From Needing Danger

25th September 1939


Thank you for your long letter. I began one to you the day before war broke out, but until this evening I haven't had time to sit down and finish it. And when I re-read it just now it was like reading a letter by a different person, so much has one's mood changed in the last few weeks. So I tore it up.

You say, tell you facts and feelings. Well, facts first, they're easier. Clem's A.A. Battery is quartered in a girls' school, from which he writes superbly funny letters. The girls are absent, of course, but their school-stories are there, and he is finding these a fascinating study. His favourite chapter-heading, so far, is "Monica Turns Out a Decent Sort"; but at present he is absorbed in a last-war one about a games mistress who was a spy in disguise and used to write code messages on tennis-balls and throw them into the North Sea. He says he can hardly wait to get to the end. He is also making a collection of graffiti, which are all quite touchingly mild. Things like "Gwenny T. is a Big Pig" and "Molly B. is a Brat." There is a very dignified one, which simply says: "I think Gwenny T. is the most hateful person I have ever met." And another, arranged like an equation: "Violet W.+ Gwenny T. = Lovey-dovey. Ha! ha!" Clem says he was so relieved to find that somebody liked poor Gwenny T. after all.

The children are down here, having the time of their lives with our seven tough and charming evacuees -- but I'll tell you more about that next time I write. Mrs. Downce has played up admirably. I was rather afraid she might be pot-faced, but not a bit of it. To tell you the truth I think she is delighted to have some Cockney voices in the house. It makes her feel at home after her twenty-five years in Darkest Kent. She had quite a Dr.-Livingstone-I-presume expression on her face when she welcomed them in.

Ellen (our present incarnation of the cosmic principle of house-parlourmaid, successor to Gladys, who got married) is down here, too, helping Nannie and Mrs. D. Mrs. Adie is in London, sleeping in the kitchen so as not to have to traipse downstairs when the raid-warning goes. "Well, Madam," she said with a wry smile, "I never thought I'd live to be glad that I couldna persuade ye to shift into one o' yon new non-basements. The Lord," she added solemnly, "doesna seem to care how much trouble He gies Himself in order to bring us to our senses." I was amused at the time, and sent Clem an elaborate picture in coloured chalk of guns, tanks, and aeroplanes charging across Europe, with a jovial bearded face directing operations from a cloud in the left-hand top corner, and a repentant Mrs. Adie in the right-hand bottom one. But during the last fortnight I've begun to feel -- N.B., we are now on to feelings -- that she may be right, after all. As you know, she has a real Scots genius for coining phrases, and it is extraordinary how often they ring true.

The thing is, we're all so buoyed up just now with the crusading spirit, and so burningly convinced of the infamy of the Government we're fighting against (this time, thank goodness, one doesn't say "the nation we're fighting against") -- that we're a little inclined to forget about our own past idiocies. The fact that we are now crusaders needn't blind us to the fact that for a very long time we have been, as Badger would say, echidnas. I can think of a hundred ways already in which the war has "brought us to our senses." But it oughtn't to need a war to make a nation paint its kerbstones white, carry rear-lamps on its bicycles, and give all its slum children a holiday in the country. And it oughtn't to need a war to make us talk to each other in buses, and invent our own amusements in the evenings, and live simply, and eat sparingly, and recover the use of our legs, and get up early enough to see the sun rise. However, it has needed one: which is about the severest criticism our civilization could have.

I wonder whether it's too much to hope that afterwards, when all the horrors are over, we shall be able to conjure up again the feelings of these first few weeks, and somehow rebuild our peace-time world so as to preserve everything of war which is worth preserving? What we need is a kind of non-material war museum, where, instead of gaping at an obsolete uniform in a glass case, we can press a magic button and see a vision of ourselves as we were while this revealing mood was freshly upon us. I know that this sounds silly and that there are no such magic buttons. The nearest approach to them, I think, are the poems and articles -- and even the letters and chance phrases -- which are struck out of people like sparks at such moments as this. So write all the letters you can, Susan, please (to me, if you feel like it, but at any rate to somebody), and keep all the ones you get, and put down somewhere, too, everything you see or hear which will help later on to recapture the spirit of this tragic, marvellous, and eye-opening time: so that, having recaptured it, we can use it for better ends. We may not, of course, ever get the chance: but if we do, and once more fail to act upon it, I feel pretty sure we shan't be given another one.

As usual in all moments of stress, I've been falling back on Donne. It's a pity preachers never seem to take their texts from anything but the Bible: otherwise they could base a perfectly terrific sermon for the present day on verse 16 of his Litany -- the one which begins "From needing danger. . . " Do look it up -- I know there's a copy in the library at Quern, in the little bookshelf just on the left of the fireplace.

Yours ever, with much love,


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