As Radio 3 dramatizes J.B. Priestley's Time and the Conways, Francis Spufford explores the time-haunted world that obsessed Priestley and a host of other writers. In 1927 a slim volume, An Experiment with Time, first appeared. Its author, J.W. Dunne, had been a genius of early aircraft design and a soldier in the Boer War but now he offered a vision of time that the British public found deeply appealing.
Time, immortality and pre-cognitive dreaming, complete with diagrams and an exhortation for readers to keep a dream diary, proved inspirational for artists and public alike. Writers as diverse as Priestley, Rumer Godden, John Buchan, H.G. Wells, Flann O'Brien and Jorge Luis Borges all found their imaginations sparked by Dunne's theories. You can even find its echo in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5. Audiences flocked to a succession of Priestley plays with Time at their ticking heart.
This was time without the overwhelming science of Einstein and dreaming without the mucky dangers of Freud. Dunne's book has never been out of print since 1927. Priestley's plays continue to be performed.
Francis Spufford journeys through the half-forgotten byways and time tracks of Dunne's life and work and its impact on Priestley and many others, including an extraordinary archive of dream letters sent to Priestley following his appearance on the BBC's Monitor programme in the 1960s.
Priestley's 'Time' plays, like Time and the Conways endure. A form of literary immortality for their writer, they remain stimulating contemplations on time and mortality. On our small screens, Britain's longest running science fiction show, Dr Who, has rampaged through the 4th dimension with relentless abandon. But have its 'timey,wimey' escapades felt the infleunce of Dunne?