Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER
The Women of Britan
A. Beverley Baxter
I AM WRITING this in Coventry, the city in the Midlands which, as the schoolboy said, achieved fame because Lady Godiva rode through it on a naked horse. There is also a saying, now not often heard, that when you are no longer on speaking terms with someone he is “sent to Coventry." My purpose in being here, however, is neither to play the role of Peeping Tom nor to indulge in silence.
The district from Birmingham to Coventry, some eighteen miles, is simply one mass of factories, and since I spend much of my life in such institutions I find myself frequently taking the air in either Birmingham or Coventry.
This morning after breakfast, however, I stole half an hour to visit the beautiful cathedral that was first built in the fourteenth century and still gazes proudly on the modernized ancient city that houses it. On a panel in the cathedral I found a tribute to some eight bell ringers who rang for many hours on the occasion of some victory of Wellington over the French in 1812. 'There are their names, together with a full description of the music especially written for the bells. I wonder how long it will be before they ring again for a greater victory.
A few miles away is Stratford-on-Avon which enjoys a double degree of fame, first as being the birthplace of Shakespeare and secondly for being part of Anthony Eden’s constituency. I wish that I could run over and see the ’witching spot again, but the factories are calling and I must be on my way. What are sonnets and plays or beauty of any kind? What we want and must have is airplanes.
The newspapers tell us that Hitler may begin his blitzkrieg tomorrow. But the strange part of it all is that if the British knew he would invade these islands in the morning, they would not grow unduly excited about it. Perhaps London would, for it is a city of temperament and emotional excesses, but not these sturdy provinces.
It is true that under Sir John Anderson, the Home Secretary, we are attaining an absurd degree of spy mania, and have even arrested two golfers in my constituency who jocularly greeted each other on the first tee with the Nazi salute, but the incorrigible humor of the English insists upon coming to the surface. And of all humorists none is so spontaneous as the Cockney, who is rising, as usual, to the occasion.
In normal times a feature of London’s life is the contents bill displayed to sell newspapers.
Now, because of scarcity of paper, it is forbidden, and the street sellers instead have blackboards on which they chalk the principal items of news.
This has given the Cockney his opportunity.
Some time ago, when the Italian Navy ran away from the British, a newspaper vendor chalked up the heading: “Italy wins the boat
race.” A few days later there was a story that the Italian Fleet was about to sail out and give battle and then changed its mind. Promptly a Cockney newspaper seller wrote on his blackboard:
“Italian Fleet has steam up and wind up.” The best story, however, though probably too familiar by now, is the conversation of two soldiers in a pub when France surrendered. “Do you realize,” said the first soldier, “that Belgium is out,
Poland is out, Norway is out and now France is out?” “Good,” said his friend, “that means we’re in the final.”
Perhaps the most curious manifestation of the British character is the satisfaction that “we’re in the final.” It is Britain against the Rest, and the ordinary man rather likes that. It is a sporting event, a showdown between the two best teams in the league.
It is part of my duty to impress upon factory workers the deadly seriousness of the peril that confronts us. They listen and are duly impressed. What is more, they are willing to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week, but they simply refuse to believe that we can be beaten. Nor is this confidence confined to the men. If anything, the women of Britain are even more confident and more cheerful than their brothers, husbands, sons and lovers.
No Fear, No Complaining
AT MIDNIGHT recently I was being driven through the countryside to my hotel at a northeastern port, wrhen the air-raid warning went. We had to stop since no lights can be shown from a car when a raid is on. Following the chauffeur, we came to an underground shelter in a field. One by one the inhabitants emerged from their cottages and entered the shelter, women carrying sleeping babies, young women factory workers with the sturdy comeliness of youth, old men, dogs and children.
With quiet good humor they all settled down to spend an hour or more. There were acts of kindness and instinctive courtesy, a joke or two with more cheeriness than wit, a helping hand for the mothers with babies, and absolutely no excitement at all.
ausoiu~eiy no exci~emeru~ aL au. I stood in the entrance and watched the skies as the searchlights crisscrossed the heavens in a tapestry of fantastic beauty. The sullen engines of the German planes could be clearly heard as the searchlights swerved and circled in an attempt to fasten them in their beam. Over the whole countryside there was a soft shimmering loveli ness that went not only to the senses but to the heart.
After forty minutes or so the “All Clear” went. Up came the people from the shelter. The babies were still asleep against the comforting warmth of the mothers, the old boys lit their pipes and the dogs galloped across the fields in high approval of this nocturnal interlude. We had met like strangers in the night and we parted friends. “Good night, good luck.”
Half an hour later as I reached my room in the hotel the warning went again. 1 suppose they came back once more, the mothers and the rest, but I warrant there was neither fear nor complaining.
The women of Britain ! I wonder if there is a finer human product in the world. They may lack the greyhound legs of the American woman, or the allure of the Latin, but for sheer worth what is there to touch them? Recently a tomb hit one of our factories where many women are employed, killing two workers and wounding many others. Admiral Sir Edward Evans (Evans of the Broke) hurried to the spot and addressed the survivors.
“What is your answer going to be?” he cried. “Do you want to go to your shelters at the first warning, or will you stay at your |x>sts until you actually hear the guns?"
“We’ll stay at our posts!” cried the men and women together.
No man can ever write of women without feeling that he is approaching a subject that must to some degree be outside his understanding. St) much has happened to women since the Garden of Edenand so little. Men harness science to their restless brains, build bridges, conquer the air, write ixx'ins and make and break governments. It is as if they feel that as mortals they live but once and therefore must seek their immortality in bricks or words, or something that will be theirs alone yet still live after them. A woman feels that she is part of a continuity that will only end when life ceases to be.
The trinity in a woman’s life alters so little— her home, her children, her husband, actual or to be. Give these to a woman and she may not have much, judged by worldly standards, but take these from her or deny her the dream and she is bereft indeed. Above all she must be allowed her dreams.
Hundreds of thousands of girls are being drafted into our factories to take the place of men. Because they are unskilled they are given “repetition” work, the doing of the same thing over and over again for twelve hours. Tom Hood's “Song of the Shirt” does not more truly epitomize drudgery than this; yet they go through the whole day or the long hours of the night humming some dance tune to themselves or gazing into space while their deft fingers perform the one function that they are called upon to perform.
“I can’t make it out.” said the managing director of a factory with 20.000 employees. “You can use boys on these repetition jobs only for about a month and then they get restless. These girls seem perfectly content. Perhaps they have been used to monotony for centuries and have risen above it. I suppose a woman at home is always preparing the same meals and washing the same dishes or sewing the same clothes. I don’t understand it. Either they’re thinking about their boy friends or the latest film star, but they appear to live in a wrorld of their own and they don’t give any trouble at all.”
I have heard this same story in factory after factory. All women ask is the assurance that the curious bolt or screw they are producing will be used in fighting the enemy. Being producers of
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life, they have no mercy for those who would destroy the life of Britain. It is as if a new vision of their own country had been given to them. With all its faults and inequalities they see this land as the home of everything they care for and believe in. From their wombs will come the sons to defend it in the future and to carry on the life of the island kingdom, but now they give themselves to the task of fashioning the weapons that the soldiers must have. Neither Boadicea nor Elizabeth nor Joan of Arc were more adamant than the unparagraphed women of Britain.
Not long ago a gently nurtured wife was in the fields near her home when she saw a German airman land with a parachute. Endless pronouncements had told her to lie down and remain unobserved. Instead she walked up to the airman, ordered him to put his hands over his head and marched him along the road until she found a policeman.
The Queen An Inspiration
KIPLING wrote that the female of the species was more deadly than the male. Certainly if Hitler invades Great Britain he will find that women will fight beside their men rather than surrender. Already they are in uniform by their thousands, ready to play their parts in any inferno that comes.
At the head of them all is the brave and gracious lady who is our Queen. Unkind rumor, probably set afoot by our enemies, had it that the King and Queen were about to leave for Canada and that the little Princesses had already gone. There was never any truth in the report. The little Princesses are here, and their parents move from one place to another enduring the risks of aerial warfare with their subjects and asking only to share the happiness and sorrows of the people.
We smile at the oft-repeated pictures of the King and Queen looking at some machine in a factory while the foreman, with the pride of craftsmanship, explains the workings of every part of it. We smile again as we see them photographed first in this part of the factory and then another, but let me assure you that art galleries and cathedrals are nothing as producers of fatigue compared to factories.
There is the whole cacophony of sound, that beats on the nerves, the whirring of wheels and the clang of giant stamping presses. There is the dentist’s drill drone as a steel rod is molded to shape while tiny bits fly into the air like bullets. There is the fierce glare of the furnace face and the muffled roar of the flames driven to fury. There is the rumble of trucks as supplies are rushed to their reception points. There is the harsh staccato of the hammer and, behind it all, the roar of giant machines gaining speed like trains emerging from a tunnel.
It is grimly fascinating, and to those who grow accustomed to it the nerves are restless when the day’s work is done and silence broods over the place. By day or by night the lighting is the same, save that doors are left open during the day so that the workers can catch a glimpse of the sunshine which is denied to them. Because of the danger of air raids the skylights are hermetically blacked out and the green lights burn by day and by night.
And in this setting men and women live and move and have their being. Their destinies are woven into the fabric of industrialism. Here is the face of a man weary with toil, here is the flashing eye of a youth whose mind is looking into another world, here is the placid calm of a worker who is content that he is employed, here is the pale face and dark unkempt hair of the man who is an incipient agitator; and all around are good honest faces of men who are proud of their craftsmanship and
who look upon the giant machines not as tyrants but as friends.
And now against this background there is the invading army of young women, serious, smiling, flighty, earnest, but never losing the infinite variety of their sex.
Do you think that anyone so understanding as the Queen can move in such a scene without emotion and consequent strain? i3y nature she gives, and from the generosity of her heart and her spirit nothing is routine to her as long as it concerns the lives of men and women.
I have been to factories which the Queen has visited a month before, and the radiance of her personality still lingers. The workers have felt what is no less than the truth—her woman’s interest in them— and they have remembered as if it were yesterday. They point out the machine she admired and the workers to whom she spoke.
Wife, mother and Queen she looks fearlessly at the darkening clouds and is unafraid. When she and her royal husband ascended the throne in such unhappy circumstances, Hitler said: “I have no
interest in those two people.” He may have no interest in them, but when the last phase of this Homeric struggle begins between his country and ours he will discover that the goodness of a man or woman can inflame a nation with a greater purpose than all the goosestepping parades of a dictator’s slaves.
. Beside the King stands the Queen, each determined to share the glory and the danger of this hour with the people. And beside the workers and fighters stand the women of Britain.
Hitler would deny to women anything but the reality of their existence as drudges or mothers of future soldiers. He cannot realize yet that in the resistance which he will meet from these islands he will not only have to contend against our soldiers, sailors and airmen, but against a race of women who have kept their dreams of a nobler Britain, of a happier life for their children, and of a future free from the menace of bestial cruelty.
Such women are dangerous—and magnificent. Their spirit is like a flame that is seen on a hilltop overlooking the sea. That is the message I send to you from this ancient town of Coventry.