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News from the home front

A bit of autobiography. Bear with me, there’s reason.

While recuperating from a bicycle accident, I’ve been reading Simone de Beauvoir’s Letters to Sartre – in particular those written during the immediate run-up to the German occupation of France in 1940. My mum told me of her dread when, on 3 September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Libyan mothers must be in even more dread now their country has declared war on itself.

My dad, a sheet metal worker, was directed to the Gloster Aircraft factory to make fuselages and we moved to Cheltenham in 1940. Thus we escaped the London blitz and I had an idyllic and fear-free childhood. Mum came from a socialist skilled-working-class background; Dad was from the unskilled apolitical working-class and he embraced mum’s leftism with a will. He was the most pacific of men but he believed in the “war against fascism” and campaigned for the opening of the second front – whatever that was.

Around 1942, he joined the Communist party and the Cheltenham branch meetings were held in our requisitioned flat. Mum never joined, but was Dad’s loyal ally and they, and a family named Parker – he was a carpenter and joiner – were, as far as I can make out, the only working-class members. They were much revered.

The branch’s chairman was (Lord) Wogan Philipps – the only Communist peer ever – and the attenders were raffish middle-class bohemians, chancers and – as it turned-out – shysters. They claimed to be writers, artists, continuity girls, something at the BBC, or hush-hush. Among them was Tamara (Wogan) Philipps, a Russian-born feminist campaigner, and a very striking woman whom mum and dad liked, named Jean Ross.

Her companion was the radical journalist Claud Cockburn and Jean Ross herself was the model for Sally Bowles (of Cabaret fame). Her sister lived in Cheltenham and ran informal Saturday morning art classes for the children of the comrades.

She regarded me as “gifted” but by the time I was eleven and back in Barnet, drawing had been overwhelmed by football and my gift had withered. I must have met all these comrades because I have dim memories of them turning up for meetings. I never became a Young Communist though but I remain – like most contributors to PN – a (non-party) political writer.

But back to de Beauvoir and Sartre. Their longest-ever parting was between 1939 and 1941 when Sartre did his military service and later became a PoW. Four days after war was declared she wrote to his camp.

Her very long letter is full of dread and anticipated loss. In fact, they wrote and were published throughout the occupation and cemented their literary reputations:
“Well, I left the station. I was scared of collapsing as soon as I got outside, but no, I walked straight ahead without crying, without thinking, simply with an exhausting sense that I couldn’t ever stop again, since the least pause would be excruciating – I basically lived for more or less two days in a state of feverish tension, which was so exhausting it made my whole head ache....”

De Beauvoir signed her letter: “I love you. You haven’t left me”. Although the war is rarely even alluded to in her letters, you can sense the feverish gaiety with which she sustains herself. I mention this because my mum and dad shielded me from their own fears. The war seemed a sort of game to me which “we” would undoubtedly win. Unlike the Libyans and Japanese whose towns have been levelled and families destroyed, I suffered neither physically nor emotionally.

When he was old, I asked Dad about what preparations the Cheltenham comrades had made when German invasion seemed imminent. How would they destroy their party and union membership cards and records, would they join the resistance, where would they hide, had they got false papers, where were Mum and Paul and me going to go?

To my astonishment, Dad said there were no plans, and no preparations whatever had been broached or made. In Libya today people must be hiding their opinions and hopes because expressing them will bring savage reprisals and torture.

Like every PN reader, I am arguing with myself about how to respond to the civil war in Libya and earthquakes and nuclear danger in Japan.

And like those lovers in Paris, I’ll suffer from no more than bad conscience. My mum and dad had life-and-death decisions to make and I’ll never know what they would have done and how I would have fared had Britain been invaded.

Topics: War and peace