Desmond Hawkins, London Letter.
The summer of 1939 was tense and by September, the British had begun conscription of men who were 20 and 21, Hitler had decided against negotiations with Poland, and the British began to evacuate families to the countryside. SO, we begin our look at Vol.6, No.4, Summer, 1939 with a “London Letter,” by Desmond Hawkins, a London journalist and broadcaster for the BBC, who went on to create the BBC Natural History Unit.
Hawkins’s voice is very different from Sean Niall’s in his periodic “Paris Letters” — Hawkins has that thin ribbon of fury in it that carries his disdain of the irresolution of the government and the armchair politics of the Bloomsberries:
“To say what is happening in England at the present time is no easy task…The opaque and unruffled surface of public affairs suggest indeed that nothing is happening at all. We are all anti-fascist. We are all devoted to peace and convinced of our superior solicitude in its preservation. … But in spite of our one-way enthusiasm – or perhaps because of it, the air is peculiarly enervating.”
Hawkins argues that there was a kind of intellectual optimism in the years after WWI which ensured that the youth of England grew up imagining that War on that grand scale would never occur again. The result — complacency coupled with a skin of progressive polemicising. It was the crisis of Czecho-Slovakia that “carried with it the dawning May Day, the revolution painlessly directed from Bloomsbury armchairs. All that experimental theorising presupposed that the British Empire would lie in supine glory on the operating-table while the delectable surgery was performed by Fabian thinkers and planners and Audenesque healers.”
His polemic against the Bloomsbury coterie is amusing, dry, and to the point:
“The prevailing mood, then, in sloganese is an intensified resistance to fascist aggression, for the sake of democracy. To find anything happening one must go behind the scenes. Chamberlain’s real danger is from within his party, and the next months will show whether the Tory right wing – those who oppose Hitler most militantly in terms of imperialist rivalry – can capture the Cabinet. The apparently certain thing is that Bloomsbury influence on political thought will diminish. The daring revolutionary bravado of this decade may even return to the bourgeois womb and be re-born as a Popular Front, Left in its slogans and Right in its motives. Champions of the status quo are naturally delighted to take over a highly moral propaganda which suits their policy. Bloomsbury is putting its left foot forward in order to march backwards, and the playing fields of Eton are about to resume their former strategic importance.”
From here, Hawkins turns to the literary scene — principally the ‘little magazines,”the most important one, T.S. Eliot’s The Criterion. “Its cessation was wholly unexpected. In his last editorial, T.S. Eliot wrote:
“Perhaps for a long way ahead, the continuity of culture may have to be maintained by a very small number of people, indeed. It will not be the large organs of opinions or the old periodicals; it must be the small and obscure papers and reviews, those which are hardly read by anyone but their own contributors, that will keep critical thought alive,and encourage authors of original talent.”
Hawkins goes on: ” Feeling that changed circumstances require changed new energies, Eliot stated that after sixteen years no longer had sufficient enthusiasm for the job. The European mind, which The Criterion existed to mirror, is fragmented. The most powerful group of younger writers have not much in common with Eliot, and there is little public support for any literary review which is not at least nominally anti-fascist. I think it would be true to say that latterly The Criterion commanded respect but not enthusiasm. Its main energy was drawn increasingly from Eliot himself; and the more personal it became, the more freely might its editor consider employing his time in other ways. It is, of course a serious loss to be deprived of what was the only substantial and authoritative review in England, and — as with Yeats’s death — there is a certain sadness in the disappearance of an intellectual landmark which had acquired a very great prestige.”
Hawkins goes on, and circles back to the Bloomsbury intellectuals and artists. “The revolutions of the ‘twenties have been dexterously absorbed and Bloomsbury in the bigness of its heart is writing passionate slogans for the War Office.”
Next. Week: More from the Summer Issue, 1939. “This Quarter: Twilight of the Thirties,” by Philip Rahv..