Interspersed with contemporary poems, “Mimicking a Snowdrop” features seven poems inspired by reading Lilian Bowes Lyon’s poetry and about her life. She never wrote her autobiography but did write an article for “Orion” (Nicholson & Watson, London, 1945) about life in London during the Second World War and frequently wrote letters to friends and acquaintances. During the First World War, while still a teenager, she helped out when Glamis Castle was converted into a convalescent home for injured soldiers (she was a cousin of the late Queen Mother). Lilian went onto learn first aid nursing and became a voluntary assistant despatch nurse when she left her family home in Northumberland to study at Oxford before moving to London. She’d written poetry throughout her teenage years but her first two published books were novels.
Through her publisher, Jonathan Cape, she met the novelist William Plomer who later proposed marriage. Both of them knew this was not a romantic proposal. William Plomer was English but had grown up in South Africa so felt like an outsider. He thought a marriage to Lilian would be a route into acceptability and possibly a cover for his sexuality. At the time, Lilian was in love with someone else. She and William remained friends so her rejection must have been a gentle one.
In 1939 she became a sponsor for two Czech brothers enabling them to travel by Kinderstransport to England. Initially she placed them with a friend but then moved them to a farm where they could be with other Kindertransport children and speak their own language whilst learning English. She kept in touch with both until her death. Lilian also assisted Anna Freud’s Hampstead Nurseries for war traumatised children. Lilian’s assistance was mostly likely financial because she was busy putting her first aid and nursing skills to use elsewhere.
She left Kensington in 1941 and moved to Stepney in London’s East End. During the Blitz she’d visit bombed houses, offering immediate first aid to survivors while waiting for ambulances to arrive. There were no official air raid shelters in London and most Londoners used Tube stations or Tilbury Goods Depot, which fell into disuse and has since been demolished to pave way for modern flats. Tilbury had no facilities so earth buckets were used. Conditions were damp, cramped and dark. Fights for space were common until a ticking system was introduced.
Lilian also did voluntary work at a nursery based in a church hall on what was then Great Garden Street. The children were among London’s poorest. Their fathers and older brothers had been drafted into the military. Their mothers or guardians were queuing to buy food, taking in laundry or sewing work and trying to grow vegetables and look after chickens in small back yards. The children had also witnessed the aftermath of bombing raids and experienced bereavement. The nursery’s primary function was to give these children space to be children and a brief respite from war. With very limited facilities, the activities offered were often of imaginary role play. In her article for “Orion”, Lilian describes a game where the children, having spent time chasing each other around the hall, were encouraged to quieten down by pretending to be a flower.
MIMICKING A SNOWDROP
(Playgroup London 1944)
Minnie pulls her arms tight to her sides,
bows her head and stares at the floor,
wishing her thin dress was less grubby.
She senses the rumble of bombers.
She bites her lip, tucks her chin closer:
can’t cry in front of the boys.
She remembers the handkerchief fluttering
amongst the rubble of her aunt’s house,
where she used to have to take her shoes off
and promise not to touch the ornaments
so she’d look at the photo of auntie in a long, white dress
when auntie would say, “It starts with you
unbuttoning his shirt and ends with you ironing it.
See yourself doing it for the next forty years,
before you even think about saying yes.”
Minnie had snatched the handkerchief,
looked up the embroidered flower in a book at school,
wished she had time for delicate stitching
instead of sewing sheets edges to middle.
Swore if she saw one in bloom before her January birthday,
next year would be better.
By Emma Lee