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Authors: Dorothy Sayers

The Wimsey Papers

BOOK: The Wimsey Papers

The Wimsey Papers pt. I
From :
Dorothy L. Sayers published in The Spectator in 1939 and 1940, purporting to be between characters from the Wimsey novels. Aside from their interest to fans of Sayers, who would like to know more about her characters and about her views on the war, they're also interesting pieces of social history - these must be one of the last few pieces of writing where the word 'propaganda' is used in a neutral meaning, for example.
Unfortunately, they've never been published, The Spectator's on-line archive goes no further back than 2000, and there doesn't seem to be another on-line copy of them. So I ordered up some back issues from the bowels of the Periodicals Library in college. Of course, getting them from there means that I could only photocopy them - and I'm afraid I don't get on well with photocopies at all. They inevitably get dog-eared, splashed with tea, or lost altogether - so I decided I might as well type them up.
(being war-time letters and documents of the Wimsey family)
Honoria Lucasta, Dowager Duchess of Denver, to her American friend, Cornelia, wife of Mr. Lambert B. Vanderhuysen, of New York.
November 12th, 1939.
Dear Cornelia,
I think I had better write you my usual Christmas letter now, because naturally the War has upset the posts a little, and one can't really expect ships to go quickly when they are convoyed about like a school crocodile, so tedious for them, or keep to Grand Geometry, or whatever the straight course is called when they have to keep darting about like snipe to avoid submarines, and anyway I like to get my correspondence in hand early and not do it at the last moment with one's mind full of Christmas trees - though I suppose there will be a shortage of those this year, but, as I said to Miss Bates, our village schoolmistress, so long as the children get their presents I don't suppose they'll mind whether you hang them on a conifer or the Siegfried Line, and as a matter of fact Denver is thinning a lot of little firs out of the plantation, and you'd better ask him for one before he sends them all to the hospitals.
And really, Cornelia, I think you must have been listening to Goering or Goebbels or that Haw-Haw man or something - the suburbs aren't in ruins and Oxford and Cambridge haven't been invaded by anything worse than a lot of undergraduates from other universities, so good for both sides, I think, though I'm told the plague of bicycles in the streets is quite a menace - still, it never was anything else - and we've got plenty of butter and guns, if it comes to that, though they keep on saying they're going to ration them, just as Hitler keeps on saying he's going to begin, only he doesn't go, like the people in the Pirates of Penzance, and Peter says if he waits much longer the audience will refuse to clap and perhaps the Munich bomb was in the nature of a cat-call, but what I say is, if little Adolf found anything nasty in that beer-cellar he must have brought it with him. And, talking of Peter, I can't really tell you where he is, because he's gone back to his old job, and everything comes without any proper address through the Foreign Office. I rather fancy he may have been in Turkey a little while ago, from something he said about the coffee being good; I can't think of any other place where that would be likely to happen, because he never really likes French coffee (too much chicory), and nobody else seems to have any, except us, and I know he's somewhere abroad, the letters take so long. Wherever it was, he isn't there now, and that makes me think it must have been Turkey, because they seem to have settled everything splendidly there. But of course this is only guess-work.
It's very hard on poor Harriet, his being sent off like that, but she is being very sensible - they've shut the London house and she's gone down to Talboys with the children - I enclose a photograph of little Paul, he's nearly a year old now, and Bredon just three, how time flies! - and Mary's youngsters are there, too. She's doing A.R.P work and looking after her husband - you remember him, Charles Parker, the C.I.D. Chief Inspector - naturally he can't leave town. They seem well and happy and very busy. Charles was a little upset the other day over finding two human legs (a very bad match) in a police-post, tied up in brown paper. He said it made him feel he was going to miss Peter. However, it turned out they had only been left there by a man who was taking them to a hospital and had popped them inside out of the rained while he hunted for a taxi in the black-out and it would all have been cleared up quite quickly, only when the poor man had found the taxi he'd forgotten where the police-post was, and drove wildly round the West End looking for it, so confusing, but one must expect these little inconveniences in war-time. And à propos of sandbags (oh, no, I didn't mention them, but the police-post was built of sandbags, a sort of little hut, you know, like a night-watchman's) you can't think how queer Piccadilly Circus looks with Eros gone and a sort of pyramid like King Cheops' on a small scale built up over the fountain - though why they should take all that trouble I can't think, unless it's the water-mains, except that people feel very sentimental about it and if anyone dropped a bomb on it they'd feel the heart of the Empire had stopped beating. Peter says we ought to do something constructive in the opposite direction and floodlight the Albert Memorial because the Park would be better without it, but poor Queen Victoria would turn in her grave and, as I reminded him, he didn't know Queen Victoria personally: I did.
Yes, my dear, we are all quite all right. Denver is worried about Jerry, of course, because he's in the R.A.F., and naturally that's rather dangerous, but dear boy, how he is enjoying himself, being able to go just as fast as he likes (you remember how he used to terrify us with that big racing-car). His father says he ought to have got married to somebody first, so as to provide an heir in case of accidents. "Really, Gerald," I said, "fancy worrying about that at a time like this. If there's anything left to be heir to when we've finished paying for the War, Peter's got two boys - and, judging by Jerry's present taste in young women, we are mercifully spared." That was rather tactless, I suppose, because Gerald's fretting quite enough about the estate already; he says we shall be ruined, of course, but he doesn't mind that if only he can do his duty by the land.
And then we've got a big boy's school in the West Wing, and that gets on his nerves sometimes, still, most fortunately, Helen isn't here, which relieves the tension. As you know, I never like to criticise my daughter-in-law, but she is a very difficult sort of person and I was devoutly thankful when she took herself off to the Ministry of Instruction and Morale. What she can possibly have to instruct anyone about I don't know, but as the place is packed with everybody's wives and nephews and all the real jobs seem to have been handed over to the other departments it's as good a spot as any to intern the nation's trouble-makers, and she's got three secretaries paid by a grateful country to endure her, so all is for the best. There was a picture of her in the papers last week, glaring like the wrath of God at poor little Sir Chitterley Rumph, and when Denver saw it I thought he'd burst a blood-vessel or have a blood-bath or something, only fortunately, just as that moment, one of our little evacuees put a cricket-ball through the long window of the yellow saloon, and in the strain of trying to swear on two fronts at once the frightfulness blew itself off. They are all elementaries (the evacuees, I mean) from a rather slummy bit of London, and I'm afraid the infant cherub with the cricket-ball made pique, repique and capot of Denver before he could score half his vocabulary. Curious and charming, isn't it, how much the peerage and the proletariat have in common, once you get down to the raw stuff of life, so to speak. Any nice middle-class foster-parent would have turned purple, but Gerald burst out laughing and has begun to take quite an interest in the school. In fact, he's offered to umpire their end-of-term sports competition, and has lent them a pony for riding lessons!
Well, my dear, I must stop now and see a deputation from the Women's Rural Institute, who are getting up a Nativity Play for Polish refugees, so sweet of them, and most providentially there's a full moon for Christmas, so we shall get a good audience. I have promised to play "Anna, a prophetess" - I'd forgotten there was such a person, so I must look her up quickly before they come. We carry on, you see, war or no war - "we don't take no account of black-outs in these parts," having never known the bright-lights. (Dear me, Cornelia, what would you do with a black-out in New York?) And, as for wars, this is a very old country, and we can remember a great many of them.
My best love and all the good wishes of the season to you and Lambert and Sadie, and, of course, to John and Margaret and Junior.
Your affectionate old friend,
From Mr. Paul Delagardie to his nephew, Lord Peter Wimsey, somewhere abroad.
13th November, 1939.
My dear Peter,
I do not, of course, know what you are doing (wherever you are) and am ready to believe that it is of the utmost national importance. Unless, however, someone contrives to inject a little common sense into the headquarters staff on the home front, there will soon be no nation for armies to defend or diplomatists to argue about. I enclose a cutting from The Times, giving the number of civilian casualties during the ten weeks of the black-out. If you have any influence at all, you had better write a letter to somebody behind the scenes, because the leading comedians in the limelight seem disinclined to take any action. I do not accuse them of indifference to the slaughter of their countrymen, but merely of ignorance and stupidity, those very destructive sins which the English persist in mistaking for virtues. If these people would occasionally walk about London on foot, or make the experiment of attempting to board an ombnibus, or would enter into conversation with such valuable citizens as charwomen and taxi-drivers (a race of men whom I find to be exceptionally conversable and intelligent), they would notably increase the efficiency of their departments.
I lunched last week at the House of Lords with your brother Gerald and his wife. Since she is in the Ministry of Instruction and Morale - Dieu sait pourquoi! - I suggested to her that some attempt be made by that body to instruct the urban population in the science of walking in the dark. Needless to say, I got no satisfaction - I do not suppose that any man has ever got satisfaction out of Helen, least of all her husband. (As I warned him thirty years ago, she has neither the figure nor the temperament.) On this occasion she replied that the Ministry saw no need to issue propaganda; the public was accepting the black-out very well, and the spirit of the nation was excellent. I replied that I was not concerned for its spirit, but for its body and brain, of which the one was being mutilated and the other neglected. Scrampole (of the Ministry of Redistribution) was with us, and said that avenues towards mitigating the severity of the black-out were being carefully explored. I told him my objection was not to the black-out (which provides a refreshing relief from the vulgarity which normally disfigures the streets of the metropolis), but only to the accidents. I added that the spirit of any nation, however good, was liable to be depressed by an expectation of death, which at present stood higher in Great Britain than on the Western Front.
Gerald said he saw no difficulty about crossing a street in the dark. "My dear boy," said I, "of course you don't. You were brought up in the country. There, you have a black-out every night, and take your precautions accordingly. You are aware of the ditch on your right, the quickset hedge on your left, the unfenced pond on the corner, and the possibility of an unlit cow straying through a gap. But the town-dweller is accustomed to lighted streets; there are men and women born since 1918 who never saw the dark in their lives until last September. They are as much bewildered as a Nubian savage on Epsom Downs on Derby Day."
At this point we were joined by Bleatworthy, who, as you know, has an idèe fixe about motorists. He suggested that any driver who killed a pedestrian should be hanged for murder. I begged him not to talk nonsense. I pointed out to him that the black-out had destroyed his case against the motorist. The trouble cannot be due to fast driving, since speed is almost impossible in the dark. Nor can it be due to careless driving, otherwise the list of collisions with structural objects and other cars would be very much higher than it is. It is the pedestrian who is in error and needs instruction and assistance. He imagines that in normal times he stops to look before crossing the road. The black-out proves that he does no such thing. If he looked, he could not fail to see the car, since under present conditions it is the only thing to be seen, and is as conspicuous as a film-star at a mothers' meeting.
No; what happens normally is that, at most, the pedestrian allows the motorist to see him. He is saved from destruction by the driver's sight and skill. Now observe what happens in the black-out. The pedestrian can see better than ever; it is the motorist who is deprived of the use of his lights and eyes. As a taxi-driver said to me the other day, "Gets on your nerves it does" (I quote his exact words), "it's nothing but things a-looming up at you." I thought this expression vivid and apt. The pedestrian does not realise this; he supposes that since he can see the driver, the driver can see him; but this is not the case. To him, the driver is a moving light; to the driver, he is a looming shadow.
We conversed for some time, at the end of which Helen suggested that I should write a letter to the Ministry. I did so. It has not yet been acknowledged. In a month's time it may be acknowledged. In six months' time I shall be informed that the Ministry cannot see their way to do propaganda on these lines and that the spirit of the nation is excellent. I have now written to the B.B.C, the respectable newspapers, and even the regrettable newspapers. I do not suppose they will do anything, because the pedestrian has the sympathy of the public which buys the papers. I have written to the motoring associations; they are, naturally, sympathetic, and suggest that I should write to the papers.

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