Magazine article The Spectator

Funny, Warm and Eccentric

Magazine article The Spectator

Funny, Warm and Eccentric

Article excerpt

Darling Monster: The Letters of Diana Cooper to her son John Julius Norwich, 1939-1952 edited by John Julius Norwich Chatto, �25, pp. 528, ISBN 9780701187798 It must have been awful for Diana and Duff Cooper to be separated from their only child during the war, but we can be grateful for it because it's a joy to read the correspondence it gave rise to. The letters in this book span the years 1939 to 1952 and take in the Blitz, Diana's short spell as a farmer in Sussex, a trip to the Far East, when Duff was collecting intelligence on the likelihood of a Japanese invasion, the couple's three years in the Paris embassy, and several more in their house at Chantilly, as well as a great number of journeys around Europe and North Africa.

The most charming thing about the war letters is how grown-up they are. John Julius Norwich was sent to safety in America and hardly saw his parents for two years. His mother sent letters nearly every day, writing to him when he was ten in exactly the same way as she did when he was 20.

Diana never seems to shy away from a complicated story about politics or marriage or a literary reference.

She's also very open about the horror of the bombs, the sleepless nights and constant fear, but she keeps it light: 'A bomb fell at the feet of the Abraham Lincoln statue and only 20 yards from me in the canteen. I didn't half jump.' She complains of 'such acute bombitis of the ears that if my inside rumbles I jump out of my skin and think it's air activity, which indeed it is.'

Occasionally she hesitates: 'Papa read my last letter to you and tried to stop me sending it. He said it was quite unintelligible to a boy of 11, or to an adult for that matter.' Luckily she carries on just the same, and she was right to; the few short letters of his own that John Julius has included show what a happy correspondence they had, and she had a genius for clear anecdotes and vivid description. The ballet dancer Moira Shearer, for example, is 'most exotically beautiful - real scarlet hair and ashen colouring and huge murky blue eyes like the unsettled colour of newborn things and of a slenderness to break and snap like a tulip.'

The famously beautiful and stylish Diana paints a picture of herself as a scarecrow figure during her farming years.

When her cow escapes, she sets off in her nightcap and huge rubber boots to coax it home. Examining her hives with a local bee-fancier, she realises that the inside of her trousers has become lined with bees. So she calmly removes them, finding herself 'exposed in ridiculous pants, pink as flesh.

It was a C. Chaplin scene.' She doesn't blame the soldiers who stop her from entering the house where Winston Churchill was staying, explaining that, 'I look very funny in the country these days in brightly coloured trousers, trapper's fur jacket, Mexican boots and the refugee headcloth. …

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