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London Crumb Cake

ISSUE:  Summer 1938

Back from Breslau, I try to explain to them why Germany goes on and on, in the wrong direction and over the dead bodies of so many of her best, but in that same everlasting edit deidsch way, so scoured, so busy, so fanatically determined to get out of the middle of Europe, toward Constantinople, toward Bagdad, over Austria to the Adriatic. But guests in for tea on a chilly London afternoon do not really want such serious traveler’s tales. They are polite. They listen while I tell them about the apartment house in Breslau with the three names in full on the entrance door, the name of the Nazi local Leader, the name of the Air Raid Leader, and also the name of the janitor-doorman written out, middle initial and all. For about every forty of the population, leaders. “Leaders indeed,” says Osbert. “For people who can’t tell shepherds from surveillance.” I meant to give them all the details and let them hate afterwards. I forbear to murmur that Claude, right here in London, has filled me with tales of the wire-tapping by the British post office, tales that chilled me a little but not much. That is the effect of this long curious warfare. Once I would have minded terribly that Communists were being tracked down and their little dinner invitations treated as if the call to the barricades were already down the wind; but now I say that, oh well, they will catch Nazi spies in the net as well; and as long as the postman comes so regularly from eight A. M. to nine P. M. there is a sort of peace in Great Britain.

Gwynneth alone plies me with questions. So I tell her why I think the janitor has his name on the door in Breslau.

In the Soviet Union, you know, I murmur, all sorts of little people say “We”—all the time saying “We do this,” “We do that,” and it’s very hard to argue with anybody who thinks he is speaking for one hundred and sixty million people and one sixth of the earth’s surface—he or she is so augmented, so positive, so dogmatic. And in a way, you know, in Germany I have heard the same tone of sublimation in the voice, some little person lifted to the nth dimension of importance, by going round the circle in quite another way. The little fellow feels so indispensable, like the one nut that keeps the machine together. The janitor, if not a Social Democrat, if not a Jew, feels so somehow recognized, and not an outsider. There is the obituary notice in the Breslau paper: “Frau Keeper of the Comfort Station, Gertrude Bimmler,” has died. In Silesia, I alone thought it funny. The others thought, Why not, it was her job, and important in the third working Reich. The Air Raid Leader was a house painter from the garden house. The honor of being master of this sort of fire drill, the thrill of being master, knocking at doors and keeping track of all his charges, had not come to him at once when the National Socialist Party had introduced this measure of war preparedness. No, the honor had gone to a corporation lawyer, but to him the honor was laborious, so he passed the responsibility to his wife, and she soon took the same view of it, that perhaps another should have his name on the door. And so the house painter found himself important, a safeguarder of his country, and able to give orders and crack a whip and keep a suspicious eye out. Door tenders of the lodge of some fraternal order often get the same sort of satisfaction, I thought, even out in Elkhart, Indiana.

In London, A. R. P. affords no such emotional or occupational ardour. A. R. P. is Air Raid Precaution, not Air Raid Protection in any case, and the fact that it isn’t seems to please the population. There were lots of jokes in Night and Day about it. . . . Night and Day was an ideal magazine for homesick Americans: it looked like The New Yorker in type and make-up, and was dull as dish water until the number in which it libeled Shirley Temple by suggesting she used her sex appeal on curates, and the forthcoming libel suit ruined the prospects of the magazine. I used to read it regularly, A. R. P. jokes and all, just to feel superior, wondering if the Empire was really over, now that brighter Blooms-bury was aping unapable New York, instead of good honest Americans trying to talk strangely with a British accent.

For months and months the newspapers were full of A. R. P. I saw the stories in the papers. I bought a pamphlet at His Majesty’s Stationer’s Office and left it in the bus. I laughed when someone told me of the air raid cellars that were a costly feature of some new luxurious apartments, and the troubles of the renting agent because old ladies, and young men too, wouldn’t rent the flats unless their dogs were allowed to go into the cellar on “the day.” I tried a Gallup poll on my Mayfair lodgings, though God forbid that anyone should ever generalize about London or mankind from landlord or tenants in Derby Street. The dance club hostess in the service flat next said, Heavens no, she hadn’t read a thing about Air Raid Prevention. “There isn’t any prevention,” I said. Nor had the broker upstairs who stayed too long in his bath, or the American girl below who lived on three pounds a week and hunt breakfasts, ever read a story on A. R. P. And Martin, the able seaman who had been the General’s butler and who now made the beds and brought the breakfasts, said, No, he didn’t know what anyone was doing against air raids, and began once more to tell me about a horse, and after that about a system witli the dogs. And his wife, below stairs, she that had been a farmer’s daughter in Wessex, said, No, she and Martin hadn’t heard what to do about air raids but maybe there weren’t going to be any— but she couldn’t say why she thought so. And her boy, the new Boy Scout, said, No, his Scoutmaster had never mentioned gas masks or what to do in air raids, and had I noticed his hat, and his new knife. And when, exasperated that a Gallup poll should be so unanimous, I plied the manicurist round on Curzon street about her role in A. R. P., she told me about the man she was going to marry and about his place in the country. “And what,” I said firmly, “will happen to you if there is an air raid?” “Why, I suppose I shall be killed,” she drawled, completely unconcerned.

I do not know that I want the British to be different, to be concerned with wars that may not happen. And Haldane, back from Spain and air raids in Madrid and Barcelona, says that there is no Air Raid Protection or Precaution either. And Ralph says that if the gas mask people have made their profit what does it matter if anyone wears the things, and who has room for a sand box to put out a fire with if a bomb does come; and that a good bomb would wreck the place in a jiffy, so what of it?

Maybe it’s all admirable. It may not be stupid. It may be brave.

Or there may be something in what Lady F-says. She

gave me goose flesh, though, when she ran on about who were the government of Madrid anyway. “Imagine a simple police officer being made the Minister of Justice.” I wished for that American lady columnist who writes with no qualifying clauses about Britain the great democracy that gives the lead to America and France, as the peeress continued: “The people are unnecessary. They should tend to their work. We can rule without them.” Then, with bitterness in her voice: “The English people are shameful, spending their money on beer and cinemas. They don’t even keep their bodies fit. Because of them, we can’t fight.”

One peeress does not make the crack of doom, but even one such can spoil an afternoon, if one believes one’s ears. Even to hear at all sometimes destroys the simple declarative exposition of my old Britain-loving school textbooks. There should be footnotes to everything, warning against fools and peeresses, and pointing out that history is about Napoleon and not about Jane Austen who lived through his very wars.

Around the corner from Derby Street is the old book shop in Shepherd’s Market, whose proprietor has one of the best collections of book plates in the world. He is always making finds as library after library is disposed of in the great houses that come down to make room for flats, and as the country houses are razed because of death duties, to make a lintel here, and panels there, for the decorating trade. I could sit on the stool in his box of a shop by the afternoon, turning over portfolios of drawings. This afternoon, there are Chinese drawings of ever so beautiful flowers, a whole bundle of rice paper sheets exquisitely decorated with varieties of azalea, and another devoted to a hundred kinds of torture. And I wonder if somewhere some German artist is turning into pictures all that can be done to those who may writhe or squeal or turn to stone in prison or concentration camp; and I think of the refinements of torture, the snobbish smile, the implacable destructive interchanges, that lead to grave and divorce court just around our Mayfair corner. The little book-store man is impatient. He takes away the Chinese tortures and lays out the new book plates, the fine engravings, the little crest and roses that belonged to the Princess May. He is shocked. But how was I to know that Princess May is now the good Queen Mary, she that had so much trouble over her son, and whose hats have finally come in time (as so many things do) to look all right and more royal than a coronet? The little bookman and I fall to talking about famous collectors and then to how in Wool-worth’s I have seen little parcels of mass-production” book plates; and as we prattle about how the old luxuries one by one are broken down for the millions, I laugh, and he frowns, over what a printer in Racine, Wisconsin, could do to adapt this design of the Princess May for the five-and-ten. Nothing is sacred. “And should not be, perhaps,” I murmur. “But where is there any savour then, or the satisfaction of particularity?” he says. Within a stone’s throw there are a dozen book shops and antique shops; there must be thousands and thousands in London, packed, crammed, with valuables. And the houses, too! You never know when a Holbein will be staring down at you in an English drawing room, or when the mirror in the bedroom has come from Persia. What makes them all so sure, says the little Irish journalist from Cork, that the Berlin-Rome axis only wants the Ukraine and points west and south? “Honest creature that I am,” says Bridgit, putting down her scone, “the town to loot is London. No people,” she maunders on, “ever had such a habit of buying, borrowing, and looting as the English—and what a lot of raw materials and pretties from the whole world are on this inconvenient island.” Little Bridgit has a wicked mind. She works for her living in this world of wires and wireless and magazines and newspapers that are communicators of what news this mortal or that dictates as “important,” as “the truth,” “the facts,” or anyway what ought to be made public to push, to shove, or to blackmail somebody or other into striking blows for liberty or property, and she is often full of notions. “It occurred to me the other day,” she breaks out irrelevantly, as we talk about the storehouse of treasure that London is, “that the Greeks or the Germans will some day do propaganda broadcasts asking the return of the Elgin marbles to Athens.” “And that,” I reply, “will be a pretty kettle of fish, a shot that will send the letter writers to their inkwells to tell The Times why the marbles are safer in the British Museum.” “But will they be?” asks Bridgit, and we are off again on what will or will not go, if and if ever the bombs we all talk about shall fall. We do not talk seriously. We speculate. We make a parlour game. I vote for the bombs’ falling on St. Pancras station, and especially on the silk fringes in the station tea room. I want destruction to overtake all phoney elegance. She wants the mean streets bombed. We talk nonsense.

I relate how when I first came to London in the spring the diplomatic correspondent of one of the largest British papers, an old colleague of mine, suggested my writing about the balloon barrage, and explained to me that the contracts had all been let for balloons thousands of feet up trailing cables of steel wire to break the flight of enemy planes.

I was annoyed. After all, had I not worked with him on many sensible stories? And I like to be just a natural-born fool, not someone made a fool of. In annoyance I complained to another newspaper man of the idiotic story F-

had told me, and was twice annoyed because my second journalist assured me that just this sort of defense had been a feature of the protection of Paris in the last months of the war of twenty years ago. At this, I became very cross indeed. It’s one thing to have one colleague make a fantastic joke for you, and another to have the boys gang up to wreak a hoax upon a gullible sister. I put it to the major, the honorable military attache. It was he who lent me the general’s book on balloon barrages in the last war.

What shall simple people do? I tell Bridgit that if mankind can hang upon a clothesline of balloons edged swords of wire to trap the bombing birds dropping death on Aryan and non-Aryan alike, upon oil tanks and gardens, surely somebody, even I, can be as fantastic, outrageous, and determined, and spoil the fun. I will not, I say, go to any such war, and if it comes to me, I shall not pay any attention to it.

Living in Europe, living in England, one is inured to talk of war, and all one really minds in the end is that the talk isn’t good enough, ingenious enough, honest enough; and it is the shameful truth that in thoughtless boredom, one would rather be a Nazi even, so buzzing and active, than sitting here so cozy over tea (you leave out the tea-less Embankment)—anything, anything to escape the mystic thrall of the tight little island. I try to tell people how it was in Berlin, the people gathered round the radios there—not one circle but many circles, listening day after day to the English broadcasts, and always disappointed. Even “the former people,” as they call the old aristocrats and the liberal democrats in Germany, sit regularly and thirstily, waiting for English on the air—and not alone from London and Daven-try, but from Moscow, and it is only a thimbleful of quenching news they ever get. The Moscow English broadcast, I do believe, is listened to more, and with more open ears, in Germany than anywhere else, and partly that is because we all fall for propaganda not meant for ourselves. There is something gay about eavesdropping, as it were, on Moscow talking on the party line to England. Against the B. B. C.’s news broadcasts, the Germans are always carping, and, it seems to me, for the right reason. They are so British! The British hound in the manger will not let anybody else be the Voice of Europe, the Leader of Mankind, the more than German, more than French, more than Russian voice of the air above us. The cabined Germans have to listen to news about Marina’s baby, much too much of it, to news unpoetic, factual, muted down. Nothing is generated to make a brotherhood, to release the tension of the cultural autarchy that it is really so little fun to live in, like an unhappy monogamy.

Carved in stone on the Broadcasting House in London are the words: “Nation shall speak peace unto nation.” Peace, what does it mean? There are sins of omission as well as commission, and it seemed to me often in London that the sins of omission were worse, the sins of the cowards, people who do not take the risks of imagination. Why, I used to say to myself, must my life be lived in a period when so many things are official, when so few of the new techniques are given over to the old plays? Peace by courtship, with all the ups and downs of courtship, could be such fun. Why doesn’t the B. B. C. whisper this and that, but lovingly, into the ears of those listening circles in Berlin, and in Magdeburg and Breslau. Truly the only way to be heard in a crowd is to pitch the voice low, and pitch is an art.

Then Gwynneth breaks in. She is cross with me. “Why do you blame the British, why don’t you blame the Germans, why do you not turn on the Russians ?” I pass the crumpets, and pitch my voice low. “Certainly I blame the British. You could have been beautifully the last of the empires, and set a new style for something else. But you do not. Glasgow must have an Empire Fair. You carped a whole summer at the Popular Front and the Paris Fair, which was French to the core, but humane too, so that it was a pleasure, as one strolled and studied, just to be mankind, a watchmaker, a painter, or an architect, and not an American patriot, a hyena, or even a proletarian. You British scold the French so. You make war and peace on the Germans at the same time. You sneer at Litvinov when he says, Let us all disarm. You are always in the way and so seldom in the lead, and you are my own people, and your language is mine, and I believe in you. Yet you have so much cluttering up this place which I cannot believe in and I cannot join. This is only a foggy afternoon at tea, but if you want to know what I feel, it is this, that Pax Britannica is no peace at all, and it holds the whole world back.”

In the end it is Gwynneth herself who comes to the rescue. “I know,” she says. “We English are the only people who lost in the last war, and gained nothing new. But you remember G. K. Chesterton’s ‘We are the people of England, and we have not spoken yet.’ Give us one more year,” she smiles, “and we shall speak, and Europe will welcome us to the common lot. We are so slow because we have so much to throw away. It is not even that we have so much to lose, as that we have so much to throw away, before we can begin with you.”


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