Bumptious, bitchy and belligerent

This evocation of London literati in wartime is a bombshell of a first book


This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Will Loxley’s Writing in the Dark, an evocation of London literati in wartime, is a bombshell of a first book. Having steeped himself in the diaries, letters and memoirs of an oddly neglected era in English letters, the author has composed a series of vignettes which come as close as possible, at a distance of some 80 years, to recreating his subjects’ stream of consciousness. The reader has the illusion that, yes: it must have been like that to share a taxi with W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, a drawing room with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, an editorial office with Stephen Spender and Cyril Connolly, or a pub with Dylan and Caitlin Thomas.

Writing in the Dark: Bloomsbury, the Blitz and Horizon Magazine by Will Loxley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20

It is, nonetheless, an illusion. We cannot really know, as Connolly did, how it felt to be cooked steak and chips by George Orwell or to sit by his hospital bed as he lay dying of tuberculosis. We can, thanks to Loxley’s sinuous prose and ingenious imagination, experience the vicarious trauma of being bombed out in the Blitz, as John Lehmann and the Woolfs both were, or being badly injured by an army lorry in the blackout, as was Connolly’s assistant and lover Diana Witherby.

Though it is within living memory, the world of Writing in the Dark is so remote from our own, however, that the irresistible force of Loxley’s cinematic technique and accumulation of detail come up against the immovable object of oblivion. The past is still a foreign country and these writers did things differently there.

What gives this book its vividness and relevance, however, is the fortuitous experience of the pandemic. We are still living through an episode not comparable in existential terror to the Second World War, but still sufficiently strange to enable us to see familiar people and surroundings in a new light.

Loxley tells us straight out: “This was a lockdown book.” It reads like it. When he weaves his tapestry of anecdotes to conjure up the strangeness of the capital’s ordeal, we can identify with his eye witnesses to death-dealing doodlebugs and V2 rockets.

What gives this book its vividness and relevance is the fortuitous experience of the pandemic

We know, too, what it is like to encounter those who have contrived to escape the whole beastly business, and who, as a result, have become virtual strangers. At the end of the war, Auden suddenly turns up at Lehmann’s flat in US Army uniform, bound for Germany to survey the ruins. He lectures his old friend about the superiority of American civilisation to the crumbling edifice of England. “I’m the first major poet to fly the Atlantic,” brags “Uncle Sam Auden”.

Lehmann’s barely suppressed rage can be sensed at the once glamorous poet who, together with Isherwood, had already sailed away to the safety of New York and California before the war had seriously inconvenienced them or their country: “He had torn up his English roots and replanted himself in America without, it seemed, a lingering glance of regret.” As a distinguished editor, he knew what “had been lost by their not sharing what the rest of us were experiencing in Britain under siege”.

That episode was treated by press and politicians as nothing less than desertion. The flight of Auden and Isherwood attracted the ire of Major Sir Jocelyn Lucas, moustachioed Conservative MP for Portsmouth South and former member of the British Union of Fascists. In the Commons, he demanded to know what the government would do about it. “Is my honourable friend aware of the indignation caused by young men leaving the country and saying that they will not fight? If they are not registered as conscientious objectors, will he see that they lose their citizenship?”

Hilariously, the Minister of Labour, Ralph Assheton, was unfamiliar with Auden’s poetry and confused him with “Bunny” Austin, the tennis player. But the bitterness of the Tory shires was shared by some of the poet’s peers. When Auden died in 1973, Kingsley Amis reported that his fellow novelist Anthony Powell could only expostulate: “I’m delighted that shit has gone.”

Death, though ubiquitous, is seldom directly encountered in this book. The one that leaves an indelible impression actually had little to do with the war. Virginia Woolf, the “sacred centre” of old Bloomsbury, still reigned when a younger generation of writers moved into her neighbourhood. Quite rightly, Loxley speaks of “two Bloomsburys”. The by then legendary author of To the Lighthouse and The Waves observed the antics of “baboon Connolly” and his chums with an amused and occasionally waspish sense of humour. She was disdainful of the very concept of Bloomsbury, mocking Spender and his flatmate, William Plomer, as “Maida Vale”.

Yet when the Blitz wrecked the Woolfs’ Bloomsbury homes, past as well as present, and forced their beloved Hogarth Press to relocate to Letchworth, Virginia’s fragile defences against mental illness began to crumble. Loxley does not dwell on her appalling medical history, beginning with hereditary bipolar disorder, the early loss of her mother, and childhood sexual abuse over nine years at the hands of her half-brothers. The result was a life precariously balanced between remarkable creativity and intense social life, followed by deep depressions and suicidal thoughts.

If she had lived another two decades (she was only 59 at her death), the advent of lithium treatment might have alleviated her torment. As it was, she was prescribed milk (then seen as a panacea) — up to five pints a day of it. Her husband Leonard summoned a psychiatrist they knew, Octavia Wilberforce, but she was unable to overcome the great novelist’s destructive self-criticism and her dread of impending madness. One March day in 1941 she left their bolthole in Rodmell, East Sussex, and drowned herself in the River Ouse.

Loxley finds a clue to her suicide in Between the Acts, the manuscript of which she had just completed but immediately rejected as “silly and trivial”. There she conjures the London blackout, a “night before roads were made, or houses … that dwellers in caves had watched from a high place among rocks”. From that dark night of the soul, she was never to emerge.

The theme of darkness permeates this book, from George Orwell’s image of writers living insulated from reality “inside the whale” to Spender’s description of London in the “Little Blitz” of 1944, as seen from his Hampstead flat after he and his wife Natasha had just survived a near miss: “Black and calm, with a few isolated fires rising from scattered areas, like tongues of flame fallen from the heavens upon a darkening view of Florence in some late morbid visioning of Botticelli.”

Apart from the war, the main connecting theme, however, is Horizon. The monthly magazine ran for exactly a decade in the 1940s, spanning the period from the Phoney War to the Cold War. Though it never sold more than 8,000 copies, this beacon of poetry, fiction, essays and reportage shone brightly in the gloom that threatened to engulf European civilisation.

Loxley tells the story and evokes the chaotic office at 6, Lansdowne Crescent with brilliance and without forgetting the minor characters. There was Peter Watson, the maecenas without whose money it would not have existed, working under a small Picasso. Then there were the “secretaries” (in reality assistant editors) Lys Lubbock, Diana Witherby and Sonia Brownell: the first two Connolly’s lovers, the last Orwell’s second wife. In the early days, Spender, too, was a fixture, while a Who’s Who of literary London drifted in and out.

The theme of darkness permeates this book, from George Orwell’s image of writers living insulated from reality to Spender’s description of London in the “Little Blitz”

Over it all, Connolly dominated the scene, looking out across Coram Fields to the gap-toothed squares of Bloomsbury. At home, he gave parties of conspicuous luxury, living far beyond his means, which eventually obliged him to take a second job as literary editor of David Astor’s Observer. Connolly kept hoping the police would arrive and Horizon would be closed down by the authorities, but the only censorship he suffered came from the printers, who took their legal responsibilities seriously and demanded changes if they detected defeatism or obscenity.

Ever since Enemies of Promise, with its haunting image of “the pram in the hall”, Connolly had insisted that everything else in his life was a diversion from the great English novel he was destined to write. Needless to say, he never wrote it; Horizon remains by far his most substantial achievement.

We are indebted to Will Loxley for resurrecting this bumptious, bitchy and belligerent bunch of buggers (only some of them literally so). He reminds us what misery they endured — or inflicted — but also what fun they had.

Does much of their writing in the dark matter to posterity? Orwell’s work most certainly should: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are seen as Cold War classics, but they are unimaginable without the London landscape and milieu delineated here with such wit and precision.

Of all the Horizon crowd, Orwell felt the pulse of wartime England better than any man alive, apart from Churchill himself. As Loxley concludes: “That was what a war-writer looked like.”

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