Somewhere in England
April 10, 1940
Perhaps before I start describing my visit to London to you I had better tell you how I came to go there. While I was down in Brighton, I met a Mr. G---- and his wife who insisted that I must visit them in London soon. He is the manager of the "King Lud" a very popular pub in Ludgate Circus. They were very good to me while I was there; gave me dinner and supper, treated me to a show (I saw Pinocchio) and invited me back again. His wife told me all about her terrible experiences as a kid during the bombing of London in the last war. I never realized how badly London was bombed by the Zeppelins. Mr. G--- was a RFC Lieutenant in the last war and expects to be called up again soon. They have one three year old son and he is the centre of their lives. Now to describe London to you:
VISIT TO LONDON
When I alighted from the train in great, bustling, crowded Waterloo Station, my only conscious thought was "So this is London, I'm here at last!" I went out through the main entrance carried along by the crowd of hurrying people and found myself in Waterloo Road. A kind "Bobby" directed my wandering footsteps toward the Strand and eventually I found myself standing in the middle of Waterloo Bridge gazing at the artery of London's life; the busy, muddy Thames River. A tiny puffing tug towing a long string of barges was just passing underneath and I could see right down the open hatch into the tiny engine room where the engineer was busy polishing a brass pipe. On my left was a long, low building with a tower covered with scaffolding at one end and a huge clock tower at the other. I had been gazing at it for several minutes when suddenly it dawned on me that it had a very familiar appearance. Where had I seen it before? Of course, in my reader at school! This was the English Parliament Buildings "the Mother of Parliaments" and that clock was....Big Ben.... which I had heard strike so often over the BBC short wave broadcast.
After a while, I wandered on a bit and turned into the Strand. Here I walked through a crowd of well-dressed people - mostly women and girls, all busily window shopping, popping in and out of stores, driving away in long sleek black limousines. Here all was carefree chatter and laughter, no harsh notes rose to mar the quiet hum of the street. I wandered on looking at the window displays and marvelling why such tiny concoctions of felt and feathers and a bit of veil that women call ‘hats' could cost so much! The street widened a little and then grew narrower and when I asked a passerby its name, he told me a name that made me tingle with excitement. "This is Fleet Street", he said, "And that be the home of the Daily Herald" pointing to a very prominent building across the street. Who said all the buildings in London were ancient, old fashioned granaries? The Daily Herald building is the most modernistic building in Europe, finished entirely with black glass panels and chromium plated steel bands. The Daily Mail Building right along side is also very modern in design.
But behind these two symbols of the modern world rises a crowning example of the old, St. Brides Cathedral and spire, considered by many critics as Sir Christopher Wren's most beautiful architectural achievement, rivalling famed St. Paul's in its beautiful architectural simplicity. I was enraptured by the simple grace of its magnificent spire, pointing like a giant finger to heaven.
As I walked farther down Fleet Street and into Cheapside, I found instead of the impressive shops of the Strand, the modest shops of the lower classes: the working people, the apprentices and third and fourth clerks. Gradually the squalor, filth, age and decay increased about me. The people were not so well dressed or so nicely spoken as they had been in the Strand. Curbside markets, tiny stores on wheelbarrows parked along the curb began to make their appearance and the cries of the vendors - clamoring for attention, rose steadily and persistently above the hum of the traffic. The harsh cries of the newsboys and the pleading whine of the human derelicts selling matches and cheap candy to the crowd, rose and fell amidst the bedlam of sound.
Here was a curbside fish market with gleaming silvery fish heaped up in baskets and bones all over the curb, the smell strong enough to knock you down. There was an old woman, her face and hands lined with age and a life of toil - but with eyes still twinkling and a step still sprightly, busy selling golden oranges and rosy apples to a group of ragged children. Hadn't Nell Gynn been an Orange girl? Perhaps this old lady had once been as beautiful as Nell but unfortunately, today Kings can't make favourites of Orange sellers. Over there what a beautiful patch of color! A barrow load of daffodils, violets, primroses and carnations - their vivid colours, dainty cleanliness and delicate perfume contrasting strangely with the dirt and noisome smells which surrounded them, was being pushed through the crowds.
The ill-famed London tenements began to make their appearance, great, gaunt towering masses of dirty yellow brick and weathered-decaying wood with vacant lidless eyes and spidery lines of rusted iron fire escapes. Lines of limp, melancholy washing stretched across the narrow alleys from building to building flapping idly in the breeze which blew up from the river bearing with it the fresh clean smell of the sea and the open spaces and making these confines all the more hideous by contrast. Here was none of the cheerfulness, the air of sumptuous ease and idle luxury which had permeated the Strand, Here was Life stack and grim, a grinding taskmaster, ceaselessly demanding, rarely rendering pleasure, a dread spectre of Fear. The frugal housewife, busy doing her scanty shopping, bargaining, wheedling, threatening, exhorting, abusing the sweating fish monger, trying to wrest every atom of value from her husband's hard earned money, surely she had no sister in the happy carefree shoppers of the Strand throwing away as much money on a moment's pleasure as she had in a month. How different are the modes of life between the upper and the lower classes in London, how wide is the gulf between them and yet how closely they live together; scarcely a mile stretches between the Strand and Cheapside but they might as well be the ends of the earth apart: so different are the ways of life in each.
Later in the day I visited one of the most famous museums in the worlds: Madame Tussaud's waxworks. Here are all the great figures of history - right up to modern times, modeled in wax. To realistic are these life-size figures that I almost caught myself talking to the wax commissaire on the stairs or imagined I saw the figures breathing.
Standing in an alcove by themselves - happily holding hands, are the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Over here is the Royal Family - the King and Queen in full court dress, she in a lovely pearl grey gown worked with silver thread and having a train at least twenty feet long, he is formal attire. They stand surrounded by the Royal Family - the Queen Mother, the two lovely Princesses, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Princess Royal and the Duke of Connaught. Over here stands Henry V111 and Bloody Mary, Lady Jane Grey and many other famous personages of the Tudor period including Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. Tableau after tableau unfolds itself before the astonished eyes, provoking cries of surprise from the eager sightseers.
One entire room is occupied by famous people of modern times: airmen and women, explorers, speed kings, athletes, actresses and actors, inventors, artists, doctors, etc. Another is devoted entirely to the lines of English kings since the time Norman the Conqueror; another to great English historians, writers, poets, philosophers, politicians, reformers, etc. The place of honour is filled the present Prime Minister Chamberlain and all his Cabinet. So realistic is the tableau that I expected to see the Prime Minister begin to write with the pen he holds in his hand. Then came a group containing the most hated or the most revered men alive today; Adolph Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Rudolphe Hess and Admiral Raedar. They stand before a huge, blood red flag emblazoned with the black swastika, each in a characteristic attitude; Hitler stands proudly to attention -taking the salute, his little mustache seeming to bristle with pride and importance, Goerring with his huge mouth wide open as if to drown all opposition to his bull-like roar, his arm raised with tightly clenched fist as though to strike someone; Goebble, his tiny snakelike head on one side and his little venomous eyes seeming to glance sharply from side to side. It is not a pretty sight - this tableau, and I assure you I came away feeling as though I had just seen the devil or several devils' incarnate.
This was the extent of first day's tour. On the second day, I decided to go see St. Paul's Cathedral whose commanding dome had been calling me ever since I had seen it from Waterloo Bridge. As you know, the cathedral stands at the top of Ludgate Hill and commands a view of the whole of London which is spread out at its feet like a host of admirers at the base of their idol. I think that simile is particularly apt because St. Paul's Cathedral is worthy of the adulation of a whole city.
It is a huge building but so marvelously proportioned that no idea of its size can be obtained for the distance. It is only when you compare yourself to it that you realize how infinitely small you are. When I walked in the great door, I was confronted by a long dark hallway that seemed to lead to a great bowl of brilliant sunlight about one hundred and fifty feet ahead of me. Halfway down the hall I stopped before a wonderful painting called "The Light of the Word". It is a masterpiece showing the figure of Christ standing outside a door in a garden wall holding a lantern in his hand. The eyes in particular seem to be alive and glowing.
I advanced on down the hall and passed into the great central room immediately beneath the great dome. I had advanced nearly to the centre of this vast room before I realized the immensity of everything about me. I seemed to be crushed beneath a heavy weight, and my mind literally staggered trying to gain some adequate conception of the vastness and yet peculiarly delicate beauty of this room. It is very hard to describe this feeling but to the end of my life, I will remember that first vivid impression. The immense height of the dome - three hundred and some odd feet, is almost dwarfed by its width. All around the secondary dome are huge murals of the prophets; and they are huge! Each figure nearly four times life size yet each so delicately executed and with the distance lending them the proper perspective, they seem to float in the air.
I was not allowed to go out into the balcony at the top of the dome because that was closed, but I did see the famous "Whipping Gallery" and experience the peculiar sensation of hearing my friend's voice issuing from the wall beside my ear. It is a very peculiar thing: that a person cannot make himself heard if he shouts across the diameter of the dome, but if he turns and whispers with his mouth two inches from the side of the dome, a person can hear the words all the way over on the other side as plainly as though they had been said in his ear. After this I went down into the crypt and visited the tombs of the famous people buried here. The tombs of many of England's greatest heroes and heroines are here, among them Wellington and Nurse Edith Cavall. I think if I had my choice, I would rather be buried here than anywhere else on earth for the cathedral forms a very beautiful tombstone: greater than any other conceived by man I think. I was particularly impressed by the plaque over the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren - the builder of this beautiful place. It was a simple copper plate set into the wall and surrounded as it is by all the elaborate tombs of illustrious English men; it seemed very small and insignificant for such a great man. But when I read the inscription, I realized that no elaborate monument could so well express the love and veneration all Londoners feel for their great builder than this simple plate, for on it is inscribed these words:
Sir Christopher Wren
If you ask for his monument
LOOK ABOUT YOU
When I went upstairs again I got talking to one of the vergers and when I told him I was particularly fond of music he conducted me through the organ loft and explained how everything worked. He showed me where all the pipes were. The huge bass pipes which are nearly five feet across are situated right at the top of the dome and when they speak, the whole building thunders as if with the voice of God. If I ever get a chance to hear that organ played, I shall certainly do so.
Next I visited Petticoat Lane in all the glory and bustle of its Sunday morning activities. It is nearly impossible to describe the sights, the sounds, the smells, the excitement, the bustle and the spirit of adventure and bargain hunting which pervades this place on Sunday mornings. As you know the Lane is the place where all the Jews of London display their goods in outside or curbside markets and sell them by public auction. The fun and excitement is terrific! Here is a man exhorting the interested crowd to "step up and see it, this solid gold watch with nineteen jewel movement - fully guaranteed for five years. If you bought it elsewhere it would cost you six guineas - but am I asking six guineas, or five guineas or four or three? No Ladies and Gentlemen, two guineas is my price. Think of it gentlemen, this handsome modern timepiece for only two guineas..." and so and so on for hours it seems until eventually, some one buys it. Then comes the trick for of course they could not go on doing this indefinitely. What I am going to say is only what I have heard: I have no way of knowing if it is true or not because needless to say, I didn't have the necessary two guineas. When a watch is sold, the auctioneer hands it to his assistant who wraps it up in a package and hands the sealed package to the customer who pays him the two guineas. Then when the man gets home he is likely to find a two shilling watch as he is to find the one he bought, for the assistant has substituted the cheap one for the good one. But as I say, this is only heresy as far as I am concerned.
Here is a man holding a pound note over his head. "Sister, what am I bid for this genuine guaranteed Bank of England one pound note? This is no catch - ladies and gentlemen, I am just showing you this to show you how honest I am. Honest Jack is my name and I've never been known to cheat a customer in my life; no - nor my father before me nor his father before him. Come gentlemen, what am I bid? Anyone give me anything over a penny for it?"...and so on for hours. I might add that I bought the note for nineteen shillings thus saving myself a shilling. It is unbelievable the bargains in clothing which can be picked up here. I saw ladies dresses which had only been worn once by one who had bought it in one of the best West-End shops and then for some reason had returned it. Down here these same dresses can be bought at one twentieth of their original price. Dresses, furs, perfumes, gloves, coats, everything a woman would want at anything from 1/5 to 1/20th of their original price. It is a very peculiar sight to see the "Society Ladies" driving up to the mouth of the Lane in Rolls Royce cars and mixing with the crowd in their hunts for bargains.
Then contrast this scene of bustle and gaudy colors with the quiet seclusion and pastel shade of Kew Gardens when the lilacs and bluebells are in bloom; the two had just finished blooming when I visited there that same afternoon. Everything was so fresh and green, a much more vivid startling green than we are used to at home. The lilacs, with their delicate perfume wafted to your nostrils by the fresh wind blowing up the Thames, the tulips forming patches of riotous colour in front of their more quiet colored neighbours - and the bluebells, a living carpet of moving shifting blue, formed a picture which I will remember for a long time. It was heavenly to rest in the shade of a huge elm tree and absorb the atmosphere of quiet restfulness which surrounded me. I was not alone in my enjoyment either, for there must have been at least five thousand people enjoying the beautiful sunshine and beauty of this second Garden of Eden". That concludes my first impressions of London. Will write again soon.
Love as Ever,