Belsey

London seemed to represent everything that Vaughan struggled with in terms of alienation and conflicting attitudes towards intimacy. He called it a place ‘so very sordid and ugly’,26 yet he had delved into its nightlife at regular intervals since before the outbreak of war. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that many hotspots for homosexual activity were the busiest areas of London – Piccadilly, where Vaughan picked up rent boys on a number of occasions, and Charing Cross, ‘the center of queer life for much of the early twentieth century’.27 Vaughan had an intense dislike of crowds, perceiving them as a symptom of the modernity he so despised, a condition of the mechanized age of disposability and shallowness. After a notably long eight month absence from London, he despairs that its people seem only to be ‘brittle shells of humanity, their hollow futility shouting to heaven’.28 Vaughan’s anxiety that he lacked clear direction in life was not merely an abstract notion bound up in ideas of thwarted ambition but something tangibly geographical; there was no place in which he felt truly at home. If London caused him to despair even as he trawled its illicit nightlife, then the life awaiting him at his mother’s house was a truly desperate prospect. He writes of hating the sight of his old room and of enduring his mother’s ‘frail pitiful unhappiness – shaken by worrying wanting me back’.29 For Vaughan, his family home was a place of stifling obligations; fatherless from a young age, he had been expected to be ‘more of a parent’ to his younger brother Dick who was ‘utterly dependent on him’.30 On his mother’s birthday in 1940, only two days since the news of Dick’s death in an air crash, the demise of his only sibling, Vaughan reflects on being his mother’s one hope in the world, her sole reason for continued existence: ‘Success, marriage, children, all these which I know I can never give her, yet must pretend somehow to attempt. By all the laws of reason it would be better if she were dead’.31 This harsh grace note is not made out of spite or hatred for his mother, but instead out of the complete hopelessness of a situation in which neither he nor his mother can be truly happy. He reasons that there are two directions available to him now: staying true to his aspirations and desires (and disappointing her), or trying to adapt himself to meet her demands (and inevitably failing). Throughout wartime the periods of leave during which he returned to the old faumily house would be blighted by an instinctive, unshakeable melancholia.

In his more self-pitying moments, Vaughan resigned himself to forever being an outcast from society, incapable of intimacy, and utterly rootless:

Tonight in my folly I thought I could walk with easy familiar step with men […] I was a fool not to know that their ranks are for ever closed to me. For ever there opens before me the only road of escape […] the dark avenue of loneliness and my companions ghosts, dead letters, grey printed pages and the thoughts and deeds of dead men.32

He conceded that he could at least attempt to feign social respectability as if performing a role, remarking, ‘I suppose one can choose what aspect of oneself shall represent one at life’s banquet’.33 Yorke explains how Vaughan, reflecting on his twenty eighth birthday, acknowledges that he is ‘probably presenting quite a stable exterior to the world’ despite his self-confessed faults.34 Vaughan began to cultivate a dual conception of himself that was comprised of a socially presentable exterior and an inner core of integrity, the latter being an attribute that he prized highly in his first journal entry.35 While writing on the burden of his mother’s expectations, he reiterates that ‘every man has this duty to himself – that he should establish his own integrity – and it is prior to most but not all duties to other people’.36 As a social outsider and an ideologically adrift free thinker, Vaughan began to aspire to an idealized state of self-reliance and dreamed of eloping to live and work on a farm – although he was often aware enough to suspect himself of ‘following moonbeams’.37 Ross recalls that ‘Keith was by nature a stoic and a fatalist’,38 so it should come as no surprise that he fantasized of retreating to a lifestyle of bare essentials and simple pleasures. Vaughan imagines the satisfaction of Paul Cézanne returning home from painting outdoors, ‘the glow of achievement of wresting an order and a logic out of the chaos of nature’.39 He imagines his idol’s daily routine and enthuses, ‘How well-ordered a life. How easily would the other parts assemble themselves round such a solid foundation’.40 He harboured these dreams of self-reliance, yet his obligations to his mother, his struggles with the moral problems of the war, and his desire for companionship all conspired to pull Vaughan away from this imagined route to happiness.

Not long after he commenced his own journal, Vaughan began to write more openly about his reading of other people’s journals; in a note to himself he suggested the importance of the opportunity to ‘identify one’s failures with another’s’.41 In a journal entry the following year, in which he doubted the ‘specific direction’ he should take with his artistic talents, Vaughan wrote: ‘Whenever I read the doings and aspirations and struggles of another’s life I am urged to do something about myself’.42 He found other people’s journals to be not only consolatory in his moments of self-pity, but also profoundly galvanizing. More than any other figure in the early war journals Vaughan makes continual references to Stephen Spender, and particularly to the poet’s ‘September Journal’.43 First published in Horizon in October 1939, the ‘September Journal’ quickly became a touchstone for Vaughan. He admired Spender’s suggestion that ‘a pacifist simply puts himself voluntarily out of politics’,44 words that helped him to reconcile his own precarious position at the time, and was especially moved by the ‘terrible and sad’ account that Spender gave of ‘those days of Weimar freedom’.45 The poet’s elegiac reminiscences of a peaceful time for Germans – during which ‘they sunbathed, they walked with linked hands under the lime trees, they lay together in the woods, they talked about art’46– appealed to Vaughan’s own romantic (and homoerotic) longings. He became increasingly aware of journal-writing and its capacity to memorialize the past, something that chimed with his belief that the present was merely an echo of a more glorious age. His effusions over Spender’s journal even led Vaughan to, in the same entry, revisit the first occasion he travelled to Austria in 1930, prompting lengthy recollections of his stay with a family there that are inflected with a similar nostalgia for an irretrievable time.47 Vaughan began to navigate his own past via the shaded pathways of wistful memories; through writing, even his dreaded school days became a period of ‘concrete misery’ tempered by ‘romantic reveries’, ending in ‘a kind of phantasmagoria of tangled visions and unbalanced emotions’.48

Vaughan had realized the potential that journal-writing has to rediscover, even reconfigure, the past. His writing also provided an opportunity to give direction to the present through self-analysis of character and behaviour. Spender declares that:

the great artists and figures in literature have almost without exception been failures in life. By this I mean that their relations with their fellow beings were at some point unsatisfactory, that most of them were fully conscious of this, and that their honesty in admitting a defect restored to their lives a sense of scale which hopelessly neurotic people lack.49

  1. 1st Oct 1939 [Folder 1, Journal 1, p.42]. []
  2. Houlbrook, p.123. []
  3. 9th May 1940 [Folder 3, Journal 3, pp.92-9; p.92]. []
  4. 23rd Nov 1939 [Folder 2, Journal 2, p.21]. []
  5. Ross, p.vii. []
  6. 24th June 1940 [Folder 4, Journal 3, pp.159-70; p.162]. []
  7. 30th Dec 1939 [Folder 2, Journal 2, pp.37-42; pp.38-9]. []
  8. 2nd Oct 1939 [Folder 1, Journal 1, pp.46-51; p.49]. []
  9. Yorke, p.59. []
  10. 25th Aug 1939 [Folder 1, Journal 1, p.10]. []
  11. 27th Nov 1939 [Folder 2, Journal 2, pp.23-8; p.23]. []
  12. 31st July 1940 [Folder 5, Journal 3, p.228]. []
  13. Ross, p.xi. []
  14. 10th March 1940 [Folder 2, Journal 2, pp.125-8; p.126]. []
  15. Ibid. []
  16. 21st Nov 1939 [Folder 2, Journal 2, pp.16-20; p.20]. []
  17. 31st July 1940 [Folder 5, Journal 3, p.226]. []
  18. Vaughan’s journals from this period include lengthy critical (and emotional) responses to Marcel Proust, André Gide, and D. H. Lawrence amongst others. []
  19. 21st Feb 1940 [Folder 2, Journal 2, p.97]. []
  20. 13th July 1940 [Folder 5, Journal 3, pp.214-23; p.216]. []
  21. Stephen Spender, ‘September Journal 1939’, reprinted in Journals 1939 – 1983, ed. John Goldsmith (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), pp.23-55 (p.25). []
  22. 13th July 1940 [Folder 5, Journal 3, p.218]. []
  23. 31st July [Folder 5, Journal 3, p.233]. []
  24. Spender, p.34. []

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