rummaging through other people's books and music,'' or ``giving advice, especially when I am in no position to give it and hardly know what I am talking about,'' or simply lying in bed ``cosily reading about foul weather when equally foul weather is beating hard against the windows.''Priestly captures these effervescent moments full-bodied, letting their mirth bubble into the reader's imagination. He laughs irreverently at people's sense of self importance, his own included. ``Like you, I am always delighted to declare my tastes, prejudices, preferences,'' he writes. ``And probably like you too, I hide this delight behind an appearance of awful solemnity. I never look graver and more weighty than at these moments. `No,' I say, as if sentencing somebody to death. `I don't care for fried tomatoes.' ''His pokes at pompousness are tempered by the freshness he brings to familiar scenes, such as the moment of reaching a ship's deck in the early morning. ``During the night everything has been remade for you,'' he writes. ``The open parts of the ship, the sea itself, even the morning, have just come back from the laundry. The scrubbed planks glisten and the brasses blaze in a new morning of Creation. The winking and hissing sea has just been invented.''These private delights, published amid public grumbles, Priestly hoped would bring ``a glimmer of that delight which has so often possessed me, but perhaps too frequently in secret.'' In tribute to Priestly on his birthday, Monitor writers offer a handful of their own delights.
Delight is not usually found in goodbyes. But the departure of the wild ducks could only be called delightful.
I'm not sure now, but I think it was the farmer next door who discovered the clutch of five eggs in among the bluebells on the bank of the beck that ran below his farmhouse. He suggested I put them under a broody hen. The act of boyish thievery strikes me, now, as shameful; but I put them under a silly hen who warmed them to hatching and in due time solicitously mothered them around the yard.
We had a goose, reared by us, who thought herself human. The wild ducklings thought themselves chicken, destined to grow into adults resembling their ``mother.'' Until, that was, they made a surprising discovery when they suddenly marched into the pond in the corner of the yard. First, they went to the edge for a drink, then farther in for a paddle, and after that (it just seemed natural somehow) launched into the deep to float, dip, and dash about on the water's surface.
This was the beginning of their mother washing her hands of them. Her indignation was scarcely containable. She clucked and scratched in the earth on shore, but she was not going to get her feet wet!
Through the early summer, the ducklings grew and their mother became more and more disappointed in them. Having discovered the pleasures of aquatic diversion, they were not to be kept away from the water - and, even worse, they began to associate with the domestic ducks and ducklings that splashed endlessly in the same washy place.
So the time came when the hen went back to her kind and the five wild ducks were no longer hers.
Then, I noticed there were not five but six wild ducks on the water.
At last, toward dusk one day, it happened. The six wild ducks rose together and flew up the field, quite low, in a full circle, to land on the water again in a chaotic display of inexperience. It was obvious that this new dimension - flight - had taken all five by surprise. Not the sixth, however. She knew, oh yes. Wild ducks fly.
The initial training flight was repeated the next evening in a slightly wider circle and a little higher - and in increasingly wider circles each evening.
We did not know when the moment itself would come, but we were sort of ready. I had taken to leaping melodramatically onto the slate slab by the wall for a better view.
This time, the six wild ducks flew seriously high, wings beating. Their circle was wider in curve then ever before. They headed toward the quarry - over the quarry - and out of sight.
We took a deep breath. And we knew, too, that their circle would never come back on itself.