Letter from the Pacific

Tea with the geishas, and a tragic memorial

BEVERLEY BAXTER December 6 1958

Letter from the Pacific

Tea with the geishas, and a tragic memorial

BEVERLEY BAXTER December 6 1958

Letter from the Pacific

Tea with the geishas, and a tragic memorial


The flight from Formosa to Tokyo was uneventful in itself but I was intensely curious to see at first hand the nation that was our ally in the Kaiser’s war and our enemy in Hitler’s war. Night had set in by the time of our arrival and the streets of Tokyo presented a curious spectacle.

The main avenue in the centre of the city looked like Broadway on an off night. It was garish, strident, and strangely unimpressive. Instead of feeling that we were in one of the world’s great capitals I felt that we had somehow landed in the illuminated midway of the Canadian National Exhibition.

Yet our hotel was as modern as anything in London, Paris or New York. An excellent dance orchestra was playing the latest Broadway hits, and everything was as spotless and fresh as if the hotel had just been opened.

But next day in the frankness of the noon-day sun there was little in Tokyo to stir the senses or to charm the eye. It is difficult to explain but wandering about the streets one felt that somehow Tokyo was a provincial town like Manchester masquerading as the capital city of England.

Therefore when wc found a congenial married couple from Vancouver we readily assented to their suggestion that we should spend the weekend, which had just begun, at a hotel in the mountains. So, duly equipped, we boarded a train and were rattled through a countryside that was flat to the point of tedium. Again I had the curious feeling that our itinerary had gone wrong and that we were still in Lancashire.

At the end of the plain, we began a long motor drive and once more we bowed to the majesty of the mountains. They were Wagnerian in their grandeur and we watched with awe the swift torrential streams that raced down the mountainside.

When the weekend was over we returned to Tokyo but felt the same sense of disillusionment as on our arrival. Perhaps it was because we had only seen things on the surface that caused me to acquiesce to the suggestion by a couple of men friends there that we should leave our wives at the hotel and visit a geisha house. To my surprise the lady whom I married was all in favor of the idea. Truly wives are unpredictable creatures.

So off we drove to a geisha establishment and were duly admitted by continued on page 71 smiling geisha girls in huge dressing gowns that revealed nothing more seductive than their chins. They invited us to sit down on the hardwood floor and served us tea in tiny glasses about two inches high. Then, let me confess it, the strip tease started. They took off our shoes and gave us sandals. Then they brought in three more tiny cups of tea, after which they gave us hot moist towels to wipe our faces.

continued on page 71

Letter from the Pacific continued from page 10

“In the geisha house the strip tease started. They took off our shoes and gave us sandals“

By this time I was aching in all my joints. That hardwood floor was certainly living up to its name. Meanwhile the geisha girls, still muffled like Alaskan explorers, were giggling delightfully as if it was all the greatest and most daring adventure. Our spirits rose when they held a whispered conference. Obviously something was up! Something indeed! Out they ran and in no time returned— each of them bearing a one-inch glass of tea, whereupon I addressed my two friends in a solemn warning that even on holiday there should be a limit to debauchery and orgies. So we took off our sandals and put on our shoes. Such is the recuperative power of the human system that by the time we had returned to our hotel and to our wives we were almost able to stand upright, and our backs had ceased to ache—or almost.

Land of lost illusions

Yet it was Japan, and it was Japanese music that' inspired the luscious pathos of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly. It was also in the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the first atomic bombs were dropped although the war was ending and resistance had almost ceased.

Two hours after we had left the geisha house we were in the air once more for the long fifteen-hour flight to Honolulu. We were flying Japan Airlines and our smiling little hostess was utterly tireless in her desire to be of service.

But 1 could not shake off the feeling that Japan is a country which has lost its illusions, perhaps even its dreams. I was told by diplomats there that the emperor, instead of being a god on earth, today counts for very little, Let us admit that the institution of royalty has never been a logical creation, but to maintain a system of royalty the people must be willing to attribute godlike qualities to their ruler. Even in Britain with its constitutional monarchy the reigning sovereign is regarded and accepted as someone above all others. It is not logical, it is not common sense, yet humanity has not yet found a complete substitute for constitutional monarchy.

So into the skies of night roared our plane while the pretty stewardess smilingly demonstrated how simple it was to abandon the plane in flight in case of necessity. We were not to inflate the water wings until we were in the water and she hoped that we would have a pleasant journey. Incidentally, it is in the flight from Tokyo to Honolulu that a calendar day is actually lost. Don t a,sk me to explain but we left Tokyo on a Thursday, arrived at Honolulu in the evening, went to bed and woke up

next morning to find that it was Thursday and the same date as we had left Tokyo. It was this phenomenon that was used by Jules Verne to give his twist to Around the World in 80 Days. It decided the wager which makes the climax of the book.

Two days later the British consulgeneral threw a party for us and among the guests was Admiral Hopwood, American Admiral-in-Chief in the Pacific. His headquarters are at Pearl Harbor and he invited us to visit him there when he would take us around in the admiralty launch.

As we motored to Pearl Harbor next day my mind went back to that Sunday morning, Dec. 7, in the fateful year 1941. France had fallen, America was benevolently neutral, but not more, and the siege of London had begun. Then came the news—startling, unbelievable news. The Little Brown Jap had attacked and devastated the U. S. Pacific Navy in the dawn of a golden winter Sunday.

At that very time in Washington Japanese emissaries were negotiating with the U. S. government. It is easy enough to say that America should have been on guard yet who but a madman could have foreseen such perfidy and such audacity?

Three hundred and fifty-three Japanese carrier-based aircraft were launched in the attack, the admiral told us as we turned toward the silhouette of U.S.S. Arizona, nearly submerged yet even in death refusing to surrender.

Over eleven hundred men lost their lives in the Arizona. The fortunate ones were killed at once, the others were trapped in a floating prison from which there was no escape. There they lie today in the ship they loved, and at the appointed hour the bugle sounds the beginning and the end of each day. They shall not grow ol’d as we grow old, and at the setting of the sun their comrades remember them.

If we still find it difficult to understand the astonishing ineptitude of the American secret service and the equal ineptitude of the admirals in command of Pearl Harbor at that time we should remember with gratitude and admiration the manner in which the American fighting machine on land, in the air, and at sea was mobilized for war even though it took a toll of valuable time.

From the admiral’s house where we were having a cup of tea with him and his family we heard the bugles from the distance and we watched the mellow sun beginning its farewell to the gold-tinted hills. Beauty and the memory of tragedy were saying good-by to another day.

Back at the hotel in Honolulu we ran across Sacheverell Sitwell, the poet son of a famous family of poets.

“Do you realize,” he asked "that it was on an island near here that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote those lines:

“Under the wide and starry sky Dig the grave and let me lie. Glad did I live and gladly die, And 1 laid me down with a will. This be the verse you grave for me: ‘Here he lies where he longed to be; Home is the sailor, home from sea, And the hunter home from the hill.’ ”

We do not think of the Americans as a people dedicated to beauty but there are few sights in the world to compare with sunrise over the harbor of San Francisco. This golden gateway to America is built on a vantage point from which to gaze on the sunlit, starlit, moonlit hills and harbor.

No one in San Francisco is in a hurry and there is an almost old-world courtesy even in the motley panorama of the streets. Some friends took us across the bay for lunch, so that we could gaze at the city which, in the gleaming sunlight, seemed to consist of houses, buildings and churches built of white marble as if it were Rome-on-the-Sea.

In the evening we were taken to the

opera house, a beautiful theatre set in charming surroundings, where Wagner’s Tannhäuser was dragged from its oblivion and given a first-rate lease of life for at least one evening. I had the feeling that San Francisco has never heard of New York, or if it has there is no particular interest in Gotham-on-theHudson. San Francisco is as remote from Chicago and New York as Vancouver is from Toronto. And like Vancouver it is not only a city but a state of mind. There is no stridency, no mad rush to the office, no gulping of food and almost no hooting of motor horns.

Yet in this setting of beauty there is a sinister monument that chills the blood. Instead of a jewel set in the silver harbor there is the grim cold prison of Alcatraz. Nature supplied the prison for these men whose violence and brutality have earned for them the dreadful soli-

tude of the Rock. I was told that no one has escaped from there and survived. The current is too strong and the water is too cold.

We wished that we could have lingered longer in San Francisco but not far away was Vancouver and its call of the blood. Our wanderings in foreign lands were coming to an end. Vancouver the Beautiful, Toronto the Good, and Montreal the Mixture would be the last stops before we took off for London Town.

London . . . the November fogs . . . the hideousness of the Edgware Road . . . Marble Arch and the glorious

sweep of the parks. Good-by sweet troubled lands across the seas. I’m going home to London with its mists, its grate fires, its humor, its humanity and its sense of destiny.

I’ll drop you a line when I get there. ^