The Unknown Coward - by Barry Day

Part 1 of an extract from Barry Day's unpublished text - Part 2
 
1939-1945
 
"DON'T YOU KNOW THERE'S A WAR ON?"
 
Wartime catchphrase of British
variety act, Hatton & Manners.

"Let's drink to the hope that one day this country of
ours, which we love so much, will find dignity and
greatness and peace again."

- The Toast from Cavalcade (1931)

When it finally came the war seemed a rather strange anti-climax - at least to begin with. Apart from those who joined the armed forces, most people found themselves exchanging their peacetime jobs for uniformed but curiously ill-defined versions of the same thing. And when Armageddon didn't happen, overnight, a subdued normality slowly began to reassert itself. Was this what it was all about, people began to ask themselves in what came to be known as the 'Phoney War'? Things couldn't be that bad if you could still lunch at the Ritz or the Savoy Grill.

Those few months at the end of 1939 and the beginning of 1940 allowed some quintessentially British reactions to events - or rather, the lack of them.

There was the formation of the Home Guard, a rag, tag and bobtail collection of the over-aged and unfit and decidedly unequipped -which won a curiously warm place in the public affections with its dedication to guarding Britain's highways, byways and coastlines against German intrusion. Radio comedian Robb Wilton caught the amateur flavour of the whole enterprise in a monologue. When 'the Wife' asks him - "How will you know this Mr. Hitler - you've never laid eyes on him in your life". He replies with stern logic - "I've got a tongue in me head, haven't I.'

Meanwhile, out of mothballs came the 'experts' who'd seen it all before in World War 1. Noël was to satirise both in a lyrical plea to the Ministry of Defence - "Could You Please Oblige Us With a Bren Gun?"'

Could you please oblige us with a Bren gun?
Or, failing that, a hand grenade would do.
We've got some ammunition
In a rather damp condition
And Mayor Huss
Has an arquebus
That was used at Waterloo. 

As he tells a version of it in Future Indefinite, Noël himself was recruited for the war effort in somewhat surrealistic fashion. One day in the late summer of 1939 he received a phone call from a Sir Campbell Stuart - a name completely unknown to him - ordering him to a midnight assignation at his own flat to discuss a matter of national importance. Since he was at Goldenhurst, his country retreat, at the time, Noël decided to break the journey back to London to seek advice from Winston Churchill, then statesman-in-exile. Having cadged a dinner invitation at Chartwell, he finally plucked up courage to broach the subject. Noël's longtime love of the Navy inclined him to want to serve in some sort of liaison role or - he told Churchill - at least something that would utilise his intelligence.

Whether accidentally or by design, the great man pretended to hear intelligence with a capital T and pooh-poohed the idea of Noël as a spy immediately -

"Finally, warming to his subject, he waved his hand with a
bravura gesture and said dramatically: 'Get into a warship
and see some action! Go and sing to them when the guns
are firing - that's your job!"'

Later that night, when Noël and Stuart kept their clandestine rendezvous, he did end up recruited as a spy - sort of. Noël was to go to Paris at the outbreak of war and set up an office dealing in propaganda aimed at Nazi Germany. His temporary HQ would naturally be the Ritz.

A few days later he found himself in situ, looking at a sheaf of "Papers ... most of which were marked 'Secret' and all of which were dull." Then followed one of the more bizarre periods of his life, conducting a series of clandestine meetings with people who were as befuddled about their function as he was - most of which seemed to end up with lunch at somewhere like Maxim's. When he later played the part of Hawthorne, the amiably idiotic Man from M.I.5 in Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana, he could draw on personal experience.

To begin with there was little change from normal routine. In October he could write to Lorn on British Embassy stationery ...

Lornie, whose undying love
Pursues me to this foreign clime,
Please note from the address above
That master is not wasting time
In pinching all that he can see
From His Britannic Majesty.
 
Master regrets he has. no news
To gladden Lornie's loving heart.
Hitler's still beastly to the Jews
And still the battle does not start.
Virginia Vernon's in my care
For all the Durée de la Guerre'.
 
Kindly inform my aging Mum
That I am reasonably bright
Working for peace and joy to come
By giving dinners every night.
Give her my love and also Joyce,
Thus echoing your master's voice.
 
And as for you, my little dear,
Please rest assured of my intense
And most devoted and sincere
And most distinguished compliments,
And if you do not care a bit
You know what you can do with it!

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:

LONDON 1940
"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 conviction.

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 - 1940
"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 inferior.

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 threatened mankind.

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 Finland.

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 best work.

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

Back to the Nursery
 
Back to the Nursery,
Back to the Nursery,
Let us enjoy this sublime anniversary.
Full nineteen hundred and thirty-nine years
Let us forget the despair and the tears
Let us ignore all the slaughter and danger
(Think of the Manger! Remember the Manger!)
Let us envisage the Star in the East
(Man is a murderer. Man is a beast.)
 
Let us forget that the moment is sinister,
Let us uphold our devout Foreign Minister.
Let us not prattle of Simon or Hoare
Or Mr. Chamberlain's diffident war.
Let us not speak of Belisha or Burgin
(Think of the Virgin! Remember the Virgin!)
Let us from ridicule turn to Divinity
(Think of the Trinity! Think of the Trinity!)
Now as our day of rejoicing begins
(Never mind Poland. Abandon the Finns.)
Lift up your voices! "Long live Christianity!"
(Cruelty, Sadism, Blood and Insanity.)
So that the world across carnage is hurled,
God's in his Heaven - all's right with the world! 

 ... but for the men and women who would, once again, get us out of it he

had nothing but admiration .

THESE ARE BRAVE MEN
 
These are brave men
Who sail the sea in war
But we civilians must never mention it.
There's an unwritten law
That rules one multitude of ordinary heroes
To be prepared
Each minute of each hour
To stay at action stations
Closed in - sweating in the heat
To face much time
Far too much time
To wonder and to contemplate
In that long waiting,
So many possibilities to fear
To have, in convoying a Merchant fleet,
To move so slowly and to regulate
The engines of the ship, the nerves.
Each man's aware
In each man's secret heart
There lurks, not fright
But some dark premonition of what might
At any second happen.
Suddenly the ship swerves
Sharply to starboard - then again to port.
Submarine alarm
Enemy aircraft - bearing red 3.0
This may be it,
This may be the swift prelude to the slow
And sodden processes of dying. 
Noël was never one to hide his likes and dislikes and certain individuals had only to be mentioned to cause the bile to rise. Returning to Britain at around the same time - but for quite different reasons - was Unity Mitford, one of the socially celebrated 'Mitford Girls', sister of Diana, Jessica and Nancy. Unity Valkyrie Mitford's dubious claim to personal fame was her well publicised affection for and association with Hitler and the leading Nazis in the immediately pre-war years. In 1940 family pressure brought her home. Noël was not about to let her arrive unheralded ...

NOTE ON OUR NEW
NATIONAL HEROINE
 
Unity, Unity - Daughter of sorrow,
Creature of tragedy, child of distress,
Read her sad tale in the Mirror tomorrow,
Learn of her life in the Daily Express,
Think how she publicly postured and pandered,
Screeching her views on the Nazi regime.
Weep with her now in the News and the Standard, Everything's over, the end of the dream.
Sigh for this amateur social Egeria,
Think how she suffered and suffered in vain,
Caught in the toils of neurotic hysteria,
Ne'er to take tea with her Fuhrer again.
No more photography - no more publicity,
No more defiance and devil may care.
Back to old England and bleak domesticity,
Nothing but decency, truth and despair.
No concentration camps - nothing exciting here,
Nothing sadistic. No national slaves.
Only the freedom for which we are fighting here,
Only Britannia still ruling the waves.
Unity - Unity - Daughter of sorrow
Sad, disillusioned and pampered and rich
How can she hope for a happy tomorrow?
What is there left for this tiresome bitch?


 Copyright - The Noel Coward Society - May 2001