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Feather's Miscellany: A Visit To Kissing Tree House

...There was one amusing incident while we were discussing dialect, when Priestley and I began quoting bits of Yorkshire dialect. Jacquetta looked on blankly, not understanding a word. “I’ve never heard you speak like that before, Jack,” she said. To which he replied, “I don’t get chance to speak Yorkshire dialect these days and I’m making the most of it.”...

John Waddington-Feather recalls the day he dropped in on fellow Yorkshireman, novelist and playwright J B Priestley.

In the late 1970s, I found myself in the little village of Alveston , just north of Stratford-on-Avon. I was a schoolmaster and newly ordained, non-stipendiary Anglican priest, spending a weekend on retreat at a Church of England Children’s Society home. The children and staff there were on their summer holidays and the Church used their home as a retreat house and conference centre during the holidays.

Alveston was the village where J. B. Priestley lived at Kissing Tree House, from where he’d corresponded with me a number of years on matters relating to Yorkshire dialect. Priestley was a vice-president and I was secretary of the Yorkshire Dialect Society during the 1960s, living at the time in a village called Eldwick, near Bradford. I suspect Priestley used our friendship to keep him up-dated on what was happening to his native city, since he often referred to it in our correspondence, especially the great changes taking place in it. He was very upset when the old Victorian centre of the city, which he’d known from boyhood and where he’d worked as a wool clerk after leaving school, was being demolished to make way for modern building. The demolition of the old Swan Arcade particularly upset him.

He rarely returned to Bradford afterwards, preferring to visit his beloved Yorkshire Dales when he went north. His ashes are interred at Hubberholme Church in Wharfedale, where a simple plaque inside the church reads:

“Remember J. B. Priestley, O.M. 1894 – 1984. Author and dramatist whose ashes are buried nearby. He loved the Dales and found ‘Hubberholme one of the smallest and pleasantest places in the world.’”

I was expecting Kissing Tree House to be a rural cottage of some sort; but no, it was a listed house built early in the early nineteenth century in the neo-classical style and sat squarely in its own ample grounds. It lay at the end of Kissing Tree Lane and earlier had been called Avonmore House, which I felt suited its style more.

I had an afternoon free on retreat, and while my colleagues went for a stroll in the surrounding beautiful countryside, I decided I’d take up a long-standing invitation of Priestley who’d said I was to drop in on him if ever I were in the vicinity. The opportunity might not present itself again; yet I was rather apprehensive as I walked up the drive, wondering if the Priestleys had guests. It was in the days before mobile phones and I didn’t have access to a phone to contact them so I chanced my arm and went on speck.

It was Priestley’s wife, Jacquetta Hawkes, who answered the door. She glanced at my clerical collar and smiled. I explained who I was and apologised for having called unannounced, but she understood at once and very graciously invited me in.

As I followed her down the entrance hall, hanging on the wall before me was the famous original portrait of Priestley by Augustus John, and alongside the wall in a display cabinet were various artefacts which Jacquetta Hawkes had brought back from her archaeology digs.

Her husband was having his afternoon nap and would be down shortly, she said; but meanwhile Jacquetta brought in some tea and biscuits on a tray and we chatted a while till Priestley appeared, friendly, warm-voiced and very welcoming. A few minutes later he was smoking his beloved pipe as we began chatting.

We covered a wide variety of topics and I let him do most of the talking. I was there to learn. One topic we discussed was the use of dialect in literature and how difficult it was using it in fiction. An author has to decide whether or not to make it authentic, which would render it incomprehensible to many readers, or to adapt it closer to standard English. We agreed the latter was the best.

It wasn’t long before we got onto teaching English. Priestley had a great respect for teachers, for his father had been an outstanding teacher in Bradford and had pioneered free school meals for poor children. Priestley remarked that in his father’s time as head-teacher of a primary school in a downtown area, the meal his pupils had at school was the only real meal they had all day. Many pupils arrived at school having had no breakfast.

However, there was one aspect of my own teaching he didn’t agree with, that of using his work in an exam syllabus. At the time I was helping to construct a programme for a new exam syllabus which Oxford University was setting up. It wasn’t as rigorous as the ‘A’ level courses and was aimed primarily at sixth-form youngsters who were studying only one or two subjects at ‘A’ Level and had gaps in their timetable. I’d included his novel ‘Angel Pavement’ in my course and he didn’t approve. “I didn’t write for my work to be examined,” he said, “but to be enjoyed.” I took his point, but I hoped my students would enjoy his work even more by looking at it in some depth. Now, of course, Priestley’s plays and novels are appearing regularly in national exam syllabuses.

There was one amusing incident while we were discussing dialect, when Priestley and I began quoting bits of Yorkshire dialect. Jacquetta looked on blankly, not understanding a word. “I’ve never heard you speak like that before, Jack,” she said. To which he replied, “I don’t get chance to speak Yorkshire dialect these days and I’m making the most of it.”

That was my only meeting with J. B. Priestley, but we continued to correspond from time to time. When he died in 1984, I was a volunteer teacher at Khartoum University in Sudan and from there sent a letter of condolence to Jacquetta In it I mentioned the collection of his work in the university library, deep below the university to protect the books from the intense heat. (It reached 50 degrees centigrade during the summer months.) The books were covered with fine sand which blew in from the surrounding desert and got everywhere; but the aged librarian, who spoke fluent English and was educated during the time the British ruled Sudan, did his best to dust them down daily.

I remarked he’d a good collection of Priestley’s work from the 1930s and later. He replied he’d read and enjoyed them all. I mentioned this in my letter to Jacquetta, saying that to be read and enjoyed globally, especially in developing countries like Sudan, was the highest accolade that could be awarded to any writer.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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