Some Points of View

19th October 1939

DEAREST SUSAN,

I've been collecting one or two opinions about the war, which you might like to hear. I don't mean about policy, and strategy, and what happened last week, and what's going to happen next; but about more personal (and therefore more universal, and therefore more important) aspects of it.

First of all, there's old Lady J., who has insisted on staying in London in spite of her daughter's efforts to get her down to Shropshire. "Herbert thinks it's very immoral of me to stay here," she said yesterday. (Herbert is her awful son-in-law.) "He says, with his usual brutal frankness, that I shall be such a nuisance as an air-raid casualty. But you see, the chances are strongly against my being an air-raid casualty. I don't go out much, and I have had the library made into an excellent gas-proof shelter. Whereas if I go and live with Herbert and Dorothy I am absolutely certain to be a nuisance, day in, day out. I don't like the country -- though I admit it's produced some capital poems -- and I can't stand Herbert; and as for Dorothy, she's a dear good girl, but so dreadfully county. I did my best with her, and at one time I had hopes that she might marry somebody quite unsuitable. But she took after her father, and reverted to type."

She's perfectly right, of course. In the country she would do nothing but sit over the fire, and seethe at Herbert, and look at poor Dorothy rather as a retired smuggler might look at a daughter who had married an Excise Officer. Whereas in London she's a godsend to all her friends. She keeps open house, and provides (among other meals) the most lovely breakfast parties for people who've just come off night duty. She does the cooking herself on a chafing-dish, wearing an elegant red velvet tea-gown, in that long panelled dining-room looking on to the garden. "At my age," she says, "one wakes up abominably early anyhow, so one might as well get up and do something useful." She also remarked the other day that the great thing about war was that it abolished old age. I said, rather densely, did she mean that people simply didn't live to be old? She said No, of course not: she meant that if you had already had the misfortune to get old you didn't feel so conscious of it in war-time, because then -- in a modern war, at any rate -- your expectation of life suddenly became very little shorter than anybody else's.

"It never occurred to me," I said, surprised, "that you worried about being old." "I don't as a rule," she admitted. "Only now and then, when I realize with a horrid shock that the person I am talking to is making allowances for me. I will not be made allowances for. Especially," she added with a glint, "by Herbert. "

What a contrast to Agnes Lingfield, whom I ran into in Sloane Street a few days ago. She insisted on taking me into a shop for a cup of coffee, and then sat with both elbows on the table, disseminating gloom. "I haven't seen you since the day we lunched at Teresa's and she put me next to that terrible little Bolshie, what's-his-name."

"Neish," I said.

"Of course -- Nash."

"Neish," I said.

"Leish. Oh well . . . " (One of my favourite studies is the way people like Agnes always mispronounce the names of anybody they dislike, especially if he or she is out of a lower drawer. It is such a pathetically naive weapon.)

"Anyway," she went on -- though I really couldn't see that it was relevant -- "look what a horrible mess we're in now." I said, Horrible, yes, all wars were horrible: but mess, no. "Oh, of course," she said, "we can't possibly lose, or anything like that. But I'm afraid I was thinking of you and me, my dear Caroline. The last war marked the end of our childhood: this one will mark the end of our youth." This sounded so neat that I mistrusted it: neat things are hardly ever quite true. It is pure nonsense, of course. One can't, thank goodness, divide one's life into watertight compartments like that.

She finished up by saying, lugubriously, "Of course, even if the war turns out all right the world is never going to be quite the same again." I have now had this remark made to me by at least a dozen different people, and it baffles me more every time I hear it. What on earth, I wonder, does it mean? If it was made by people who had a husband or son in danger, one could understand it only too well. But it isn't. Those ones, mostly, don't discuss the future at all; they just live in the present, as though it was a little circle of lamplight in a dark room. No, the people who talk like this all seem to be the ones who have nothing more precious to lose than a sense of material security and a comfortable certainty that while they are down at dinner a well-trained housemaid will go into the drawing-room and plump up the cushions. They make me sick and tired. "The world is never going to be quite the same" -- good heavens, has it been such a grand world up till now (except for a few lucky ones like ourselves) that one should try to keep it unchanged? Have we any right to grumble if our lights go from green to red and the other stream of traffic gets a turn?

Besides, everything that really matters always does go on being the same: the fun of thinking things out, and delight in awareness for its own sake, and, above all, the unending fascination of personal relationships. To say nothing of such trifles as love and courage and kindness and integrity and the quite astonishing resilience of the human spirit. War may crack the individual records, but it can't destroy the matrix of things like these. However, although one can write all this down in a letter, one really cannot embark on it to Agnes over a cup of coffee in Sloane Street at 11 o'clock in the morning. So I just said vaguely, No, I supposed not. She sighed, and added with a sense of personal grievance, "It does seem a little hard, I must say, that one should have been unlucky enough to live in a time like this."

Good old Agnes, how she clarifies one's thoughts for one. Till that moment I had not realized how passionately I felt that I would not live in any other time if you paid me. I didn't say so; after all, the coffee was on her. But when I left her I found myself crossing the street with particular care, because it would be so awful to get run over just now and not be there to see what was going to happen.

With love, yours ever,

CAROLINE.


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