London After Bloomsbury

London After Bloomsbury

A review of On the Wing: A Young American Abroad, by Nora Sayre.


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.

The British, Sayre had been warned, were reserved and repressed. In London, however, she was taken aback by the frankness, the sexual candor, the dramatic indiscretions in conversations and the insults with which writers and critics assessed one another's books in the Sunday papers. She was astonished by the quantities they drank. And she could scarcely believe the swearing she encountered at upper-crust dinner tables.

Sayre also heard a great deal of boastful talk about sex. Love was rarely mentioned–the subject seemed to embarrass the British. The romantically inclined Sayre felt like a "closet monogamist." Relieved to ditch her diaphragm for the pill (available in England earlier than in the United States), she found that the main challenge was to avoid the "flesh-eaters," as she calls those predatory men who seemed to live for conquests and found ways to punish women who refused to play along. Sayre came to a conclusion she would hold for the rest of her life: "While masochists are plentiful, sadists are quite scarce, hence they can find a slew of victims in a lifetime." One of these–and Sayre is by no means the first to say so–was Arthur Koestler. Her acquaintance with him was fleeting, but she paints a memorable cameo portrait of this bullying man, with his hissing Hungarian accent, drunken binges and nasty jokes about female anatomy.

Several of the brilliant conversationalists who befriended Sayre were thwarted writers–Oxford-Cambridge graduates, most of them, who ate and drank and talked excessively, under pressure to write the masterpiece that everyone expected of them. The literary critic John Davenport, famous in the pubs of Chelsea for his talk, was generous in his help to budding writers, including Sayre (and Mary McCarthy, with whom he fell in love). "I have been lucky in knowing so many revolting people," Davenport once said. "I mean people in revolt from the smugness of conventional society."

Just as portly but not at all avuncular, the novelist Cyril Connolly was widely known as one of those predators from whom all women should run. Sayre had a narrow escape. Connolly scathingly dismissed good conversation as "a ceremony of self-wastage." In his case, he knew it was all about writer's block. "Good talkers…are miserable," he said. "They know that they have betrayed themselves, that they have taken material which should have a life of its own, to dispense it in noises in the air."

The talk Sayre heard on Sunday afternoons was less refined. ("This fucking country! The toilets don't work.") In a large Georgian house in Hampstead known as Frognal, she met fellow Americans–mostly blacklisted Americans. The house, crammed with Klees, Chagalls and African sculptures, belonged to blacklisted playwright and screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart and his British journalist wife, Ella Winter. She had bought the paintings in Hollywood, in the days when Stewart commanded a large salary. Those days they were selling them off, one by one.

Early recordings of "Joe Hill" might be playing in the background, and in the evening The Adventures of Robin Hood (written by blacklisted Americans) would be blasting forth from the TV set, while harmonica player Larry Adler and filmmakers Carl Foreman and Joseph Losey helped themselves without enthusiasm to Ella Winter's stale fruitcake. Charlie and Oona Chaplin occasionally dropped in from Vevey. In 1958, when finally–after eight long years–he was issued a passport, Paul Robeson turned up and was greeted with tearful jubilation by the Frognal community.

Those Sunday afternoons among Americans marked Sayre more than any other single aspect of her London experience. Whether or not she was representative of a generation of cosseted young Americans, she was remarkably naïve. Arriving in London in 1955, she knew nothing about the blacklist. ("How strange that I had to learn it abroad.") In Previous Convictions: A Journey Through the 1950s (1995) she writes that during the Army-McCarthy hearings a friend in her Radcliffe dormitory used to rise early to read the New York Times before the others got to it. Eventually this friend realized there was no competition; she could sleep until midday and the paper would still remain undisturbed. The young women were fully occupied writing essays on Yeats's plays and on the whiteness of the whale.

At Frognal, Sayre was for the first time "exposed to those who felt a responsibility for the character of their own society." After she returned to the United States, she would research the ignoble blacklist period of American history, writing a book, Running Time: Films of the Cold War (1982), in which she explored its impact on the movie industry. She interviewed dozens of blacklisted film people and wrote about the 1950s again in Previous Convictions.

If the Frognal section of On the Wing lacks the verve one might expect, given the importance of those Sunday afternoons in Sayre's life, it is partly because Sayre resorts to a mini-lecture about the blacklist. Moreover, this section first appeared in Previous Convictions, and with informative endnotes that have disappeared in this memoir.

Sayre's time in London was suffused with nostalgia for New York, a love that eventually had her packing her bags and breaking up her marriage. She teases us with some details about her relationship to this Englishman, but ultimately she leaves us with no idea of who he was or what their marriage was like. Sayre is far more revealing about others than about herself.

But these are minor quibbles. On the Wing is absorbing, beautifully written and full of vivid character portraits. With Sayre's death this past August at the age of 68, we have lost a fresh and engaging voice. Most beguiling of all, Sayre relished life, people, ideas, conversations. Somehow she makes her readers want to observe more finely and savor it all more keenly. *

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