Virginia Woolf likened the sound of bombs falling in the war to ‘the sawing of a branch overhead’. At Rodmell in East Sussex, in Bloomsbury, Bow and beyond, the air scintillated with the aftermath of explosions or floated ‘thick as Hell’ above the trees. Lamplighters – ‘the silent brigade of the gloaming, like folkloric guardians of dreams’, as Will Loxley describes them – extinguished every last flicker on the streets below, leaving those brave enough to remain out after dusk as vulnerable to hazards on the ground as to what fell from the sky. ‘All the gossip is of traffic casualties,’ wrote Evelyn Waugh in his diary in October 1939. ‘Cyril Connolly’s mistress lamed for life and Cyril obliged to return to his wife.’
Connolly, at that time courting Diana Witherby, was preparing to push against the darkness, as well as the precept of his friend Logan Pearsall Smith that there were ‘three illusions’ everyone experienced: ‘falling in love, starting a magazine and thinking they could make money out of keeping chickens’. As the bookshops emptied, publishers postponed the release of new titles, T S Eliot wound up The Criterion and the final copies of London Mercury rolled off the press, Connolly’s Horizon arrived to illuminate ‘young writers-at-arms’.
Among those to step into its light was Stephen Spender, one of the lead figures of Loxley’s first book, which centres on a circle of writers who defied the blackouts and bombs to launch themselves on literary London during the Second World War. Horizon, which is less central to the