Editor in London

On three different occasions the Editor of the Atlantic has had the opportunity of living with and observing the British people. In 1922-23, as the holder of the Fiske Fellowship he did graduate work at Trinity College, Cambridge. His next trip was in the summer of 1943, when Italy was collapsing and when the British were at last beginning to see light at the far end of the tunnel. And this autumn he went to England again to visit Atlantic authors and to take note of what has happened to a hard-pressed country as it climbs the long hill of recovery.

by EDWARD WEEKS

IN THE SUMMER of 1923 I came down to London from Cambridge with my year of graduate study behind me and my money spent. I had two pounds ten left, and since this was insufficient for a passage home, I “went on the beach,” in the cellar of the American Consulate. Choice among my companions were two A.B.’s who had been arrested in the act of trying to push over one of the massive lions at the base of Nelson’s monument. They had passed some nights in the jug; their ship had sailed without them and now, like myself, they were looking for passage on whatever boat was in need of extra hands.

For eight days we sat together in that cellar. My dwindling shillings paid for our ale and cheese at lunch, and while we waited we compared notes about the lions, Piccadilly, British music halls, and the surprising efficiency of an English bobby when aroused. Then the S.S. President Polk docked in London river; we signed up and were on our way.

That was a quarter of a century ago, and those lions so relaxed and beautiful in the London sun still keep watch on Trafalgar Square unmoved by drunken sailors, the American Army, and the German bombs. Seeing them again on my first day in London this autumn made me feel younger.

I was on my way to the Treasury for an eleven o’clock appointment. But the taxi driver had solemnly assured me that he couldn’t possibly deliver me to the door, and now as we passed the lions and pointed toward Whitehall I saw why. The street was packed solid, the people overflowed the curb, and a cleared lane was kept open only by the civil pressure of many police. “Officer,” I said to the nearest, “I’m due at the Treasury for an eleven o’clock appointment, and I don’t see how I am going to snake through this crowd without your help.”

“Whoever gave you that appointment must have forgotten what morning this is,” said the bobby, “but come on, I’ll give you escort.”And with that he began breasting his way through the pack.

It was a slow, good-natured passage, past the Admiralty, past the Horse Guards, and so on to the Treasury where I thanked him and turned to mount the steps. Just as I reached the top step I heard that rising respectful murmur and the handclapping of an English crowd, and there jingling into view came the Royal Coach—the King and Queen guarded by the Household cavalry returning from the opening of Parliament. From the Treasury’s step, hat in hand, I marked the wonderful precision of the coal-black horses, the medieval color of the horsemen—those in front in scarlet tunics, silver breastplates, and gleaming helmets with white horsehair plumes; those in the rear in tunics of light blue and with them the officer carrying the Royal Mace. “They’re really putting on the dog again,” I thought.

There had been nothing like this during the war years when the openings of Parliament were held in secret. But now London was seeing itself again.

Copyright 1948, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mas, All rights reserved.

British men are the best dressed in the world, or were until the war. But I remember, when I was here in 1943, being struck by the almost universal shabbiness of those not in uniform. Many civilians had lost their entire wardrobes when their houses went down in the Blitz, and the visitor simply accepted their patched, darned garments. 1 remember wondering at the time whether this would make Londoners less conscious of class distinctions.

But now J noticed that striped pants and dark coats, black hats, the slender furled umbrella, and even an occasional high silk hat had returned to the City. The clerks were very stiff-collared. Somehow the uniform of banking has been restored; somehow the Cavendish at lunch hour looks like Michael Arlen; somehow evening dress is again compulsory for anyone wishing to dance at the Savoy.

In this there may be some deception. On my first visit to Liverpool Street station, the largest advertisement which caught my eye was a huge poster of an immaculate Englishman, gray top hat, morning coat, striped pants, gloves and cane, and beneath the picture in big letters the words: “Morning Coats for hire.” Men who haven’t coupons or money enough left to replenish their clothing have no choice but to rent. Even the House of Lords, I was told, no longer have enough robes to go round: on formal occasions they too must hire or borrow their magnificent finery.

2

AN AMERICAN in London instinctively heads for Grosvenor Square, which has become an American island in the midst of this British metropolis. There is a nice story going back to one of the early conferences between Roosevelt , Stalin, and Churchill. It was after dinner and the Big Three were sitting relaxed with just the interpreters to relay their postprandial thoughts. Stalin suddenly brought up the subject of territorial aspirations.

“Territorial aspirations?” said the President turning on his charm. “Territorial aspirations? Well, you will have to ask our friend over there on the sofa. We in America have no territorial aspirat ions.”

“Territorial aspirations?” grunted Mr. Churchill, hitching himself up. “Territorial aspirations?” Grunt. “All we want to get back is Grosvenor Square.”

But what London is getting back is London, more than even the Londoners themselves realize. A church like St. Mary le Strand, which was a hollow, blackened shell when last I saw it, now has a roof, a steeple refaced, and a congregation. Everywhere, as I rode in those shiny hat box taxis, I noted two things so suggestive of recovery: the wooden ribs which are being replaced over the naves and aisles of the old Wren churches, and the miles of metal tubing — miles of slender t ubes about three times the thickness of a golf club — with which London is raising its office buildings, its Westminster mansions, its clubs, and its shops. The scaffolding looks frail, but it seems to bear a prodigious weight, a practical symbol of what we and the British are trying to do to repair the edifice of civilizat ion.

This year a beginning has been made to reimburse those whose homes and property were demolished in the Blitz; a first payment of forty million pounds was authorized, the funds going primarily to those whose buildings could be restored at not too exorbitant a cost. A householder in Mayfair who had the top of his house damaged and was willing to take in another family if the upper stories were repaired would stand a better chance of receiving aid than his neighbor whose home had been riven clean through. The choice was left to the local boards in each community, and it was one more exasperating case of priorities which naturally led to grumbling-

The large-scale blueprints for the replanning of London exhibited by the London County Council when I was last here have had to be shelved for a variety of reasons, chief of them scarcity of manpower and building materials. But Britain is rehousing at a rate of twenty thousand family units a month, a rate which should see the nation roofed in ten years. At that point the prefabricated cheeseboxes will be just about ready to collapse. So will ours.

Meantime London is regaining touch by touch a brightness and beauty which, while it will never relieve the sorrow of old Jolyon, does show to the visitor a marked improvement over 1943. I noticed how many of the sooty stone buildings had had their faces washed, so that their parapets and pinnacles now had a frosty whiteness. The soft red bricks of St. James’s Palace are being pointed and the oriel window repainted. Buckingham Palace has had its west wing restored; the Georgian beauty of Bedford Square, which came through without a scratch, has now been freshened by the pastel shades of the fan doorways and the trim. Paint has come back to Bond Street and Fleet Street, and when you lunch at the fashionable Greek restaurant, The White Tower, you will find that the façade really is white. And the food delicious.

Of course it is unfair to judge the English diet by what a visitor is served in an expensive restaurant in summer. But in quality and quantity the English food is far better than the best I had there during the war. The omnipresent chicken is tender, no longer a hard-run grandmother. The fish — turbot, plaice, and sole—is plentiful and well cooked. At a luncheon in the private dining room of the London Economist I had a fillet of sole that would make your mouth water. Potatoes, fresh beans, and fruit tart are as good as ever, and if you are in the country your host’s eggs make the breakfast traditional. That’s the bright side.

But the meat ration is pitiful: two tiny lamb chops and a bit of bully beef are the usual sevenday ration for a British adult. Plainly it is not enough — not enough to give the adult worker the reserve strength he needs.

Of all British needs, that of manpower is the most exacting. Roughly speaking there arc twenty million male workers in the islands. Two million of the twenty are swallowed up in the bureaucracy if you include the local and governmental officials, a bureaucracy twice as large as existed before the war (and so is ours). Add to these two million the 800,000 young vigorous men in the armed forces. That leaves a balance of 17,200,000 who are making the country go, and they are not enough.

I had a deep night’s sleep in Cambridge after my flight across the Atlantic, and as I was driven to the station early Monday morning, coming up to meet us swung a battalion of the Afrika Korps, tanned, sturdy, singing men.

“Ex-prisoners,” said my host, “working on the land. They stayed on voluntarily and we jolly well need them.”

I found that there were thirty thousand such who had volunteered to remain in Britain. Only a drop in the bucket compared with the 180,000 Poles who now cluster, many of them, around Edinburgh. All told, Britain has taken in more aliens since 1938 than the rest of the world combined. 1 believe the number more than offsets the number of young men who are emigrating.

3

WE IN the United States will not reach our peak load of wounded and sick, victims of the Second World War, until the 1970’s. The same is true of Britain and it explains why the building of hospitals was given top priority. Then came the schools; then the housing units; and then, as with us, the rapid erection of those “cheesebox prefabs" (ceiling price $6300) for the married veterans.

Just as the immediate need was given precedence over the restoration of a Wren church, so the upbuilding of Britain’s war children has had to take precedence over t he care of the old. There is a very special ration for infants; but Britons over seventy, the autumn of whose lives is so much more severe than ever they expected, only get an extra ration of t ea.

During the war I was told that the youngsters showed the strain of the Blitz and the monotony of a war diet rather less than the elders. Now three years later I was curious to see if this was really so. From the best evidence I could find, the British war babies, ages one to five, are as healthy a crop as the country has ever produced — a fact attributable to the special rations of milk, eggs, orange juice, and sugar which were reserved for this group alone.

But of the children in the middle distance the same is not true. For when they came off the special rations they went onto a diet with more starch and less meat than good bone building requires. An English friend of mine who married an American wife and whose son bad spent three years on our side during the war told me that be had gone swimming with bis boy at camp this summer and that the difference between his deep-chested youngster and the other string beans in that twelve-year age group hit him with a pang. They were so lean, so ribby and narrow-chested, he said. Well, I was a string bean for my first seventeen years and it took the war rations of the French Army to (ill me out. It is not easy to generalize about children in any community — certainly those I saw cycling into Cambridge on Market Day with t heir scarlet cheeks and flaxen hair were a fine sight. Their country life would give them pounds advantage over Cockneys of the same age. But was their coloring deceptive? Has their predominantly starchy diet made them soft as some English mothers fear? And will the string-bean boys fill out and mature into the firm lean men their fathers were? Those are questions of the future.

I should suppose that every American boy from ten to twelve eats bis weight in candy every year. That is something no British child has even been able to dream of for nearly a decade. The scarcity of sugar and butter and chocolate means that, these middle-distance kids have never had that wellgreased inner surfeit which is a commonplace with us. I have sampled their hot meal at school and I have lasted the macaroni, the cooked tomatoes or Brussels sprouts, the jelly roll (jelly razor-thin) or the fruit compote (fruit boiled without sugar) which is so often their dessert, and I tell you they d trade the whole of it for an American chocolate bar.

Does this hunger make for selfishness and for thieving? I asked. One Monday morning I went down to Toynbee Hall to see bow London handles ils delinquents. There are six Juvenile Courts holding every Monday in London, and it might be added that the Justices of the Peace in all these Courts are men and women working without pay.

In ’Toynbee Hall, three Justices— two men and a woman sat at the head of the room. On their right were the parole officers, on I he left the representatives of the London school and the box in which the police testified. Then up before these Justices came I he London children who had got into trouble: the dead-end kids, the willful girls, the adolescent who wouldn’t work, the toughs who had beaten up a bobby.

Our Court was presided over by Mr. Basil Henriques, and it was an education in justice to hear him question and charge these young offenders, In trooped a gang of nine boys, some defiant, some hangdog. They had broken into a chocolate factory on a Saturday afternoon. Three of them had climbed a twelve-foot roof, dropped into the factory through a broken window, and handed out three large cartons of chocolate to their accomplices. John Anderson, the leader of the gang, was eleven; the youngest conspirator was his young brother aged seven.

Now the Magistrate began speaking to them, his eyes moving from boy to boy. “You knew that chocolate was rationed, didn’t you? You were taking away from other people what you knew was a ration. Did it strike you as a mean and wrong thing to do? [Nods.] Suppose you hadn’t been caught; would you have thought it wrong? [Not so sure.] England today is a very great team, a team made up of all its citizens, but you weren’t playing for that team, were you? Didn’t you know that this was wrong?” He paused and now all nine heads nodded.

So the Magistrate spoke to them and you could see the words sink in, you could hear the sniffle of shame, see the tears in the eyes. Then the sentence was imposed. Each boy (which means of course each parent) was fined ten shillings, except for John Anderson, the ringleader. When the others were dismissed he stood alone, his mother behind him. This was a second offense for John. His father was serving a jail sentence for robbery and now the boy was up, and what was more, he was teaching his little brother the old game.

As Mr. Henriques spoke to that boy and that mother the courtroom was still with emotion. “Is this the way to help her,” he asked, “you, the eldest, when you know the difficulty she is in.?” John was weeping and repentant as he stumbled out of the room; whether the psychiatrist at the Remand Home can straighten him out remains to be seen.

To the boy who had repeatedly broken his probation and run out on his jobs, Mr. Henriques said, “Why did you take that week off? What do you do instead of work?” And to the mother who had kept the loafer in cash his rebuke was sterner still. To another boy, already slippery in entering homes, he said, “I don’t think you take this seriously, breaking into other people’s homes. We do. Everybody sees things and wants things these days but that is not the way we live. We want you to think this over at the Remand Home and then come back to speak with us next week.”

It was, I repeat, an education in justice to watch these magistrates in their smaller, only slightly softer replica of a London Court as they struggled to restore the morale and integrity of young England. This was essentially a problem of want. What these kids wanted was more food, better companionship. They wanted to be taught a trade in a school without bars. They wanted to be followed up by someone more affectionate and persistent than a hard-driven parole officer. And to meet these wants, London has been devising a new recovery program for boys and girls demoralized by violence.

4

SOME of the differences between the British traits and ours will always touch the American mind with a smile. English coffee still tastes as if it were made out of old Plantagenet coffins, and even if there were no shortage of frigidaires the English would still prefer to serve their cocktails without ice. At public functions my English friends introduce me to their friends in an incoherent mumble (or no names are exchanged) and I wish I knew when they wanted to shake hands. I never can tell.

But there are other differences, the result of the deep social changes now in process, which might be remarked by a friendly visitor in the hope of our arriving at a better understanding. These are differences in feeling, in psychology, and so I state them tentatively — never as a solid generalization.

I felt a hypersensitivity on the part of the British in regard to American methods of production and American competition. Trace some of this, of course, to a natural resentment at our capture of some of their markets, and more of it to the natural humiliation of a proud people now in debt. But the thing goes deeper and needs the firm workable compromise of the best minds on both sides. Much of the British plant is old and decrepit. (The story of that obsolescence as it exists in certain vulnerable industries has been unsparingly told by William F. Yelverton and George Terborgh, American economists, in a pamphlet, Technological Stagnation in Great Britain). But owners and management have been content to work the plant at the old capacity, and labor to man it at what sometimes seems to us a spiritlessly low man-hour production.

We like our form of stimulated economy — the new tooling and the new methods which we think the British could adapt to the decided increase of their production. With their mechanized equipment British farmers are now working with a technical proficiency which in yield would put many American farmers to shame. But. the question is, will British management swallow some of its ancient distrust of American methods; and more important still, will British labor tune up, speed up its production even if it means the partial surrender of prerogatives hard won in earlier days? Such things would certainly be done under the emergency of war.

And if they be not done, how can Britain avoid the unfortunate American accusation that she is “dragging her heels”? Before we bear down on that point, make allowance for a diet which does not build up as much surplus energy as we have on our side of the water. Make allowance that the British have come a long way in their recovery since 1946 — further I think than they themselves realize — and that they will go further still if they have our active encouragement rather than our nagging impatience. Make allowance for the dismay with which good men, from Sir Stafford Cripps down, wrestle month in, month out, to balance the books against debt. The British problem, as Sir Stafford said at Margate, is the problem of the Gap — the gap between what Britishers can sell abroad as exporls of manufactures and what Britishers must import as food and shelter for their bodies and as raw material for their factories. Britain’s exports have increased close to 50 per cent since 1938. Her people have narrowed t he gap and, given peace, believe they can close it completely.

And finally, make full allowance for Russia’s obstruction of the Marshall Plan. 1 was having tea one sunny afternoon on the Embankment, surrounded by British families with their children, when suddenly I heard down river the sound of powerful motors — and in a split second, jet pursuit planes in tight formation were overhead. There were fifteen in the first flight, Vampires which had recently flown the Atlantic; then came the American Shooting Stars; then three groups of Meteors; then heavy bombers. “Look,” cried a boy at the next table, “here come the Americans!” and he pointed to the Super forts, high over the Thames. In the center of the procession was one lone Hurricane, in remembrance of the aircraft which fought and won the Battle of Britain.

This was the Anniversary and it was with a touch of sadness that one gazed up at the new air armada at a time when London is still only a third recovered from her wounds.

The cost of rearmament forced on both the Brit ish and ourselves by the blockade of Berlin is an embarrassment, a monkey wrench tossed into the works of the ECA as the Russians well know. At the September meeting of the Trades Union Congress, the thing that struck every observer was the implacable hostility of the Labor Party to the minority of Communists in the unions. There was a rising tide of resentment at having to stand at Moscow’s back door, cap in hand, in futility. I don’t say that the politicians or the people are determined to go to war, but I do say that they have made up their minds to rearm.

I heard a remark attributed to Mr. Churchill which made me grin. “ 1 think,” said The Old Man, “that Mr. Stalin believes — and he is quite right in believing — that Britain and America will behave like perfect gentlemen to the end. “ Pause. ” Whereas, were I in office, he would not be so sure.”

The Russians believe that they can strain our economy to the breaking point with provocations short of war. I who am an optimist believe differently. I believe that we have time in which to repair the Atlantic Community. I believe that Britain must rearm just as we must at home and that the cost of that rearmament cannot come out of the funds she is receiving under the Marshall aid. There will need to be a new form of Lend-Lease, with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and ourselves chipping in. For whether we like it or not, we are all in this boat, this Atlantic Community, together.

Midway in his autobiography, which I have enjoyed editing, Sir Osbert Sitwell in 1946 wrote me an observation which I shall long remember. He said, “ I find it a heart-breaking time at the moment: a people with no future throwing away their past. But when things look like that it generally means the English are, contrary to what appears possible, going to do something big. So I continue to hope. I’m a confirmed lover of lost causes. I begin to love all the people and things against which I’ve railed and roared for thirty years; such as Churchill, the Empire and the military circles.”

“A people with no future throwing away their past” — measured by money alone the words have an ominous ring. For the British are living on capital. Couples in retirement, are spending what savings remain to see them through; the middleaged are spending on their children the money they can’t leave; money is moving from the banks into the land, into dairy or farming combines, some of it into the sterling area abroad.

Works of art have a rising value and are bought; the few manufactured luxuries are at extravagant prices and are sold. I heard of a man who bought a Bentley (secondhand) for $5000; two weeks later gasoline went on ration again and all he could do was to stroke it in its garage; two weeks after that he was offered $10,000 for the same car. What good are savings when the pound is going down? I felt in some Conservatives a quiet desperation about this; among some Laborites a tacit approval of the splurge. You wonder whether the change of which this is a symptom can truly arrive at an economic balance in a country with so little natural wealth and so great a dependence on processing. As their spending and our aid diminish, will Britain have to lower its standard of living again or are they really “going to do something big”?

These are a valiant, decent people. They have imposed upon themselves a set of iron rules which I doubt that any other nation would accept with such little cheating. The once wealthy are living on capital; the wage earner, with a higher salary than ever in his life, at the end of the week has pathetically little to show for it. For it must be remembered that with our dollars under the Marshall aid we have also exported inflation to our friends. If cash is no incentive to these people, then character is; and I think it is the staying power of the British character which makes them determined to close the gap. England has always been the anvil on which men have hammered out the freedom and the economy of Western Europe. So it is today. Watch it.