Joan Wyndham interview

Book and Magazine Collector, April 2004

Joan Wyndham’s reputation as a witty and observant diarist was established by Love Lessons, her belated 1985 hardcover debut. Recently serialised on Radio 4 and reissued as a Virago Modern Classic, it chronicles her antics as a wide-eyed seventeen-year-old amid London’s bohemian set during the Second World War. Fans of her first book and its two successors, Love Is Blue and Anything Once, will be delighted to know that she has lost none of the joie de vivre that makes her work so irresistible. On being asked to sign my battered paperback edition of Love Lessons, she writes “D’you need any?” on the title-page. 

Sitting in the sunny upstairs lounge of her house in Fulham, surrounded by paintings, photos and other memorabilia, she breaks into recurrent, contagious laughter as she describes her colourful background. 

I was born in Wiltshire in a very big Victorian house called Clouds. My parents were virgins when they married. They didn’t know what to do on the wedding night, so they had to go to a doctor the next morning. My mother was put off sex for life. My father subsequently met the Marchioness of Queensbury, an older woman, sexy as hell, and after his first orgasm he thought he was in love with her. My mother made the great mistake of asking the Marchioness for Christmas one year. In the middle of the night my mother went downstairs to make sure the candles on the Christmas tree had been put out, and there was my father, making love to the Marchioness behind the tree, so divorce followed. 

In those days you weren’t allowed to mention the person involved. You went to see Rosa Lewis, who ran the Cavendish Hotel and she supplied you with a whore, whom you took to the Metropole in Brighton. There it was arranged for a man to bring your breakfast and catch you in bed with the whore. 

After my parents divorced, my mother took me to London, where we lived on the Fulham Road. Was your mother a keen reader? Oh, yes, she left me a cottage containing a large library, mostly first editions. There were also some rather strange books, including one about Rasputin. On the flyleaf there was an inscription to my mother from the man who apparently murdered him — Prince Yussopoff, who was obviously a friend of my mother’s. Apart from that, it was mainly plants, animals and Agatha Christie. 

Tell me about your early literary experiences… 

At the age of six, I started to learn to read. I was given a Victorian book called Reading Without Tears, in which all the letters were made out of people dressed in top-hats and crinolines. Once I’d learned how to read, I began with fairy-tales. Most of my days were spent lying on the sofa, reading and sucking oranges. My favourites were the usual things: Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Later on, I read E.E. Nesbitt, not to mention a rather beautiful book by Oscar Wilde called The Little Prince, and Just William whom, I suppose, I identified with because he was so naughty. I couldn’t help but notice that the fairy-tales were usually very cruel. Children were sentenced to dance themselves to death in red-hot clogs, things like that, and I began to get rather a penchant for nasty things myself. 

One day I was taken to stay with my uncle Tim, who had a wonderful library, where I spent most of my time. When I left, he said, “Would you like to choose a book, Joan, darling?” My mother thought I’d pick something nice about animals or flowers. Then I emerged, tottering under the weight of an enormous illustrated book of Chinese tortures. Everybody went white and I was sent straight back to get something different. I chose Gulliver’s Travels which, I thought, was safe enough. Unfortunately my mother opened it, and there was an illustration of Gulliver in Brobdignag, the giants’ country, climbing an enormous woman’s breast and investigating a huge nipple — so that was taken away, too, and I ended up with yet another copy of Alice in Wonderland

Not long after that, I was sent to a convent boarding-school. There I fell madly in love with another girl, as one always did. It was the only interest we had in life. I was mad about a sixth-form girl called Rosemary Dwyer. I wonder if she’s still alive. We had a very open-minded head nun, who used to talk to me in her study about my crushes. “Are you still in love with Rosemary Dwyer?” she’d ask. “Didn’t I notice you giving rather strange looks to Jane Drummond in dancing class the other night?” 

We were so innocent, and everything we did was innocent. While I was at school, I drew up a plan in my exercise-book, detailing all the books I’d like to have in my library. The majority of these were run-of-the-mill things like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Little Women, A Tale of Two Cities, The Four Feathers, The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, Tanglewood Tales, Sherlock Holmes, and some poetry, but not much. I particularly liked Coleridge. And, of course, there was also the whole of Shakespeare in my library. I was in love with John Gielgud, whom I had seen for the first time in Hamlet. I watched it five times, always ogling him from the front row. 

As a result of reading Hamlet, I moved on to the rest of Shakespeare and that’s how I got to know and love him. The most unexpected corner of this imaginary library was devoted to Freud. When I was very young, I used to have a bath at six o’clock each evening. Next-door to the bathroom was my mother’s companion’s library. I looked in there one day and spotted something called The Interpretation of Dreams. I took it into the bathroom and started to read it. To my amazement, I noticed that everything from a screwdriver to a banana was a significant symbol of “you-know-what”. And I knew what because I’d seen photos of Grecian statues. Instead of washing, I used to sit by the bath, burrowing into Freud whilst making splashing noises with my hand to fool my mother. 

As a schoolgirl, were you introduced to the nineteenth-century English classics? 

 Yes, I was a terrible literary snob. I used to read all the classics. Nobody else in my class was doing that, so they used to bully me because I was regarded as “brainy”. Finally, they discovered a way they could like me. I had to leave all my exercise-books after study at night on a little shelf so that they could copy them. Once they could copy my work, they approved of me being brainy. 

When did you start keeping a diary?

When I was at school. I’d write about my various infatuations. Most of my diary writing, though, was done during the war because the war was the first exciting thing that had ever happened to me. That and having a boyfriend. One never knew which one was going to lose first — one’s life or one’s virginity. I decided to keep a diary so as not to forget a single minute of it.What sort of life were you leading during that period? I was living with my mother and her companion, who were both deeply religious. I had to go to Mass every day, confession once-a-week, and the priest came to tea on Fridays. In between all that, we worked in a First Aid Post, bandaging wounds, running errands and answering the phone. I also had a boyfriend who finally persuaded me to go to bed with him. It didn’t work out, of course. And afterwards I thought, “Gosh, is that all it is? What’s all the fuss about?” I wrote in my diary that I’d much rather have a good smoke and go to the pictures any day. But I was told by my friends that it’s always a disappointment first time round. 

Were you ever conscious of the possibility that your diary might one day be published?

No, goodness, no. I never for one moment thought that anybody would read it. That would have been too embarrassing. I used to hide it under the mattress at night so that nobody would see it. How did it come to be published, then? My daughter discovered it in a trunk in the attic. First of all, I found her in tears. “Oh, mummy, I’m furious,” she said. “You had a much better time than I did when you were that age.” And then she said, “But you’ve got to do something with your diaries. Why don’t you publish them?” That was when I first decided to do it. 

Did you feel obliged to edit them?

Yes. There was an enormous quantity of material. About twenty hardback books, I think. I cut lots and lots of bits I found boring. I don’t mind offending people. I just don’t want to bore anybody. And then I put together a second book, Love Is Blue, about life in the W.A.A.F. While I was in uniform, I’d write long letters to my mother, saying exactly the opposite of what really happened. “Darling, mummy,” I’d write, “I went to a terribly respectable party at the Officers’ Mess . Everybody was stone-cold sober and so was I”, which meant we were really dancing on the tables, singing rude songs. Another letter, which she kept, described how I was “seen home in the blackout by that dreadful Sergeant Barker, who leapt on me.” In brackets I put: “Thank God for regulation knickers!” 

Are you keen on reading other people’s diaries and memoirs?

Not terribly, though I think Pepys is wonderful. I bought the Claire Tomalin biography of him, but after the first chapter I thought, “Why don’t I just read Pepys?” After reading the real thing, I didn’t find the Tomalin book necessary.

During the period described in Love Lessons and Love Is Blue, were you aware of Horizon and the other literary magazines that were flourishing at the time?

Oh, God, yes. The editor of Horizon, Cyril Connolly, was a great friend of mine. I met him through my father, a writer and journalist who was very much part of the literary scene. He used to invite me to Cyril’s parties, which were terrifying. Everybody there seemed to be a famous writer of some sort. I was absolutely petrified by it all. I sat down to dinner once and stuck my fork into a quail which shot off the table and was eaten by a dog. I was so embarrassed. 

In the diaries you mention coming across Dylan Thomas… 

I was in a Soho pub known as “the Burglar’s Alms”, wearing my officer’s uniform, when someone pinched by bottom. I looked round and saw a small, tubby man with curly hair and lips like Michelin tyres. “Pretty Waffy,” he breathed lasciviously, “what’s your name?” “Joan,” I said. “What’s yours?” “I’m Dylan Thomas and I’m fuckin’ skint. Be a nice Waffy and buy me a Special Ale.” So I bought him one and we went back by taxi to Ruthven Todd’s studio where he was staying.

As soon as I’d sunk into my seat he smothered me in wet, heavy kisses. It was like being embraced by an intoxicated octopus. I tried to tell myself I was being kissed by a great poet, but it was a relief when the taxi stopped. I was given a little cupboard to sleep in, and had just curled up on the floor when an air-raid started. At that point I heard footsteps on the stairs and someone thumping on the door. “I want to fuck you, I want to fuck you!” screamed Dylan. 

I locked the door and lay down, wrapped in my great-coat, but was far too frightened to sleep. Next morning, a totally different Dylan turned up: cool, quiet and intelligent. He took me to breakfast in Soho and we talked about his work and I said, “You know, I don’t understand an awful lot of what you write.” And he said, “To hell with poetry. My work is like a circular city full of secret rooms and all round it there are different doors. It doesn’t matter a damn which door you open. You’ll always find something interesting.” I thought, “That’s rather nice.” 

By that time I realised that I was going to have to pay for the breakfast because he didn’t have enough pennies. Then he said, “You know I’d much rather be soaking in a nice hot bath, sucking acid-drops and reading Agatha Christie than writing bloody old poetry…” I liked Dylan very much, but understood what his friends meant by “Not safe after six”. 

Were there other people in his circle whom you met?

Yes, Tambimuttu, Ruthven Todd, Maclaren-Ross and Nina Hamnett. Tambimuttu was awful. He was always after me. He once lured me to his bedroom, but there were bedbugs crawling all over the sheets, so I quickly escaped. Then there was Bobby Newton, the actor, who was always in the pub. He once sent me a telegram saying, “Marry me, darling, and I’ll only drink one bottle a day.” 

What did you do after the war ended and you left the W.A.A.F.?

Well, I opened the first espresso bar in Oxford. I was the cook, specialising in “spag’ bol’”. Then I ran a hippy café in Portobello Road. Our customers ate loads of brown rice and brought their own chopsticks. Later I worked on Housewife magazine, luckily in charge of the men’s page, so I could hire gorgeous male models. My best job was cooking lunch for the actors at the Royal Court Theatre, where I watched all the rehearsals for free. As for the actors, I got to know more about how they liked their sausages cooked than about their acting. Ian McKellen, for instance, told me, “I don’t want mine just well done — I want them totally destroyed.” 

Apart from all these goings on, I managed to acquire two husbands, two daughters, two cats and write four books. For a couple of years, my first husband and I lived in Baghdad, where he got a job at the university. I loved it there, though we had a series of awful nannies. My daughter, who was three at the time, ran around with street arabs, from whom she learned to speak perfect Iraqi of the rudest kind. Once her nanny was washing out the bath and got soap in her eyes, to which Camilla said very firmly in Iraqi, “Eat shit thou daughter of a pimp.”

Anyone who has read your books will be aware of your enviable ear for dialogue. Have you ever tried your hand at fiction-writing?

Yes, in the early 1960s I did write a book called Behaving Badly. I never published it, but I’ve still got it. You know, I might do something with it, though it seems so out of date now.

What sort of thing do you read these days?

The Harry Potter books are my favourite books of the minute. I’ve only just finished the last one. And it’s wonderful. The final chapter had me on the edge of my seat practically screaming with terror. I’m also reading Pompei by Robert Harris, which is riveting, and I’m re-reading The Abomination by my friend, Paul Golding. Friends always give me their books and I have to read them. Luckily Paul’s book is brilliant. As a rule, the three classes of book that I most enjoy are historical romances, science fiction like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and American crime novels. I adore Elmore Leonard. I’ve read all his books. Recently, I considered buying the Beckham autobiography, only because he’s the most gorgeous creature on the face of the earth. But it’s probably a lousy book, so I didn’t buy it. 

You’ve spoken about your current favourites. 

Do you have any literary pet-hates? There’s one writer whom I loathe — Wyndham Lewis, who introduced my father to the bohemian life. Along with a few other aristocrats, my father supported him. And, if the allowance was late, Wyndham Lewis would send a telegram saying, “Where’s my fucking stipend, Dick?” After the Wall Street Crash, my father could no longer afford to continue paying the stipend. Out of revenge, Lewis wrote a book called The Apes of God. One of the worst apes was my father, whom he described in a monstrous fashion: walking in a funny way and farting and generally trying to be an artist when, in Lewis’s opinion, he wasn’t one. 

Lastly, have you got another book in the pipeline?

It’s called Dawn Chorus and it starts with a description of life at Clouds, the house where I was born. It was enormous, with forty bedrooms and peacocks on the lawn. Now it’s a home for alcoholics and drug addicts. “Watch out, or you’ll end up in your old nursery!” my husband says if I have one whisky too many. The book continues with my father’s letters from the trenches at the battle of the Somme, and my mother’s diaries as a deb. I also include my school diaries and the lead up to Chamberlain and “Peace in Our Time”, with me at the age of sixteen looking forward to a wonderful future.

Reproduced by kind permission of Warners Group Publications.

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