Benedict Kiely was one of the most popular, and acclaimed, writers of his generation, as well as a prolific journalist, essayist and broadcaster. Born in 1919, Kiely grew up in County Tyrone and moved to Dublin in the 1940s where he worked for the Irish Independent and the Irish Press. Benedict Kiely died in 2007.
Praise for Proxopera:
“One of those secret classics… It’s a perfect piece of literature and encapsulates the sadness and terror of what went on in Northern Ireland during… ‘the Troubles’.” – Colum McCann, New York Times Book Review
“This great anti-war fable should have been read and should still be read as a terrible warning. A flawless piece of writing.” – Independent
Praise for The Captain with the Whiskers:
“Fresh and rare… Thrumming with life.” – Seamus Heaney
“Deft, sardonic… A writer’s ear for dialogue and a storyteller’s drink-soaked musicality.” – Sinead Gleeson, Irish Times
“A novel of enduring power and wisdom… a new generation of readers should gather up its magic.” – Irish Independent
“Haunting and remarkable.” – Times Literary Supplement
From the 1920’s to the 1970’s J.B. Priestley was one of Britain’s most popular, influential and prolific writers. What A Life! displays the generosity of spirit, and moral integrity, J.B. Priestley displayed throughout his life.
John Boynton Priestley was born in 1894 in the suburb of Manningham, Bradford. He left Belle Vue High School at the age of 16 to go into the wool business, working as a clerk for Helm & Co, and his first newspaper columns were published while he was a teenager, in the ‘Bradford Pioneer’ (the weekly journal of Bradford’s Labour Party).
Once World War One broke out Priestley joined the West Riding Regiment and served throughout the war. He was wounded three times, served on the Western Front and in the Battle of Loos, and in 1917 he was commissioned as an officer before injuries sustained in a gas attack led him to be classified as unfit for active service. After the War, Priestley studied at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and on leaving university his career as a professional writer began. His first book, ‘Brief Diversions’, appeared in 1922, by then he was publishing widely in the Spectator, Times Literary Supplement and a range of newspapers.
Priestley’s third novel ‘The Good Companions’ was published in 1929 and within a few months became a publishing sensation, as well as being awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. In the 1930’s he began to write plays that would become staples of the West End theatre. During World War Two Priestley presented the BBC Radio programme Postscript, which drew audiences of up to 16 million and led Graham Greene to describe Priestley as “a leader second only in importance to Mr Churchill”.
Priestley’s most famous play ‘An Inspector Calls’ appeared in 1945, it is still produced all over the world. In November 1957 a Priestley article for the New Statesman attacked Aneurin Bevan’s policy of abandoning unilateral nuclear disarmament, so many people wrote to the magazine supporting Priestley’s views that Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, organised a meeting where the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was formed.
In 1960 Priestley published ‘Literature and Western Man’, a major survey of Western literature from the fifteenth-century to his own time. In 1977 he accepted the Order of Merit. J.B. Priestley died on August 14th 1984.
V.S. Pritchett was the most significant English short story writer of the twentieth-century, “the English Chekhov”.
Victor Sawdon Pritchett was born in 1900 above a toy-shop in Ipswich. His father, Walter Sawdon, was a, unreliable, travelling salesman who converted to Christian Science when VSP was a boy. The family moved to London where VSP briefly attended Alleyn’s School in Dulwich. At the age of 15 Pritchett left school to work in the leather trade, first as an office boy and later as a messenger.
After several years he was given a year’s leave of absence to travel and moved to Paris in May 1921 where he worked in a photographic shop and began to write. Pritchett’s first publications were a series of sketches of French life in The Christian Science Monitor and it led to a job as the Monitor’s Irish correspondent. VSP arrived in Ireland in February 1923 to cover the Irish Civil War and soon met, and married, an Irish actress, Evelyn Maude Vigors. In January 1924 they moved to Spain where VSP became the Monitor’s Spanish correspondent.
V.S. published a short story, ‘Rain in the Sierra’ in the New Statesman in 1923 and would write for the magazine for the next fifty years. In 1927 VSP was fired by the Monitor, simultaneously his marriage came to an end, and he decided to walk across Spain. The experience provided the material for his first published book, Marching Spain, in 1928 and in 1930 his first collection of short stories was published, The Spanish Virgins and Other Stories. He was a professional writer for the rest of his life, publishing novels, travel literature, essays, journalism and short stories.
Pritchett had moved back to London in 1928 and reviewing books (for the New Statesman and Spectator, among others) became his regular source of income. From 1935 he began to publish regular essays in the New Statesman on classic writers, including Cervantes, Balzac and Tolstoy, which made VSP England’s most widely read literary critic. During World War Two Pritchett worked for the Ministry of Information as well as broadcasting for the BBC.
In 1946 Pritchett became the literary editor of the New Statesman and would later become a director of the magazine. In the 1950’s, alongside publishing widely, Pritchett was often invited to the United States as a guest lecturer at, among others, Princeton and the University of California.
In 1967 Pritchett was awarded the Royal Society of Literature award for his memoir of his early life, A Cab at the Door. In the 1970s VSP played a major role in literary life as president of International P.E.N. and president of the Society of Authors. He was knighted in 1975 before being made a Companion of Honour in 1993. V.S. Pritchett died in 1997.
Janet McNeill was born in Dublin in 1907 where her father was minister of the Adelaide Road Presbyterian Church. In 1913 the Rev. William McNeill was appointed to Trinity Church in Birkenhead and the family moved to England.
Janet went to St Andrews University where she took a Classics degree while writing and acting for the university’s College Players. She was awarded a First class degree and stayed on to take a Masters’ degree. Her father had returned to Northern Ireland in 1924 but health problems led to his retirement from the Church in 1930, as a result Janet moved to Belfast where she was employed by the Belfast Telegraph. She first worked as a typist before becoming secretary to the proprietor, Sir Robert Baird.
In 1933 Janet married Robert Alexander and left her job to start a family. Janet had received a typewriter from her father (who knew of her ambition to write) as a wedding gift but she would not write seriously until her children were at school. After winning a BBC competition in 1951 Janet McNeill began to write. Initially she wrote radio plays, which were regularly broadcast on the Home Service, and several of her later novels began as plays.
In 1953 she suffered a brain haemorrhage and after recovering her first books (a novel for adults, A Child in the House, and My Friend Specs McCann, a children’s book) were published in 1955. Alongside her writing Janet McNeill also served as a Justice of the Peace (for the juvenile court), and was a member of the advisory council of the BBC from 1959 to 1964. Better known as a writer for children, her character Specs McCann was the basis for a newspaper cartoon strip (illustrated by Rowel Friers) while she wrote the libretto for a children’s opera Finn and the Black Hag (based on a short story by Eileen O’Faolain), Janet McNeill published ten novels for adults, including Tea at Four O’Clock (which was published as a Virago Modern Classic in 1988).
In 1964, after her husband’s retirement, the couple left Northern Ireland to live in Bristol. The Small Widow is the only of her novels to be written outside Northern Ireland. It was published in 1967, anticipating many of the concerns of the 1970’s women’s movement in its awareness of the restricted role of women in the traditional family and marriage. Janet McNeill wrote no further novels, though she continued to publish children’s books, as she struggled with health problems.
Janet McNeill died in 1994.
Sarah Vincent is fifty and, like her group of friends, she is resigned to the absurdities of middle-age but over the course of a summer Sarah discovers that life can shatter the past, deeply-held faiths are destroyed and she discovers that new beginnings, and new love, have always existed for her.
“His stories are a highly evocative delight.” – Oxford Times
A.E. Coppard’s short stories establish him as the last great writer of the English countryside, as well as one of England’s finest writers of short stories.
Alfred Edgar Coppard was born in Folkestone in 1878, the son of a radical tailor and a housemaid. He grew up in poverty and his education ended at the age of nine when his father died and he started work to support his family (first as an errand boy in Whitechapel in the East End). Among his many jobs, Coppard sold paraffin and cheese, was a messenger for Reuters and as a teenager he became a professional sprinter.
He eventually rose to the position of clerk and in 1907 he moved to Oxford where he worked in the Eagle Ironworks, and was the secretary of the local branch of the Independent Labour Party. Living in Oxford allowed him to become a member of a group called the New Elizabethans alongside W.B. Yeats and he also met young students, such as Aldous Huxley. Coppard saved enough money (supplemented by prize money he won as an athlete) to leave his job and rent a cottage in rural Oxfordshire where he was determined to remain until he was recognised as a writer. He moved to Shepards Pit, in 1919, into a remote cottage that had no sanitation and survived mainly on raw vegetables, but it gave him the freedom he needed to focus on his writing.
Coppard’s first collection of short stories, Adam & Eve & Pinch Me was published in 1921. The collection became a critical success and was reprinted several times. By 1925 he was established as one of the major fiction writers of the time, his contemporaries regarded him as a seminal figure in making the short story a unique literary form. Ford Madox Ford published his most famous story, The Higgler, in The Transatlantic Review.
A.E. Coppard was a lifelong socialist, and atheist, and after WWII he was a prominent supporter of the peace movement. The Collected Tales of A.E. Coppard was published in 1948 in the United States and became a major bestseller in 1951 when it was promoted in the Book-of-the-Month Club. This provided Coppard with the largest income of his career, he donated much of it to socialist causes. A.E. Coppard died in 1957.
They are melancholic and sensual stories that embody a timeless vision of rural England.
Shan Bullock was an acclaimed writer from the 1890s onwards, though the acclaim was not matched by sales and he spent most of his life working for the Civil Service in London. In 1901 The New York Times described Bullock as “one of the leaders in the modern Celtic literary movement.”
John William Bullock was born in 1865 in Inisherk, County Fermanagh. He was the son of Thomas Bullock, steward of the Earl of Erne’s Crom estate. After failing the entrance exam for Trinity College, Dublin, John Bullock briefly, and unhappily, tried farming before moving to London in 1883 to become a civil service clerk in Somerset House. Taking the pen name Shan Fadh from the William Carleton story Shane Fadh’s Wedding Bullock supplemented his civil service income through literary journalism (he was the London literary correspondent for the Chicago Evening Post for twenty years).
Bullock’s short stories were published widely in magazines such as The Outlook and The British Monthly, as well as George Russell’s The Irish Homestead. He published prolifically, including 14 novels and 3 collections of short stories, but his writing was never successful enough for Bullock to leave the civil service.
Between 1917 – 1918 Bullock performed secretarial duties, at the request of Sir Horace Plunkett, to the Irish Home Rule Convention, which was established to discuss self-government for Ireland, and was awarded the MBE for his role with the Convention.
Bullock’s wife died in 1922, and disillusioned by the violence of the Irish War of Independence he feared that the order maintained by the older generation was being lost. This fear was expressed in his final novel, The Loughsiders (published in 1924). In 1933 Bullock was made a member of the Irish Academy of Letters, after the death of George Moore, which he regarded as the greatest honour of his life. He died in 1935.
In 1903 the Irish newspaper The United Irishman described Bullock’s writing as “the finest Ulster — maybe the finest Irish — stories of this generation”.
St John Ervine
St John Ervine was the most prominent Ulster writer of the early twentieth-century and a major Irish dramatist whose work influenced the plays of W.B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey. The Wayward Man was the first novel to explore the character, and conflicts, of Belfast.
John Greer Ervine was born on December 28th 1883 in Ballymacarret in east Belfast, at the time Belfast’s shipyard suburb, to deaf-mute parents. Every member of his family had been born in County Down for 300 years. His father, a printer, died soon after his birth and the family moved in with Ervine’s grandmother who ran a small shop. Ervine became an insurance clerk in a Belfast office at the age of 17 and shortly after he moved to London.
In London the young Ervine met George Bernard Shaw and began to write journalism as well as his first plays, adopting the name St John Ervine as more fitting for his ambitions. His first full-length play, Mixed Marriage, was produced by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1911. It was produced several times over the following years as one of the Abbey’s most profitable plays. W.B. Yeats supported Ervine’s plays for depicting the real life experienced by the people of the north of Ireland as Synge’s work had done for those of the west of Ireland.
In 1915 W.B. Yeats appointed Ervine as the Abbey’s general manager. Ervine’s tenure was a commercial success, placing the Abbey’s finances on a stable footing, after producing several successful comedies but his strict demands on the actors caused a mutiny (the conflict with the Abbey’s actors was exacerbated by Ervine’s outrage at the Easter Rising of 1916). Ervine resigned from the Abbey in 1916 and enlisted in the Dublin Fusiliers. He was made an officer but after being wounded in Flanders one of his legs had to be amputated.
Through the 1920’s and 1930’s Ervine wrote drawing-room comedies that were box-office successes, several had West End runs of up to two years. Ervine was also a theatre reviewer for the Observer from 1919 to 1939 and in 1936 Ervine’s Boyd’s Shop, the play that defined Northern Irish drama for decades, was produced. Alongside his plays Ervine wrote a number of novels. The Wayward Man was reprinted in 1936 as one of Allen Lane’s first Penguin paperbacks (as Penguin 32). He also produced several major biographies, including the official biography of James Craig Craigavon: Ulsterman and Bernard Shaw, which was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1956.
By the 1940’s St John Ervine was Northern Ireland’s most prominent writer but was a highly controversial figure who had developed a remarkable antipathy to southern Ireland. St John Ervine died in 1971.
Eventually, the romanticism of his character and his desire for an independent life drives him to leave Belfast again. As a portrait of the Ulster personality The Wayward Man has rarely been rivalled.