The Cliffs of England Stand

THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY

VOLUME 166

NUMBER 4

OCTOBER 1940

BY H. M. TOMLINSON

FROM the summit of this steep English upland I see only the slow clouds drift, and the conies flicker about. The ocean below is still, is anonymous, a dark floor tilted against the bright vault. It is empty. Not a ship marks it, not a smear of smoke, though it is supposed to be one of the world’s busiest highways. This afternoon of high summer there is not a movement anywhere of the business of men. There is only a white fleet of clouds on its course, resplendent and serene, and the occasional lollop of a rabbit. The swoop of a gull down towards the floor gives us a sense of precarious height. When a waft of air brushes from seaward over the headland, the sea thrift nods many drowsy heads, and a warm smell of thyme moves past.

The earthworks and barrows of a folk long gone are about me. Today a young friend found a token of them, brought to daylight again by a burrowing fox — a flint arrowhead. The man who lost it lived here about the year when Abraham journeyed south to Egypt. For this English promontory has witnessed much. Upon it one night, a night a long way this side of Genesis, a beacon flared, when at last the Armada of Spain was in the Channel. Not long after that a ship called the Mayflower was insignificant in the distance, bound for what no watcher on this height could say. And when Napoleon’s army of invasion was over the way, ready for a chance to cross and march on London, from here another ship was watched, and today we can better imagine with what emotion — the Victory, fading west and south, on her way to Trafalgar.

The horizon is sharp and perfect, and the sea is bare. That news seems trifling and not worth recording. Yet wind and weather and the horizon have acquired an aberrant significance. From out there comes a threat, that the ancient ways of life of the rough islanders are to be ended. We are told we have lived too long as we pleased. This historic foreland is condemned — is to be given to the foxes and hawks. Beyond the horizon is hate. So we must keep watch upon it once again in the way of our forefathers. We prefer that England should not return to briars, furze, and vermin.

An American friend, concerned for my welfare, in a recent letter hoped that I had ‘gone inland.’ We have no inland. The challenge allows none. Wherever we are, wherever we go, what we wait for can be over us, as well as around the beaches where the children were at play last summer. Even now it is not easy for us to make out the full meaning of the menace, for proper neighbors have been opposite our coasts so long — Scandinavians, Danes, Hollanders, Belgians, and the French. Calamity at hand has an element of mystery about it when it is sudden, novel, and encompassing. It is not easy to believe a threat of extermination. But the map assures us the enemy is northward of the Shetlands, is actually in the Arctic; and comes south by Holland to the narrow seas and the French coast. What, to France? Yes, and it is hard to explain what that means to us. We still ponder that fact in wonder, and with incredulity. For many long and easy years we have looked to the French cliffs as to the porch of another home, and a welcome; but now the enemy is there.

Copyright 1940, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

In truth, what faces us today is new in history; anyhow, new since the forgotten Mongol invasions. It goes beyond contention over sovereignty, and over ancient rights to tribute. From the beginning of this war its inherency was guessed, and in this hour it is stark. We know there can be no compromise with our adversary; implacable evil has no good in it to which reason can appeal. Our enemy speaks a language civility does not know and cannot learn. Some years ago a German leader announced that his country was making the first revolt against intellectualism since the French Revolution, and we laughed. We are not laughing now. Those anarchs, using the discoveries of science not for the aid of men but for havoc, are deriding reason and abolishing law. The heritage of the Renaissance and the Reformation — the foundation of Christendom, if you like — either will be kept on the British coast or will perish in Europe. There is something horrifying in the way establishments, ancient because men long since proved their worth and necessity, vanish overnight. One looks to a landmark in another dawn; it was there yesterday, but it is gone. Our accustomed bearings, even the Golden Rule, are no longer valid. It is all as in that dismaying dream when one sees the immutable stars stream down the sky. Which one of us, in May, would have suggested that before June was out Frenchmen would have thrown away the tradition of the Revolution, French treasures and possessions, and assigned their country’s arms to their enemy, for the destruction of their friends? That would have been the suggestion of malignity, or of an imbecile; yet one morning we woke to see it was so. Our neighbor’s friendly house of yesterday had become an arsenal of the wreckers. We were beset. We have no inland.

II

Something happened then. The atmosphere was displaced. The rock at my back was jarred. My companion, who found the arrowhead, is kneeling, alert. The guns! We see neither smoke nor target. Then he points to what over the sea, at a blinding height, appears to be a scurry of dots, as of rooks at remote and leisurely evolutions. We hear the rapid and intermittent fluttering of machine-gun fire. Raiders are up there, and our men are among them; but all dissolve in the radiance. A white mushroom grows instantly as the sea floor, and dissolves. The strangest thing in war, as in all human woe, is that earth and sky remain aloof, uninformative, unaffected. They make no sign that they are with us, or against us. The sea thrift nods its head drowsily, as in peace, and that gull is poised, and then sheers obliquely. We see and hear no more. We wait for the next thing. In what shape will it come, and when, and where?

We scramble down the foreland among outcropping hummocks of limestone. Below, in a wooded valley, the sea out of sight, the only signs are of immemorial tranquillity. This place once waited the coming of Napoleon, a bogy still surviving locally in nursery rhymes; there is even a legend that the great man landed near here one night, and was seen and recognized. But now, across a mead, a girl is getting the cows home, and a husbandman is hoeing among his mangolds. Yet there in a hedge, added to the tangle of honeysuckle and bryony, is a vine more determinate, its roots in the hidden hut of a signaler, and it runs on straight with whatever it has to tell. No flaming beacons now. Our own presence on the foreland was known, we learn, for a young sergeant in battle dress stops us and wants to know what we saw up there. He wears a decoration, but is too young to have won it at Ypres or on the Somme. He is perfunctory about it. ‘Dunkirk,’ he explains. But he does venture a little of what was done by his small body of British volunteer infantry, really in their last ditch, to a mob of young Germans who continually chanted ‘Hitler,’ as if tranced, but did not use their weapons, and his story was shockingly discordant with an ancient prospect which seemed not to have heard of war. ‘Mind you, sir,’ this young man corrected, ‘it’s one thing to fight in a foreign country, when you don’t know what’s going on. But this is different. If they come here, we’ll show you.’

The battle is more than encounters between ships, airplanes, artillery, and tanks. The tactics and strategy of the textbooks may position it provisionally, but they cannot end it. Out of the viewless comes a corruption of the instinctive loyalties of men. Before the guns have the range of their bodies they are changed, and a country may be lost before the tanks have crossed its frontiers. That is the reason why to many people the war is still a mystery. They do not yet understand that what confronts us is a revolution against all those traditional sanctities acknowledged by good fellowship, and without which hitherto we could not imagine communal life. How combat that? With what? It needs the faith of the Early Fathers to meet it; and when last were we Christian men? This new revolution contaminates the source of motives. Honor, in its language, can mean the same as treachery, and in its thought an altar is as any gaming table. It effects a metamorphosis of the soul; instead of the old-fashioned salvation, is damnation. For this new revolutionary ardor is not for liberty, equality, and fraternity, but appeals to the innate baseness of men, usually controlled by the laws and conventions of decent folk. By it the bully acquires the opportunity, and therefore the right and the pleasure, to destroy the institutions within which hated superiority once kept him in order.

Intercourse is poisoned when words may have any value stratagem chooses to give them; and we have discovered that intercourse with our neighbors has long been polluted. For that reason we have but one certainty today, apart from a multitude of simple and dutiful men such as that young sergeant. Looking backward to the November in which the last war ended, we see it never ended. Since then we have been living hopefully in a confusion of lies and moonshine. No conjecture we made about the world’s affairs in all those years, on whatever fair word we heard or read, promising the dawn of common sense, was anything but a deluding cheat. Evil, though naturally we did not want to believe it, was in the ascendant. Not the will to good, but alienating egotism and cruelty were dominant, and moving with the craft and energy more usual in subversion than creation. Our planet on its journey to the unknown might have been passing through the infectious dust of a dead star. What, then, may we depend on today? Only on the faith we can muster in personal resolution for another and a better beginning, if we can win through to that bare ground of promise.

I should say that, through most of the hours of this May and June of 1940, we suffered more than the disintegrating blows of a long and full life. Our earth reeled underfoot. Any faint hope for better tidings on the morrow was mocked. Would our standing ever again be firm? We did not know. We thought not. We listened to official news at midnight, and remained awake with those awful facts next to the pillow; and in the morning, somehow, we had to muster courage to attend to the first broadcast. We did not want to hear it, but we had to. It would be there, anyhow.

III

Yet how lovely was the early summer in England! There never was a more vivid burgeoning. Now and then, in a deliberate effort to still the mind, one paused, and was surprised. There it was, the goodness of the earth. One could hardly believe it. What, still with us, the comeliness of life? Not in mourning for us? There it stood, as though full summer appeared in an instant, because the mind was quiet. Yet it seemed to be a mockery, like all else. Cherry and apple blossom, hawthorn, lilac, laburnum. One had to turn away. It was in the garden we knew, but it was not ours. It belonged to a settled world, which had gone. We were in another dimension, conjured into it diabolically, where all was in movement to an incomprehensible issue, nothing there to be proved, time itself turned enemy, the stars falling, and no new shape, hopeful at first sight, that did not deride us as we watched, smoke in the wind. All was lies, except evil. Evil was true. It was curious, after listening at the radio to more news and worse, in those two months, to look round vaguely, only to see that the objects in one’s own room were as usual. They were unaffected, so far. Had they not heard?

The implications of those laconic messages from France needed courage to confess aloud and outright. That was so especially to a listener who well knew the places named in the news because he was in the other war. For years those place names had had associations which gave them, to some men, the sound of an incantation. It was useless to talk about them, for they meant more than could be said. Away they were going now, out of sight, dead litter in the storm. They meant nothing whatever. To see them vanish thus, of no meaning in an overwhelming by a new reality, was like watching one’s own identity disappear. One day, without a prelude, we were advised coolly by an impersonal voice that Arras and Amiens were occupied by the enemy. Why, was reality monstrous? Amiens in flames? That cathedral?

The news ended. A man in the room, who is near to us, rose. He is a man of peace, called a pacifist by the careless. ‘They are getting behind our fellows,’ he muttered, and left us. He returned in uniform, to say farewell.

A few evenings later, after the Belgians had uncovered our army’s left flank, we sat round and listened, unable to look each other in the face, while our Premier told us, ‘Fighting is going on in and around Boulogne. There is no need to explain what that means.’

No. No need at all. We did not move or speak. Was the end coming? Coming so soon? A girl in the room, to be married the next week, broke a silence when nobody else there knew how to do it. ‘Can our army be saved?’ she asked quietly. And one who was present, who knew that only Calais and Dunkirk remained, if they did remain, and at the best what those ports were like, was forced to answer her. ‘I don’t see how it is possible.’ Nobody thought it was possible, that night, — it was a terrible night, — nor the next day, because it was an evident impossibility. We were within an hour of disaster. Wedding feasts, too, had lost their meaning.

We began to breathe freely again, I fancy, on the evening when we heard we stood alone; on the night when we had to confess, ‘Because there is none other that fighteth for us but only thou, O God.’ Confidence returned. A neighbor peered over his wall next morning and remarked to me, ‘Now we know where we are.’ I myself was not quite sure of that. We had the French fleet swerving its guns round on us, most astonishingly, and one was aware that no provision against miraculous adversity is ever to be found in war preparations; but I understood my neighbor. Now we had nobody but ourselves to lose, and in that matter we possessed some good information. It was amusing, when midnight was at a standstill, and as black as the pit, to know that the people around were beginning to find themselves, were bracing up; to hear subdued grim laughter. The spirit lightened, and anxiety began to go. There were even bolder ones. They manifested exhilaration; the honor of this task was solely for us. I envied them their heart, while misdoubting their knowledge and prescience. Still, when the outlook is worse than dark, when the sky is like the prelude to downfall and eclipse, then for youth to cheer what confronts it may be as good an intimation as any other of immortality.

It was clear they must fight for their lives. For their lives? That had become a lesser matter, past considering. It was for the treasure of life they must stand up, not for themselves. If the right to use the mind were to be lost, as over most of Europe it was already lost, what apology would be left to mankind for its occupation of the earth? There would be none. The light would be out. Our earth would revert to old night without its initial spark of hope. With reason no longer attempting the guidance of the affairs of men, who instead would be driven by the engines of power and pride, then death already had come; the adventure of mind under the stars would be at an end. The war, then, for us, was something more than an effort to protect the home and personal interests. An abominable dominion had to be overcome, its purpose to obliterate from human society the virtue which had raised us above the caves and bones.

I do not think the English saw this — or perhaps they were reluctant to admit it — till the day when Rotterdam was destroyed. That removed what doubt was left; nor was it only the fear that London might suffer a like fate which awakened us. The blasting down into rubble and carrion of a city at peace, its people unsuspecting, unable to defend itself when the destroyers appeared overhead to begin their leisurely work of making a famous community illegible, and for no purpose than to bring about elsewhere panic out of horror — it was that which shocked us into sighting the nature of the threat to the settlements of civility. And Rotterdam was only next door.

IV

So no more content in the hours of the day. No more a book in solitude by candlelight at midnight. No more a garden of one’s own. Even daydreams, in which the future is occasionally shaped, are broken when the warbling note is heard to direct us to seek cover. Ah! That future! Families are scattered and homes abandoned. We may not enter them any more. The accustomed work of a man is lost to him, and may not again be wanted of him. What is art, literature, and science, when regions, with their towns, must be abandoned to sandbags, barbed wire, and guns? They never were of first importance, except to a very few people, and now the temple is shut. Our ways of life could not have been more disrupted by a general earthquake; we must manage in catastrophe with chance adaptations. Yet how resilient is common human life! Their work done, villagers leave home of an evening, with what weapons they can get, to patrol their fields and hills. At dusk one meets them sauntering off, with rifles and shotguns, not knowing what may drop from the sky while their families sleep.

When first citizens are surprised in their market place, or a civic centre, by a mass of brown sandbags, guns pointing from its loopholes, with barricades of wire around, it takes a minute of puzzled staring to place this sign of immediate war among the accustomed sights. Then the addition is accepted, and no more is thought about it. Though women are in jeopardy, they must do their shopping. ‘This way to the trenches.’ They note the day’s new fact, and enter the stores. Life must go on. Despite all intellectual doubt, and the sad fallibility of news and even of assurances solemnly sworn to, and despite the dismaying certainty that our enemy is such that he overwhelmed the formidable army of France in twelve days, we have found that we must continue to live by faith. Faith in this and that is all that is left to us. We must trust the invisible. We British still believe that there were no better soldiers in Europe than the French. Then how befell their tragedy? Faith had left them, and they were unarmed. For us there was Dunkirk. Though the‘encirclement with fire and steel’ of the British army was triumphantly announced, what was impossible was accomplished. Dunkirk, as a sort of miracle, stayed us.

We see our troops, for they live around us, but very little of our seamen and airmen, and then usually at railway stations. Occasionally they show, but only distantly. I look seaward to the weather at dawn — for another day has come, and we are still here — and glimpse one good reason why our night was undisturbed. On the skyline, between the headlands, the far shapes of the naval patrol show black in the pallor. But we rarely sight our ships; our faith is that they are always out there. We don’t know what they are doing, for distance, when they appear, gives them a casual and melting presence; but occasionally window curtains bulge, the air is displaced by gunfire, when distant haze veils a convoy of merchant ships and the navy has put its arm round them. And yesterday afternoon was stormy, with breakers plunging over the rocks. It was not the day for invasion, and so I was not thinking of war, but noted, with satisfaction, that the seas were heavier than an hour before. We have reason to love the sea more than ever. Nor was it a day for men to be flying; the ceiling was too low and dark for that, and only the flashing of the combers showed where the ocean was below it. Then an object suddenly appeared, skimming just above the smother of black and white, like a sea bird easy in the tumult. One of our Spitfires. What madness, to be at play in and out of the spume! I watched him, in wonder and alarm, while he circled round, and then mounted to disappear in the scud. An hour later I learned that he had, but the moment when I saw him first, sent a bomber into the waves, and was searching for any survivor to report.

Faith, we know, is but knowledge surpassed. Well, we have some knowledge on which to support our faith. Enough has happened at sea to tell us that what Cochrane used to do with ships can still be done by our seamen. It. is as if our mariners have never lost the abrupt disconcerting wit of youth. Perhaps freedom, salt, and sunlight are preservative. We have also learned that the kind of men who, long ago, drove the Spaniards up-Channel, have taken their lively devices to the clouds, and spend day and night cruising the sky between our land and Germany. Democracy is not old and worn. Never believe it. It is still in its early and experimental stage. In such an adventure as this it shows its juvenile adaptability, sprightliness, and temerity.

V

Some of my American friends may be surprised that I write thus of war. I still think war an obscene outrage on the intelligence. I should not be in the least upset by what Communists call the downfall of British Imperialism. I see no reason to alter a line of what I wrote of war and peace in Mars His Idiot. We may have various views of capitalism, the materialistic conception of history, religion, of the ways to distribute the vast wealth released by the contrivances of science, and of the problem of liberty when the State has taken over the business of Jehovah. It is evident that we have hardly begun yet to plan a way of living together in freedom, and amity, and equality, though our control and use of natural forces have resulted in reducing our globe to so delicately balanced a foothold in the heavens for everybody that folly in China rocks the lot of us dangerously. But this challenge by the Nazis is ultimate. If they have their way, then nothing can be discussed. There will be no right or wrong, neither good nor evil; even the priest at the altar may be one of the secret police. Slavery is bearable, but the mind in chains is not. I know that British traditions and affairs may perish if this subversion of the mind is resisted, but they will surely perish if no resistance is made. That is all the choice we have.

I do not see anything unreasonable, therefore, in the substitution on the shore below of endless coils of barbed wire for the children who were there last year. It looks odd, with nobody in sight where the fun used to be, but there is no help for it. Should invaders ever reach that slope, to toil up it, wet and heavy, — and wet they will be, — by the time they are tiring at the wire there will be a very horrible great blast of fire from all the tussocks of grass above. I should call very good the disposition of the strong points I have hit upon, by chance. They at least assure one that it would be more comfortable for a man to be hidden on the shore than to be exposed yonder in a crowded flat-bottomed boat; though how that boat, or whatever it is to be, will reach this point I cannot quite make out. Hitler, maybe, with his lore of the sea, knows more and better than some of us, so we must even wait to discover what his maritime secret is.

We are waiting. Back in a London suburb, after blackout time, with the night sky still retaining a bright memory of day, we see our own place in an aspect that is like excommunication. It is recognized, but it is changed. The street lights are so subdued and screened that one becomes melancholy, as if revisiting, in another life, the glimpses in an everlasting twilight of things past. Were our chimneys and treetops always outlined like that against the upper light, when we were on earth? Then we never knew it. These objects are tranquil, as if they, too, were waiting; or perhaps they are simulacra only, not really there; nothing now to do with us. There is no air. But in this new existence perhaps the air never moves. These shades might be tranquil, or might be sinister. Nobody else is there to tell us. Perhaps we shall meet another lost soul in the twilight presently, with later news than ours. Only the stars are familiar, and I stand to reassure myself with the enduring figures of the old constellations. Odd! What is the name of that bright star? Once I knew it. I knew it as well as my own name, but it is forgotten. What can have happened to the memory, when even the names of the stars are erased from it? What have I lost? The very names of things have gone.

Long after midnight, because sleep will not come, I look again at the sky. One must watch for signs and wonders. The heavens are now crosshatched with the bright beams of the searchlights. They sweep over, interlace, concentrate on a lenticle of cloud, move away abruptly. It is as if day had come desperately in narrow nervous sections, trying to unify into morning, but frustrated by an immovable mass of night. When will morning come?