LONDON LETTER

Behind Darkened Doors

Beverley Baxter January 1 1940
LONDON LETTER

Behind Darkened Doors

Beverley Baxter January 1 1940

Behind Darkened Doors

LONDON LETTER

Beverley Baxter

LONDON, December 6 (By cable. Passed by Censor.)

IN THESE London Letters which I have been writing for so long—too long, according to one or two Western readers of Maclean's—I have given pictures of London in its various moods and at different moments of history.

There was the breathless Saturday when the League of Nations gathered in London to consider Hitler’s march on the Rhineland. There was the glorious May day when King George V and Queen Mary drove through the crowded sunstrewn streets on their Jubilee. There was a winter afternoon when the body of King George was brought to Westminster Hall and the lonely figure of Edward VIII stood in the gathering dusk.

Ther.e was that drizzling Saturday, less than a year later, when the heralds of St. James’s Palace announced the accession of George VI to the silent, heartbroken crowds. There was the miracle of the Coronation, when the public, which had been silent, took the Royal couple to their hearts.

There was the furious Saturday when Hitler marched into Austria.

There was the Wednesday of Munich when war was averted, and there was the lovely September Sunday morning a few weeks ago, when Neville Chamberlain told the Commons we were at war, and the air-raid sirens supplied incidental music.

Then there was the London of the blackout, when it became a city of the dead and a plague seemed to have risen from the Thames, bringing desolation to both banks of London.

London knows what things she has endured, what glories she has seen, and now she has come to life again, a different life than ever she had before. But at least her spirit has thrown off the first gloom of the blackout and there is of course only one thing that matters. The war. It is our occupation and our preoccupation.

Social Blackout

ON THE surface our social life has ceased to exist, while evening dress, once routine for all who lived at least in the West End, is almost a novelty. Dinner parties of a purely social nature are practically nonexistent. Instead, such functions, when they are organized, are hastily improvised to bring certain people together who can pool their special knowledge about the one and only subject.

Naturally, those of us who are in Parliament gather together frequently, and in this Letter I propose to ask you to join me in a blackout and live for a few minutes the strange life of London that goes on behind massive doors which show no light and which we can only identify by switching our torches on them like policemen who suspect the worst.

Here is a gathering of eight or ten politicians. Colonel Reitz is a grand South African veteran who fought with the Boers against Britain and now says. “My life is dedicated to the nation which was so magnanimous to us in defeat.’’ But it is not this South African statesman who attracts the most attention. There is a tall, slim, but rather stooped man, with a powerful nose and with a recognizable but indescribable air of having seen a lot of queer things in his life. He has an appraising eye which takes each of us in, like a duellist sizing up his chances. It is Nevile Henderson, the ambassador to Berlin who was supposed to be pro-Nazi and whoflived to become the supreme exposer of the Nazi regime. Henderson talks good humoredly of Goering, and even when discussing Hitler he describes a character which for a time contained a grain or two of decency.

But when he mentions Von Ribbentrop his face grows dark with anger. “He is lago,” snaps Henderson. Then his

face grows pensive. “If it were not for the tragedy of it all,” he says, “one could look upon this whole affair as being like a Greek drama, greater than anything Euripides ever wrote. Think of the end of these desperate men in Berlin.” We assured him we would do so willingly.

A strange ambassador to have been in Berlin during those fateful crisis years. He is a romanticist at heart, a dramatist, a painter of sorts, perhaps saw himself as a Hamlet inextricably involved in the tragedy of a German Othello who listened to Iago’s poisoned words, then plunged a knife into Germania’s heart.

Now come to my house in St. John’s Wood. There is a German coming to see me, a German with a familiar name —Stinnes. He is a mild man of some thirty-five or forty years and speaks a soft English with a few guttural mishaps. His father, Hugo Stinnes, was a multimillionaire industrialist who committed suicide during the inflation. Herr Stinnes is a charming fellow, full of talk, who has factories still operating in Germany but is an opponent of the Nazi regime. He gives me news of this and that industrialist who has joined the ever-increasing band of German enemies of Hitler outside of the Reich. It seems a

(jueer business that a German should be at large in London, but nothing suggests he is not genuinely pro-British.

To end the evening we have a rubber of bridge, which he plays abominably. When he is gone, my fellow host, William Mabane, calls up the Home Office and reports the whole business to the authorities. Even hospitality takes on an odd character in wartime.

Next morning there is a letter in feminine handwriting, postmarked from Switzerland. It is from Friedelinde Wagner, the twenty-one-year-old granddaughter of the immortal Richard, and the great-granddaughter of the not quite so immortal Liszt. “I want to come to London,” she says, “because there are things you ought to know about him.” A little vague perhaps, but I recall that the Wagner family in Munich have been Hitler’s greatest friends. Him can only mean Hitler.

But how will the Foreign Office feel about letting her come? The Foreign Office is polite but not emotional. I suspect them of not being musical. Still I think we shall

get the Wagner girl in. She is a sensible young woman, clever, gifted beyond her age. Perhaps there is something important simmering in that Wagnerian brain of hers.

Walk Into the Scrapbook

A. Beverley Baxter, M.P. XJOW for a change let US 3-^ look in for a glass of sherry at one of those London homes which specializes in foreign diplomats. It isn’t quite dark yet, so we can walk there and stretch our legs. Our hostess greets us, and forgets us with high-spirited cordiality—the perfect hostess.

There is a strange atmosphere about the room, like faded petals. One feels as if one has intruded unintentionally into a scrapbook not intended for strange eyes.

There is a tall young man about six foot three, with delicate thin hands and shy, smiling, waxlike features. Sir George Franckenstein. the former minister of pre-Hitler Austria, comes in, and, seeing the young man, clicks his heels and bows low. The young man is Archduke Robert, second son of Empress Zita, last Empress to sit on the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is a queer moment, to see the Austrian Minister who had been kicked out by Hitler, paying deference to a Hapsburg who was kicked out by the Allies in 1918. It only needed the Blue Danube to make the setting complete.

So this boy of twenty-nine is one of the ill-fated Hapsburgs! My mind went back to a few years ago in Vienna when my wife and I paid a couple of Austrian shillings to go into the crypt of some church order, where the I Iapsburg family, decently obscured in their coffins, are on view. There was Marie Antoinette who made a p<x>r joke about cake; the amiable archduke who was assassinated at Sarajevo and thereby precipitated a world war; the other archduke, who drove to Mayerling with his lady love— Mayerling is now a nunnery—and both were found dead; the Emperor Maximilian, who thought Mexico wanted a king and was executed for his mistake. Hardly any of the family had died a natural death, and this shy, smiling youth was one of this family.

1 found on conversation with him that he occupied a tiny flat near my house, whereupon I asked him if he would like to come next day and hear Thomas Beecham’s orchestra. He said he would be delighted. The poor boy for twenty years has been a refugee. Some day he may be the brother of the emperor of a new Austro-Hungary. or even emperor himself. On the other hand tie may live out his life like a wandering ghost, while ladies curtsy to him and men click their heels and bow low.

There is another interesting figure at the sherry party, Jan Masaryk, son of a famous father and for many years Czechoslovakian minister to London. Masaryk is a bitter humorist. He is a man without a country who makes jokes with unsmiling eyes. After Munich he went to see Chamberlain at 10 Downing Street. "If this is peace,” he said bitterly, “then you are right. If it is not peace, then God forgive you.”

On our way home there are news placards of a gallant raid by the R.A.F. on a German aerodrome and of minelaying seaplanes. Our planes came in from the sea 300 feet above the surface so as to make their visibility difficult. Reaching their objective, they swooped down to a few feet from the ground and raked the enemy planes with machine-gun fire. German anti-aircraft guns could not fire so low. With shouts of defiance the British pilots sent their machines again and again at the helpless enemy craft, then drew off and made for home.

One of the pilots was a young fellow I have known since childhood, a troublesome, charming, self-willed youngster who has suddenly become a man. For hours on end, almost for years, I have discussed his troubled future with his father. The young fellow’s name is Max Aitken, son and heir of Lord Beaverbrook, another Saturday afternoon pilot who had been mobilized by the R.A.F.

Continued on page 37

Continued from page 13

Let us talk Russia. Perhaps you will remember in one of these Letters a few months ago, my description of a reception at the Soviet Embassy, which is such a magnificent place that it is situated on the same exclusive avenue as the London home of Sir Harry Oakes, Bart.

On that occasion Ambassador Maisky was elevated almost to ecstasy by the unexpected arrival of Neville Chamberlain. From that moment poor little Maisky became the pet of London society and he loved it. But things have happened since then. Today Maisky is less than dust beneath the chariot wheels. His master, Stalin, first double-crossed the Allies, then made a deal with Germany, and finally marched into Finland. And how he hates her at this moment !

But there is a jest to all this. The Corps Diplomatique have their own rigid rules of etiquette. The oldest in the service is known as the doyen, and at state functions he takes in the Queen, while the King takes in the doyena, his wife. The present doyen is Dr. Oliveira, of Brazil, whose elegant wife is one of the loveliest and most amiable creatures that ever breathed. Unfortunately, Oliveira’s time is up and he is returning Brazilward. His successor as doyen is Baron Cartier de Marchicnne, Belgian ambassador, who tells a first-rate story, plays punishing bridge, but, alas, is a widower.

But the Corps Diplomatique provides for everything. Where the doyen is a bachelor or a widower, the wife of the next in seniority takes on the privileges and duties. In other words, while the Queen would take in Cartier de Marchienne, the King would take in the wife of the next diplomat in seniority. And who would she be, need I tell you, but Madame Maisky.

She is Russian and prides herself upon being, and looking like, a daughter of the revolution.

I don’t know what you think of all this, but to me it is not without irony. There are only two hopes—to find a wife for the Belgian Ambassador or to declare war on Russia.

A. P. Herbert Afloat

AND now for gentler things. You must have heard of A. P. Herbert, novelist, and assistant editor of Punch, who became a Member of Parliament and at once forced a bill on the House remodelling our out-of-date divorce laws. Herbert owned a sort of ship, half barge, half yacht. When war came he volunteered it for service, and now it is anchored in the Thames opposite the House of Commons. Sometimes he slips across to listen to the debate, and sometimes we slip across to his barge to escape the debate.

The other night I was dining with Michael Arlen, who had arrived from Cannes to offer his services as an intelli -gence officer in the Balkans. The night was so full of moonlight that we decided to call on Herbert. He received us with modified rapture, and by the help of one of his crew, made a cup of vile coffee. The cabin smelt abominably of oil and had no ventilation whatever. We asked Herbert what his duties were and he solemnly answered, “To put the Thames out in case the enemy sets it on fire.”

Just then a tug went by and Herbert’s barge began to rock. Arlen’s face turned greener than his famous hat, nor would 1 have liked to see my own face in the

mirror. “Don’t go,” said Herbert. “You will get used to it after a time.”

Arlen and I walked home. Making a detour, we came up through Belgrave Square. I have seen the autumn tints of the Canadian woods, the breathless loveliness of a sunset at sea, the mountains and blue rivers of the Tyrol and the sun rising behind the snowy peaks of Switzerland, but I cannot remember anything more lovely than the crescent architecture of Belgravia in that radiant moonlight. An etcher would have cried out in ecstasy, and an artist would have said never had he come across such haunting lights and shadows. It was London in one of those magic moods that the blackout has given us.

At the Admiralty there is a faint glimmer of light, and we know what is going on. Churchill and his Board of Admirals are talking far into the night and into the morning hours, as is their habit. Theirs is a war of the sea and there is no respite for any man. Never in the history of the Navy have our ships been so incessantly at sea. Whatever devilry the German sends from beneath the waves, our fleet must be ready to meet, and defeat it. Our destroyers come in from their convoys or a submarine hunt and are off again as soon as refuelling is completed.

A fortnight ago I went to a lonely part of the seaside for a week-end with Kermit Roosevelt, that most lovable, brave American who has again come over to join the British Army. There was a furious sea and the wind was howling across the shingle. “Think of the men out

in that,” said Roosevelt. “The fellows in trawlers and tramp steamers who haven’t a chance if anything goes wrong. They are the bravest men in the world.”

That same night the storm grew worse and the house shook in the gale. In the morning we learned that the Simon Bolivar and three other ships had been sunk by the new German magnetic mines, and nearly a hundred innocent men, women and children had gone to their deaths in that cruel wintry sea.

Shortly afterward Winston Churchill told us in the Commons of how he had called for volunteers among the fishing folk, to man the mine-sweeping trawlers, and of how he had ojxmed recruiting offices in the various seaports. "They came in such numbers,” said Churchill, "that we kept the offices open all night. Before morning we had all the men we could use, and could take no more. These fearless, humble men, knowing the dread monotony and awful risks that lay ahead, did not hesitate. They have deserved well of this House and of the whole nation.”

Just for a moment Churchill paused, and his eyes were lowered as if he did not want the House to sense the emotion his own brave spirit was feeling. Then, raising his head defiantly, he blared: “These Nazis!” And Churchill can make that word sound more bestial than any other man in public life.

It was still moonlight when Arlen and 1 said good night.

“It is something to be an Englishman, isn’t it?” said Michael Arlen, whose real name is Dikran Kouyoumdjian and whose parents were Armenians.

“It is indeed,” answered the man from Toronto.