How do I capture a city and a time? It began in the back of a camouflaged RAF lorry that smelled of oil. I clung to the side as the driver swung the lorry fast around the curved Cotswold road from Bourton-on-the-Water to the railway station. All I had left of the uniform I had worn for ten months as an aircraft woman second class in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force of the RAF was the pair of issue shoes, heavy black masculine clodhoppers. I carried the suitcase I had kept hidden full of civilian clothes to wear on leave, a civilian ration book, some clothing coupons, and my discharge papers (my ticket). I was dressed in the suit I had worn to go into the WAAF at the recruiting station in Kingsway. That was the beginning of the time in London, and it ended, 18 months later, not in London, but at a dinner party in New York the evening after I came home from the war.
Why, after all this time, do I need to recall this? There is an old man, dreaming of Piccadilly in 1944, when he was young and drunk and a bomber pilot. A friend who brought back a hidden wound of one forever relived day has shot himself nearly 40 years later. I know that they, in their way, and I in mine, have no hope of ever being civilians completely.
Others, now in their seventies, sat on the floor, loose limbed against a wall, like the Cambridge undergraduates they were before the war, while one of their number read an elegy to a dead leader and aesthetic guide when they were brave and young, and in a naïve intrigue against the worst of the world that bred them. What they were remembering was being young, in love with dedication and one another, and flirting with the dull edges of legality.
The ones who were children in the years of war are still as fascinated as they were when they played at identifying planes, followed battles, in the illusion that they could be followed. They have missed ever since finding in themselves the answer to the most atavistic question in a man’s soul. It is the question that makes The Red Badge of Courage a great war book whose author never fought in a battle: “Would I fight or would I turn tail?”
They envy the silence of those of us who find it hard to speak; it is our fault. We have left them to the shallow, to a war told by correspondents or seen in old movies. The witnessed events, the quick impassioned romances they imagine, the over-simple pictures of courage and love—all the iron nostalgia, gleaned from romance and from their own demands that the war be as they imagine it, is the hardest of all to wipe clean with recall.
What we found in London then was controlled by where we came from. Did we come on leave, away from the cold and boredom and waiting of being in the forces to the luxury of London, of baths, and pink gin, and some worn remains of graceful living? Or from America to the first glimpse of the danger and deprivation of a city at war? I had done both of these, so that in October 1943 the city I came to was not a surprise.
I had learned its streets on leave when I had wandered there in the anonymity of my air force blue uniform. It was then that I had found the noontime concerts at the National Gallery, the cheap food at the NAAFI, and what was left of the London of Dickens, of Shakespeare, so familiar to me that I hardly had to ask a direction, even though I had never seen it before. I had walked through miles of London streets, all the day and into the blacked-out night.
Osbert Sitwell wrote that the blackout made a medieval city of London. It didn’t. There were no pine torches, no wax tapers shining through windows to defeat the darkness. Instead, it was the opposite. London was plunged into the terrible present century and lay exposed under an open, dangerous sky. The pitch darkness was inside of rooms, as if they were caves deep underground before the blackout curtains were drawn and the lamps were lit.
Outside, in the street, London became country again under a changing sky. The buildings were dark monoliths; the streets canyons between cliffs. There were snaggled bombed-out gaps in the townhouse rows that let the moonlight in through high windows that had once been such private rooms, here a fragment of wall paper with faded rain-streaked animals of a nursery, there a drunken toilet, still clinging to the wall. Many of the ancient churches were only ruins that looked like stone lace that etched the night sky. During the blitz they had been low on the priorities of the fire fighters.
To new arrivals in London, it seemed pitch black out of doors, too, but not, by 1943, to Londoners. People had become conscious again of the phases of the moon, the light from stars. They had regained their country eyes. The darkness was full of noises, the echo of footsteps, of people talking, the cries for taxis. Sound itself seemed amplified and dependable in the half-blindness of the street. The smell was of dust, of damp plaster in the air, and of the formaldehyde scent of the smoke from dirty coal that lodged in the yellow fog. The stained sandbags, the rust, the dull, peeling paint, damp that made great dark lines down the walls, made London seem like a long-neglected, leaky attic.
It was fear that was medieval, and largely unadmitted to this day, fear of the full moon, the bomber’s moon, as our ancestors had shrunk from its insane light and the cry of the wolf.
I had been sent to London several weeks before to find a job, on orders from the medical officer of my station who had given me sick leave. I was suffering from signals shock, a common aural breakdown after too many hours of enemy jamming on the transmitter/receiver in flying control. Those of us who suffered from it had begun to hear ghost signals from nonexistent aircraft through the electronic repetitive noise of the German jamming that I can rehear, more than 40 years later, as I recall the time. Both the M.O. and I knew that I was not quite sick enough to be invalided out, even though I was of no more use as an R/T operator.
“I wish I had a way to work my ticket, too. I’m bloody cheesed off,” he said sadly, sitting on the end of my cot in sick bay, his feet tucked up, his arms around his knees. I see now that he was very young. “Why waste your time issuing repaired shoes when you could do a proper job? You are lucky.”
I guess I was. I knew people, unlike the others I had left. So between Herbert Agar and a friend in Parliament I was on my way to the train for London in the back of the RAF lorry two weeks after I came back off sick leave. I left the WAAF an aircraft woman second class, pay 14 shillings a week, on Saturday, and on Monday I reported to the American Office of War Information in Carlos Place, conveniently across from the Connaught Hotel as a “simulated” major in the American Army, a civilian rank for those of us serving in war zones.
London to me that week, at least, was comfort, good food, clean American people after the months of loneliness, a PX card, and a glamour that I had not expected. I was exhausted, my weight thirty pounds below normal, my nerves jangled from signals shock, and still so enmeshed in the discipline, the deprivation, and the language of the forces, that on the first morning I stood to attention beside a colleague’s desk and asked to be excused. “Honey,” he said, “you’re out of the army. You can pee whenever you want to.”
Almost everybody was old at the Office of War Information. I had come from a world where nobody was over 22, except some high ranking officers, who seemed, in their thirties and the fact that they were regular Air Force, as far away as tin gods, who could not be forgiven their mistakes, their preoccupations, or their power over us.
The people in the OWI were famous, too, or so they seemed to me, and I, who only now realize that I was exotic to them, found them glittering with reputation. The courage of some of them was to be honored more than those I had left in one way. They brought to the war more intelligence and less physical resilience than being there required. Some of them were too old, too tired, too sedentary for what they had volunteered to do, be in London through the attrition of the days, the “little blitz,” the buzz bombs, the V2s, and the debilitating atmosphere of neglect, dirt, and exhaustion that had built up.
There they were, those who had wangled their way into war, at the wrong place, doing, in excesses of patriotism or curiosity or self-proof, work that was the wrong work, at the wrong time. They were valuable in some terms I had not run into as an aircraft woman. There were fine editors, good writers, movie actors, poets, in the halls of the OWI at Carlos Place, and I realize now that I was as glamorous to them as they were to me. Somehow I had touched the war they had come to. I knew things I couldn’t tell. Gaunt, and nervous, aesthetically pleasing in the fashion that pleases at a given time, an object of interest, I had had the experience they had come to share. What I had learned to take for granted, service in the forces was, to them, a fascination. It made them seem somehow younger than I was. I had a sense of knowing things—oh, not events—civilians seem always to expect those—but gray expanses and hours, days, months, of damp indifference.
They didn’t quite know what to do with me. They were professionals, some of the best of American editors, from prewar publishing when it was an art, from the Paris Herald Tribune, the Saturday Evening Post, the Viking Press, the Louisville Courier Journal, Harper’s Bazaar, to name only the ones I remember best. I, who had been hired as a “writer,” had no experience at all beyond a few poems, a few short stories, all unpublished, all long since lost. I was, to them, an oddity, a rescued fragment. One of my bosses told me that I would never have passed a security check in the States, because I was a “premature anti-fascist,” having started trying to join up before we went to war. So I was used at first as a courier to take VIPs to the BBC for interviews. Accidentally I was plunged straight from lorry to limousine, from the barracks to tea at the Savoy with Robert Sherwood, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne.
I took Irving Berlin to the BBC and he, with a capacity for friendship I have seen in few other people, made friends. He was tiny in uniform, too old already to be there; he moved like a cricket, doing everything anyone asked him to do. He treated others with a sense of rare peerage, as if it were the norm for people, and he was the kindest and also the funniest person I met in all the time I was escorting VIPs. He had brought over This Is the Army to play for the troops.
One evening we were to meet for a drink at Claridge’s, and he was late. He came rushing in, apologizing as he ran, and sat down at the table. He said, “I have just had one of the most embarrassing days of my life. You know, we take ‘The Army’ around to the hospitals. We have a small show, just the leads, designed so that we don’t need a stage. Then I go with two or three of the singers around the wards to entertain the men who can’t make it to the performance. There are some wards where they are too badly wounded even for that. The commanding officer was taking me around to them, where I always said a few words, hoping to cheer them up a little. I noticed that we kept passing one ward, not going in. I asked why, and he said that the men were too badly off. I bounced in anyway. I told him that if they were conscious I was sure a few words from home would help a little. It was too late to stop me. There they lay, and I started my little speech about how proud we were of them, what brave men, all that. Usually, even from the very sick I got some reaction. From these—none. So I laid it on a bit thicker. I told them how proud their country was of them, how I represented their parents and their sweethearts to tell them we honored them as great Americans. I got no reaction at all. In the hall, I said, what is the matter with those men? They don’t react at all. The commanding officer said, ‘I tried to tell you, Mr. Berlin. That was the VD ward.’”
The entertainers, the people in the OWI, the film divisions, some of the foreign correspondents existed, I’m sure, without knowing it, within a caul of privilege they took for granted. It was not safety; they had come to a city where they could be killed, and most of them had come, as I had, in convoy. But their London, to me, was unreal, a stage on which a play called “the war” was running. Even the uniforms some of them wore were like costumes—-well-cut, no grease marks, not butt-sprung, no inground dirt, no fading, scratching, no ill-fitting crotch crease—in short not the issue I was still used to.
Most of them had no experience of the strictures we lived by, of being caught by raids late at night so that we had to sleep where we could, away from the cars they seemed to be able to call at any time. They did not step over the out-flung arms of families who had slept in the tube stations for nearly four years. Where once, in uniform, I had been caught in Piccadilly Tube Station by a raid, in this new time, I trailed my evening skirts along the narrow track between the sleeping bodies and the trains.
Those who ate in restaurants had no inkling of what it was like to live on rationing, on scrounging unrationed food, fish or carbohydrates that meant standing in queues hour after hour, gray-faced with fatigue. One time I was in a taxi with a woman, made innocent by money rather than fame, and she saw a queue at the horsemeat shop in Paddington. She said, “Isn’t it amazing that those people still keep pets?”
Three days after I arrived I was taken to dinner at a black market restaurant by Burgess Meredith and Paul Douglas, who were in the film division, and who had decided I needed feeding. Where we went I still don’t know. We were driven through dark unfamiliar streets by one of those London cabbies who seemed to find his way like a night animal, with only the tiny slits of blue light showing from the masked headlights that gave no light to drive by, but only warned pedestrians.
We walked into an overpowering smell of food, a luxury of clean white table clothes and damask napkins from “before the war,” which had already become a magic time, dimmed and changed by nostalgia. I remember that the room was dark, with that cave-like atmosphere of London restaurants that used to imitate old libraries or men’s clubs, with their dark woodwork and their leather banquettes along the walls. In the corner Mac Kriendler from 21 in New York sat with a foreign correspondent I have forgotten. It was the only black market restaurant I ever saw in London.
People who knew each other had turned it into a home away from home where they had the comfort of being with their own in that network of fame I had hardly known existed. There they sat, correspondents, actors, Hollywood writers who had been trained to write too quickly from first impressions, and would write about the war in the same way, imagining the rest. Many a hungry GI slogged through minds in such meeting places, or the Ritz Bar, while the professionals and the shallow gambled with war, having no idea that they were missing everything about it but the events.
They ordered for me with great care. They treated me gently, but unwisely. I had been living on wartime rations, only two-thirds of that issued to men in the forces, on the theory that women were smaller and needed less food. I can still see the plate of food, and smell it. A lamb chop, two inches thick, a baked potato with two week’s ration of butter melting on it, and green beans. The smell of melting fat, of rich meat, made my gorge rise, I prayed to get to the lady’s room in time. I was violently sick. The rest of the evening was spent with them taking turns holding my head over the loo while I had the dry heaves. After that I learned to face carefully both the new food and a certain aura of fame.
By the winter of 1943—44, in the first preparations for the invasion, troops from all over the world gathered on leave in the West End of London. Cries for taxis and women in all their languages were plaintive in the blackout. Small, dim, blue lights, the only color allowed, read Bar, Pub, Restaurant. When the blackout curtains, which were hung like labyrinths at the doors, were pushed aside, you were met by a wall of light and noise, and the uniforms, by that year, of all the allies.
Sometimes there were mistakes. The Tivoli Bar at the Ritz had all the elegance and aloofness of a London club. It was another home for a mixture of the kind of Americans who knew about the Ritz, Guards officers, and assorted English ladies with what Hilaire Belloc called “loud and strident voices.” Outside, in Piccadilly, it had a faint blue sign like all the rest.
Two American officers, new to the darkness of the streets, had picked up two girls of the hundreds who haunted the West End. They had seen only the faint blue word, “bar,” and they pushed aside the blackout curtains and escorted the girls into one of the most exclusive rooms in London.
The two girls had been a long time in the streets. One’s teeth were snaggled, the other had dirt scratched down her bare legs. Their clothes were filthy. It was obvious, but only for a second, that the two young men were actually seeing them for the first time. There was hardly a pause. They showed them to the table, pulled back their chairs, and followed the perfect Chesterfieldian advice, “Treat the duchess like a whore and the whore like a duchess.” There was not a word said by the waiter, who entered into the scene with all the arrogant politeness he would have shown any other customer. I was never prouder of my countrymen than I was then, when they, far more insouciant than the British around them, soothed the feelings of a pair of embarrassed Piccadilly whores.
We spent the days in make-work and met in bars, in restaurants, and turned them into havens. There was no place else to go. The Petit Club Francaise had more movie actors, ballet girls, and American writers than the Free French it had been opened for. The long front room of the Connaught, which looks comfortably like a large drawing room, gathered the OWI and the foreign correspondents. There were scores of places, all over London, where people found their own.
It took time for me. I seemed flung from group to group at first. I remember Claude Cockburn, who was Frank Pitcairn of the Daily Worker, to whom I lent ten pounds when he had run out of money one night in the back bar of the Cafe Royal. He paid me back with ten shares of The Week, a Communist broad sheet he published every week with all the low life “capitalist” intrigues he could find in either the British or the American government. It earned me a black dossier as a part owner of a Communist magazine. I was fascinated with all of this, with the paradox of a mixture of secrecy as a flirtation and of naive hope among most of the intelligent people I met then.
I had lunch, through Cockburn, in one of London’s fashionable restaurants with the editor of the Daily Worker and a Communist deputy from Belgium who looked like the bust of Beethoven. I asked him when he became a Communist. He smiled and said, “When I was 50. It was not, with me, a youthful error.”
Maybe I was being recruited, I don’t know. I must have disappointed them if I was; I was too curious, too questioning, and, by then, far too experienced at being a pawn to blind authority to be attracted to dictatorship, proletarian or otherwise. Only a few months before I had had to run along behind a proletarian sergeant who was as mean as a snake, as she rode her bicycle through an RAF station.
I sat on the stairs in a gold satin dress at a ball in one of the grand houses in Grosvenor Street with a pink Guards officer, 19 years old. He looked with some disdain at the people dancing. He said, “I’m frightfully sorry you see us like this. Before the war [that already magic time] half these people would not have been asked here.”
I said, “Before the war I would probably not have been asked here.” He was killed in the invasion.
We talked as people have not talked in England since. We talked on trains, in bars, in canteens, in Lyons Corner Houses, on buses, as if our statements had to be made before it was too late. There are glimpses in my memory of walks, of talk—a walk in the park with Archibald McLeish when he tells me that he has spent the rest of his life finding out that what he knew at 18 was true, an officer from an English regiment who tells me he hates the bloody Yanks. One has stolen his girl.
An OSS officer from Hollywood tries to convince me that I must be a Communist. “But you do recognize the historic inevitability, don’t you?” He sounds annoyed. The joke was then that the OSS and MI5 spent more time following each other and all of us than on German spies.
I sat on the wall by Hyde Park Gate across from the hospital with a young American fighter pilot who flew P38s. He had just been posted to a station in the south of England. On the way through New York on leave he had seen a wonderful new musical, and he sang to me, “Oh, what a beautiful morning.” It was the first song I ever heard from Oklahoma. He was killed the next week.
I lived then in Gloucester Terrace, near Gloucester Road Tube Station, in a top floor flat that I had been sent to by the English Speaking Union, one of those nests of threadbare gentility that had survived all over Kensington, with ladies clinging to them, literally, for their dear lives, measured not in coffee spoons, but in patched linen, polished tables, and the eking out of rations in bone china cups.
Doreen Green, who hastened to tell me that she had been brought up in a large Georgian country house outside of Dublin, explained at once that it was not the money, but the duty that made her even consider letting a room, that she did, after all, have an income but it was, you know, in trust. She lived there with her 15-year-old son, and one of those ancient splay-footed nannies left after the children were grown. I had first stayed there when I had come to London on leave, in uniform, but in the fall of 1943, there were evening dresses hanging in my cupboard in the genteel pastel bedroom with its embroidered runners and its pale rugs, and Victorian china knickknacks, all the thin fragility of the genteel poor. She had told me the first time I went there that she was divorced from a husband who had lived too long in France when he was young and had picked up beastly habits, you know, from those people.
If London had become drab and shabby, flats like this one were threadbare instead, for shabby has an air of neglect about it, but threadbare is worn down with care, with meticulous patching, with make do and make do. There was something of this in Doreen’s small, pinched face, too, as if she would make do through the war as the others did, because she had to, and because the time was overwhelming except in the safety of the Irish antique furniture she had there, all that was left for her of what had been, at least in memory, a great Anglo-Irish house outside of Dublin. As with all of us, her safety was more psychic than real, since the flat was on the vulnerable top floor.
From time to time, several evenings a week, during the late fall and on into the winter, she gave us tea when I was there, dressed in her Air Raid Precaution uniform, ready to go on duty through the night, a woman too frail, it seemed, to survive an ordinary day. It was women like her, now forgotten in the more dramatic annals of the war, who sat all night, night after night, on watch in the ARP stations, middle-class soldiers, dim with worry that their homes would not be there when they went off duty.
During the nights of the “little blitz” when the air raid warning went, we would gather in the tiny living room of the flat on the ground floor, and pretend not to be afraid. The ancient splay-footed nanny, who seemed as much of a fixture in such homes as the dear antiques, the careworn and beautifully patched linen, would say, as the ack-ack guns in Hyde Park shook the house, “Is that one of theirs or one of ours?”
Dutifully Desmond or his mother would say, “Nanny, it’s one of ours.”
That Christmas an ice storm turned the trees in Hyde Park into a glittering parody of Christmas trees, and the children picked up silver strips of foil in the street that had been dropped by German aircraft to confuse our radar, and took them home to decorate their houses.
Almost imperceptibly London moved out of winter into a drab spring. The weather was cold, the days were gray, and there was a sense of watching the sky, as a farmer watches it, to read the future in it. At night, once in a while, if the sky was clear, a German plane got through the defenses of the city, and you could see it, a tiny bug pinned in the sky by the searchlights that converged on it. I was told after the war by a Luftwaffe pilot that they were sent over London alone as punishment.
I had been moved, in one of those decisions that seemed to have been made for the sake of decision itself, down to the radio section in Dean Street, Soho, to the broadcasting studios of both “black” and “white” radio—black to the resistance in Europe and white to whoever would risk their lives to listen to Aaron Copland.
For two years there had been rain soaked graffiti all over London saying Open the Second Front Now. In early June, the days were so long that we seemed always to be walking in twilight under a solid blanket of American and English bombers across the sky all the way to the horizons. Some of the men I worked with and the correspondents got edgier and edgier, drank more, caroused more, fell into silences. If there had been not a single spy in London, the world would have known from the poised waiting, the draining out of London of troops, that at last what we all called then The Second Front was going to be opened.
Then, for 48 hours, day and night, in early June the loud drone of the planes overhead never ceased. I walked down to the station early one morning. For some reason neither I nor anyone else in the flat had been able to sleep. I walked in to the only other person there, who was sitting in her office watching the wall. I asked what was happening, and she snapped, “None of your business. Shut up.” For some reason I still can’t fathom she had been let in on the secret, and was sitting there vicariously invading Europe. It was the morning of June 6.
Everything changed in that day. London woke up, the pace was faster. I was assigned to the midnight briefings at the Ministry of Information in the London University building. They seemed futile, since correspondents and troops were already coming back and forth in an open corridor that made London seem like a part of the front itself.
Then, on June 13, in the middle of the night, the first buzz bomb flew over London, the engine cut, and it crashed into a house, killing six people. It was the first of Hitler’s long-rumored secret weapons. They came, self-propelling bombs with little stubby wings. They looked like huge cigars, and they sounded like motorcycles in the air. The more that were shot down coming over the coast, the more came into London. We began to listen; we listened all the time, whether consciously or not, to the cutoff of the engines which meant that the buzz bomb would either crash straight down or glide.
Everyone thought their own part of London received the brunt of them, and there were rumors of targets that had been chosen. Nothing was chosen. They fell completely indiscriminately, ludicrously. I went home to Gloucester Terrace one evening to find Doreen sobbing. I thought after all the time she had forgotten how to cry. One of her best friends a few streets away had been wiped out with her whole family an hour before. She kept saying, “They were only getting ready to go to the theater,” as if that had to do with their silly useless deaths.
I walked down with her to watch the digging out of their bodies from the trash heap that smelled of dust and plaster that had been their home, and I made her go back to the flat and put sugar in her tea when I saw that they were about to bring out the first body. Usually she would pretend she didn’t like sugar so that Desmond and Nanny could have more of the meager ration. She confided in me that she drank her tea with lots of sugar for energy when she was on duty, since it wasn’t rationed at the ARP station. When I brought home the Mars Bars they seemed fond of, a present from the PX, she sliced them and served them for tea on Irish china so thin you could see her hand through it as she passed the plate. Somehow the memory of teatime with her, and the death in the other house seem linked together, as they should be.
On a train coming in from a grand weekend in Wiltshire, I met an unattractive, shy young refugee from Germany, who had been conscripted into the Pioneer Corps. But when he began to talk about music, his face took on a glow. He asked me if I would go with him to a prom concert in the Albert Hall. We climbed up to just below the great round glass roof. Away in the distance, a tiny figure, Myra Hess, played to the kind of silence she commanded from the huge crowd. In the middle of a Mozart cadenza a buzz bomb rode over the Albert Hall. We could see its faint shadow through the dirty glass. The pure, small sound of Mozart was the focus of a dead silence. Her fingers never faltered. We were hypnotized by her concentration, and the bomb exploded a hundred yards away across Kensington High Street in Kensington Gardens. She had kept us from a panic that could have killed many people. It was the last concert there until the war was over.
Late at night, after the last tube, sometimes I had to stay in the bomb shelter at the MOI. There was no way to get home. One evening after the midnight briefing, Gene Solo, who was a Hollywood script writer attached to the film division, said, “Don’t sleep here. We all have a room at the Savoy and a car. Come with us.” I said I would come if I could have a quart of milk to drink.
When I got there, there was a poker game on a table that had been drawn up between two twin beds. It seemed to have been going on for some days. Dixie Tighe, William Saroyan, Gene Solo, Irwin Shaw, and a man from Newsweek, were the people I remember. I lay down behind the safe broad backs of Solo and Saroyan, drank my two weeks ration of milk in a room that reeked of gin and cigarettes, and went to sleep deeply for the first time since the buzz bombs had started and I had had to sleep in the shelter. I was waked in the morning by Saroyan throwing pound notes in the air and yelling, “I’ve won! I’ve won.”
What made for a sense of safety so often was not true safety at all, but a psychic calm, Doreen Green sitting among her dear antiques from Ireland on the top floor of a London building saying, “This is nothing. You should have seen Dublin during the troubles. You could see the fires all the way from Balawly.” She was remembering being 16, not the troubles.
I finally had found my own psychic safety, my own home away from home. I went like a pigeon to the cote to the top floor of a building in Soho, whose walls were a Twenties decor of small glass mirrors which would have shattered into a million shards if we had been hit. But I had found my pub, my local—the kind of place you go to unthinking, that becomes habit almost as soon as you see it.
No place else had done this until I had met another refugee in the corridors of the OWL We made friends as quickly as children. He was the most ridiculous GI I have ever seen. Chinless, pop-eyed, hair cut by Trumpers, already and impressively a published poet in his early twenties, newly graduated from Harvard where he had been a protege of Robert Hillyard, Dunstan Thompson made even the ill-fitting GI uniform of a private soldier look elegant. Someone had rescued him from the more useless service that he would have been given in the army, as I had been rescued. He already knew every “literary” name in London. When I told him I was a writer, he accepted me completely as what I thought I was. He was already used to people who wrote and published, rather than those who still only wanted to, or those who posed. I think that it was this, and his acerbic teaching kindness that came so naturally to him, that made me really begin to write, not as a caprice but as a dedication. He also made me realize how ignorant I was, and I began to read contemporary work and classics, filling a great hunger like somebody who had been starving and didn’t know it.
We drank at the Gargoyle Club, and we ate our jugged hare, and there were evenings I remember when Dylan Thomas was sitting on somebody’s knee, when Robert Newton broke things, the names, Cyril and Stephen and Guy, were called across the floor, boyfriends quarreled in the men’s room, and somebody’s mistress vomited in the ladies’. I was having lunch with two journalists from Belgium when a buzz bomb stopped overhead. No one else stopped eating. The Belgians, who were not fools, took one look at the glass walls and went under the table. I suspect that everyone else wanted to, but there was a kind of noblesse oblige about it. One feared more than anything else being embarrassed in front of the others.
Dunstan may have recognized me as a writer when I didn’t deserve it, but Eric Hawkins, the editor of the Paris Herald, made me do some work, and I am always grateful to him for forcing me into a postgraduate course in journalism when I was hardly qualified for the first grade.
He gave me assignments and made me do them. He identified me from time to time. He looked around my door one day and said, “I know who your grandfather was— William Blake.”
On another day, soon after I began to work for him, he stuck his head in the door and said, “Hey, kid, have you ever heard of the Grand Coulee Dam?” I stopped writing my wartime novel (long since lost) and said no. “Well, you better find out about it. I want five thousand words by next Wednesday.” This article, for one of those OWI publications which seemed so tenuously connected with the war, scared me so that I still remember facts about the Grand Coulee Dam I would rather forget. I had never written anything five thousand words long.
He sent me to the British Museum, which had been bombed, and where the readers were relegated to a small back room. But it was my first visit to a place which would be a treasure house where later I would research and write three novels.
I had moved back to Carlos Place, and the news was pouring in day after day. There seemed to be some attempt, not at political censorship, but at not disturbing the American people more than they could take, like sitting upright when the buzz bombs halted over you so as not to disturb the others. When Belsen, the first of the concentration camps, was liberated, at first no one believed the evidence that was coming out. It was too much like the old “babies on bayonets” propaganda that too many people remembered from the First World War. A delegation of members of Parliament insisted on inspecting it to see if the news was true. One of them, a nice Conservative lady MP, Mrs. Smith, came back and put her head in the gas oven.
Then the first pictures came, and I was set to work as a kind of fuse. How much could people take? The pictures were shown me and if I retched, they were put to one side, to be censored. If I had no violent reaction they were passed for publication. Alas, I soon got inured to them, as one gets used to anything, and I was less successful at the job of protecting the public from the truth that was like a yawning hole in any hope. Gradually the findings began to be believed, and we had the sense then that we had been in more than a conventional war. We had been in an invasion of a hell run by efficient clerks.
On the beaches of Normandy the allied armies met such an international army of conscripts that they had to comb London for people who spoke obscure European languages and dialects in order to interrogate many of the prisoners, while Mark Blitzstein and I sat in an office and chose records from American composers to play on the loud speaker systems of trucks when they weren’t calling in German, “Surrender.”
The war was running down, and we knew that it was nearly over. There was some naïve hope-—a lot of it—that things would be “better” than they had been before the war. The Beveridge Plan had been debated in Parliament in an all night session where Quentin Hogg had brought the members to their feet cheering at his words, “If you do not give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution!” When I asked another member about it, he said, “Oh, we always cheer when somebody uses two political cliches in the same sentence.”
The Labor Party was getting its slate ready for the first postwar election, and when I asked Harold Laski who they were choosing, he answered, in his little pinched professorial voice, “One third workers with the hands, and two thirds workers with the mind.” Labor, of course, won by a landslide when the British went to the polls in July 1945.
Lovely Kay Kendall sang, “I’m going to get lit up when the lights go on in London,” and we all cried, and John Armstrong, the painter, asked me, as a “young person” he said, when I was as old that day as I will be until I die, “What do you young people believe?”
“I, for one, have no communal hope,” I told him, “only a recognition that individuals must become just, as Keats said, before the world becomes just. That belief is all that is left to me.
“If I thought that I would commit suicide,” he told me. He was an older, sweet, left-winger I was ashamed of hurting, with his hope retained as romantically as Doreen Green’s “before the war” in Ireland.
On the eighth of September I was walking with a friend in Soho, when the ground under us heaved and then was still again. Six miles away the first V2 had landed in Chiswick. In some vague attempt to keep the hit from the Germans the news was released that a gas main had exploded in Chiswick. For a while the V2s were called Flying Gas Mains.
They were terrible, in all the classic sense of that misused word. There was no warning. If you heard the explosion you were safe. They killed hundreds more people than was ever admitted. Some of the shallower shelters became mass graves. It was a miracle that they weren’t launched earlier. I believe that London could have panicked under too long a siege of them. It was an exhausted city by then, that deep brutal exhaustion that had seeped into our souls, our bodies, our relationships with each other, a kind of fatal disease of exhaustion that I believe had more to do with some older men killing themselves after the war, when the pressure ceased, and they realized how little was left, than any personal problem.
That crack-up at the release of pressure was common. I saw it happen to more men in New York after they had come back from war than I ever saw under the pressures of London. I had thought that I paid little attention after a while to the V1s and the V2s, but some weeks after I came back to New York I went to see Meet Me in St. Louis. The short was called V One. At the first sound of the familiar buzz bomb engine, I fainted and had to be carried out of the theatre. I remember that my last thought before I passed out was, “This is ridiculous. I’m in New York. I’m safe.”
It was the targetless, unarmed V2s, even more than the atom bomb that was so far away, a tragedy read about, not suffered by us, that brought home the fact that war in the future was going to be nearly impossible, agonizing, and short. At least I thought so, but what humans can suffer and still survive in some kind of tatters in this bloody century has been seen over and over since.
Werner von Braun’s V2s were the predecessors of those missiles that ever since have showered on the just and the unjust, without warning, without target, without hope, sold to whoever will pay for them.
In this brave new world, and this brave new kind of war, and still with the dim hope that something, at least, had changed after the terrible time, I came back to New York in the early spring of 1945. On the second day I was asked to dinner by Constantine Alajalov, the painter who painted so many prewar New Yorker covers. There were three other people at dinner, Alajalov, Tilly Losch, and an elegant Free French officer who had been sent in his beautifully cut uniform with his beautifully cut aristocratic face as a propaganda visitor. Recognizing that we Americans love a lord, it was his assignment to improve the image of the country that had been occupied since 1941, and obscure the truth that so many of its citizens had collaborated with Hitler or been passive under the Vichy regime.
He said at dinner, taking for granted in the company that it was an acceptable remark, “Well, at least Hitler did one thing for us. He got rid of the Jews in France.”
I was too frozen with shock to move or speak. I felt drained of life. Despair can leave you too lost to resist seduction. The thing I had not known about what war can do I found out in that moment. You go along. I did not leave quickly enough. In short, I was polite.
But that, to them, casual moment has left me with something, when I think of it, like a darkness of soul, a cold recognition of the waste of the dead, the years of deprivation, of grayness, of dedicated uselessness. It has thrown the responsibility in any country straight onto a society that Turgenev called, “the rich, the happy, and unjust.”
It has taken me a long time since that night to realize that the war years were not wasted. I have had to face the fact that social change does not change evil people. There is only this difference. Their seduction is no longer officially tolerated in democracies. Evil men and evil prejudices are with us still; “nice” people belong to anti-Semitic country clubs, and their imitators drive pick-up trucks with gun racks and hate “niggers.” The only thing that saves us is that such beliefs have been unacceptable to decent people since 1945. I know that “unacceptable” is a small word for this enormity, but the world runs on shallowness for the most part. We are left, at least, with a residue of social shame as a weapon.