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4.2 out of 5 stars
Lost Empires
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 2 July 2012
This reissue, by Great Northern Books, of what is arguably J B Priestley's finest novel is a reminder of the deep feeling the author had for the period just before the First World War and for the music halls and variety theatres which flourished at that time. The story concerns Richard Herncastle, a young man from the West Riding of Yorkshire who aspires to be a painter. Trapped in a dull office job and with both of his parents dead he accepts an offer from his uncle, Nick Ollanton, to join the latter's touring theatrical troupe. He has many experiences both on and off the stage before the outbreak of war puts paid to his life in the theatre. Priestley creates a richly-detailed narrative that only The Good Companions rivals in the author's fiction. But compared with the earlier novel this is much darker in tone : raw sexuality, violence, murder, suicide, moral corruption and even the perversion of the cause of justice are all present before, against the background of a terrible war, true love triumphs between Herncastle and a young dancer and singer Nancy Ellis. This edition, which is issued in both hardback and paperback, benefits from appropriate and valuable introductory contributions from Barry Cryer, Roy Hudd and Priestley's son, Tom Priestley. There is also a brief reminiscence from John Castle, who memorably played the misanthropic Ollanton in the sumptuous and faithful 1986 Granada Television version of the novel. This is available on a 3-disc DVD box set and can be warmly recommended.
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VINE VOICEon 22 January 2014
Priestley's novels are mostly what you might call conventional romantic comedies, dotted with colourful adventures and amorous encounters. The hero usually gets the girl, and the villain gets his come-uppance. But the prose is superior, and there is an attractive undercurrent of melancholy present throughout. I guess he is now remembered chiefly as a playwright, but I have read and re-read all his novels, which always have plenty of energy, though now they may seem rather dated.

This is one of his semi-autobiograhical novels, appearing quite late in the Priestley canon, dealing with a period early in his life. I have no idea how biographical it is but it has the ring of truth, though the narrator is an aspiring painter rather than a writer (I do know that Priestley was a lover of all the arts including painting). It takes place in a period which is little known or understood nowadays - the years immediately preceding the Great War. And its subject matter is even less well understood - the British Music Hall. The young protagonist is apprenticed to his uncle, a conjuror, and instantly thrown into the world of travelling entertainers. We are treated to a parade of characters, often sketched in only a few words. Well to the fore is Priestley's gift for characterisation which served him so well in his parallel career as a dramatist. He was also excellent at descriptions of landscapes. I would love his complete fiction to appear in Kindle format.
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Lost Empires is an engaging story told simply as the theatrical adventures of one Richard Herncastle in the year leading up to the outbreak of WW1 and his enlistment as a volunteer in the army thereafter. It is an elegant, understated farewell to the Lost Empires - the music hall "chain" of that name; to the idyllic (and not so idyllic) pre-apocalyptic world, to his own naivete and to the eccentric and occasionally sinister characters who crossed his path.

This is late Priestley, and the storytelling reflects the author's maturity, regrets and wry humour looking back on lost youth - combined with some of the swinging sixties mores to bring forward the characters with more cynicism (the men) and awareness of sexuality (the women), than perhaps would be expected of the times. As an entertaining and insightful picture of the world of 1914 in this War centenary year, it has a lot to recommend it.
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on 9 July 2015
If I had to choose at gunpoint my favourite Priestly story, it would be this. Can you be nostalgic for an era you never lived in? I always come away from this book wishing I could of lived in these times. A young man (Dick Herncastle) joins his mysterious and enegmatic uncle in his magical act that toured the Empire theatres in the years before the start of WW1. A time when music hall stars were Demi gods, and the still Victorian in attitude British Isles, were part scornful part mesmerised by it's stars. Immersed in a completely foreign way of life, Dick writes of his time with the theatre company and the towns they visit.
Priestly's beautifully written snap shot of this era is aside from it's compelling story, an historical insight into our modern history.
I go back to re read this book often.
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on 14 January 2014
I read this book many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. It gives a real feel for the atmosphere of Variety theatre at the time it was written about and the way everything fell apart at the start of WW1. The theatrical friendships and the awful digs and the boredom of travelling to small towns on Sundays.

It is a lovely story with a mainly happy ending.
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on 5 May 2014
I read this many many years ago and enjoyed it very much then. It went out of print, so I was glad to find a Kindle version. Enjoyed it rather less this time, The world and I have moved on
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on 21 April 2014
Priestly's co,,and of the English language and his superb observation of his characters make this book a joy to read. I am now re-reading my other Priestly novels.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 8 December 2012
I caught some of this on Rad4 Extra and decided to put right my having read none of Priestley's works. Mine is the Kindle version. The introduction by two well known TV names praised it massively and, quite simply, to me it didn't deliver. Roy Hudd was one, the other I've forgotten.

Not one likeable character in a lacklustre plot where the major interest was a weak romantic core to events based on a group of travelling variety-theatre players, who were a real mixed bag of a cast, from a past-her-sell-by-date actress reduced to being a comic's foil, to a clever magician who was also a real Dick Dastardly offstage, to a washed up ex-comedian close to being booed off the stage on a regular basis. To this is added a young man who is the magician's nephew, recently employed to replace an aide who is leaving. To this youngster is given a maturity beyond his years, and he is the central character, the teller of the tale. Which is related in the form of a large flash-back to the teller's youth, as recounted fictionally to Priestley by a fictional artist of his own creation.

The story line is little more than loose framework on which to hang a set of discordant character sketches, pretty much all of whom are shoddy or without charisma. I'd have liked Uncle-Magician to have been a bit more 3-D than he was, but he remains a bit too cardboard-cutout for me. If Priestley wanted to paint a distasteful sketch of variety theatre and to infer that its cast is largely a bunch of misfits with wildly varying talents and backstabbing tendencies, then he's done what he set out to do. But I didn't enjoy reading about it.

It may be that I'm a reader too unsophisticated to appreciate levels of this book that are accessible to others, in which case I wish them well with it. To me the writing was of unremarkable quality, but there was a shallow crust of dislikeable reality here and there in dialogue and in events.

But I remained outside the happenings, interested in them only from the point that I don't like to admit defeat and fail to finish a book.

On this occasion I was glad when the final page arrived, and it could be put away. Unlike many of my books, I doubt is this will be read a second time. But unlike a used paperback, the kindle version can't be donated to the charity shop!
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 6 June 2013
I haven't read any Priestley since 'Good Companions' all those years ago, and om the evidence of this I've missed quite a lot! The title is a word play covering Empires as in British but in this instance the theatres of that name which were to be found in most cities, and the book has something for everyone.

Everything from subtle interplay of emotions via acute observaion of humanity to knockabout slapstick is to be found, and I've already downloaded another two JRBs - I really do suggest/recommend that you do the same . . .
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on 16 January 2015
Any book by Priestley has to merit 4 stars!
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