A Chelsea Concerto – Frances Faviell
It is a common trope when politicians or the media want to describe the indomitable British spirit to summon up the spirit of the Blitz. We are exhorted to revive it in our fight against the pandemic. At least then, my last surviving relative who remembers the war years and was bombed out three times remarks, you could see and hear who you were fighting against. So deeply ingrained is this phase of history in the psyche of many that it is instructive to learn what it was really like to live through the period.
A book which does this admirably is Frances Faviell’s A Chelsea Concerto, originally published in 1959 and then long languishing in obscurity before being reissued by Dean Street Press. Faviell, the pen name of the painter and writer, Olivia Faviell Lucas, was an interesting character, well-travelled, living in India, Japan and China before fleeing from the Japanese and returning to London. There she met and married her second husband, Richard Parker.
Living in Chelsea, she became a Red Cross Volunteer and as the area was one of the most heavily bombed areas in London and she and her colleagues were heavily involved in dealing with the repercussions of the raids. The book, her memoir of the period, is a fascinating and vivid account, one which does not spare the reader the assault on the senses that the air raids engendered. Her account is laced with small acts of heroism, self-sacrifice and determination.
As someone with an artistic eye Faviell is adept at creating a word picture, sparing the reader none of the small details that add to the verisimilitude of her tale. As well as the human carnage and the rubble, we get to appreciate the stench of humans who have not bathed and of burnt and rotten flesh and of sewage as water supplies are ruptured. Her image of coming round after her house had been bombed to find the severed arm of one her friends on top of her will long live in my mind. This was not a Hollywood-style sanitised conflict. It was grim, horrible, a living nightmare and Faviell captures this well.
The book is not all doom and gloom. During the book, which falls into two unequal parts – the phoney war with its endless and seemingly pointless drills and practices and the bombing raids through to the middle of 1941 – she gets married, eventually has a baby and her dachshund, nicknamed Little Hitler, picks up an ardent admirer. There are moments of humour, joy and laughter, and even fun to be had chasing and extinguishing incendiary bombs.
Faviell’s fluency in Dutch lands her a role in dealing with the groups of Dutch and Belgian refugees who have arrived in the area and her tales of their struggles to make a new life, their petty squabbles and disagreements make up a good chunk of the book. The leitmotif of the book is her Green Cat, a Chinese statuette, which stands on her window sill as its protector. A sense of foreboding enters the narrative when her husband’s clumsiness damages it.
There are days when it all gets too much for her. “There were days when I felt I didn’t want to do one more thing for one more refugee or one more bombed-out person, although they compelled my compassion. I didn’t want to enter one more hospital or smell the stench of one more shelter. then I would look out the window and see the wardens and the AFS men and women running to their posts and I would put on my tin hat and scrub my hands in anticipation of more dirt and go with a sigh for the rapidly fading memories of the lovely travels which I enjoyed before Hitler had upset the world.”
This is the perfect corrective to the rose-tinted view of the Blitz that we are fed and should be required reading for all those who reminisce about that period of our history. Our ability to overcome adversity is astonishing and when it is absolutely necessary we all pull together for the perceived common good, but the reality is that these were dark, dreadful, tragic times the like of which I trust we will never see again. In comparison the current lockdown is a stroll in the park.