London Letter

This is London

BEVERLEY BAXTER'S February 1 1946
London Letter

This is London

BEVERLEY BAXTER'S February 1 1946

This is London

London Letter


AT A RECENT Brains Trust in which I took part, one of the questions was: “Where, in the opinion of the Brains Trust, is the liest place to live?” The much-travelled Commander Campbell, without hesitating to draw breath, plumped for West Vancouver but since Maclean’s is a national magazine I shall not stir up sectional differences by repeating his arguments. At any rate it was a change from the constant reiterations over the years by R. B. Bennett and Max Beaverbrook that the only paradise on earth is New Brunswick.

Professor Joad said he would like to live on the Island of Bali, where, in the presence of nature in its simplest and most charming forms, he could develop his philosophy to its highest plane. Lord Elton, himself a lecturer in history at Oxford, said that the good life was only to be found in a University town, where the present is never as close as the past, and where the mind is free to roam in the rich meadows of recorded learning. A fourth member of the panel, whose name has slipped my memory, rather unexpectedly argued that the best place to live was in a provincial English town meaning, in Canadian terms, a provincial city.

Mere, he said, was an existence full of incident without the madness of a metropolis. Here one could have friends and even neighbors; unlike London, which is one vast area of loneliness. Also the countryside was always near at hand instead of having to take a train to get to it.

Finally the Question Master asked me for my preference, and 1 answered: “London—and right in the centre of it.”

It gave me considerable satisfaction to say this in public, because ever since the return pf my two children from Canada I have been put on the defensive. They cannot understand why anyone would live in England, and especially London, when he might be in Banff, Vancouver or even in Winnipeg. They do not believe that this pale, yellowish sun that lingers dyspeptically in the metropolitan skies has any relation to the sun that does business in the Canadian West. Nor can they understand why the people next door write to me about the garden wall that has fallen tb vvn instead of coming in for a chat.

When 1 tell them that Dr. Johnson said that if a man grew tired of London he was tired of life, they are i ini impressed.

Despite this propaganda in favor of life in our native Dominion, the fascination of London is, to me, something which grows with the years until perhaps it . is a drug which becomes essential to the appetites of the mind. It changes constantly, and yet it is the same. And if one’s activities are cast in politics and journalism then one has a chance to see everything, to see everyone and, to some extent, to be a part of it. all. To this great Bagdad of the West come the princes, the

poets, the prophets, the profiteers and the poseurs of all lands. They come with their stories and their problems, and one hears at firsthand the truth, sometimes the whole truth, and often very little of the real truth; but they come.

There is no coherent design in the mad drama of London. There is no balance between tragedy and comedy, no distinction between sentiment and irony. The telephone rings. It may be a nice Canadian soldier who wants to see the House of Commons before he goes back home, or it may be anything.

Not long ago the telephone rang and a suave voice with a foreign accent said that His Majesty King George of Greece would be grateful if l would come and see him at Claridge’s Hotel. Shakespeare wrote that there is a divinity that doth hedge a king, but it does not apply to those with Balkan crowns. King George of Greece and King Peter of Yugoslavia are dispossessed persons, doomed to live in foreign lands. As one diplomat put it: “The Yugoslavian Royalists played the King but Tito played the Ace.”

On the way to Claridge’s I thought of the kings I

had met. There was a black one from West Africa, who came to the Daily Express one night when I was editor, accompanied by his umbrella carrier. As the King and I exchanged bows and smiles, having no common language to express our thoughts, he suddenly rushed out into the hall. The commissionaire, in a magnificent uniform, had just gone by, and the King wanted his autograph.

Then there was Carol of Romania, a Hohenzollern, with light gleaming eyes, ruling a darkhaired people, and whose first question to me was: “How is Harold Nicholson?” This reference to a colleague in Parliament seemed an unexpected opening to a Royal audience in Ruritania.

And now King George of the Hellenes, a Dane, whose father had been chucked off the Greek throne during the first world war, and whose younger brother was made king in preference to himself (only to die from a bite by a monkey), is an exile in London. How odd is the study of the racial background of men who rule nations. Carol, a German; George, a Dane; King Gustav of Sweden, descended from one of N.apoleon’s marshals; Hitler, an Austrian posing as the greatest German of all time; De Valera, the Spanish-Ameriean, as the dictator of Ireland.

There is nothing Greek about King George except his throne. He is a pure Scandinavian type, and in his two periods of exile he has lived so long in England that, with his Savile Row clothes and monocle, he might be an Englishman except for the faint foreign accent. His figure is that of a youngish man but his face shows marks of the storm that he has ridden for so many years.

The purpose of the visit was soon made apparent. I had made a short speech in Parliament, in a foreign affairs debate, in which I had paid tribute to him for his loyalty and courage in the war. He wanted advice and thought that I would at least be sympathetic to his point of view.

That morning he had received word from Athens that by agreement with the British Government there would be an immediate general election in Greece, but that the plebiscite to decide whether or not the King should return would be postponed for two years.

“What have I done to be treated in such a manner?” he asked. “When the Germans were driven out of Greece I wanted to return with my mountain battery but. Churchill persuaded me to wait. Then, later on, when they wished to appoint the Archbishop as Regent, Churchill and Eden came to me one evening and promised that a plebiscite would be held this year. Because of that I even agreed not to send any message to my people, so as to give the Archbishop every chance to establish a stabilized regime. Now Mr. Bevin, without consulting me or even informing me, has decided apparently that I must wait for two years. The first I hear Continued on page 43

London Letter

Continued from page 14

of it is in this telegram from Athens. What have I done to be treated so?”

In the course of our talk he recalled the days of 1940, when Britain and her Empire stood alone and, as the head of the Greek nation, he refused to accept Italy’s ultimatum and went to war. Then, when the Italian armies were crushed and humiliated, and Germany demanded Greece’s surrender, he declared war on Germany, too. “We knew it meant destruction to us but we fought on. I think perhaps it put off Hitler’s attack on Russia by three weeks. We may have saved Russia by that.” Then the King went to Crete with his troops and fought with them there.

“And now,” he said, “I am treated by England as if I were not their friend. It is very hard, but I do not intend any more to do nothing about it. Will you please read this announcement which I propose to give to the press.”

It was the defiance which you read in your newspapers. The last paragraph was the one that mattered, in which he declared that in future he would be the sole judge of his own actions. It may mean much or little, but at least it was a declaration of independence. When our talk was finished he put out his hand with a rather shy, wistful smile. “This is a hard time for men of my profession,” he said.

The scene changes. It is 11.30 in the morning in the House of Lords. Once it was the King’s Robing Chamber, but since the Commons took over their debating chamber this is where the Peers meet.

The Lord Chancellor is there in his

robes. At two tables sit four law lords, learned judges, in ordinary clothes. In the place where visitors normally sit are the Attorney-General and Mr. Slade, the eminent lawyer, in wig and gown. On the Bench reserved for peeresses there are two policemen, and between them sits’ a young man with the scar of a sword cut on his face. His arms are folded, and he rears his head as if to add another inch to his puny stature. It is Joyce—Lord Haw Haw—condemned to die, by the High Court and the Appeal Court, and now awaiting his fate from the last and highest tribunal in the land.

He is not allowed to speak, for he is no longer on trial. It is the law itself which is being tried. The facts of the case are not disputed, there is no more evidence to be taken. The only question that remains is whether or not the Courts have condemned this man according to the proper interpretation of the existing laws. Joyce might be a straw dummy for all that he has to do with the case.

“M’Luds,” says Mr. Slade, “I would call your attention to the pronouncement of Mr. Justice Smith in. 1728 when one, Benson, was tried for treason. It is in Blackwood, volume 8. Page 173.”

The Lord Chancellor leans over his table and finds the book. With that dry, inhuman lack of resonance which is inseparable from the judicial throat one of the law lords asks if it is the 1857 or the 1921 edition. It appears that there is some slight grammatical discrepancy between the two. Everyone speaks in soft, tired, impersonal tones. The discussion roams from century to century. They talk like men who know that in the year 2055 judges will quote them on the case of one, Joyce.

At 1.15 the proceedings are ad-

joumed for lunch. The police and Joyce stand up. The insignificant I traitor squares his shoulders and takes long unnatural strides to keep in step with his guards. He has to pass us on the way out, but his face is a mask. His fate may be decided on what Smith said in 1728.

Sunday at the Stoll Theatre, that huge, ornate edifice built 40 years ago by a mad Jew who thought London could support two opera houses. It is the first visit of a French orchestra since 1939, a band of players named (with French brevity) “L’orchestre des Concerts de la Conservatoire de Paris.” Twenty-five of the players had been prisoners in Germany. Many of the others took part in the Resistance Movement.

The conductor appears. The orchestra stands up. Then the Marseillaise. It is unbearably thrilling, unbearably poignant. Eyes are gleaming with tears everywhere. It is France trying to

proclaim in music that she had not lost her soul.

And a cheer sweeps the theatre to say that London understands.

It is nearly two o’clock in the morning, and we are punishing the Government by keeping them up late. There is a misty moonlight, and I go for a solitary stroll upon the Terrace.

From Westminster Bridge comes the rumble of a single lorry. A light gleams from the tower of Big Ben, proclaiming that the nation’s legislators are sitting in debate.

A tug with a red lamp chugs its way through the dark sluicing waters of the Thames and disappears through the archway of the bridge.

Silence . . . the breathless silence of the greatest of all cities waiting for another day to be born.

Big Ben strikes twice and the reverberation dims until the ripple of the water rises above it.

It is London.