Do come to me funeral

Mary Beard

  • Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford edited by Peter Sussman
    Weidenfeld, 744 pp, £25.00, November 2006, ISBN 0 297 60745 6

In 1934, one of the most disturbing aspects of the Red Menace and the creeping influence of Moscow – for the Daily Mail at least – was a public school magazine called Out of Bounds. Written and produced by a group of wealthy, disaffected teenagers, it was a mixture of political polemic, reviews of left-wing books and adolescent anxiety. There were articles on the arms race and on Fascism (a member of the Oundle School Fascist Youth Group, who wrote that the ultimate aim of Fascism was ‘Liberty, Justice and Tranquillity’, proved a sitting target for the magazine’s editor, who mused on ‘the Liberty of the Concentration Camp, the Justice of the Jewish Pogrom, the Tranquillity of Imperialist War’). But probably more popular with most readers were the complaints about corporal punishment, compulsory OTC and the restrictive rules of girls’ schools, as well as the upbeat reassurances about masturbation. In the fourth and final issue, ‘a doctor’ wrote to dispel the myths propagated by teachers on this subject: ‘some form of auto-eroticism is absolutely inevitable except in a person with complete sexual anaesthesia, a very rare psychological condition.’ This ‘doctor’ was presumably one of the young editors.

The editorial team of Out of Bounds had a sharp eye for publicity, blazoning across the masthead ‘Banned in Uppingham … Banned in Cheltenham’. But it was an expensive production at a shilling an issue, and short-lived. It would never have attracted such national attention (other papers also covered its launch, though with less of a sense of imminent danger than the Mail) if the leading spirit among the rebels had not been Esmond Romilly, the nephew by marriage – and, according to a powerful but probably unfounded rumour, the illegitimate son – of Winston Churchill. This was the work of Winston’s ‘Red Nephew’.

Many of Romilly’s co-conspirators followed the usual path of privileged young dissidents: they came – or were forced – back into the fold, at least for long enough to launch their careers. H.W. Stubbs of Charterhouse went on to teach classics at the University of Exeter. Philip Toynbee was expelled from Rugby, but then handed over to the monks of Ampleforth to be crammed, successfully, for a history scholarship to Oxford. John Peet ended up as head of the Reuters bureau in Berlin, before defecting to the East in 1950. Gavin Ewart, whose poems now seem the high-spot of Out of Bounds, went to Cambridge with an exhibition to read classics; he left Wellington with some farewell verses in celebration of onanism, incurring a presumably superfluous three-year ban on crossing the school’s threshold.

Romilly himself, however, had run away from Wellington by the time the first issue of the magazine was published, jumping before he was pushed. Unsurprisingly, Out of Bounds was not his only ‘crime’: he kept a bust of Lenin in his room, distributed the Communist Manifesto to his fellow pupils and had slipped anti-war leaflets into the hymn books at the Armistice Day service. There followed a disastrous term at progressive Bedales, his parents’ last hope for reform; a spin-off book, also called Out of Bounds (the TLS reviewer thought its literary style a credit to the public school education which its authors decried); and a short spell in a remand home, after his desperate and uncomprehending mother called the police when he turned up at home riotously drunk. Then, aged only 16, Romilly was off to join the International Brigades in Spain. Some of that irksome OTC discipline might actually have come in useful, but he was hopelessly ill-prepared and soon invalided back to Britain with dysentery.

There he met Jessica Mitford, a year older than himself, who had just finished her coming-out ‘season’. Mitford had not had the luxury of a school education, her parents – Lord and Lady Redesdale – not thinking it worth the trouble and expense for girls. But she shared most of Romilly’s enthusiasms and hatreds. In particular, unlike her sisters Diana and Unity, who were busy falling in love with both Fascism and Fascists (Oswald Mosley and Adolf Hitler respectively), Decca, as she was always called, was a would-be Communist, who scratched the hammer and sickle onto the windowpanes of the parental home with a diamond ring. Together, Mitford and Romilly ran off (or back, in his case) to Spain. Within days, what had begun, formally at least, as a political journey, had become an elopement.

Some gunboat diplomacy followed. Anthony Eden, then foreign secretary, sent a cable to the consul in Bilbao asking him to ‘FIND JESSICA MITFORD AND PERSUADE HER TO RETURN.’ Mitford was made a ward of court and nearly lured onto a British destroyer (which would have whisked her back to England) by the handsome captain’s offer of roast chicken and chocolate cake. Sister Nancy and her husband also turned up, courtesy of the British Navy, and tried to persuade her to come home. In the end, Romilly and Mitford left Spain – the British threatened to stop all refugee evacuation from the Basque country if they didn’t – but were allowed to marry in the South of France, with both mothers in attendance.

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