London Letter


Beverley Baxter October 15 1952
London Letter


Beverley Baxter October 15 1952


London Letter

Beverley Baxter

I AM WRITING this London Letter from a hotel room in Dornoch, which means that we are a long way from London. As parliament had risen for the long recess it became imperative for the Baxter family to decide where it would go for a holiday, and the debate ranged over a wide territory.

The natural tendency of Britons is to get off the island and seek adventure on the Continent but Mr. Butler, our Chancellor of the Exchequer, is not in favor of that. He decided that twenty-five pounds would be the limit that any of us could take if we crossed the Channel. „ proposition which has a strongly deterrent effect except for those patient souls who are willing to travel in ^ coach with a speciallyconducted tour.

My son and daughter solved their problem by receiving an invitation from a French familyin Brittany. However, it did nothing to solve the problem of my wife and myself.

Then Mrs. Baxter took the situation in hand. "Let’s motor to Scotland.” she said. "You are always arguing with the Scots over Home Rule, or the Stone of Destiny, or whether the Queen shall be called Elizabeth the First or Second—why not go and see the Scots in their own setting? After all. vour father’s people came from Stirling, and my mother was descended from the MacBeths and the Macintoshes.

We were still arguing the matter when I ran into Sir David Rolvertson, who is the Torv MP for Caithness, and told him of our dilemma.

Now, that was ^ mistake. Sir Dav-id is the irresistible force which refuses to recognize even the existence of the immovable mass. "You will come to Dornoch.” he said. "Leave everything to me.” Hour by hour, day by day, we received running instructions from him on the telephone. Road maps arrived with everything underlined, outlined and overlined. A double room would be waiting for us at such and such a hotel in Boroughbridge on the first night of our journey. Similar accommodation would be reserved at Gleneagles Mrs Bax-er for tpe second night. At 7 p.m. he would meet

us at the Dornoch Hotel, where he and his wife were stay-ing. All we had to do was to get the car out of our garage and start from London to the north.

By that time I was of no more importance than an innocent sectator in a gangster raid. All authority had passed from my hands io this Celtic combination of David and my wife. I did. however, venture to raise one point of possible disagreement by pointing out to Mrs. Baxter that, of all forms of transportation beyond a short distance, motoring is the most disagreeable. A ship is a traveling luxury hotel, an aeroplane is dull but annihilates distance, a train avoids towns and carries vou comfortably through the rolling countryside.

"Whv not take an overnight sleeper?” I asked. "We would be in Dornoch before lunch and, anyway, what do you know about Dornoch? In all tnese vears we have been married I have never kncvvn vou to express any longing for Dornoch. In fact, I do not believe that there is such a place.’’

"It's right at the top of Scotland." said my wife, as if that settled live matter. If it had !>een at the bottom of Scotland, or in the middle, or on either side, she would no doubt have been willing ro discuss the matter. But as it was right at the top there was nothing more to lie said.

So. on a W'ednesdav morning, our car was backed out of the garage, gorged with petrol and enough suitcases to last us for six months. I have never understood the mystery of women's clothes. Vv hen worn thev appear to weigh a few ounces, but when packed for travel they take up as much room as a grand piano and weigh rather more.

However, there is an undoubted exhilaration about taking to the open road. It brings back the days of the stage coach when travelers put in at a wayside inn for a merrv meal served by a beaming host with pretty maids fluttering about, and good brown ale to wash it down. "This is fun,” I said, "or at least it will be, when we are out of London and get on the Great North Road.”

The Great North Road! There is magic in the words. The Romans marched on it when they went on their Continued on page 41


conquering civilization mission. 1 always wondered why they stopped at the borders of Yorkshire and went no farther, but now 1 understand. In the far-off years the English built their roads on the assumption that it was for one-way traffic only. It never seemed to occur to them that somebody might want to return, or that a horse and cart might even intend to travel south.

I have a car which can do ninety m'les an hour on a good road if no one is looking. It would be fun to open the throttle and let her rip. But I had not allowed for what we call lorries and which North Americans call

On the morning of our departure it seemed that every lorry in England had decided to go north. Time after time we would poke the nose of our car out with the absurd idea of passing them, but all we did was to gain a hundred yards or so and then settle down behind some more lorries. Finally we got behind one that was slightly larger than a house and stayed there until we knocked off at Stamford for lunch. We had traveled eighty-seven miles in four hours on the open road, which was slightly better than in the old coaching days, which shows that we are progressing.

It was a pleasant inn, with an old cemetery opposite in c. lovely churchyard. and we were served with that English specialty, tired chicken. I don’t know what makes chickens so tired in England. They look and taste like rather tender wood. But the cheese was good, which is no wonder because we had just passed through the ancient town of Stilton.

That night, having shaken off the lorries, we made good time and put up at a lovely country hotel where we had a very mixed grill for dinner. How so many ingredients of such opposing character could all taste exactly alike is a secret known only to English cooks. “You will find the cooking very much better in Scotland.” said my wife. "They understand food better north of the border.”

In bed that night I read Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, but even it seemed to have lost its flavor.

Now, let us put away our grumblings and admit that motoring across the Yorkshire moors, as we did next day, is something to stir the jaded pulse and invigorate the most sluggish imaginatijn. England is such a little country and vet it can create a sense of vast loneliness greater than the desert or the Alps.

For miles on end the only inhabitants to be seen were the sheep grazing on the moors. Here and there we would come upon a shepherd’s hut. but we never saw the shepherd. This was the setting that drew forth the sombre genius of the Brontes. The great grim sloping hills, with their halos of mist, made us feel that in our car we had invaded nature's forbidden temple and that at any moment the Storm Gods would tum in furv upon us.

But the Scottish border was not far ahead and there was magic in the thought. One may dispute with the Scots —in fact it is impossible to do anything else—but there is magic in the very word “Scotland.”

Is there any country whose sons have heen rewarded so little at home and have given so much to the outside world? One does not expect gratitude from Russia, yet even the Bolsheviks might remember that Scots soldiers fought for Ivan the Terrible in the

Sixteenth Century and helped him to put down traitors at home and enemies abroad. There were four Scots at the court of Peter the Great who did so much to civilize the Muscovites that one of them was called Father of Russian Science: and another, named Bruce, had a street named after him in Moscow.

But I anticipate. We are still in Yorkshire, although the lorries have long since disappeared and the car is doing a consistent fifty miles an hour as we make for the border. We pass Carlyle’s birthplace. Why not stop and

have a look at the house that ushered into the world that cantankerous genius who broadened the horizon of the human mind? That, however, is the curse of motoring: you surrender your soul to the internal-combustion engine and become a slave of speed. What is the hurry? Scotland can wait. So can Sir David Robertson. Yet we hurl ourselves past Carlyle, having seen no more than a sign telling us that he was born there.

The same thing happened at the Scottish border. Here was Gretna Green, that wayside shrine dedicated

to runaway marriages. There was a MARRIAGE PARLOUR, or words to that effect. But did we pause? As a good journalist I should have got out and married my wife again, in spite of the fact that we might not look like runaway lovers. Instead, we went past at forty miles an hour as if we had a rendezvous with the clans.

That night we put up at the luxurious Gleneagles Hotel, which is owned by the nationalized British Railways. It has two golf courses and in the courtyard there is a fountain that splashes Continued on page 44

Continued from page 41 day and night, so that if it is not raining it sounds as if it is.

There are no tired chickens at Gleneagles and not even the suggestion of a mixed grill. The chef i= a poet, an artist, a dreamer. The waiters are courtiers at the palace of Sans Souci. It is a brave man who dines there without changing into a dinner jacket, and the wines are the perfect progeny of the sun and grape.

Only one shadow darkens the brightness of this paradise. Gleneagles is set between two ranges of hills and when

the clouds hang low there is rain. It is the one topic of conversation among the golfers. The last word spoken at night is. “Will it rain tomorrow?" The only answer is the splashing fountain in the courtyard.

It was drizzling when we left next morning but heavy clouds were converging. However, we shook th^m off and soon we had entered the land of magic—the Highlands of Scotland. Is there in all the world such a feast of color?—gold and green and purple until the senses are ravished by their beauty! Mountain streams rush on

their way. white billowing clouds flirt with the noon-day sun: black-faced sheep nibble the grass with complete disdain for the passing car: the lonely cottage snuggles against the hillside.

Bloody battles have been fought in the Highlands. We passed Culloden Field where cruel Cumberland stained the name of England. ^ e passed Bannockburn which still spreads its magic upon mankind. But there is no magic in the villages which are hard unlovely things.

You see no flowers in the windows or roses round the door. Not only is

life hard in the Highlands but I suspect that the Scot is proud of it and will not dissemble. There is hardly a cottage in the Austrian Alps that is not lustered with flowers, but the Highland Scot lives in granite and takes on its unyielding character.

Yet they are proudly courteous to the stranger and their voices are richly musical. The girls are drably dressed but are not untidy, and their faces, innocent of make-up, have a comely beauty that is pleasant to see. That old devil, rain, is no mean beauty specialist. The skin of „ Highland lassie would ma^“ the young women j of New York or Paris look like painted

Even as you came upon the scene you realized the human tragedy of the Highlands. For generation after generation young men, seeking a larger life, have gone away across the seas They have become husbands and fathers in every country in the world while the girls they would have married work in the mills and dream of the children they will never have.

In the long wars against England the Scots died in their thousands and tens of thousands. In the wars against Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler they sent the flower of their manhood to be cut down by the cruel scythe of battle. There are old people, there are young women and there are children in the Highlands, but the young men are few.

Dornoch is a heavenly spot set by the blue waters of the Dornoch Firth, with gentle waves laving the sandy shore. Between the water and the hotel is a golf course which touches perfection and humbles man's vanity.

David Robertson has us out on the links at nine in the morning and rushes us off in his car in the afternoon to see a roaring cataract with salmon leaping in the air determined to thwart the anger of the falls. Or he will take us to the Highland games, or the big sheep sale. At night he wears the kilt and leaps into the air with barbaric cries as he dances the reels.

We are so far north that it is almost the land of the midnight sun. Daylight lasts until nearly eleven o’clock at night when England is in darkness at eight. The clouds are as white and full as if Constable had painted them but forgot to take them away.

On Sunday we went to church and heard a doughty sermon by the minister. Today on the golf course, still clad in clerical garb, he cured my wife's slice and is going to partner her in Saturday's two-ball foursomes. Next Sunday there will be no golf and he will wam us again of the evil in men's hearts and the need to live a clean and upright life.

Well, that is all I have to tell you. There is no political significance in my tale: neither is there a moral. But when autumn comes to London and the grey sodden skies rest almost upon the roofs of the houses my mind will return to the Highlands with its yellow gorse and purple heather and I will hear again the enchantment of the Scottish voice with its music and cadence and argumentativeness.

And in my mind's eye I shall see the granite villages, with their memories. their grim courage and their solitude set in the hills. ★


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