The title of Shiela Grant Duff’s book refers to the history of the Thirties – to the savaging of private lives by public events – but more specifically to her intense, emotional and eventually embittered relationship with Adam von Trott. She and von Trott met at Oxford, in the brief deceptive sunshine before the rise of the Nazis; von Trott was to die in 1944, shot for his part in the plot against Hitler. They were part of a circle of young people – Goronwy Rees, Douglas Jay, Isaiah Berlin and others – deeply involved in observation and anguished discussion of what was happening in Europe. Shiela Grant Duff became a journalist – foreign correspondent, virtually unpaid, of the Observer, whose arrangements seem to have been engagingly casual (‘I think we’ve got a correspondent in Prague… Oh no! I think he died, but if you should happen to meet him, just say you’re a correspondent’); by 1938, still only 25, she was being consulted by Churchill as one of the few people adequately informed on Czechoslovakia and was the friend of Nehru, Edgar Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News, Herbert Ripka, the Czech journalist. Connections helped, of course: her background was remorselessly upper-class – her mother had 72 first cousins, one of whom was Clementine Churchill. Ambassadors recognised their own kind and provided time and invitations. Nevertheless, she must have been a remarkable girl: idealistic, high-minded and convinced – naively but admirably – that it was possible for one person to prevent war and save the world. This was the resolve that took her straight from Oxford to Paris, to learn to be a journalist, see at first-hand what was happening in Europe, and write about it. Quixotic as this sounds, one cannot feel other than respectful, especially as she was so clearly driven by commitment rather than ambition: indeed, she seems to a large degree to have been constitutionally unfitted for the job – in Malaga, behind the Franco lines, she had the chance to witness one of the executions she was sent to find out about, and declined, human response triumphing over journalistic instinct.
It was Arnold Toynbee who set her on her course as a newspaperwoman (‘the way to stop war was to study the possible causes on the spot and the best way to do that was to work as the foreign correspondent of an influential newspaper’). She tried the Times, and was told a girl could not possibly work alongside men: she could send some fashion notes since she was going to be in Paris. But in Paris Edgar Mowrer took her under his wing and from then on, cushioned by her very small private income, she never looked back. By 1935 she was in the Saar for the plebiscite, of which she gives a powerful account; she emerged fervently mistrustful of British policy. From then on she was committed to opposing appeasement: in her introduction she refers to the book as ‘my passionate indictment of the fatal errors of British foreign policy…[a] damning account of the mistakes and betrayals of those years’. Passion blazes from its pages: passionate horror at the rise of the Nazis, the plague of ‘red spiders’ (swastikas) that she saw crawl from the Saar to Vienna and ultimately to her beloved Prague; passionate debate with Adam von Trott over what she saw as his increasingly deluded position; passionate partisanship of the Czechs. She wrote a Penguin Special (sixpence) on Czechoslovakia, brought Ripka to England and arranged for him to meet Churchill; her greatest indignation is reserved for the French and British betrayal of Benes: ‘Truly decisive, however, had been the behaviour of England and France. All the rest followed from this.’ She quotes the conviction of the British military attaché in Prague, Colonel Stronge, whose expertise on Czech defences had been communicated to both the Foreign Office and the War Office: ‘it was inconceivable that, if Hitler had been faced in 1938 with the certainty of French and British, and possibly Russian, intervention on behalf of the Czechs, he would have dared, or been permitted, to make war in defiance of the sound professional advice of his generals.’
Arguments and convictions litter the pages of this autobiography; it is a narrative of ideas as much as of events, of the author’s intellectual maturing and the doomed resistance of her friends and contemporaries to the uncontrollable winds of history. Except that they didn’t see it like that: to the bitter end, to August 1939, where she concludes her book with Adam von Trott’s last regretful letter to her (‘I have always believed that we did care for similar things… But I also painfully and frequently experienced your complete incapacity to understand and sympathise with a natural ally when his battle had to be fought in an environment different from yours’), they clung to the conviction that individuals could do something. And this is the crux of her debate with von Trott: it was a great deal easier to be English than to be German.
Another ideological divide crops up throughout the book: the generational war. Early on, the author refers to the famous King and Country motion at the Oxford Union, and forcefully defends her contemporaries against subsequent accusations: ‘The appeasers were the survivors of the tragic generation of 1914–18, not our own contemporaries who fought in the Spanish Civil War even before World War II, and who hated fascism.’ The pages of the book carry the distinctive flavour of the Thirties. It has that sense of a past almost more unreachable and detached than those that went before – there is one of those statutory photographs of the author and friends windswept on a Cornish beach – so that even to a reader just old enough to have been tousled on a beach herself at the time there is the feeling of an age that is now quite glassed-off, an England more distant than Edwardian or Victorian England.
What also emerges is the anger, the bitterness even, of the young, of those who saw what was happening and saw their own lives – the world – blighted by some kind of international perversity, a wickedness that was almost a force in itself, beyond human intervention. Reading the book, one keeps thinking of other records of these resentments: of Samuel Hynes’s The Auden Generation, in particular. To be young then was to feel detached in a particular kind of way: detached from the previous generation, the guilty men of 1914, and detached also from the future – because the future might not even exist. A sense of the precariousness and even the futility of private life comes across very strongly in Shiela Grant Duff’s account of her relationships: principally her long affair with Goronwy Rees, whom she might have married, and of course with Adam von Trott, who proposed in a rush of blood to the head that seems subsequently to have embarrassed them both. Of course, these were a particular kind of people: committed to public life, ambitious, individualistic and involved. Von Trott seems to have been driven by patriotism, a sentiment not looked on sympathetically by his English liberal friends a dirty word, even, for the post-1914 generation – and one that stifled reasoned debate on the German problem: ‘Adam regarded criticism of his country as one regards criticism of one’s family. One can criticise them oneself but does not like others to do so.’ The author, a convinced European, was only too pleased to condemn and attack what she saw as British betrayal of Czechoslovakia and failure to assess the Nazis. But they shared a sad conviction that at such a time public commitment had to come before private satisfactions. The book is full of renunciations and partings; the Thirties roll on, crisis succeeds crisis, the author moves from Paris to Berlin to Prague, back to England, across the Channel once more, swung always by external events. She parts from Goronwy Rees, who is depicted as charming, stimulating, given to dubious friendships and, in the last resort, as the author’s mother had wisely observed some time before, not ‘husband material’.
The reader of an autobiography hunts between the lines: what is not said is as informative as what is. Shiela Grant Duff admits to a fair share of good fortune: connections, her small income, the luck that landed her in the right place at the right time. The mystery element of her story, the unrevealed ingredient, is the personal quality that so caught the attention of the great and the good: something compulsive about a 22-year-old that led Nehru to spend a moonlit evening walking with her on Hampstead Heath, trying to answer devastating questions about whether man is naturally good or naturally evil (he dodged the issue).
Autobiographical style is significant. Shiela Grant Duff uses a sternly documentary form: narrative enriched by quotations from letters and papers. Philip Oakes, in his two volumes of autobiography, From Middle England and Dwellers All in Time and Space, goes for dramatisation, total recall which must be recollection enhanced by art. Philip Oakes is a poet and novelist. And the writer of fiction, I quite agree, is tempted to take liberties with fact: neither memory nor reality are adequate when you are trying to talk about what life is like – only art will do. This is not to complain; simply to take note. But I must admit that I preferred the looser narrative style of From Middle England to the rather remorseless dialogue of the subsequent volume: it allowed the author to give a fresher and more evocative picture of the physical and spiritual landscape of his childhood – specifically, there, of the Potteries in the Thirties. Because of his mother’s invalid state after a crippling brain operation, he was sent to be a Bluecoat Boy at the Royal Orphanage School in Wolverhampton at the age of eight, and the book is a good-humoured and unsentimental account of what must often have been a distressing childhood. The descriptions of place and mood are precise and accurate, owing their detachment, one feels, to the shrewd eye of the child as much as to the distancing of adult experience: the view is the one seen at the time, not another recovered with the alterations of hindsight. Dwellers All in Time and Space takes us into the Forties, when, at the age of 13, the author was sent to the Children’s Homes from which he went as a day boy to Darwen grammar school. In this volume, the narrative is entirely novelistic: dialogue for the most part. And robust, free-wheeling dialogue it is, plunging the reader convincingly into the rivalries and loyalties, the cunning and the chirpy valour, of adolescent boys. From time to time the sense of autobiography all but vanishes: the danger of selecting this note of immediacy, of a narrative style that is closer to fiction, is that belief is occasionally suspended. When the pretence is of total recollection, that sharper impact of selective memory is lost: we, the readers, know that this is not how our own lives look, in retrospect, and niggling doubts begin to gather. Where have the inadequacies of truth been topped up by art? Where have the sparsities of memory been filled out with fiction?
But Philip Oakes has to be congratulated on his reconstruction of what it was like to be 14 and despatched unconsulted to an institution which, while not exactly grim or uncharitable, was tough and uncompromising. The period detail is there: knockers-up and clogs, Glenn Miller and Brylcreem. But, curiously, any more significant tethering of lives to the times is not: the war itself barely echoes, only once or twice, distantly and off-stage, when the London Blitz is mentioned, or the prosaic daily landscape of black-out and gas-masks. It concerns the inmates of the Children’s Homes not at all. There, the preoccupations are the perennial ones of institutions: personalities, rules, how to work the system. The author is at his best on the complexities of adolescent sex, that curious tormented fantasy-land of expectations and disappointments, of myth and lumpen reality. He demonstrates nicely the different visions of sex that make it quite impossible for the poor things to reach any kind of understanding: the boys busy with a physical scoring system, while the girls, writing endless passionate letters, are living in the world of Hollywood and women’s magazines. The letters were ‘fervent but chaste. They might have been written by an excited angel.’ And when the author at last gets the girl alone she repudiates her declared love: ‘That’s what folk say in letters. Everyone says it.’
The book ends on a note of suspense, with the 15-year-old narrator told by the amiable and honest Emma, house mother at the Homes who has – with what seems surprising indiscretion – allowed him into her bed, that he is going to be a father. It is a moment of drama, curiously touching but leaving the reader suspended: a further instalment seems to be implied.
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