Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

Clipper October 15 1941

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

Clipper October 15 1941

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER


THE HOTEL porter, with his grave Portuguese courtesy, has just informed me that the Clipper has arrived from America, and that I am to go on her in the morning. If the weather report is bad, we shall, of course, wait until it becomes good, but otherwise we leave in a few hours.

Practically all the Clipper transients stay at this luxury hotel, the fascinating summer resort of Estoril, Portugal, which lies along the coast some eight miles from Lisbon. We are all in a hurry, and usually come from England a few days before our time to try and advance the date on which we have been given priority.

The harassed but friendly Pan-American officials in Lisbon listen to our pleas and tell us that they will do their best. In the end we depart for the U.S. exactly as was first arranged, which is: “On such and such a date you are guaranteed a passage on the Clipper from Lisbon to the U.S.A. If no Clipper takes off on that date, you are guaranteed passage on the next one leaving.”

There is very little private traffic. The United States and British Governments work closely together in allotting priorities, so that virtually no one travels now except on Government or national business. It is true that the Clipper will take private passengers if they have been able to secure the necessary visas and providing there are vacancies, but these occur so seldom that the expectant private Clipperites have become a Portuguese joke. They are the lost tribe. They are forgotten spirits which haunt the beaches, the office of the Pan-American Airways, and the Casino. They never lose hope, believing that time is on their side.

And every now and then a cancelled passage gives one of them a lift home.

A week ago I left London and journeyed by train to a secret destination, where, at a hotel that shall be nameless, the outward-bound passengers gather for the first leg of their flight from Britain to Lisbon. The Clipper does not come into British waters as these are belligerent, and, therefore, the initial flight from Britain to Lisbon is undertaken by British Airways. The machines are large American Douglases, and the crews are mostly Dutchmen from the K. L. G. Dutch Lines which used to run such an efficient European service in peacetime. Otherwise, except for the machines and the pilots, it is all British.

There is quite rightly no suggestion of luxury travel in the British end. On the other hand, the British Airways officials are most competent and courteous. When we motored early next morning to the airdrome, I was delighted to find that that grand American columnist, Raymond Clapper, was one of the nine—all male—passengers. It meant

good companionship both in the air and when we would get to Portugal.

It was a large Douglas land plane that was to take us, and when we had climbed up into her the crew of four tall impersonal Dutchmen came aboard with a businesslike manner that would have given confidence to the most nervous passenger.

“We shall come down in about a half an hour,” announced one of the Dutchmen, “in order to take on more petrol. The windows will be blacked out until we are over the sea.” Whereupon he went forward into the pilot’s cabin, closed the door, while the nine strange men, each sponsored by a Government Department or the American Embassy, sat on the up-tilted seats and gazed silently at the sealed interior of the plane.

Blackout Flight

WHATEVER importance we may have felt previously, vanished. Unlike a train, we could not pull the communication cord for five pounds. We could not even go overboard as from a ship. We were just nine mice in a cage, and felt like it.

There was a muffled sound of the propellers as one by one each of the four engines came to life. The airplane trembled as if roused from a sleep, and then began to waddle forward. We must have taxied half a mile and then, from our cell, we became conscious that the plane was turned around into the wind.

With a triumphant roar, the engines leapt into enormous power. The plane charged like a race horse when a jockey gives it its head. Faster and faster we raced along the ground. Suddenly there

was an ear-splitting roar of the engines, the last ounce of energy had been summoned for that moment when the monster on the ground would soar into the air. \ moment later the engines steadied down. We were in the air, and the

hard earth had ceased to trouble the giant creature. The electric sign which had read “Adjust seat belts” went out, and we released the belts which would have kept us in our seats if there had been any bumpiness or worse.

Somewhere over Britain we made our way until in half an hour’s time the electric sign told us to adjust our belts again. The vibration grew less, the engines turned over lazily, the plane subsided into a dull unvibrant thing, and so we touched the ground, once, twice, three times, and came to a stop.

When we got out of the plane we found ourselves at an R.A.F. airdrome. A young officer in mufti suggested that we might like to rest in the waiting room. Raymond Clapper and I said that we would rather stretch our legs. The young officer thought we were mistaken. It would be better to go to the waiting room. Humbly we followed him. He had been as tactful as possible, but it was an order and we knew it. As I expected, there were no windows

in the waiting room. We were all guaranteed by the British Government or the American Embassy, but the R.A.F. was taking no chances. If the Gestapo were to torture me, I could not say now where that airdrome was or what kind of planes it had. Nor was the young officer who guided us at all communicative on that or any other subject. Even Clapper and I stopped talking, and the whole nine of us looked at each other in grim silence.

In due course, we were led out to the plane once more, were taxied across the airdrome, and finally flown into the sky. It is true we saw nothing of this, but our ears had become our eyes.

I had almost become accustomed to being hermetically sealed, when one of the Dutchmen appeared and took away the black screens which had been placed over the windows. We were flying above the clouds, which looked like endless snowdrifts scattered by the wind. The sun was radiant, while here and there, between the clouds, we could just make out the dull blue which must have been the sea.

sea. I remarked to Clapper on the beauty of the scene. He agreed that the scene was indeed beautiful. We then conveyed this piece of original comment to a young man in the seat behind us, who turned out to be Professor Wilson, of Harvard University. He had some trouble hearing us because of the vibration of the engines, but, when he did so, agreed that the scene was beautiful. Then we all took up our books and began to read. For sheer monotony of scenery commend me to the skies above the clouds. There

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is just nothing to see, and the illusion of noc moving—since nothing is going by the window—adds to the static dullness of it all.

At noon an impersonal Dutchman came out of the cabin and handed around individual lunch baskets of sandwiches, cold meat and salad. Afterward he served coffee. There was no alcoholic drink, and no smoking. When the Dutchman had thus sustained us, he recovered the baskets and vent back to his own place.

Periodically the plane reduced height in order to conform to the requirements that it should fly at certain distances at a recognizable height. The Germans make no attempt to molest our planes to Lisbon, and, presumably, we treat their planes from Berlin to Lisbon in the same manner. In fact, so far does this concordat go that the German and British planes come down on the same airdrome. Fortunately, they arrive at different hours. It is all very odd, but then this is a very odd war.

About 2.30 p.m. a distant yellowish line in the sea proclaimed that we were nearing the Spanish coast. From then on the flight became fascinating. As we moved nearer the coast the details became clearer to the eye until, as we flew along by Portugal, we could see the villages like little clusters of pebbles, and even make out the windmills, looking like something in the tiniest of dolls’ houses as their sails turned round.

A steep bank by the pilot, a lazy listlessness as the engines stopped, a suggestion of almost complete motionlessness, and then the ground ran swiftly past us on the level of the windows. We touch the ground once, twice, three times, and then take a firm grip of it. The electric sign which had told us to adjust our belts blinked into darkness. It had lost all interest in us.

The four big Dutchmen came out of their cabin. Clapper and I smiled and thanked them. They looked at us without discourtesy or interest. It was all in a day’s work and they saw no reason why anyone should make speeches about it.

Gleaming sunlight . . . white-

uniformed officials with swarthy faces ... a welcome and overdue cigarette . . . an almost indecent longing for a nice drink. A smiling Portuguese official bows to us.

“Please, gentlemen,” he says, “there is tea for you in the waiting room.”

Tea—in that temperature. Like Henry the Eighth I felt like ejaculating, “The things I’ve done for England!”

To the Azores

I HAVE been six days at Estoril, the most fantastic place in the world today. Here are Portuguese, Germans, Italians, English, beautiful and exquisitely dressed women of every nationality, sleek, dark-haired young men with the figures of professional dancers, crowded beaches, luxury, elegance everywhere. A casino priding itself on being open every day of the year and a long bar at the hotel where at eight o’clock the babble of tongues reaches its climax to the cacophony of the cocktail shakers. On the road to Lisbon one sees the peasant women carrying immense loads upon their heads. It gives them a splendid dignity from the waist up but a considerable solidity from the waist down. Everywhere there is the tiny little donkey carrying his balanced cargoes, giving the impression that at any moment the second act of the Cavalleria Rusticana might be given.

But, out to sea there is no neutrality. The tragic, sinister battle goes on. The strange phosphorescence of the gay Estorilan coast is lost in the black night of merciless sea warfare.

At 6.30 a.m. the porter called us, and at half-past eight we drove to the Pan-American wharf in Lisbon. For the first time in a week there is a heavy mist, and the white-uniformed American officers walk up and down the pier while at the end the Clipper is waiting like a huge snub-nosed fish. Inside the customs rooms and walking about the pier the rest of us wait, and wait, and wait. The first leg of the Clipper flight is to the Azores, 800 miles away. We know what the weather is there, because it has been cabled, but what is the fog like a few miles out to sea? We could, of course, wireless ships and ask them, but they would not reply. The only ships that sail those seas are under British Admiralty control, and they are not allowed to use their voices. So in these days of technical advance we are forced back a whole century.

A toy balloon is inflated and turned loose while the Clipper crew time its flight. Up the balloon goes until it touches the low-hanging mist and, in a flurry of grizzly white, disappears. The Clipper crew shake their heads. The ceiling is too low. From time to time the balloon experiment is repeated. Two hours pass by. Suddenly the sun bursts through.

“All aboard !” And so we enter the famous Yankee Clipper. Here, of course, is comfort, friendliness, and modified luxury. There are no blacked-out windows, and there are white-uniformed attendants to give us refreshments. There are even parts of the ship where we can smoke. Not only that, we have become friends at Estoril and so we all know each other. It is like a yachting party in the air.

There is the same process of de-

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parture except that we taxi on the water instead of the land, but there is the same roar of the engines and the final overpowering climax when the snub nose is tilted upward and another bird has found its natural realm. The lunch is pretty good. The liquid refreshments are served with ice and cordiality. Seven thousand feet below, the sea is calm and goodhumored. It is all very pleasant and peaceful. But a rainstorm comes up, and for a time we can hardly see outside the windows, yet what is a rainstorm to a Clipper? Rain comes from clouds, so let us soar above them. Thus we regain the land of the sun and leave the distemper of the storm to those beneath.

So dense are the clouds below us that it seems as if they had become impenetrable. At a given moment, however, late in the afternoon, there is that slight letdown. The engines are less noisy, and the singing in our ears tells us that once more we are losing height. Down we go, down, down through the clouds, and there, grimly outlined, is the rough shore of the Azores. Here Sir Richard Grenville lay in the sixteenth century when he heard the news that fifty Spanish ships of war had put to sea. It is little changed today. A grim, outlying spot, part of the Portuguese Empire, with a hotel where the Clipper passengers have dinner and a bar in which the single portrait is a modern nude. If there were no such place as the Azores, Somerset Maugham would have created it.

Asleep O’er the Deep

ONCE MORE aboard the Clipper, once more into the skies. The crew are not quite so jaunty as they were. They have the grim part of the flight now, that long fifteen hours’ stretch to Bermuda. On this part of the trip the Clipper is like a bat that cannot shake off the night, for remember we are travelling westward and there is five hours’ difference between America and Lisbon. Berths are made up in the manner of a Pullman car, and after a time we go to bed. All through the night those four incomparable engines keep their steady tone. There are no railway stations to which we come, there is no starting or stopping or shunting. It is an unbroken rhythm, save when now and then there is an air pocket and the ship falls a bit, or a buffeting headwind against which it quivers and shakes, then leaps forward again. Dawn, according to our Lisbon-set watches, should have come, hut it didn’t. At 6 a.m., at 7 a.m., at 8 a.m., there was no daylight, for we were racing the sun and it could not get ahead of us to light our way.

It was late in the morning by our Lisbon time as we swooped down into Bermuda, but the people there were rubbing their eyes and blinking at the early morning.

British territory, British flags, a British gunboat. Some day I suppose there will be a world citizenship and we shall cease to think in terms of nationality, but until that time comes I shall never set foot upon some portion of the world that is Britain without a feeling of joy and of pride.

An excellent breakfast, a brief stroll, a searching examination by British officials, for this is the last

chance they have before Britain’s enemies enter the U.S.A. And then an anticlimax which every traveller will understand. We are leaving for New York after breakfast, and will be there about half past two, and who do you think is coming with us? Piere are fifteen or twenty Americans and Canadians going to make the trip from Bermuda to New York. The rest of us, representing the legitimate Clipperites, draw aside with proper disdain. It is like somebody getting on the Glasgow to London Express five miles out of London.

And so through the sunny sky and across a peaceful ocean to New York.

Over the perfectly-manicured landscape of Long Island, miniature golf links whose traps would offer no difficulties to a child, over country houses with acres of gardens no larger than inches, then finally down onto the water once more, and a crowd of people waving from the terrace of the Pan-American landing place.

There are people in tears and there are curious sightseers: there are women with hopeless, longing eyes, there are lovers with aching hearts, and there are men with cold eyes of steel who look on unmoved. But they are all the same to the U.S. officials. No matter how furious the heartbeat or how sinister the purpose, all must wait until the formalities are concluded.

They examine our passports, and quite rightly. They look with understandable doubt upon our signed declaration that we have never been in jail, are not insane, and have no intention of destroying the United States Government. They are interested in our vaccination certificates, and particularly interested in the luggage that we have brought with us. And finally there is the motive which has brought us to the U.S.A. in times of war. The officials are very polite and most understanding, hut like Rosa Dartle they want to know. Nearly two hours after our arrival we are at last allowed to receive the embraces of our friends, or, as in my case, of my wife whom I have not seen for two years.

It is journey’s end. The long flight from the old world to the new has been completed. A motor car with an incessant horn drives us into New York with its turbulent traffic.

Six times my heart leaps into my mouth as a collision seems imminent. But then I have flown for four thousand miles, and after the exclusiveness of the .skies it takes a few minutes to get used to the crowded dangers of the earth.

Dry Ice In Industry

INCREASED speed in the American program of national defense has curiously resulted in an increase in demand for dry ice reported to be substantial. Not because National Guard units now in Federal service for training eat greater quantities of ice cream, but because the intense cold of dry ice makes tighter shrink fits. It also keeps soft the rivets used in aluminum-alloy airplane construction until they can be driven home. —The Rotarian.