I’ve been reading a book with the wonderful title of ‘The Love-Charm of Bombs’, which examines the literary work and loves of four wartime writers
I’ve been snowed in at Upton Cressett in Shropshire for the last few days so have been catching up on some winter reading. At night, I’ve been reading a book by Dr Lara Feigel with the wonderful title of ‘The Love-Charm of Bombs’, which examines the literary work and loves of four wartime writers (the title comes from aline by Graham Greene). The book could also be called ‘Sex and the Blitz’.
One reason I’m particularly fond of the book is that part of it was written in the Gatehouse at Upton Cressett where Lara was one of our first of our literary foundation Fellows. It’s a brilliantly written evocation of the creative debt that not only English literature owes to adultery but also German Flying Bombs.
‘I don’t like the peace,’ says Sarah, the adulterous wife of Henry Miles, the dull civil servant in The End of the Affair, with whom the novelist Bendrix has an affair as the bombs drop around Clapham Common, where Greene’s own house was blown to pieces, much to his relief as it presented an opportunity to escape from the domestic suffocation of living with his wife Vivienne – and freedom to pursue various other affairs, most notably with the children’s book writer and stage designer Dorothy Glover.
The character of Sarah in The End of the Affair was partly drawn from Green’s imagination, partly drawn from Dorothy and partly from his newest post 1945 mistress, Catherine Walston, with whom he always said (in his letters and a love poem he wrote to her three years after they first met) that he first fell in love with after her hair brushed his face after he first kissed her in the snow at Cambridge airport, following a lunch party at the Walstons house at Thriplow where they had a large estate.
After this Sunday lunch party, Catherine Walston nonchalantly invited Greene to skip the sluggish train journey back to Oxford and take a private plane instead. It was shortly before boarding this plane on a freezing Sunday afternoon that Greene first touched Catherine’s lips as his wife stood ahead of him on the snowy airstrip, nagging him that they had to head back towards Oxford to put the children to bed. In real life Greene’s wife Vivienne had gone there to live during the war after the family’s Clapham house had been bombed to rubble.
I KNOW LARA quite well as we did a number of Greene talks together as she researched her excellent book, which expands on a number of themes I attempted to tackle in my own book on Greene’s life in the Forties and Fifties, The Third Woman, only with a wider cast of wartime writers.
I haven’t got to the critical moment in Greene’s life yet in Dr Feigel’s book – just before Christmas, 1946 – when Greene first falls in love with Catherine Walston during this fateful plane flight across East Anglia, a moment that Greene (who was 43) later referred to as ‘the most important’ event of his life.
I am much looking forward to seeing if Lara has decided to side with my reading of the Greene letters and diaries which suggests that Vivienne, Greene’s wife of nineteen years, was with him at the Walston lunch party at Thriplow; and that both his wife and Catherine accompanied Greene in the airplane on this emotionally charged flight from Cambridge to Oxford in 1948; or whether – as Lara preferred to argue when we did a number of talks together discussing Greene – she is sticking to her academic guns and thinks that Vivienne Greene was NOT invited to the Thriplow Sunday lunch and was merely waiting for Greene in the snow at Oxford airport once the plane landed at Kidlington airport, Oxford, late in the afternoon.
Whatever was the truth, (which often does not matter much to writers) the fiction that came out Greene’s relationship with Catherine Walston – which began with her wanting to met Greene after reading The Power and The Glory, and went on to provide much material and inspiration for The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair and his only decent poetry – was almost certainly the best he ever produced.
I do hope her publisher Bloomsbury enters ‘The Love-Charm of Bombs‘ for the Spear’s Book Awards this year as it would be very good to have Dr Feigel back in the Gatehouse (Spear’s winners get a few weeks in ‘residence’ as a prize) to write her next book.