Sunday, December 1, 2019

A hell of a night

Charles Graves, brother to the famous poet and novelist Robert, was born 120 years ago today. He was a Fleet Street reporter and columnist who wrote vividly for his newspaper from the streets of London during the Second World War. He was also a member of the Home Guard and, against official orders, he kept personal diaries. He published these in four volumes, and - although largely forgotten about today - these are in fact among the most informative, interesting and lively first hand reports of the war in London. Here’s a taster: ‘There was the roar of enemy bombers, the sound of machine-guns, the screaming of the wind as the Fighters dived after the bombers. The moon was blood red. It was a hell of a night.’ When not reporting on the latest bomb damage, he might be found in the morning with the Home Guard pretending to be a German parachutist landing in Regent’s Park’, watching cricket at Lords in the afternoon, and then dining at the Dorchester, Savoy or Ritz.

Graves was born in London on 1 December 1899, son of the Anglo-Irish poet and songwriter Alfred Perceval Graves. Alfred, himself the son of Charles Graves, bishop of Limerick and mathematician, had five children with his first wife Jane; and, after she died, he had five with his second wife Amalie von Ranke, including Charles and Robert who would become famous, notably for The White Goddess, about poetry and myths. In his autobiography, Goodbye To All That, Robert claimed the family’s pedigree dated back to the Norman Conquest, with one ancestor giving his name to Graves’ Disease.

Charles was educated at Charterhouse, and on reaching 18 in 1918, he joined the Royal Fusiliers but was still in training when the Armistice came. He studied at St John’s College, Oxford University, and then joined the staff of the Evening News as a reporter. Soon he was also the paper’s theatre critic, a line of work that enabled him to engage with London’s high society. He moved on, to the Sunday Express, where he worked variously as columnist, news editor and feature writer. In 1927, he switched again, this time to be a columnist again on the Daily Mail.

Graves’ gossipy autobiography, The Bad Old Days (Faber and Faber, 1951), reveals a great fondness for society in these years between the wars, and especially attending dances; but then, in 1929, ‘after nearly five years and a couple of hundred proposals (it may have been more because I have lost count)’ he finally persuaded Peggy Leigh to marry him. Also in the autobiography, Graves reveals how he felt the need to supplement his income now that he was married, which led to the idea of collecting his Daily Mail columns into a book. After failing to persuade G. B. Shaw to write a preface, he turned to P. G. Wodehouse an old family friend.

During the war, Graves continued to write a column and to socialise as much as he could - he was out at restaurants and the theatre whenever possible. But he also was an active participant in the Home Guard, and wrote and read propaganda scripts for the BBC. In addition, he spent time at RAF bases and with RAF personnel so as to write novels - such as The Thin Blue Line and The Avengers - promoting the armed services.

Before the war, Graves had begun to write travel-type books about Continental watering places for the rich, Switzerland and the French Riviera, and he took this up again after the war. He also wrote books on London, such as Champagne and Chandeliers about the Café de Paris, None but the Rich about the gambling cabal called The Greek Syndicate, and Leather Armchairs, a guide to the clubs of London. Under her pen name of Jane Gordon, Graves’ wife published the autobiographical Married to Charles in 1950. She died in the early 1960s, and Graves married Vivien Winch in 1966. The couple lived in her house on Guernsey. They then moved to Barbados, which is where Graves died in 1971. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, and Geni.

Among Graves’ many books are four diaries from the war years, all published by Hutchinson. The first two of these - Off the Record and Londoner’s Life - came out in 1942; and two more - Great Days and Pride of the Morning - in 1944-1945. These diaries are of particular interest because they include much detail about Graves’ Home Guard activities. Personal writing about the Home Guard was specifically made illegal (for security reasons), but Graves simply comments on this restriction coming into force with ‘Tut-tut and flutters’. In 2011, Viking published a book called The Real ‘Dad’s Army’ - The War Diaries of Lt.Col. Rodney Foster with great fanfare claiming it was the first such Home Guard diary to be published - see Huns flew over Hythe). But the long-since forgotten books by Charles Graves’s should claim that distinction.

In his introduction to Off the Record, Graves’ says this: ‘Timing the publication of a War Diary is a very tricky business. If you wait too long it becomes stale. If you bring it out too soon it is certain to be heavily censored. I prefer the deep blue sea of blue pencilling to the devil of staleness. When the diary began in November 1940 I had every intention of withholding publication until the war was over, but circumstances have dictated otherwise. This has automatically meant a censorship imposed by myself on the manuscript even before it went to the official censors. [. . .] I would like to point out that, with the exception of 400 words, nothing that appears in Off The Record has appeared in print beforehand. It is really the private diary of the public diarist. [. . .] Looking over the manuscript, I realize that I ought to have paid much more attention to the extraordinary change in domestic life caused by the war.’

19 November 1940
‘As I lay in bed it occurred to me that the Londoner’s ears are now accustomed to distinguish immediately sixteen different noises caused by the blitz. These are the 4.5s, the 3.7s, the Bofors, machine-guns, 1,000-lb bombs, 500-lb bombs, 250-lb bombs, incendiaries, shell-caps, enemy aircraft hit in the sky and ditto crashing on land, the two lots of sirens, time-bombs, air-raid and wardens’ whistles.’

30 December 1940
‘London is a city on its feet, but not out on its feet. In fact, it’s on its toes. This meant, however, that I had to walk all the way to Leicester Square before I was lucky enough to get a taxi to take me home. The queues for the Holborn Tube Station extended along Kingsway as far as Bush House. At every normal bus stop there were crowds of people waiting for omnibuses that were never going to appear. I should have thought the police might have told them.’

2 January 1941
‘Walked to the office, though it was bitterly cold, by way of the Embankment. The Temple has certainly caught it again, and there was a continuous sound of broken glass being swept from the pavement and knocked-down windows. [. . .] Lunched at the Press Club, where I was told that the crater near Piccadilly Circus has caused nine people to fall and break some limb during the past three nights. It is high time that Marylebone and Westminster improved their system of lighting where the road is blocked and bomb craters have been formed.’

31 January 1941
‘Then began a journey to London. This actually took four hours, and there were no taxis or omnibuses at Liverpool Street. The Underground being the only possible form of transport, I had a first-class view of the extraordinary subterranean life lived by so many Londoners at night. People were dotted everywhere except on the actual moving staircase. But there was a pleasant antiseptic smell and everything was clean and orderly. Some of the stations have already got bunks. Some of the people slept despite the rushing sound of the Underground trains. My own compartment was full of Scottish troops, seeing London for the first time. Their eyes positively goggled at the scenes on each station as they passed.’

9 March 1941
‘Paraded after six weeks’ absence with the Home Guard; secured my actual stripes from the Quartermaster’s Stores, after we were dismissed. Went to look at the Café de Paris [near Leicester Square]. The corpses are all out and there is very little show. Poor Poulsen. He always thought he was the luckiest man in the world, and behaved as such. Only the other night he was telling me that the Café de Paris was a complete escape from the war. Having been built as a replica of the Palm Court of the Lusitania, I always expected it to catch the blitz sooner or later.’ [80 people including Martin Poulsen, the proprietor, died when a bomb hit the day before. Graves wrote a newspaper column about Poulsen and the café, which he transcribed into his diary.]

10 March 1941
‘The Café de Paris still looks absurdly untouched. Poor Poulsen had fooled everybody into thinking that it had four proper floors above it [and hence had not been closed for safety reasons]. It hadn’t, and the bomb burst literally on the dance floor.’

11 March 1941
‘Home Guard parade with a lecture [. . .] about the tommy-gun. It seems quite fool-proof, and I have applied to be tommy-gun expert in my platoon.’

10 May 1941
‘Went down to play golf at Royal Wimbledon. [. . .] returned at 12pm, twenty minutes after the blitz began. In half an hour it was quite sensational. We were on fire. I ran into the street shouting the news and asked for assistance. A gunner subaltern from next door dashed in. Eleanor, in the meantime, had thrown some sand at the fire-bomb, which promptly exploded. I dashed up with the stirrup-pump, while the officer stuck the nozzle into the pail. We were in the dark. I couldn’t see what was happening but realized that something was wrong. I pumped away wildly and then said: “Don’t be a bloody fool. Bring the pail up and squirt the water on the bomb.” In a few minutes we had got it sufficiently under control to enable me to put an inverted pail on it. So that was that. We had previously had a fire-bomb on the doorstep and put it out with sandbags. The wardens’ whistles blew again and another twenty or thirty incendiaries came down in the street, as well as on one house two doors away from me and one three doors away.

The first caught fire immediately, and a fire-brigade crew that happened to be passing was diverted by us to it. We ran out and put out the bombs in the street and then hurried to the house three doors away on the right with stirrup-pump and pails of water. After twenty minutes this was dealt with, but as we were standing on the corner we suddenly heard a bomb coming straight at us. We threw ourselves on the ground as it burst forty yards away. Lumps of masonry came crashing down all around us. Altogether most unpleasant. This bomb landed on a house, trapping three people. But they were rescued within an hour, bent but not dead.

By this time a complete block was on fire eighty yards away, towards Portman Square, and there were some other fires about, but three fire-engines were on the job within 200 yards of me. I particularly admired the fireman on the top of a ladder with the bombs falling all round. But I suppose he thought he might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.

Druce’s was on fire about 600 yards away. Clouds of smoke billowed across the street in the high breeze. There was the roar of enemy bombers, the sound of machine-guns, the screaming of the wind as the Fighters dived after the bombers. The moon was blood red. It was a hell of a night.’

11 May 1941
‘Today it was possible to get a slight preliminary idea of the damage. Druce’s has been completely burnt out. The House of Commons got a direct hit. Goodness knows where they are going to sit in future. The House of Lords was hit, so was Westminster Abbey. One of the chief rubber-necking points was Serjeant’s Inn, off Fleet Street, which is still on fire, though completely destroyed already. No omnibuses run past the Aldwych. There is gas all round the Daily Mail from burst mains, so everyone will have foul headaches tonight. I saw a man injured at the corner of Bouverie Street when a manhole blew up and out just as he was passing. Lunched at the Savoy. For the first time in the history of the Savoy we had our vegetables served à la Lyons, already placed on the dish.’

15 May 1941
‘Albany Street Barracks [near Regent’s Park] at 7:30am, where I found six corporals of the Guards and Sergeant Kirk. [. . .] The first thing we did was detonate our hand-grenades. [. . .] We next proceeded to the range from the throwing-pit and I was allowed to fire several rounds with a Lee-Enfield, lying, sitting, kneeling and standing. After that came the Bren gun [and] the anti-tank rifle. [. . .] Driving back in the truck we stopped at a pub, had a few pints each, and then lunched off bully-beef and cold cabbage in the sergeants’ mess. [. . .] Dined at home and then took Peggy to the Dorchester.’

7 June 1941
‘Went to Lord’s, where the Eton Ramblers played the Forty Club. Four ex-Test captains were performing, but the scoring was very low. This is because bowlers get back to form much sooner than batsmen. [. . .] Went on parade and took a tommy-gun course at Wormwood Scrubs. Sergeant Kirk was there and told us to fire a foot below the bull’s-eye. [. . .] I now learn that I am to be battalion bombing instructor unless I take care.’

8 June 1941
‘Another Home Guard parade. My mob were supposed to be German parachutists landing in Regent’s Park. The rest of the local Home Guard was supposed to contain us. Instead of that we contained them. It was all very wet. I hear that there is to be an ACI forbidding anyone in the Home Guard writing about the Home Guard in future. Tut-tut and flutters.’

15 June 1941
‘Called at 7:30am for 8:15 Home Guard exercise. A variegated show, either hanging around Baker Street or running madly through mews near Gloucester Place. At least we are unselfconscious as we dive down areas. All over by 1pm.’

5 July 1941
‘Went on Home Guard parade, where we were photographed, and then took part in a new scheme for defending Regent’s Park from parachutists. Was informed that I am now second-in-command of the new headquarters platoon, and that we will have flame-throwers, Molotovs, hand-grenades, tommy-guns, anti-tank rifles and sticky bombs. In fact, we have them already. The men were delighted at the new order whereby they can now take their rifles home with them. This is to save time in the event of being called out for an invasion.’

6 July 1941
‘The moon was almost full, London looked lovely, and a distant barrage balloon was silhouetted against the moon like Hitler’s moustache.’

20 July 1941
‘Took a slow train back to London, arriving late for lunch. Changed into uniform and hurried off to Hampstead Heath, where a demonstration by the Royal Tanks Corps was being provided. An officer with a loud-speaker described to everyone present - hundreds of civilians, perhaps Quislings among them, in addition to the 3,000 Home Guards - all the best ways of destroying our latest Valentine tank. Actually it seems it takes a tank to kill a tank, but still . . . Today is the great V day. You see Vs on walls and posters, even chalked inside restaurants.’

24 August 1941
‘Home Guard parade, in which once again the Headquarters Section acted as Germans, but without all our fire-crackers, which was rather dull.’

This material for this article has been taken from a chapter on Graves in the unpublished book London in Diaries.

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