LONDON LETTER LIFE UNDER THE BOMBS
A MONG the Canadian letters that arrived recently,
there was one from a lady in Nova Scotia stating that although she listened to and read everything about what was happening in London, she still could not grasp what life was like here. Could I not write a letter for Maclean's and really say how we got on, as Arnold Bennett once described it, “by existing on twenty-four hours a day.” What she really wanted to know was about ordinary life.
On the same day I dropped in at a cinema for an hour and found myself gazing with a feeling of strangeness and curiosity at a small-town U.S. film. It was like studying another world, a world far off, half-forgotten, a world that seems more unnatural than our own. For in this North American town the streets were blazing with light at night. The shop windows gleamed, the street lights glittered and it was almost like day.
And it came to me that it is nearly a year and a half since I have seen a street lit with anything more illuminating than a subdued light no stronger than a candle’s ray, or the moon of heaven. It is eighteen months since I have seen a light shine from a window or from a doorway.
The last time I saw such things was the evening when we came into Southampton on the Empress of Britain, that voyage which was to mark the end of her career as a peacetime liner. Three days later we were at war, and the lights of Southampton, like the lamps of civilization, had gone out.
It is a nerve-racking experience to drive in the blackout. On our cars we can only carry headlights that will give a measure of warning to pedestrians, but practically no visibility to the driver. Unfortunately, there is no way for a pedestrian or a motorist to gauge the distance of a headlight accurately.
A strong light half a mile away would seem closer than a weak one a hundred yards off.
So the slaughter of pedestrians goes on as' though the roads had determined to vie with Goering’s Luftwaffe. Driving as carefully as possible, one constantly applies the brakes as a shadow figure passes in front not two yards away. Once my mudguard struck a man and hurled him onto the sidewalk, and yet I never even saw his shadow. Fortunately he was only bruised, and said it was his fault. Taxi drivers have told me that they cannot stand the strain of the blackout for long and have to take a couple of nights off to restore their nerves.
In writing of day-to-day and night-to-night life in London, it must be realized that there is always the element of inequality in sacrifice as there is in happiness.
Superficially, it is hard to see these things.
For example, the underground stations are filled with people who go there to sleep, some of them homeless, others seeking a greater measure of security, and a number who find it cheering to be part of a crowd. The cockney loves a crowd, and a night in the shelters is to him something of an inverted Bank Holiday on Hampstead Heath.
Beyond this picturesque, nocturnal aspect of London life and beyond the desolation of ruined homes and broken hearts, however, there is the slow process whereby little traders and wholesalers see their life’s work coming to nothing. Take as an aspect of this, a small confectioner in a crowded section of North or South London.
For years he has supplied chocolate and sweets to the school children and has managed
to make a modest income from it. The war comes, and suddenly his area is scheduled for evacuation. Off go the children to the country as if a Pied Piper has called to them.
The bell which rings when the confectioner’s shop door is opened, is silent. His customers have gone, and so has his business. There is no heroism about it. No one writes a poem about it. or praises him in the press or Parliament, but he is just another casualty of the war like the seaside landladies in a resort which has been scheduled a defense area.
The little suburban shop which sells women’s wear is suddenly told that its supplies will be cut in half. Not very important or dramatic, except that the shopkeeper cannot make enough to pay his rent. So the grim shadow of war falls on the little people almost as cruelly as the bombs that come whistling from the clouds.
But as I have said, the element of sacrifice is unequal. There are many people like myself who keep their houses going in spite of the ever-rising tide of taxation and continue to lead normal lives, at any rate to some extent. Perhaps by describing my own house, I can give my correspondent a little glimpse of how life goes on in the centre of London.
PERHAPS you have four or five people to dinner. As there are few private cars in use, the guests arrive by taxicab or tube or bus from Chelsea or Knightsbridge. or from whatever part of London they may live. At a reasonable hour before midnight, being polite souls, they say:
A. Beverley Baxter, M.P.
“It’s getting late, would you mind calling a taxi?”
Certainly. But one might as well call for the moon, especially if there is a raid on. No taxicab driver is going to stay
on his rack as a sitting target for the chance of earning half-a-crown. The problem of the host thus becomes a delicate one.
My house, in St. John’s Wood, for example, has come to look like rather an attractive boardinghouse. There is a bed in the drawing-room, two beds in the garage, one in the library overlooking the garden, one in my dressing room— and then, of course, there are the bedrooms.
Admittedly one can get out the car and deliver the guests to their abodes, but it is hard to leave the fireside for a misty London blackout. I did so, however, last Sunday night and heard so many piteous cries of “Taxi" in the dark that, after getting rid of my cargo, I picked up four stranded people and delivered them too. They were most respectable and polite, but surely there is an excellent basis for a Michael Arlen story in a Sir Galahad of London who drives out at night to rescue distressed derelicts.
In fact the giving of lifts to pedestrians is almost compulsory. Private motorists are allowed extra petrol if they carry passengers free, and all car owners are urged to play their part. Here again there are complications.
Driving recently to Stoke Poges to spend the week-end with a friend, I stopped to give a lift to a young woman with a large number of parcels. After my first remark, she said: “You’re a Canadian, aren’t you?” Which shows what twenty-five years of life in England can do.
At Slough I unshipped her and went on to my host’s. The next morning the servant handed me a small purse. “This was found in your car, sir.” he said.
What in the dickens could I do? I did not know her name, nor did she know mine. The one thing that haunted me was the certainty that by this time she was saying: “A Canadian gave me a lift and stole my purse.” Thus, innocently and unwittingly, I had fouled the name of my native country.
Carefully we opened the purse. It was not a great haul, there being only three shillings and a few pence in it—a burglar’s life must be full of disappointments—but there was a credit note for a blouse that had apparently been returned.
So off went my host’s car to the address on the credit note. It was a long hunt, but he found the young lady and duly restored the purse to her. Canada’s reputation was saved.
There is hardly anything, however, significant or trivial, that has not been altered by the war. Once the bombing of London started, the West End stage died as surely as if a bomb had wiped it out. Those theatres that were not turned into a ruin were closed, and the poor actors stood hopelessly about like puppets with no one to pull the strings.
Then some shrewd producer said: “If we can’t stay open at night, what about the morning and the early afternoon?” So now you can go to the theatre at noon or at one o’clock, and the patronage is excellent. The theatre has died so often in the last twenty-five years that it has become immortal. One manager put on Shakespeare at lunchtime and packed his theatre. There are lunchtime orchestral concerts too. The cinemas stay open until seven, thus braving a bit of the blackout. When the warning comes, the picture is stopped, and a slide comes on the screen:
There is an air-raid alert. Will those who wish to go, please do so quietly? The picture will continue.
No one ever goes, and Mr. Clark Gable, who has just been enunciating some amorous philosophy, comes back with a growl and all is well.
Death—violent, unpredictable and terrible death—is all around, but you cannot live as if London were a cemetery. Besides where is safety?
Home, Food. Recreation
BUT I must adhere to my brief, which is to discuss and describe ordinary life in London’s wartime. Food, for example, has become a matter of absorbing interest.
You, in Canada, will remember that period of prohibition where friends would call each other up and say: “I’ve got a bottle of Scotch,” which was inducement enough for anyone. In England they would never say that, but it won’t be long before we shall be writing to our friends to the effect: “I’ve got a joint for Saturday.
Come at eight and don’t change.”
I have eaten so many kinds of bird in the last three months that I may, at any moment, begin to chirrup. As for fish, I am a human aquarium. But my ration of meat is to the value of one and twopence a week, which is not a lot. Thus at a private dinner party your host may serve the best champagne and the rarest liqueur from his cellar without comment, but if he gives you a cutlet, he certainly expects at least the lifting of an appreciative eyebrow.
If he can round the meal off with cheese, then he is a social success, albeit a bad patriot. As for cream, it has become a mere memory. A lemon is not more than a figure of speech, and butter is just a faint survival like the grin of the Cheshire Cat.
And what is the result of all this? The doctors would have nothing to do were it not for air-raid casualties. England always ate too much anyhow, and now she is feeling the benefit of a reduced diet. If Hitler is not careful, he will produce a super race here in these Islands instead of in Germany.
The doctors have another complaint, but, unfortunately for them, their own. Nervous diseases have disappeared like last year’s snows. There is nothing a fashionable doctor likes more than to have two or three wealthy patients suffering from nerves. In normal times they don’t want to get better, and they can afford not to.
But how can nerves do their work and create fanciful spectres when actual bombs are dropping all over the place? It is the triumph of reality over imagination. That eminent neurologist, Sir Somebody Somebody of Harley Street, said the other day: “There isn’t a decent neurotic now in the whole of London.”
The question of exercise still arises for those of us who are in sedentary occupations. The natural outlet is a game of golf. I go occasionally to my club just outside London which, like many others, has been partially taken over for war purposes.
With the adaptability of the golfing mind, bomb craters are regarded as
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“ground under repair,” and you can lift out without penalty. There are never more than half a dozen players, because petrol is scarce and there are week-end route marches for the Home Guard. The once lovely greens are as rough as a plowed field, and the caddie is most likely to be a soldier off duty.
But there is no waiting to get off the tee. It will be difficult to become accustomed to the old crowds when peace comes again.
Curiously enough there is one thing of which many of us are conscious, a sort of claustrophobia. To those who five on an island, the first instinct is to get off it and go somewhere—hence the founding of the British Empire.
In England the rich went to Monte Carlo and St. Moritz. People of modest means would save up for a week’s skiing in Austria, or some spot where the currency was favorable. There were excursion rates to Paris, and even the workingman and his wife could spend a day in Boulogne and return at night for a few shillings.
Now we are prisoners, as the people of Germany and Russia and Italy have been for so many years. Even if we could get an exit permit, we could not take enough money with us. The thought of the St. Lawrence and the Citadel of Quebec fills me with nostalgia, but no longer are ocean liners for the likes of us.
Not long ago I had to visit the Isle of Wight on Government business. A speedboat was waiting for me at Portsmouth Pier, and off we went across the dancing waves. I cannot describe the exhilaration of it, the sense of freedom and release, with the wind singing and the salt spray on the cheeks. For twenty minutes I was off the island—and that night, back in London, the blackout seemed grimmer than ever before.
Life Goes On
DUSK is settling over my garden. The house has that grim silence which comes over a place when children are away. The warning siren has gone, but whether it is a real raid or not we shall not know for a few minutes.
Life goes on in the midst of humanity’s tragedy. Tomorrow, next week, next month, we may be invaded by sea and air. The streets of London may become a battlefield; we may fight from house to house, in the fields and on the beaches.
Well, we are ready, and we have not spared ourselves in the process. But while we work and wait there is dinner to be eaten, and why not in pleasant company? Perhaps, if Parliament rises early tomorrow, there may be time for a cinema or a rubber of bridge before dinner, or there may be an urgent summons that will put all such things out of our minds.
We know this is our great hour and that destiny depends on us, but in England we never forget that Drake played bowls as the Armada was sighted. What is even more important, Sir Archibald Wavell went to the races in Cairo on the day before his attack on the Italians took place.
So I have drawn this picture of life in wartime London. With all its loneliness, its danger, its triviality and its grandeur, I would not have missed this experience. Behind the laughter and the tears—and there is plenty of each—the heart of London beats as true and firm as Big Ben tolling out the hours.
Nothing can conquer her. No one can destroy her soul. Great cities are not planned by men, but by destiny. If every building in London became a ruin, the great old city would rise again in the same place on the banks of the murky, gurgling Thames.
London lives on . . .