Dangerous Liaisons

Article excerpt

Byline: Lucy Scholes

The charming debauchery of Britain's literati during the Blitz.

September 26, 1940 As the blackout falls, 41-year-old Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen is on air-raid-protection duty in the streets near her house in London's Regent's Park. Once he's finished his day job at the Ministry of Information, so too Graham Greene dons his tin hat and patrols nearby Bloomsbury. The 36-year-old has already published 10 novels and, like Bowen, the author of six, is an established figure in the London literary scene. But this success hasn't stanched Greene's romantic, depressive yearning for death. He described his generation as those "who had missed the enormous disillusionment of the First World War, so we were looking for adventure." As a teenager, he had played Russian roulette with a loaded gun, and now history is giving him another chance to court death. His lover, Dorothy Glover, joins him in his duties. Their affair, like so many others during this period, is conducted openly while Greene's wife and children are installed safely in the countryside.

By 9:30 p.m. the bombing raid is fully under way, but this doesn't stop Bowen's friend, 59-year-old novelist Rose Macaulay, from leaving her flat in Marylebone, a few streets farther south of Bowen's patch, and making her way to the ambulance station for her night shift. Despite her age, Macaulay had signed up for this taxing job--navigating the bombed-out streets with only the light of the raging fires to guide her, heaving stretchers in and out of the vehicle, and the awful waiting as her patients were extracted from beneath the rubble of their homes. Tonight she finds herself doing exactly this in Camden Town--standing in the "slimy mud" (the result of a burst water main mixing with the debris on the ground) while the bombs continued to fall around her, reassuring the woman trapped under the wreckage that she and her children will be rescued soon, only for the four little ones to be recovered already dead.

Travel a little farther south of Oxford Street and we find Henry Yorke (better known to some as the experimental novelist Henry Green) at his fire station in Mayfair's Davies Street. Of all of them, Yorke's shift will last the longest--48 hours, followed by a 24-hour break--and his job, that of a full-time auxiliary fireman, is the most dangerous, too. Though, as he wrote in a letter to Evelyn Waugh in 1939, these hazards were eminently preferable to "what seems to be the alternative, dominion by Hitler and the Mitfords on top." This doesn't stop Waugh from making fun of Yorke and his fellow volunteers in the 1955 novel Officers and Gentlemen when a fire in a gentlemen's club in Piccadilly is attended to by "a group of progressive novelists in fireman's uniform," who then proceed to guzzle the whisky and brandy that's running along the gutters from the club's damaged alcohol store. Like Greene, Yorke's wife and son have been evacuated from the city, and he too is taking advantage of his newfound freedom. Though unlike Greene, Yorke can be seen with a new girl on his arm nearly every night--"his rota of ridiculously young girls," according to his friend the novelist Rosamond Lehmann. He's a wealthy upper-class socialite who works at his family's business by day and parties with his fellow bright young things at night. Tonight, however, the Houses of Parliament have received their first direct hit and Yorke is one of the firemen helping to stanch the flames. Meanwhile, south of the river in leafy Wimbledon, the Austrian writer Hilde Spiel spends the night cowering in her flat with her husband, her daughter, and her parents, their mattresses pushed up against the windows to protect against splintering glass, and listening to music on the gramophone in an attempt to block out the noise of the falling bombs.

These five writers--"successors of the soldier poets of the First World War ... participants rather than witnesses, risking death, night after night, in defence of their city"--are the subjects of British academic Lara Feigel's group biography, The Love-charm of Bombs. …