London Presents Steadfast, Proud Face to Traveller
Observer Sees English as Resenting Foreign Sympathy
LONDON--There are large poster scattered through London, proclaiming that "We Work or Want," and calling for yet another example of the old "British Grit." Americans, seeing them, and already impressed with the tired fight of the British people against war's nasty afterbirth, accept them as one more indication of the austere and lean life in 1947 England. But an interesting reaction seems to be setting in among the British themselves. "England is not so badly off" is a common answer to sympathetic questions about conditions, and there seems to be a new resentment of American pity and the government's back-to-the-wall campaign. There is a very definite feeling that too much publicity about hardships has gene out to the States, and to a small degree this may be true. It is possible that the Government may have allowed an impression to creep westward that Britain is on its back rather than just back-to-wall; this erroneous impression will in the long run not be helpful to England in its dealings with America. Again, it may be asking a little too much even of such a mature and understanding body of citizens as the British to expect that they can stand up longer under pessimism and reminders of their difficulties.
No Other Way
And yet there seems to be no other way, and most of the criticism of the government's position comes from Conservatives who are inordinately bitter about the Labourites in power. In the upper brackets there is a feeling that it's not good form for other countries to see England on deshabille, that the Government is deliberately envisioning a rather crude workers' commonwealth, and that pity from America is distasteful. (Americans, it's true, can be pretty foul when they start pitying "foreigners"). But the cold facts remain: goods are short in Britain, life is uncomfortable, and a great deal of work has to be done. The sober job of reconstruction, which a wide-eyed traveller from America cannot but admire longingly, causes a basic paradox in feeling among the people: pride in the toughness and hope for the future contradict a superficial annoyance with "queues" and controls and coupons that is becoming almost psychotic. If you're in accord with the aims and methods of the present government, you tend to emphasize the former; the Conservatives feel and talk about the grating annoyances to the exclusion of all else.
The most frequent charge against the government is "inefficiency". Everyone agrees that whichever party were in control in these difficult times would have a terrible job, but Conservatives cannot be happy under a government whose announced aims, they say, include not worrying about anyone with more than a 1000 pound income. Tradition-conscious upper middle class people make polite jokes about the boorishness of Labor ministers, sigh "If Mr. Churchill were only running things," and act like virtual disinterested strangers in their own country.
Unwilling to grant any compliments to the present government, Conservatives maintain that all effective control, rationing, and price measures now in effect were started by the wartime coalition cabinet.
Low Cost Eating
To a short-time visitor, the "controls" seem to be working well. The leading illustration is in restaurant prices. where top price of five shillings has been put on meals--that's one dollar, and it stands even in the best restaurants. In some of the swank places (based on pre-war prices) a "house charge" of a few shillings is allowed also, but in general one can get a solid three-course meal (although usually chicken or fish) for a dollar. In addition, the government has established special low-price restaurants in poor areas. Housing, on the other hand, is retarded even worse than in the United States, but by very actual shortage of materials, and so far only temporary shellers have been erected for the bombed-out thousands of the East End.
Control, austerity, plainness, and tight lips are the very stuff of England today; if is difficult to visualise such a life existing in any other country. Accustomed to thinking of the British as always restrained, we tend to accept their present condition as natural and bearable. But it is, not, and the dull shock of tired nerves is beginning to spread, like battle fatigue after the excitement of combat wears off. The surface annoyances of life are so great, the bareness of the next few years so obvious, that one is amazed at the basic popularity of the government. It continues to be supported, and this support by a people who are heartily sick of almost every measure before it is passed speaks well for the admirably mature and long-sighted attitude of the British people toward politics and life in general.
London itself of course shows plenty of signs of the blitzes, though a stupid enough tourist can easily drive along Regent Street and gurgle that "you'd never think there'd been a bomb dropped in London!" Many buildings, still standing and apparently unharmed, are completely burned out inside. Every few blocks at least there is an empty lot, looking no more romantic than an empty lot in Dedham, but bombed, not wrecked by Curley & Sons, Contr. Most shocking are the "wide open spaces"--areas in the East End, thousands of yards square, blitzed as smooth as an infield.
The tone of London is not a happy one, and not a pleasant atmosphere for tourism. The austerity and grimness includes a proud disdain of foreigners, and you can feel it in the streets. Americans are uncomfortable, and will return next fall with harsh things to say about Britain, but they will have witnessed an inspiring process: self-disciplined construction and radical experiment building on a foundation of the ages. And admiration, when strong enough, is not far from liking