The Lost Decade of the 'Forties

By Andrew Sinclair

Hamish Hamilton. 321 pp. $22.95

EVELYN WAUGH was dreaming of Brideshead, George Orwell was thinking of pigs, T.S. Eliot was trying to find his end in his beginning, and Dylan Thomas was drunk as usual. It was all part of the cultural life of a nation under siege, Great Britain during the Second World War. While the admirals and generals waged their battles, the poets and novelists and painters did their best to create art. They were amazingly successful. It was one of the richest periods of creativity in history.

Consider the wide range of talents at work. In art, there was Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. On the stage, there was John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson. Among the writers, the best were Elizabeth Bowen, Eliot, Henry Green, Louis MacNeice, Orwell, Thomas, Waugh.

They did not hide out in the countryside. Many of them were in London during the worst days of the Blitz. Orwell took shelter in a doorway in Piccadilly and watched shrapnel fall at his feet. Henry Moore visited the underground stations at night and drew haunting sketches of the frightened people who went there for shelter. Graham Sutherland went for a walk right after a raid and marvelled at "the silence, the absolute dead silence, except every now and again a thin tinkling of falling glass -- a noise which reminded me of some of the music of Debussy."

Andrew Sinclair has an encyclopedic knowledge of the period, and has used it to good purpose in this highly readable study of British wartime culture. He seems to have read every book on the subject, and has interviewed some of the leading personalities from that time. The author of more than 20 books, Sinclair is one of those rare figures who used to be called "men of letters," which is really a way of saying that he can write well on almost any subject put in front of him.

He has a talent for creating memorable phrases. He calls Dylan Thomas "the poet with lips like Michelin tires." He describes the aftermath of a bombing raid in prose that is uncommonly vivid. He makes you see and smell the terrible damage: "A raw and harsh stink pervaded the air, a compound of soot and dust, cinder and the lingering acidity of high explosive. Gas escaping from broken pipes tweaked at the nostrils. . . . And on the streets, glass glittered like frost on grass."

In the face of such destruction, writers worked from day to day and were reluctant to put their efforts into long works. Poems, short stories and short novels were the favorite forms of the time simply because one could reasonably hope to finish them. The soldier Alun Lewis produced a handful of stunningly powerful poems, and was hailed as the best of the war poets. His "All Day It Has Rained" is a minor masterpiece. But three years after writing it, he died in Burma, at the age of 28. PERHAPS THE best novel about life on the home front was written by Elizabeth Bowen, whose reputation deserves to be much higher. The Heat of the Day brilliantly evokes not only the terrors of the Blitz but also the dreadful hours of boredom. There is a note of weary acceptance in her description of Hitler's replacement for the bomber raids -- the V-1 flying bombs: "Droning things, mindlessly making for you, thick and fast, day and night."

London life was not all work and suffering. As Sinclair demonstrates, the parties in Mayfair and Bloomsbury, and the night life in Soho, never lost their attraction. In her suite at the Ritz, Alice Keppel entertained such people as Harold Acton, Cecil Beaton and Noel Coward. At the end of the war, when she was dying, someone asked her whether she loved nature. "Yes," she said, "the nature of the Ritz."

Lady Cunard frequently gave parties in her suite at the Dorchester Hotel, and all kinds of people came, from ambassadors to poets. Hemingway and other American celebrities were guests. By 1944, there were so many Americans in London that some English wits suggested that the words of the popular tune "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" should be changed to "An Englishman Spoke in Grosvenor Square."

Robert Hewison covered some of this same material in his excellent Under Siege, but Sinclair's book is much broader in scope and more detailed. It makes a strong case for the 1940s as a vibrant and complex period of cultural expansion. The greatness of the British achievement deserves to be more widely acknowledged and appreciated. In a time of total war, art and literature not only survived but flourished.

When the war began, many British intellectuals were cynical and pessimistic about the fate of culture. Few believed that the nation would be able to afford guns, butter and verse. But afterwards not a few intellectuals looked back and decided that the war years had been the best of their lives. "I would rather have been in London under siege between 1940 and 1945 than anywhere else," the editor and poet John Lehmann said, "except perhaps Troy in the time that Homer celebrated."

Michael Shelden, the author of "Friends of Promise," is the authorized biographer of George Orwell.

Jonathan Yardley is on vacation.