An Air Raid Siren for the Left

Article excerpt

In London in 1937, Stefan Lorant, a Hungarian photojournalist who had served time in a Nazi prison, started a pocket-sized monthly magazine which combined English humor with European style. It was called Lilliput. Throughout the Second World War it entertained readers in bomb shelter, canteen, and mess with its unique mix of stories, articles, photography, and cartoons.

On the magazine's third birthday, in the August 1940 issue, as London came under sustained night attack, the editors wrote:

   When we started Lilliput, in July 1937, we
   planned for the first time an intelligent
   magazine for intelligent people, at a popular
   price. It has been our guiding policy ever since.
      But in July 1937 we could not have foreseen
   that less than three years later we would be
   producing Lilliput in the middle of a world
   war, although, even then, Lilliput was in its
   own way attacking the dictators and warning
   the democracies of the dangers ahead.

The magazine was subtitled "The Monthly Magazine for Everyone," and so it was. First of all, the covers were drawn by Walter Trier, another European refugee. Trier's charming artwork always showed a man, his girlfriend, and their dog, walking, working in a munitions factory, or sunbathing. Then there were the advertisements: All-Bran cereal, Kiwi shoe polish, Macleans toothpaste, and Mars Bars. My Goodness--My Guinness! Milk of Magnesia. Eno's Fruit Salt. Ministry of Food recipes pompously exhorted housewives to make cakes out of potatoes, carrots, and powdered egg.

The first column was always by "Lemuel Gulliver," decorated by the drawings of Victoria, another refugee, this time from Berlin. Her depictions of Gulliver, in his pigtail wig and wide-cuffed coat, were a feature of the magazine. Each month Gulliver, an innocent descending into the abyss, would meet a different representative of London life--a confidence man, a black marketeer, a racing tipster--and would be suitably shocked. His encounters were often funny, and always informative.

Each issue featured articles by such writers as James Agate, Antonia White, D. B. Wyndham Lewis, Margot Bennett, and Alec Waugh. These would be historical, biographical, or whimsical in nature. There were translations from Chekhov (by Constance Garnett) and de Maupassant, and Arthur Waley's versions of poems from the Chinese. One issue had a double-page spread of an English version of Baudelaire's poem "Her Hair." Yet Lilliput wasn't literary in a self-conscious way--just literate. Many features consisted of snippets from writers from ancient times to the present, on a particular theme--Love, or The German Character, or Tobacco--always well chosen and succinct.

The first-person accounts were of a high order. Lion Feuchtwanger, many years after Jew Suss (and after his own escape to the U.S.), wrote brilliantly about an art dealer, Mr. Wollstein, whom he had met in an internment camp. Bill Naughton, whose creation "Alfie" is now the subject of a movie remake, regularly contributed vivid stories of northern England city life. Patrick Campbell's hysterically funny stories, usually based upon embarrassing episodes in his own life, formed his comic reputation.

There was also a sprinkling of ghost and horror tales: "The Girl They Couldn't Hang," "The Upas Tree." Algernon Blackwood's 1910 story "The Wendigo" was reprinted in a Lilliput of the 1950s. These would be illustrated by such artists as Eric Fraser, whose staring terrified faces and shiny blood drops transfixed the viewer, and Mervyn Peake, who in a few lines could imply boundless menace. (When I read Peake's Gormenghast books, I hurried back to Lilliput to examine his earlier drawings. I don't know how Titus Groan would hold up these days, but those drawings are as striking as ever.) During the same period as he drew for Lilliput and wrote his novels, Peake worked as an official war artist. Dispatched to Belsen at the war's end, he saw horrors which exceeded even his dark visions. …