Now we must live up to ourselves: #RethinkingWales and beyond

Dylan Moore introduces issue 64 of the welsh agenda magazine with a call for us all to use this unique moment wisely

As a high school teacher, I associate May with printing lists of quotations to enable students to revise for their English Literature exam. Not this year, of course. Exams have been cancelled.

As Editor of the welsh agenda, I associate May with printing the Spring/Summer edition of the magazine. Again, not this year. Issue 64 will be distributed to IWA members as a pdf.   

But these circumstances have not stopped key quotations from J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls reverberating around my brain, almost as if I was going to be resitting the exam myself.

One excerpt in particular, from the Inspector’s famous final speech, seems prescient in this extraordinary time: ‘We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it, in fire and blood and anguish.’ 

I don’t teach students to regurgitate quotations without an understanding of context, of course. Crucial to understanding Priestley’s play is appreciating the relationship between its setting in 1912 – at the height of pre-Great War Edwardian hubris – and the time of its composition in 1945, as yet another world war draws to a close.

The Inspector’s speech collapses time, its extraordinary power derived from its relevance to both those moments of epochal change.

Perhaps we have arrived at such a moment once again.

There’s a radio broadcast by Priestley, contemporary to the play, that neatly encapsulates his thinking at the time. Speaking about the summer five years earlier, now alternately referred to as Britain’s ‘darkest’ or ‘finest hour’, when the fate of the country was in the balance, he says: ‘We had a glimpse then of what life might be if men and women freely dedicated themselves, not to their appetites and prejudices, but to some great communal task’. 

Of course, there can be no real comparison (although many have made it) between what Priestley calls ‘the magnificent summer of 1940’ and this surreal spring of 2020, but there is also no doubt the pandemic has given us another such glimpse. As in all times of crisis, some have acted with altruism while others have continued to indulge pettiness and narrow self-interest.

When I met actor and activist Michael Sheen, over Zoom (of course – where else?), for the lead interview in this new edition of the welsh agenda, he used the word ‘appetite’ in a different sense. Sheen senses potential for a new and more widespread hunger for radical change. He was also quick to point out parallels between the present and the 1945 moment.

The post-war Attlee government bequeathed us the NHS, and large parts of the welfare state. Sheen says we urgently need to reimagine these institutions for our own time if we are to solve the problems that existed before COVID-19, let alone the new ones that have emerged in its wake.

The IWA has been hard at work #RethinkingWales these last few weeks, convening conversations between people from across society – public and private institutions, third sector, community and academia – in a series of sessions focused on what we might do differently, and better, coming out of the pandemic.

Now, it seems to many, is the moment to seize if we are to enact radical changes to the way we work and live. 

An Inspector Calls is a play about ideology. Written at the midpoint of the twentieth century, it plays out that century’s leitmotif – socialism versus capitalism – on a microcosmic canvas, with the enigmatic Inspector propagating a socialist agenda in the house of an arch-capitalist, an upwardly-mobile factory owner whose daughter is about to marry an aristocrat.

But the Inspector’s final speech has Christian as well as socialist overtones. The key to understanding the play is not simply socio-historical perspective; it’s about people. The Birlings are a symbol of the capitalist class, but they are also a family: dysfunctional, insecure, bound up in their culture and circumstance. As well as a whodunnit with a twist and real political bite, it’s a morality tale. 

Regardless of class or status, the clear message is that – another key quote! – ‘we are responsible for each other’. Our daily moral choices boil down to this: how do we treat other people? 

Examples in the play – underpaying workers, deploying social privilege to enact petty revenge or sexual exploitation – are hardly irrelevant in our own time. See also Edwardian attitudes toward a so-called ‘undeserving’ poor. Plus ça change.

When the Inspector leaves, with his dire warning about ‘fire and blood and anguish’, the Birlings’ cosseted world is shattered forever. In the hugely successful Stephen Daldry production, their suburban mansion literally comes apart, creating a landscape (remember this is supposed to be 1912) reminiscent of the Blitz. 

But the lesson here is that the family doesn’t choose to act as one to put the world back together; each individual makes a choice. 

Moral reaction is split along generational lines. The older Birlings – the ‘hard-headed man of business’ and his hard-hearted wife – refuse to alter their behaviour or worldview. ‘Why should we?’ says the aristocratic wife (from her point of view, the old world order has brought her nothing but wealth and comfort).

Instead, hope lies with the young: the next generation observe their parents’ mistakes, but more importantly reflect on their own, resolving to change themselves – and thus offering that glimpse of hope for the world.

Things have not changed. When we meet – here in the media – we talk about societal solutions to the current crisis, and of course we know we need big governmental interventions to help rebuild our lives and livelihoods. We  also need business and culture and the academy to change priorities and practices, to enable all of us to survive and thrive.

But the key quotation that won’t leave my teacher’s brain – aside from the obvious one about fire and blood and anguish – is the exasperated cry of Sheila, the Birlings’ daughter, near the end of the play. ‘You’re ready to go on in the same old way,’ she says to her parents, who don’t see why they shouldn’t.

Our task, particularly in Wales – where we have (some might say at last) summoned the boldness to do things differently – is to resist that dangerous temptation. And if we really are to learn the lesson of Priestley’s timeless play, we will remember that while the pandemic is of course a chance to reset society, the rethinking process will be futile if we don’t first reset ourselves. 

Dylan Moore is Editor of the welsh agenda and teaches English at Llanwern High School, Newport.

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