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When the first bombs fell on London in August 1940, the city was transformed overnight into a battlefront. For most Londoners, the sirens, guns, planes and bombs heralded gruelling nights of sleeplessness, fear and loss. But for Graham Greene and some of his contemporaries, this was a bizarrely euphoric time when London became the setting for intense love affairs and surreal beauty. At the height of the Blitz, Greene described the bomb-bursts as holding one 'like a love-charm'. As the sky whistled and the ground ...
When the first bombs fell on London in August 1940, the city was transformed overnight into a battlefront. For most Londoners, the sirens, guns, planes and bombs heralded gruelling nights of sleeplessness, fear and loss. But for Graham Greene and some of his contemporaries, this was a bizarrely euphoric time when London became the setting for intense love affairs and surreal beauty. At the height of the Blitz, Greene described the bomb-bursts as holding one 'like a love-charm'. As the sky whistled and the ground shook, nerves were tested, loyalties examined and infidelities begun.
The Love-charm of Bombs is a powerful wartime chronicle told through the eyes of five prominent writers: Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke (writing as Henry Green). Volunteering as ambulance drivers, fire-fighters and ARP wardens, these were the successors to the soldier poets of the First World War and their story has never been told. Now, opening with a meticulous evocation of a single night in September 1940, Lara Feigel brilliantly and beautifully interweaves letters, diaries and fiction with official civil defence records to chart the history of a burning world in wartime London and post-war Vienna and Berlin. She reveals the haunting, ecstatic, often wrenching stories that triumphed amid the mess of a war-torn world.
"[A] fascinating and brilliantly researched group biography . . . an extraordinary tapestry of life in wartime, from September 1940 in London to the ruins of postwar Europe . . . This is a glorious mixture of history, literature and riveting gossip about war as—yes—an aphrodisiac . . . what remains with you at the end of this engaging book is the sense that Larkin was right, and that after the bomds, after the grieving, 'what will survive of us is love.'" —Bel Mooney, Daily Mail
"The Love-Charm of Bombs is full of good things, clearly expressed, and captures well the strange euphoria of war, and the equally unexpected sense of dreariness when it is over." —Craig Brown, Sunday Mail
"One pleasure of this brave and original book is seeing these lives overlap, mirror each other, and diverge . . . Feigel shows the English in a new light: not cold or repressed, but a sensuous people for whom love matters most of all. She also shows why the period from September 1940 to May 1941, when we stood alone against the powers of darkness, remains the defining moment in our recent history." —Peter J. Conradi, Independent
"Feigel has written a wonderful book in a critical genre in which she is a pioneer. There will, for sure, be more works of 'new biography.' Let’s hope they are as good as this one." —John Sutherland, New Statesman
"A fine account of how five writers responded imaginatively to the blitz . . . Lara Feigel, a young critic, has transformed this insight into an absorbing and well-researched group biography of five prominent writers . . . She persuasively demonstrates that London in 1941 sponsored all the sensations usually found on the battlefield . . . Feigel is particularly good on the erotic corollary to the blitz: wartime passion." —Robert McCrum, Observer
"Vivid account . . . Reads like an apocalyptic thriller . . . Feigel describes the drama hour by hour, much of it through the eyes of her subjects, in a fashion that brings Sarah Waters’s excellent Second World War novel The Night Watch to mind . . . A fine book that brings the writers of the Second World War into the spotlight . . . The breadth and depth of Feigel’s research is admirable, but this is not a dry account of famous lives. Her love and curiosity about her subjects is palpable and her writing style is simple but affecting. It is a substantial study but the 465 pages fly by surprisingly quickly . . . A thrilling insight to each writer’s response to war, both published and private." —Independent on Sunday
"At a time when many dons sterilise themselves in theory, defend their flimsy doctrines inside dense thickets of jargon, and are oblivious of human character or motive, Feigel writes with modesty and grace, never patronises or sentimentalises her subjects, and makes the reader glad to be sharing her ideas. The Love-Charm of Bombs is a bounding success as an account of wartime London and as a study of highly strung but tough characters under stress, and of the way that novelists transmute adultery into great art . . . I haven’t for many a year read a book of literary scholarship with such impatience to know what happens next." —Richard Davenport-Hines, Sunday Telegraph
"Scintillating account of the lives of London litterateurs during the Blitz." —Scotsman
"A skilfully composed group portrait . . . The result is deeply interesting, because Feigel is a good storyteller and responsive to the nuances of expression in the period." —Tessa Hadley, Guardian
"[An] excellent group biography." —Scotsman
"Lara Feigel's book is a well-researched, novelistically narrated story . . . [an] engaging and well-handled group biography." —Sam Leith, Spectator
"Feigel has thoroughly researched her subject." —Sunday Express
"From these various fragments she has created a meticulously researched and elegantly rendered whole." —Newsweek
"An enchanting biography . . . A genuinely accessible text." —Western Daily Press
"Her new book, in the estimation of the Mail on Sunday’s Craig Brown, 'is full of good things, clearly expressed, and captures well the strange euphoria of war, and the equally unexpected sense of dreariness when it is over' . . . Richard Davenport-Hines, in the Daily Telegraph, pronounced it 'a bounding success as an account of wartime London and as a study of highly strung but tough characters under stress, and of the way that novelists transmute adultery into great art . . . I haven’t for many a year read a book of literary scholarship with such impatience to know what happens next.'" —Oldie
"The descriptions of the atmosphere in London during the Blitz are extraordinary." —Cara (Aer Lingus)
"Lara Feigel attracted very good notices for her study of literary London during the blitz . . . An ideal book for that wet afternoon by the beach." —Robert McCrum, Observer, Summer Reads
"A strikingly original book. It succeeds in its ambitious combination of group biography and literary criticism . . . The Love-charm of Bombs excels in demonstrating that these years of bleakness and loss were also, for a fortunate few, a time of extraordinary excitement and literary aspiration." —Economist
"A lovingly researched book that focuses on the experiences of five writers living in London during those suspenseful months . . . Ms. Feigel . . . Writes well about Bowen, Greene and Green . . . Ms. Feigel’s sympathetic portrait of the woman unkindly referred to by Virginia Woolf as 'a spindle shanked withered virgin' is especially welcome because no good biography has as yes been written of Macaulay. By revealing her under pressure during those wartime years, when she lost not only her home, but also her secret lover of almost two decades, Ms. Feigel animates a rare, passionate and courageous figure . . . This is an enterprising, lively and original work, full of striking cameos and fresh insights." —International Herald Tribune
"A fascinating work of high art and low morals . . . A seductive mix of history, literature and gossip, it reveals war to be the most potent of aphrodisiacs and proves that novelists can transmute adultery into great literature." —Sebastian Shakespeare, Tatler
"Another brilliantly researched story, this time of life and love from London to Vienna, as five famous writers dodged the falling bombs." —Daily Telegraph
By 26 September 1940 Londoners were gradually becoming accustomed to air raids. It was now clear that the war in Britain had finally begun after a year of false starts.
When war was declared the previous September, the government and public prepared for the immediate bombing of London. Graham Greene and Henry Yorke were not unusual in hastily evacuating their wives and children to the countryside. Both men readied themselves for the deaths they thought could not be long in coming, with Greene drafting his will and Yorke writing his autobiography. Greene prepared for the raids by finding a builder to put plywood under his skylight to prevent broken glass falling inside; throughout London people queued up to have gas masks fitted and attempted to build shelters in their gardens. But these precautions proved premature. The first year of war came to be known as the 'phoney war' because the expected invasion and aerial bombardment failed to materialise. Away from home, the Battle of the Atlantic was playing out at sea, but in London it was a period characterised by anticlimactic waiting. By the late autumn of 1939, people had stopped carrying gas masks and there was a ban on recruiting any more ARP wardens.
The war in Europe began in earnest in the spring of 1940. Germany invaded Norway and Denmark in April and the Low Countries and France in May. Allied forces were quickly cut off in Belgium and then evacuated from Dunkirk. The Germans next pushed further into France, occupying Paris by 14 June. This was an unexpectedly dramatic victory which isolated Britain and gave the Germans and other Axis powers an immediate advantage in Europe. On 18 June Winston Churchill, who had now succeeded Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister, predicted the beginning of the Battle of Britain. Two weeks earlier he had vowed never to surrender, fighting on the beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets and hills. Now he repeated that Britain would fight on, 'if necessary for years, if necessary alone', assuring the populace that they would look back on this as their Y nest hour. At this stage, people were expecting a full invasion. 'The prospect of invasion of England no longer absurd,' Hilde Spiel lamented in her diary after the Germans were victorious in Norway; 'This would mean death.' Official warnings blended with unofficial rumours suggesting that hundreds of German parachutists were about to land in Britain disguised as monks or nuns, with collapsible bicycles concealed beneath their habits.
The Battle of Britain did materialise that summer, but at first London remained unharmed. There were small daylight raids on coastal towns in the south and east in June and July and then, when the British Foreign Secretary rejected a final offer of peace from Germany on 22 July, the Germans embarked on an air battle, intending to wipe out Britain's air defences. Initially the Luftwaffe engaged RAF fighter planes in aerial combat. Then in August they attempted to destroy Britain's fighter defences, attacking airfields and radar stations. By the end of the month 1,333 people had been killed in raids. Nonetheless, these summer attacks were colloquially known as 'nuisance raids' and the British remained dismissive of their effects. 'There are two corrections I want to make to current Nazi propaganda,' the playwright J. B. Priestley informed the nation in a broadcast on 9 July:
First air raids. There has been a great deal of German raiding lately, but the results, so far from being effective, either as regards military objectives or civilian morale, have been so negligible that the general opinion here has been that these raids can only have been feelers, attempts to discover where the best defences are located.
The Nazis, he implied tauntingly, were not really trying.
However, during the second half of August the German bombers moved progressively inland and began to incorporate the suburbs of London in their attacks. On the night of 18 August bombs fell in Croydon and in Wimbledon, where Hilde Spiel was living. On 22 August the first bombs fell in central London, giving Churchill an excuse to order an air attack on Berlin, which materialised on 25 August. Hitler in his turn used the bombing of Berlin as a pretext to command a more sustained attack on London. On 4 September he announced to the citizens of Germany that in England they were asking scornfully, 'Why doesn't he come?' They would not have to wait much longer. 'He's coming! He's coming!' When the RAF dropped three or four thousand kilograms of bombs on Germany, Hitler boasted that the Luftwaffe would respond with several hundred thousand kilograms. 'When they declare that they will increase their attacks on our cities, then we will raze their cities to the ground!' Still defiant, Priestley boasted the next day that Londoners were going on as normal, despite the sirens. There were searchlights at night, making rapidly changing patterns in the sky, and 'many-coloured flares blazing like sudden comets'. But it was surprising, on the whole, what little difference it made.
He spoke too soon. On 7 September Göring declared that as a result of the provocative British attacks on Berlin 'the Führer has decided to order a mighty blow to be struck in revenge against the capital of the British Empire'. That night London suffered its first major attack. At five in the afternoon a swarm of planes flew in from Kent towards the London docks. By 6.30 much of the East End was on Y re and the streets were strewn with fallen bricks and broken glass. Later on, heavy bombs landed in Chelsea and Victoria while others continued to destroy the East End. Looking back on that night, William Sansom recalled that:
when the western skies had grown already dark the fierce red glow in the East stuck harshly fast and there was seen for the first time that black London roofscape silhouetted against what was to become a monotonously copper-orange sky.
As a full-time auxiliary fireman, Henry Yorke was engaged in defending London from the start of the raids, risking his life night after night at the docks. 'I've fought fires every night since Saturday,' he wrote to Rosamond Lehmann on 11 September,
have had three in one day and the two longest, Surrey Commercial Docks and St Paul's, lasted 12 hours without a relief. The Docks one was the worst, bombed continuously from 9pm to 3am in the middle of a timber yard alight and completely out of control. I was lucky to get out.
Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene and Rose Macaulay had longer to wait before they were directly involved, but by the third day of the Blitz the bombs were falling indiscriminately across London and no area seemed safe. 'I hear little by little of the various bomb-damages in London,' Macaulay told her sister on 8 September; 'Hoxton again was badly hit, even streets in Kensington and round Paddington.'
On 9 September, just around the corner from the area Greene was patrolling as an ARP warden, Virginia Woolf's Bloomsbury home in Mecklenburgh Square was hit by a high explosive (HE) and an unexploded bomb. Woolf went to London to survey the damage and found that the square was roped off to the public but she could peer in from behind. A house thirty yards away from theirs was completely ruined. 'Scraps of cloth hanging to the bare walls at the side still standing,' she reported; 'A looking glass I think swinging. Like a tooth knocked out – a clean cut.' The Woolfs started making urgent plans to move the Hogarth Press and all its equipment out of the house, but a week later the unexploded bomb exploded and the house and with it the Press was destroyed. '"We have need of all our courage" are the words that come to the surface this morning; on hearing that all our windows are broken, ceilings down, and most of our china smashed,' Woolf observed in her diary. Bowen and Macaulay, both close friends of Woolf's, wrote to console her, terrified that their own homes would be next. 'When your X at went did that mean all the things in it too?' Bowen asked. 'All my life I have said, "Whatever happens there will always be tables and chairs" – and what a mistake.'
Churchill urged Londoners to remain resilient. 'Hitler expects to terrorise and cow the people of this mighty city,' he announced on the radio on 11 September. 'Little does he know the spirit of the British nation, or the tough fibre of the Londoners.' But the heavy raids continued throughout September. Several stations and major buildings in London were hit in the first week of attacks: Somerset House, Whitehall, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace had all been struck by 15 September, though none of these was seriously damaged. Meanwhile houses and flats throughout London were destroyed by explosion and Y re. Gradually people learnt to tell the difference between the sounds of HEs, incendiary bombs, parachute mines (dropped from aeroplanes to detonate at roof level) and defensive guns. Initially, the anti-aircraft guns in London were non-existent but by 10 September guns had been brought in from throughout Britain. Only one shell in 2,000 reached its target but morale improved now that London was heard to defend itself so noisily. William Sansom described how on 11 September guns started up from every side as soon as the enemy bombers came droning down, creating a 'momentous sound that sent a chattering, smashing, blinding thrill through the London heart'. There had been gunfire before, but nothing like this. 'A violent medley of angry sounds, urgently accumulating like the barking of a pack of dogs, a rattling of pompoms and a booming of great naval guns.' At this stage there were raids by both day and night but on 15 September the Germans started concentrating their attacks on the night-time, deterred from daytime sorties by heavy Luftwaffe losses.
Politicians and journalists praised the resilience of Londoners engaged in defending their city. All the civil defence services were learning from experience and improving in efficiency and efficacy. Firemen now knew to keep the stirrup pump unlashed and to have water ready drawn. They had also become less fearful in dealing with Y re. In a broadcast on 10 September, J. B. Priestley lauded the ARP services both for their organisation and for 'the quality of service given by the men and women acting as air wardens, fire fighters, and as members of emergency squads'; this service could not be bought with money and sprang instead 'out of a deep devotion to and love of this great city and its people'.
But despite a widespread determination to resist the Germans and keep going, Londoners were becoming cumulatively exhausted by the succession of all-night raids. 'To work or think was to ache,' Bowen wrote in The Heat of the Day. 'In offices, factories, ministries, shops, kitchens the hot yellow sands of each afternoon ran out slowly; fatigue was the one reality. You dared not envisage sleep.' Sleeplessness compounded anxiety. No one had any idea where the bombing would lead, or if London would end up flattened. 'How fantastic life has become,' Rose Macaulay wrote to her sister on 11 September. 'I wonder if London will soon lie in ruins, like Warsaw and Rotterdam.'
Increasingly involved in their local battle, Londoners became isolated from the war as it progressed in the outside world. William Sansom recalled how in this period 'out in the wide world of the war' Quisling had assumed power in Norway, Germany was extending its power in Romania, and ominously Hitler met Mussolini on the Brenner. Britain itself was involved in raids on western Germany and naval engagements in the Atlantic. 'But every night in the dark small world of London's intimate streets these matters receded, and under the urging drone of the bombers, the weaving searchlights, the thunder of bombs and the crack of guns the moments became vivid and active.' These were
hot, cold, sharp, slow moments of intense being; moments that then extended themselves into hours, that brought with them the exhaustion of cold and sleeplessness, so that the total experience is most remembered as a curious double exposure of tensity and dullness.
Each night of the Blitz was a self-contained moment in itself. And as darkness fell on the evening of 26 September, Bowen, Greene, Macaulay, Spiel and Yorke waited anxiously to see what this particular moment would involve.
Excerpted from THE LOVE-CHARM OF BOMBS by Lara Feigel. Copyright © 2013 Lara Feigel. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
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PART I: One Night in the Lives of Five Writers 26 September 1940..........
1 7 p.m.: Blackout.................... 17
2 10 p.m.: Fire.................... 35
3 1 a.m.: Rescue.................... 51
4 6 a.m.: All Clear.................... 67
PART II: The Blitz September 1940–May 1941....................
5 'War, she thought, was sex'.................... 85
6 'Ireland can be dementing'.................... 101
7 'How we shall survive this I don't know'.................... 116
8 'So much else is on the way to be lost'.................... 136
PART III: The Lull June 1941–May 1944....................
9 'You are the ultimate of something'.................... 161
10 'Can pain and danger exist?'.................... 185
11 'Only at night I cry'.................... 200
12 'Alas, what hate everywhere'.................... 216
PART IV: Approaching Victory June 1944–August 1945....................
13 'Droning things, mindlessly making for you'.................... 241
14 'A collective intoxication of happiness'.................... 261
15 'The days were listless and a flop'.................... 272
PART V: Surveying the Ruins....................
Post-war Europe 1945–9.................... 291
16 'The magic Irish light and the soft air'.................... 294
17 'Flying, no, leaping, into the centre of the mainland'.................. 314
18 'O, maybe we'll live a while in Killala'.................... 336
19 'The returning memory of a dream long forgotten'.................... 354
20 'The place I really did lose my heart to was Vienna'.................... 367
PART VI: Mid-century: Middle Age....................
21 'We could have been happy for a lifetime'.................... 397
22 'Let us neither of us forget ... what reality feels like and eternity
23 'The world my wilderness, its caves my home'.................... 433