It’s high time for some midsummer madness so this week I’m recommending J.B.Priestley’s light-hearted Arthurian Fantasy, “The Thirty-First of June”. This book, which was first published in 1961, was out of print for many years. Recently I was pleased to discover that most of Priestley’s novels are now available as ebooks. Better still, there is a new paperback edition of “The Thirty-First of June” (from Valancourt Books) complete with John Cooper’s charming original illustrations.
This is a story set in two very different places – London, England in 1960 and the small kingdom of Peradore during the reign of the legendary King Arthur. One of these places is real and the other is imaginary but no-one can agree which is which. In London, frustrated artist Sam Penty works for an advertising agency run by Dan Dimmock (“Call me D.D.”) . When Sam is told to produce a drawing for the Damosel Stockings campaign, he pictures a medieval princess and falls in love with her. The next morning Sam wakes up convinced that it’s a day which shouldn’t exist – the 31st of June.
Meanwhile in Peradore, Princess Melicent has fallen in love with a strangely dressed young man whom she’s seen in a magic mirror lent to her by an enchanter. Melicent’s peppery father, King Meliot, warns her that Sam is only imaginary but Malgrim the Enchanter has already sent the castle dwarf to find him. Malgrim is plotting to get hold of a magical brooch given to the royal family of Peradore by Merlin himself. So is his uncle, a wily old enchanter known as Master Marlagram. Back in London, Sam abandons work and goes off to the Black Horse pub while a harassed D.D. has some baffling encounters with a dwarf in medieval costume and a laughing rat. Marlagram escorts Melicent to Sam’s world but Malgrim has already lured Sam and a drinking companion to Peradore.
Sam encounters a wicked damsel-in-waiting instead of his princess and gets thrown into a dungeon for “being improperly dressed”. D.D., several of his staff and the barmaid from the Black Horse all end up in Peradore. Some of these visitors find themselves playing much the same roles in Peradore as they did in London; others are startlingly transformed. Melicent endures bizarre experiences during her visits to London, including an appearance on television, while in Peradore Sam is required to act like a medieval hero, which he’s very sure he’s not. He can’t even work out what species of dragon he’s meant to be fighting. Can Sam and Melicent, and their worlds, ever be united?
J.B.Priestley (1894-1984) was a prolific novelist, playwright and journalist. You can find out more about him on the website run by the J.B.Priestley Society (jbpriestleysociety.com). Priestley is remembered as a plain-speaking, pipe-smoking Yorkshireman who campaigned against social inequalities and nuclear weapons, so you might assume that he was strictly a realist writer. In fact, there are supernatural elements in many of his novels and plays (including his most famous play, “An Inspector Calls”) and much of his work was influenced by esoteric ideas about the nature of time and reality. This novel explores those ideas in a playful way, suggesting that “whatever has been imagined must exist somewhere in the universe” and that “Which is real, which is imaginary, depends upon the position of the observer.” Malgrim the Enchanter explains that in the sphere of the imagination times-streams can converge or become intertwined so that it possible to pass from one to another. It all sounds jolly convincing but bear in mind that Malgrim isn’t a particularly reliable person and he has just drunk a whole bottle of créme-de-menthe.
I’ve read “The Thirty-First of June” numerous times and it still makes me laugh. Think “Mad Men” meets “Camelot” but played as farce. I wasn’t too surprised to learn from Lee Hanson’s introduction to the new edition that “The Thirty-First of June” was originally a play-script. It would make a wonderful TV drama. The plot is full of surprising entrances and dramatic exits and most of the characterization is achieved through the sprightly dialogue. Each member of the cast is given catch-phrases and distinctive turns of speech. One of my favourites is “Captain” Skip Plunket, whom Sam meets in the Black Horse. He constantly tells irrelevant anecdotes and tries to sell people dubious schemes or goods. Thus Plunket’s response to Malgrim’s abstruse explanation of time-streams is, “And, talking of times, I can put you on to a fella who has four gross of Swiss watches in the spare tank of his motor yacht.”
The subtitle of this novel is “A Tale of True Love, Enterprise and Progress, in the Arthurian and Ad-Atomic Ages” so it is now doubly a period piece. Priestley was familiar with the conventions of medieval Arthurian literature and has fun with them in this story. For example, in Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur” (see my February 2016 post on “The Death of Arthur”) knights tend to encounter two standard types of damsel – virtuous oppressed ones and seductive deceitful ones. In “The Thirty-First of June”, Melicent’s two damsels-in-waiting are meek and mousy Alison – whose double in London is D.D.’s overworked secretary – and glamorous Ninette who conspires with Malgrim out of sheer love of mischief-making. Ninette torments Sam by making him believe that he has to speak in a pseudo-medieval manner (“Noble damsel- er – ye say sooth.”) before suddenly pointing out that he’s “no great shakes at this kind of dialogue.”
Priestley makes jokes about what doesn’t change between eras, such as doctors who prescribe useless remedies based on bogus theories. So, to cure their flights of fancy, Melicent is ordered to take mummy paste, mandrake root and powdered dragon’s tooth because her humours are out of balance while Sam is told that he has an unstable metabolism and is offered calcium and vitamin D. tablets. It’s fairly clear though that Priestley himself was more attracted to an idealized version of the Middle Ages than he was to modern urban life. Most of the things his characters find stressful in 1960 – noisy construction work, traffic jams, ridiculous advertising campaigns for rubbishy products, and absurd television shows and competitions – still annoy people today. No wonder that Plunket and D.D. come up with the idea of selling time-travelling tours to peaceful Peradore.
When Sam is asked why he wants to marry Melicent, his answer is that she seems to combine, “two wonderful qualities….a beautiful strangeness and a loving kindness.” So does this novel. Thanks to the rival enchanters, delightfully strange things happen in the course of the plot but Priestley is too kind-hearted an author to punish any of his characters severely for their faults. Ultimately, everyone is allowed to benefit from their exposure to another place and time. In Priestley’s world, the 31st of June is the one day on which people who are barely existing are given the chance to live a different and more rewarding kind of life. So, may I wish all my readers a happy 31st of June! Until next time…