1940-44 - Miscellany

East London and the Blitz

Evacuation and shelters are human and urgent demands, reinforced by lack of a roof, lack of sleep, and lack of gas or heating. So far, these demands take no political tone and come from people irrespective of party. The Communist Party is discredited and the Fascists, as one resident said to me, have disappeared "at least for the present". That they will come back if winter sees these grievances unchanged, no one will doubt. Already they are at work in the Tubes, reviving as far as they can a race hatred that could die in the experience of common suffering. I asked a minister of religion, who sleeps every night in the shelters, on what lines political discussion is running. He replied that there was indignation on account of shelters, bitter talk about Mr Chamberlain and an urgent demand for changes. There was beginning also to be awkward questioning about the war. He had been at a meeting of local leaders. Not one was willing to give an inch to Hitler. But, they asked, how was it possible to go on like this? They passed resolutions demanding shelters and evacuation and proper treatment for the homeless, and they added a question as to whether it was not possible to end the war without giving in to Hitler. In another month, if things go on like this, he said, that resolution "will have become a cry to stop the war". If that happens it will be the fault of Sir John Anderson, the Minister of Health and the Local Authorities.

Kingsley Martin 1940

Marxist history

Review of The English Revolution: 1640, edited by Christopher Hill. Obviously a Marxist version of the Civil War must represent it as a struggle between a rising capitalism and an obstructive feudalism, which in fact it was. But men will not die for things called capitalism or feudalism, and will die for things called liberty or loyalty, and to ignore one set of motives is as misleading as to ignore the others. This, however, is what the authors of this book do their best to do. Early in the first essay, the familiar note is struck:

"The fact that men spoke and wrote in religious language should not prevent us realising that there is a social content behind what are purely theological ideas. Each class created and sought to impose the religious outlook best suited to its own needs and interests. But the real clash is between these class interests."

In that cocksure paragraph one can see the main weakness of Marxism: its failure to interpret human motives. Religion, morality, patriotism and so forth are invariably written off as "superstructure", a sort of hypocritical cover-up for the pursuit of economic interests. If that were so, one might well ask why it is that the "superstructure" has to exist. If no man is ever motivated by anything except class interests, why does every man constantly pretend he is motivated by something else?

George Orwell 1940

Country diary

Two remarks made to me last Sunday may serve to illustrate the attitude of panic-stricken Kent. One was made by the local air warden, inquiring by telephone whether any bomb or plane had fallen in or near my garden. It was thought likely and, if so, should be reported. When I reassured her she exclaimed: "But surely you didn't miss the dog-fight? They were just like butterflies flying around each other, lovely to watch." Butterflies . . . Well. The air warden is a naturalist. The other remark was of a more practical nature. We had just counted a third wave of forty bombers and fighters roaring past, leaving white streamers like the wake of ships across the blue. "Please, madam," said a quiet voice, "would you like luncheon out of doors?"

Vita Sackville-West 1940

Miss Leigh's triumph

Gone with the Wind is a film to make D W Griffith green in his grave and Cecil B de Mille look to his gilded crown. An epic of the Old South during the civil war, running time three hours and forty minutes, expense account in astral figures, photographed throughout in Technicolor, moreover giving painless birth to a new star - it will be a hard task to surpass this gargantuan production. The first half of the picture is utterly absorbing: it is possible to ignore the vagaries of Technicolor (the livid sky, the greenish light) and the hackneyed characterisation, in the fascination of watching the Old South so prettily described, of observing Vivien Leigh's lively performance, and of gaping at the violent realism of the war sequences. It is amazing how completely this film has abandoned polite cinematic convention; if any of the ladies are ill they look ill, if they go out in a storm their hair goes straight, the sequences in a hospital in Atlanta are brutally lifelike, and a scene in which Miss Leigh shoots a Yankee soldier in the face exceeds the conventional bounds of realism. The second half of the picture develops the character of the heroine and deals off-hand with life in the South after the war; there is too much of birth, death and a tedious marriage and, as the characters are little more than types, the interest is not sustained. Nevertheless, Miss Leigh continues to delight and there are some beautiful scenes and costumes. The enormous cast includes Clark Gable, Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland, but it is exclusively Miss Leigh's film. It is doubtful if Gone with the Wind will have the same success in England as in America; the English are not addicts, as are the Americans, of the cinema, and, like an overdose of cocaine to the novice, a visit to the film will probably result not in exhilaration but in complete anaesthesia.

Anthony Bower 1940

Joyce remembered

He would go to the piano and sing Dublin street ballads with a charming, drawling, nasal parody of the old itinerant singers. He talked endlessly about Ireland. "I am afraid I am more interested, Mr Connolly, in the Dublin street names than in the riddle of the Universe." He was even interested in Irish cricket, and always, when I knew him, wore the white blazer of an obscure Dublin club. He was very proud of his family and, like all the Anglo-Irish, a snob.

In Paris he liked good food, and going to the opera, and order and wealth. Sometimes, however, he went out with Hemingway or Lewis and got drunk. He always seemed to be two men, the legendary Joyce, blind but patient, pompous, cold, easily offended, unapproachable, with a strange priestly blend of offended dignity, weakness and intellectual power, and underneath the warm, bawdy Irish character. Revolutionary in technique yet conservative in everything else, so deadly respectable in his life, so fearlessly sensual in his writings, so tortured with the lapsed Catholic's guilt, so obsessed with his own youth that his clock seemed literally to have stopped on June 16th, 1904, and yet so determined to create a mythical universe of his own.

Cyril Connolly 1941

Ireland's neutrality

Before, during and after the Anglo-Irish negotiations of 1938, Mr de Valera laid far more emphasis on Partition than on all other issues combined. Again and again, he insisted that until this final barrier was removed all talk of complete Anglo-Irish reconciliation was wishful thinking. And he predicted, in accents unmistakable in their meaning, the kind of Irish situation that would arise in the event of a British war. I have returned from a tour of Ireland deeply conscious that he has proved a true prophet. So long as Ireland remains partitioned and - a not quite inevitable corollary - the nationalist minority in the Six Counties continue to be discriminated against in defiance of all British democratic principles, the most seductive Englishman will fail to convince the most amenable Irishman that the Allies are fighting "against aggression" and "on behalf of democracy". The British cause, to Irishmen, is simply the patriotic cause of Britain, in which certain other countries have become involuntarily caught up through German invasion. It is not a cause whose nobility or whose claim on British lives Irishmen would dream of questioning. Nor do they criticise those of their own number who cross the border to enlist in the British Forces. But it is not a cause for which one Irish parent in a hundred will send his son to die; or one Irish voter in a hundred consent to plunge his country into war.

Frank Pakenham 1941

Revolutionary art

The sufferings of the refugee German artists are so directly reflected in their work as to disarm impartial criticism. Oskar Kokoschka, for instance, a painter of indubitable talent, offers a picture entitled What We are Fighting For, that can be applauded for its moral intention. Erich Khan and F Salomoski show similar but less brilliant works, and those who look in pictures for disciplined imagination rather than what Mr Kokoschka calls "the revolutionary spirit" will find satisfaction in two excellent paintings by Fred Uhlman. The trouble with the "revolutionary" pictures is that they make little effect upon the unsophisticated, because the idiom is so esoteric, and even less upon lovers of art, because they show neither control nor sensibility. They fall short of their object alike as propaganda and as art. But the sincerity of the painters is unquestionable and doubtless there are spectators who will find in these turbulent and agonised works an expression of their own profound emotions.

Roger Marvell 1944

Bolts from the blue

Everyone has his own story of the flying bomb. I have spent most of the weekend listening, watching, pointing and exchanging gossip. On rooftops and in pubs one heard of nothing else; it called for drinks, it put off dinner hours, it brought out the theoretician and the bogeyman. And while the knots of talkers were still speculating, another would come bumbling over, the guns would crack, the drone would suddenly cease, and for a few instants sickening uncertainty took the place of gossip.The elation of "Here it comes" is followed by a sense of insignificance as the projectile sails into view, making its way towards us like a model speedboat on a pond. It's insistent and deadly and there's no escaping the frustration of that guttering-out that precedes the thud. Another drone, another silence, another bang - nearer, perhaps, this time. Nothing you can do about it: the blasted thing gives out and there you are.

G W Stonier 1944

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery