Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER
When the Lamps Come On Again
ALL DAY yesterday I was wondering what London reminded me of, some memory or other from the far-off past. It would not come but the processes of memory kept turning over with their usual obstinacy until late at night they produced the missing parallel. It was an afternoon at Harbord Street Collegiate nearly 40 years ago, and the last day of the term before the summer holidays. Our minds were on the lakes where soon we would be swimming, fishing, canoeing, but the teacher went on making us do irregular French verbs. It may seem a trivial comparison but one cannot be a dictator in the world of simile.
Last evening I went to the Dorchester Hotel to the fourth anniversary of what are called “Allied Receptions.” The idea came to Sir Jocelyn Lucas, M.P., in September, 1940, when patriots from Europe were reaching England to carry on the war against the eternal enemy, and our kinsmen from the Empire were arriving here to take their place beside us. Lucas is a vague fellow with good looks, an easy charm and a kind heart. He decided to hold a reception for Allied officers once a month so that lonely ople could make friends and feel for an hour or two chat they were not in a land of strangers.
A difficult question was that of drinks but Lucas is a persuasive fellow and for four years he has managed to make somebody, or some anonymous commercial firm, supply the necessary stimulants to good feeling. These monthly gatherings became utmost a barometer of the war, reflecting the gravity or the optimism of the existing situation. One day it would be the King of Norway and his Ministers who would be the special guests, of honor, then the Free French, the Belgians, the Dutch, the Russians or the Chinese. There was a Canada reception, of course, and one for each of the other Dominions.
Sir Jocelyn always made a speech of welcome in which he would indicate who wen* the special guests of honor for the day such as, Ambassadors, Kings, Prime Ministers or a shy young V.C. from the RAF. I havo said that he possesses a pleasantly vague mind and his “howlers” have become part of the humor of the war.
On the Chinese day he said: “Wo are particularly glad to have with us today the Japanese Naval Attaché.” The gasp from the crowd was like an explosion but, of course, he meant the Chinese. On another occasion he said: "We have a lot of important people here today. There is also the Belgian Prime Minister.” His most joyous go/Je, however, was when Italy fell and he exhibited Garibaldi’s flag. “You will all remember,” he said, “how Garibaldi uttered that famous curse against anyone who helped England.” For those of you who may nol. have gone to Harbord Street Collegiate I must remind you that Garibaldi really said: “Cursed be those of my countrymen who ever turn against England.”
But yesterday’s reception was different from any of the others. The atmosphere was charged with exhilaration and yet a certain sadness. Brussels was free and there were proud tears in the eyes of the Belgians there. The Dutch were tense, quiet, but their eyes, too, were shining. The Free French were more subdued
Soon they would all be going home. It meant the severing of companionships in London; in more than one case it. meant the end of deep attachments that could only end in heartache. They were going back to the tragedies that the curtain of war had mercifully hidden from them. Some knew that they were at the beginning of a hopeless quest for wife and children. So filled was the air with half-suppressed emotion that, it
was a relief when Sir Jocelyn mounted the rostrum and said; “I want you all to have a good time, because Mr. Eden has been detained and will not be here for a little while.” It was not one of his best, but it was typical Lucas. “Tiger” Gort, V.C., who led the fighting retreat to Dunkirk in 1940, was there with his china blue eyes and said the right thing. Then Eden arrived, jubilant, suave, and charmed both the ear and the eye with his easy grace and his clothes from Savile Row.
As for the rest of us who live in London, we are beginning to feel like an actor who has played Henry IV and has to take off his armor and his grease paint. Only a week ago we were heroes, we were in the front line, we were magnificent, we were the invincibles. I f in our own hearts some of us eeuld not quite see the heroism that lies in not being hit by a bomb we felt a glow of virtue induced by the world’s plaudits.
And now the flying bomb had stopped. No longer did we go about our tasks to the accompaniment of howling sirens and the drone of robots. The siege of London was over and it was Brussels, Amsterdam and Paris that were in the headlines. Three weeks ago a bomb struck a block of flats just, down at the bottom of my street and some 50 people were killed. The wreckage had looked to us who passed by as a noble monument. Now it. just looks like wreckage. So swiftly do the emotions subside. If only a siren would wail to remind us that we are still a garrison—and not just ratepayers.
The Lights of London
rrUlERE is still the black-out, but some evening X soon we shall stare like children at a birthday party when the parents light the candles on the cake. We shall stand in the streets and laugh with delight. We shall walk past the illuminated shop windows and gaze at such offerings as the proprietors may have.
Once more we shall look at the huge advertisements in Piccadilly where a special brand of port or pills is recommended, and we shall blink at the glaring foyers of the cinemas and the glittering electric signs of theatres proclaiming that still more glittering stars are shining inside.
We shall be outrageously glad —and we shall be a little sad, like the people at the Allied Reception.
Throe times in this war I have seen the lights come on at night. Once in Lisbon in 1941, just as we arrived by airplane. But Lisbon’s lights are modest things and it did not. oven seem strange to our eyes. But two days later I sat. on a balcony in New York, 16 floors up in a giant apartment building, with a friend of mine and watched the vast interwoven necklace of lights come to life beneath us. In a literal sense at least New York was a city of light. It had no secrets of the dark. The night was more glaring than the day. Mountainous buildings reared their heads to the clouds with a thousand gleaming eyes. Animated electric advertisements followed you everywhere, like epileptic goblins. Thrilling, exhilarating, garish, unsubtle, vulgar, magnificent. That was New York a few weeks before Pearl Harbor.
Then, not long ago, as some of you may remember,
I went to Dublin, where the lamps have always burned in the streets. But they were half-hearted, as if they, too, had decided on neutrality and did not wish to take sides in the nightly struggle between darkness and light. On the whole Eire’s neutrality was favorable toward the latter, just as in the larger realm of war its neutrality was fa\orable toward Britain.
The habits of a lifetime ure stronger than those of a Continued on page 48
his political fences at home are kept in good shape the year round.
Liberals think McKenzie will hold Neepawa, but they too regard the CCF as their chief opponent. They claim they’re not really worried about Mr. Bracken at all.
Communist entry into the western political picture may make a considerable difference to CCF chances in that area, according to word reaching Ottawa through Progressive Conservative channels.
Communists confirm that their Labor Progressive Party plans to enter at least 10 candidates in British Columbia, mostly in the Vancouver and Vancouver Island ridings. Apparently they have during the past year or two acquired a pretty solid control of the biggest and strongest PacificCoast labor unions. They will also run half a dozen candidates in Alberta, where they have pockets of considerable strength. A recent Progressive Conservative party touring with John Bracken went through northern Alberta in the wake of Tim Buck, and found, the Communist leader had made a surprising impassion. The PC’s say the Communists have a chance in MacLeod, Peace River, Jasper-Edson, Athabaska and several other Social Credit strongholds.
Liberals and Progressive Conservatives both, of course, cherish the hope that this splitting of the extreme Left may give a chance to one of the two older Parties, each of which retains hope for itself but regards the other’s cause as doomed. Impartial observers incline to doubt whether any conceivable split could give either Liberals or Progressive Conservatives any effective strength in British Columbia or Alberta. But even if the CommunistCCF feud does not pay oft’ in seats for the older Parties, they think it ¿may bring them indirect benefit, by weakening the CCF’s country wide representation. Of the 71 seats west of the Great Lakes,the CCF a few months ago hoped to win about 00. The CCF concedes that the old Parties between them will hold a few seats, a dozen or so, in (he radical West. If to that dozen they must add another half-dozen Communists as well as a handful of Social Crediters, they’ll be pretty seriously weakened in their happiest hunting ground.
* * *
Did you ever wonder how an orator is treated in the bosom of his family? Reporters at Quebec saw evidence to confirm what many had suspected that he is often kicked by his wife under the dining-room table.
Winston Churchill was a little embarrassed to realize that his phrase, “We shall not tell the enemy, we shall let him find out for himself,” was the one used at Quebec last year. As if to show he had no need to repeat himself, he launched impromptu into one of those pyramids of metaphor for which his rhetoric is famed.
“What was then secret,” he began, “is now open. What was then hidden is now apparent. What was then in the egg is now on foot. What was then a tender sprout is now a mighty forest tree. What was then design has been translated into a mortal blow.”
Halfway through this cascade of rolling periods Mrs. Churchill, who had begun to wriggle visibly, reached over for her husband’s coat sleeve and gave it a firm admonitory tug.
It’s only fair to add that the Prime Minister, magnificently imperturbable, ignored her and went right on to the end of his performance.
* * *
Washington reporters who see President Roosevelt every week described him as looking healthy, tanned, rested, at his press conference in Quebec. But those who see him only once a year thought Continued on page 56
Continued from page 14
limited period. On each occasion that I returned to London it was the blackout that seemed strange, unnatural and cruel. Particularly after some weeks in -Canada and the U. S. A., it was like a bad dream to make my way from Paddington Station to my home in St. John’s Wood on a night so black that I had to light matches to see the number of the house.
And yet . . .
Human nature being what it is, which of us will not sigh for the memory of those radiant shimmering nights when the moon made magic on the roofs and turned the Squares and Crescents of London into an etcher’s paradise? One night with Michael Arlen I sat on the deck of A. P. Herbert’s vessel anchored off the House of Commons, a villainous, uncomfortable craft, smelling unbelievably of oil but no doubt guarding the Empire at its heart. But what a night! Herbert is a poet anyway but the moon on the river made poets of us all. It was like Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with the smell of the oil instead of Mendelssohn’s music.
When finally Arlen and I left the boat we walked for an hour through London’s streets and he, an Armenian, and I, a Canadian, vowed like Mrs. Micawber that we would never, never desert London. As we said good night Michael looked at the scene and sighed: “This reminds me,” he said,
“of things that never happened.” He would, of course, speak the last line.
But it was not only moonlit nights that had their charm. The black-out taught us the comfort of our homes and the forgotten joys of the fireside. To come home in the dark, with not a light showing in the hushed street, and then to go inside where the lights in the library fell upon the rows of books and the fire spluttered and chuckled like a puppy dog welcoming its master . . . to put one’s feet up on a chair, to listen on the wireless to some good music — usually from Germany — to read Shaw, Voltaire or even a detective yarn, to smoke an indifferent cigar. It would have taken a strong attraction to lure us from that scene.
Yet we town dwellers; how often before the war did we spend an evening at home unless guests came to dinner or ! to play bridge? I wonder if we will lose our new-found contentment when the lights go up again?
There are other things we may forget when the darkness of the streets is no more. Will we grow stiff and reserved again when the Americans, the Poles, the Dutch, the Belgians and our kinsmen from the outer Empire have left us? Will we lose that sense that we are a family as well as a nation?
In the last war those of us who were
soldiers from overseas could always find companionship, friendship and hospitality in London. It was never lonely and when we had a spot of leave we made for London as quickly as the trains would take us.
I remember coming back from Canada in January, 1920, to make my life in this country as a civilian. It was thrilling to be back in London again— but how grim and inhuman it seemed. No longer did one wear the badge of “Canada” on the shoulder that was a passport to almost any home or any place. I wandered about the streets like Rip van Winkle, feeling that I had been asleep for 20 years. Not a uniform was to be seen, no youngsters from the Flying Corps, no sailors taking an hour from their sentry go of the sea, no soldiers of our Allies. One went to the theatre alone and dared not speak to the person in the next seat. Perhaps the contrast was so sudden that its effect was exaggerated. But the warmth that had been England seemed to have departed.
During the present war we have kept before us, unconsciously but instinctively, the old, old cry of Dumas’ Three Musketeers, “One for all and all for one.” The sorrows of the individual have been the sorrows of us all. Men and women who were strangers to each other brought succor and relief to the wounded and the dying when horror descended from the skies.
Will they barricade themselves behind their gates and doors when the lights go up? Will they declare that the Englishman’s home is once more his castle and pull up the drawbridge?
War is a hideous, dreadful and blasphemous thing but it brings out the best in people as well as the worst. It brings sadness and heartbreak but it lessens loneliness. In peacetime there was far too much loneliness in this beloved Island. We often neglected the old and we cared little for our neighbors.
The mobilization of men and women has broken up families and many homes but it has engendered companionship, comradeship and friendship. The factories and services’ have made our people know each other. Rich and
poor, plodding and ambitious, educated and partially educated, they have come to assess the good in each other and to realize the warmth of a common purpose.
Again my memory goes back to 1940 when as Controller of Factory Co operation in the Ministry of Aircraft Production I visited nearly every factory which had anything to do with production of aircraft or its compon ents. I have been with the workers at lunch time, in the early hours of the morning when they labored until they were exhausted, and I have watched them streaming out like an irresistible flood when the day's work was done. Most of them had never worked in a factory before, but you seldom saw a
man or woman walking alone. They had made friends, one with the other, and loneliness was a spiritual as well as a physical impossibility.
Once more I return to the end of the last war because it is only by looking back that we can see the pitfalls and the lost opportunities. In 1920 there were street bands of ex-airmen playing indifferent music and passing the hat. Some of them may have been fakes but most of them were genuine. So we gave them a sixpence or a shilling and passed on like the Pharisee.
On Armistice night the profiteers and the shirkers mixed with good honest people and drank and danced into the small hours of the morning. London went mad and it was not a pretty sight. This time let those rejoice who have the will and the right to do so, but let the rest of us think of our responsibility for the past and the future and be humble before our conscience.
If limbless men become beggars and Air Force crews make up bands in the streets then we are not fit to call ourselves a great nation. It will be splendid when the lights go up again, when opened doorways throw a cheery gleam and windows tell of pleasant scenes within. Yet if this is all it is too little.
In the words of the late Viscount Edward Grey, “The lamps of Europe have gone out one by one.” Those lamps must be relit. That is the task which is laid on us who have survived and whose lands have not been invaded.
Twice in a lifetime we have seen the forces of darkness sweep over the world until it seemed that nothing could stem it. Yet twice in our lifetime we have seen our young men give their lives, their youth, their immortality that the rule of darkness should not prevail. The memorial worthy of them cannot be graven in stone but in the life we create for those who loved them and those who come after them. It is for us to light an undying flame in the souls of men in memory to the dead.
I have not written of battles in this letter or of the trend of war because events are moving like a hurricane. Unlass every portent is wrong I shall soon be describing the scene in Parliament when Churchill will announce the end of the war with Germany. Then there will come a general election, when those of us who were elected in 1935 must ask for the verdict of the people.
But in these five years of war I have told you the story of London and perhaps it has not wearied you to read these notes today on how the siege of London ended, leaving us grateful, humble, and, by some queer paradox, a little sad.
Henry IV has reverted to Henry Smith of Upper Tooting. But perhaps there was never as much difference between them as history made out.