Recollections of Jubilee

I

LOOKING back on May the sixth, 1935, that day of sun and warmth so strangely interposed in the grimmest and harshest of English springs, blowing cold and gray from the northwest week after week, one has the feeling that that unexpected and spontaneous rejoicing of a whole nation, carefree and happy in a world shadowed by the storm clouds of calamity, was like the day itself — a lovely thing, a perfect moment of consciousness suddenly vouchsafed to the most patient, the most pedestrian, the most inexpressive and subconscious of peoples. I am glad that I was alive to see it; it brings warmth into more wintry days to remember what I saw, what I heard—just in what manner England for once knew her soul and was glad.

I was at Oxford. The Bach Choir and the Oxford Musical Society had decided to celebrate simultaneously both His Majesty’s Jubilee and the anniversaries of the two great musicians, Bach and Handel; and for a whole week of Festival the Holy City of the Humanities expressed its rejoicing in the clear, formal, and lovely strains of two centuries ago. But the great day was Jubilee Day itself, when in the eighteenth-century elegance of the Sheldonian Theatre the massed voices of youth and age sang not only Bach’s most glorious motet, ‘Sing Ye to the Lord,’ but also the anthems which Handel had written for the Coronation of an earlier King George of England. I have heard mixed choirs sing in many parts of the world, but never anything lovelier than the quality of those sopranos at Oxford: the preponderance of girls’ voices, young and high, gave it a freshness, a ringing clarity like the notes of birds at dawn.

But the day did n’t begin with the concert. That was in the afternoon. In the morning I drove a car crammed with girls in pretty summery frocks through the gray dignified streets — here and there blossoming trees, flowering over the ancient walls, reminded me of how Oxford, old and wise, forever blooms afresh with the youth that fills her, century after century. Perennial magic of that perennial union, in the most beautiful of cities, of all that is most lovely and precious out of the past with all that is most youthful and ardent in the present. Quiller-Couch’s wistful lines came into the mind: —

Know you her secret none can utter?
Hers of the Book, the tripled crown?
Still on the spire the pigeons flutter,
Still by the gateway flits the gown.

We went up to a house in a beautiful garden on one of the hills above the city; there, between limes and lilacs and flowering cherries, the eye traveled down to Oxford’s towers, spire and dome and pinnacle; and there, while the bells of Magdalen and the deeper notes of Great Tom at Christ Church came up to us through the sunshine, we listened over the wireless to the hum and shuffle of the waiting crowds in the London streets, and the joyous pealing of the bells of St. Clement’s and St. Paul’s. We heard the clatter of the feet of cavalry, the sharp voice of command; and then the roar of cheering, swelling like the sound of surf on a shore, as the King passed up Ludgate Hill and entered the Cathedral.

II

Listening to the service in St. Paul’s, I was principally struck by one thing — the familiarity and antiquity of the form of the service. I had spent the early part of the spring in Germany and Italy, and in both countries I had attended various celebrations of a national character. Under these new dictatorships the formulas for rejoicing are new, and new songs are sung, like the Horst Wessel Lied — a rather uninspiring pæan — and the new verses to Deutschland, Deutschland über alles. But when Great Britain celebrated the Jubilee she used forms which were familiar to every English person since childhood — the prayers, the clauses, were part of the ordinary furniture of our minds, and when we sang the Te Deum we sang the very words which England used to rejoice in the victory over the Armada nearly three hundred and fifty years ago — words which have been used on every solemn occasion in the nation’s history since that day. And recalling the rather febrile note of those Continental rejoicings, the undercurrent of uncertainty and strain, I could not but feel the contrast — what a sense of stability and strength there was in these ancient usages, with their centuries of memories behind them, their dear and customary simplicity to-day. The Old Hundredth Psalm — since Cromwell’s time we have sung that when Kings were born or married, or battles won by sea or land, or the State delivered from any peril. And the Archbishop’s sermon, brief, direct, and homely, was in key with all the rest. There were no flights of oratory or difficult turns of phrase — very simply and quietly he voiced what was in the nation’s heart, and suddenly we knew what we were feeling. Later in the day we were to realize our emotions more fully, and recognize their nature with a certain surprise, but the Archbishop’s sermon was the first intimation of them.

There was just one new thing in the service — one hymn which was not centuries old and hallowed by custom. This was ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country,’ written by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, onetime British Ambassador at Washington, after his son had been killed in the war, and set by the late Gustav Holst to one of the noblest of his melodies. I quote it in full, because I should like the world to know what new song it was that we in England sang in the hour of our rejoicing: —

I vow to thee, my country — all earthly things
above —
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my
love,
The love that asks no question: the love that
stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best:
The love that never falters, the love that pays the
price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long
ago —
Most dear to them that love her, most great to
them that know —
We may not count her armies: we may not see her
King —
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering —
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds
increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her
paths are Peace.

Here, you see, was no pride of conquest, no dream of dominion, no rattling of sabres and sounding of drums. And as I listened to the voices of that vast concourse in St. Paul’s, pouring out, with a sincerity of emotion which the radio could not mask, their aspiration toward that city not built with hands, that invisible kingdom of the spirit which knows no earthly boundaries of race or speech, whose gates stand wide in welcome to all men of good will, I had a passionate wish that by some sudden Pentecostal illumination all the statesmen of all the countries of the earth could hear what I was hearing, and each ‘ in his own tongue in which he was born’ could know the words we were singing and the spirit in which they were sung. ‘ Her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are Peace ’ — repeated, the words died away, lingeringly, into silence. It was the nation singing! And that was England’s aspiration to-day, in a world racked with disquiets, economic and political, feverish with suspicion and fear and distrust. I could just remember the Diamond Jubilee, and the tone of our rejoicings then — militant, arrogant, imperialistic, crude, in fact really rather juvenile; and in a flash of understanding I realized a new fact about my country: as a nation, Great Britain had grown up.

A little hushed, a little sobered by the splendor of the Cathedral service and the thoughts which it engendered, we passed out into the sunshine again, packed into various cars, and went down into Oxford to get some lunch before the concert in the Sheldonian. The concert over, the National Anthem sung, the conductor raised his baton for silence. ‘The choir and I,’ he said, ‘for our own pleasure, and to celebrate this day, are going to do Bach’s “Sing Ye to the Lord ” all over again. The audience can leave or stay, as they please.’ Many stayed — others, we among them, went out and sat in the sun on the flagstones under the gray walls of the lovely circular building, among the crowd of dons, musicians with their instruments, visitors, and undergraduates, settling what we should do next. We had heard London’s celebrations over the radio, we had taken part in Oxford’s concert — now, we decided, we would see what the English countryside was making of the Jubilee. And to that end we arranged to go out and dine at Abingdon, where the Crown and Thistle (a thoroughly appropriate hostelry for a Jubilee dinner, we felt) offered a fairly sophisticated meal.

III

Abingdon lies on the river, about six miles out of Oxford — a beautiful little town of old red brick, approached by a long and noble bridge of gray stone, carrying the road across the willowfringed water meadows and the quiet Thames; with a fine gray church, and a huge market square adorned with an elegant eighteenth-century Town Hall. We chose Abingdon not only because of the probable merits of dinner at the Crown, but because it is the heart and centre of a large tract of agricultural country, lying between the river and the Downs, ill-served by road and by railway, and containing a population more simple, rustic, and unmodernized than almost any other in the South of England. When you go into the villages of South Oxfordshire, you go back sixty years, in customs, outlook, and speech. Now it is the habit of these villagers, on market days, Saturdays, and all occasions of holiday or importance, to go into Abingdon to hear the news, gather opinions, and see life generally, sitting in the small dark pubs or hanging about the bus stop in the square. And we assumed that on Jubilee Day they would probably have mustered there in force.

We were right. They had. As we drove along through spring woods skyfloored with bluebells, whose scent, piercingly sweet, floated in through the car windows and reached us as we sat, we overtook little parties walking cheerfully along the road — Father, rather stiff in his dark Sunday best, pushing the perambulator; Mother, gayer in hers, holding a child by either hand and calling to the others to ‘ mind they motors, now!’ By the time we reached the bridge the groups had thickened to a crowd, through which we could only move at a foot’s pace. Slowly, carefully, we worked our way through the narrow streets to the square. The mellow brickwork of the houses of Abingdon had disappeared behind a sea of flags; the streets and pavements were indistinguishable, both alike thronged with humanity — here and there through the crowd moved figures in rich historical costumes, for Abingdon, we learned, had indulged in a pageant procession to illustrate her past glories. And over all the bells of the gray church pealed out ceaselessly, in a quick joyful rhythm that knocked on the heart and set the pulses dancing — Abingdon is a royal borough, and had decided to mark the fact by nonstop bell-ringing for twelve hours, from 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. Relay teams from the country churches round about, having rung their own Jubilee peals, came in to help the Abingdon ringers, and without an instant’s pause or check that merry noise had gone on all day.

All this, and much more, we learned during our first hour in Abingdon. Having parked the cars, we descended upon the public houses of the town, splitting up into twos and threes and entering those curious dark low rooms, blue with tobacco smoke and gloomy with old timbers, in which rural England takes its ease during its scanty hours of leisure. With our pints of Four X ale we sat in the ladies’ parlor, the darts parlor, the private or the public bars, and entered into conversation with the assembled company wherever we happened to be. No one was drunk, but all were cheerful; by beer and by the greatness of the occasion tongues were — very slightly — loosened; and, as we had hoped, we heard what Oxfordshire thought about the Silver Jubilee.

The King and Queen, we learned, were ‘ nice ’; they were not at all ‘ high ’ (haughty) — on the contrary, they were ‘homely’; they worried about the unemployed and the people in hospitals; the Queen wore such lovely dresses, and was, besides, a good mother—‘Ah, an’ a grandmother too, bless the little Duchess!’ Soberly, with queerly expressed but unmistakable satisfaction, we passed on to philosophize, in the true public-house fashion, about England and international affairs. We in the darts parlor, between due applause to skillful throws, agreed what a good thing it was to have a king; we asked Mr. Brown, who was eighty-nine, if it was n’t a good thing to have a king, and Mr. Brown, who was a bit hard of hearing, having at last mastered the import of the question, gave it as his verdict that it was a very good thing to have a king — ‘so ’e be a good king. An’ our King George be a good king! ’ Applause for Mr. Brown, applause for King George; more beer for the dart players, more beer for Mrs. Godfrey. ‘ ’T is Jubilee Day, Mrs. Godfrey — do ’ee have another, now!’ Mrs. Godfrey did, while we went on to decide how pitiable was the lot of almost all foreigners, with their upstart dictators and cheerless republics, with no jolly family of princes to marry pretty wives and have children and do as their fathers did and be read about in the papers. The Prince of Wales, now! ‘’E be a rare ’un,’ we said.

But what emerged from all this, with a clearness that startled some of our party, was that to these country people the royal family, the principle of kingship, meant something: something real, valuable, and personally important to them, though for reasons which they were utterly incapable of formulating, otherwise than in such sentences as those reported above. There was affection here, and pride — the strong possessive pride of ownership: ‘Our King,’ ‘Our Queen’; and the good folk of Oxfordshire were rejoicing in the Jubilee with something of the possessive pride of old servants in the achievements of the son of the house. ’Our’ king had done well; he had lasted twenty-five years; he was a fine fellow, and we were all fine fellows too, and finer because of him; his Jubilee had made us realize ourselves, and what a fine place England was — and so we were ringing the bells right the clock round, and Mr. Brown and Mrs. Godfrey would each have another beer.

Now the unmistakableness, warmth, and spontaneity of this feeling came almost as a shock to many of us. For weeks and months beforehand the preparations and arrangements for the Jubilee had been written up in the press till the more sophisticated English were sick of the very sound of the word; and we had expected that when the day came the whole thing would be thoroughly machine-made, artificial, and without reality of any kind, merely from overpreparation. It was not so. For the waiting crowds in London and the gathering of England’s greatest in St. Paul’s it had clearly not been so; we saw for ourselves that it was not so for the yokels gathered in the ancient public houses of Abingdon, Nor was it really so for us. The Archbishop’s sermon in the morning had begun to stir our feelings; those tireless pealing bells at Abingdon and the gayety of the crowded little streets finished what his words began, and now, with a half-shy, half-amused surprise, we recognized in ourselves a real emotion: a quite active joy, a genuine dancing gayety of spirit.

IV

Suddenly, through the little dark rooms, the clink of glasses, the jolly laughter, and the slow laborious sentences, a word went round: ‘The King is coming on in the Square.’ Out we trooped, pint in hand, some of us, and joined the already dense throng on the cobblestones before the Town Hall, where a loud-speaker had been installed for the occasion, to hear the Gracious Speech. The first few seconds were moments of acute suspense, for the King’s emotion was evident — so evident that it seemed doubtful if he would be able to go through with his selfimposed task. But he mastered it, and delivered his speech, addressed principally to the young, the children of the Empire. The local children of the Empire paid no attention whatever, but kept up a ceaseless display of acrobatics on the railings of the platform erected for the Mayor’s address earlier in the day; but nobody minded that. ‘There, that’s children all over!‘ The rest of the crowd listened with eager contentment to a very perfect little speech from their sovereign, perfect in its simplicity, directness, and most obvious sincerity — a speech which by some magic of insight, and with precisely that ‘homeliness’ which we had heard praised in the Dog and Duck, responded to the simple temper of regard and affection and ownership which the day had so clearly evinced. ‘ Our king,’ we had said — and the King in reply said, ‘My people.’ And nothing touched his people more than their King’s emotion. ‘’E wur a bit full [“full" in Oxfordshire and Berkshire means “near to tears"] to starrt wi’; I did n’t think ’e’d manage it,’ said an old man to me at the close. ‘ But ’e did manage it — fine, it wur. I could ’ear ivery worrd.’

After the speech was over we went down on foot to the Crown and Thistle, where the dinner fully came up to expectation. And then came the question of the bonfire. We had been bidden to the official one on Boars Hill, presided over by the Lord Lieutenant, at which all the county and the intelligentsia of Oxford would be present. Abingdon, again, was having her own bonfire; a huge pyre stood ready in an open space near the bridge. But we had no great taste for the intelligentsia, and from the flat water meadows of Abingdon we should see no bonfire but its own. No, said the romantic elements in the party, the Downs was the place; there were sure to be bonfires on the Downs, and we should see all the others for miles around. So we packed into the cars again, and once more set out to crawl through the thronged streets, filled from wall to wall with good-tempered, happy, perspiring faces. Out in the open country we raced across the levels, and swung up onto the long gray slopes of the Downs by the Newbury road. On the very crest, the road crosses that wide expanse of rutted turf, stretching for miles on either hand, known as the Ridgeway — one of the ancient British trackways which for several centuries before the Romans came had been one of the principal routes across Southern England, from east to west. Here we halted, and looked about us. It was only nine-thirty, and the chain of beacons was not to be lit till ten o’clock, but a rosy glare away to the east showed where some village up on the Chilterns had set its bonfire going too soon. Meanwhile there was no sign of preparations for a fire in our immediate vicinity, and we inquired of a passer-by where the nearest was to be found. He waved along the Ridgeway — a couple o’ mile along there, by the Monument, there was to be a big one.

So began one of the most lovely episodes of a lovely day. We guessed where the beacon must be — by the monument above Wantage, once King Alfred’s capital; but to reach it by road would mean a détour of many miles, and we should certainly be late. So we turned the cars round and bumped off along the hard dry turf of the Ridgeway — for much nearer four miles than two, through the warm May night, sweet with the scent of the wild flowers which our headlights picked up. A thin moon hung low in the sky ahead of us; little jets of fireworks sprayed up now and then out of the darkness of the plain below, and from unseen village churches late peals of bells came up on the wind. The going was rough and difficult, and we were traveling at considerable speed — but no difficulties could dim the thrill of driving to the Jubilee bonfire of King George the Fifth, in the year of grace 1935, along a track which had been a great highway at least three hundred years before the Romans came. Now we passed through beech woods, gray and mysterious, where the going was soft and the tires skidded in the moist ground; now bounced across the unexpected gullies formed by cross-tracks. Presently a dim glare showed close ahead of us — we stood on the gas, reckless of broken springs, and drew up by the Monument just as the pyre, thirty-five feet high, burst with a great roar into golden flame.

It was a notable bonfire. We sat on the short sweet turf, smoking, to watch it, or climbed the plinth of the Monument to count the glares from other fires along the Downs, to east and west. A great crowd had assembled, black silhouettes on the near side of the roaring mass, faces illumined to a golden varnished look on the other, and presently the whole company, some hundreds in number, joined hands in a vast circle, nearly a quarter of a mile across (for the strong wind made the pyre quite unapproachable on the leeward side), and moved slowly round singing ‘For Auld Lang Syne.’ When the circle broke up we found ourselves on the farther side of the fire from our cars; the crowd was melting away rapidly now, mostly to waiting motors on the Wantage road close by, and we made our way slowly back toward our own.

Cheerful strains drew us toward a small group to windward of the fire. A middle-aged countryman, slightly tipsy — the only human being that I saw drunk or anything approaching it through the whole of Jubilee Day — was sitting on the ground, a bowler hat tilted crookedly over one eye, singing ‘The Life and Death of Cock Robin,’ at the pitch of a rather beautiful voice, though in the burring Berkshire accent. The knot of supporters occasionally took him under the armpits and endeavored to raise him to his feet. ‘Stand up, Bert—we shall ’ear ’ee better if ’ee stand up!’ But Bert’s legs and feet had melted, and hung limp and boneless below his body — the moment the supporting hands were relaxed, down he sank again to the ground, while his voice, without the slightest interruption, continued to inform the night that ‘All the birds of the air fell a-sighin’ and a-sobbin’, When they heard of the death of Poor Cock Robin.’ We passed on, charmed to think that the song which beer and loyalty combined had brought forth should be, not some modern jazz or radio tune, but one of the more ancient English folk songs.

V

It was time to be thinking of getting home. Even on Jubilee Day there would be some limits to what girls’ colleges allowed in the matter of hours! We got into the cars and drove back to Oxford — through Abingdon, silent and almost empty now; through the woods, where still the scent of the bluebells came to us as we drove by; down the long slope of Boars Hill and in by St. Aldate’s to the city. We had thought that the day was over, and could hold no more of surprise or delight or beauty; but we were wrong. We came into an Oxford such as we had never seen or dreamed of. Long graceful festoons of colored lights garlanded the streets; most of the great buildings were floodlit: Tom Tower and the spire of St. Mary’s and the tower and front of Magdalen College stood up, silent, white, and noble into the night sky, in all their perfection and dignity of form. They did not look like buildings of stone at all — they were like a vision of that other Oxford, the unseen city of the spirit, the mother of minds and souls, these white lovelinesses towering above the happy streets, where the dancing boys and girls had made the roadway their own. Everywhere they were dancing, or walked singing with linked arms; as the traffic moved slowly, or stood still in the dense throng, they swarmed onto the running boards of the cars, perched on the bonnets or even the roofs, laughing and singing still.

It was all utterly sweet-tempered, gay, and delightful; there was no roughness, no rowdiness — it was, as one elderly member of our party said, the prettiest crowd of merrymakers she had ever seen. The very police were smiling as they tried to move the jammed traffic forward between the sets of lancers, the country dances, and the reels which were going on in the middle of the road; and the motorists and the bus drivers laughed back. Goodness knew when they would be able to get on, or get home — but no one minded. Sitting idle at the wheel, awaiting the next chance to move, I realized that the elderly lady was murmuring to me through the din; I leaned toward her to catch her words.

‘Do you realize,’ she said, ‘that we’re seeing something that we’ve often heard about, and never seen — something we thought was dead?’

‘What’s that?’ I asked, pushing the gear lever over — the car in front of us was beginning to creep forward.

‘Merry England,’ she said.