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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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With Rumbling of the Drums

By William Nachbar, '40

The Magpie, January 1940, v. 24, n. 1, p. 14.

FORCED by a sudden decrease in cash to forego a tuppence bus ride to the Marble Arch, I was hoofing the same distance through Hyde Park. It was a very warm day in the middle of August, and I walked slowly. Bicycles, ridden by solemn old gentlemen in green knickerbockers, passed me along the shady paths. I stopped once or twice to let the horses canter by on the bridle paths. I tired and sat down on one of the iron benches beside a bowlered Englishman, who was perusing the sport edition of a "Daily Telegram." When I displayed a curious interest in his paper, he took it as a gesture of friendship, and struck up a conversation. I got past the weather, but came the subject of cricket and I had to let it slip that I was merely a visitor in his country. He took it very nicely, however, not even batting an eyelash at my Americanism, and we had a nice little talk. When I arose to walk on farther, he pointed out several fenced-off areas which enclosed trenches dug during the frantic haste of September, 1938.

My path led into a large open meadow, and I took one of the long dirt lanes across it. People sat on the broad rolling lawns in beach chairs, reading or sleeping in the sun; children romped on the verdant carpet; on the left grazed a flock of sheep. Then came an alien note, for, sprawled out on this peaceful pastoral scene, were a dozen or more tents, and about thirty soldiers, representative of England's military might, lay dozing before them either prone or supported in a sitting position by their tent. A few hearty souls marched wooden-facedly about an enclosure, drilled by a young officer, who was half asleep himself, in the energy-sapping heat. A pile of small arms lay neglected near the mess tent, from which was emanating a strong smell of stew. There was something else brewing in the air besides the stew, however. Soldiers, tents in a public park; they were preparing for something.

A monster, a huge bloated form, began to rise slowly over the top of a nearby hill. Hurrying over, I found a small crowd gathered around a large balloon which was slowly being inflated. I joined the curious bystanders and watched a group of soldiers fill the half formed gas bag from cylinders of compressed gas on a nearby army truck. Two other trucks waited in the open space, one containing a winch on which cables were wound, for letting the balloon into the air, and the other presumably to carry the balloon. In this way, the whole apparatus could be set up in no time.

I sat down on the grass and watched the "monster" grow larger. Several distinguished looking gentlemen were discussing the operation with a soldier near the winch truck, and another Tommy stood nearby, talking to a uniformed governess, evidently upon an entirely different topic. The governess' charge ran loose in the meanwhile, and was barely persuaded from making a balloon ascent. Soon the sausage shape floated several hundred feet in the air, and in the distance I could see many other similar balloons, ranged about the same height, all around the horizon. This was a test of London's famed "Balloon Barrage," designed to snare the enemy bombers.

My destination was almost reached, as I came in view of the orators at Marble Arch corner. This compares with our own Columbus Circle, as a forum of free speech, being its forbear, as a matter of fact. It is always interesting, although it may not be especially educational, to listen to the shabbily dressed men as they exhort the crowds from their boxes or from the steps of the statuary. A demonstration was in progress on one side, a handful of speakers discoursed at various intervals along the path. Religion, Hitler, and the Black-out were the favorite topics, the last being the subject of a humorous essay by a small cockney.

"The Lord Mayor doused his pipe, it hadde' be so dark." "I was supposed to be married that night. Well it was so dark that..."

I emerged from the park at the busy intersection of Oxford and Edgeware to gaze for a moment at the Arch. It looked as silly, with all its fine carvings and massive bronze doors in the middle of all the traffic, as a gate in the center of a roadway opening on to nowhere, which is exactly what it is. I crossed the street; a few planes droned overhead toward a distant base, a guncarriage rumbled by in the stream of cars. I entered the Marble Arch station of the London Underground, bound for another part of the city.

We arrived in London the evening of August 1, 1939, my father to transact some important business, and I to enjoy a European Holiday. Soon after the S. S. Nieuw Amsterdam dropped anchor at Plymouth, we were riding through the streets towards Piccadilly and the hotel. How long the buildings were and how old everything seemed. The taxi threaded its way through narrow crowded Fleet Street, the center of the newspaper world, where buses, cars, lorries and people moved in a mass like an amoeba. The life on the sidewalks caught my eye. Here was Britain and her Empire on parade. A peculiar sort of dignity made each hurrying member look as if he was not hurrying at all, but walking slowly and calmly with the self assurance of having all the time in the world. I watched the panorama as we rolled into the wider Strand and past Charing Cross, following the route to Trafalgar Square.

The tall column in the center of Trafalgar Square was surrounded by board fencing. This in turn was covered with colorful A.R.P. posters and compelling enlistment signs. Up the broad winding Haymarket, behind a big two-decker bus, we rode. Billboards glared down from the rooftops of the buildings ahead. "WHAT PRICE CHURCHILL"... "BLACKOUT AUGUST 9th AND 10th"... some read. There was a glimpse of the theatre marquees, milk bars and flashing electric signs of lively Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square as our cab made a left turn along Piccadilly. A newsdealer displayed his posters propped along the side of Swan and Edgars on Piccadilly corner. "GERMANS MAKE NEW DEMAND FOR DANZIG." A clearer road lay ahead and the bright lights dropped behind as we spun toward Green Park. When the cab next drew to a stop, a door-man rushed out to greet us. We had arrived at the Park Lane Hotel.

For our first introduction to "rural England," my father and I were invited the following evening to dine at the home of a charming English family we had met on the ship. They lived in suburban London, Golders Green, comparable to our Forest Hills, in proximity to the city.

It was dusk, and as we walked along the streets the noise and bustle of busy London relaxed into the quiet country atmosphere of English homes. Low, solidly built houses, enclosed by hedges and latticed gates, nestled behind lovely blossoming gardens. Each, however modest, had its plot of ground where the owner expressed his idea of botanical beauty in an attractive rock garden, a lily pond, a miniature cascade, or a shady arbor of fruit trees. The English still continue to derive great enjoyment from the simple things of life.

After a delicious dinner of Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding, we gathered in the living room of our hostess' beautiful and comfortable home. There was a flick of a dial, and a musical show, complete with English swingsters and cockney comedians flashed on the television screen. Television, I learned, is far more popular in England than in America, due to higher technical development and the lower cost of receiving sets.

Later, some neighbors and friends dropped in to see the Americans and we all sat out on the back terrace overlooking the beautiful quiet garden. The "finer" points of our respective countries were discussed with much laughter and they were especially amused with my imitation of our local "Toity Toid Street and Toid Avenoo" lingo.

During the following weeks, I spent a day exploring Cambridge, a weekend at the sunny English shore on the South Down, and the rest of my time seeing London. In a few days I became accustomed to the elements of traveling in England. Before long I knew the difference between a crown and a florin, although for some time I handled these coins without knowing their actual value. Gradually I became accustomed to looking the "other" way when crossing a street, after a few close-shaves with unconcerned bus drivers. Armed with these and various other bits of knowledge. I attacked the guide book. I visited Westminster Abbey, the Museums at Kensington, The National Gallery, St. Paul's, from London Tower to the Bank of England, from the colorful thrilling spectacle of the changing of the guards at Buckingham to the huge market at Caledonia, where one may buy or sell anything under the sun, and I do mean anything.

Perhaps if I had merely concentrated on touring the high spots, I would not have gathered a full picture of the people and the times. There are things one does not see from the top of a swaying bus. Never have I found a city where walking gave more pleasure. Browsing aimlessly about the chartless streets in central London, one comes upon a tiny alleyway, winding mysteriously among the ancient gray buildings. The urge is almost irresistible, and you follow its tortuous path deeper into the heart of the city. What lies at the end of this trail? A small church, hundreds of years old, nestles in a park, like an emerald amid the squalor. A square, picturesquely lined with shops, lies like an island among the crowded buildings, away from the chrome finish of the twentieth century.

One day I chanced upon a real discovery, a little out-shoot of Whitehall, scarcely longer than a block. It was a quiet street, heavy with old world atmosphere, lined with a few Victorian style two-story houses. Two limousines were parked at the dead end and the chauffeurs lounged on the stoops of the three houses that occupied one side of the street. The street was otherwise empty, except perhaps for an occasional messenger who would rush out of the first house and away down the street. As I turned to leave, another limousine drew up, bearing a strange crest, and its occupants stepped out to be admitted to the building. I glanced casually up at the street sign, as I passed on my way. It was Downing Street, and the Prime Minister of England had just entered the famous No. 10.

The English do not like to discuss the war. They would much rather talk about something else. When they do discuss foreign politics, however, a note of grimness is in their voice. The British do not want war, but there is no longer fear of German military might. England takes great interest and pride in the quick development of their armed forces. London magazines and newspapers carefully play up new pursuit ships and naval strength, while handling foreign news very cautiously and conservatively. A significant point I noticed was the absence of young men of about 18 to 21 years from the London streets. Many of them had gone to the Military Conscription Camps in the country. Conscription Camps are not very vigorously enforced, but are treated more like a vacation than training for war.

Although the English people had given themselves willingly and even enthusiastically to preparation for the approaching conflict, there was no war spirit. Life went on in its normal course; there were none lacking at the theaters or at the sport grounds. Education and business went on in unruffled paths; the problems at home still concerned people more than the "power politics" or "aggression" that was reported by our own newspaper columnists and feature writers to be worrying them. I once stopped to ask a bobby the meaning of a crowd gathered in Regents Park. War had broken out in Poland, or Germany had invaded France? No!—it was merely that the baby Giant Panda, a recent addition to the London Zoo and very popular with the children, was being fed.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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