Here is an (edited) selection of my father's letters to friends (Desmond Leeper and his wife Ben) and family, in September 1940, during the end of the Battle of Britain and the beginning of the Blitz. He was at the time in desultory training with 'the Buffs' (Royal East Kent Regiment). The Dean he refers to was Hewlett Johnson, the 'Red Dean' known for unflagging support for the Soviet Union.
In terrific haste. With an invasion pending, and calamity mounting up at home, we, after a sleepless night standing to, are now having our third room & kit inspection in a week because some nob may drop in during the morning. It maddens one to have to obey these unbelievably stupid orders. We all know the exact state of our kit – what is wanted is sleep or training… Hitler would laugh with delight could he see us…
I imagine you by the side of a salmon stream, meditating the hill opposite; or perhaps eyeing the fifth housemaid (or even a footman, callipigous creature… war has curious results sometimes!
Naafi. Thursday evening.
Stoneham, an architect in the next bed, & I drink a Guinness. Both pretty drunk. Impossible to write anything sensible. Throught he haze & the jangle, a man pounds the piano, incredibly badly.
I like this life, I think; don’t want now ever to become an officer, although doubtless this Training company will split up some time & I’ll go to an OCTU. God knows when – the further off the better as far as I am concerned.
In khaki men have nothing except faces. Faces over tea & beer with cigarettes stuck into them. A species, like monkeys or sparrows.
I went to the Deanery on Sunday. The Dean had unfortunately been called away, but we were welcomed in by his housekeeper & told to make ourselves at home in his drawing room. I & two friends of mine, & an odd soldier, the Dean’s clerical followers, & a few of his coterie. He is a socialist of course: but I had expected an old-fashioned liberal in modern dress. Instead I found with delight that this was the real stuff, red Russia indeed… a prominent table [was] covered with periodicals, presumably the Dean’s daily light reading. The Daily Worker, Moscow News, Philadelphia Communists & so on & so forth. Lenin & Trotsky & Greenbaum & the rest on the bookshelves. Magnificent. He was an engineer before he entered the church: God knows why he ever did approach the C of E! This room was sizzling with revolution. I must say that Communism attracts one’s sympathies these days: the army doesn’t make one delight in the Old British Methods.
Peevishness about being kept interminably… in this ITC without being given any hint at all of any OCTU or anything. Not that I want to become an officer (this quite honestly) but being buggered around is very unsatisfactory.
General observations of great intensity and every sincerity on the pleasures of confined barrack life. The men have become human beings with the passage of time; and the uniform & the lack of family ramifications & occupational differences & so forth all serve to annihilate background…
…Tristram Shandy is a great book – and South Wind (by Norman Douglas)
…Jock, a working class Scotchman, navvy by trade & very Scotch by nature displays remarkable erudition. Astonishing people, the bloody Scotch. He is in the corner talking busily about Anatole France.
The alien Leepers: father, mother and rollicking shrimp! I imagine the small, compact trinity wandering over the wastes of Herefordshire, a cell of inexpressible intellectualism in a sprawling world; the father inelegantly in lofty khaki, Ben in a bright red bandana.
…I am, as I say, shattered: remains a giggling icompetent, fatuous & irresponsible and O so ‘appy, ver’ ver’ ‘appy. Reality falls away, and tragedy becomes a chuckle. So phoo-eeps boys for the end of the world: we only have ten minutes so mine’s a [?] Minor.
The air-raid warning is a white snake that lurks while we work, creeps out into the evening, a tape-worm that smears the air. It fattens/battens on my gloom, I find. When Wheldon is jolly, how you say? Very jolly jolly, the snake is buggered and can’t move. Perhaps I could hire myself out as a siren-neutraliser.
…yesterday the sergeant of a platoon down in the depot, desperately hard up for subjects and instructors got me to give a lecture on Germany. Thus commanded, I did: and, hugely sidestepping propaganda, gave a violently pro-Nazi speech which we all enjoyed like anything. The officer looked down his nose at me and said to himself – “the man’s a pro-Boer”.
The wisdom of days, blblical phrase, has quietened the liberal arguments I expended on the arid Leeper air on the Ramsgate beach, and left me a revolutionary and an uncommitting Mandarin by turns. Forward from liberalism or anyway Zoroastrianism, the holy cow and the genial field.
It was malaria that beat the Romans – the greed for the infested corn of Egypt brought the death on them. Leave the corn in bloody Egypt.