Continuing a series looking at my diarist June S’s friends during the Blitz years. For a few months, while his vessel the Water Gypsy was moored at Chelsea Reach, A.P. Hebert (1890-1971) had an intense friendship with June, who lived within shouting distance at Lindsey House in Cheyne Walk.
They had quite an odd relationship: she a 25 year-old beauty, ambulance driver and designer, and he a frog-faced, married, 50-year-old writer, poet, wit, WW1 vet and MP. It was seemingly platonic, on both sides, and certainly June never indicated otherwise in her diaries. They appear to have had a laugh together and regularly went out drinking and dancing, but what Herbert’s artist (and ambulance driver) wife Gwendolyn thought of the friendship is not known. June stopped mentioning Herbert in her diary in Dec ’42, which may have pleased her.
Herbert was in the River Emergency Service, part of the Royal Naval Auxiliary Patrol and in the Water Gypsy patrolled the 45 miles of the Thames, delivering supplies and ammunition at stations between Westminster and Canvey Island, and taking part in mine-clearance and mine-watching. Herbert’s knowledge of the river was legendary and he could steer the boat perfectly to all the stops even in the deepest blackout.
Like her skipper, the boat was a maverick and had a reputation as ‘probably the untidiest ship in HM’s service’. June described a ‘scene of chaos’ on board. While A.P., his hair a mess, bent over a speech he was writing, she would pitch in to tidy up, do the washing up, straighten beds and fold clothes.
Did Herbert have June in the back of his mind when he wrote his poem ‘Flaming June’ in July 1944? Ostensibly it is about D-Day, when thick cloud and rough seas cleared by noon. ‘June, gentle June, of whom the crooners croon’ could have given Allied soldiers and sailors blue skies and a gentle breeze, but instead chose to be a ‘little *****’, a ‘quisling’ and a ‘cheat’ by conjuring up ‘Wind,/ Hail, Gale or Thunder, Cold or Cloud, or Sleet’. Despite this, June is a ‘winner all the way’ but in the end the song ‘History will croon’ is ‘How we Defied the Traitor, General June.’