War like a Wasp: The Lost Decade of the 'Forties

War like a Wasp: The Lost Decade of the 'Forties

War like a Wasp: The Lost Decade of the 'Forties

War like a Wasp: The Lost Decade of the 'Forties

Excerpt

The decade of the nineteen-forties led to a sea-change in the arts in Britain. Because of their war experience, established artists altered their perceptions and found new means of expression. Unknown artists from the armed forces and civil defence discovered fresh outlets during the only democratic and popular decade of modern British culture. The war years saw T. S. Eliot write the last three of his Four Quartets , Henry Moore produce his Shelter drawings, Joyce Cary publish his major trilogy ending with The Horse's Mouth ; the post-war years saw Evelyn Waugh's first serious novels after Brideshead Revisited , Francis Bacon painting his three figures at the base of a Crucifixion, major compositions from Benjamin Britten, the theatrical language of John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, and the apogee of British cinema with its documentaries and Ealing comedies. The state aid that would transform the arts in Britain also began at this time. These were the anni mirabiles of a national culture.

This flowering of the arts coalesced round the pubs and drinking clubs of Fitzrovia and Soho and Chelsea. Owing to shortages of alcohol, the pub became the centre of social life. The Wheatsheaf and the Marquis of Granby, the Swiss and the French pubs saw the encounters of most of the leading writers and painters and actors and film-makers and musicians of their day. These were the Fitzrovians, brought together in a transient bohemia, encouraged and interrupted by the circumstances of the war. The many millions of the armed forces, both Allied and British, passed through London on leave before embarkation or demobilization. If they had things to express, they went to the places where they might meet their fellow artists. Bloomsbury committed suicide with Virginia Woolf in 1941. The Fitzrovians bloomed under the blitz and the black-out, conscription and rationing, the fear of sudden death and the snatch at urgent life. In the intellectual and alcoholic ferment of a London group which split and congealed nightly, some extraordinary poetry and painting, drama and cinema were created that still inform us all.

The Fitzrovians have not been considered as a literary group because they did not keep together. War conditions and drink restrictions forced them to meet in the clubs and the pubs; but when drink became available in the home and prices rose in London, they dispersed in the main in the early 'fifties. They were a loose coterie for a decade, not permanent as was the Bloomsbury group. Their chief editor undervalued them--Cyril Connolly in Horizon put his own failure as a writer of masterpieces on to his whole generation. This allowed the culture of the war decade to be trashed as neo-Romantic and of no importance. It sank without trace between the Scylla and Charybdis of modernism and post-modernism. These two . . .

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