The first Letter from America 1946 - 22 March 1996
Maybe you've heard that this letter marks a special occasion for a series of talks that started 50 years ago this Sunday. Somebody had the odd idea that I should repeat the very first talk. I looked it over and it seemed a happy idea. So here it is. But I think I ought to fill in a background, the dark, bleak background of Britain in early 1946, otherwise you'll wonder at the obsession in this talk with food and clothing, and food and the desperate ways of procuring them.
In Britain the winter of 1945/6 was the hardest to bear of any of the war years, not only because of ferocious weather but because during the war the American government, under President Roosevelt's prodding, had voted to send to Britain millions of tons of food and billions of dollars in loans to finance the making of all the weapons of war. But the day after the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 and the whole Second War was over, President Truman suspended all this so-called "Lend-Lease" aid.
So Britain, already bankrupted of its own resources, was now deprived of the American helping hand. My trip over to London, to set up this new series of non-war talks, was frankly a shocker. Waterloo Station, where I came in from the boat train, was as dark as a catacomb. There was everywhere, a dire shortage, of heat and electricity, coal, food, soap was a luxury, napkins at meals long forgotten, shoes worn thin, worn through, and a usually dapper friend of mine sat next to me the first evening, raised his index finger and ran it reverently down the crease in my trousers. He said: "I haven't seen that for five years." Well now, purged of the obsessive detail about food and clothing which would today drive you mad, here is the body of that first talk. Oh, by the way, a GI bride was a British girl who'd married an American soldier while he was camped in Britain.
I want to tell you what it's like to come back to the United States after a sobering month in Britain and say what daily life feels and looks like by comparison. I sailed back on the Queen Mary with a couple of thousand GI brides and, I recall now, the great liner thundering its great horn as we slipped away from the dock at Southampton. All the mothers were clinging to the rail and all the babies were clinging to their mothers.
Along the entire curving length of the ship's main deck, the handkerchiefs fluttered in an unbroken line like washing day in Manchester and then a small coastguard cutter scuttled along like a playful puppy. A sailor stood at the cutter's bow, he cupped his hands and yelled: "You wouldn't like to come back, would you?" And the young mothers and wives, weeping like mad, yelled, "No!" The ship turned about, we headed into the Channel, England faded into the night and we all went below.
For the brides who'd just done dabbing their eyes there was a first small shock of Americana. A meal with meat and a vegetable not easily recognisable. No wonder, it was not Brussels sprouts, it was a cooked mixture of lima beans and corn, translation, maize, an American Indian favourite, christened by them, succotash. At the breakfast next day there were eggs and bacon and sausage patties and pancakes and maple syrup. The butter was fresh and plentiful and the oranges were to take away. This went on for five days and it struck me by the second day out, that few ironies of peace can be so delicate as the sight of GI brides, comparatively famished for five years, refusing most of these goodies, not because of just the rolling wave, but because their stomachs, over five years, had shrunk.
Towards the late afternoon of the fifth day, we were moving slowly up New York Harbour and slowly out of the mist rose the towering cluster of the downtown skyscrapers, crowned with a small cloud of smoke and fog. Some bright girl wondered why they should be, when all around was blue water and a sparkling sky. It was the first reminder of New York as, in a minor way, a war casualty. Before the war Manhattan was a sparkling island, both by day and by night because the city had a law forbidding the burning of soft coal anywhere, for more than ten minutes a day.
But in 1940, when neighbouring factories turned into war factories for 24 hours a day, the law was suspended and it's never been put back. By now a whole fleet of little freighters and tugs were piping out as we rode by and from time to time the Queen Mary terrified the children by roaring back three thunderous blasts. A specially chartered ferry boat, tagging along by our side, played jazzed-up versions of Why Did I Kiss That Girl and Here Comes The Bride. The captains of the tug boats would look sky-high and wave at the brides and soon we saw great signs painted on piers and docks. Welcome Home and Well Done.
A soldier friend of mine told me of the lump that came in his throat when he heard the bands and saw the signs. Full of pride and bounce he went down the gangplank to meet New York and its grateful citizens. He was far from home and he started to look for a hotel room. Nothing had been built during the war and the hotels were crammed. Then he looked for just a room anywhere. He wound up by begging a man who ran a Turkish bath for a sheet just for the night. It was his due, of fame, for a job well done.
I soon noticed other flaws in everyday life that only a month before I'd taken for granted, as the war had worn on. The taxi that took me home had one door tied with string and that evening in another cab, the driver couldn't use his first gear which had given up shortly before VE Day. He also couldn't go in reverse so if he scuttled past your destination, he had to drive round the block again to land just right. This is useful money-making device, I offer without fee or patent.
Next morning, outside my office was a long queue, about oh, 80 yards long, mostly of women, a sprinkling of men shifting a little guiltily from foot to foot. It was a queue for nylon stockings. Well by now there are, in theory, enough nylons to provide most women with a single pair, a promise that signals what might be called, Operation Greed. People get afraid they'll miss their assigned pair of stockings, so a woman queues up for one pair and her husband, nonchalantly disguised, for another. Need I say there are also in these queues, smooth-looking gents and crummy-looking youths with fake ration certificates, who have no personal use for nylons and no wife or girlfriend to be a hero for. They're just doing the rounds of the queues, by way of running their own modest black market.
Nylons are not a unique case, since I got back here. I've only once had butter offered to me in a restaurant. But here again and I mean over here, a wholesaler who serves any big city, hears there's going to be say, a shortage of butter, maybe only for a few days, but the black market, if it's to keep its custom, can't depend on a long shortage, so it corners the market and jacks up the price. The big hotels and the restaurants are reluctant participants in this game, they can't afford to go two days without butter, so they're thinking of the prosperous peacetime patronage to come. They lay in extra supplies, pay more for them and in the end everybody is the loser.
And now the city fathers tell us that worse is to come. Soon we'll be eating brown bread. The fact that brown bread, which preserves the wheat kernel, the whole grain, is far more nutritious than the white bread that has been bleached of it, is not over-publicised. In both countries, it seems, white bread has for a very long time been thought townier. So now what? Good housewives rush around buying up stacks of white flour, which in turn produces a flour shortage.
This panic is basically a fear in a land of plenty, that you may go short and become - help! - like Europe. The fear was very lively during the war. The consequence was that Americans consumed more meat than ever before in their history and eventually these contrived shortages affect the farmer, what they call his mule feed, the residue from milling which farmers feed their cows and chickens. And this means in another month or so, we're told, fewer chickens and unnecessary egg shortage and a beer shortage, something American hasn't seen since prohibition.
So whenever you're inclined to grumble at your lot, at the controls you live under, think, as the prophet says, on these things and consider how hectic it can be to be housewife in this country, where the government is not buying the food in the first place, where controls start mainly with the bewildered retailer. I hope the next letter will be more cheerful than this one, but I thought you'd like to know how it feels to have left austere, shivery old England and got back to the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Well that was the first of, I'm alarmed to see, 2,458 letters. Down the years I've heard often enough not to be coy about it, that some of my personal pleasure has passed over to listeners and very many of them have written to say so, from it seems, every land on earth.
I thank them here and can only say, I've been wishing for 49 years, I could reply to more than a fraction of them among the far-flung audience that radio makes miraculously possible. Just recently a British journalist, who seemed to have a gift for making mischief where he couldn't find it, asked me if anybody in the BBC had ever asked me to retire and was I going to do so anyway? I said the answer was no and no.
I've noticed if you retire, you keel over. The day of retirement from this assignment, which was given to me 50 years ago by the BBC official who bore the grand title of Director of the Spoken Word, the day of retirement is up to the Lord of us all, the great time-keeper in the sky, the true director of the spoken word.
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