Review: Guy Rundleon Lara Feigel

Promiscuous subterranean bohemians: The Love-charm of Bombs

There’s one near Goodge Street on the Tottenham Court Road, an open space with a single three-storey building within, once part of a set. There’s another in Broadwick Street, Soho, the end of a terrace cut off, sealed with concrete, adorned with a community arts mural. There was another a few blocks away, two three-storey buildings one space apart, held up by a huge X-shaped metal brace, a one-storey stucco bar filled in beneath it. Three quarters of a century on, the marks of the Blitz are vanishing from London, consumed by the redevelopment of a city caught in a boom, as Russian and Qatari money floods in to fill it out with steel and glass. Even a decade ago, when London was yet to come out of its prolonged post-Thatcher slump, you could still see the marks everywhere: a lean-to pub that was clearly an infill; a row of shops uneven because they had been built pro-tem, on churned ground, decades earlier, and then left.

It was easier then to imagine what the city was like in 1940-41, when all the lamps were darkened, the windows blacked out, and night by night the stone fabric of the city was split apart by wave after wave of bombs. Thirty thousand civilians would die over the months of the bombing, often five hundred or more a night, with many more maimed or psychologically shattered. It was a drop in the ocean of blood that other lands would have to endure, but all the more surreal for that. In the midst of daily life, death could come whistling down in the dark. Londoners descended to the Tube (the stations were only opened after the Communist Party organised occupations of private air-raid shelters at the Savoy Hotel), their subterranean existence captured best in drawings by Henry Moore, which showed them turning into heavy-limbed, bug-eyed mole people. The British have made much of the spirit of the period, the great carry on, and rather less of the inevitable effects of war, the lootings of the dead, the petty jealousies. They would like to recall it, above all, through the admittedly unforgettable image of a milkman making deliveries along a street that has all but ceased to exist.

Such is the myth, one of unity and constancy. But for some the Blitz offered not a challenge to maintaining their daily routine and the proprieties of middle-class existence, but a chance to shatter it altogether. The blackout was a cloaking darkness, obscuring the gaze of a hitherto censorious city. In the blackness, with the small but real risk of death, traditional morality could be suspended. Thousands flowed into the West End, meaning Soho and Piccadilly chiefly – spivs, commandos on leave, deserters, tarts and enthusiastic amateurs. Darkness and risk quickened pulses and loosened morals. ‘Who are you going out with tonight, darling?’ girls asked each other as they prepared for nights out in the Blitz. ‘Is it someone you’d like to die with?’

With them came, above all, the writers, who set it all down. Dylan Thomas and George Orwell, George Barker and Julian Maclaren-Ross – the model for X. Trapnel in Anthony Powell’s Dance To the Music of Time (1951-75) – and others. They prowl the foreground of innumerable memoirs of the period. Yet many such people were pre-bohemianised, as it were. They had already been living a life free of the constraints of bourgeois morality. More interesting perhaps are another group – those for whom the war acted as a passage not merely to another, freer morality, but also to a new aesthetic.

That is Lara Feigel’s argument in the Love-charm of Bombs, in any case. Feigel has gathered together a half-dozen writers – Graham Greene, Henry Green (the pen-name of Henry Yorke), Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Rosamond Lehmann, and the little-known Hilde Spiel – and traced their lives, loves and works through the first shattering attacks in 1940-41 to the lull, and then the resumption in 1944, as the pilotless V-1 and V-2 attacks began. It is a curious and somewhat arbitrary selection of people, a post-hoc grouping for the purposes of illustration, and scarcely illustrative of its principal thesis – that the death-terrors of the Blitz brought on a new promiscuity. Most of them were dedicated adulterers, and the bombs merely quickened a dance they were already whirled up in. The book’s saving grace is what it reveals about not love, but art – how the war forced Greene, Green and Bowen to a new standard, and even belatedly lifted Macaulay into the realm of the worth-bothering-with.

Crucial to that process was the way in which the war drew them into war work, not, as is often suggested, foremost for the chance to rub shoulders with the common people, but for the juxtaposition of fear, boredom, risk, and urban destruction that it brought about. Central to understanding the intensity of it all is to recall the belief – widely held throughout the 1930s – that the coming of the next war would mean the total destruction of cities through aerial bombardment. Wrote Macaulay to Virginia Woolf: ‘There is so little time, and one feels (a) sleepy (b) disintegrated. I expect this war is thoroughly demoralising. We shall emerge (as far as we do emerge) scattered in wits, many of us troglodytes.’

For Graham Greene, who had just published The Power and the Glory (1940), the apparent certainty of death-to-come was reassuring, and his job as an air-raid warden released him from the burden of deciding whether to take cover or not. For Henry Yorke/Green, a rising novelist at the time, now remembered as the quintessential writers’ writer, the thought of imminent death in his thirties was miserable beyond measure. He volunteered as a fire warden, a job every bit as dangerous as being on the front line, and wrote an autobiography, Pack My Bag (1940), to rule a line under his own life. He was to find that the only thing worse than danger was its absence; throughout the six months of the ‘phoney war’, he almost went mad through boredom and tension. The Blitz when it came, prompted not only relief, but also release. The long on/off shifts offered him the chance to hang around pubs, and there were plenty of women whose boyfriends were overseas. No-one was in doubt that a fireman was a courageous type, and so Yorke had the best of both worlds. He had a wife and children, and neither he nor his spouse were strangers to affairs – he had already had one with his sister-in-law – but the Blitz quickened the pace. The period, in this case at least, widened the scope of a type of promiscuity that we now tend to see as post-1960s.

Greene was propelled in the other direction. Not to marital fidelity – no-one went back to that – but towards one mistress, Dorothy Glover, instead of the sporadic affairs and prostitutes he had resorted to throughout a sexually failed marriage. She became a combined mistress and best mate, mucking about in the Blitz’s burning nightfields, Yorke himself would later fall hard for a virtual street kid, Mary Keene, but for the moment he avoided all complex entanglements. That included cooling down a brief affair with Rosamond Lehmann, who had blazed a trail of more-or-less autobiographical novels of love among the smart set through the late 1920s and ’30s. Yorke and Lehmann had met through Yorke’s friend Goronwy Rees, a writer too minor to get a full guernsey in this telling, whom she had stolen as a lover from Elizabeth Bowen, and then been dumped by. Macaulay, friends with both Lehmann and Bowen, but a generation older, was out of the dance – indeed her life during these years stands as a sad descent, her lover injured from a car-crash she caused and then dying of cancer, after which all her possessions were destroyed when her flat was bombed out. Round and round it all goes.

By 1941 the Blitz had played out, as Germany needed all of its material for the invasion of Russia. Boredom returned. Greene and Bowen became spies, the latter reporting back during trips to her native Ireland, while Greene went to West Africa for the posting that would in 1948 produce The Heart of the Matter, the same year that Elizabeth Bowen produced her Blitz novel, The Heat of the Day. Yorke/Green had beaten her to the punch with the sadly forgotten Caught (1943). When the bombing had died down he had returned to the family business, which was growing rich from war work and produced Loving (1945), a story of life and love above and below stairs in an Irish country house based in part on Bowen’s family pile. She had fallen for a Canadian philandere⎯

But by now you’re wondering what the point of all this reheated ancient gossip is, aren’t you? As I suspect will many readers of The Love-charm of Bombs. Feigel is good at transmitting the visceral witnessing of the period that these writers conveyed in their articles, diaries and letters, but as it progresses the book suffers from her arbitrary yoking together of writers – and more particularly the omission of two, Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh, who were both known to several of those featured. Waugh connects Greene to Yorke/Green, and he moved in the same circles as Bowen. Woolf’s omission is even more distorting, not only because Macaulay and Bowen had been introduced by Woolf, but because both writers adapted aspects of Woolf’s style to a more mainstream approach. Woolf was scarcely uninvolved in the Blitz, after all – as Feigel notes, the bombing of her London house contributed to the severe depression that killed her. And in the war’s early days she had written its first great novel, the chilling Between The Acts (1941). Without that in the mix, the picture is distorted. For with the best will in the world, one cannot see the war writings of Lehmann, Macaulay, and even Bowen’s Heat of the Day – works that Nicola Humble calls ‘the feminine middlebrow’ – measuring up to The End of the Affair or Caught.

That seems to be a product of selecting writers for group study without real reference to how they really grouped. After all, books, though singly authored, are in part the products of the ensembles in which they occur. No material approach to the war writings of Greene could exclude the influence of Waugh, and vice versa. The same goes for a wider cast of characters. Where is John Lehmann, the most important literary mover of the day, Yorke/Green’s editor and Rosamond’s brother? And so on, and so on. Feigel’s argument about the forcing effect of the bombs only works in part, and her selection process covers over as much as it turfs up. The Love-charm of Bombs is an evocative and readable study, and it reminds one to return to Lehmann and Bowen, but it could have served them better. Real people moved among these now vanishing spaces, they moved in real ensembles, and any full study of them needs to capture their existence as interlinked collectives, rather than as individuals within the spaces, the burning craters and rubble, now given over to community murals celebrating the city, a new and different London, with its mini-parks growing over the traces, year on year.