To Britain and Return
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 6 Nov 1941, p. 117-129
Renison, Right Reverend Robert J., Speaker
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The speaker's recent trip to Britain. The contrast between the trip there and return journey. The experience of flying the Atlantic in these days. A day in Bermuda. The speaker's impression of Britain. A description of London and how life has carried on. The British people. The character and sacrifice of the women of England. Coventry. The Royal Air Force. The young men and pilots. A word about Ireland. Russia. Thinking of the world picture. The Canadian Corps. Remembering the first World War.
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6 Nov 1941
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Full Text
Chairman: The President, Mr. C. R. Sanderson.
Thursday, November 6, 1941

MR. C. R. SANDERSON : Gentlemen, as every one of us knows, when any half dozen of us look at the same thing, we each see it differently. We see different aspects of it. And in Bishop Renison's contributions to The Globe and Mail, which we are enjoying so much, we see the play of his own personality as he describes his impressions of what he saw in England. Today it is the happy privilege of The Empire Club of Canada to be able to listen to him in person in this, his first public address since his return, whilst he talks to us on "To Britain and Return". Bishop Renison. (Applause.)

RIGHT REV. ROBERT J. BENISON, M.A., D.D.: Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: I come to you today after an experience which was unexpected and which was a great opportunity. I am not a statesman, I am not a political analyst, I am simply an ordinary Canadian who loves his country. I am proud of my British citizenship and I had the opportunity of travelling with eleven very remarkable men. They were some of the leading journalists of Canada. Someone said to me, "You must have learned a lot about journalism". I said, "No, but I have learned a lot about journalists". No amount of compulsion is going to make me disclose what I have learned, but it will be of value to me all my days.

We had the opportunity of flying across the Atlantic Ocean at its widest point. There was a great contrast between our coming and going. We went like ambassadors above the clouds. We came back sandwiched between cargoes of cork and sour Portugal wine. It was good for our souls and it made us understand that there are some things in the world greater than the inclination of the individual.

The finest thing about flying the Atlantic in these days is not the saving of time. It is that it gives you a true sense of perspective of our modern world. It is an extra ordinary thing even to look at the instrument that carries you across four thousand miles of ocean. The Yankee Clipper, as she lay in the water, looked like a gargoyle, or some fantastic duck decoy carved by a giant-not graceful, with wings poised for flight, she seemed anything but spiritual. Yet, when her load was embarked and she waddled out to the river, she began to rock to and fro as if she were about to die. She started and stopped. She coughed and sighed, and then, just as the death rattle was in her throat, she suddenly soared into the air and carried us into the clouds.

You know, it is a picture of death: man in his mortal body striving for immortality.

It was in that way that we crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Five hours or less, suddenly diving down like a canoe through the rapids, there were the lights of Bermuda at ten o'clock at night. A beautiful island! One of the things that you see when you are in the air is how wonderfully Providence has guided the British Empire in picking up here and there things that would be useful to her in the centuries to come.

We spent a day in Bermuda and had the opportunity of calling on the Lord Bishop of the Island. I don't think he quite understood who I was or what I was doing. He had a vague idea, I think, that in Canada they appoint journalists to the office of Bishop, in much the same way that they appoint journalists to the House of Lords in the Old Country. I didn't disabuse him, but I did my best to make a good impression, and I thought the best thing to do was to try to talk to him as one Britisher to another across the ocean. So I said, "What do you think of the coming of the Americans to this Island?" Much to my surprise, he said, "I think it is a jolly good thing. You know they are bringing some money here-the first money some of us have seen for a long time". I was rather shocked and I thought I would pursue the matter. I said, "Don't you think that those rather strenuous young men are disturbing the peace of this happy island in the evenings?" He said, "I don't think so. I don't think they are half as objectionable as the Canadians. We had a battalion here from--(I won't mention the name)--and they never knew when to go to bed. Some of us couldn't get our sleep". So that was that.

It is an extraordinary thing to realize what modern science does. This may be the age of the devil, but in some ways man is not very far from the angels. To think of it being possible to go up into the clouds at night and to go straight, propelled like a projectile, for two thousand miles through the darkness, and in the morning to go down through the clouds and there see the little green Islands of the Azores. Just like an arrow shot at a target. It is an incredible thing.

Then we flew to the Old Country, a thousand miles along the coast, dodging through the clouds, and one thought that struck me as we came near to England, that is before we were blinded, was how wonderful it is that that island is not only surrounded by the sea of John of Gaunt, which protects her like a moat, but by an everlasting cloud of fleece that protects her from her enemies. So we landed somewhere in England and we went up to London Town.

I am not going to do more than give you a few pictures today. The first thing that I think must strike anyone, especially anyone who comes from the air to see the British Isles, is how pathetically small they are. There in the sea, off the coast of a great continent, a couple of islands. Only a postage stamp on the map. And you ask yourself, is this the place that has moulded the character, is this the place that has touched the hearts and minds of men for nearly a thousand years? A little place like this?

Then you begin to think, well, of course, some small countries have done things. There is a little country beside the Mediterranean, where the Saviour of the World was born. It is a very poor and small place. Yet life wouldn't be worth very much if it weren't for the contribution of that little land.

Then Hellas, in her brief hour of glory, lighted a lamp that has never gone out. But those lands, as material instruments, have passed into history. It is true, their influence will never die. I always like to think of those words of Pericles, because somehow or other they seem to me to be so applicable to the future of the influence of the British Empire. Even if the time should come in the course of history when it should become a memory, its influence will never die. "For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; their bodies are buried in native earth, but their souls live on in other lands and in other years, woven into the stuff of other men's lives".

Yes, you feel that England is a bit different, because she has dealt with the lives of men, and because her own personality, and her own power of teaching men how to live and to mix discipline and freedom together, are so necessary, apart altogether from her example, for the life of this modern world.

The first thing that everybody wants to see is London, the shrine of freedom. I don't know whether I am going to disappoint you or not when I tell you that London is not destroyed. The first thing that people asked me when I went over to the Old Country was, "What do you think? Are you surprised by the bombing that has been done?" I said, "No, not altogether, because, as a matter of fact, one of the things that photography can do is to give the perspective of the world. The modern photographs are so marvellous and the headlines are so dramatic that, when you see that a place is bombed, it is bombed beyond all question".

But you can't see the streets beyond. You can't see the bombed area in relationship to the city, and I don't think I am revealing any secrets when I say, in spite of the grievous, terrible and wanton damage that has been done, the wounds of London are nothing more than arrows sticking into the skin of an elephant. Some of the places that have been damaged will cause mourning in days to come, but most of the material damage can be repaired.

It is wonderful how the life of that city carries on. It is just a little bit dingy. You would think it would be washed up a little more, but what is the use when you don't know what is going to come the next morning? But the life of London still goes on and you can feel the heartbeat of the Capital of the world, as she stands facing the stars, defying the lightning from whatever source it may come. (Applause.)

The British people. That is, of course, what counts. The country doesn't matter. It is the people who count. So many things have been said about the character of the British people that one shrinks from saying anything more. But I am just going to make a few observations. I am going to say one or two things I haven't seen stated before, just to show the way they struck me. You know, a Canadian or an Australian, when he goes to war, shoves out his jaw and tells the world what he is going to do, and he does it. But what struck me about the English people as a whole was their gentleness. Don't laugh. I think they are a gentle people. Their voices are softer and tuned in a lower key than ours. They have the wisdom of age, they are no longer young. It may be that the Elizabethan gusto has been changed by the centuries, by responsibility, and by having seen everything that is worth seeing in a human story. But I think they are a gentle folk. I think they are quieter than we are, and I think that the change in England in the last two years has been one of the miracles of our modern world. Everybody knew just what England was. The glamorous background of those glorious old estates, the people of place and power. Today, people are coming nearer and nearer together. There is a comradeship of suffering and of sacrifice. Women that never would speak to each other, except to give orders or to take them, in days gone by, are now chumming it together in national service. Somehow or other you feel that, apart from a very few-and they are not vocal at the present time-the English are becoming a great family, and I think that there will be a new England, even if there isn't a new world, when this bitter war is over.

I felt that they don't seem to have nerves. Over and over again, men have said to me, "What is the thing you noticed most in England?" When we got together, our party on the boat, just before we landed, we talked to each other, and we decided the most wonderful, if not the most spectacular, thing we had seen was the character and the sacrifice of the women of England.

Now, I know it is possible still in the great London restaurants and hotels to obtain plenty of food, if you can pay for it; but that is for the traveller. The people down in the country, while they are not starving-they are having the amount of calories that are necessary according to scientific determination-are having a hard, thin time, and they don't mind telling you. Things that seem to us to be the necessities of life they have thrown away. They have thrown away ease and comfort. They have thrown away their investments. I can't help thinking, without knowing anything of finance myself, I can get the picture of that little nation over there, that is no longer young, taking all its wealth accumulated in the centuries of the great industrial era invested safely all over the world, and throwing it, as it were the dust of the balance, into the melting pot. Yet, I think the English people are the happiest people in the world. I honestly believe that those people have an inner peace that comes because they made their great decision and they will stick it out to the very end. (Applause.)

There are many things I would like to talk about. I want to say just a word about Coventry. Coventry is the pictured sacrificial church of this war. It takes the same place as Ypres did in the last Great War.

We went many places, we saw factories, we saw the headquarters of armies, but I want to speak to you particularly about the Royal Air Force, and the Royal Canadian Air Force for a moment. You know that what we suspected a year ago is perfectly true. It was the Royal Air Force that saved England and saved the world. (Applause.) Whatever may come, with all the glory that will go to the Navy and other parts of the armed forces, it can never be undone. This little band of men, only a handful, many of them just out of school, went up into the skies,

"They looked on death
And with him nonchalantly passed the time of day;
He paused, bewildered, muttered 'neath his breath,
'Immortals, these!', and laid his scythe away".

I wanted to see some of those boys and I had the opportunity of going to two stations. The first was a bomber station, somewhere in England, some safe place where these great pre-historic monsters lie in hundreds, sheltered. It is only when night comes that they go forth. I went into the mess and I had dinner with them. It looked like a boys' school. There were a few old men--that is, the boys would call them old, I thought they were young--with medals and with evident experience in the last war, but they were the fathers of the family. It was the young boys that fascinated me. Do you know that the Air Force, with all due respect to every other arm of the Service, is the only remaining trace of the chivalry of the Golden Age, because every man, when he goes out, makes his rendezvous with death, personally! Here these boys have learned something that I don't think is to be found in any other part of the world. They have learned the miracle of understatement. They talk in a low voice. Everything is stated as if it were looked at through a telescope. For instance, there is one memorable thing that comes late at night, at ten o'clock. Just as the men are going out to bomb Hanover, Kiel, or Berlin, there in a big shed you see the O.C., with his hands in his pockets, smoking a pipe. He sits back in his chair. There is a big map on the wall and the targets for the night are there outlined. There are maps all around. In a quiet voice he talks to his "football" team, because they look very much like the Varsity Team before a game. There is no "pep" talk, his voice is never raised, there are no heroics. He just points out to these boys in harness, gas mask and parachute on, where to go, and, in a quiet voice, says "Cheerio". One after another they go out into the night, the wheels blasting sparks from the concrete runways as they speed away for a thousand miles.

We went to another place right down on the coast. It is what they call a Fighting Squadron. They have a wonderful field there, like a big football field, and the boys were very anxious that we should come down and see a "sweep". I wasn't sure whether it had anything to do with racing, and I don't approve of gambling myself.

This is what the "sweep" was: twelve machines--Hurricanes, Spitfires--going off to do just a little ordinary work. There they were. We went out in the blue sunshine. I thought they were perhaps going to take a little walk around, so to speak. They were away only three hours. I found afterward that they were to join with a hundred and twenty-five other machines from other places to escort thirty bombers straight to one of the great munitions plants in Germany. We had lunch. For some of us it was hard to eat while they were away. Then we waited for them to come back. At last, about half past two, there was the old man, as they called him, with his glasses slung around his chest, and with his hat on the back of his head, looking up into the blue sky. "There they come!" And the others, like the junior boys of a school when the steeplechase is being run, crowded around the Head Master, watching the heroes come home. Here comes a Spitfire-at nearly four hundred miles an hour-like a streak of lightning, circling around the field, coming lower and, lower, until it comes down and runs up near the parking station. Another, two minutes later. Then another, and when the third came, the fellow in it held up his hand. There was a cheer from every one. It meant he had brought down his plane.

So it went on until the eleven came home, and the last one didn't come. Many things might have happened. I can't talk about that just now.

Just while I am here--I don't know why I am talking about it now, except that I am Irish, and this is about Ireland--I want to say one word about Ireland. Ireland, of course, is a place that is different from any other place in the world. We went there for two days. From Bournemouth, we went to the mouth of the Shannon, and there we saw Ireland. We had to wait for two days and we had a very good time. We drove twenty miles to the nearest inn, which was on the estate of Lord Dunraven, and we had a wonderful rest there. Ireland prepares for a war in a way all her own. She has all the technique of England with regard to cement blockings in places and everything, but she is not taking it seriously. She doesn't know there is a war. Butter and sugar are plentiful yet, though some things are already getting scarce.

Some of the younger members of the party went down to the forum of the place--it was the village pub--and they spent a very happy evening. There was a crowd that was perfectly friendly, perfectly charming, politically remote, so to speak. Fortunately, we had the right man to handle them. The brilliant Grattan O'Leary, who himself is an Irishman of the first water, undertook to speak for our party. He began in the most insidious way possible. Being an Irishman himself from the south of Ireland, and kicking with the right foot, he knew exactly what to do and what to say, and he began by describing Hitler as the Oliver Cromwell of the modern world. Before it was over the people were standing up and shouting, "The curse of Crum on Adolf".

There are many things--I was going to talk about Russia. I can't say much. I will say this one sentence. When a nation is pouring out the life of millions of her people in defence of freedom and civilization, it is very hard for anyone to say that it shall not be counted unto them for righteousness. (Applause.)

The chief thing that I did while in England was to dream. I couldn't help looking back at Canada across the thousands of miles and comparing that little island and all that it has done with the romance of Canada and her history. Think of this land, discovered almost by accident. Men, looking for the northwest passage, found their way to a hard land of ice and pine and north wind. They came here looking for gold and jewels, like the Spaniards, perhaps. They didn't find them, but they found a future. They found destiny and they found God. And they dug into this land for 250 years that stretched eventually right to the Pacific Ocean. Then, in the middle of the last century, they presented half a continent to Queen Victoria, who was rather aghast at the size of the child.

There were some people then who thought that Canada should set up her own housekeeping. But fortunately Canada didn't do it. You know what the history has been since. But, when I was over there, I couldn't help wondering whether there is not the finger of the Providence of God in all this. Just think of that little island having to begin life again under modern conditions, and here, our new land with all its great waterways--two thousand miles from Belle Isle to Fort William--awaiting settlement, awaiting opportunity of development. Think of our great ports--and I like to dream of them as being sometime, somehow, the ship-building ports for a British Empire that is going to be trading and carrying freedom and happiness, as she has done in the past, to the rest of the world.

No, it is not for nothing that it happened. Without Canada there could be no British Empire--I mean in the large sense of the term. She stands halfway between the east and the west, with an open door on either ocean. The significance of Newfoundland seemed to me to be an extraordinary discovery--in my own mind. When I think about the future of travel on the ocean, and realize the fact that people will travel for business and emergency in the future by air, and compare the southern route, in spite of balmy breezes, with that short direct jump from Newfoundland to Ireland or Scotland, I see the providence of the strategic points that have been handed to us, and I hope we will hold on to them as long as there is a British Empire.

But last of all, let us think of the world picture, the real world picture, the only world picture at the present time. There is a continent that is dominated by Hitler and his masses--a whole continent. With scientific diablerie they have begun already to smash the souls of men and to make a continent with a master race. But they are confronted by that little Island of the Free. It is beautiful but it isn't war. Nevertheless, there is one thing certain, that as long as there is hope, the British people will fight to the very end. They don't know the meaning of surrender. They are too stupid to surrender. They haven't got enough imagination. They will fight it out to the very end. We know perfectly well that this is no ordinary war of dynasties. It is a battle between spiritual forces that will decide the future of the world perhaps for hundreds of years, and I just can't help thinking that we ought to make up our minds in Canada what we are going to do.

I can't imagine that it is possible to end this war without some kind of invasion of Europe. General McNaughton publicly stated to us that that was his opinion. He said, "You cannot subdue a proud and well disciplined and organized people by bombing".

Let that picture suffice. What does it mean?

We went down to see the Canadian Corps. It was a wonderful sight. I believe that there was never a general more proud of his army than General McNaughton is of the Canadian Corps. He is a very great man, unless all signs to the contrary are wrong, and he told us his dream. He told us, of course, that these young men, like trained athletes, are sometimes in a hurry to go places, but he said, "They are too precious, they are too valuable to the British Empire and to Canada, to be wasted, unless there is a reason for their activity". And he said what we all knew, that they had a place of honour, a dangerous place of honour, and he said that the Canadian Corps was being fashioned as a dagger for the heart, the black heart of Berlin. (Applause.)

Those of us who were in the last war, I am sure, must allow our imaginations to range now. Do you remember the great "Hundred Days"? Do you remember the epic of Amiens to Mons, when the Canadian Corps marched from victory to victory? That was only possible because there were great reserves that were rushed up so that in two days after every battle the battalion was in full strength. I can't imagine that Canada, who has allowed her sons to go across with her benediction and with her prayers and hopes, will ever see them left alone on a foreign soil. (Applause.)

Therefore, I believe that it is our privilege, that it is our glory and our duty, to do everything that we can to see that, from now on, there will be a complete supply of men and munitions, however it is done, and by whomsoever it is done, in order that those men that are our glory shall not be thrown away. (Applause--prolonged.)

MR. C. R. SANDERSON: Bishop Renison said that he was only going to paint a few pictures. But, Gentlemen, you will all agree that those pictures have been masterpieces of painting. With his gift for word and phrase, and with his deft blending of humour and pathos, he has made those pictures come to life in all reality. He said he went over with eleven very remarkable men. I think there were twelve very remarkable men. (Applause.) He said that he had learned a lot about journalists. I think, Sir, you have left yourself wide open to the suggestion that probably the journalists have learned a lot about Bishops. We too have learned something about Bishops today. We have learned something about our Bishop. And we shall read with still greater interest his continued contributions to The Globe and Mail because, as we read them, we shall again be hearing him speak. We are very grateful to you, Sir, for giving us this privilege of hearing you personally paint word pictures of some of the things you saw in England, pictures painted in your own very beautiful language. (Applause.)

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To Britain and Return

The speaker's recent trip to Britain. The contrast between the trip there and return journey. The experience of flying the Atlantic in these days. A day in Bermuda. The speaker's impression of Britain. A description of London and how life has carried on. The British people. The character and sacrifice of the women of England. Coventry. The Royal Air Force. The young men and pilots. A word about Ireland. Russia. Thinking of the world picture. The Canadian Corps. Remembering the first World War.