London Letter

Alas, to be in England now that winter’s here

BEVERLEY BAXTER February 15 1958
London Letter

Alas, to be in England now that winter’s here

BEVERLEY BAXTER February 15 1958

Alas, to be in England now that winter’s here

London Letter


This is the period of the year in which I take a firm and unalterable decision. Nor arc these words lightly chosen. Each year the decision becomes more firm and unalterable. And what, pray, is it? The answer is simplicity itself — never to spend another winter in England.

Come with the Baxters, plus a pleasing Italian girl visiting London en pension, to a smart first night at Her Majesty's Theatre in the Haymarket a few weeks ago. The star of the piece was that amusing comedian, Ian Carmichael. and as the theme of the play was one of complicated adultery we were assured of a pleasant evening for all.

Unhappily, our high spirits were somewhat subdued when, on emerging from the theatre, we encountered a fog which was thickening fast although it had not yet attained the full dignity of a “London particular.” There was no chance of getting a hire car or a taxicab to drive our pretty Italian to her apartment on the Chelsea embankment. We would have to drive her home in our car, which

we had parked outside the theatre.

Thicker grew the fog and thicker. Being the only man in the party, I walked in front of the car with the dazzle lights glowing faintly upon my perambulating posterior. Omnibuses loomed up from the mists like ships searching their way to harbor. Thus we slithered along the Embankment to Chelsea where we debouched our sweet Italian, and, finding a fairly clear patch, we shot up to the north and drove home to St. John's Wood. And so to bed.

The next night, under much the same visibility conditions, a train, taking Christmas shoppers and office workers home from London to their suburban dwellings, crashed through the warning fog lights and a hundred and sixty people were killed in a horrible collision. There were many others who were only injured—but what were those injuries? We need not dwell upon the horror of it.

Of course, there was heroism— there always is. And, of course, there was calm courage. But should not science be put in the dock and charged continued on page 62

continued on page 62

continued from page 10

“A chuckling fire in London is so Dickensian” — but Bax would rather think about it in Jamaica

with criminal incapacity in failing to prevent such a disaster? Here are Russians, Americans and Britons assuring each other that they can destroy whole cities with the same ease that a man could exterminate a beetle by stepping on it. Yet it is apparently not within the power of science to disperse a fog.

Heaven knows that this is a subject that attains absurdity without reaching the highlands of humor. For example, I am writing these words in the library of my house, which looks out on the terrace and the garden. The logs in the grate fire, buttressed by some odd pieces of coal, are giving cheerfulness to the scene plus a steady feeding of smoke to the chimney. It is so pleasant and Dickensian to have a fire that chuckles and spits, but the tens of thousands of chimneys, sharing the joke, are all spreading the death clouds of the skies.

It is an accepted fact that the open fireplace is an accessory to the fact. The fog that hides or distorts the warning signals of a railway line finds some of its origin in the massed battalions of London’s chimney pots. If Britain were a totalitarian state Mr. Macmillan could order the destruction of all chimney pots and make oil the only available fuel in private homes. Fortunately, we are not a totalitarian state but if the people are given liberty they ought to treat it with responsibility. The London fog has inspired poets to grey dreams but 1 am all for doing away with Whistler’s mists and Dickens’ rhapsodies upon the Thames. At this time of the year 1 prefer the honest forthright river that I saw last summer in Fredericton, New Brunswick. It may not, like the Thames, be liquid history, but neither is it a dripping serpent wrapping itself in mist and plotting wicked things.

No man can disregard the obligations of his profession, his family and his

associates, nor can he ignore for too long either his critics or his friends. But I am now making a solemn vow that from December 20 to January 20 in each year that is allotted to me by the gods 1 shall not set foot in the United Kingdom unless parliament is unexpectedly recalled.

Where then shall we go after we have banished the United Kingdom just as Coriolanus banished Rome? Personally,

I have a weakness for spending Christmas in New York. They really make a magnificent show of it all with myriads of lights ablaze and Good King Wenceslaos being acclaimed by Republicans and Democrats from ten thousand windows.

But New York tires of its visitors and one feels when the Christmas holiday is over that the itinerant pilgrim must move on. Shall it be Jamaica, which is only a very few hours from Gotham? How beautiful en route is the world above the clouds! There in solitary grandeur the plane carries us over billowing clouds made radiant by the uninhibited sun.

Two days ago we were in foggy shivering London and now we are—or could be—swimming in Montego Bay. There are rich folk in the hotels and there are smiling waiters to whom laughter still comes easily as with children. The rich men talk of oils and gilt-edged and industrials and take a pretty dim view of the future. Two years ago in Jamaica I did not dare to leave the side of an American (worth at least forty million dollars) who was certain that any day he would wake up and find himself ruined. I almost offered him a five-pound note to cheer him up, but it didn't seem quite right.

That’s the trouble with going to the sunny Caribbean. The calypso music lulls your critical sense, the white-crested waves make a pleasant ocean lullaby, the moon calls to the poet in one, for-

getting that the poet creates a beauty of his own. The air is so soft, the background so pleasant, that there is no inspiration to write. Dickens would probably never have been heard of if he had not lived in that squat London suburb known as Camden Town.

It is, of course, part of the literary temperament, to imagine that a writer needs to be rejuvenated and inspired by foreign travel. The poet suddenly feels the need of moonlight over Hawaii or starlight on the Danube or sunset on the Solent. The case of Paul Gauguin is a classic example. There he was a young successful Paris stockbroker with a genius for money and a flair for painting. With five children and his wife dependent upon him he chucked everything but the painting. The end was sordid, tragic, pitiful.

That great and gifted figure of Scottish letters, Robert Louis Stevenson, could not endure the Scottish climate al-

Answer to

WHO ÍS it? on page 50

Mrs. Ellen Fairclough, who headed her own accountancy firm, became a Hamilton alderman, then controller. In 1950 she was elected MP for Hamilton West, and now, as Canada’s first woman cabinet minister, is Secretary of State.

though he had a deep and pervading love for Scotland itself. When the winter set in he was miserable. “I must find the sun,” he said, and sailed to the U. S. in an emigrant ship under conditions that did much harm to his health. Still in search of the sun, he settled in Samoa and was so impressed by the beautiful setting that he wrote those noble words:

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to he;

Home is the sailor, home from sea,

And the hunter honte from the hill.

It might have been that Stevenson would have lived longer than his fortyfour years if he had stayed at home and breathed the cold mists of the Highlands, but we shall never know. A mind of such breadth that it could write Kidnapped and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the same year would not have been influenced unduly by the weather.

At the moment I have a deep, almost passionate, desire to get away from this sceptred isle of England, which, as you know, is set like a jewel in a silver sea. If you have any doubts as to what island I mean, let me assure you that it is this garden of England. Speaking of gardens, is there anything so ridiculous as a huge

pear tree sans leaves, sans buds, sans color, sans everything, getting in the way of the little daylight that a London winter allows?

To think that by a wave of the hand, in other words the signing of a cheque,

I could be swiftly in that splendid island citadel of rugged independence called Nassau. There is something wistful and appealing about very rich people meeting for intellectual discourse in their lovely dwellings set like white jewels in a noincome-tax paradise. One would imagine that the rich man would seek out the company of poets, philosophers, and even poseurs, but that is not the way of the wealthy. No lover, cruelly separated from his mistress, can be more anxious for news than rich men waiting to hear how the stock exchange closed, and gossip upon it.

What about a week at Nassau with my old pal Lord Beaverbrook? Just a week of tranquility and sweet accord, with no differences of opinion more violent than two swans rearing their necks in midpool. It is good to hear the charming tedium of the natives’ calypso music; it is good to see the boats roped to the docks and to hear the far-off shouts from a launch or shipping yawl making its way to a pier.

But when you have praised the blue glory of the moon, or rhapsodized upon the golden glitter of the sun, where does one turn? Even the twinkling cocktail shaker loses its poignancy because one has nothing to forget.

I write the words with regret-but it seems that there is no escape from living in London. I have rock ’n’ rolled with the Canadian mountains and watched rich Americans drink sherry in a heat wave on Long Island; 1 have seen tycoons lunching in their Montreal clubs and have spoken to Mr. Diefenbaker and Mr. St. Laurent on the same day but not at the same time; 1 met the Mayor of Toronto — the one before last — and was given a gin and vermouth by the chairman of the Toronto Stock Exchange. How can a man. who has lived so fully, want or expect new experiences? They just don't exist, if you know what I mean.

Except in London! Ah, there’s the rub . . .

Look at those myriad chimney pots as your train nozzles its way into the vast tuberosity of the metropolis. Thousands and thousands of chimney pots, belching fumes into the besotted air. And as a Londoner I am part of it all.

Think of the health-cold wind that is blowing through the main street of Winnipeg at this very hour! Where else can a wind get such a start that when it hits the city it is like a sweeping scythe of winter’s blight?

The doctor says I have a hang-over of Asian flu and that it would be a good thing to go to a sunny clime and take it easy. But look at what happened to these expressionists who always thought that there was some heaven lurking beyond the mountains and the horizon. Robert Louis Stevenson buried himself with his own epitaph, Gauguin died of drink, Shelley got himself drowned and Byron died of a fever. The fates have always been jealous of men who challenge the omnipotence of the gods.

So perhaps I shall stay in colorless London with neither sun nor snow to break the bleak monotony. But if 1 listen carefully it may be possible to hear the Pipes of Pan sounding in the park at night.

The doctor says that the temperature is coming down a bit but I must stay in bed for another three or four days. I suppose doctors must say something.