Those first weeks at Rainbow Corner, Rose was more carefree than careful. The nights all seemed to merge into one delightful whole of dancing with appreciative servicemen who all told her that she was beautiful. Then she’d go down to Dunker’s Den in the basement and let them order her doughnuts, sometimes waffles, occasionally thick American-style pancakes and always Coca-Cola. Each time, Rose pretended that it was her absolute favourite thing in the world. It was a tiny sacrifice that seemed to delight each and every one of her dance partners. She couldn’t help write letters home like Phyllis or listen quietly to their confessions, then offer soft words of comfort like Maggie did, and Lord knows she’d never be able to flirt like Sylvia, but after a few weeks Rose could jive like she’d been born to it and gratefully gulp down a glass of Coca-Cola like it was cold spring water on a parched summer’s day.
commentary: This is a good, honest enjoyable novel, with parallel plots in contemporary times and in the 1940s. It’s nicely structured and worked out, following the lives of two women – different, but with some points of contact in both their character and their stories.
But it’s the WW2 homefront strand that really sold it to me. It’s an era that fascinates me (see this blogpost on the subject of the homefront in literature) – and it clearly fascinates Sarra Manning as well. A big feature of the book is Rainbow Corner (as above) – a drop-in centre for US soldiers passing through London on the way to the war. Allegedly, those running the club in Piccadilly had ‘thrown away the key so they were always open for anyone who need a place to go.’
Rose is very young, and has run away from home for the excitements of wartime London, and ends up as one of the volunteers who help out the US servicemen in the ways described above. She is a great character – not a goody-goody, nor promiscuous, but somewhere in between. She is very sharp and smart and human. She also has an excellent interest in her clothes, though (very unusually) I decided to concentrate on pictures of the life of the time, rather than what she wore, for this blog entry. Sarra has obviously done a massive amount of research on the topic of Rainbow Corner and I felt she did a fantastic job of making you understand what it would have been like: and the balance that the young women wanted to help the war effort, but were also really seeing life and having a good time. The scene when the club closes down at the end of the war was immensely real, and affecting. I thought ‘yes, I believe that is what it was like to be there that day.’
So the top picture shows Rainbow Corner, the second one shows a jiving couple in another dancehall in the 1940s. The tea drinkers are at a different, similar, establishment – the Eagle Club Dormitory in Kensington.
Two of the pictures are from the Imperial War Museum’s collection. They are very generous with their images, so I respect that and have held back from showing some other pictures that I would have loved to use, but which require a licence. I strongly recommend you go and look at them if you have any interest (looking on the IWM website is perfectly legal, it is reproducing them that I won’t do.)
- This is a colour photo of the pavement outside Rainbow Corner, taken from above, a strange and haunting image of people going about their lives in wartime, and with the added and very unusual bonus of colour.
- This one is the outside of the club.
- And here is a picture of a US serviceman at the Rainbow Club, showing a young boy how to dunk doughnuts.
- This picture shows some of the US airmen in front of their bomber, which they had named after Rainbow Corner.
Anyone interested in wartime life in London will very much enjoy this book.