Chelsea’s War

Jill Neville

  • Love Lessons: A Wartime Diary by Joan Wyndham
    Heinemann, 203 pp, £9.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 04 348786 6

Joan Wyndham began her diary on the brink of her deflowering and of the deflowering of Europe – the latter being a far less engrossing subject to this sexy, self-centred girl. The value of her diary lies in its artlessness. Here is femme moyenne sensuelle, unashamed, with nothing very noble or sensitive to commend her. The Diary of Virginia Woolf it is not. But she preserves for us the street vitality of a certain time and place.

Ah, Bohemia ... when artists lived in garrets, wore corduroys and beards, had sardonic eyes and struck attitudes: ‘Bloody useless – bloody virgin too ... of course if you broke her in I could have her afterwards.’ These are indeed the days of wine and poses, Chelsea circa 1939-42. It turns out that most of these swaggering ‘artists’ flee from the responsibility of seducing her. Hitler invades Poland, Holland surrenders, Belgium surrenders and eventually Joan Wyndham surrenders. The apotheosis of the book occurs at a party-orgy where bombs are dropping all around and ‘two lesbians were doing a scarf dance and some smart women in evening dress were dancing in trilby hats and yashmaks.’ She and three others lie on each other ‘necking’ while the Blitz makes the piano vibrate. Eros triumphs in the very jaws of Thanatos. ‘What a life ... never knowing if you’re going to be bombed or seduced from one moment to the next.’

Attitudes of the period, now thought disgraceful, are preserved in all their native grossness. The lower classes are ‘babbling half-wits’ according to one lover, who also warns her that with children you have to have money: ‘then you can get someone else to look after them and ignore them yourself.’ His caddishness delights her, the approval of Posterity is not a consideration.

Convent girls are purported to be the wildest. Add to this a prim, chaste mother who lives with a pious lady companion; a father who makes brief dazzling appearances and who is the personification of ‘debonair’; and an Aunt Bunch who takes drugs and ‘goes about with Negroes’ (a vile body indeed). Bursting with sap, like a liana on an over-mown lawn, Wyndham sides with the wild ones of her family. In the end, her mother concedes defeat.

From the moment when Wyndham first deceives her – pretending to be listening to Brahms, and going off instead to peer longingly in through the windows of a sculptor’s studio at his untidy bed and a bowl of yellow chrysanthemums – we feel her Desire as a burdensome weight. When the War starts, Cook suffers from nerves, and Wyndham still plans to go back to RADA to finish rehearsals for Hedda Gabler. ‘A German play,’ explains her mother’s companion, straight out of Ivy Compton-Burnett: ‘you don’t mean you’re still going ahead with that!’

This is no moony, literary girl, straining after literary effect. But we have to put up with the opposite: a barrage of clichés which can be dispiriting. ‘I roared with laughter and he stormed out in a huff.’ But she is completely without pretension, refusing to admit she has any artistic talent, even when Henry Moore seems to approve of her. ‘I checked a morbid desire to call him maître.’ Well, everyone else was an artist why not her? RADA had closed down.

When the bombs destroy part of Redcliffe Road, she thinks of the living organism that was Number 34: ‘each landing having its own atmosphere. Leonard painting upstairs, Prudey typing under him, Rupert playing his guitar ...’ For all the sleaziness and posing, something quite valuable has been lost: a free-wheeling, comparatively harmless existence. All that boozing and betrayal, all that pre-drug decadence. All that mess. The Gestapo would not have approved.

On moonlit nights she stands in her mother’s garden listening to what sounds like the pipes of Pan. In a corny bit of synchronicity she discovers they are played by the very sculptor she is lusting after, Gerhardt: ‘his satyr’s eyes glowing under dark lashes’. He is a German Jew living in terror of being deported or interned, but hides it all behind bravura and womanising. He will not deflower young Joan, but he teases her, lying across her bed, demanding that she mend his trousers and asking: ‘What are your breasts like?’

Suffering, like an unmilked cow, but never indulging in self-pity, she transfers her desire to the murky proprietor of a café, who steals her paints but not her virginity. His selfishness and awfulness are all too plainly visible, and a textbook Animus copy of her father turns up in the shape of Rupert, who has that ‘irresistible lazy charm that often goes with decadence and over-breeding’.

One by one, the men disappear: this is the drama within the comedy. Gerhardt goes one day without a word. The garage man tells her: ‘They came at nine this morning. ’E had till eleven to get ’is things together.’ Another man kills himself when he gets his call-up papers. Rupert joins the Navy. And she consoles herself with ‘a fiery Slav’, Yurka, who says pleasant things like: ‘You are the sort of girl who should be met at dawn by fifty outriders with drawn sabres glittering.’ But he also insists on talking about politics and the Balkans. ‘He seems obsessed by the wretched things.’

Wyndham’s basic toughness is proved by her reaction to her first days in the WAAF. They are marched up and down for hours, have their heads searched for nits, and dinner consists of hunks of meat and slabs of cake on the same plate. Twenty-eight of them sleep in a Nissen hut with no heating, on canvas pillows stuffed with hay. They are lectured on constipation, nits, STs and scabies. Some girls run away. Wyndham rather enjoys it.

Despite the trappings of her class, she has a Doll Tearsheet lowness, although it takes more than half the book before any sheets are torn – or hymens, for that matter. But in her offhand way she has managed to produce a vivid document of la vie de bohème in wartime Chelsea. To be an artist gave you an identity, and all you needed for that was some paints and a canvas. But the real experiments were with attitudes. Panache was exemplified by her friend Prudey, who couldn’t remember all the men she’d been to bed with: ‘if I have it’s all right for him to give me lobster thermidor ... but if I haven’t and he does, then of course I feel I have to! Oh dear, I do hate these moral obligations, don’t you?’ There are some lively snapshots of the period: Madame Arcana, once an associate of Aleister Crowley, now hangs about on the stairs covered in shawls and with a bird on her shoulder.