Do Labour really want peace? A letter from Cecil Day-Lewis: 7 March 1936

From our correspondence.

7 March 1936

SIR,—The Labour Party has now banned the Authors World Peace Appeal. This is a body so loosely organised that it cannot be said to have a membership. It was founded by a dozen respectable, worried writers, mostly of the generation on which the 1914 war had such a shattering impact. Some seven hundred signatories have signed a declaration which says: “We writers believe that our civilisation is unlikely to survive another world war. We believe that differing political and economic systems can exist side by side on tile basis of peacefully negotiated settlements. As writers we want peace and through our work will try to get it: and pledge ourselves to encourage an international settlement through peaceful negotiation. We condemn writing liable to sharpen existing dangers and hatred. As signatories we are associated with no political movement, party or religious belief, but are solely concerned with trying to stop the drift to war.”

Now, does the Labour Party intend all signatories who happen to be Labour Party members to write and say they don't believe our civilisation will be upset by another war: that they don't believe that differing Political and economic systems can exist side by side that they don't want peace and won't try to get it through their work? Or what?

The organisation, in so far as it exists—it is extremely hard to organise writers at all, as the Labour Party has found in its day—consists of an executive committee elected at an annual conference, and several working panels or groups of writers who volunteered for some kind of work. Thus, one such group considers hate and war themes in children's books; it has been extremely efficacious in so far as it is now, since the publication of the AWPA evaluation list (very similar to that of the American Cincinnatti committee—which has, we think, survived all purges in the States!) almost impossible to buy any of the really shocking comics from the multiple stores and bookstalls which used to stock them freely. It also hopes to start a cheap children's paper, so as to provide better alternative fare: are Labour members not to write in it? If a Peace Book Club is started through AWPA, are Labour Party members not to belong?

Now let us consider what happens to any of the banned organisations if Labour Party members are withdrawn lest they should be corrupted by Cormmunists. There remain a few Communists, some “fellow travellers”, a few Liberals, a few dissident Tories (unless the Conservative Central Office takes a leaf from Transport House), some convinced pacifists and Quakers and a great many well-meaning non-political persons who can usually be pulled round by the politicians. But the old hands from the Labour Party who can, on the whole, see what they are doing and why, and are prepared to argue and be tough in a friendly way, are to be taken away. Not enough dissident Tories, Liberals and pacifists are left, and the Communists will doubtless be able to pull the organisations their way.

Is this what the Labour Party intends?

We writers can do a good deal in the way of interpreting the various angry ideologies to one another. We can do a great deal in the way of establishing relations with writers in other countries. We can cool the war, which is hotting up against the real wishes of all but a tiny minority, with irony and laughter and even with that most dangerous thing, truth (or, to use Beatrice Webb's phrase, “a few facts”). We can do it better if we are in a professional organisation. Does the Labour Party not want us to do these things? If so, is it so sure that it really wants peace?

C Day Lewis
Naomi Mitchison

Cecil Day-Lewis with his wife, daughter and son Daniel. Photograph: Getty Images.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit