Auburn in Wartime

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I came across The Oaken Heart quite by chance when I was scouring the history shelves in the University Library in Cambridge, looking for memoirs that might add colour and depth to my book on gardening in the Second World War. I had heard of Margery Allingham, of course, and had read The Tiger in the Smoke as a teenager, but I had no idea that she had written an account of her life in the Essex village of Tolleshunt D’Arcy between July 1938 and May 1941. This was a stroke of luck: to find a proper writer (with a large garden and a gardener) who could honestly and clear-sightedly anatomize her feelings and sensations, and quote those of her neighbours, during the Munich crisis, the great evacuation of children and mothers to the country when war broke out, the retreat from Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz.

Margery Allingham wrote the book because her American publisher thought his people would want to know what was happening to British civilians and perhaps be more inclined to come to their aid. With her artist husband, Philip Youngman Carter, she had lived in a large and handsome Queen Anne house in the centre of the village (which she calls Auburn) since 1935, but she had been born in rural Essex and knew its quirky people intimately. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern – particularly at the beginning of the book – her understandable nervousness about describing her neighbours and friends and generalizing about their reactions, but she does it with such skill and affection that I should be surprised if any of them were mortally offended (although there will always be one or two in any village who ‘take agin’). Certainly the presence of dozens of signatures of village inhabitants at the back of the edition I read suggests that most of them must have taken it in good part.

And why not, because the prose is warmed by the affection and admiration she obviously felt for Tolleshunt D’Arcy and its people, a

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