MOLLY HUGHES: LONDON BETWEEN THE WARS (1940)

In spite of all the new building, traffic regulations, and neon lights, London never seems to change its heart. Today, as ever, like Dr. Johnson, we can "take a walk down Fleet Street" and capture the same spirit. But while Barnholt [her son] was away there had been an astonishing thing happening in London. One Saturday afternoon an Oxford friend of Barnholt's was having tea with Arthur and me at the Thistle in the Haymarket when we heard cries of "Paper! Paper! Starnewsstandard! Paper!" more vociferous than usual. Looking down into the street we saw on the placards, "General Strike Monday." [this was 1926]

England acts like a fruit-tree with a branch injured. The whole tree pours its sap (or whatever it is) into the branch so that it bears more fruit than the other branches. It was a never-to-be-forgotten effort that the country made to live through that strike. The first thought was to bring milk for the children, and ample supplies were brought by private cars and stored in Hyde Park. Trains, managed by unskilled hands, were few, very jerky, and far between. But private cars! The roads were long processions of them. Papers had to be produced by volunteers, and were treasured as priceless by those who managed to get them. I have kept several as curiosities. Our Sunday Observer was typewritten.

The strikers tried to interfere with bus-drivers, and I remember one bus that had a notice written up: "The driver of this bus is a Guy's Hospital student. The conductor is a Guy's student. Anyone who throws a brick will soon be a Guy's patient." For bricks were freely thrown by the strikers at anyone and anything. One notice ran, "Keep your bricks. All windows broken." And one bus so afflicted announced itself as "The Aerated Bus Company.". . .

I thought myself fortunate to have no work away from home, except an examiners' meeting in the south of London, which would of course be postponed. But I had an urgent message that I must come at all costs, and the costs would be theirs. So off I started "brave and early," and by means of hitch-hiking, with a few train and tram rides thrown in, contrived to be in time for the meeting. One experience is vivid in my memory. For some absurd reason I found myself walking down Edgeware Road. Seeing a young man in a two-seater, I held up my hand. "Where to?" said he as he drew up. "As near to Victoria Station as you happen to be going," said I. Often have I been down Park Lane, but never in such a royal way as that. At Victoria I managed to get a train of sorts, but no food had I achieved. How glad I was of the good tea served round to the examiners, and to hear the experiences that each had endured. One of them gave me a lift on the return journey, and I got a train that crawled as far as Winchmore Hill, to find myself one of a crowd of dwellers farther north, eyeing the road for a lift in a private car. It seemed ages before I saw a Cuffleyite with room for one, but it came at last, and I reached home very tired and hungry. And yet somehow exhilarated at having seen the faces of Londoners, usually set and serious, suddenly become by misfortune full of gaiety and bonhomie. A revolution, I thought, will never succeed in England -- the victims will be giving lifts to their executioners. . . .

Another addition to the amenities of Cuffley at this time was the gramophone. I had been distressed by early specimens of this invention, and hoped never to hear another record. But of course, as in the case of the wireless, a really good gramophone was a revelation. When we had one of our own I scented a curious drawback to it. I have never mentioned it to people, because it sounds silly, but I wonder whether anyone else feels the same. I am fond, say, of a certain piece of music, and its performance by a master is a moving experience. With a gramophone I can have it for the mere putting on. My dread is that I may do this once too often, and thus deprive myself of that experience. I keep off it, as a drunkard would keep off the bottle. A visitor dropping in is welcome to put on whatever he likes and no harm done; it is one's own personal control of the thing that seems to me disastrous, when one lives alone.

Yet another modern convenience reached Cuffley at this time. An old typewriter was passed on to me by a friend, and I fancy it was the first one to reach the neighbourhood. It was a Yost, large and loaded with strange devices, but Arthur [another son] very quickly taught me how to use it. Where he had learnt himself I never inquired. It came in most opportunely, because the publishers of the Latin book had asked me to concoct a book about England for foreigners -- just to give them some idea of what we were like as a nation. It was intended to be a kind of guide as to how to behave in a restaurant, how to buy a pair of shoes, and such banalities. I agreed to do it, of course, but I had no sooner started than the whole thing ran away with me. Anyone with his head screwed on can point to a pair of shoes, or an item on a menu; he can go to the Tower, the Abbey, Madame Tussaud's, and all the other sights, under good direction. But I wanted a foreigner to know something of an Englishman's love of the sea, and of the horse and of grumbling; to be able to see the beauties of an out-of-the-way village, an old inn, a Roman road; to know which newspaper to rely on, which to be amused with; to comprehend, if possible, what an Englishman thinks funny. . . .

The publisher demurred, but said he would risk it, and it turned out a success and still sells after fifteen years. Barnholt said it was badly written, pointing out usefully where and how, and I could but agree with him. On the whole the family was a bit ashamed of me.

Barnholt had not been long at home when he said that we ought to be on the telephone. Both he and Vivian were trying for posts, and they knew that being on the phone would make them readily accessible when anyone was wanted in an emergency. It saved the bother of a letter and the delay of waiting for a reply, and gave one a chance, Barnholt added, of impressing an employer by one's manner and readiness. Several of our neighbours had held out against this innovation, feeling sure that their wives would be using it recklessly, or be always calling them up at the office. So we were among the earliest in Cuffley to have it installed. Arthur and I were alone when we were rung up for the first time. How we both made a mad rush to the lobby, falling over one another in our eagerness not to keep our friend waiting! As the boys predicted, it has been a great help in endless ways of business matters, and to be without it now would seem like losing one of the senses. The countless messages I have received have cancelled one another in my memory -- all but three which can never be forgotten. But these came a little later. . .

And now for one of my three ever-memorable calls on the phone:

"Speaking from Cambridge. Can I have word with Mr. Arthur Hughes?"

"Sorry, he is not at home. Will you leave a message?"

"Kindly tell him that he has been elected to a major scholarship at Trinity Hall."

I needed this bit of cheer. When my husband died I figured to myself that I had strength for ten years' work, and if I could launch the three boys into independence by that time I should feel satisfied. But as it turned out things were not so simple. Vivian had not been able to do more than just keep himself. Barnholt was at home after his illness in Africa, anxious to take any work that offered, so as to relieve the privy purse, as he called the home maintenance. Teaching he loathed. What he wanted was work on a newspaper, and there's nothing like knowing exactly what you want. Weary weeks went by in answering advertisements and visiting the offices of local papers, with no result. . . .

A row of shops has sprung up, as well as an imposing telephone exchange building, a grand hotel, as well as two or three cafés, and a red car has taken the place of the postman's bicycle. Moreover, sites have been bought for a bank and a Free Evangelical church; we hope that it will be some time yet before they materialize. A few street lamps have been put up, gravel paths are provided along the built-up areas, and a speed limit board or two erected (to which, by the way, no motorist pays the slightest attention). Now and again we have the steam-roller, and our road has risen to the dignity of B 157. This last is no empty honour, for it has always been difficult to direct a visitor coming to see us by car. It is only recently indeed that the word Cuffley appeared on any sign-post. . . .

And then, naturally, a Women's Institute has sprung up, making gallant efforts at culture and craft, with visiting lecturers, competitions, and teas. I hear that there is also a League of Health and Beauty. When I add that there is a district nurse, that one man at least has a television set, and that a telephone booth has been installed near the Plough, I think I have exhausted the amenities of Cuffley up to date. . . .

All Cuffley's activities of a social and elevating kind were frozen stiff that morning in September '39, when the voice of Mr. Chamberlain on the wireless announced sadly: "We are at war with Germany." No one has the least idea what the outcome will be, and I am inclined to wonder whether this little community, created by a German air fighter, will be destroyed by another. Meanwhile, we can enjoy its present life while it lasts. Still there is the fresh, bracing air, still there is the green belt between us and the town, still there are all the birds.

 

Source: M.V. Hughes, A London Family between the Wars (1979), Oxford University Press. [Excerpt from Western Societies: Primary Sources in Social History, Richard Golden and Thomas Keuhn, eds. (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1993) pp. 319, 320, 320-21, 321, 324-5].