Clayre Percy

Without a blush or a yawn

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Dawn Chorus

Joan Wyndham

Virago, pp. 240, £

Joan Wyndham has written two war diaries, and one postwar autobiography; now she completes the picture with a description, part diary, part straight narrative, of her life as a child, a schoolgirl and a student at Rada. Her first three books were the story of an uninhibited bohemian. This one starts gently.

Joan Wyndham began her life at Clouds. To see that most famous of Arts and Crafts houses not through the eyes of an architectural historian but through the eyes of a small child who actually lived there is a good way to begin. Unfortun- ately she did not stay there for long. Her parents’ marriage foundered and the scene changed to Evelyn Gardens in Fulham.

At this point Joan’s mother, Iris, temporarily becomes the central figure and the author backtracks in a slightly muddling way. Iris was the daughter of Wendy Bennett, an exotic character, who was brought up in Romania and was Field Marshal Lord French’s mistress. She wanted her daughter to have a conventional English life and was thrilled when, young and totally inexperienced, Iris married Dick Wyndham who had inherited Clouds when his cousin Percy and brother George were both killed in the 1914 war. The wedding night was a disaster and the marriage never recovered. Iris struggled on as chatelaine of the great house, but Dick disappeared over the horizon with another lady and divorce ensued.

Iris left Clouds with Joan and retreated into nursery life in Fulham. The food was dire: ‘everything was served with overboiled vegetables … puddings were always served with lashings of Birds custard’; but there was the cosiness of a nursery, nanny, housemaid, and cook complete and the company of an eccentric, red-haired sculptress who lived with them and who converted Iris to the Catholic faith. For Iris this was a blessing, for Joan a shadow, as she went to Catholic schools, worried about her lack of faith and was distraught when her greatest friend took the veil.

Joan Wyndham looks back at her youth without a blush or a yawn. She is the strong suit of the book and is easy to recognise as the bacchanalian figure on the inside of the dust jacket. The characters to whom she introduces us are paler, often so sketchy as hardly to exist, though this changes towards the end.

When she is accepted by Rada her diary lights up. We meet Gielgud and Guinness as young men but most of all we can feel the atmosphere of the Academy and the crushes and ambitions of Joan and her friends. She falls in and out of love and the young actors come alive — no longer cardboard cut-outs. ‘I can’t decide,’ she writes, ‘which of the men I like the best … Joseph is like a beautifully iced cake: thrilling to look at but deadly dull once you get into him. Alan Sykes is such a wonderful actor his looks don’t matter.’

We are almost as sad as she was when her mother, frightened by the threat of war, ordered her to leave the Academy in 1938.