By Will Loxley

Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 388 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-4746-1570-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There is something about the period covered by this book – roughly 1939-45, give or take a little bit on either side – that continues to intrigue. Is it because it was a time when the threat of death or serious injuries seemed possible, so living was more intense? Or is it because the people who were then active in the literary world appear to have been, in some ways, more talented and courageous than we are? It’s difficult to imagine that  going to work in an office or factory in the morning might mean returning home in the evening to find the place where we lived no longer in existence. And, of course, there was always the threat of conscription hanging over the heads of those eligible to serve in the armed forces. Some people didn’t wait to be called up and volunteered, others went when summoned, perhaps not always willingly but with a broad feeling that wearing a uniform was an unfortunate necessity.

Certain people managed to find ways to serve without having to don khaki or whatever. They worked for government departments, such as the Ministry of Information, producing material to boost national morale. A few found ways around conscription by faking illnesses. Will Loxley tells the tale of Dylan Thomas deliberately drinking himself into a state where his appearance before the draft board would show him as unfit for service. It can be seen as a not very noble act, but I doubt that he would have made a useful soldier in any case. Julian Maclaren-Ross did have a brief army stint, but was soon discharged on medical grounds. Some of his short stories record the experience of life in a barrack-room in his usual laid-back manner.

And then there were Auden and Isherwood who decided before hostilities got under way that life in the United States would suit them better. Oxley discusses their roles in the literature of the 1930s and the impact their leaving Britain had on the literary left-wing of the time. From Loxley’s account, both were experiencing a feeling of dissatisfaction with the “Popular Front, the party line, the anti-Fascist struggle”. Or were they just bored and had never truly been all that committed? For many people, not necessarily always from the left, it was an act of betrayal, especially so where Auden was concerned.  Loxley seems to come down harder on him than on Isherwood, and his account of the poet passing through London in an American Army officer’s uniform at the end of the war, and extolling the virtues of  life in the United States, has a slightly disapproving, if understandable ring to it.

Writing in the Dark isn’t concerned to tell us what life was like in uniform. As its title indicates it mostly revolves round the denizens of Bloomsbury, their literary activities, and their experiences of the Blitz. Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and their Hogarth Press, clearly have a part to play in the narrative, and so does John Lehman. Although at one time deeply involved with the running of the Hogarth Press, Lehman eventually fell out with Leonard Woolf. He was soon to become editor of Penguin New Writing which proved popular and easily outsold Horizon. To be fair, the aims of the two magazines differed. In simple terms, Penguin New Writing considered itself very much of its time in that it printed a wide range of material from a wide range of contributors and reflected life in the forces and the factories. It would be wrong to suggest that it only used such material, however, and its contents were varied.

Horizon, on the other hand, was designed more to sustain an air of cultural independence. It looked back to past periods to summon up a tone of intellectual seriousness that, it seemed, needed to be cultivated in the dark days of the War. It would have been hard to imagine Penguin New Writing publishing Enid Starkie’s two-part essay about “Eccentrics of Eighteen-Thirty”, which Horizon did in May and June, 1944.  But would John Hampson’s “Movements in the Underground” have appeared in Cyril Connolly’s magazine? It was published by Lehman in the Spring and Summer 1946 issues of Penguin New Writing. It’s doubtful if many of the writers referred to by Hampson would have been of great interest to Connolly. To add a personal note, I was delighted when, visiting second-hand bookshops, I picked up somewhat worn but readable copies of the issues of Horizon with the Starkie essay. It is entertaining and informative.

Stephen Spender appeared in both magazines and receives much more than a passing mention in Writing in the Dark. Described by Loxley as “the poster boy of the movement of British intellectuals against fascism”, he seemed to be everywhere in literary London. He had something of a colourful personal life, too, with “sexual adventures” with both men and women. I can recall a conversation with an old poet and communist who had been around in the 1930s when one of Spender’s male companions ran off to join the International Brigades in Spain. He was quite scathing about Spender’s own reasons for going to Spain – “in pursuit of his boy-friend” – but Loxley says that he felt guilty for having persuaded the man in question that communism was beneficial and Franco had to be defeated. He is, in fact, largely sympathetic to Spender during the wartime years, and acknowledges that, as opposed to Auden and Isherwood, he’d stayed in England, and served in the Auxiliary Fire Service during the Blitz.

It’s fascinating to read about Cyril Connolly and what might on the surface seem his haphazard way of editing Horizon. As was made clear in D.J. Taylor’s Lost Girls: Love, War and Literature 1939-59 (Constable, 2019), much of the work essential to keep the magazine appearing regularly in difficult circumstances was done by various women who, for one reason or another, found Connolly attractive and interesting. It might be difficult now to understand why that was so, though it could be that he overwhelmed them with his intellectual capabilities. He was better-educated than they were, and presumably had some sort of charisma to persuade them that he was worthy of their admiration. But reading about his general behaviour during the war years doesn’t make him out to be an endearing character.

The impression is that he was selfish and almost viewed the war as a personal affront to his needs and interests. Loxley has a pointed comment to make about how Connolly probably saw the general situation with regard to what he looked to for inspiration: “Literature was in fact becoming more democratic but less important”. The success of Penguin New Writing, and of another similar pocket-paperback magazine, Reginald Moore’s Modern Reading, indicates how a democratic spirit prevailed both in the contents and distribution. And was literature “less important” because of that fact? Connolly’s elitist (some would say) opinion may not have been the right one. 

Having said that, I have to admit to thinking that he made a major contribution to asserting the need to maintain a belief in a civilised way of living and appreciating art and literature. I have a copy of The Golden Horizon (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1953), an anthology edited by Connolly from the magazine, and it shows how much excellent writing appeared in Horizon. And that, whatever Connolly’s own feelings about the war may have been, he didn’t overlook the way in which writers were responding to it. A line like “Sweet the grey morning, and the raiders gone”, from a short poem by E.J. Scovell, captures the sense of relief at having survived one more night that must have been a common experience at the time.

The atmosphere during the Blitz Is well-evoked by Loxley, as is the later phase when “flying bombs” began to hit London in 1944. That it was possible to hear them approaching, and then the motors cutting out so they could fall, meant that apprehension became a part of daily life: “The fact that the doodlebugs were coming over at all hours of the day meant that not only sleep but also work, meetings and parties were now constantly being interrupted”. Loxley quotes an anecdote about a poetry reading involving Edith Sitwell and her brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell. She was reading as the sound of an approaching doodlebug became obvious: “Only once, between a line or stanza break, did her eyes lift to the ceiling, before continuing to read at greater volume”. John Lehman recalled that it was a “magnificent performance”, and Loxley adds that “The implication, as everyone in the audience felt at the time, was that poetry was more important than all the terrors that Hitler could launch against them”. I can’t help wondering if Cyril Connolly was present at the reading?

Anecdotes often illustrate a time and place better than detailed descriptions, and more than one of the personalities who appear in Writing in the Dark can provide material for them. Dylan Thomas is an obvious example, and his behaviour was usually guaranteed to upset many people. But the story that made me smile is the one about Thomas’s reaction when Julian Maclaren-Ross suggested keeping a bottle in the office where they both worked so they could have a pick-me-up for the inevitable mornings-after both often suffered from. Thomas, it seems, was shocked at the idea of drinking in the office.

Loxley, incidentally, has a short, but interesting discussion about whether or not Thomas can accurately described as a “war poet”. He comes to the conclusion that, although he may not have been in uniform, and perhaps gave the impression that he wasn’t much involved in the “war effort”, he did produce poems about what was happening. Looking back, Connolly included “Deaths and Entrances” and “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” in The Golden Horizon anthology.

When Paris was liberated Philip Toynbee wrote an article for the November 1944 issue of Horizon in which he said: “I know that praise of France at the expense of England is a greatly hated activity, but after sixteen days in this astonishing Paris of September 1944 it is an activity which cannot honestly be avoided……..the galleries are opening. The bookshops are anything but bare, the people are a thousand times more alive than London people”. He doesn’t seem to have offered an explanation of why Parisians were “more alive”. Was it simply the joy they felt at being liberated, whereas in September 1944 Londoners were still being bombed and it would be several more months before the war ended? There probably isn’t a single reason for the difference.

Loxley doesn’t take his account much beyond the end of the war. Horizon continued for a few more years, and it was significant that its large October 1947 issue featured American writers and critics. It was a sign of the increasing importance and influence of American literature. But 1950 saw the magazine calling it a day, as did Penguin New Writing with its 50th number. The boom years for little magazines were over as the realities of peace-time brought worries about work, housing, families, and other concerns. The late-1940s and into the early-1950s were years of austerity and there was little spare money to spend on producing or buying literary publications. And many of the writers who had written a few poems or a story or two in response to their experiences no longer felt the need, or had the time, to write when they returned to civilian life.

It may seem that Will Loxley has covered some familiar ground in Writing in the Dark as he works his way through the lives and wartime writings of Cyril Connolly, Stephen Spender, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Dylan Thomas and other well-known names, with asides about the lesser-known, like William Sansom, whose stories of firefighting in London are worth reading, and George Garrett, a now-forgotten working-class writer from Liverpool. But he’s managed to bring it all together in a very assured and readable manner. He quite successfully evokes the atmosphere of wartime London with its ever-present threat of death or injury and its effects on the literary scene. There are ample notes and recommendations for further reading.