Priestley's Wars

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Neil Hanson, Great Northern Books, £18.99

Neil Hanson's book is a useful introduction to novelist and broadcaster JB Priestley - a man who made a major contribution to the shape of post-war Britain, and who became one of the founding members of CND in 1958.

It is fitting that the book is published in the same year as the 90th anniversary of the First World War, for it was in this war that Priestley, who volunteered aged 19 just days after its outbreak, developed his utter contempt for bureaucrats and authority.

The letters he wrote home - first from the training camps, and then from the trenches - are not only fascinating, but, as the slaughter continues, increasingly angry.

Priestley later wrote of his experiences. In one telling passage he confesses he went into the war "free of class feeling" but had concluded: "The tradition of an officer class, defying both imagination and common sense, killed most of my friends as surely as if those cavalry generals had come with polo mallets and beaten their brains out."

It was the Second World War, however, that saw Priestley become a national figure. He had already won notoriety as a novelist, columnist and playwright. Now the BBC offered him a Sunday evening slot in what was to become the radio programme Postscripts.

Here, Priestley developed the vision of a People's War - one championing not only the military conflict against Hitler and the Nazis, but also the struggle to build a society where the "festering sores on the body of a diseased world" would not return.

In the process, he became a champion of the principles underlying the welfare state established at the end of the war.

At the programme's peak, about 40 percent of the population tuned in to hear Priestley's broadcasts.

The message was not welcomed by all, however.

Winston Churchill argued Priestley's message was a diversion from the need to focus on the military effort, and leading Tories were angered by his "socialist ideas".

Amid controversy, the BBC booted Priestley off the slot after only six months. A second series, in early 1941, lasted for just eight broadcasts.

Hanson's book provides a good selection of these broadcasts. He also includes Britain and the Bomb, the powerful article Priestley wrote in the New Statesman in November 1957 just weeks after Aneurin Bevan's famous endorsement for Britain's H-bomb at the Labour Party conference. This became the catalyst for setting up of CND later that month.

In the words of Michael Foot, Priestley was "one of the best friends mankind had in the 20th century". Priestley's Wars goes some way to revealing why he is still held in such high esteem.