A WARTIME VISIT TO ENGLANDCategory: Land + People
We got off the boat at Southampton with the feeling of Alice in Wonderland. We stood alongside watching the boat unload for a while before claiming our belongings at Customs, where they made us open up everything before passing through. The main question was if we were carrying in American cigarettes or food of any kind. One opened carton of cigarettes was allowed, along with five pounds of food.
There were crates and crates of food Miss Dunham had sent on our tickets, for she had been told of the scarcities. We had no idea what we were transporting until we got to customs. For months after that, whenever we saw American canned food we were homesick. A lot of our stuff was given to the British, who had been short of meats, milk, sugar, coffee, cheese, and what not for so long.
When we got to London proper by train, we were met by a gentleman who was to see that we were properly situated. Like a company manager, he had made reservations in private homes for us, as hotels were too expensive.
We were taken to these homes by bus and dropped off. Two of us were put in one room of a house, three of us in another room, and so on. Most of the girls were in one house — three in one room, four in another with a bath on a level between the second and third fl©ors. These places were five pounds a week per person.
None of us was satisfied, but we did not know how to find anything else. We all met halfway down the hall, looked at each other, sat on the stairs, and said, “What now?”
Julie had the name of a restaurant that served excellent food, as given to her by her mother. She asked me if I would go with her to have dinner in this restaurant. We had about a pound between us and a few dollars, so we ate the cheapest things on the menu. It was here we made up our minds to find an apartment, after spending an hour’or so laughing about our lives and how amusing it can be at times.
As luck would have it, Julie asked the owner if he knew of an empty apartment. Much to our surprise, after a phone call, he found one that we could move into the following day. It was at 10 Manchester Square, in a beautiful neighbourhood: two bedrooms, a living room with fireplace, a bath large enough for a double bed to fit in, a kitchen, and a telephone. It was expensive. I was only making ninety-five dollars a week. At four dollars to the pound I wound up with about five pounds, after savings deductions, and that usually went into food.
Julie and I had lots of fun housekeeping. I would cook the dinners, she the breakfasts, and we both did the dishes. We were very happy in our little abode. We had our English ration books that entitled us to eat meat, eggs, cheese, milk, sugar, or anything else that was rationed — including chocolate and other sweets that we usually gave to the English, for neither Julie nor I were candy eaters. We gradually became acquainted with people who helped us by telling us where to buy. We soon felt at home in England.
To buy clothes was another problem. We were allowed twelve coupons every three months to buy wools or cashmere, and naturally everything we wanted was wool or cashmere. Nylon stockings were out of the question. No one had any. We got them through friends or family wTho mailed them, one by one, in letters. My Aunt often sent me food, too, and Julie’s mother did the same. We invited our English friends over for dinner when we received boxes from home.
Most of the members of the company had found apartments, so we rotated our dinners on Sundays when we did not work. [...]
I would remember the time when Julie and I went to the Tower of London to see the old castle where the guards are dressed in sixteenth-century costumes, and when we walked across London Bridge. I had the feeling’ that any minute the bridge was going to topple. “London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down, London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady.”
When we went through Jack the Ripper’s playing grounds, I felt his presence everywhere. Any second he would dart out of a house and grab some damsel by the neck and rip. It was really weird if you went through there at -night. When I saw Scotland Yard, I expected Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson to walk through the gates. We lived and breathed by Big Ben, the clock everyone looked up to. He never made a mistake. The British could always depend on him, and time was one thing the English seemed meticulous about. If you wanted to remain in their favour, you had to be on time. We had been warned about this on opening night. At eight on the stroke, the stage manager would take his knocker, which was new to us, and start pounding away on the floor just beside the stage so everyone in the building could hear it. This meant the play had begun.
Now we were leaving all this. We had been in London just long enough to want a change. It was a city that I never fell in love with but had grown fond of sanely.
Our first stop outside London was Liverpool, town of old slave markets, of flesh for gold. We were in Liverpool for a week, I think, maybe two. I only remember the uncomfortable feeling I had when I walked the streets. The loathing of the waterfront where the slave boats had docked. This was where it all began, with Africa, across the sea. I used to stand on the pier for hours staring out over the water. Was I feeling sorry for them that are no more, or was it for me, a descendant of them?
The hotel room was comfortable. I had a fireplace. With a shilling, you could get fire. For breakfast we had baked beans on toast, with a piece of tomato, or broiled kippers with dry toast and ,tea.
No cream and one lump of sugar. I was more than happy to levae Liverpool.
Birmingham was the cold place. We stayed at private homes, and here we felt the blood of England. When we arrived at the house, Julie and I, there was the tiniest fire burning I ever saw. The lady of the house sat us down and gave us some hot tea to warm us up. She was a warm personality, which I could not understand because to me this was the coldest house I had ever been in. When we were taken upstairs to our rooms, I was convinced of it.
A large double bed made sleeping more than comfortable for us. At least Julie and I had no trouble keeping out of each other’s way during the night. A basin and a pitcher of cold water on the table in a corner for washing purposes. The bathroom was down the stairs, around the bend and out of sight.
Since no one in all England had any spare coal, we could not expect any more than one piece of coal to be burning at a time. For two weeks, I didn’t take my pyjamas off until I had to go on stage. I wore fleeced boots that went halfway up my legs; my pyjamas were also made of fleece wool. I wore several long-sleeved sweaters and was glad to wear bandannas to keep my head warm.
(From Thursday’s Child by E. Kitt)