Thursday, March 1, 2018

Old Bestseller: The Thirty-First of June, by J. B. Priestley

Old Bestseller: The Thirty-First of June, by J. B. Priestley

a review by Rich Horton

J. B. Priestley (1894-1984) was once an immensely popular figure in English culture, best known perhaps for his plays (perhaps most notably An Inspector Calls), but also an important popular critic, and a radio broadcaster, and a novelist. His 1930 novel Angel Pavement was #5 on that year's list of US bestsellers as reported by Publishers' Weekly. His 1929 novel The Good Companions won the James Tait Black award. And for all that he seems almost utterly forgotten today.

As the (as ever illuminating) entry on Priestley in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia notes, a great deal of his work was at least somewhat Science Fictional or Fantastical in nature. Much of it was informed by J. W. Dunne's extremely influential An Experiment With Time. The novel at hand, The Thirty-First of June (1962) is a lighthearted example: it's an Arthurian Fantasy, sort of, based in part on the idea (which I believe is found in Dunne's work) that somewhere in the universe even fantastical ideas must be actualized. It's very short (perhaps 35,000 words). It's illustrated by John Cooper.

One 31st of June, in the Kingdom of Peradore, a neighbor to Arthur's realm, the Princess Melicent is obsessed with a young man she's seen in a magic mirror, named Sam. Meanwhile in our world, in 1961, Sam is an artist for an advertising agency. He has seen a vision and used her as a model for a stockings ad. But he's wholly disillusioned with his job. Priestley here goes in for a lot of "get off my lawn" sort of commentary/satire on the modern urge to "progress". ("Owing to the deplorable lack of progress in Arthurian England, it was all very peaceful" ...)

Melicent's father is opposed to her marriage to someone as lowborn as Sam. And there are two wizards involved, the good Malagram and the bad Malgrim. Both want a magic brooch. Malagram agrees to bring Melicent to Sam in his world, while Malgrim, along with Melicent's saucily wicked Lady-in-waiting Ninette, conspires to bring Sam to Peradore. This leads, of course, to a lot of hijinks, with Sam thrown in the dungeon, and Melicent making rather an impression as a guest on a TV show.

A salesman, as well as Sam's boss, also end up in Peradore, and soon they are enchanted into becoming a Knight and a Dragon for Sam to overcome in order to earn Melicent's hand. And Malagram and Malgrim keep up trying to foil the other's schemes ... But perhaps there is a compromise available? After all, surely there is money to be made turning Peradore into a tourist destination?

It's all really rather silly, but silly in just the way we expect. And it manages, despite the "get off my lawn" vibe, to be really pretty funny, especially in the scenes in a bar, with Sam and the barmaid and the salesman Captain Plunkett. The tone throughout is bubbly fun. It may have been aimed at the YA market, though I'm not entirely sure -- I think it's plenty entertaining for adults.

(As it happens, it was made into, of all things, a Soviet Era TV show, called 31 June, starring among others, Alexander Godunov.)

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