William Loxley’s lively account of ‘Bloomsbury, the Blitz and Horizon magazine’ begins with W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood emigrating to the United States in January 1939 and ends with George Orwell dying in University College Hospital in January 1950. Between these two events Loxley explores the often interconnected professional and personal lives of a number of British writers, publishers and editors — principally Orwell, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Cyril Connolly, Stephen Spender, John Lehmann and Dylan Thomas — during the second world war and its immediate aftermath.
Faced with criticism in both public and private for his and Auden’s ‘defection’, Isherwood attempted in January 1940 to justify his action to Spender by writing: ‘I believe that the future of English culture is in America, and that the building of the future will be assisted by the largest possible cultural emigration.’ Spender was unimpressed, and replied: ‘As long as England exists and is having a history, it is quite absurd to talk about culture emigration… Culture isn’t something which is quite separate from the lives of people.’ A belief in the indivisibility of culture and people’s lives was embodied in both Connolly’s newly launched magazine Horizon, of which Spender was an editor, and John Lehmann’s New Writing, with which he had a more tenuous and tricky relationship.
‘Horizon is out; small, trivial, dull. So I think from not reading it,’ Virginia Woolf wrote of the first issue. But the magazine quickly acquired a high reputation, with regular contributions from many of the leading writers of the day. Lehmann’s New Writing, in its various incarnations but especially as the cheap Penguin New Writing, was more self-consciously democratic, and published major writers alongside the work of ‘ordinary’ people serving in the forces.
There is little doubt that both publications did a good deal to boost morale among the reading public (the first issue of PNW sold 80,000 copies), but neither was officially recognised as contributing to the war effort.