LONDON UNDER THE ROBOT BOMB
AN ADDRESS BY WALTON COLE
Chairman: The President, Mr. C., R., Conquergood
Wednesday, December 13, 1944
MR. CONQUERGOOD: Gentlemen: The Empire Club is honored today to present a young man, who comes to us in his capacity as news manager of Reuters of Lon don, the largest organization in the world for gathering and distributing the news of the world. The desire for news may be illustrated by a few lines from Charles Sprague, an American poet, who died in 1875:
"The news! our morning, noon and evening cry, Day after day repeats it till we die.
For this the city, the critics, and the fop, Dally the hour away in tonsor's shop; For this the gossip takes her daily route, And wears your threshold and your patience out; For this we leave the parson in the lurch,
And pause to prattle on our way to church; Even when some coffin'd friend we gather round, We ask-"What news?"--then lay him in the ground."
Mr. Cole is a young Scotsman who has served on newspapers in Edinburgh, Falkirk, and Glasgow. At the age of 26, he joined the Press Association in London, where for two years he was chief of the night staff. From there, he went to Reuters and is now their news manager. He is in America on business for his organization.
He is to speak to us today on "London Under the Robot Bomb". I have much pleasure in presenting Mr. Walton Cole.
MR. WALTON COLE: Mr. President, Gentlemen Contrasts fascinate. They certainly do me, for just a week ago I was making the first public speech of my life in that citadel of Middle-West Republican strength--the Union League Club of Chicago. Today it is The Empire Club of Toronto. And, gentlemen, I want to testify that no one could have received a more friendly and encouraging reception than I did in Chicago. Frankly, both here and Chicago I am reminded of the aspiring London business man who tried for membership of one of the most exclusive clubs. His membership was rejected. Curiously he asked a friend: "Was I badly black-balled, old boy?" The reply was terse and candid: "Old man, have you ever seen caviare?"
The Union League Club last week--the Empire Club this week! I feel in the same frame of mind as the two Irish guards who lone-handed defended a Libyan machine-gun post for three days in a holocaust of shot and shell. During a brief respite Pat turned to Mike and exclaimed: "Mike, begorra, Dev was damned right to fight for our neutrality!"
So, with deep diffidence, I present myself to your long-suffering care, being particularly mindful of the fact that I come as a man from Reuters, which is an organization that has itself met and survived much criticism.
When I was in Paris but a few weeks ago everyone was laughing at this story of Joe Goebbels. He had died and found himself by one of the strange vagaries of fate at the wrong destination. For a week he meandered in a somewhat dazed way through the Elysian heights, until one day he espied a beautiful pink cloud drifting overhead. It was adorned with an array of particularly voluptuous females and the dimly recognisable silhouettes of certain members of the Nazi hierarchy, one corpulent personality in particular being plainly distinguishable, replete with wine bottles. The little doctor shuffled over to the gate and asked St. Peter: "What is that place on the pink cloud?"
"That's Hell," was the reply. Goebbels reacted speedily "Ah!" he exclaimed, "That is where I should be. I am in heaven by mistake, and not by virtue." "Are you sure?" boomed the voice. The assurance was readily forthcoming. Soon Goebbels was fluttering to the pink cloud. But just before he made the pink part there was a dark base. A hairy hand seized him and Joe was dragged into an eerie cavern, placed on a rack, and had all the conventional tortures performed upon him by twenty fearsome devils.
In a pause twixt the pulling out of nails by tweezers and the application of blow-lamps to the tenderest parts, the little Doctor loudly protested and said, "Where's this? I'm going to Hell!"
Replied the foulest looking devil, "This is Hell." "It cannot be," protested Goebbels. "What's that place on the pink cloud? They told me that is Hell." "Oh, no," quoth the devil, "That is our propaganda service!"
Now, gentlemen, I would have much preferred to come here and let you shoot questions at me. Because while this is by no means my conception of Hell--I have yet to have the privilege of getting the first authoritative eye-witness story from that territory--nevertheless I am deeply conscious that in these times it is understandable that, no matter how innocent one is, there is a very real danger of being placed on the propaganda bandwagon.
With all the sincerity at my command I say that if I were a propagandist I would come here in that role and not masquerade as a newspaperman. The pay is better and life is less exacting!
My profession is one of the real examples of internationalism; and the pity is that the relationship. the understanding and straight-shooting that exists between such a fine journalist as Gil Purcell of The Canadian Press and myself--the pity is that this is not the common pattern of Anglo-Canadian relationships.
Mr. Purcell does not cackle with me, nor I with him. I'm sure we both think there is a moral--as well as much wisdom--in the Latin American's analysis of the Canadian and British character. He summed it up this way. When an Englishman--and I want to state right now that I am a Scot just to put my independence on record-when an Englishman walks into a restaurant he looks as though he owned it. When a Canadian walks in, he looks as though he didn't give a damn who owned it.
The outlook, gentlemen, is identical. The approach is different. If everyone realised that, then much that irks and a great deal that distracts would be easily avoided.
Today it is possible for newsrooms in Canada to have a Reuter message thirty seconds after it has been transmitted from London. It can be here quicker by at least a minute than it can be delivered to a Manchester or Aberdeen newspaper office. Here you have but one example that emphasizes the absolute necessity of every one of us getting to know each other in a way we have not hitherto known. We must have association with each other for what we actually are--not what we would like to think we are. I think we have suffered from a surfeit of ostriches. The head in the sand technique has got to stop and I don't feel I am in any way unrepresentative of my contemporaries back home when I say it is going to stop.
But all this is a circumlocution around the subject on which I have been invited to speak, If I don't get to it--remember a newspaperman always takes a terrific time to reach the point, as any, editor will tell you--I shall be exposed to an investigation on a charge of getting you here by false pretenses.
But my digression has only been to lead up to one important and interesting truth. It is, that in times of stress, of difficulty and of danger, all types of men are thrown into a common crucible. The breakdown is beneficial, and leads to real understanding and respect. Respect: that is the only yardstick, in my view, by which either countries or people can be measured. Sacrifice respect-and you sacrifice all.
The man you respect is never a "yes man". He is invariably a competent and efficient man. If he tells you what he is shooting at. frankly and unshamedly, you may be professionally displeased because of what he is about to do, but, nevertheless, if you are a big man, you will admire him and, strangely enough, you will probably help him. In this connection I said to the Union League Club: "Make no mistake about my assessment of America and Americans. You are big, and you are rightly proud of a country that cannot help but make this the American Twentieth Century. But you can do more; you can make this a Twentieth Century that will bring the real blessings of mankind to the world as a whole."
"But the American who feels that his country is something like Joe Louis-only a Joe Louis who doesn't confine himself to the heavyweight class but takes on the bantamweights, the featherweights, the lightweights, the middleweights, the cruiserweights and the heavyweights--he will find inevitably that he has not only eliminated all interest from the fight, but has spoiled the matchmaking potentialities of the lightweight and what-have-you." That statement was received with cheers.
I am a newspaperman, a very young newspaperman. If I have made progress in my profession, it has been because I have tried to exercise the logic and commonsense which is popularly reputed to be an attribute of the Scots. I feel deeply about American-British understanding. I feel even more deeply about Canadian-British understanding. I am convinced that more people like myself, from Canada, the States and Britain, have simply got to find out the other fellow's point of view, and assess things in the light of logic and common sense if we are ever to ensure the attainment of what is after all the common ideal-the well-being of our respective people.
Let no one try to hide this point because it is the highest ideal of the common citizen and we are all common citizens. The common citizen is the cornerstone of national existence. Concede this approach and motive, and you will understand that a man who advocates the high ideal in a form different from your own is not necessarily shooting right off the limb. He is someone to contact and understand, and share views with, in the certain belief that men of goodwill can always find a common meeting-point. Canada is cast for a leadership role. She is absolutely uncompromised in any sphere. Perhaps all Canadians do not realize her full emergence. She has a mighty big foot in the camp of the great powers and also a mighty big foot in the camp of the small powers. In both camps she enjoys respect and you know as well as I that it is to Canada that many countries of contrasting geographical positions and cultures are looking today. It is to Canada too that men of vision look for an enlightened, an honest-to-goodness lead that will enable an irritable world in a turbulent transition period to get things in proper perspective. Canada need have no complexes and with the virility that is characteristically hers she must fulfill a roll that I believe Destiny intended. By simply standing her ground she cannot help but do this!
But I believe that all of us today must beware in international relations of an apparition as lethal as the doodlebug-the angel with wings. Yes, an angel with wings--but in those wings are packed cannon and machine guns, more deadly by far than the array of a flight of spitfires. These angels are shooting about, and although they have not yet had the opportunity to shoot up, there do seem to be signs of some stray tracers coming from somewhere. All of us have potential winged angels of this variety in our midst. If we resolve that the type for us is the lady who gives a straight answer to a straight question, we shall not be deluded by the spurious sentimentality of the siren.
Now I have listened to sirens, but of a different type, f or over five years. I have lived in a cubbyhole in our office in Fleet Street for those five years. I am but one of those who have surrendered a normal existence to the cause that set those sirens wailing. My surrender--over five precious years of what could have been full life from twenty-seven to thirty-two. I am only a newspaperman in London, observing the creed of the craft. There are millions like me. The story must go out.
And, gentlemen, what a story of suffering and sadness it has been. In all I have had but two months out of that five years with a wife and two children. Even at that I am lucky. Canadian friends of mine have not even had the two months! I have been fortunate in being able to evacuate my family. I have been favored in that, when my house was razed to rubble by the doodlebug in August, it was empty because I was in my cubby-hole at the office and my family was evacuated.
I am the lucky Londoner, the very lucky Londoner, and my experience has been one of Easy Street compared with scores of thousands of others-so much so that I do not even think about it.
Separation, death, maiming, poverty and other scourges of this era of bloodshed have all tended to destroy the precious but perishable fabric of domestic life.
While I accept as normal and inevitable the wailing of the sirens that have served to herald the harbingers of havoc, I am determined to do what I can to stifle the wailings of those other sirens (the angels with lethal wings) I have mentioned. If we fail to do that, the silencing of the siren's wailing in London will be but temporary; and if they ever sound again the weapons that are approaching will be diabolical in their effect and staggering in their range, and what London has experienced in these five years will be the dreadful lot of other communities.
If twentieth century civilization is to be classified by happenings of this kind, then, gentlemen, the sooner we revert to the time that Adam was a boy, the better.
That the ingenuity of man and the brilliance of engineering can produce such missiles as the doodlebug, the V-2. and others of V series. makes one feel that our whole conception of things is warped and utterly irrational.
I have examined a V-1 as a specimen. I have shuddered at a V-1 as an instrument. It has made me do things which nothing else in this world could be capable of making me do. So far as the V series is concerned. I think the V-10 (which according to a German prisoner in Normandy is the weapon that will end the war) is the one I want to see in operation. and the sooner the better, because V-10, gentlemen, is a genuine war weapon. It is a long stick with a white flag nailed on the end. But before that happens in the West and the East there is to be a cataract of suffering, and I want to tell you of the experience of the ordinary man-in-the-street--for that is all I profess to be--under this diabolical warfare that we choose to call modern.
The crowded stinking shelters of London in the first phase of the Blitz, with their pallid-faced occupants huddled on the hard concrete of the platforms, the whimpering children, the suckling babies, the squawking neurotics, and yet with the patient calm of the great majority -this was a sight that hits you where it hurts. With the dawn and the emergence to daylight came the experience to so many of finding a home that was either a repository of so much rubble or a mass of fire, or else unapproachable because of an unexploded bomb.
By guts and by absolute brilliance in descriptive writing, the scene that is London has come to you from that magnificent corps of correspondents of the Canadian Press.
It has been my privilege to work alongside them through these years. They, with their London counterparts, have carried on, have seen London aflame, seen acre upon acre of a city enveloped in a holocaust of fire, a fire which at one time threatened to engulf the heart, the nerve centre, of British newspapers-Fleet Street.
From an office window in Fleet Street one has seen aerial battles, and shuddered physically with the concussion of exploding bombs.
Outside that window was St. Bride's, the most beautiful of Sir Christopher Wren's churches; and one night it became the strangest of candles, and in the morn ing all that remained was a black shell. Journalists (and Canadian newspapermen were among them) went into that church when it was aflame and salvaged all the furnishings and historical manuscripts.
Newspapermen and women have on London air raid assignments rescued something more precious by far than these-human life. They have seen, as I have seen, the bombed and blasted people, the horror of disfigurement of splintered glass on the faces of young children that were a short second before fresh-complexioned and finely-moulded and beautiful. They have seen carnage in the streets when city girls, city men, the errand boy, the postman, the news vendor and the mother who was shopping lay there dead and mutilated in their death.
At one o'clock a doodlebug was unheard above that pleasant sound of city bustle and traffic-London carried on in day time in the doodlebug period, because to have stopped would have been to cut a vital artery in the common war effort.
The doodlebug has cut out, swooped down and fallen in the midst of that thoroughfare but a few hundred yards away from me.
Great buildings rocked, every pane of glass, every partition in an area of a hundred yards was shattered. In the street there was the carnage of the battlefront and that was what London was. To so many it was their daughter, their wife, their son or their father who lay there dead or grievously maimed-or who was obliterated.
They were people whose weapon was a handbag, an umbrella, a powder compact or a pair of gloves. And upon them descended two thousand pounds of explosives. That is what happened in a centre of steel and concrete. In a district of suburban brick-and-mortar houses (where the like of these same people would commute) there had been even more appalling devastation. These houses, these proud possessions had been swept away as if by a scythe. Over a wide area there was just nothing. Beyond it, houses began to rear their mutilated, distorted forms again. And the housewives who moments before had been busy at their sink or their cookery were found--well, just somewhere nearby. And as you walked away from the bursting place of the bomb, the silence was superseded by the moaning of the women who had been the victims of total war.
That, gentlemen, is the sort of scene which one encountered, not as a rarity, but as a common experience; where are a foundation which is one hundred percent solid, in that it represents the desire to have a real understanding that will bring a day to us soon when the standards of twentieth century civilisation can be a world heritage.
Leadership and genuine understanding can attain this. Exponents of domination, power politics and the other ingredients of that dread war-hash are actually in the minority; but minorities have a habit of organizing and imposing their will upon the always apathetic and easy-going majority.
I believe, as Kipling did, that we men of goodwill standing shoulder to shoulder can accomplish what in our heart we fervently believe should be accomplished for the betterment of the lot of our peoples. The road is hard and the pitfalls many. But, as in everything, hard work is the essential thing. It is the hard way that you and I must follow to play our seemingly insignificant but collectively overwhelming part in silencing the sirens for all time, and in seeing that those who pose as angels in our midst have wings to fly with-and not to pack a gun too.