Having struggled to make sense
of his various directives for a while, he wrote a memo giving
it as his considered opinion that if it was the policy of His
Majesty's Government to bore the German's to death, he didn't
think we had enough time. On another occasion, frustrated by
a contact's apparent inability to understand the telephone code
which Noël was laboriously following, he found himself,
teeth firmly gritted, explaining how the code worked over the
phone - presumably undermining the whole of Western security.
He did not, in short, find the job's requirements sympathetic
to his particular talents.
* * * * * * * * * * *
* * * *
It was a time out of time. .
."a period of anti-climax, and although there was a tremulousness
in the air, a sense of unease, it was too vague to weigh heavily
on people's spirits; in fact, it is questionable whether or not
the large majority was even conscious of it. I was, or rather
I like to believe, that I was, but I am not sure ... Looking
back now on those strange, frustrating months, I find it difficult
to believe that I ever lived them at all."
On April 18th, 1940 Noël
returned to England. The office was up and running and he was
beginning to suffer from "my same old trouble: the gnawing,
irrepressible restlessness, the longing for change, the stubborn
resistance to routine." Sir Campbell soon detected that
frenzied beating of wings" and arranged for Noël to
visit the still neutral USA and report back on the feelings there.
Earlier in the year the Ministry of Information had received
the suggestion that "carefully selected Britishers of outstanding
ability and reputation could form a British mission (to the US)
under the leadership of the British Ambassador." Names such
as H.G. Wells, Somerset Maugham and Noël himself were being
bandied around. Noël's participation was initially meant
to be a leave of absence but the progress of the war and the
fall of Paris made the move permanent.
His temporary absence from England
may well have sharpened his perception of it. Certainly his return
inspired him to write a short radio essay on his feelings:
"England is a good
place to be just now. This may sound affected, almost braggadocio,
but for me it is true. These are dark hours and days and weeks
and months that we are living through but the very dangers that
surround us, the very fears and apprehensions that lie just below
the surface of our ordinary lives give a certain zest to small
pleasures which, in happier times, would have passed unnoticed.
How odd to be sitting below the
house just before dawn with an overcoat on over your pyjamas,
drinking a cup of tea, and waiting for the 'All Clear' to sound!
How strange, the casual, friendly conversations in dark streets;
the feeling of comradeship with everybody; the little jokes!
How strange and how comforting. It seems that for the first time
people of all shapes and sizes and classes and creeds are getting
to know one another. Never before, driving home snugly from theatres,
restaurants, night-clubs or private houses, was there such richness,
such awareness of adventure. Here we are on our little island
and the issues have become simple. We have a good deal to grumble
about which is warming to the cockles of the spirit, like stamping
the feet to keep out the cold.
Thousands of stories are exchanged
all over the country during the strained hours of waiting. Gay
stories, sad stories, personal experiences, criticisms of the
Government, the Press, the ARR, the L.D.Vs, even the B.B.C. 'Careless
talk', we are informed on all sides, may cost lives and aeroplanes
and ships, so we dutifully bite back what we know to be an absolute
fact, that a friend of ours heard from a friend, of his who lives
just near Dover that a friend of his saw with his own eyes a
German plane disgorge seventeen real nuns dressed as Storm Troopers!
We sometimes, of course, break down and whisper this but we are
learning wisdom and so we leave out the fatal word 'Dover' and
say 'Somewhere on the South East Coast' instead, thereby salving
our national conscience and enhancing the mystery of our information.
London is emptier than I have
ever known it. So many people have been evacuated to the country,
so many mothers have taken or sent their children to the generous
hospitality of the United States and Canada. As comparatively
few Governesses and Nannys can be sent, many society ladies are
thus enabled to get to know their children for the first time.
The old order is certainly changing. The streets in the daytime
look more or less normal, except for the nobler public buildings,
such as the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Claridges
which are heavily sandbagged. Whitehall, Downing Street and all
Government offices have, in addition to sandbags, complicated
barricades of barbed wire and are sharply guarded, sometimes
by veterans with fixed bayonets and a glint of Crimean reminiscence
in their eyes, sometimes by very young men indeed who wear an
expression of frightening zeal. Woe betide the eminent minister
who has left his pass at the club.
In this building from which I
am speaking, Broadcasting House, they are on the alert every
hour of the day and night. It is comparatively easy to get in
by the simple process of filling in a form at the desk; this
form is duly stamped and handed to you. But getting out is quite
another matter for, if you happen to drop or mislay your pass,
you are incarcerated here for life! I have mine, at this moment,
clutched firmly in my hand.
The spirit of the people is extraordinary.
I have always had a romantic admiration for the common sense
and courage of my countrymen and women. This admiration has occasionally
shown itself in my writing. Perhaps in my adolescence during
the last war, certain impressions became embedded in my subconscious
mind. I was young then and paid little heed to what was going
on but I suppose I knew, as we all knew, that we were in a tight
corner. Now that I am older and have watched this danger growing
year by year, until we find ourselves in the tightest corner
we have been in for centuries, there is nothing subconscious
about the impressions I am receiving. The facts are clear and,
as I said before, the issues are simple. We all know what we
are up against and we are all prepared, united and unafraid -
which is odd, for there is much to fear. In this fortitude which
is neither stolid nor unimaginative there is a strong exhilaration.
I became aware of it the moment I stepped out of the plane on
my return from America four weeks ago. In the early months of
the war there was a certain amount of fretfulness and scare,
now there is none. Then there was uncertainty - now there is
In the year nineteen thirty-one
on the opening night of Cavalcade I was called upon to make a
speech in which I said that 'It was a pretty exciting thing to
be English'. Later I regretted this. It seemed to me to have
been too glib and theatrically patriotic. I regret it no longer,
although now, of course, it almost belongs to the Understatement
Department. I maintain that it is not only a pretty exciting
thing to be English but essential as well, because on this side
of the world it is all that there is left."
These early years of the war
were frustrating beyond belief for him. For a man who wore his
patriotism on his sleeve the ceaseless press attacks hurt and
yet he was without the power to retaliate. Predictably, the US
trip was written up as another example of his escaping his responsibility.
(The Sunday Express opined - not surprisingly - that "Mr.
Coward is not the man for the job. His flippant England - cocktails,
countesses, caviar - has gone.") The problem, of course,
was the sheer visibility of being ' Noël Coward'. Eventually,
he came to terms with or 'rose above' it, using it to open doors
for informal diplomacy and when the opportunity presented itself
- spreading the word publicly ...
Intended American Broadcast
"I would like to
preface this talk with a personal note, a brief explanation of
my attitude of mind in the face of the disaster which has come,
not only upon my own country, but upon the entire civilised world.
A writer's first duty is to learn
as much as he can about all aspects of human life and a few years
ago I decided that, although 1 had acquired a pretty expert knowledge
of my own profession, the Theatre, had travelled a good deal
and mixed with many different sorts of people, that this wasn't
enough. The game of politics was being played all round me, my
own future and the future of everything I knew and believed in
was being shaped and decided by groups of men in my own and other
countries about whom I knew nothing.
A short man with a large head
called Mussolini had made travel to Italy a great deal more comfortable
except that you were forbidden to put your feet up on the seats
of railway carriages: in Germany there had been some sort of
a fire in a Government building and another short man with an
obvious strain of pathological fanaticism had been made Chancellor.
At home in England a much larger man, Mr. Baldwin, smoked a pipe
and was Prime Minister. Beyond these superficial facts I knew
little of the forces at work, the preliminary rehearsals for
the greatest tragedy the world had ever known. Since then I have
made it my business to learn much and the more I have learned
with my mind the heavier my heart has become. I have watched,
year by year, Democratic Governments ignoring the obvious signs
and portents and ignoring not only signs and portents but actual,
accurate information. I have listened to speeches and read of
the signing and breaking of treaties. I have heard and read the
warnings of Mr. Winston Churchill and discovered to my horror
that many of those in high places who were in the position to
take immediate action merely dismissed his eloquent prophetic
words as alarmist war-mongering. The culmination of this blindness
and foolish apathy is now upon us and, as is usual with the strange
race to which I belong, the ordinary peace-loving people are
the ones who, with their backs to the wall, are valiantly fighting
to the Death.
Of the ultimate outcome of this
war I have not the slightest doubt. I know English people, I
know what they believe in and why they are fighting. In the last
War when bands played and flags blew in the wind the issues were
less clearly defined. Their heroism then was for King and Country.
An Ideal as limited as this sounds almost paltry with the weight
of years upon it, but it was far from paltry: with the help of
our allies in Europe and here we were fighting, under that particular
guise, for the same thing for which we are fighting now, but
then, as I said before, the issues were less clearly defined.
Now we know.
This is no longer England's war,
it is not even a new war, it is a continuation of the struggle
between two cultures. Some wars have had no result beyond the
destruction of life and wealth and happiness: others have diverted
the course of history a trifle but have been soon forgotten,
but a few have been determining factors in the history of civilisation.
These latter are the wars in which two utterly opposed views
of life have met and clashed. Such was the war between Persia
and Greece in the fifth century B.C., and the war between Rome
and Carthage two hundred and fifty years later. If Xerxes or
Hannibal had been successful, the course of civilisation would
have been changed. It is not two people or two Empires who now
face each other, it is two views of life struggling for the control
of the future.
This is one of the rare wars
in history when the stake is not merely national or Imperial
power, but the future development of mankind. If England loses
this war she will cease to be a Great Power. Our links with the
overseas world will be cut and we shall be obliged for the future
to do what Germany tells us. Our position and dependence on food
from abroad puts us utterly at the mercy of any power that rules
the seas. But our own downfall will only be part of the downfall
of the civilised world. A new ideal will determine not only the
destiny of Europe but the destiny of the Americas as well and
that ideal will be based on Force, Domination and ruthless brutality
to all those of alien blood or different creeds: in fact, Nazism.
Nazism rejects all belief in
the brotherhood of man; its idea of humanity consists of one
ruling race and a number of other races naturally and eternally
It is still, in certain sections
of the United States, considered far-fetched even to visualise
the possibility of Nazi domination here. 1 have heard many intelligent
Americans argue clearly and concisely that such a situation could
never possibly exist. 1 have also heard, before and during the
war, Scandinavians, Dutch, Belgians, French and Englishmen use
relatively the same arguments. Europe, of course, is far away,
the wide ocean separates it from you. Japan is far away too,
a wide ocean separates you from that, but there is no ocean wide
enough to separate you from an epidemic and Nazism and Fascism
combined contributes the most formidable infection that has ever
An important issue in this country
seems to be whether you declare war or not - surely this particular
phrase has, during the last few years, become merely academic.
Japan certainly never declared war on China and, as we all know,
Germany has monotonously been declaring peace on everybody since
nineteen thirty-six. As far as 1 can see, the United States is
at war now and has been for several months. The fact that American
men are not actually fighting with their bodies and muscles and
blood doesn't signify nearly as much as the fact that millions
of American men and women, writers, actors, radio announcers,
journalists, even politicians are fighting now with their minds,
voices and brains and have been doing so for a considerable while.
This War, contrary to much pessimistic
belief, is not going to be won by force alone. It is going to
be won by conviction, belief in the Democratic way of life, and
courage, not merely physical courage but moral courage and the
personal incentive to utilise it, which incentive is still, thank
God, a live and vital part of our heritage.
In my travels about this country
lately I have never heard one American man, woman or child, however
opposed to war they were, profess anything but loathing for the
Nazi regime. I know, of course, that there are many thousands
of German descent and sympathies that must feel it is a fine
thing but it is odd that one never hears them say so openly.
If they or those they have converted admire the ideals and methods
of Hitler and against war - isolationism - parlour communism
and countless other disguises. Who, in this great free territory,
would dare to come out in a leading article or broadcast and
claim that Adolph Hitler was the saviour of mankind and that
they were prepared to support him in every way in their power?
Who, in Pittsburgh - San Francisco - Des Moines - Chicago or
New York would have the courage to organise a vast charity benefit
for the war sufferers in Germany? Who indeed? Obviously no one,
because they know perfectly well that they would probably be
lynched if they did. In strict neutrality charitable assistance
to the sufferers in belligerent nations should be impartial.
Which, among all the humane charitable war organisations in this
country, is publicly sending aid to Germany, Italy, Russia or
Japan? The answer is not one, for the simple reason that the
spirit and temper of these United States is as definitely opposed
to Nazi domination as we are in England, and the small percentage
who are not forced by the weight of public opinion to use the
underhand insidious methods of pacifism and subversive political
propaganda in order that their voices may be heard at all.
Taking all this into consideration
- and I honestly and sincerely believe it to be true - where
is the sense of all these shrill rhetorical questions as to whether
America is coming into the War or not? The ardent and, I fear,
slightly confused pacifists, can be silenced or not, as the case
may be, by the single statement that of course America is not
coming into the War for the sound reason that she is in it already
in spirit, heart and mind and has been since the invasion of
We in England are at this moment
fighting with all the force of arms that we have, which is not
as much as we would like it to be, but the other force with which
we are fighting and which will ultimately win, is indestructible.
We are fighting not only physically to defend our country from
the concrete horrors which are all too clearly dominating on
the Continent, we are also defending the decency, justice, morality
and freedom of the English speaking world without which life
would be for me, and for you, unendurable."
Paradoxically, these were also
years that proved creatively fruitful. The emotions generated
by the war, the values threatened, inspired him to some of his
Standing on the platform of a
London railway station one morning after a bad blitz, the sky
showing through a roof from which most of the glass had been
blown and a smell of burning lingering in the air, Noël
found himself watching his fellow Londoners going chirpily about
their business as though nothing had happened. The sentiment
engendered by the sight led straight to the song "London
Pride", which became the anthem of World, War II - very
much as Ivor Novello's 'Keep the Home Fires Burning" had
in the earlier 'war to end wars'.
Then there was the war film -
In Which We Serve - Noël tribute to his beloved Navy.
Based closely on the character and wartime exploits of his friend,
Lord Louis Mountbatten - specifically the sinking of Mountbatten's
destroyer, the H.M.S. Kelly - the film is still considered the
classic among wartime propaganda films. It was, in effect, a
poem on film, a complement to the many other verses he used to
express his feelings and frustrations during those darkest of
days. For the people who had got us into the mess with such myopic
lack of preparation he had nothing but contempt. At Christmas
1939 he would write