Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947
Chapter Eighteen — Wartime England
Europe presented a quite unexpected face when I reached it again at the beginning of November. Ireland had not been drawn into the war yet, so that its peaceful air was not surprising. Southampton Water next morning was grey, with flashes of sunlight over autumn trees. There were camouflaged buildings, grey ships. The boat train ran as usual, porters and taxis as usual at Waterloo.
London looked empty (it was Saturday afternoon), with few cars about; windows were boarded over here and there, sandbags piled about two feet high against fronts of buildings, to protect cellars. Strips of brown paper were pasted across window-panes to prevent splintering if they were shattered; glass lights above doors were papered over completely so that no light should show at night. Notices said 'To Air Raid Shelter'. King Charles at Charing Cross was entirely covered over, but the king at Cockspur Street remained unprotected.
Here in London I was plunged into the black fog-bank which for years past had been looming ahead of us, that terrible fog-bank of war in which all the landmarks of life would be obliterated. Inside, however, it turned out to be not black, but grey, and little different essentially from the world that had led to it. Yet one dramatic change had taken place. Coming from America, I was struck by the quiet and calm everywhere. America, New York above all, was noisy and jumpy, feverish with uncertainty and apprehension, as England had been when I left not six months before. But the outbreak of war put an end to that haunting, overshadowing uncertainty which had caused the terrible tension of the last few years. The country was committed at last; and it was almost with relief that the civil population prepared page 351itself for routines and disciplines in which everyone had some definite task, responsibility being at once narrowed and defined so that it became clear and manageable.
Mary de Beer was working as a telephone operator at a fire-brigade station in the City; she spent forty-eight hours there at a time, sleeping in an improvised dormitory, then twenty-four hours at home. Never having had to work, she had done nothing of this sort in her life before, excepting voluntary Red Cross work among people of her own kind. Now, at nearly fifty, she was thrown together with men and women of every kind, most of the women barely half her own age. She was fascinated — she loved the experience, and made it interesting to us as she talked about it. Both on her off days and in her well-defined work she felt freer than ever before. For her as for countless others the war shook up the pot of British society and mixed its elements as they had never been mixed yet: this was to be a civilians' as much as a soldiers' war. But Dora, who would have liked to do something, was not needed, so she ran the big house and looked after the cook and two maids; she also knitted for the services — she had knitted a pair of gloves or stockings every week since the war began. Esmond had given up night duty in the a.r.p. (Air Raid Precautions) service, which was too much for him, and was waiting for more suitable work.
Talk everywhere was almost solely of day to day incidents and politics, and optimism seemed general. The war had not yet become war. There had been only four air-raid warnings since it started, Mary told us (and no raids); food was plentiful, only bacon being unobtainable sometimes; ration cards had not yet been issued. At night one walked through dark streets, but cars showed some light, and small lights were set at cross-roads; people carried pocket torches, and their gas masks in a small case slung on the shoulder.
Some people attributed everything to Hitler, and felt confident that he would soon go. Brian Roberts thought this; an experienced newspaper man now, he expected the war to be over by Christmas 1940, although not without some frightfulness; he thought Russia no better than Germany, and purely out for power. Esmond talked hopefully of seeing the Sistine Madonna in Dresden in 1942. People felt the senselessness of page 352the war, but there was no real questioning of it, as if it could not have been avoided. Only Hal, of my friends, said that we were fighting for our lives, which I thought ill-considered.
Big posters everywhere said 'Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution, will bring us victory', and invited people to do a.r.p. and other work. I entered my name at the Marylebone national registration office, putting 'writer' as my occupation; when asked what kind of writer and did I mean journalist, I put 'poet'. The affair took a couple of minutes — it was in no way an inquisition, I got an identity card at once, and in time I would be called up for military service.
Lissie had had to sell the Abbey and take a house at Binsted. John Crockett had declared himself a conscientious objector (he had joined the Peace Pledge Union three years before) and was expecting to be called before a tribunal. He was working nearly twelve hours a day and seven days a week on the farm next door, getting only a few hours off in the middle of Sunday, for £2 a week; other men on the farm called him a Conshie, and chicken-hearted, his employer was rude and grumbling. Sometimes he came home exhausted, sometimes in high spirits (he was as strong as he was large, he could be tough and rough it and fall on his feet), although nearly always far too tired to read, let alone paint. His Wellingtons and heavy trousers torn at the knees, the green army greatcoat his father had had before the first world war, were usually wet and smelt of cows and dung and John was often rebellious and short-tempered. When he gave notice on the farm, expecting his tribunal, he began a double portrait of Robert Maddox and me. Robert was very cold and grudging about sitting to John for the double portrait. When he refused the final sitting which would have allowed John to finish, John said very quietly, almost politely as if making some gentlemanly remark, 'Then I think you're a shit', and Robert as he left the room said equally quietly in his low refined voice, as though he were saying goodbye, 'And I think you are too.' John had his revenge (if it was that) by making Robert look shockingly neurotic; corpse-like.*
* See reproduction of this double portrait in Islands 5 (Spring, 1973) and in plate 46
Of all my friends at that time I felt most anxious about John and closest to him. Different as we were, his dilemmas, his confusions, were mine too. If I was not able to help him, he by example at least would help me. While I thought I could not bring myself to fight, I no longer felt that I could advocate pacifism as a policy for the country. At first John thought that when he came before the Tribunal for Conscientious Objectors he might opt for the r.a.m.c. If he demanded unconditional exemption and was refused, he would most likely be sent into the army (Tribunals were commonly making this decision, judging from reports in the Manchester Guardian, the only daily which regularly reported their sittings). John and I had gone together in January to a sitting of the Tribunal for Conscientious Objectors at the West London County Court in North End Road. The board made a true Daumier quintet. The chairman, presumably a judge, upper class and slightly superior, tightly thin-lipped with triangles of heavy lines under the eyes, an almost bald dome and thick tufts of hair above his ears. One apparently trade union member, unimaginative, like a well-to-do small tradesman, round and red and rather bunched, but the most straightforward, the only uncomplacent one of them all. A thin-faced man who smiled and smiled pleasantly but played devil's advocate. A smug butterfly-collared lawyer (I supposed), too superior to live. And a more comfortable tolerant-seeming man, possibly a civil servant.
All spoke quietly enough and did not intimidate the objectors by pouncing or brow-beating; accepted direct replies to direct page 354questions, but were inclined to lift their noses at any more discursive reasons. We heard about six cases, all working class or lower middle class youths who made the worst possible showing, having had neither the education nor the leisure to think out the questions involved even had they been old enough to make decisions of such a nature. It was pitiable and humiliating. The one objector who without doubt ought to have been granted unconditional exemption, a Welsh boy speaking with difficulty in English (but a witness, pastor of his sect, spoke for him), was given exemption on condition of doing farm or forestry work. The others were either registered for non-combatant service (r.a.m.c. or r.a.s.c.) or told to remain in their present jobs; probably as good decisions as could be hoped for them in the circumstances.
John's own summons came early in April. Peter Burden had fortified him with coffee and rum before we met at Fulham Town Hall; I went as though to my own execution. Three or four cases preceded John's, and the difficulties of making decisions grew plain. One was a foolish unjust decision, the others right enough; but the number of lies about what Christ said or did not say that came from members of the Tribunal was astounding.
John's original statement consisted only of two or three short sentences (a mistake, I thought, but it may not have mattered in the end). He read a supplementary one, and was then given a longish questioning, for about a quarter of an hour. He spoke, for him, surprisingly clearly and well (he was not nervous when it came to the point, he told us), and defended himself against a host of irrelevant questions fairly and adequately. The argument kept chiefly to the subject of John as an artist and how he proposed to defend civilization, and fortunately did not stray to general political questions. When questioning finished, John heard the trade union man recommend that he be given complete exemption. On the strength of his case, which was a good one, so much better than I expected, I felt he deserved that, but the other members were against, and he was given the alternative of full-time a.r.p. work (but the a.r.p. people rarely agreed to take conscientious objectors), or agriculture or forestry. John thought he would try to find an agricultural community to work page 355at, but that was bound to be far from London. He had his orders. His freedom now was limited, he had no longer to make ultimate decisions, his life being prescribed for him. It would be my turn next.
Nominally I might consider myself at liberty to live as usual until called up. But to live as usual was, since I had given up teaching, to live as a writer; and in almost everyone's eyes that of course meant to do nothing. How can a young fit man do nothing when his country needs him in wartime? And men were wanted, it was announced from time to time, for the a.r.p. service, for the Auxiliary Fire Service. Or should I work with the Peace Pledge Union, or with refugees, or join a pacifist agricultural colony, which Peter Burden contemplated? But I did not think I could live in communities of the like-minded; difference seemed to me the breath of life, and I wanted to stay in the world. As always I wanted to conform, to be well thought of, and so to find some kind of security.
James Courage, who was older, and always in rather precarious health after t.b., continued to live and write normally; he was still in Belsize Avenue and we began to meet again and to talk about our work. He was a receptive and judicious critic, who wrote poems himself now and then in between stories, novels and plays. Even when I could not penetrate the gay conversational surface he offered, his near presence and steady friendship were reassuring and precious; although much anglicized, he was a New Zealander too, and we understood each other. Always excepting Robert, I knew no one else near my own age who was not caught up in his regular job or in a wartime one.
the war came near. After the Norway expedition in April the Germans invaded Holland and Belgium and drove the British forces back to the Channel. An extraordinary fleet of ships and small craft of every kind from a score of ports and fishing villages round the English coast managed to bring back to England the men of the retreating British army, so that at Dunkirk defeat was made to seem victory. Then in a few weeks the Germans overran France; Pétain capitulated; and they massed along the Channel, waiting for the right moment to invade England.page 356
England at that point ceased to vacillate, and threw off its timid, backward-looking, compromising past. In the first half of May it repudiated Chamberlain and all he stood for, culminating in the shame of Munich. Churchill became Prime Minister. He promised to fight, he offered nothing but 'blood, toil, tears and sweat', by that phrase alone presenting himself and the country in a dramatic role to which it seemed that everyone responded. For the moment, he embodied the country, and gave immediate courage to the most timid, by which I mean myself. His aim was one word, victory; he was bracing, inspiriting; I almost felt my muscles stiffen.
The one excited person I knew was Alfredo Cianchi, excitable by nature, living on drama. I lunched with him one day in the second half of April. London had seemed particularly quiet, as though listening to the naval battle then taking place off Norway; the nights quite still, and very dark, crossed now and again by a crowd of waving searchlight beams looking for a plane among the clear stars. Almost by chance, just as we were to part, Alfredo told me he had long been gathering ideas for the book he wanted to write but never had time to write. Would I consider writing it for him if he gave me the material?
He told me a little more, and it seemed Alfredo's usual theme — how science can save the world. He told me that techniques existed which could transform the world as we know it, and this his book was to describe. Gradually he aroused my interest, reluctantly I agreed to try to turn his material into a book, which would take at least six weeks of steady work to write. He believed he had found the secret of a power which might control the world, if kept in the right hands. He had interested a number of people in it, chiefly scientists, and formed the nucleus of an organization, and hoped to move the powers that be.
Alfredo brought me his material by fits and starts, first there was a glut, then a dearth. The opening chapter, eleven pages of typescript, took me eight solid hours to make English of; Alfredo's frequently elusive nebulous ideas were hard to grasp and to state convincingly; however he seemed pleased with the result. After ten days of scraps, he arrived one morning breathless, bringing me a lot more to work on. He was in touch with so-and-so (I did not know who), was trying to enlist the support page 357of Julian Huxley, and now wondered whether H. G. Wells should be brought in. It all sounded quite unreal. But his new material was interesting; after too much woolly generality, this was scientific and exact, a chapter on the modulations of space. Next day he told me he was to meet Wells the following week. Wells, I foresaw, would be subjected to a torrent of talk, and what on earth would he make of it?
Sometimes I went out to Felden, where we all worked on the book together; Alfredo dictating to the children's Nannie, I Englishing what he had dictated, his typist typing my English, and Enid then reading it through. Alfredo hoped I would delay joining the Friends' Ambulance Unit, my latest choice of service, because once the book was published and his organization to promote its ideas formed, he would like me to take part in it; there would be endless work.
A few days later I had a longish political chapter to construct from a great many scattered pages of notes; I had to give them coherence, finding or working out for myself a consecutive argument that would gather them all in. He had been meeting some of the people interested in his ideas, one of Wells's Rights of Man group, and also Tom Hopkinson, editor of Picture Post, an influential illustrated weekly, liberal-radical in tone and lively and adventurous in its reporting and presentation. Hopkinson was to read the book and give it a final polish. Alfredo was full of energy and confidence, and infected me. A few days more, some more hectic work, and Alfredo's book was finished in rough form; he had given it to Hopkinson or Ritchie Calder to read and then it would be passed on to Wells.
The book spoke of the power whose secret he had discovered; but if he was to convince scientists and politicians, he must show his command of that power. He was about to do so. In his laboratory on the top floor of 72 Greencroft Gardens he was constructing a model of the control machine. Friends who knew he worked at home thought he was busy with modifications or adaptations of his Sordoviso device, which was being applied in a number of ways; his factory (it was doing government work) could never quite keep pace with the heavy demand for switches; they were soon to be used in the design of tanks — an ironical development, very far from what Alfredo had in mind when he page 358invented the device. Alfredo was afraid of his secret falling into the wrong hands, obsessed by the thought that the Germans might be first to tap the enormous sources of power now within the grasp of scientists. He spoke in — to my understanding — vague general terms, which I could only half follow; but his conviction and urgency were such that I could not disbelieve him. He told me a little of the history of the discoveries leading to his work. I think he foresaw how the splitting of the atom might result in appalling negatives, the destructiveness of the atom bomb, and wanted the power so released to be used for the good of mankind.
The weather had been rarely bounteous. Swallows flashed through the calm sky; the may had never seemed so rich, whole bushes swathed in white on parts of Hampstead Heath; oak and beech leaves showed a more tender vivid green than ever before, the lilac was fuller. Leaves lifted by day in a happy rustling sigh; under nights of immaculate moonlight trees and bushes were held marble-still in the intricacy of solid shadow and the grey pure light. Both day and night were unusually still, as if nature, while as self-poised and intensely preoccupied as ever, were yet half aware of man's concerns. But such weather worked against us. The Germans captured Amiens and Arras, and reached Abbeville. Then rain fell in the night and fell steadily all morning, weighing down the lilac heads and periwinkle leaves. I thought all the time (and felt that everyone must be thinking the same) how this might affect the fighting. The government took emergency powers.
The book was finished. I began to sleep at Alfredo's, and sometimes to work there by day too, helping him in small ways with his model, running small errands for him such as walking up to Finchley Road to buy a drill. Metal gave him a great sense of power; I had always feared and hated it. Yet when I had no time to read or think the days were relatively calm and forgetful. Belgium surrendered. I thought I had a month perhaps before my age-group was called on. I knew I ought to be going over poems in a final revision and putting papers in order, but I could not, because of sloth or feverishness. At least I read; Bernanos's Diary of a Country Priest, a book once read never forgotten, and several of Julien Green's strange novels, Isher-page 359wood's Mr Norris, Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, and Croce's History of the Nineteenth Century, and of course New Writing, the Adelphi, New Statesman, Peace News, and other magazines. From time to time I was also reading D'Arcy Cresswell's Present Without Leave. Parts of it I found unreadable, having no patience with the ideas and their expounding; most of what I could read seemed to me rather trivial and uninformed, and profoundly depressing. Partly of course because I saw the image of a wasted life - like my own - with certain gifts and faculties useless for lack of development.
Letters told me that Jack Bennett had left New Zealand, and on the way back to England was working at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, then going to Paul and Mary Engle at Iowa University. Ian was teaching political science in Melbourne. James wrote from Auckland; his father was dying; he would return to China soon. New Zealand's Labour Government had disappointed him deeply, even Walter Nash and John A. Lee. One of the few men he respected was W. E. Barnard, Labour m.p. for Napier, who thought for himself and took an independent line if necessary, ignoring party dictates. In every letter I got from New Zealand now there were signs of war hysteria; my family had succumbed to it, in part genuinely, in part (I guessed) as protective colouring.
Alfredo kept rushing from Felden to Greencroft Gardens, to his factory, to meetings with Ritchie Calder and others interested in his model; yet everything seemed to be hanging fire. Then Hopkinson, his interest apparently reviving, asked Alfredo to set out the main points of his book in the form of a letter; Enid had made notes at Alfredo's dictation, which I spent an afternoon and evening Englishing.
Then there was silence. For most of August I heard nothing at all from Alfredo. What happened to the model? to the book? to the organization? If I knew then, I have forgotten. They simply dropped out of sight. Alfredo's hopes must have come to nothing, his model have been dismissed as impractical; he was not to save the world that way. I cannot recall any moment when he admitted failure and seemed cast down by it, or when I saw that he had been leading me on a wild goose chase and resented it. I felt only gratitude that I had been left alone by page 360him and by the army. Because I had been writing poems, especially a few poems about New Zealand.
They were the best I had yet written. They came to me then, when everything I knew was threatened with destruction, as a spontaneous welling up of life in face of death. I did not choose to write them: they rose in me unbidden. One writes poetry neither by choice nor by chance but because one must, according to one's powers, great or small; must and can are the two faces of that necessity. These pieces were very few, and slight enough, but they had a quiet salt tang of imaginative truth and reality. They were unexpected; in them I discovered the New Zealand I knew and did not know.
It was New Zealand I discovered, not England, because New Zealand lived in me as no other country could live, part of myself as I was part of it, the world I breathed and wore from birth, my seeing and my language. England, deeply as I had come to love it, was not myself in that way and could not be. These were short poems, with one exception, a piece about Waitaki which I was not satisfied with, and left lying, and took up again, and went on rewriting time after time for years; still it did not satisfy me, but kept on nagging, demanding to be worked out and not abandoned. Years later, I had to write out the argument in prose to be sure where it was taking me and that it was not misleading me, and then at last (it had grown to more than twice its original length) I felt I could do no more on it. Eight years passed before it was published.* That was exceptional, but I got into the habit gradually of putting a poem away for several months after it was written, until I had forgotten it, and then taking it out and looking at it afresh, so that I could work on it if necessary with more objectivity. Sometimes a poem seemed to be finished as soon as written, but I did not like to trust my judgement when I was still so near to it. I admired and envied poets who wrote and completed a poem at once and could publish it at once; I had to work in my own way.
* See 'Waitaki Revisited' in Disputed Ground (1948)
Inwardly, this marked a stage in my life. That poems of mine should appear in a periodical which published Auden and Spender and other writers I admired, English, French, Czech, Indian — that in itself seemed an unmistakable accolade, singling me out by the company I was placed in. It was a declaration to the world that I was a poet, that I had not lived in vain. If that allowed me, at moments, to hold my head just a little higher, it made not an iota of difference to my outward life or to the way other people thought of me. Life was no different, no easier, because I was a poet. Was it not then the real thing to have published two or three poems in a prominent magazine — was that not yet enough to prove me what I wanted to be, wanted to show myself? Or, even supposing it had proved me a poet, was that the end? were there not further questions?
What then? sang Plato's ghost, What then?
John Lehmann had asked me to come and see him. He was working at the Hogarth Press in Mecklenburgh Square, which was green and airy under magnificent plane trees. A secretary took me in; he sat at a desk writing and did not look up while I walked hesitantly across the room — it was, it must have been, the old trick of editors and dictators to intimidate their clients and victims — I recognized and half despised it but was nonetheless duly intimidated. But once Lehmann looked up and spoke he was friendly and kind. He made a formidable impression, however. Not only because of his height — he was very tall, towering over me when he stood up; not only because he was very English and correct, with all the infallible, impenetrable superiority that connoted; but because of his startlingly light-blue eyes and the blank cold look they turned on you — mad, ice-blue eyes; yet his voice was low and reassuring, he had an easy quiet manner, both paternal and encouragingly friendly as though he had an understanding with you; his pale fair hair was going curiously grey at the temples. He seemed very much a man of the world, with something of the air of those knowing page 362creatures in dealers' galleries who talk loudly about paintings in a proprietary, deprecatory, showman's manner — he had a touch of their superficial, businessman's attitude, although in him it was not altogether distasteful.
He asked whether I wrote prose, whether I had tried to publish, poems in London before (I replied that I had only begun to find myself in the last year), and wanted to know about writers in New Zealand. He knew James's books and they had corresponded, he had corresponded with Frank Sargeson, who had sent him Allen Curnow's Not in Narrow Seas and copies of Tomorrow. He said there was nothing comparable to our 'movement' (I had never thought of it as that, nor of myself as one of a group) in any of the other dominions; he hoped to write an article about it for the New Statesman. I promised to lend him what books I had with me, Fairburn in particular, whom he did not know; and I wanted him to see Time and Place, and Lyttelton Harbour.
Later he asked me to write for the Geographical Magazine, which he had then undertaken to edit. He liked what I wrote, and hoped that I would have some stories for him too — my article suggested that I might write stories. If he was so kind to all contributors, I thought, New Writing would never be short of material. Almost at the same time Jack wrote from Ohio that Paul Engle wanted to print some poems of mine in an Iowa publication. But when some months afterwards Lehmann refused poems of Joy's, I saw that his taste was limited and recognized with astonishment how hard it is for true poetry to get a hearing.
After going to tell the de Beers and Tim, I went home and read John Mulgan's novel Man Alone, which I had only just learned of from James's review in the last Tomorrow to arrive. I had to read on until I finished it in the small hours. The description of the escape, round Ruapehu, over the Rangipo desert, through the Kaimanawas, was quite enthralling. The book was by far the best of its kind (so much better than Lee's book and Robin Hyde's Starkie books); the style carried one on, although it would only do for that kind of novel. John like so many of us was haunted by the country, its physical nature: the heavy dark bush, the mountains, the fern country. And he page 363was haunted by the sense of man's exile in the world of the Truce — man homeless, without guidance, without allegiance. He replied to my letter about the book from Northern Ireland; he was in the army.
In the middle of June, when we expected the capitulation of France, Colin and I felt that until the last few weeks we — Britain and France — had been giving everything away with both hands as fast as we could, not simply during the past eight months, but for years. As a trivial enough instance of this he told me how utterly inadequate was the guarding of his supposedly highly secret office in the country; a notice-board outside still announced Government Information Service.
The first air-raid warning since the previous September sounded in London a week after the fall of France. It was the first I had heard, a rising and falling shriek or moan of the sirens, piercing and chilling, like the howling of wolves; it seemed the death-wail of civilization. Bombing of London was expected day by day. Meanwhile John Crockett got married. Tim was in London, waiting for a ship. Refugees were being interned indiscriminately, even some who were doing work important to the country. The papers seemed to grow emptier and emptier, the b.b.c. news was half taken up with accounts of air battles, like recitals of a menu, and its soothing correct voices read out communiques that last night's air-raids did no material damage: bombs fell on open fields: few casualties, etc., until I came to doubt all such reports and felt that we were being spoon-fed, like the French.
Air-raid warnings became habitual, planes droned about overhead, bombs fell here and there. In my block of flats people began to sleep in the bar on the ground floor; sometimes I went down myself. Tim after four months at sea and then two in England was about to sail again, he did not know where, because his ship was under sealed orders. He was on board at the docks continuously, to man the guns; constant air-raids, little sleep. Planes came over the Thames in masses, he said, but the antiaircraft barrage had succeeded in breaking up their formations and driving them back.page 364
In his last ship, the Cumberland, he had left New Zealand in mid-May after only a week at home in Amberley. A few days south of Panama they had sighted one of the four German armed raiders known to be in the Pacific, they manned their guns, but in the mist they were not spotted. At Bermuda they joined a convoy, escorted first by an auxiliary cruiser — an armed merchant vessel, and later by two destroyers. Off England the convoy divided and his ship reached Glasgow without incident, but the other half, fourteen ships, had been attacked near the Isle of Wight by sixty planes, and four ships sunk. Incidents of the voyage had bitten deeply into him: that manning of guns against the raider, seeing a submarine destroyed by depth charges south of Ireland, and the wreckage of ships. He delighted in life at sea, in the beauty and wildness of sky, cloud, waves, in calm and storm. He liked sailors for their independence of mind and did not want better companions, yet felt he was not doing enough, craving for crude 'experience'. He had a strong urge to give up all family money, he almost resented his comfortable upbringing, and disliked staying in comfort with the de Beers. Now the Cumberland had been sunk off Northern Ireland. But Tim was not apprehensive; he was happy, all eagerness to be off, certain he would survive. And I, at that moment, felt a strange sense almost of security, as though immortality were assured, for myself, for him too if he was killed.
The weather was high summer, exceptional for September. I walked on the Heath, swam in the crowded Lido at Gospel Oak. One hot Sunday after sunset people flocked over Parliament Hill, talking, laughing, hoping for something to see, many of them with field-glasses, as if air-raids were a turn at a fun-fair. But that night no siren sounded — it was commonly being called sireen, the second syllable stressed, although b.b.c news and talks mentioned the word correctly every day. The following Saturday I was having afternoon tea with the de Beers. The sirens sounded, and soon through the clear hot day came the soft thud of bombs and the quicker guns, both far off, but intense, long-continued. Across Regent's Park we could see black puffs in the sky and a large number of planes flying very high; then, to the east, a great column of thick smoke rising in pale puffs and standing high into the air, and spreading, while other puffs kept page 365mounting continuously into the cloud made by those before. As the afternoon wore on, flocks of startled birds rose from the trees in the Park and flew round uncertainly, while people continued to row about the lake in boats. With darkness came a great red glow in the sky to south-east, like nothing I had ever seen except a New Zealand bush fire in the distance. Everywhere as I went home by Camden Town to Lawn Road people were speculating — Woolwich Arsenal? the docks? The nine o'clock news said only that the docks had been attacked. The glow was still there after midnight. Next night again the clouds reflected the glow from the fires. Another raid started; the noise was sometimes quite near. About midnight I went down to sleep in the bar, with several other people. It was noisy outside, but I slept, woke at three, slept again, then woke in a crashing of glass, which fell all round and on the rug I had ducked under. I was unscratched.
I spent the next two nights with the de Beers, nobody sleeping in the bedrooms, but downstairs; however they slept in their night-clothes. Mary was tired after forty-eight hours at the fire-station, but unshaken. Tim wrote that he had reached the Firth of Forth safely. Since my flat windows could not be put in again quickly I went to stay with the Cianchis at Felden. Because of the children, they had all been sleeping for weeks in a concrete shelter in the garden, living like animals in a hole, a horror I could not face, and I slept in the house, though in my clothes.
Heavy raids continued all through September and into October. Every time I went into town I wondered if my friends would still be alive and their houses standing; how could they escape, when house after house near them was hit? By late October there was no window intact in the whole east side of Regent's Park, and on the south side several houses had been hit or badly damaged. The de Beers were doing their cooking on open fires, because the gas had given out completely. They had thought of leaving London, but the mathematical chance of their house being hit, Esmond argued, was very small, and it would have been hard for Mary to give up her job at the fire-station. She loved it and wanted to continue, particularly because so many voluntary helpers had stopped and left town. All three wanted to stay at home and felt it was up to them to go on with page 366what they were doing. Esmond was running the library at the Institute of Historical Research, to ensure the continuity of historical work. Dora worked at an information bureau at Waterloo Station, at a canteen for soldiers run by the Victoria League, at the New Zealand soldiers' club, at the Red Cross prisoners of war department. In spite of very bad nights, they remained remarkably cheerful. A time bomb fell in a garden at the end of their short street, Sussex Place, which for a fortnight was closed except to residents. During the day time bombs were sometimes exploded in Regent's Park, shaking the house and making a tremendous noise which I first thought was guns; we could see black smoke rising above the trees towards the cricket pavilion.
James Courage went on working with difficulty. Since his first novel One House came out in 1933 he had published nothing at all, so far as I knew, and only one of his plays had been staged, Private History, in 1938. The Gate Theatre was to have put on another play of his, set in New Zealand this time, The Man in the Distance, but now it was not going to open in the autumn, a sad disappointment for him. He had lent me the play to read, a well-constructed solid piece, serious under its surface lightness. He sat down regularly every morning to write his three pages or so, though now he sometimes found it very hard to start, and had to read for a little to put himself in the right frame of mind. He had spent a year working on a novel about New Zealand, and now the best part of a year on a new play. On days when he could not work, upset by bombing, he kept a diary. The bomb which broke my windows made such a terrific noise that he, sleeping in the basement of his block of flats, thought it must have fallen on his building. In a great spurt, he then finished his play, but felt dissatisfied with it. Soon he gave up the flat he had lived in for four years, and moving up the hill took a room with board in Cannon Place, near East Heath Road.
Bettina had had to leave home with her children. First, in June, Archie had filled the house with his anti-parachute troop, so that she could not sleep. Then in September continual air battles overhead made it too dangerous. German raiders turned back by the London anti-aircraft barrage were met above them, just twenty miles from Charing Cross, by British fighters. Many page 367bombs fell quite near, they slept in their garden dug-out and ate meals beside it by day, ready to dive in. Archie was likely to be sent to India; he might take Bettina and the children to New Zealand on the way.
Bombing made many people homeless. The government took over empty houses, but the homeless refused to sleep in them. They insisted on sleeping in underground shelters and the deep stations of the Tube, where they felt safer. Belsize Park and Hampstead tube stations, both very deep, were crowded every night; people waited in long queues to get in. One afternoon I saw a large middle-aged woman distributing sweets wrapped in paper, one for each woman, child and man in the queue outside Belsize Park station. The sweets were received readily, without surprise, as though all these people had been reduced below human level to a kind of deserving animal.
I felt baffled by the war. It was so vast, amorphous, and without identity, that it prevented all approach. I was living on a periphery of incidents, ruined buildings, nights of fear, sirens, the menace of planes overhead, refugees with their miserable bundles tied up with string and loaded on old prams, telephones out of order so that for days one could not reach friends; but these, in themselves almost meaningless, all related to a central something which I could not grasp. Outwardly, it meant that nations had given up trying to settle their differences by discussion and negotiation and were trying to destroy each other by every means they dared use. We were all, individually and collectively, under sentence of death. To stay alive, living from day to day, took all one's strength.
When J. B. Priestley began a series of Sunday night talks on the air in January 1941 and in his sober homely independent confidence seemed to embody the good-hearted reasonable Englishman that most people took themselves to be — when he pointed out, for example, that to do away with Hitler was still to be left with the conditions that had thrown up Hitler, so that 'victory' was a quite inadequate war aim — then Alfredo wanted to write to him (as I did too, very differently) and set out a general sketch of his ideas in the hope that Priestley might take it up. Priestley on the air seemed Churchill's complement. While Churchill respected the forms of Parliament, he saw himself page 368as a hero of high drama and ran the country with high-handed bravura, a daring exciting performance. Priestley spoke for quiet ordinary men and women who respected themselves and other people, who trusted the innate goodness of human nature and its patience, endurance, kindness, reasonableness, and regarded rank, privilege, and heroics with tolerance but as a mere gloss on everyday living.
At the same time I had a sense of my own unfixed fluctuating identity. I used to think I had no identity at all, but if that were so I would be unaware of having none because there would be no I to be aware. It was my need for meaning and form which drew me so strongly to Yeats, and might account — if that need were general — for the popularity of Mozart. I was reading Goethe, the Römische Elegien and West-östlicher Divan, which promised to lead me out of the morass of depression I had been lost in for many shapeless days.
Ohne unsern wahren Platz zu kennen,
Handeln wir aus wirklichem Bezug….*
* 'Without knowing our true place/We act in real relationship'; Rilke, in Brasch's version, given in Present Company (1966)
The last night of the year was quiet in London. When Mary came home early on the morning of 2 January, she told us that fires were still smouldering in the City, sometimes breaking out into flames, so that firemen had been at work constantly. It was seemingly a fog over northern France on the Sunday night that prevented German planes with high-explosive bombs following those which dropped the incendiaries and so finishing off the City. Dora called it providential. Several firemen had been killed, some by a burning wall that collapsed on them.
I was called up with my age-group for medical examination early in February 1941, at St Albans. In the first small room, three Ministry of Labour officials sat at tables taking down particulars, refunded bus fares, gave compensation for loss of wages, while a big fire burned and a strip of paper pasted on a wall mirror exhorted 'Work like Helen B. Merry.' In the course of the examination (conducted humanely enough, it was far from being the ordeal I had dreaded for so long) I overheard one of the doctors say to his clerk, 'Slight emphysema of one lung' — he had to spell out the word, which I too did not know. At the end I was told, to my astonishment, that the army did not consider me fit and that I would not be called up for some considerable time, and the card I was given said 'Grade 3'. It was a mild spring-like day, fields were streaked with snow, and the brown trees no longer seemed bare, but rich with life in their curving arms. Rooks were flapping off the cathedral tower, circling and cawing; as I walked back up the hill to Felden birds sang loud and joyously, the first day I had heard them so. It almost seemed page 370that with these announcements of spring, and my release, the war was over for me.
Two possible jobs turned up almost at once. One sunny warm Saturday after rain Colin and I met in Berkhamstead and walked by way of Marlin's Chapel (Marlin is Merlin: old worn ruins beautifully grown with elms and other trees, which seemed a fitting magician's haunt) to Tring, where the wave of the Chilterns hangs above the Vale of Aylesbury. Colin was doing intelligence work attached to the Foreign Office; his unit was understaffed and he wanted to propose that I join it. Meanwhile another friend asked me to join him as a paid fire-watcher in Finchley Road. This was a teacher of John's at Goldsmith's School of Art, Fred Manner. The buildings we were paid to watch we would gladly have seen burn, a wretchedly ugly block of two or three floors in dark-red brick, shops below, flats above, just north of Finchley Road Metropolitan Railway Station. Our employer was the cool cocky young manager of a tobacconist's shop. We were on duty overnight from seven till seven.
Many nights passed without warning, and often Fred and I had the room to ourselves. Then it came to seem a small fortress, even a kind of home, thanks to Fred's warmth and goodness. We read or wrote, Fred drew. He made drawings of me, and finally a portrait in oils showing me in my helmet, rather unhappily glamourized. Fred was not a good painter, although his technique was sound. But he was — John said — a first-rate teacher, one of the best at Goldsmith's. He was an unusually sympathetic man of fine character. He and his wife Dorothy, who also worked, lived carefully but decently on the ground floor of an old house in Adelaide Road. In their house I felt wonderfully at ease and at home. Neither of them made any personal claims; they were entirely unselfseeking and generous. I came to think Fred one of the noblest men I knew.
The weeks of regular nightly air-raids on London had ceased before I joined Fred as a fire-watcher. Only three big raids were made while I was with him, not on consecutive nights; but they were heavy, and if the Germans had kept them up they would have disrupted London life. The docks, railway stations, power stations, the City, were the chief targets; elsewhere, bombs seemed to fall by chance rather than design.page 371
Fred and I were out in each raid. The bombers were often roaring so low overhead we expected to see them, and Fred (unlike me) seemed fearless looking up from the street. We heard planes diving to release their bombs, with many bombs ripping down through the air some way off or whistling thinly, and saw the red flashes as they exploded, followed after some seconds by the report, then clouds of black smoke, and the paler thinner smoke of fires. The ack-ack guns were firing almost continuously, we saw the occasional red explosion of one of their shells, and heard shrapnel smacking on the road and roofs. Twice we saw a far-off plane rush burning earthwards from very high up. Clusters of flares floated motionless for quite a time, like the pointed flames of candles on a Christmas tree, pale gold. One dropped quickly like a vertical string of little white beads. No incendiaries fell near us. During one raid, houses and trees illumined by full calm moonlight seemed held in a vice of stillness, in terrible expectancy, tortured by the throbbing of planes above.
When we came off duty in the morning after these raids I went to make sure the de Beers were safe. Their tall terrace house, old and beginning to sag a little, might easily have been brought down by a heavy shock near; happily, it survived, much shaken and with broken windows. Looking along a side street from Baker Street station in clear early sunlight one such morning I saw a big flame from a broken gas main burning amid dark smoke and rubble in Dorset Square. Baker Street was littered with the remains of incendiary bombs, yellow sand and half-burned sacks. Marylebone Road shone in bright sunlight, but everything beyond it lay dark under a huge wall of smoke which had been growing all night and now shut out half the southern sky. At the north-east corner of Baker Street and Marylebone Road, a flower-seller had taken her usual stand in the still empty street with a great barrow of roses and irises and gladioli, all as dewy fresh as if just picked in a country garden — could they really have come from Covent Garden, out of that pall of smoke?
at the beginning of July 1941 I became, thanks to Colin, a junior assistant, Foreign Office, which ended my tormenting anxieties about what I ought to do. I worked with Colin at the page 372intelligence centre at Bletchley, in an ugly Victorian country mansion of red brick. There was a small permanent staff and a large one of people recruited from the universities and elsewhere. The office work had some interest; it was soothing, often boring, and when one learned the routine, mostly predictable. I improved and extended my sketchy Italian, making a number of ludicrous mistranslations in the course of it. Later, I was called on to learn Rumanian, in which half the words were of Latin origin, and the rest a bizarre mixture of Slavonic, Hungarian, Albanian, Greek, Turkish; all I remember of it now is the beautiful word for an oak wood, dumbrava, and Noroc!, which you say when someone sneezes, meaning 'good health'.
The head of our small Italian section, Frank Hammond, might have passed at first sight as following any one of half-a-dozen occupations, according to the way he dressed — as a bank clerk or small businessman or minor civil servant, as an assistant in a men's wear department or a grocer's shop, as a detective, a courier, even a spy, as a school-teacher, a customs official. He would be lost in a crowd at once. He looked almost anonymous. It was easy to work with so cool and considerate a man. One was subjected to no emotional strain; Colin and I and a couple of other men and several likeable girls got on well together. But Hammond while intelligent enough had no interests. The people I liked talking to worked in other sections, Bernard Lewis, a quick young Turkish scholar and Arabist, R. H. Thacker, who was a lecturer in Semitics from Durham, Patrick Wilkinson, another classicist from King's who was always warmly friendly towards me, the rather silent Chinese scholar C. P. FitzGerald, and an Australian who later in the war showed me copies of a new Brisbane quarterly called Meanjin Papers.
Colin asked me to share his living quarters at Soulbury, a village a few miles away. He occupied a barn comfortably furnished as a bed-sitting-room for two; he had been sharing it with the very congenial W. H. Bruford, professor of German at Edinburgh, who had moved. The barn — now called the studio — stood in the garden of the cottage in which his landlady lived. We dined at the cottage with Mrs Burney, and it was part of the arrangement that we should then keep her company until after the nine o'clock news, when we were set free.page 373
There was not much company at Soulbury, a very small village with only one inn. Not that we looked for company. Working all day with other people we were glad to be by ourselves when evening came. Occasionally someone interesting put up for a while at The Boot. So we got to know a young historian, John Prestwich, who had been seconded from the army to Bletchley Park. He told us stories about the g.o.c of his command, a new-broom general called Montgomery who had novel ideas of training. Prestwich thought him able, ruthless, autocratic, and decidedly dangerous, possibly with political ambitions. We were all acutely suspicious of such men, with so many warnings before us, not only in Italy and Germany but nearer home, the despicable Mosley with his ruffian blackshirts, the Irish O'Duffy and his blue-shirts. To illustrate Montgomery's methods, Prestwich told us of an occasion when he was meeting his officers informally in their mess, walking among them followed by a few aides. Happening to notice a fat major, Montgomery came up, stopped a few feet off, looked him coldly up and down without a word, and moved on, the officers parting to make way for him. When he had walked some little distance Montgomery stopped again and turned round, and pausing as he fixed his eyes on the major exclaimed with all his force, loudly and savagely with measured deliberation, 'I — hate — fat — majors!'
We grew friendly with one colleague and his family who had taken a house in Soulbury, Donald and Mary Lucas and their two children. Donald was a classics don at King's and a younger brother of the literary critic F. L. Lucas; reserved, sceptical, detached, with a quiet dry humour. He listened, Mary talked. She was fair and ample and talked with intensity, her face flushing, recalling and analysing every detail of her life unremittingly in a strident penetrating voice. In her continuous close-up everything seemed of equal importance, there were no distances, vistas or vaguenesses. Her parents were wealthy, orthodox Jewish, narrow. She and her brother had been brought up strictly in closed obsessive life. It was a shock to her autocratic father that after her brother had brought Donald home as a friend she had broken away and married out. She spoke of her father as 'Mr C.', tolerant about him but with passionate involvement. Her brother Was going into publishing; soon after the war his firm, Cohen page 374and West, began publishing Donald's prose translations of Euripides. Donald and Mary talked a good deal about a scientist friend, of theirs at Cambridge who also wrote novels, C. P. Snow. He had become so interested in her family that he had written a novel about them, and Mary told us with excitement that he had now published an extract from it. The book came out a few years later as The Conscience of the Rich. I had to force myself to read it. Snow wrote at very low pressure in a flat style often dull and clumsy; he offered information, not knowledge, nothing imaginative. His people were puppets; he was interested in them as social specimens, not as persons, so that nothing they did mattered. Mary had been made an unrecognizably dull girl, her father and brother lifeless bores. In the picture of her family I recognized a few touches that might have been drawn from the Hallensteins and Michaelises, but it was a tourist brochure picture, quite without life.
Working at Bletchley Park provided moments of interest. The Park was a large establishment depending on the services as well as the Foreign Office and probably other departments of state. The administration seemed to be modelled on that of Kafka's Castle. Shadowy obstacles opposed with intangible reasons whatever needed doing; one fenced in a fantastic atmosphere of ghosts. There was no strong authority at the head of affairs, everyone distrusted and was in rivalry with everyone else. Letters and protests passed, and no one would take decisions. For example, we could not get a proper stove in a new room we occupied until the unsafe aged one that had been resurrected from some outhouse set the room on fire. Rumours blew up and died away, moves were predicted, fixed, contradicted, so that we often worked quite uncertain what might happen to us next week. One wit declared that it only needed a few eunuchs about for the place to resemble the Byzantine court in the last stages of the Eastern Empire.
The Park was said to be the only establishment in the country that did not cheer Churchill when he visited it: he was received in watchful silence. Perhaps he had the Park in mind when he issued his edict about simplifying official language; I recall a not untypical office circular referring to 'the incidence of unavailability of personnel'.page 375
Before the year was out, Colin and I decided we should have to move. Fortunately rumours began to go round that our part of the office would be moving back to London; there had been no more serious air-raids, the Germans had not finished with Russia in ten weeks — they would be bogged down there for a long time to come. What was far more worrying to me then was the safety of New Zealand and Australia. The Japanese knocked out the American fleet at Pearl Harbour and raided Manila, and when that horrifying news came I dreaded their suddenly sweeping round the Pacific and knocking out Sydney and Auckland. They had brought America into the war against them, but after sinking two British battleships off Singapore and so disposing of Britain in the Far East they captured Singapore and Hong Kong almost at a stroke. Archie Hamilton's brother disappeared at Singapore; later he was found to be a prisoner of war. There was no news of James: he had written to Henriette Herz from Hong Kong in November, having been ill with typhoid; but she did not know whether he had escaped capture.
In March 1942 the Times published the names of civilians missing at Hong Kong; James was one of them. For a long time I thought he was probably dead. Yet I felt I must not mourn him, but be proud that he had lived, as the earth itself must be proud. I dreamed of his returning — I woke with a start one morning dreaming that he had reached London and rung me up, but I did not know his voice at first and was so overcome I could hardly speak. In another dream of his return we met among other people and could only shake hands awkwardly (he had always a flabby handshake, which seemed unlike him); when he spoke his voice was different, and I felt I could ask no questions in front of others, could say nothing personal and intimate; I wanted to talk to him alone; at the same time I felt a little afraid of him as one is afraid of those who have been through some terrible experience that one has not shared; what may it have done to them? Then Mrs Bertram heard — I do not know how — that he was alive and well. It was another two years before I had definite news, through Henriette Herz: he was a prisoner of War in Japan. Still later, after hearing from Mrs Bertram, I got his address from the Red Cross and wrote tremblingly: Ins Wasser wirf deine Kuchen … At last in February 1945 Mrs Bertram page 376wrote that she had had two cards from him; one written in June 1942 said he had come through the Hong Kong fighting without a scratch and asked her to send food; the second written in January 1944 said he was at Omori p.o.w. camp just outside Tokyo, and well.
The London office was quartered in Berkeley Street, with an overflow off Park Lane. It was pleasant to be near the parks, especially Green Park with its beautiful undulations and airy spaces between the sweeping arms of the plane trees. The Home Guard company which the office staff joined used to exercise there; we were attached to units of the Ministries of Economic Warfare and War Transport, which inhabited a huge prison-block of offices on the east side of the square. Some of our people declined to join; Bernard Lewis declared that one could not serve two masters, but as Colin pointed out the two masters were one and the same. It was indeed no joke after a day at the office to struggle into choking thick khaki and dead-weight boots and parade and exercise with rifle and bayonet, helmet, gas mask and the rest. The grass of the square garden was all but torn away; big iron tanks had been set up there to provide water for fighting fires; low plane tree boughs swayed across them softly.
At Bletchley we had learned the rudiments of drill and gone through the naming of parts, buoyed up in my case by Henry Reed's delicious poem of that name, just new then. We were now given instruction in house to house searching as part of street fighting. On one exercise we explored a gutted house in South Audley Street where the street front draws back on the east side to form a small half-oval bay. The house was a shell, great staircases, halls, drawing-rooms, long dark passages; behind it lay mere mountainous ruins. Two of us climbed down an iron ladder to reach the ground floor behind the kitchen, where we found a bell-board showing who had rung from upstairs: His Grace's bedroom, His Grace's bathroom, Her Grace's bathroom, Lady Ursula's bedroom, etc. page 377After our return from Soulbury I lived for a time in a room looking onto Hampstead Heath, then moved back to Lawn Road Flats. There I soon took one of the larger flats; its single room had big windows on two sides and I could put up a friend. Along the street in front of the building stood a row of lombardy poplars. When losing their leaves they distilled a strange haunting scent that every time I passed took me back to New Zealand, to that thicket of old and young poplars growing in dazzling light on the wide shingle bed beside the Arrow River where it flows out of its gorge above Arrowtown: leaves there on the young saplings grew enormous as shields and their scent in autumn was rich and penetrating.
Two women who worked in turn as secretary at the flats became good friends of mine. Helen Kapp was an art historian of about my age, younger sister of the painter and draughtsman Edmond Kapp. She lectured and wrote about art, she arranged exhibitions, and knew a great many painters and writers and other artists. She worked at times for c.e.m.a., that timidly named fosterling of war the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, which was to grow into the Arts Council. Later she succeeded Eric Westbrook, when he went to Auckland, as Director of Wakefield Art Gallery, and from there became the first Director of Abbot Hall Art Gallery at Kendal. She was a strong-minded active practical woman bubbling with hearty energy — energy spoke from her black curls nodding like a plume, her large brown eyes and even her prominent teeth; laughter blew out of her in short gusts. During air-raids we sat in my flat or hers and read Jane Austen aloud. She was a painter too, and did a portrait of me in rather acid pinkish colours; I lost count, but that must have been about the fifteenth time I was painted.
The Pritchards who owned Lawn Road Flats and lived on the top floor always had interesting people around them (they were friends of Henry Moore's), and following Helen they chose as secretary an older woman, a charming cultivated Viennese, Lena Neumann. She was large and gentle, with beautiful tender eyes, firm in a dignified quiet way. She came of a musical and literary family, who had some connection with the press. As friends of the Freuds, she and her brother later translated Freud's letters. page 378She helped me revive my German; we read the whole of Faust together.
At this time too I got to know a group of Indian musicians. All were in England as students, one or two studying medicine, but music brought them together and seemed their chief interest. Bhupen Mukerjee, who played the sarode, Was Bengali, most of the others came from Madras. Indian music had close affinities with the Arabic music I had heard in Egypt, but was far richer and more refined. Bhupen and others occasionally brought their instruments to play at Lawn Road, where I now had enough space to ask friends to hear them. I got to love this music, a close and subtle tapestry of sound that did not impose itself peremptorily like most western music, but stole on the senses in such a way that its rhythms called up colour and even scent; it suggested a more unified way of life than we know, sense and spirit as aspects one of the other. When a later friend read me poems of Tagore in Bengali, I thought the language remarkably close in character to the sound of Indian music. Mogul painting too had a similar quality, although limited as the music was not. Towards the end of the war Bhupen and his friends all went back to India and sadly I lost touch with them. Listening to Indian music one day at the National Gallery, in particular to a song played on the veena, I wondered if it would be possible to achieve in poetry an effect similar to this pure melody with its (apparently) free wandering line. It would have to be without rhyme, for rhyme introduces what is a kind of harmony and a sense of limitation by form which this music seems to lack; and it would have to be very simple and unliterary, using words in such a way as to free them from literary associations. The melody of this music is very close to the sound of water, of wind in trees; it speaks of the life of nature rather than of human life, unless in India the two are so close as not to be separable.
In London Colin and I continued to work together. When he was transferred to another job, much more crucial and exacting, we still met constantly. At that time if we wanted to talk about our work we took care to walk in the middle of the street, where we could not easily be overheard. To be near Colin was the chief happiness the war brought me. We shared so much and were able to talk about so much that we shared. We had read and page 379worked and eaten together, walked constantly and bicycled and travelled and swum and idled together, gone to church and heard music and watched plays and looked at pictures and exercised in the Home Guard, we had shared rooms and even beds and many of the same likes and dislikes, we had scrapped together like puppies, rolling over and over on the sand at Robin Hood's Bay; through it all talking, arguing, and being content and silent and largely agreeing. After going down from St John's I did not live so close to any other friend for so long; when Colin's parents went away he stayed with me at Lawn Road. Partly in temperament, more in our thinking, and in a common love of poetry and all that is beautiful, we were as close as friends can be.
Now in his new work Colin found a gift for organization that had had no scope before, and I understood gradually, through the reputation that he quietly and impressively made, that he showed himself as exceptional in this as in scholarship. He spoke of it very little and I asked few questions; his work was not of a kind to be talked about outside. That did not come between us. I knew that after the war — we could now think of the future — I should have to go back to New Zealand, and that the whole world would then separate us. Our being together became more precious to me all the time. Colin was often heavily over-worked and looked haggard and drawn. When the invasion of France began in June 1944 events so engrossed us that we found it hard to speak of interior things, of significances, and I was very afraid of losing him.
I had always expected and looked for — somehow, somewhere — a paradise on earth; not openly acknowledging to myself that I did so, nor clearly imagining it. It was only lately that I realized what my thoughts and longings implied — a state of peace and stability both for me personally and for mankind (for there could be no peace for me in a world not at peace) — and that I knew I had been nourishing impossible illusions. How hard it is to accept as fact that there can be no peace on earth, no rest for man. My longing for New Zealand was in reality a longing for the peace and security I might hope to find there; but would I page 380ever see New Zealand again? I found New Zealand becoming fused in my mind, quite unintentionally, both with the promised land of Moses, Joshua and Caleb and the unattainable land of Vaughan's 'My soul, there is a country'. I knew that any paradise or earthly paradise was lost irrecoverably, but part of me never ceased to mourn for and long for it.
If I had not been so closely bound to the Abbey, I might have remained in New Zealand in 1938. As the war went on, I felt more and more strongly that I must go back afterwards. The thought of living there haunted me, part vision, part nightmare, so insistently that I knew it would be impossible for me not to try, if the world allowed; yet I was afraid of becoming prey there to a more claustrophobic despair than I had ever known in England. I argued with myself continually, and often with friends, the reasons for returning. Would James be there, and Ian, and Jack? What would they be doing? What should I do? Unless I was writing all the time, which looked unlikely, I must find work to occupy me — for protection; for discipline; for stimulus; for the occasions work provides. From the time Colin and I moved back to London that future was with me constantly. I thought that I should return to a simpler existence, try to live as Toss Woollaston did in obscure quiet, no longer taking the great problems of the world to heart so that they never let me be; live among neighbours and become human again, picking fruit in season and growing my own vegetables for the rest of the year.
Or could I edit the Journal of the Polynesian Society? I had no qualifications for that, except my experience in Egypt. It would involve a lot of dull reading, but might give a focus to my interests. It would probably mean living in Wellington, and Wellington might be a trifle less parochial than Dunedin or Christchurch (or would it be, on the contrary, a distillation of the parochialism of the country as a whole?) Whenever I looked at the Journal I thought what a poor editor Johannes Andersen was; after preparing myself, I ought to be able to do at least as well as he. One of the difficulties would no doubt be lack of contributors.
Edwin Muir's observation about small communities, at the end of The Story and the Fable (a book that made me feel closer page 381to him than to any other writer of our time), were a strong argument for me to return. In New Zealand one could not help being part of the community; in England one might live one's whole life in almost complete isolation, an atom scarcely related to other atoms. And to belong to a community, to be part of human society, was one of my strongest needs. But I must not suppose that by settling in New Zealand I would automatically become part of the community. I had to remember the general distrust of people who have travelled and lived abroad and developed their own standards. I had moved about too much ever to be able to belong wholly and solely to one place and community; I would be both of it and not of it — in my own view as well as in that of the community. I dreamed almost every night, often about New Zealand; and dreams warned me that I should find no security there either.
All my friends who had left New Zealand felt in one way or other the same urge to return. Some had to recognize that they could not go back, however, because no work offering there would give them the scope they had in England. Geoffrey Cox for example had shown himself so able a journalist that New Zealand now was too small for him; not in an absolute sense, but because no New Zealand newspaper would give him the opportunity, the freedom, that he was used to. Newspaper owners in New Zealand were timid, hidebound, uniformly conservative; they allowed no serious questioning of the way things were done in New Zealand. They were determined that the public should never be stirred up, and they themselves never be disturbed by any threat of change. Journalists of independent mind and inquiring habits were simply not to be tolerated. Geoff had gone into the army, and when a captain in North Africa had been called to the New Zealand Legation in Washington as First Secretary (in fact the only secretary) under Walter Nash. But he was rather fretting there (it was Jack Bennett who told me all this, having seen Geoff in New York or Washington), partly because his heart was really in journalism, partly because Nash tried to do everything himself.
Jack Bennett was more deeply torn because he could seriously consider going back. There was always scope for humane scholars and teachers there; he owed much himself to just such page 382men. If war had not come he would by now, he said, be prepared to go back, because he would have done some of the work he wanted to do. He would have been able to complete his thesis on the history of Anglo-Saxon studies, and the edition of Richard Corbet's poems that he was doing with Hugh Trevor-Roper — both had had to be left incomplete; and the commentary on Langland that he planned (he hoped someone else would be doing an edition of the text), a big work which would take ten years, would have been well advanced. After spending a year or longer in New Zealand he felt less keen to return, for many reasons. There were the discouraging experiences of James and Ian, who found they were not wanted in public life or in government departments: they were too independent to be tolerated by the small minds that ran the country. Jack had found himself that even intelligent people concentrated on personalities and were unwilling to talk about subjects (an odd reversal of the Victorian adage that servants talk about people but ladies and gentlemen about things). He found disquieting instability in the country and a predominance of extreme views, as strong among pacifists as others.
Pacifists in New Zealand were being treated, not indeed with the vicious brutality practised during the first war, which Archibald Baxter's fine account of his experience revealed: his book We Will Not Cease was published by Gollancz on the eve of war in 1939, and for that reason had scarcely been noticed. No, but they were being treated with almost equal stupidity, in an utterly wasteful way, so that they were of no use to society; shut up in camps in remote parts of the country like prisoners, with staff employed to guard them, and working only to keep the camps going. Jack's brother Norman, a school-teacher, was in one such camp; so were Rodney Kennedy and Hector Monro, and many others I knew or knew of, among them some of the ablest people of their generation; and there they would remain until the war ended. The blind folly of such treatment, solely in terms of the waste of human resources; worse, the elementary lack of imagination in public places which it showed, the timid petty-mindedness, made us anxious for the country's future. Jack had written to Nash about it when Nash first came to Washington, and thought that he was not altogether happy. page 383Nash as a pacifist had protested against the first war. Now he was in power, and he would do nothing to help other pacifists.
Jack himself was longing to get back to England, to Oxford and his work. He was at this time in charge of a department of the British Information Service in New York, formerly under the Foreign Office but now under the Ministry of Information. His department had to answer, often at the shortest notice, questions coming from every corner of the States on every conceivable subject: what size in hats does Churchill wear? do commandos wear their commando flash when they go into action? The department produced pamphlets on the working of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, on the Air Raid Precautions service, on Citizens Advice Bureaus. It was also busy getting parts of the Encyclopaedia Britannica revised: this belonged to Chicago University, which had bought it from Sears Roebuck. The department had to brief Lord Halifax for speeches he was to make in the States. And so on. Jack had no one special job, but had to coordinate all work of this sort; it sounded distracting beyond endurance.
While on leave in England, Jack was touring the country and all the time making notes for the kind of questions he would have to answer back in New York. He had been hoping for months that he would be able to come, and I had been longing to see him; now he stayed with me at Lawn Road. He brought me lemons, oranges, a banana — beautiful, almost fabulous fruit. I kept the lemons for a few days to look at but then gave them away, not daring to eat them as well as the oranges and banana. Jack had gone quite grey; he looked worn and very tired.
Towards the end of the war, when Jack at last returned from America to his fellowship at Queen's (his wife had left him by that time), he thought he might be prepared to go back to New Zealand, but only to a chair, and how often did that come up? He proposed that I should consider lecturing for the w.e.a.; not necessarily as full-time work. That attracted me because it should allow me to educate myself and clear my mind on a number of matters. I was painfully aware of my confusion of mind; this might help to bring it to order, while forcing me to concentrate. It would also leave me free to move from time to time, and to write. The idea gave me new hope.
denis glover came to England to join the navy in 1942. He did not choose the navy. It was rather that he had long ago been chosen by the sea, as by an imperious muse to whom he held a life-long devotion. For years he had knocked about in small boats round Banks Peninsula; he seemed almost more at home on a heaving deck than on unresponsive earth, as if the sea were his natural element. Beneath his romantic affection smouldered a metaphysical passion for the sea which made itself felt in his poems, although he might not have been able to express it overtly, or have cared to. On leave from time to time he stayed with me at Lawn Road, so that we kept meeting for more than two years.
Denis told me his experiences in the navy; and like most New Zealanders abroad, we talked constantly about New Zealand. As I got to know him then, he was a surprising compound of poet, craftsman, wit, and devil-may-care roisterer. He had written some lively, rather rough poems in a vein of his own (his best work was still to come). The small books he had printed at the Caxton Press had set the country a standard that challenged the work not only of printers and publishers but of writers, painters, composers too. This marked the end of the country's history as a mere province; it was the first open declaration of its independence, of its resolve henceforth to begin to live spiritually from its own resources, to find its centre in itself — not in an assertive exclusive sense, but quietly, naturally, acknowledging that 'we receive but what we give', or at least that unless we give something we can receive nothing. I do not think Denis saw the full implications of his work then; it was not until much later that I came to see them.
Denis generally affected to do all that he did in a throw-away manner, casually, on the side. The man of action struggled in him all the time with the poet. Since he was passionately both he suffered keenly, yet he might not have become so fine a poet if he had been more single-minded. The two sides of his nature fed each other while they fought. Two sides? probably many sides, and Denis Was still more complex than he seemed, but these two showed most. He could not bear to let his boxing and drinking and sailing friends think he was soft or soft-headed or impractical; nor did he want his literary friends to take him as solely a literary man. It was not so much that he liked to be all page 385things to all men, rather he needed to live fully, in every way open to him; every side of his being clamoured for expression. His was not a balanced nature, with impulses held in equilibrium, but almost an anarchy.
His comfortable exterior quite misled you. You took him for a genial intelligent rather roguish extrovert. He was of middle height, strongly built and solid, inclining to plumpness, with straight brownish short-cut hair, a ruddy complexion, the cauliflower right ear that boxing had given him, and a deceptively boyish air he was never to lose. He liked to thrust out belligerently the strong pointed prow of his jaw when telling a story and fixing you with his shrewdly guileless light blue eyes — acting a part while narrowly gauging the effect on you. His talk was aggressively matter-of-fact in tone, full of no-nonsense good humour and impatience and touches of whimsicality. His longish nose seemed ready to droop towards his chin (caricaturists seized on this) so that one overlooked his good broad forehead. When he broke into laughter, he worked all the muscles of his cheeks and forehead into creases and wrinkles, as if the gust of laughter suddenly filling his sails animated every inch of him; he shook, and the ground seemed to shake with him. He habitually breathed easy self-confidence and enjoyment of life; one noticed him; he was distinctly there, a presence.
The large navy-blue jersey with high roll collar that he wore at first with bell-bottom trousers as an ordinary seaman made him almost mountainous, rounding out his four-square figure. Later, after passing through the King Alfred training school at Hove, he turned up in his new uniform as a sub-lieutenant, looking resplendent and more imposing than ever. But when he came on leave from sea or from training he was always the same. Like a whale surfacing he blew, rolled about uncouthly, churned up the sea; it took him a day or two to settle down. That was no wonder, after what he had been through. The do-or-die training at King Alfred fitted men for desperate situations, decisions that meant life or death to men and ships; the strain on nerve and muscle and brain too was deliberately extreme, designed to make or break. Denis was quick, adaptable, willing and strong, but he was thirty already, not in his first youth, and underneath his impregnable front thought, imagination and feeling worked page 386in him unceasingly. Life on a destroyer in wartime in cramped quarters and under extreme strain tested everyone to the limit. While still an ordinary seaman, Denis spent five months on the destroyer Onslaught, based, on Scapa Flow; he had been with convoys going to Russia, at Murmansk, in Iceland, and within 600 miles of the North Pole. All the time his ship was in danger from German submarines and from attack by air, often under bombing for hours on end, all round him planes blowing up, ships foundering, men wounded and drowning; this in midwinter cold and stormy seas in those icy latitudes.
He told me about it in longer and shorter sessions. The experience had eaten into him. He could not, must not forget it, except momentarily; but he had to control and live with it. Some men would have been driven out of their minds, or numbed for life, or hardened to insensibility. He was fortunately able to talk about it, and I was only too ready to listen; the stories were gripping; and Denis told them exceptionally well. He had the advantage of a good education; he had read well in English and the classics, reading without haste, thinking over what he read and remembering it. You did not talk with him for long before being made aware (quite unintentionally on his part) of that good grounding; his mind was trained to read, think and express itself clearly, consciously; English was his mother tongue and he loved it, delighted in it.
Inside or outside the universities it is rare (and rarer now than then) to find a New Zealander who impresses you as well-educated and well-read. (Some of course do their best to give the opposite impression of being barely literate and like everybody else, which is a sign of the half-educated who are wanting in self-respect). In this Denis was an exception — and so was his partner at the Caxton Press, Leo Bensemann; they were well prepared to choose the best work of the time to publish. Denis himself set more store by kindness or common humanity than by the quality of a person's beliefs and intellect, while the opposite was true in general of English intellectuals. Since he found it hard to talk about what he felt most deeply, hard even to admit it to himself, he drank to shake off his inhibitions and free his tongue. He drank too because of a Chestertonian affectation about the bluff English virtues of beer, and also, though to a page 387lesser extent, because New Zealanders still think it manly to drink a lot. Why this adolescent attitude persists I do not know, but relatively few New Zealanders drink naturally and moderately, out of simple thirst and for pleasure and relaxation. With Denis, the mere whiff of a pint of beer seemed enough to glaze his eye and loosen his tongue; he got tight — a little tight — far sooner than most people. But when he came on leave battered after terrible experiences at sea he needed more than that; he had to go on a real blind, to forget completely for a while. He did not do so with me; I drank little and mostly wine, having no taste for beer and spirits; he had friends enough to keep him company. Occasionally he came back to Lawn Road to sleep off a blind, although always very considerate of me. What astonished me was his ability, when absolutely stoned, so that he could hardly stand upright, or walk straight, or get out an intelligible word, to rouse himself from stupor, find his way through the black-out in the small hours to Liverpool Street or Waterloo, and so get back to his ship on time.
From his first day with me, when we had looked at London and talked about New Zealand, we returned again and again to New Zealand writers and the Caxton Press. He mentioned the project of a university press in Dunedin (Dr Skinner had written about it to me a year ago), and told me it had been suggested that I might run it, a scheme he thought feasible, though it was news to me. He agreed that I ought to return to New Zealand. What was I to do? I had rejected the possibility of museum work; I did not want to be professionally occupied with rare beautiful things in the necessarily artificial seclusion of a museum. Prompted by Eric Gill, whose autobiography and ideas preoccupied me for a long time (I read the autobiography, in spite of its jarringly insensitive style, as though I expected to find Truth itself on the next page), I thought of becoming a printer, and wondered if Denis might employ me, and if I should be able to work with him. Running a university press seemed more suitable for Jack: I was no scholar.
We went on to talk over the possibility of a literary review. The Caxton Press could manage a quarterly, and we could not count on getting material enough for a monthly. Denis had looked on all the small periodicals he had run or supported, page 388Tomorrow, Book, and the rest, as keeping the pot boiling for something more substantial, a mature professional Phoenix. I thought such a journal should be carried on by a small group, preferably close friends, and certainly having similar interests and outlook; that it should pay for contributions, which is the only way of ensuring a high standard, since it carries the right to reject what is not good enough; that it must be distinctly of New Zealand without being parochial. I thought it should also take up a position definitely theist, at the least, and definitely radical, though of course it would not exclude good work by writers who were neither. It should attempt to explore, in Holcroft's phrase, 'the local nature of reality'. We spoke of Holcroft, Beaglehole, George Gabites, Leicester Webb, as possible members of a group to run it; Holcroft and Curnow especially Denis thought essential, because of their enthusiasm. We talked over the prospect again and again, at all times of day and night, even while Denis lay soaking and talking in the bath, a large pink almost hairless octopus, and I moved the few steps between kitchen and bathroom to get breakfast and keep the conversation going. We sat for hours at my small round table, an old ash table scrubbed almost white by long use, its rough surface showing prominently the rings of the tree; outside the window a tangle of hawthorn straggled up the grassy bank. In the sometimes long intervals between Denis's visits the idea of the journal grew in my mind. I saw it first as a revived Phoenix, and assuming that the planning of it would be mine, started to make a list of subjects for articles. Before the war ended it had displaced all other notions about what I might do, and I knew that was what I had to try.
Jack Bennett too was eager to see a journal started; and he and Denis and I were able to talk it over together once when they were in London on leave at the same time. While Denis and I were fully agreed about the journal, his views were in many ways very different from Jack's and mine and, I was sure, from what James and Ian would have thought. Denis lived in the present to enjoy the present; a too circumscribed present, it seemed to me. When he talked about Curnow, Fairburn and Mason I saw them through his eyes as sharing his attitude — mistakenly, it may be, but I did not know them then. It was a page 389very general New Zealand attitude, and its narrowness frightened me — small aims, no ideals (or dislike of talking in such terms), no looking before and after; it reflected all too closely the barren complacencies of suburban Christchurch. Denis and his friends (again, as I saw them through his eyes) had great realism, honesty, energy; but these alone were not enough. They had no sense of truth as something to be pursued throughout life, imaginative truth above all, and truth in history, philosophy, religion. I felt reservations, on similar grounds, about Allen Curnow's poems; his 'Landfall in Unknown Seas', while a good state poem, seemed to me then rather constrained; it was a work of imagination, but in a limited sense, as if the poet were somehow shackled and earthbound.
What sort of journal, then, would be possible? A solely literary journal was out of the question: there were not enough good writers in New Zealand to support one, so that neither New Verse, Geoffrey Grigson's astringent review of poetry and criticism, nor New Writing, was a useful model. New Writing, now coming out several times a year as a Penguin book, was much wider in scope, but it drew on writers of many countries and at first it excluded literary criticism and reviews of books. (New Zealand New Writing was soon to show the limits of mere imitation — would the country never stand on its own feet?) There was Horizon, which I read eagerly month by month. No English journal I remembered had presented more lively, often brilliant work, had been so continuously stimulating; for a literary journal it ranged widely, far more widely than New Writing, and was intellectual as that was not. Yet it failed to be more than the sum of its parts. No general ideas guided it. What did it stand for? Good writing? But that is not enough to ensure even a continuous stream of good writing. Cyril Connolly himself lost interest in it after ten years, implying that the sole impulse behind Horizon was personal and temporary.
What we had in mind was something that properly speaking did not start with us: we simply responded to the need for it; something that would continue after us for as long as it fulfilled the country's need. It would have to be a journal both literary and general. Its standards would be set not by definitions but by the general ideas behind its choice of material, by good page 390writing (of course), and by the quality of its book reviews; poems and stories would be read in the light of its reviews and literary criticism. No single model would serve us; but there were many exemplars. I had in mind especially the Criterion and the Dublin Review. The last, while the historian Christopher Dawson edited it, became the most consistently interesting journal I knew. I had read most of Dawson's books, and respected his humanely liberal Catholic outlook, which his journal reflected. Its concerns were history, politics, philosophy, religion — culture in the widest sense; it was not primarily literary, but it treated literature no less seriously, and perhaps in a wider context, than the literary journals themselves, the Adelphi and Criterion. I continued to read the Adelphi because of Middleton Murry. No literary critic who wrote on social and political questions too equalled him in insight, acuteness and candour; he had both imagination and courage. He wore his heart too nakedly on his sleeve, which was sometimes embarrassing; he was also ready to be wrong and to change his mind. The Criterion I had never read consistently. It was often heavy going, it printed a good deal of dry sub-Eliotese verse, it was too self-consciously in the intellectual swim, and rather pretentiously European in scope. Eliot's position, politically, was decidedly equivocal; I had little sympathy for the fancy banner he had nailed flamboyantly to his mast in For Lancelot Andrewes — that cloudy triad 'classicist in literature, royalist in politics, anglo-catholic in religion'. But the Criterion had to be respected, if critically; it stuck to its guns, and Eliot although eccentric was a poet and no mere fly-by-night. I had dipped into the Nouvelle Revue Française, and had heard a good deal of discussion of the Neue Rundschau, two of the best French and German journals; I had read the Paris-American transition and just seen The Dial. All these helped to point an aim, but we must find our own way, chiefly by our own light. The journal would have to be a New Zealand one; to try to make it international by inviting contributions from writers in other countries would be to make it fluffy. No good writer from England or America would send his best work to an unknown journal at the end of the world, and indifferent work even by famous writers was not good enough. We needed the best work of New Zealand writers, to ensure the quality and character of page 391the journal, to show that the country could stand on its own feet, and to build up a body of New Zealand work.
There was no such thing yet as a distinct New Zealand literature; but the small cloudy nucleus of one was already forming, and our journal would foster that, enabling it (I hoped) to define itself and so to define New Zealand. Allen Curnow's Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45, which came out in 1945 (it reached me in August), announced that New Zealand literature had begun, and put forward a first bold idea of it. In its combination of incisiveness, economy and generosity the anthology marked an epoch. Like a hard frost, it killed off weeds, and promoted sound growth; it set a standard not for poetry alone but for all the arts; it consolidated the work of the Caxton Press. Appearing at the end of the war, it was most aptly timed. It also offered a splendid starting point for a literary journal.
Quite suddenly in the middle of the war Leonie Zuntz died. She had been troubled from time to time by some weakness of the heart, never diagnosed, never lasting for long, and now that heart had fluttered violently and gone out. Had she lost courage and hope in a fit of despair darker than any before? She had abundant life, extraordinary vitality and gaiety, and gifts of intellect and feeling combined such as one seldom meets. Yet her gifts found so little scope, the warmth of her loving spirit found no one person to lavish itself on. In Nazi Germany there had been no place for her; in exile in wartime England refugees were accepted grudgingly — she was tolerated, hardly wanted. I had a good idea of what she felt and suffered alone. I knew it in her ardour, her impulsiveness and tenderness, the way in which her moods blazed and sank down; in the searing intensity of the music she struck from her violin. Rilke's 'Der Nachbar' might have been written for her, whose music followed me as that strange violin had followed him:
Fremde Geige, gehst du mir nach?
In wieviel fernen Städten schon sprach
deine einsame Nacht zu meiner?
Spielen dich Hunderte? Spielt dich einer?
Gibt es in alien grossen Städten
solche, die sich ohne dich
schon in den Flüssen verloren hätten?
Und warum trifft es immer mich?
Strange violin, are you following me?
In how many distant towns already
Has your lonely night spoken to mine?
Do hundreds play you? Or one alone?
Can there be in every great city
So many, had it not been for you,
Who would have lost themselves in the rivers?
And why does it always come back to me?
She was that strange violin; she was also one of those who had given themselves to death, whom the rivers had taken. Her music was silent, but for all who knew her it continued to sound.
Rumours of a second front — an invasion of France — began going about. Office leave was cancelled, as we had been expecting. Ten days later it was de-cancelled. After all it would have been enough to allow local leave but forbid us to travel. An epidemic of gastric influenza went round, symptoms of jaundice appearing in some cases; it was one of several such epidemics in the past year. Wavell released Gandhi from prison because he was old and ill: did this foreshadow a more positive line of policy in India? The allied armies entered Rome after three weeks of fighting through the Liri valley, the Volscian mountains, the Pontine marshes, the Alban Hills. But the Germans were still not far north of the Via Casilina which runs south-east from Rome, and 'the red-hot rake of the battle line' had still to be drawn over the Subiaco of St Benedict, over Tivoli, Avezzano and Sulmona, and to the west over Ostia. Month after month the war dragged, devastation spread, and no victory and no defeat was decisive, as even the fall of France was not. The end of the war receded continually, the hope of a tolerable future grew fainter and fainter; ahead I could see only chaos in Europe and an overmastering physical and moral weariness.
And then, next day, the invasion of France began, the long-awaited D-day; a windy morning of blue sky, white cloud and page 393dramatic shadows, that soon turned grey and coldish although it was midsummer. Low-flying planes made a great roar at intervals throughout the night and day. Denis Glover in command of a landing craft crossed the Channel with the invasion fleet, as he described not long after in his D Day.
john Crockett wanted to form a travelling company of his own. He saw a great need for good entertainment; the north in particular was crying out for it, and there was little supply. Meanwhile, John had asked me to write a play, and proposed the subject of Job. I had written conversations before, notably in my Shelleyan days, but they were talk, not drama. The only play I had written was a short one for the Abbey children. James Courage had talked of our writing a play together on a New Zealand subject — I think he may have had a verse play in mind; but that was never followed up. I had simply not thought of writing plays. Poems did not come to me in terms of dramatic confrontations between characters projected on the stage. Was that only because I had never worked in the theatre? I suspected not, but I was always ready to try a new form, and John promised to help me.
I wrote the first scene. The players could not say much about it, except that it was not dramatic enough and needed cutting, which I expected. They proposed that I finish the play (after all they were in no hurry), spend a week with them when they would read and criticize it, and then go on tour with them to see how they worked. They believed that the playwright should work with the players and the play be almost a co-operative production. This appealed to me; I met and liked the players, and determined to go on with the play, in order to learn if nothing else. I had no belief that I could ever write a good play, but John pushed me on, with the conviction I lacked, which was certainly encouraging; I was well aware of my temerity in tackling a subject like Job.
I toured with the company in Lancashire and Yorkshire, in winter, when darkness fell in the middle of the afternoon and the black-out was unrelieved. It was my first experience of the page 394industrial north, and until you know that country you do not know England; the south, the lakes, Wales, give many colonials a misleading impression who see no more than those. At Haslingden, a small cotton town in a valley of the moors north of Manchester, the Players performed Abraham and Isaac for school children one afternoon, and Ghosts in an excellent school hall the same evening. The moors were thinly snow-streaked in the clear air, a new world when I came up out of Manchester fog. The town climbed a steep hillside in rows of forbidding dark stone houses; it had a certain gloomy snow-lit beauty. We were given a Lancashire high tea of meat and potatoes, bread and butter, scones and tea about five o'clock at the school. A pretty full hall of some three hundred people listened more attentively and responsively than most London audiences; the play held me completely.
That I now knew the Adelphi Players and had seen them at work did not make it easier to write a play for them. I was shocked at my presumption in attempting a subject like Job. There was already one grand dramatization of the story, Vaughan Williams's ballet, in which I had seen Robert Helpmann dance magnificently. The best discussion of the book I had come across, Froude's essay (it was not until years later that Jack Bennett sent me to Mark Rutherford's), suggested ways of approaching it, and also showed me the closeness of Job's problem to my own — one of my own. I began by seeing the subject as a purely individual one, concerning Job in his relationship to God; John saw in it social implications which had escaped me. When I finished a draft of the play, John and Anne and I worked over it together, having decided to turn it into a dance drama, for which we hoped Peter Burden would write music. Richard Ward turned it down on the ground that it was not conceived in terms of the theatre. He hoped I might be able to recast it, but after a year of writing and rewriting I felt I could not work on it any more; I would rather try something new. Some months later John had a fresh proposal for me.
While working on Job I managed my leave periods so that I was able to stay at Taena several times — this was George Insson's Gloucestershire farm, beyond the Severn. I went there to be with John and George; the farm was set in very lovely page 395country which drew me for its own sake. I had spent one short leave staying at Tin tern and walking in the neighbourhood with George before he found Taena. Tintern Abbey, disappointing at first, grew on me as I came to know it — the simplicity of its outline, its fine proportions; seeing it at every time of day, in different weathers, and from all angles, walking near it, sitting in the cloisters talking. Taena I saw in February, in May and September, a long narrow farm of fifty-five acres with a drive of half-a-mile leading from the road to the house and cottage at the head of the valley.
I was finished with Job, and poems that were wanting to be written came crowding on me. Then the Germans began their last attack on London, raids by pilotless aircraft carrying high explosive bombs that went off when the plane crashed, as it was meant to. This went on through June, July, August. One day of almost constant warnings there was a rumour that the Germans had started shelling London too. They had stopped using the pilotless planes, or V1s; instead they began using a kind of rocket, fired from farther away and describing a very high trajectory, so that they descended almost vertically out of the blue giving no warning. These came to be known as V2s. Because they fell unannounced, and carried greater explosive force than the V1s, they seemed instruments of utterly capricious doom. Warnings usually lasted all through the hours of darkness; I woke often at the sound of the planes or the shock of explosions. Finally I slept through the sirens as I had not done since 1940, and dozed off again almost at once after the crump of a bomb woke me.
News came that my cousin Peter Fels was missing, shot down over the Adriatic some sixty miles off the Albanian coast. Then we learned that he was a prisoner in Germany, unharmed and well. Paris was set free. Rumania joined the allies. I went to the High Commissioner's Office and put my name down for a passage to New Zealand as soon as the war was over.
Early in September the end of the war seemed very near. Antwerp had been taken, the allies had reached Breda and entered Luxemburg. The shadow, it seemed, had begun to lift. page 396We had seen and endured the worst. As I looked at the vivid-green of the grass in the rain-washed light and the dancing boughs of the plane trees in Hyde Park, suddenly I saw in my mind's eye a painting by some lesser Florentine called After the Crucifixion, a scene of the end of the world, Mary and the Apostles sitting listless among the ruins of things as though all meaning had gone out of life. That was not quite our case. Yet we too in a similar way had experienced the most terrible things that can happen to men, we too stood in a landscape of desolation. We had, some of us, come through, but we too were left without divine aid in a world delivered into the hands of men.
In the middle of 1944 I had a long farewell letter — two airgraphs — from Ursula Bethell. Some months later Denis wrote that her faith was being tested to the full; she was mortally ill and in great pain. When I heard of her death at last in January 1945 it seemed like news of something that had happened long ago. No one who had been her friend would ever forget her; her memory continued to draw her friends together for years to come.
A wedding or a festival,
A mourning or a funeral —
It was only a few days after I knew she was dead that Tim got married. It was bitter cold. Snow had been lying for nearly a fortnight, thin but frozen in parks and gardens. Mary de Beer and I went by Great Western to Cheltenham through a white world.
Tim had reached England about new year after two years in New Caledonia, intending to work for his Second Mate's ticket; Elizabeth had come to England from Toronto University to meet him. They had got to know each other earlier in the war when Tim's ship called more than once at Trinidad, where her father was a judge in the Colonial Service. Tim at twenty-five had aged a little and begun to look weather-beaten; the lines of his face had grown clearer so that one saw what he would be like for years to come. Practically, he was experienced, at heart still a romantic, vague and idealistic. Elizabeth I liked at once. She was direct, unaffected, honest — a real person, which could seldom be said of girls of twenty.page 397
The wedding took place in an ugly shabby little church that might have been in New Zealand. A female in black gown and mortar-board laboured over a heavy-breathing unmusical little organ; when the verger signed to her she had to fumble hastily for the wedding march. Tim and I, his best man, were lined up waiting much too soon and whispered and laughed — nothing nervous about him. Unable to get a suit made in time, he had borrowed one belonging to his father-in-law — it looked resurrected; and he wore two pairs of thick socks. Elizabeth had put on pyjamas under her long white satin, to try to keep warm.
The war in Europe was coming to an end. The Russians surrounded Berlin and met the Americans near Leipzig. In Italy after the German line was broken south of Bologna the Lombard cities began falling in a shower to the partisans and the allies. No more rockets fell on London after March. The black-out ended. A new head of the office at Berkeley Street succeeded Commander Denniston, who had relatives of his name in New Zealand — I had met one of them; he was small, direct, and humane in dealings with his staff, and I found I had grown quite attached to him. The new broom looked by contrast a schemer who enjoyed the exercise of power. I would not be needed much longer, and when I found that I could get a passage to New Zealand in December, I put in my resignation.
On 7 May the final surrender of the Germans was expected all day; the evening papers said it had taken place that morning. Piccadilly was crowded at noon and in the evening as never perhaps since the war began. It grew hot after a grey morning. Flags came out in the afternoon, the Union Jack, the Stars and Stripes, the Red Flag, a few French and Chinese and others. At night (it had turned grey and showery) I heard singing at the bottom of Lawn Road, and a few crackers.
At midnight a storm began. First thunder and lightning, at longish intervals and growing in intensity, until they reached their greatest violence about 3 a.m. After some time slow, half-reluctant rain began, and short gusts of wind, and finally, when the lightning and thunder were at their height, a great downpour of rain fell in a solid vertical wall for half-an-hour or more. The page 398thunder shook the ground, the lightning broke in great sheets and sometimes in ripples that waved across the room. As the enormous rain diminished the thunder retreated, but then approached again for a while; the whole demonstration did not end until about four. I tried in vain to sleep through the first hours, and, thoroughly awake, began to read when the rain was heaviest. Then a poem came to me, and when I had taken it down (it came complete with its title, 'Word by Night') I fell asleep at last. * The Times next day mentioned that the war had begun with a storm on the night of 2-3 September 1939. So, between a storm and a storm …
A few days later Peter Fels arrived from prison camp in Germany, in the best of spirits, looking perfectly normal and well. His aircraft had been path-finding over Giurgiu in Rumania when it developed engine trouble, a fire started in one wing, and the crew had to bale out. They landed near Tetovo in southern Yugoslavia and tried to ask for Tito, but villagers handed them over to the Germans, they were taken to Skopje and lodged in the jail, then by way of Belgrade to Budapest and so to Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan in Silesia.
for my last leave, in June, I joined Mary, Dora and Esmond on the island of Raasay, between Skye and the mainland of Ross. They had gone there first, I think, through L. F. Powell, who while editing Boswell's life of Johnson had found that Raasay House, where the pair were entertained on their Scottish journey of 1773 by the MacLeod laird, was now a comfortable hotel in a beautiful situation. Dr Johnson calls it 'a neat modern fabric'; to me it seemed an astonishingly spacious house to find on so remote an island, narrow, barren, hilly, and scarcely fifteen miles long.
* See 'Word by Night' in Disputed Ground
From Fearns in the south to Brochel in the north that coast was uninhabited. Under a hill called Beinn na Leac a perilous half-supported standing rock overhung the pathway; below lay a small curving bay whose sea-bottom showed seaweed darkness and wells of bright blue. We picnicked once above the northern end of that bay near a wind-scattered little waterfall that leaped from a point of cliff into the sea, and passed by a great stone enclosure that we had seen from Dun Caan. It was warm and still; I felt lazy, more inclined to sit and gaze and read than to walk all day, and I let the others go on, following the track to page 400Brochel Castle, where the hills ended, and returning by the west coast road — a twenty-mile walk for them. I climbed down to the little bay below Beinn na Leac, quickly shed my clothes, and swam off the rocks — the water was not so cold as by Raasay House — then lay luxuriously naked in the sun, the world all mine.
Raasay and its setting was more like New Zealand than any other part of the British Isles I knew. That was partly why the de Beers loved it so much: they continued to go there year after year. I was preparing myself day by day to go home, and here I was reminded of the great splendour I was going to; although the New Zealand mountains were far taller and grander than these. But this was not all of New Zealand; there were the towns, where one had to live — no one can live on scenery alone. The towns, the people. I depended so much on my friends, on Colin, Jack, John, Bettina. I thought if I could make even one friend who would to some degree take their place I could live in New Zealand; but does one make such friends when one is no longer young? There would be James, I hoped. But after four years as a prisoner of war would he still be himself? I trembled for him. And I would not have any such steady support as the de Beers gave me. Grandfather was very old. My aunts — I loved them, and I could talk to them, we shared interests, but they could give me no intellectual exchange and sustainment. I should have to be very self-reliant. Had I strength enough? I must find strength. It would be my third return home, and this time I was going for good.
At Brochel, the almost shapeless ruins of a castle of the MacLeods rose from two green mounds by the eastern shore. There began the low-lying north end of the island, where the path climbed and descended often and steeply over the strange bare gneiss rocks. Round Loch Arnish the warm sheltered slopes were green and gentle, on many levels, with rocks at the water's edge and above; briar roses grew profusely, and honeysuckle, and small northern birches, rowans and hazels; the air was sweet-scented. Scarcely any beaches bordered the loch, even the low ground broke off sheer, and a distinct white band on the rocks alone marked the level of the high tide. Esmond was reminded of the rich heroic landscape of some of Rembrandt's etchings. page 401Farther on all was rock again, some of the oldest rock in Europe, heather-grown, with bogs, rushes, small wild flowers, creeping uniper.
We left Raasay early one fine coldish morning. The rough wind, the smells and slight motion of the steamer, roused in me the sickness and fears of parting, decision, new beginnings, and seemed to cut me off from the beauty of the day and the world. But that passed, and my breath was taken again by the magnificent sweep of Culloden Moor as the train winds up across it from Inverness, and Loch Ness, and the great firths and their hills lie clear below, a huge northern map; one evening of a later year I was to see the whole moor aglow with the purple of heather.
Crossing the watershed, which is higher than Dun Caan, and emerging from the Highlands at Dun-eld, we spent two days in Edinburgh, where Esmond had friends. Grey days of little and reluctant sunshine, but mild; it was the very end of June. This was the grey city we were always hearing about in Dunedin, its pretended original, but how utterly unlike — unlike if only because Edinburgh lies open on every side while Dunedin is closely shut in by its hills. Except Naples and Constantinople and Leningrad, I had seen no grander site in these islands or Europe, and none more magnificently laid out. The old town runs up a narrow spine leading from the foot of the green hill of Arthur's Seat to the bold commanding rock of the castle. North across a narrow gully, through which trains steam in to the centre of the town almost unseen except for their smoke, the new town extends along a parallel ridge, lower and rounded, that falls away for some distance down to the broad Firth of Forth. There lie the sober streets and squares and crescents of noble eighteenth-century dignity whose transplanted names I had known all my life; pavements of stone, flag-stone roadways, islands of fine trees. Measure, proportion, classical formality that still allows a certain ease of manner, such is the setting; but it is one for Hume and Adam Smith and the eighteenth-century savants rather than for the narrow stern Presbyterianism of Cargill or even of the more humane Thomas Burns, Dunedin's founders.page 402
Nothing I knew of in Dunedin looked to Edinburgh's large grandeur and liberality of spirit as one of the great capitals of civilization; the Edinburgh in Dunedin's mind was a petty-market town of chaffering and jealous kirks and Burns Clubs, Canongate perhaps but not Princes Street, the sort of town that Hume and Burns and Scott and Edwin Muir and Hugh MacDiarmid would all have found intolerable. But I did not think of Dunedin, there was so much to see and remember; those sudden enlarging views of the Forth at the end of the streets at right angles to Princes Street; the extraordinarily satisfying way in which the houses end clean at King's Park; the green that everywhere gives such delightful necessary relief to the grave black stone of the buildings; that surprising deep-slashed green gorge down which the Water of Leith tumbles. The poverty and squalor of Canongate and streets near Grassmarket seemed continental rather than English; distinction and poverty lived side by side, and sombreness and dignity.
Some months earlier, John Crockett had proposed my writing a mime in verse for his new company, The Compass Players; and in Edinburgh I found a letter from him, containing a sketch for a mime. To write it would take all my time before I left for New Zealand; I had still two months at the office, then I must settle my affairs and say my farewells. I should have no chance to work on the book of poems that Denis Glover was urging me to prepare for him.
The mime was not to be thought of as a play, rather as the libretto for an opera, or music for a ballet. I wrote a few scenes and then felt appalled at the badness of the vamped-up verse; I was not writing in my own language. But they were on the right lines, John said, urging me forward. I went to meet the Players at Skipton in Airedale, their headquarters. After changing trains at Leeds I gathered from snatches of talk in the carriage that the Japanese had surrendered.
I read the mime aloud to the company, having written a draft of all except the final scene, and we talked it over. Two scenes needed rewriting completely and other parts needed revision, but in general they liked it and all wished me to go on. I ground page 403away at the revision laboriously day by day with a rush of words only once or twice to carry me through, and six weeks later joined the company again while they played at Boston and Holbeach.
I was able to spend a few hours in Lincoln on the way. A gust of violent wind almost hurled me into the cathedral and kept howling outside, making the wooden frame in the rose window of the south-west transept (its glass had been removed for safety) creak like the timbers of a ship; the whole cathedral seemed a ship riding the gale on its high hill. It is one of the grandest and richest of all the English cathedrals; I wanted to revive my memory of it to carry home, to recall the great carved cliff of the west front, the shadowy forest of nave and aisles and transepts, and the beautiful floating island of the chapter house anchored by its flying buttresses. I would go on walking about it all my life in imagination, hearing its incomparable music.
We found time to talk about the mime only in snatches. Mercifully, not much remained to be done to make it playable. As verse, as a work, I could not think of it as mine; I had not attempted in so short a time to work out my own way of making a dramatic statement, but had simply adopted a convenient current manner that the Players were familiar with, through Richard Ward's plays and, of course, Eliot's. The mime was anyway a collaboration between John and me, it was his conception in the first place and he showed me how to give it dramatic credibility. It was put on some months later; Richard Ward produced it, with costumes designed by John. John wrote to me that it went well on the stage and was a decided success. The company continued to perform it as they moved about the country, but I was not there to see.*
* See The Quest (The Compass Players, London, 1946)
Suddenly appalled and overwhelmed once again by such a prospect, for I had been indulging the hope that peace really meant peace, I asked myself whether it was possible to continue to live a private life pursuing private ends, or whether a more public and political life was not demanded, a deliberate effort to try directly to bring about a better world. The question dogged me. But there was only one answer: the world must go on in all its complexity: political action is never a complete response to earth's disorders, and as a way of life it can be for the few only. For most people an indirect way is inevitable, and probably far more effective.*
James's uncertainty now must be greater than mine. Even those who knew where their lives were set suffered the same malaise. Jack Bennett had returned from New York and was back at Queen's, burying himself in the work the now overcrowded college was heaping on him; he had lost his unsettled wife to America. Colin was suffering from continuous insomnia and headaches, and sleeping only some four hours a night; he had felt uprooted with the sudden ending of the terrific pressure and responsibility of his war work. He could not concentrate, finding it exceptionally hard to work regularly when distracting calls were being made on him all the time; Oxford was busier and more restless than before the war.
* See poem 'If every street' in Home Ground
When I went to say goodbye to my uncle at Heathfield the woods were hung thickly and brightly with dry brittle leaves of dull brick and dark sooty gold; white shafts of silver-birch stems lit the grey copses. In Norfolk one windy morning I felt the cold air fresh and clean on my skin after London's fog and haze and saw the lines of fields bare and clean, even through rain; but the flattish country was smooth, too smooth, and I longed for the rougher fell of New Zealand.