Oxford features a lot in The Very White Of Love. So it was a great pleasure to go into the studio yesterday and talk to morning host, Kat Gorman.(My interview starts at about 1hr. 10′) Nancy lived as a child in Cowley, where my grandfather was a tax inspector. And the city had a lifelong place in her heart because of Martin, whom she met in 1938, while he was studying Law and Modern Languages at Teddy Hall. They got engaged in September 1939 on the River Isis, after a classic rowboat journey and picnic on the river.
Many of Martin’s early letters are written to Nancy on St. Edmund College notepaper. They provide a snapshot of student life shortly before the outbreak of war. He refers to organising hockey matches and motor trials. And he describes meeting the poet, Stephen Spender, at the house of Enid Starkie, famous, cigar-smoking French tutor. There are references to amateur acting and the parties in his rooms. He complains people are always nicking his Vermouth!
Today, it is hard for the younger generation to imagine how much the students in 1938 were overshadowed by the threat of war and anxiously followed each twist and turn of events in Europe.
A key moment, which I recreate in the novel, was the Oxford Union Debate on conscription on 25th April 1939. The previous debate, the so-called King and Country debate of 1933, saw the Union voted not to go to war, a vote Churchill called vile and squalid. This time Basil Liddell-Hart and Stephen King-Hall (anti) faced off against Randolph Churchill (pro).
Later that night, back in his room, Martin writes a letter to Nancy reporting the result: 430 to 370 in favour.
Here is an extract. “I just got back from the debate on conscription. The Union voted for conscription by 430 votes to 370. So everything hangs fire, not only the season. Everyone is uncertain what conscription will mean to us. It is harder than ever to concentrate on my studies. There is so much more to do and experience and so many other places to explore. I know all this has been thought by other young people since time immemorial but it strikes all of us just now because these ideas have been highlighted by the gloom of war.”
Later that year, Martin took up his commission as a second lieutenant in the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, as the youngest officer in the battalion.
Here’s a link to the program ( my interview starts at about 1hr.10′)