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)

8 November 2020

The Light of Common Day by Diana Cooper

It's interesting that certain books can sit on a shelf for years and then one day be just the thing you're in the mood for.  Usually at this time of year I scan the shelves for something Victorian but flipping through the pages of a few came to nothing.  Am I the last person yet to discover Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon?  I wonder....in any case, the combination of British aristocracy, Bright Young Things, eccentric melodrama and pre-World War II politics in this volume of Lady Diana Cooper's writings rose above my expectations.

Lady Diana Cooper, born in 1892, was the youngest daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland.  By the time Diana was in her late teens there were suggestions (that turned out to be true) her biological father was in fact Henry Cust, a writer, due to their strong resemblance.  Referred to as a society beauty Diana was often mentioned in newspaper columns for her 'It Girl' factor.

By the end of the Great War several young men in Diana's social circle had been killed.   Duff Cooper did serve militarily but only briefly.  In any case, he survived the war and in 1919 the two married, but the Duke and Duchess were less than thrilled with her choice.  Duff had a reputation for drinking and gambling to excess, was known as a womenizer and lacked a title.   Diana's parents had hoped that one day their daughter would marry the Prince of Wales.  How many parents have been driven to madness over a 'Bad Boy'?  I digress.

This second volume of the trilogy (the first was missing when I bought books two and three) begins with Diana writing about her time in The Miracle, a play.  Boarding the ship Acquitania  Diana is bound for New York.....

Duff was by my side and in my heart, so everything delighted and excited us -- the fine big cabin, the bath with fresh and sea water, the springing decks and space, the interminable menus, the orchestra and the bustle, the cupboard-trunks, bouquets and radiograms, but through the delight and excitement flitted the sinister shade of the Titanic.  I felt something of a Columbus too.  In 1923 not so many of my English friends had crossed the Atlantic, and we were farewelled as though for circumnavigation, with Fortnum & Mason provisions, cases of champagne, prayers, telegrams and a bevy of friends to speed us well at Southampton.

For all the fuss made about rooms, meals, episodes of swooning, and costuming I thought Diana's role was something on the scale of legendary performance.  When I learned that her part was that of a Nun without lines and involved standing still on a pillar I laughed out loud.  It would seem that the bulk of drama in Diana's life actually played out away from the theatre.  To be fair, her acting portfolio did include other bodies of work.     

Used to a life of privilege, Diana sends a letter to Duff, once he had returned to England, with instructions for a Christmas gift for her mother.  A new car is to be customized with the family crest painted on the door and delivered by a man in livery.  Requested with the same ease that someone else might ask for a loaf of bread.   Diana also seemed to have no shame when it came to accepting very expensive gifts from her friend Conrad, even admitting to losing them at times without much guilt.  Then I winced when Diana wrote about being in the first-class carriage of a train with only her son and Nanny while the rest of the train was filled to bursting with people standing in the aisles.....I could not pay for them all, could I.  Well, perhaps not but it seemed like a harsh sentiment to express in writing.

Peering into Lady Diana Cooper's life through her letters and recollections of various events proved more fascinating than I had bargained for.  The first handful of pages didn't exactly have me warming towards her but I couldn't resist being drawn into the larger picture.  Gossipy social history from an inside source that also revealed some vulnerabilities.  Diana was learning as she went along.  Spending a weekend away as the guest of The King and Wallis at Balmoral she was dismayed when tea was offered at 6:30 pm and dinner at 10.

Towards the end of The Light of Common Day Diana, Duff and their son John Julius embark on a cruise stopping in Greece and Italy.  The boat pitched severely enough to throw furniture around and take on water.  If Diana's description is even halfway true I would never step onto a watercraft again but in brave British fashion she bears it with less fuss than when bedridden with a sore throat.  And here's another interesting tidbit....her sore throat is treated with cocaine.  

As Duff works his way through the ranks of diplomatic service to the appointment of First Lord of the Admiralty, the Coopers eventually leave their beloved home on Gower Street for Admiralty House.  On decorating their bedroom Diana writes....

The room was at least twenty feet high, and from close to the ceiling hung a wreath of gilded dolphins and crowns.  Blue curtains, lined with white satin and falling to the ground, spread open to reveal a headpiece of more dolphins, tridents and shells.  At the bottom corners of the bed two life-sized dolphins, arch-backed and curved, menaced intruders - fishy sentinels.

I don't know about anyone else but the image of such a room in all its late 1930s glamour made me forget all about Covid and the election in the US.  But moving right along....war is looming, trenches are being dug and Lady Diana Cooper has found an organization to devote herself to - the WVS.  But she is afraid of what might be in store.....

Fear did more harm to my physique than to my morale.  Sleep was murdered for ever.  My heart quaked, yet I must appear valiant.  My hands shook, so work must be found to steady them.  Always a pessimist, I could imagine nothing worse than what must happen perhaps tomorrow--war, death, London utterly demolished, frantic crowds stampeding, famine and disease.

But not before a skiing holiday with her son!  Such are the swings in atmosphere and mood that just a few pages later Diana approaches Duff about a suicide pact as all she can see ahead is Death.  A book that started off by making me laugh at some silly, almost camp behaviour, has now morphed into something far deeper.  I'm glad the next installment is on the kitchen table so I can find out what happens next.

Lady Diana Cooper