The book is Between the Thunder and the Sun (1943) by Vincent Sheean. It's one of the volumes from the mysterious 1945 bookshelf I mentioned a couple of posts back.
Vincent Sheean was from the second rank of literary-social figures of the 1930s and '40s. He was friends with Hemingway and John Gunther and Edna St. Vincent Millay; he was in Paris a few days before the Wehrmacht marched in; he was in London for the Blitz, on Guam two weeks before the Japanese attacked, and within arm's reach of Gandhi when he was assassinated. Hitchcock's movie Foreign Correspondent (1940) was loosely based on his life. He wrote half a dozen novels and ten or fifteen nonfiction books. He is almost completely forgotten today.
Between the Thunder and the Sun is a good-to-excellent book; perhaps a bit overwrought in places, but it was an exciting time. There are several lovely set pieces. My favorite is his trip across the Pacific, from China to California via Manila, Guam, Wake and Midway, on the old Pan Am Clipper... in late November 1941. There's a very poignant description of the Governor of Guam, alone in his white mansion, and a very lively one of the endless poker game on Wake. (Did you know? The Clipper took three days to cross the Pacific, so there were hotels on Wake and Midway. Nice ones, with clean sheets. Pan Am flew people out to staff them, and paid them oil-rig salaries.)
But those are too long. Here's a short one that gives the flavor: lunch at Lady Sibyl Colefax's London townhouse, 1940.
On another day further on, in the full bombing season, there was a spirited and talkative lunch at Sibyl's. The company included H.G. Wells, Somerset Maugham, Bruce Lockhart, Moura von Budberg and Diana [Duff] Cooper. Mr. Wells was being particularly malicious about God, one of his favorite themes (a propos of a prose poem by Francois Mauriac which Mr. Maugham had produced). As he held forth with his usual perky, cheerful insistence, with many a "that sort of thing" and "don't you know", the bombs began to thunder down. Sibyl got a little nervous. "I don't like this a bit," she said. "What if a bomb should land here now? It's much too good a bag for the Germans," she said, nodding toward the literary gentlemen. "Why don't we just go to the shelter? It's not much good, but it's better than just sitting here." There was a little flurry of discussion and she was voted down; a minute or two later, when the noise seemed to be coming very near, she brought it up again.
"I refuse to go to the shelter," said Mr. Wells with happy perversity, "until I have had my cheese. I'm enjoying a very good lunch. Why should I be disturbed by some wretched little barbarian adolescents in a machine? This thing has no surprises for me. I foresaw it long ago. Sibyl, I want my cheese."
Sibyl was obliged to give him his cheese and I suppose we all reflected the same thing, which was that, indeed, this very Mr. Wells had foreseen aerial warfare even before the invention of the airplane: somehow a startling fact as we sat there, and listened to the explosions. Sibyl's invaluable factotum, Fleming (a severe and elderly woman who always gave Noel Coward an extra helping of everything, particularly puddings) came into the room and put up the wooden frames which hid the windows. "At least we may as well be spared the effort of dodging the broken glass," Sibyl said. She had lost the glass out of her windows three or four times in the past weeks and had some feeling on the subject. We sat there under the electric lights at midday, with the windows blocked off, while Mr. Wells resumed both his cheese and his discourse.
Now, H.G. Wells could be a huge dick sometimes. But you have to respect this. The man wanted his cheese.
I'm running down my mental list of living SF authors, wondering how many would sit there saying "I want my nachos," while the grey goo was crawling down the street outside. I'm coming up with... not zero names, but not many. Fingers of one hand.
Anyway. One day when I live in the same country as the Strand, I'll pick up some more books by Vincent Sheean.