An Actor’s War

Hugo Williams: Tunisia, 1943

It is difficult to assess the value of the part played by the organisation known as Phantom during this stage of our operations in North Africa.

Official History of the Second World War

Before the British public
I was once a leading man,
Now behind a British private
I just follow, if I can.

                                 Hugh Williams

March

Well, here we are in our Tropical Kit –
shirts and shorts and little black toques,
looking like a lot of hikers or cyclists
with dead bluebells on the handlebars.
It seems we have at last discovered a place
where it is impossible to spend money. What a pity
that it has to be a rather muddy wadi in Tunisia,
where whisky is prohibited by God.
How sorry I am that I ever said an unkind word
about the Palmer’s Arms. In my nostalgia
it seems the very Elysium of Alcohol.
I can imagine you in about an hour
pattering round to meet your beaux.
The last couple of days I’ve realised with a bang
what an appalling time this bloody war has been on.
Three and a half years last night
since we walked out of the stagedoor of the Queen’s Theatre
into the Queen’s Westminsters.
What good times we had. But it all seems
a long time ago, looking back, doesn’t it?

April

Early morning – or what in happier times
was late at night. Strong and sweet black coffee,
laced with the last little drop out of my flask,
has reminded me of that stuff they used to serve
on fire inside a coconut at the Beachcomber
to put the finishing touches to a Zombie.
I’m still floundering in the work here.
I lie awake sometimes wondering if my map
is marked correctly. I lose notebooks
and have to rely on little bits of paper.
Benzedrine tablets, please. Chemist next to the Pavilion.
A kiss and a lump of chocolate for Hugo
for being able to walk.
Please God he never has to march.

May

It’s all very green down here at the moment –
lots of wild flowers and lots of your gumtrees
with their barks hanging down like tattered lingerie.
I saw a stork flying and heard a lark singing
as though he were over Goodwood racecourse
on that wonderful day when Epigram won the Cup
and you won me. The villages look like those
in Provence and the milestones with little red tops
make me long for the days to come
when you and I are scuttling down the Route Bleue
in search of sunshine and eights and nines.
Having taken trouble all one’s life to seek pleasure,
to find now that delights are down to a canvas bath
taken with one’s legs hanging over the side in a bucket,
is strange, though no doubt good for one.
I dare say I shall be pretty bloody exquisite
for quite some time after the war – silks and lotions
and long sessions at the barber
and never again will a red carnation be made to last
from lunchtime until the following dawn.
When the war is over I intend no longer
to practise this foolish and half-hearted method
of letting money slip through my fingers.
I intend in future to allow it to pour
in great torrents from my pockets.
Don’t be alarmed. This is only the talk of a man
with mosquito lotion on his face and hands
and anti-louse powder in the seams of his clothes,
who drinks his highly-medicated morning tea
from a tin mug with shaving soap round the rim
and uses gumboots for bedroom slippers.

June

Writing by our Mediterranean now, but the wrong bank.
The same sunshine and azure sea, a few of the same
flowers and trees and the purple bougainvillea,
but there it ends. Enough to make one want more –
a bottle cooling in a pool,
a yellow bathing-dress drying on a rock.
Perhaps if we fight on we shall arrive in a country
where there is something fit to drink.
How pleasant to be advancing through the Côte d’Or
with one’s water bottle filled with Pouilly.
Instead of which we’re stuck in this blasted cork forest
learning to kill flies.
Sometimes it seems we love England
more than each other, the things we do for her.
I wonder if, when it’s over, we’ll be glad.
Or shall we think I was a fool to sacrifice so much?
Oh God, we’ll be glad, won’t we? I don’t know.
Not on this damned dust hurricane I don’t.
But if you love me I shan’t care.
You and Hugo have a coating of desert on your faces.
I must wipe you.

July

The battle – if one can dignify such a shambles –
is closed in this sector and there is an atmosphere
of emptying the ashtrays and counting the broken glasses.
Churchill arrived to address the First Army
in the Roman Amphitheatre at Carthage.
He looked like a Disney or Beatrix Potter creature
and spoke without his teeth. Cigar, V-sign, all the tricks,
and I thought of that day outside the Palace
with Chamberlain smiling peace with honour
and we kidded ourselves there was a chance –
two little suckers so in love
and so longing for a tranquil sunny life.

August

How’s my boy? Shirts and trousers!
Poor little Hawes and Curtis. Another year or so
and our accounts will be getting muddled
and I shall find myself getting involved
in white waistcoats I’ve never seen.
Tell him to pay cash. Go and tell him now.
The thought terrifies me.
Have been harassed lately by the old divided duties –
the only part of the war I can honestly say
has been bloody. Maybe the cinema racket
gives one the wrong impression of one’s worth,
but I sometimes feel I’d be better employed at Denham
as Captain Daring RN than housekeeping for Phantom.
Stupid, for one must do one or the other
and not attempt both as I have done.
Had a letter from the Income Tax
asking for some quite ridiculous sum.
Next time you see Lil tell her to write and say
I’m unlikely to be traceable
until quite some time after the war, if then.
I think when I die I should like my ashes
blown through the keyhole of the Treasury
in lieu of further payments.
My wages here are roughly what it used to cost me
to look after my top-hat before the war.
Flog it, by all means. I can’t see that kind of thing
being any use after the war, unless it’s for comedy.
Did some Shakespeare at the Hospital Concert
the other night and was nervous as a cat.
God knows what a London first night will be like
with all the knockers out front, waiting and hoping.
I doubt if I’ll make it. Sometimes I really doubt it.
I’ll probably run screaming from the theatre
just as they call the first quarter.
Tell the girls to keep on with Puck and the First Fairy
as I shall want to see it when I come home.

September

Had a deadly exercise down on the plain last week
and the blasted Arabs stole my lavatory seat.
Medals should be given for exercises, not campaigns.
One would have the Spartan Star for Needless Discomfort
in the face of Overwhelming Boredom.
I had to give a cheque for £48 to Peter Baker
and I doubt there’s that much in my account.
Now he’s going home by air because of an appendix
and taking the cheque with him.
I couldn’t be sorrier to do this to you once again,
but his appendix took me by surprise, as it did him.
Tell Connie I must have a picture before Christmas.

October

Every known kind of delay and disappointment
has attended us and I am filled with a sulky despair
and a general loathing for mankind.
People are now so bored they have started growing
and shaving off moustaches, a sure sign
of utter moral decay. I have luckily made friends
with a little fellow who keeps me supplied
with a sufficiency of Algerian brandy,
so I expect the major part of my waking life
to be spent in pain and hangover.
Added to all other horrors,
Christmas Theatricals have cropped up,
which really has crowned my ultimate unhappiness.
Perhaps if I tell you that after
an hour and a half of forceful argument
I have just succeeded in squashing an idea
to produce an abbreviated version of Midsummer Night’s Dream
by the end of the week – without wigs, costumes,
stage or lighting and only one copy of the play,
you will appreciate the nervous exhaustion I suffer.
Not for a line of this letter
have I avoided making those aimless
slightly crazy-looking gestures to remove the flies.
I have a mug of tea and there must be thirty round the brim.
I can kill them now by flicking them,
as opposed to banging oneself all over.
I think they must be slower down here,
for I can’t believe that I am quicker.