From Main St. to Fleet St. (2)

WOODROW WILSON and I went to Europe about the same time in 1919.

He went to make the world safe for Democracy. I went to help get out the women's page of the Sheffield Independent. I had the easier task.

''No experience whatever,'' read Basil Clarke, my putative new editor scanning a letter of introduction from C. P. Scott, the famous publisher of the Manchester Guardian who had sent me to Sheffield. ''Came over in a grain ship, 'eh? Were you in the army?''

I had been in the army but hadn't served in Europe. But the war had bred a kind of recklessness among young American stay-at-homes - Germany crushed; Russia Bolshevik; England sorely fatigued; the world in upheaval. We must get out and see it! I had always meant to be a reporter burrowing into things like this; it had been my ambition since boyhood.

''This is Mr. Somerville, our leader (editorial) writer,'' Basil Clarke said. I found myself shaking hands with a solemn Scot whose face was lined into a melancholy triangle. He relaxed when I mentioned Boston.

''Oh aye?'' he said. ''I was there yonder once meself, making shoes in Brockton before I started leader-writing. Ah, weel,'' he added, ''the occupations are much the same.''

While I pondered this, I looked again at Basil Clarke (later Sir Basil). We liked each other immediately. He was a type I learned to recognize later on, the quintessential reporter, former crack Daily Mail war correspondent - literate, audacious, in turn suspicious and trusting, seeing the world's drama in terms of deadlines and headlines.

A short man with a square jaw entered briskly and asked if I were ''the Yank'' and, if so, could I add something to the obituary of President Wilson?

''Wilson?'' I gasped, startled.

''We're freshening our list,'' said Mr. Sandeman calmly, editor of the Independent's rather raffish Sunday edition, The News. ''Always keep biographies fresh and ready; otherwise they'll do you in every time, too late for the final edition.'' Sandeman said he wanted something light: ''Cheerful, you know, liven it up right after the 'shocking news' sentence.''

I was learning journalism fast. I mentioned Wilson's stereotyped phrase, ''May I not?'' and recalled that some Republican critic said he sailed to the Paris Peace Conference at ''17 May-I-knots an hour.'' Sandeman roared. I was also able to tell him that Dubuque was a city, not a state. It appeared that I might be creating a niche for myself.

Mr. Clarke gave me half a dozen letters-to-the-editor and proposed that I edit them and add a few letters myself. He liked angry ones best, he said - anything better than a stony silence. When I left, I was employed at (STR)2 a week on the Sheffield Independent. My title was ''confidential secretary to the editor'' to avoid annoying the trade union with my low pay and lack of apprenticeship. I accepted the offer eagerly.

In a month I had become a sort of general utility man dealing with Anglo-American problems to the limit of my ability, one of which was that the English couldn't spell. It is not easy writing headlines using words like ''kerb'' and ''tyre'' and ''enquiries,'' putting the ''u'' in ''honour'' and ''labour,'' and remembering that Government is capitalized and pluralized. I attacked these problems as well as I could, in the meantime living in the hostel of the Sheffield Settlement, under the devoted warden, Arnold Freeman, at 32 shillings a week for room and two meals.

The women's page was different. It was run by our ''Lady Editor,'' the formidable Miss Abbot, who intimidated sad-eyed Somerville. An emergency arose; Miss Abbot was called away. Suddenly I was interim editor of the Sheffield Independent's women's page.

This might seem a nightmare to ordinary folk, but to a brash young American it was an opportunity. Fortunately I had paid my respects earlier to Rice Williams, the American vice-consul in Sheffield, and had noted in letters home that he had copies of The Christian Science Monitor, which I described as ''an excellent paper.'' In an emergency it was the place to turn. The Monitor was as good as its reputation. I culled from it household hints or fashions and recipes.

On the Household Page of the Monitor of Friday, Oct. 10, 1919, for example, there is an article on ''the recent electrical show at the Grand Central Palace, New York,'' describing various types of the new automatic washing machines that promised to lighten women's toil.

''One new type has two vacuum cups,'' it said. (Imagine that, not one but two!) They ''are suspended on a shaft and work up and down while the copper inside the tub, containing the clothes, is slowly revolving.'' Wonderful! I was interested, and thought Sheffield ladies should be, too. ''The suds and water are forced through the fabric and under the clothes and are then sucked back and upward through them.''

A week later this invaluable newspaper carried an article from London describing ''Tailor-Made Suits for Autumn'' with a ''fall suit of striking contrast.''

''These skirts are best made of a perfectly straight piece of material, either gathered or plaited to wide plaits at the waist, giving them the barrel effect so much in vogue just now,'' the paper read. That was what I was after - the barrel effect! I wouldn't have known a ''plait'' if I met one walking down the street. I may have gone a bit far in my recipes. For all I know my ragout lapin is still being cooked in Sheffield. That was long ago; today I can't even boil water.

Miss Abbot, a strong-willed, regal woman, did not seem pleased on her return. She withered poor Somerville with a contemptuous glare (who cringed before her and treated her column, ''Men and Women,'' as though it were by Shakespeare), but for me she explained that her audience didn't use Florida oranges; and didn't I know that milk and sugar were still rationed?

Well, yes in a way, I did know it. I have my ration card here now, military gray in color. Name and Address of Butcher: W. J. Taylor, 18 Addy Street; Name and Address of Butter Retailer: Maypole Dairy Co., 10 Castle Street; Sugar Retailer: Carbrook Co-op, Infirmary Road. And at bottom, ''Spare,'' my name - ''Oxford St. YMCA Settlement.''

I stood at the corner of Oxford and Shipton streets the other day, where the old Settlement House used to be, with emotions too deep to utter. It was an idealistic community enterprise with a Little Theater that held 150 people, and a noble goal (like Hull House, Chicago), under Arnold Freeman, who gave his public anything from Tiny Tim to Tolstoy. Well, it is gone. Not a scrap of it remains today except in my heart. But it sheltered me almost a year.

Sheffield then had the reputation of being the dirtiest industrial city in Europe. The very sheep in the lovely moors outside the city (where Scott's Ivanhoe once rode) were blackened by the impalpable soot that came drifting down like a kind of snow. Soot was belched up by the great steel mills. My friend, Wilfred Wigham, who also worked on the Independent, would walk home with me at three in the morning. Then at seven, outside our windows, came the sound of clattering wooden sabots on the cobbled street, as the ''buffer girls'' trooped down to the mills, the steel-cleated toes of their shoes rattling on the pavement.

It is all gone now, the soots and the Settlement House and a good many of the steel mills as well, whose business is being gobbled up by Japan. Sheffield now boasts that it is the cleanest industrial town in Europe and it rather looks that way, too. The dismal lines of row houses that used to follow the contour of the hills and undulate in their endless parallels are gone, replaced by unimaginative but vastly improved semi-detached homes built by the city. Today you could rub a white glove over the rails of an iron fence and produce hardly a smear. Scott's Ivanhoe would find no trace of the venomous fumes of my day. It is vastly better no doubt, only it is not my day - the days of Basil Clarke, of Arnold Freeman, of cowed Somerville and the half-dozen sub-editors who wrote tomorrow's headlines while the city slept.

I was discovering the goodwill the English showed Americans right after the World War I, and it was past belief. In retrospect, I suppose there was an American aura in my presence - youth, hope, guilelessness, New World - of which I was unaware. To a nation that endured the sacrifice and gloom of four years of war, an innocent American to whom they could tell their stories must have been wonderfully amusing and refreshing. May it always be so between the two peoples.

One other oddity: At home I seemed about the normal size - on the tallish side. But here my six feet two inches made me seem to tower. I do not feel it now. Have I shrunk since then or has the height of the British male actually increased?

Famous men visited the Settlement. One was the painter William Rothenstein. He was a small man, with a dark face and innocent eyes, who had come to paint two of the buffer girls. Rothenstein and I took a walk together, and he told me how in India he befriended a native poet. Students translated passages and he was struck by their passionate eloquence. Back in England, he told me, he was surprised to receive by mail a small six-penny notebook filled with verses, dedicated to him. Rothenstein (we always called him ''the Professor,'' for I think he was associated with Sheffield University) had the poem translated and printed. It was the ''Gitanjali,'' which won Sir Rabindinath Tagore the Nobel Prize.

News coming from the United States was incomprehensible. It was trying, because I was the American expert of the Independent. How was Prohibition going to work? A team of ''dries'' had come over to proselytize England.

And what was happening to the League of Nations? I felt deeply about it. I had enlisted in the Army to help ''make the world safe for Democracy.'' Now Wilson's critics said the League was a betrayal. Incomprehensible to the English. Ex-President Teddy Roosevelt warned the Allies before the peace treaty that ''Mr. Wilson has no authority whatever to speak for the American people at this time.''

We mulled these things over at night as we edited the copy at the news desk, to which I had been promoted (with a gratifying increase of salary to (STR)4 a week). The routine on news desks was much the same, now as then, round the world: ''Old'' Rose (he must have been 40) the Chief Sub Editor, sitting in the slot, making snap judgments on world events, tossing it over to sub-editors with the size of headlines indicated. At 9 p.m. a girl brings in a pitcher of hot tea with another pitcher one-third full of milk - no sugar. We take cake from our coat pockets and munch and drink as we work. She comes again at midnight. Old Rose is eating by fits and starts all evening, his hand stealing automatically to his napkinned lunch even in his most intense concentration.

Then a rumble. What's that? The presses begin to turn, we can feel the vibration below us and above us, all around us, like a ship. We know men are tossing out bundles of early editions to delivery boys. Reporters have long since gone home; now it is sub-editors. It's all written in long hand - there's only one typewriter in the whole newsroom and that's an old Oliver. News flows in from Ireland, from Europe, from America (that comes to me). Much depends on speed and I, as a beginner, wish I could do more.

I make up for it in part by my knowledge of the latest American movies, which are flooding a moviegoing market starved during the war. I get paid an extra pound for a column on the editorial page and I can turn one out in about an hour: One tells of the thrill ahead for England when the new smash hit ''Broken Blossoms'' reaches Europe. It is D. W. Griffith's melodrama starring Lilian Gish , and when I saw it in Boston it had been attracting crowds for weeks in what I described as ''the hottest part of the year.''

When wars end, history does not stop; it goes on in a different direction, possibly at an aggravated pace. America's sacrifice took varied forms: enactment of Prohibition, for example. The Volstead Act, which provided enforcement mechanisms for the 18th Amendment (Prohibition), passed over Wilson's veto Oct. 28, 1919 - a couple of months after I reached Sheffield.

America's espionage law of 1918 forbade anyone to utter ''any scurrilous or abusive language about the American form of government, the Constitution, the military forces, or the flag.'' Fear of Bolshevism swept the country. The espionage law carried a fine of $10,000 or 20 years in prison, or both. Nearly 2 ,000 cases were prosecuted.

Whipped-up postwar emotions brought dim rumblings even to Sheffield in 1919 and to a gangling American, sitting at a news desk in a provincial paper. Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference was a world savior, but not at home. And he compounded political difficulties by his own mistakes. It was a situation similar to one after the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln favored a policy of ''charity for all'' but US Sens. Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens demanded retribution.

Now in the postwar world the whole system of capitalism shivered under the supposed menace of Bolshevism. Georges Clemenceau sneered at Wilson's Fourteen Points and David Lloyd George demanded $120 billion in reparations from prostrate Germany. They had made secret treaties among themselves. Soon after, everyone began reading Keynes's explosive ''Economic Consequences of the Peace.''

And now the world had a new puzzle: the US Constitution. According to that venerable document, a treaty requires a two-thirds approval of the Senate alone. This gives some 30 members of but one of the two houses of Congress veto power - a power unknown in any other democracy. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, under Wilson's implacable enemy Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, recommended the Versailles treaty with four reservations and 38 amendments. There followed eight months' debate.

''You mean that 30 senators could block the treaty?'' asked my English friends incredulously. They shook their heads. It was like giving the House of Lords a veto power, they exclaimed. Gloomily I replied that it went beyond that: If the House of Lords voted it would be a simple majority; in the US Senate, however, only a third-plus-one could block the American program.

(I might say, parenthetically, that in 1980 the same unique constitutional provision helped block ratification of the Salt II agreement with the Soviet Union.)

So now in 1919 things are coming to a climax in that far-off world where events are tumbling along impetuously and the US, the potential leader of democracies, is reverting to isolationism. It has sent 2 million soldiers to Europe, beat Germany, and now it is washing its hands of the whole mess. It's protected by the Atlantic and Pacific, isn't it?

It is night in the editorial office of the Sheffield Independent and the place has begun to shake and shiver as the presses roll. I watch the news bulletins as they come in, to see if any bear on the US. It is late 1919 and Wilson has set out on a whistle-stop campaign across America to gather support for the Treaty. He speaks with passion and superb eloquence that has hardly been equaled in history.

What is this bulletin? From Pueblo, Colo., Sept. 25, it says that President Wilson has collapsed. He is going to be brought back to Washingon. Is the crusade over?

''Is that important?'' asks chief copy desk editor Rose.

''I don't know.''

''The paper is tight tonight,'' warns Rose.

Without Wilson the peace treaty with its disputed League of Nations clause comes to a Senate vote. Wilson's Fourteenth Point promised ''The formation of a general association of nations under specific convenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.'' The Lodge reservations are first handily defeated but then an effort to ratify the Treaty unconditionally is beaten by about the same majority (53-38). At every point three-quarters of the Senate want some League but it is never possible to get a two-thirds majority for any specific League.

In the final showdown it comes to within seven votes of the two-thirds required for adoption. But it fails. Isolationists are exultant. The world spins on . . . at the next election America picks Warrren G. Harding and idealism is put aside.

But Wilson has the last word. On his western trip before his collapse (from which he never recovered) he declared, ''The US must go in or it will break the heart of the world.''

And he warned: ''I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it. . . .''

Wilson uttered his warning while I was on the copy desk in Sheffield in September 1919. In March 1939, a generation later, German troops marched into Czechoslovakia.

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