20 November 2020

Trumpets from the Steep by Diana Cooper

What timing.  Under contract to deliver speeches in America, Duff Cooper and his wife Diana reluctantly board an ocean liner in October, 1939.  Their son John Julius has been moved from a day school in London to the quieter county of Northamptonshire. 

A passenger rattles Diana's nerves early on when she recounts her fateful time aboard the Lusitania and surviving its torpedoing.  Diana views the woman as a 'Jonah figure' but thankfully the voyage is a successful one, docking in New York.  Meanwhile, her loyal friend Conrad Russell keeps her informed with stories from England....

   'The Daily Mail had a competition on "What part of the war do you mind most?"  To my surprise "Women in uniform" came first and "Black-out" second or third.  Some people simply put "Unity Mitford".

Travelling from hotel to hotel, and squired around to the splendidly stocked homes of celebrities, the Coopers felt increasingly guilty about leaving their friends and family behind.  How is one to write sympathetic replies to letters describing the politics of war and sacrifice when Duff was invited to lunch with Vivien Leigh on his fiftieth birthday?

Back in England for 'the real war' Duff is soon to Paris on assignment after being made Minister of Information.  A journey which Diana was sure would end with his death.  When she sends an assistant to Drummond's Bank to retrieve some money, along with her passport, her blood runs cold when she discovers a sealed letter from Duff, tucked inside.  It's a letter of farewell should the worst happens.  An emotional call is placed to Clementine Churchill for support and reassurance that all would be well.  Clementine jumps to action, placing a call to Winston asking for an escort of Spitfires to accompany Duff's plane.  As if it's as simple as that.  I very much doubt that Clementine's plan was put into action, in any case, neither Winston Churchill or Duff Cooper were pleased with the interference.

Closing their home on Chapel Street, the Coopers moved to the Dorchester Hotel...on the eighth floor of all places.  Diana would peer through the curtains to watch the searchlights scanning the skies from the parks.  I found two things interesting....she mentions little crosses on the traffic lights that allowed the tiniest bit of light to shine through.   I've never come across this described in books or heard it mentioned before.  The other interesting tidbit Diana mentioned is that members of the Home Guard were stationed at the London Zoo in case a bomb landed nearby, opening the cages of large predatory animals.  Absolutely necessary once it's pointed out but spare a thought for the poor things during long nights of bombing.  I immediately ventured off to find an article and found one here.

One of my favourite parts of this memoir is when Diana makes the move to their cottage in Bognor....

'I had my car.  I should be lonely at first, but the Gothic Farmer (Conrad Russell) would put in two days a week and teach me to make cheese and to clean sties.  June would be twilit as midnight because of double summer-time.  The birds would sing me encouragement and the grass invite my flocks to graze; the bus would come to the door at a convenient time.  The war itself looked less disastrous.  Money was short (another reason for leaving the luxurious hotel) and so was material for what was to be my profession.'

Diana the Socialite has been replaced by an earnest farmhand with a keen eye for business, working all hours on the land and sourcing scraps for the animals.  Letters to her son detailing her exploits with chickens, pigs and goats must have been a highlight for him.  Diana revels in the novelty of it all despite the hard work.   

Disappointingly for me as it made very good reading, the farm was soon to be left behind when Churchill informs Duff he is needed in the East.  Armed with whiskey and pills to calm her nerves, the couple board yet another plane for a dangerous flight.  With most of the larger housing already claimed by Admirals and Generals the home they were to occupy upon arrival offered little in the way of creature comforts.  Diana was awakened one night by a deluge of water flowing from the ceiling.  Despite disease and fever striking friends and colleagues and a frightening incident when her driver ran over a young girl seriously injuring her (she recovered, apparently), Diana comes to enjoy her new surroundings.  Then, just as I was starting to glaze over because of increasing numbers of people to keep track of, too many government ministries and evermore acronyms, Diana writes of her friend from the age of fifteen,  Emerald Cunard.  Another biography to add to my reading list.

In July 1944, Duff calls Diana to ask 'How are you, darling?'.  She instinctively knows bad news will follow.  Her dear friend Rex Whistler has been killed.....

'My thoughts are of him mostly these days.  I remember once his passionate advocasy for fighting one's war, if necessary without hope.  'What has victory to do with it?'  I felt ashamed as I had not seen it quite like that.'

Now towards the last handful of pages, and the death of her friend Emerald, Diana writes all my friends are lapped in lead.  Living with Duff in Chantilly after the war, it seems remarkable to read about retirement and advancing years when only two weeks ago I was reading about parties and plays during the 1920s.  Such is life, as they say.  No longer a fan of looking in mirrors and dreading the next ache and pain I have to admit that Diana Cooper's closing paragraph made me cry.  She so poignantly shares her feelings about the inevitable with graceful acceptance of the fact that she has had her time. 

'I want no monument, nor to live longer in memories than the heartbeats of those who are young and who love me and protect me today.'

To end on a cheery note, if I ever knew that the author Artemis Cooper (whose biography on Elizabeth Jane Howard sits on my shelf) was Duff and Diana's granddaughter, I had forgotten.  References are everything and I learned so much from Lady Diana Cooper's memoir and letters; a fascinating woman, indeed.

Lady Diana Cooper
(1892 - 1986)

5 comments:

  1. I like the photo of Lady Cooper, she looks very composed and elegant. I am reading Winston Churchill biographies currently; those are fascinating times for me.

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    1. An incredible era for art, literature and politics! And I really like the photo too...a combination of elegant and sassy. Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. You have the most delightful books on your blog!

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    1. Thank you, Memarge! Sharing something delightful goes a long way to pushing the news about Covid into the background, doesn't it. Have a lovely day!

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  3. I read all Cooper's memoirs some years ago and remember enjoying them very much. I wonder if they are still on the shelves waiting for my old(er) age or if they went in the great (5000 volume) clearout? Thanks for reminding me to look....

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