Peace-In-War

LONDON
5th October 1939

DEAREST SUSAN,

I have come back here to find a job, as Starlings now seems to be running perfectly all right, nursery, evacuees, and all. I don't know yet what kind of job I can get, if any. Driving, for choice. What I hanker for, of course, is to be put at the beck and call of some very important hush-hush sort of man who needs to be driven very fast in a long-nosed powerful car to mysterious destinations. From time to time my passenger would glance down at his watch, then backwards over his shoulder, and say briefly, "Step on it, Mrs. M." And I should see in the driving-mirror a supercharged straight eight, disguised as a grocer's van, rapidly gaining on us. . . . Yes, definitely, that would be just my cup of tea. But either this type of man is dying out -- which I should deplore -- or else, which is more likely, he does his own driving.

In the meanwhile I am helping at whatever odd jobs I can find -- addressing envelopes, rolling bandages, &c. -- and enjoying, more than I can say, being back in London, which is unbelievably impressive.

The funny thing is that although the floodlighting experiments used to reveal a whole lot of architectural beauties which one didn't know, the black-out reveals even more. One loses the details of buildings, but sees their outlines properly for the first time. That is, when there's any vestige of a moon. And even when there isn't, one still discovers new things by hearing, touch, and smell. For instance, I had never noticed before that the area railings in this Square were of such a pleasing design. Now I know them intimately, by touch. And I can tell when I'm getting near to the Air Raid Shelter at the corner by the damp jutey smell of the sandbags. In fact, the whole of London now smells most pleasantly of jute -- even indoors, because of the stuff one uses for under-curtains. It is one of the best scents in the world: partly, I suppose, because it reminds one of those rickety tents one made out of sacking as a child.

As for the balloons -- you've probably read a lot about them in the papers already, but I can't help that, I have got to talk about them. They are the most delightful and comforting companions in the world. You see, I hadn't been in London at all since war broke out, and when I travelled up five days ago, by the late train, I don't mind admitting I was feeling rather jittery. There was a serene gold sunset, with oast-houses sticking up against it like black cats, and all the way up in the train that wretched lovely line from Antony and Cleopatra kept running in my head:--

Finish, good lady; the bright day is done,
And we are for the dark.

I went to bed very sore about the shins from falling over a station barrow, and hating the house with neither Clem nor the children in it, and with Mrs. A. looking more than ever like John Knox; and altogether everything was rather grim. But when I looked out of my window early next morning and saw all those fat little silver watch-fish floating overhead in a clear sky, I felt completely reassured. They really are quite beautiful, although -- like puppies -- they manage to combine this with being intrinsically comic. From time to time they are taken down: ostensibly to refill them with gas, but really, I suspect, to scrape off the barnacles. I only wish, once they've got them down, they'd paint faces on them like Chinese dragons. I'm sure it would add to their deterrent effect. The best thing of all, which nobody had prepared me for, is that on windy nights they sing. It's like going to sleep on a ship at anchor, with the sound of wind in the rigging. Only, thank goodness, London doesn't rock -- yet.

There, I have finished letting off steam about the balloons. Liberavi animam meam, as Uncle John always used to say when he had just been particularly offensive to poor Aunt Sarah. Like many well-read but ill-tempered people, he thought a Latin tag excused everything. But Aunt Sarah didn't know any Latin. Bad Luck.

As for other things, all I can say is that Hitler, poor misguided man, has made the biggest mistake of his life in giving us a month of this kind of peace-in-war in which to become calm, collected, and what's more, chic. Of course, the people who are natural born dowds still manage to make their gas masks look dowdy, but those who are normally well-turned-out somehow contrive to make them into a positive decoration. It isn't only a question of having one of the many expensive and pansified cases which are on the market, though I admit they help: it's more that most people have now learned to carry the things with an air -- with panache. You might think, walking about London, that everybody was going off to a picnic with a box of special food.

Another thing: you know how in normal times, when they come back to London in the autumn, English women make no attempt to keep on wearing light, bright colours. They just mutter "Fogs" in a defeatist manner, put away their summer handbags, gloves, scarves, and so forth, and then throw up their arms and drown in a sea of black, navy, dark brown, bottle, and maroon, as the fashion catalogues would say. This year, wearing white "accessories" has become literally a matter of life and death -- or at any rate, of wholeness and injury; and you've no idea how much more cheerful the place looks. But it's odd, isn't it, that the aim of "protective colouring" should now be to detach us from our background, not to melt us into it? This war will have to introduce a new word for that process, just as the last one introduced "camouflage."

Talking of stockings, I remember Teresa saying last year that one of the most awful minor catastrophes in the world was when one's suspender gave way at a party: how one felt quite discomfitted, and lop-sided, and altogether at a loss until it was done up again. Well, I think that's the main difference between September, 1938, and now. Then, we felt only too distinctly the uncomfortable ping! of the elastic. But now we've had time to do it up again, and we feel more than equal to coping with the party, however long and strenuous it may be.

How silly it was of him to allow us to become not only angry but bored. This nation is never really dangerous until it's bored.

Yours ever, with much love,

CAROLINE.


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