Canadian Letter Beverley Baxter
THIS LETTER is being written on the warm night of Sunday, October 5, in the faircity of Toronto. All day a hot breeze has blown, which adds one more proof that Canadian weather has no serious rivalry in unexpectedness or versatility.
Elbert Hubbard used to say that some countries had climate and others weather. Those with climate produced lizards, snakes and revolutions. Those which had weather produced character. This should be a comforting thought to Canadians.
My trip to Canada is nearing an end. There is practically an off day tomorrow with only one speech in Toronto, to the combined Canadian and Empire Clubs at lunch time, followed at three o’clock by an address to the Women’s Canadian Club. There are also a couple of factories where I am to speak to the workers, but otherwise the day is my own. After that, Montreal; then a swift jump to Chicago, back to Montreal once more, three days in Washington, two days in New York and once again aboard the Yankee Clipper en route to the old world of deepening shadows.
For this issue the readers of the London Letter (the whole three of them as Napier Moore might remark) must accept a Canadian Letter: and instead of weaving words into the tapestry of world events, I shall try to set down some of the impressions and experiences of the strenuous ten-dày tour of the Canadian West, where somehow one managed to address twenty-eight meetings and travel nearly 5,000 miles while answering 10,000 questions from my two children, who went as far as Vancouver.
A wise author would begin his narrative by saying that on such and such a night he took the train to Winnipeg, describe that resolute metropolis and then continue with Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver in geographical order. But that is not the way the memories keep crowding on me. There is no order in them, no sequence. Many incidents are blurred already, while others are as vivid as if they were being enacted at this moment.
It was in Saskatoon, that debonair city of the North Prairies, where the element of drama entered most unexpectedly. The meeting was at
night and a patient audience, crowding every inch of space, was listening to the closing words on the conditions under which British factory workers had to produce the weapons with which to fight Germany.
“When night comes,” I said, “everything is blacked out. They have to grope their way to the darkened factory doors and then ...”
Suddenly the electric lights in the big room went out. Only a few candles on a table lent a ghostly flicker to the scene. There was a murmur through the audience and then an uncanny silence. Automatically I continued my talk.
“They reach their benches in the factories and start the night’s work. Then comes the wailing warning of the sirens ...”
From the darkness of blacked-out Saskatoon there was the sound of sirens. Guns burst into action and the drone of airplanes changed to a snarl as they swooped with open throttle upon the city beneath.
It was so grimly, so intimately familiar. It might have been any one of the bombing raids on England.
The gunfire eased as the planes swept past, but the guns far off could still be heard.
“It is under such conditions that our people work,”
I said. “That is why we look to you to produce more per man and per woman in your factories in Canada, for your skies are still clear of the enemy.”
The lights went on and people’s eyes blinked at the glare. The mimic warfare had been planned quite independently, by the military authorities, to encourage recruiting and to give the people an idea of what the new warfare on civilians is like. It was just an uncanny coincidence.
No wonder it was realistic. The airplanes and sound effects came from the Empire Training School, commanded by Wing Commander McNab who led the First Canadian Squadron in the Battle of Britain which defeated the Luftwaffe. No braver pilot or better officer fought in that desperate struggle for the mastery of the skies and a world’s destiny.
I have used the word debonair in describing Saskatoon. It is nearly the right word. The view from the Bessborough Hotel on the sunken garden which moves elegantly to the edge of the river, has the well-groomed elegance of a European holiday resort. Saskatoon looks with the arrogance of youth on the older cities of the West.
WINNIPEG . . . That’s the trouble with this narrative, it is all out of joint. But then, so was the railway time table, for there had been heavy rains and floods so that the train crept slowly along like a heavy man picking his way between puddles. We should have been in Winnipeg at about 9 a.m., but we got there at one o’clock noon. A motor car rushed me across the city to the Fort Garry Hotel, where a Canadian Club gathering had finished luncheon and the CBC was waiting to broadcast the speech.
It is not easy to go cold into a speech or a fight. There was no chance to study the Winnipeg audience or sense their attitude toward men, women and events. However, like the Light Brigade, I could only carry out orders, and started in at once to talk.
Toward the end, I mentioned conscription and told them that the Toronto Star had demanded my head on a charger for doing the same thing in Toronto.
“No doubt,” I said, “the Winnipeg Free Press will follow the example of its Toronto contemporary. I am glad to say that after many years the relations of the Winnipeg Free Press and myself continue to be unfriendly.”
The roar of laughter that followed was puzzling.
It had been a mild joke at best, a play on words worth perhaps a kindly chuckle if the hearer was in a good mood. But w'hy this full-throated roar?
When the speech was over the explanation was revealed. The mover of the vote of thanks was— George Ferguson, Editor of the Winnipeg Free Press'. He performed his task with courtesy but, not unnaturally, with modified rapture.
Next day the Winnipeg Tribune published the text of my speech and compared it with Free Press variations.
As far as the Free Press is concerned, our relations continue to be unfriendly.
Two p.m. There is a wonderful gathering of about 2,000 aircraft workers in the civic auditorium of Winnipeg. There is no audience more satisfactory than the men and women of aircraft factories. The very nature of their work makes them alert and, like the pilots, they have a sense of adventure which renders them eager to respond if there is any thrill or excitement in the words they are hearing. I was tired when I went on that platform, but after forty minutes the vitality of the audience had communicated itself to the speaker.
Grand people those Winnipeg workers. It was good to make contact once more with the giant strength and stout heart of Labor, for in this war the partnership of the worker and the fighter has become a brotherhood.
Three p.m. An immense audience of Winnipeg women. The lunch affair with the men had been rather disappointing, the one with the aircraft workers had been vitalizing, but the audience of Winnipeg women proved the most sympathetic and understanding of the whole trip. Speeches and audiences differ, though the subject be roughly the same and even if the listeners seem apparently no different from others. I was sorry when the talk came to an end, for that perfect accord is an unforgettable experience when it happens.
Two hours later, at the train, a letter was handed to me by the porter. It had been left by someone, who, however, had been too modest to append his signature to the sweet words.
“Listen, Baxter, you may get away with your particular line of muck in the East but we’re no saps out here. The West has no time for you and your mouthing platitudes and toadying. Take them back to Toronto. It’s all they’re fit for.”
Poor Toronto! Why is she so disparaged by so many?
Rain In Vancouver!
IT IS a typical Vancouver day. The skies have wept all day, but at five p.m. the sun is in the heavens and all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The trim, glistening Lockheed TransCanada plane is waiting at the airport for its hop across the Rockies and its first landing at Lethbridge.
It is sad to leave Vancouver, for it means another separation from the little boy and girl, although my wife is coming with me until the Clipper sails from New York.
If, after this war, everyone who has announced his or her intention of living in Vancouver carries out the threat, then the “Paradise on the Pacific” is in for the biggest real-estate boom in history. It is indeed a city to fire the imagination, for in peacetime white ocean liners steal in from distant, enchanted places and one can slice a golf ball which draws the eyes to the blue foothills of the mountains.
No people are more loyal to their city than the people of Vancouver.
With real eloquence they will explain to the new arrival that until that day there had been no rain for a month. In fact if it weren’t for
visitors, Vancouver would be in a perpetual drought. As it is we intruders manage to adjust the balance.
But if the clouds are too often full of tears, the air is. soft and kind to the faces of the women. There is beauty almost everywhere, in the lawns, in the gardens, in the houses and in the women, for where there are mountains and the sea, where can ugliness enter?.
As we wait for the airplane my mind goes back to the last meeting at Vancouver a few hours before, when 1,700 women crowded the great hall in the Vancouver Hotel. A wonderful sight and one to inspire a speaker to his best. There were many English women among them, with all the infinite variety and complexity of the female of the English species. Altogether a grand audience, quick in humour, generous, responsive and deeply loyal to their native country and the British connection.
By an odd mishap it rained that day.
“All aboard, please.”
We go aboard the plane and strap ourselves in the seats for the take-off. A most attractive young stewardess, in a smart dark uniform, like the Wrens wear in Britain, smilingly suggests a magazine and hands out packages of chewing gum to ease the strain on the ears.
It is interesting to watch the young lady’s technique, for of course that is what it is. She bustles about, calling each one of us by name, taking our hats and coats, talking to this person or that, tripping lightly back and forward as if it is all a picnic which she wouldn’t miss for anything, especially in such pleasant company.
An inexperienced passenger or a nervous one looks at her and becomes calm. We are all a jolly party going for a jaunt over the mountains.
With a muffled roar the airplane rises from the ground and begins at once its climb, for the mountains are not far off and the pilot wants height. Higher and higher we climb, through the clouds and still upward in the lovely skies.
Half an hour passes, or perhaps more. We are two miles above sea level and are still climbing. Our mouths become a little dry in the rarefied atmosphere and one or two hearts beat faster.
Why, of course! The pretty little psychologist in the trim uniform knows all about that. It is one of the most interesting moments in the game. With a delighted smile, as if she has been keeping it back for a treat, she attaches an oxygen tube in each place.
“May I show you how to adjust the mask, Mr. Baxter? . . .There. Yes, you can breathe in all the oxygen you like.” Her eyes say: “Isn’t it fun?”
So the oxygen enters the lungs and an immediate sense of well-being comes over us. Who cares about height now? Another mile nearer the moon —what of it?
The clouds part and far below we see a few harmless, tiny knuckles that are the once mighty rockies. For years the pioneers of other days labored with sweat and blood to build a railway that would join the East and West in one. The conquering of the Rockies was a feat of majestic wonder—and now this tiny silver bird is winging its way over them with no more thought than a sea gull flying over a jagged cliff.
Two hours from the take-off we make the long descent to earth, and come to rest at Lethbridge. As we get out to transfer to another plane the pretty stewardess wishes each of us good-by while the Captain Pilot and his first officer come out of their cabin and stroll into the waiting rooms. They exchange a smile of understanding with the stewardess, for they belong with her to the new race —the people of the air.
Ten minutes later I saw the stewardess walk away from the airport. She looked just as pretty and smart as in the plane but there was a suggestion of tiredness in her walk. She had convoyed her motley family across the mountains and her work was done until the next convoy arrived.
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On duty in the air she was tireless . . . but now her shoulders drooped just a little.
Snow in Calgary
THERE was snow in Calgary.
Yes, believe it or not, there was snow in September in Calgary. It was good for the visitor to see it, for in London there is never snow unless a misplaced storm intended for Iceland reaches us by mistake— and then it usually disappears with a swiftness that is a slur upon our hospitality.
The roofs and backs of the motor cars in Calgary were covered with what might pass for thick icing on a Christmas cake. The inhabitants were deeply apologetic. For at least a month there had been nothing but clear skies and radiant sunshine. It was inexplicable that snow should have come so soon, because the nicest weather of the whole year was in the fall.
A vigorous city this Calgary. Men take long strides when they walk as if they delight to expend their surplus energy. When you talk to their wives, they give the impression that life in the Alberta metropolis is stimulating and worth while. There is a sense of friendliness everywhere, as if the very people on the street were glad to see each other even though they be strangers. The shops —or should I say stores?—are jolly and alive. Whether you spend five cents or five dollars the man or woman behind the counter seems equally pleased.
It was a wonderful audience that crowded the Central United Church. Although they were magnanimous in their applause and quick to appreciate the touches of humor that are inseparable from the story of Britain at war, the very fact of
speaking from a pulpit restrains one’s language and subdues one’s exuberance. On the other hand it deepens the effect of the serious passages and makes one feel a sense of almost overwhelming responsibility. In contrast to the general liveliness of Calgary one felt that the audience of 1,300 men and women that night were mature and thoughtful and understanding. Looking back I think that perhaps after all, they were the best audience of the tour.
I must discuss all this with R. B. Bennett when I get back home. It was his constituency and his home for so many years and his memory is still green there.
After the meeting a woman with a sweet gentle face, but bright smiling eyes came up to me.
“My son went over last year in the Air Force,” she said. “But we had him home for Christmas before he went and that is something we can always remember.”
I looked at her eyes that seemed so bravely at variance with the soft wistfulness of her voice.
“Is your son dead?” I asked.
She did not speak but turned her head away slightly.
“We had him home for Christmas,” she whispered. “That was something,” and her eyes still smiled.
Fog in Regina
BELIEVE it or not there was fog over Regina. The night before we had come upon her in the darkness, and from the lofty height of the airplane her streets looked like a jeweller’s counter with gleaming necklaces set out in neat rows.
The next day I had spoken to a goodly assembly of Canadian Clubmen at lunch; my wife and I had a friendly visit with the LieutenantGovernor, that grand old pioneer
Archibald Peter McNab, who among other good deeds sired Wing Commander McNab of Saskatoon. We had joined up with Murdock MacPherson, a favorite for the leadership of the Federal Conservative Party, and had seen the headquarters of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the place where Louis Riel was hanged.
I had attended a meeting of recruiting officers, and then gone to a dinner at the Military Institute in the Armouries, where the band played outside the Mess; it was fun to talk “off the record” to a grand crowd of warriors, ancient and modern, and to know that not a word would get into the papers.
Then I had gone to the Metropolitan Church to find quite the most wonderful audience of the tour. Let me confess that I never mounted the steps of a platform with such a sense of complete weariness as on that night. The incessant travelling and endless speaking engagements made my legs feel like logs and 1 knew a sudden fear that I might not get through an hour’s address. As one speech was broadcast from practically each city, it was necessary to seek a certain amount of new material all the time without weakening the general theme or effect.
As I started my talk I began to understand the feeling of boxers who have been hit so often that they become “punch drunk” and go on automatically. But the citizens of Regina were*] warmhearted and patient and allowed me to get slowly into my stride without walking out. The fatigue departed and all seemed well, when suddenly there came a blackout. I could not think what to say next. Nothing, absolutely nothing, would come. The whole theme had gone and I had no notes to pull me back.
Then I heard a familiar voice and found with relief that it was my own. I listened to the words almost like one of the audience, as if they were quite apart, and with a definite curiosity. Thus I picked up the drift and went on to the end with no further mishap.
Afterward we sortied out to a reception given in our honor to find an almost London fog settling over Regina.
The natives were deeply apologetic. There had been the most beautiful weather for weeks, and as for a fog—!
At midnight to bed. The plane for Winnipeg and Toronto was due at two a.m. which would give us an hour’s sleep. Then to sit up all night in order to reach Toronto in time to speak three times in six hours.
My boon travelling companion, Mr. Ralph Magee of Maclean's, knocked at my door. “I have bad news,” he said. “The plane hasn’t started yet from Vancouver on account of bad weather over the Rockies. Unless some miracle happens we’re not going to get to Toronto in time. So you can stay in bed until I wake you.”
Juliet says some lovely things in the balcony scene, but never was any Juliet’s voice half so sweet as the baritone of Ralph Magee on that foggy night in the centre of the Prairies.
Next morning we motored to Moose Jaw, for the fop still clung to
Regina, and T.C.A. takes no unnecessary risks. The air was keen and life was good. No speeches for one whole day. At the airport in Moose Jaw a smiling stewardess greeted us as if she had been waiting for this pleasure for a long time.
Soon we were in the bright skies with our hearts as well as our ears singing—for had we not been vouchsafed a night’s sleep and a day’s respite even though the faithful in Toronto would have the annoyance of altered plans.
I would have offered the stewardess some chewing gum if I had had any.
IT IS Monday morning October 6 and Napier Moore has called for the first section of my “copy.” While he is reading it, we will knock off for a moment and enjoy a cigarette.
Napier Moore (having finished what I have written): You have misspelled Luftwaffe.
(For the first time I begin to understand the murder instinct.)
Moore: You’ve left out Ed-
Beverley Baxter: I’m coming to Edmonton.
Moore: You can’t be coming to Edmonton. You’re on the plane to Toronto.
Beverley Baxter: There is no particular order to this narrative.
Moore: You’re telling me! Beverley Baxter: The women’s audience at Edmonton was wonderful. I think they were the best of the whole trip.
Moore: So far they’ve all been the best.
Beverley Baxter: Well—they were too.
Moore: What are you talking about?
Beverley Baxter: Edmonton. By the way, I talked to the employees of MacKenzie Air Service Aircraft Works there. Do you know that they are producing more aircraft per man-hour than any other group of workers in Canada?
Moore (getting up in great excitement) : Great Scott ! That’s your story. Look here, Bax., you’ve only got four speeches today, so time will be hanging on your hands. Rewrite this whole article and make the aircraft workers of Edmonton your theme.
Beverley Baxter: No one can order a plane to turn around and go back. We are on our way to Toronto and that’s final.
Moore: All right. Well, finish the rest of it. By the way, here’s a letter from a fan of yours in Toronto.
It looks as if you had another reader.
It was an interesting letter, a feathering and kindly one. The writer was angry with the Toronto Star for having scolded me. But the last sentence brought me up with a jerk:
“We all know, Mr. Baxter, that you have risen to your present position by your own inertia.”
ís it a subtle thrust or a verbal mishap? Perhaps my good friend was caught between “initiative” and “exertions” and produced “inertia.” At any rate it is an interesting excursion into character portraiture.
(Napier Moore has come back for
his brief case. He is, of course, the type of man who always carries a brief case.)
London ... on the Thames . . . London near Windsor and
not far from Paris.
But London, Ont.
It is raining as the motor car glides swiftly over the water-soaked highway toward yet another luncheon meeting. It appears that there have been violent storms in Ontario during our absence out West—an odd thing, we are told, for the fall is always lovely in Ontario.
What a beautiful countryside it is, almost like England. The meadows are soft and the trees are tinged with the sweet red melancholy of autumn. There is a feeling of age about it all, which is soothing to the senses; a lingering reminder of far-off gentler times.
A splendid audience, then a visit to the Catholic Seminary where a student serenades me at the organ with the immortal music of the Masters, and finally to the University with its Versailles lawns and the silver Thames making its way sedately, even as its old father does in the Valley near Taplow over there.
A tranquil city of dignity and repose, although industry has intruded its jarring note. They tell me that Governor Simeoe intended London to be the Capital of Ontario. Good-by, London . . .You soothe the soul and bring back the memory of other days.
Galt. Here is a staunch city of 15,000 or 16,000 people with enough character to supply a metropolis. There is money in Galt. You need only look at the fine houses and the subscriptions to war loans to realize that there are kind hearts in Galt, for no place does so much, per head of population, for the Red Cross. There are brave men in Galt, for has she not sent one battalion overseas, and is she not training a reserve one?
I Galt is an outpost of Scotland, even
if in recent years the Sassenach has intruded in increasing numbers. On Burns’ night the Bard rules supreme and on St. Andrew’s night there are weird whoops as the Scot pays tribute to his patron saint.
Mr. Norman Hipel, Minister of Lands and Forests, in the Ontario Government, takes his place beside me, and we review some hundreds of Aircraft School cadets in a drizzling rain. Then into the arena with a crowd of 4,500 who have paid up to a dollar a head for the benefit of the British War Victims’ Fund.
That was indeed an audience to face, an audience to stir the pulses and unleash the frozen streams of eloquence. Yes, that was Galt. A little bit of Scotland dropped in the gentle countryside of Western Ontario.
Now for two Toronto meetings, two more in Montreal, then to Chicago and on to Washington, where the foreign newspaper men at the capital are going to give me an “off the record” luncheon. That will he interesting, and no doubt the foils will be sharp pointed. One more speech in New York—and then the Clipper and the endless sea.
Up there above the clouds as we race toward the Old World of shadows, I shall sort out the thousand impressions of the Canadian Tour. I shall see again the Prairies with their infinite space, the Rockies with their mystery and majesty, still defying the vaunting airplane, the winding coast of Vancouver on the sea, the brave new world of Alberta and its jaunty comradeship with the North, the gentle fields of the Ontario countryside, the pulsating life of the cities and the memory of the thousands of men and women who came to hear the Story of Britain at War.
It was tiring. It was exhausting. But it was good to feel the firm free earth of Canadian soil beneath my feet again.
Yes. It was good.