In the mid-1950s, 22-year-old Nora Sayre left her beloved New York and headed for London. An English major from Radcliffe, she was lured by the mystique of Bloomsbury. She also wanted to flee her parents' tormented marriage, her mother's suicidal manic-depression and visits to the dismal psychiatric wards in Bellevue hospital.
She remained in London for five years. Looking back at that time in her memoir On the Wing, Sayre sees that those expatriate years made her the "observant stranger" Henry James chose to become. Ideal training for a writer, her outsider status changed her lens, challenged her assumptions. It was liberating, she writes, to reach maturity outside 1950s America, with its crushing conformity. The years in fog-bound London pushed back her horizons. Ironically, she also became "more American each month," going to third-grade American movies for nostalgic glimpses of Manhattan. Despite persistent Yank-bashing in Britain, and quips about "un-British" behavior provoked by the infamous antics of the House Committee on Un-American Activities back home, Sayre was not going to be one of those Anglophile Americans in London who pronounced the "h" in herb or said cheerio instead of goodbye.
A decade after the end of the war, there were still the remains of bombed-out buildings in central London. Domestic coal fires reinforced the thick yellow industrial fogs. Houses were cold and drafty, and Sayre discovered chilblains. Plumbing was often primitive. As a freelancer, working from her bed-sitter in Queen's Gate, Sayre competed for the pay phone in the hallway with an unemployed Irish journalist who struck matches on the seam of his trousers.
She considered herself fortunate to be reviewing books for the left-wing weekly The New Statesman, widely regarded as Britain's foremost magazine of inquiry. In those shabby Grand Turnstile offices ("full of hot plates bubbling with tea or coffee or soup") she came into contact for the first time with political talk. In America, her generation had been sheltered, she claims, from recent historical realities.
Sayre had expected the British literary scene to resemble Bloomsbury. "How wrong I was." In postwar, welfare-conscious Britain, Virginia Woolf and her associates were regarded as snobbish upper-middle-class aesthetes. In those days, the "angry young men"–Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, John Osborne and others–held forth. Sayre was in the audience, thrilled by the daring diatribes she was hearing on stage, for the second performance of Osborne's Look Back in Anger. (Theater tickets were cheap, even for those on an austere budget like hers.) Among the rave reviews that came out the following Sunday, Kenneth Tynan wrote that Osborne's play had "lanced a boil." British audiences were hearing the language of the "sophisticate, articulate lower class" onstage, he said. Free education and state scholarships were finally denting the facade of British public school culture.
As Sayre points out, if one listened closely ("very closely"), these anti-Establishment writers were "railing against the welfare state and the lower middle classes, not the upper." By the 1970s they would emerge as extreme right-wingers. But at the time their ferocious eloquence and stubborn English nationalism seemed radical. Unlike the Bloomsbury set, they despised foreign travel. Sayre recalls that Larkin once said, "I wouldn't mind seeing China if I could come back the same day." Francophilia, formerly rampant in literary circles, was called French flu.