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Guest post: "Anaïs in London" by Rehan Qayoom
"When Nin arrived in London on 1st September 1939, she keenly sensed the poison of the looming war in its foggy air..." - Rehan Qayoom
Occasionally on “when hope writes” I’ll publish guest posts by brilliant artists and writers. If you want to be a guest blogger on my Substack, please connect with me on Facebook, LinkedIn, or my website.
Today I’m sharing a detailed account of the great Anaïs Nin in London by Rehan Qayoom, a masterly and methodical writer, editor, translator, and archivist. “Anaïs in London” was first published on Black Flowers.
Anaïs in London
“Hello Pussy,” announced Anaïs Nin’s husband Hugh Guiler on Tuesday 27th July 1926 (note the precise date and time she recorded in her diary). “We are going to London tomorrow.” This first visit lasting but all of three days to what the poet T. S. Eliot had recently called an ‘Unreal City,’ is absent from the two major biographies of her life. They arrived to a rainy London where Nin spotted a Chinese eatery at which they dined on their way back from searching for a hotel room. Here ‘for the first time’ she saw ‘the handsome men of India, carefully dressed in European clothes’ and noted their ‘soft, cultured English.’
Nin recorded her ‘impressions’: that London represented ‘a mingling of New York and Paris, solidity with occasional beauty, as in the House of Parliament; of tall, handsome men, and women resembling men too much to be liked as women; numerous and attractive tobacco shops and sport shops; smooth-running, comfortable red buses from whose top seats much can be observed; charming, wild, untrimmed parks with sheep grazing; and the lovely statue of Peter Pan; an entrancing river of dark moods; one busy and vulgar street, the Strand; a remarkable, quiet and charming section behind Parliament of neatly kept houses, ivy-covered, with doorways in blue or green or white. This section, I discovered, was a continuation of the Chelsea district, chosen by artists to dwell in—by Carlyle, Rossetti, William Morris, and others.’
Here, they asked a man the directions to Carlyle’s House in Cheyne Row, who insisted on taking them there ‘in true English fashion’ and also showed them the Old Church a few minutes’ walk away. His expert guidance made Nin suspect him to be an artist because he seemed to have all the time in the world to show them round, told them nothing about himself and ‘because of his face; … Ordinary people’s eyes are only half opened compared with an artist’s eyes’. She diligently recorded her impressions of Carlyle’s House in her diary, also how impressed she was by the guard outside Horse Guards Parade, wondered at their ‘virile breakfasts. Such breakfasts!’ She liked the modest mannerisms of the waiters reflecting the modesty of the city in everything except its ‘wind, which respects nothing, and the dirt’, the tiny blocks of sugar, the boldness of the people, ‘the absence of the Parisian falsetto, screechy horns;’ the overall smoothness, and solidarity, the comfortable seating arrangement in buses out of which she keenly observed the ‘people, houses, monuments, and shops’, the dimly lit subways and the everlasting afternoon teas. She noted that public ‘baths are free and not a luxury, as in Paris.’
Nin spent the mornings carefully admiring the paintings in the National Gallery and recording her comments in the diary: the works of the Spanish artists Murillo, Goya and Velasquez convinced her that her ‘greatest affection, a thing to be separated from admiration’ was for Spain and its art, that the people in Rubens ate and drank too much for her liking and described his paintings as ‘orgies of flesh’ noting that ‘I prefer van Dyck’s aristocracy.’ She recorded more of her thoughts about paintings they saw at The Wallace Collection.
As well as the art galleries Nin and Guiler managed to squeeze in visits to Keats’ House in Hampstead and see the statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in the three-day visit—‘It was from these trips that I obtained a quick general impression; and from slow walks that we gained a more intimate knowledge of London.’ These were the heyday of street, singers, musicians, hawkers that seem to have evoked in her the quaint feelings ‘of a person who suddenly confides in you one evening when there is no light by which you can look at his face.’
The return journey was rough. Nin described how the channel ‘coughed and sneezed and spat angrily on the decks and heaved’. Guiler left her alone on the deck as he had done on the journey down. To make things worse the train journey home was in a dirty old train that shook violently. They finally got back to a ‘smooth, soft, harmonious’ home with the sun shining through. They both bathed, changed into clean clothes and had dinner in the ‘cheerful little kitchen.’ She recalls the peacefulness of coming back home after a long and arduous journey, like wanting to stay home forever!
Nin’s second visit to London was another flying five-day summer visit for her brother in-law’s wedding in June 1929 at which she pretended to like the rest of the family. Three months later she recalled an interesting conversation she had with her mother in-law about the bride to be:
“They say her father is Welsh. I have heard the Welsh are such unreliable people! Do you know anything about them, Anaïs?”
“I’m sorry – not a thing. All I remember reading is that the Welsh were once part of England and are now separated.”
“I wonder why they separated,” said Hugh’s little mother in a tone in which women say: “I wonder why he divorced her.”
In April of 1934 Nin returned to London to see what the author Rebecca West (with whom she had been conducting a correspondence) could do to promote Henry Miller’s book Tropic of Cancer. They both left conflicting accounts of the four-day visit. According to West, Nin arrived ‘uninvited and unwelcome’ and tried her unsuccessful best not to receive the manuscript of another Miller work. The porter throwing a rug under her feet as if she was alighting from a camel. To her diary she confided her thoughts of West’s stately, cold ‘salon’ with windows looking out to London while West approached shouting, “Oh, you look like a Romanian princess!”
At dinner Nin was introduced to an American editor, a playwright and Somerset Maugham’s niece. West, wearing silver and a black velvet dress dropped her hanky in front of Nin and stooped to retrieve it, saying, “I drop my handkerchief before you. That’s an homage to you, isn’t it?” Nin noticed her ‘very, very full breasts’.
Sensing that Nin was hurt on having to eat alone in a big city, West served lunch with her nineteen-year-old son for company. She visited the Lyric Theatre and walked the streets ‘fascinated with houses, windows, doorways, by the face of a bootblack, by a whore, by the dreary rain, by a gaudy dinner at the Regent’s Palace, by Fitzroy’s Tavern.’ West also took her to see Charles Laughton in Othello.
Then on her last night in London, she came by to pick her up and they took a taxi to the Ivy for dinner (West recalls Nin coming to her place instead and talking in her bedroom that evening). On the way they talked about their childhoods and their both having been abandoned by their fathers at an early age. Sharing an affectionate kiss, they bid farewell, Nin recalled West’s ‘flashing, fawn, intelligent eyes glowing. Her Irish voice now.’
Once again, Nin ‘devoured’ London, feeling tempted by the persecuting attention of the men, the sense of adventure driving her wild even though reality fell a little short of her ‘inflated imaginings … I can’t yield to the passerby’s interest.’
Through 1938 until the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Guiler (who was working in London) paid regular visits to see Nin ‘once or twice a month’. On 19th November, Lawrence Durrell took Nin to see Alan Pringle, an editor at the publishing firm Faber & Faber, then based at 24 Russell Square in Bloomsbury. They had returned her Diary ‘with a great deal of reluctance’ the previous year.
On 30th December, Nin describes seeing the film You Can’t Take It with You. She wept uncontrollably, in the taxi on the way back, she explained, “I was weeping over you. You are the one who makes it possible for all of us to do what we please.” His financial support allowed her to rent a houseboat and apartments in Paris and New York, leaving her free to work on her second book Winter of Artifice, it enabled her lover Gonzalo More to ‘serve communism and not work for a living’ (and possibly pay his wife’s medical bills if this is what Nin meant by it enabling Helba to ‘cuddle her diseases’). They also saw Frou Frou at the theatre and its film adaptation The Toy Wife starring Luise Rainer (who people told her she looked like).
In May 1939 the Durrells took Guiler and Nin to see Kipling’s Sussex.
It was a rough crossing of the Channel, and so everyone stayed on deck. I did not feel too well and I fell asleep on my chaise longue. Someone pulled at my sleeve and awakened me. A man was talking: “Excuse me for awakening you, but I looked all around first, at all the other passengers, and I decided you were the one I must talk to. I have to talk to someone. I am a grand blessé de guerre, and I am in great pain. When it is damp I suffer a great deal. The doctors can’t help me. But if you will let me talk with you...” And he talked to me all the way to London. Karma? Destiny? Fatality?
When Nin arrived in London on 1st September 1939, she keenly sensed the poison of the looming war in its foggy air: ‘… the calm before catastrophe. This dismal city of monsters, fair of ugliness and deformities,’ the previous day she had seen the headline ‘WARSAW BOMBED’ and Guiler assured her it meant certain war. That night the city lights had been turned off across the capital so that the lights in the buses in blacked-out Piccadilly seemed ‘a dim green’ in the rain as people wandered the street with gas masks slung across their shoulders like rucksacks, stepping on toes in the dark green ‘lights of hell. Black curtains. Black doorways.’ The cinema omitting a ‘slit’ of light, ‘The war. The punishment. The Ego has grown too big. Duality and schizophrenia everywhere. The death instinct stronger than life because of the panic. A million people knowing only hatred, envy, and fear. War was certain. A war of horror and blackness. The drama openly enacted which has been enclosed inside of human beings in the form of nightmares, desires, secret obsessions. So much corruption can only end in bloodshed.’ As she wandered through the streets, she excluded herself from the corrupt, decaying world but acknowledged that she nevertheless shared in the punishment. As the world awaited for England and France to declare war following the invasion of Poland and no assurance being given from Germany to withdraw its troops from Poland, for a moment that evening ‘at six o’clock’, she envisioned there being no war after all and that something, anything would happen to prevent it.
Nin visited Graham Howe for an hour to talk mysticism with and to discuss his books War Dance: A Study in the Psychology of War and The Open Way: A Study in Acceptance which she had read. She confides in her diary that she is certain she attracted him (‘I can attract from afar’) while herself being unimpressed, finding him too easily enchanted, he also reminded her of John Erskine (Guiler’s professor with whom she had been infatuated and had an early fling).
She described Guiler’s bare and hollow London apartment flat at 140 Campden Hill Road as never appearing ‘to have been inhabited. Absent’, suggesting it is because his life revolves around her and she has never lived there. She tried rearranging things to make it look more lived-in, all the while planning her own escape from it but ‘it remained empty because I was not living in it. It remained inert and empty like a desert.’
Before the end of that first month of war they left the dark ‘English prison. A ghastly voyage’ with only three passengers on the train and on the ferry, the train to Paris was full of French soldiers. Another London visit with Rupert Pole is recorded in her journal entry for 29th June 1958.
In May 1970, Nin arrived in London at the behest of her London publisher Peter Owen to promote the third volume of the Diary. Owen and his wife Wendy received her at the airport where she told Nin in a Cockney accent “You’re a laidy. Peter should have married a laidy like you.” Owen dismissed this as one of her many fictions, correcting that he was not drunk as she suspected because he was driving and that his wife (who found herself thus described to have been ‘hilarious’) was privately educated with a ‘cut-glass’ English accent.
Owen accompanied her to all the press interviews (waiting at the hotel door when the BBC sent a car to pick her up). He wanted her to name-drop his publishing house which she sensed the press did not like. At one such interview, frustrated, she asked him to leave the room so she could bribe the press photographers she liked (describing them as ‘long-haired hippies’) to touch up her photographs. Owen’s daughter Antonia recalls Nin telling a young fan who came to their home to sketch her portrait to bin the result.
She was shocked by the amount of alcohol drunk by the British, Peter Grosvenor (the literary editor on the Daily Express) was so inebriated at the Press Club he could hardly control the buttons on the tape recorder as he asked her how good a lover Henry Miller was! Some days she would be booked for up to four interviews a day but she left feeling it was ‘the most hostile place’ in terms of receiving her work although she felt confident about the young writers who took a keen interest in her. She sensed the strength of the movement for women’s liberation. On this visit she also appeared on television and reunited with Luise Rainer as well as meeting with an early biographer of Anna Kavan, the writer who had been an early admirer of her work and of whose death she learnt about while in London in December two years earlier.
Bair, Deirdre. Anaïs Nin: A Biography. (1995).
Duxler, Margot Beth, Ph.D. Seduction: A Portrait of Anaïs Nin. (Edgework, 2002).
Eliot, T. S. The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Edited by Christopher Ricks. (2 volumes, Faber & Faber, 2015).
Howe, Graham. War Dance: A Study in the Psychology of War and The Open Way: A Study in Acceptance. (Faber & Faber, 1937).
The Open Way: A Study in Acceptance. (1939).
Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. (1934).
Nin, Anaïs. The Early Diary of Anaïs Nin 1923 – 1927: Journal of a Wife. (Peter Owen Publishers, 1984).
The Early Diary of Anaïs Nin: 1927 – 1931. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986).
Incest: From “A Journal of Love” - The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin: 1932–1934. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993).
Nearer the Moon: From “A Journal of Love” - The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin: 1937–1939. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1996).
Winter of Artifice. (1939, 1942, 1945).
Krizan, Kim. Spy in the House of Anaïs Nin. (Total Global Domination, 2019).
Owen, Peter. Peter Owen, Not a Nice Jewish Boy: Memoirs of a Maverick Publisher. (Fonthill Media, 2021).
Shakespeare, William. Othello.
The Toy Wife. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1938).
You Can’t Take It with You. (Columbia Pictures, 1938).
Rehan Qayoom is a poet of English and Urdu, editor, translator and archivist, educated at Birkbeck College, University of London. He lives in London.
For more by Rehan Qayoom, please visit his website at http://www.rehanqayoom.com/.
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