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, at a time when a village of 600 souls was still almost self-sufficient and had a very particular identity, different even from its near neighbours. The village boasted a blacksmith’s forge, shops, pubs and farms, and most of the inhabitants had lived there all their lives. Margery does not attempt to idealize them or hide their foibles but she does hint at their quiet courage and stoicism, caught as they were in a very inconvenient place so close to the North Sea.
Margery’s house became the Air Raid Precautions and First Aid post as well as a billet for the officers of successive battalions of soldiers on invasion watch. A strip of her meadow became a soldier’s camp, but only a strip, so that the hay could still be cut. And she was closely involved in organizing the finding of homes for 275 evacuees who arrived so precipitately and, in many cases, so disastrously in early September 1939. (This book is a cool antidote to the often softfocused memoirs of evacuees which line the social history shelves in bookshops.) Meanwhile, as the village waited to be bombed or worse, she was still spending several hours a day writing an Albert Campion detective story (Traitor’s Purse), for she always needed to earn money.
In The Oaken Heart, Margery carefully examines her motives, her fears, her hopes and her reactions, and her fascination at the way in which wartime conditions drew disparate people together in often unexpected ways. She prods her psyche for signs of weakness or cowardice. There is a particularly striking passage when she looks around at her neighbours listening to a scarifying lecture in the village hall on what would happen if the Germans dropped poison gas bombs.
Half-way through, when P.Y.C. (who was acting as a sort of lecturer’s stooge) was being shown exactly how to make an airlock entrance, and my mind was running over the suitability
of various old curtains on the top shelf of the linen cupboard, I suddenly saw the abyss at our feet as vividly as if I had looked over the side of a house. To realise is one thing but to see is another and I saw that they were talking about a corrosive poison to be sprayed over one civilised people by what was presumed to be another. I wondered if we were all insane and so nearly squeaked aloud . . . that I felt the blood rushing into my face with embarrassment . . . I looked around me furtively to see if I had been noticed and saw all the well-known faces turned gravely towards the stage.
Striking too is the village’s dismay when Belgium surrenders and the French give up on Paris, as well as its sourness at not being close enough to the sea to send ‘little ships’ across the Channel to Dunkirk.
For historians, this kind of memoir is beyond price because it is contemporary. Without foreknowledge of what tomorrow or next year will bring, the emotions Margery describes are genuine, especially the see-sawing between hope and despair, the need to show a brave face to the world when everyone is watching everyone else for signs of weakness, and the desire to draw comfort from the small, everyday things which had once been taken for granted. The memoir was finished a month before the Germans turned on Russia, so before the threat of invasion finally receded.
In the process of describing life in Essex in 1940, she reveals a deeply innocent England that has now comprehensively disappeared, seen in the peculiarly intense light of wartime experience. For example, she tells the tale of how colonial soldiers (many of whom were based in Essex) waggishly swapped all the babies around in the pram park behind Woolworths in the nearest town and how this story amused Tolleshunt D’Arcy. We can scarcely now imagine a time when people felt that they might safely leave their babies unattended while they went shopping.
Since I first found a copy of this book, a new edition has been published by Golden Duck, with a characteristically wise and reflective foreword by Ronald Blythe, and a helpful introduction and notes by Margery’s biographer, Julia Jones. From the notes I discovered – to my fascination, for I had had no idea – that my stepmother’s parents had been part of the Tolleshunt D’Arcy story. This edition also includes extracts from Margery’s diaries for the period, which clearly show the tension she felt in combining her many wartime duties with writing.
All in all, however, Margery’s wartime experiences seem to have been salutary. The Youngman Carters, in their mid-thirties, were part of a disillusioned generation, children during the Great War who had lost their belief in the things their parents had cared about. The tumultuous, terrifying and tremendous events of 1940 beat that out of them. Margery’s relief is obvious. The book ends with the words:
What a period! What an age to be alive in!
Oh, thank God I was born when I was.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 40 © Ursula Buchan 2013