From Main St. to Fleet St. (3)

THE fact that I was living in Dickens's home in London didn't startle me; living in England at all in 1920 was so strange and stunning that I just took it for granted, like working on Fleet Street with responsibility for the Wapping fire, and hearing at the firsthand an account of repelling the zeppelin raids (which I shall come to later).

In 1982 the same faded blue London County Council sign is still there on the wall at 48 Doughty Street:

''Charles Dickens 1812-1870 Novelist Lived Here.''

I waved to it like an old friend. But they had omitted one fact that was important to me. I lived there, too. It was before today's double-decker buses rumbled through the area, and before the pound sterling had shrunk to a preposterous shadow of its former self: Why, I shared Dickens's home (which had then come down in the world) for (STR)2 a week! That's what I paid, and by a well-known law of socio-dynamics, the less rent you paid, the higher you rose in the floors of a rooming house. Needless to say, I was in the attic. And there were weevils in the oatmeal.

I put in that unpleasant fact to set the stage: We had just fought (and won) the greatest war in history. Everyone had been on ration cards. Even two years after the war, in London some foods were scarce and you were lucky to get some things at all. When I was about to make a protest on the oatmeal I noticed that others silently disposed of foreign objects without comment. I was imitative and young and kept my counsel. The neighborhood evidently had come down a bit in the world since Dickens came to live here at 25, hoping to make a go at broader writing after covering parliamentary debates. Well, I was 22 and hoped to make writing a career, too, journalism or otherwise. In the nine months since arriving at Scotland on a grain ship, I had jumped from my beginner's salary of (STR)2 a week in Sheffield to the Fleet Street office at (STR)5 a week! Why, you could live on that. Some colleagues did.

The other roomers didn't care that we were living in Dickens's old house. The war had churned most of us around and we were thinking about other things. A cracked mirror in a restaurant? ''A blooming bomb did that, sir, it did,'' said the proprietor.

An easy walk past Gray's Inn and Lincoln's Inn took me to Fleet Street for a night that sometimes lasted in the lonely office till 4 a.m. - if Mr. West, my superior (a mild, anxious widower) could overcome his apprehension about the Empress Dowager and go home. He always intended to on Sunday evenings, but then his courage failed at midnight. Could he trust a Yank to get the obituary in the paper if the Empress Dowager died? What did he know about royalty? ''Not tonight ,'' he would say, sadly. ''Another Sunday.''

He might add something about not having a line of descent in America.

Henry Burnett, Dickens's brother-in-law, called one evening at 48 Doughty Street, and describes a meeting of the family. They were sitting there cosily before the fire when Dickens came suddenly into the room: ''What, you here!'' he exclaimed. ''I'll bring down my work.''

It was his monthly installment of ''Oliver Twist.'' Burnett's account, a bit condensed, goes on: ''In a few minutes he returned, manuscript in hand, and while he was pleasantly discoursing, he employed himself in carrying to the corner of the room a little table, at which he seated himself and recommenced his writing. We at his bidding went on talking; he now and then (the feather of his pen still moving rapidly from side to side) put in a cheerful interlude. It was interesting to watch his mind and muscles working as new thoughts were being dropped upon the paper. And to note the working brow, the set of mouth, with the tongue tightly pressed against the closed lips, as was his habit.''

I'd like to see even the most facile TV commentator repeat that trick today: carry on the thread of a novel, participate in an after-dinner conversation, and use a feathered pen at the same time. From Doughty Street issued accounts of the Squeers and Crumles families, the Artful Dodger, Bill Sikes and Fagin. When Dickens came home he was barely known; when he left he was a world figure.

Now in 1920, I supposed, there were just as many Dickens characters around as in 1837 (when he first came here), only there was no Dickens to point them out. With wide-eyed wonder I was drinking in everything, long since lost in a love affair with the noble and provocative old city.

I went to the Eton-Harrow cricket match, for example. In a vague way I supposed cricket was English baseball, but I couldn't fathom it. My response in Sheffield when asked to attend a game - that I had an hour or two to spare and would like to see a match - brought hilarity. Cricket, it turned out, was a matter of days, not hours.

Here in London at Baker Street station on the way to the match was an extraordinary spectacle, a 17-year-old wearing a shining top hat, conspicuous spats with a frock coat, and holding a blue, tasselated walking stick. With him were mother, sister, and papa (attired like his son). There were others in the happy crowd headed the same way. Was this a railroad queue or a fancy ball? I drank it in. The youth's cutaway wasn't new (hired for the occasion). In fact, it was split a little in the seam between the shoulders - that disposed of the fancy dress idea! The guard on the Underground grinned at us all good-humoredly. He felt himself part of the pageant, too - the time-honored opportunity for a little strutting in masculine finery, supported by admiring females, the great British charade they all loved and participated in, emerging after the war.

I followed the party with elation. So this was Lords! There were now more plug hats (the kind that Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding back home were wearing for Inaugural Day) and more spats. Ten-year-old lads and their grandfathers, in a kind of initiation rite, sported the same attire (so far as I could make out) in this picturesque display of the disappearing caste system. As an outsider, I enjoyed it. The smallest boys, though, were without the spats, and their jackets were tailless. . . .

I was there, too, at Westminster to see the Lincoln statue unveiled, with Elihu Root and Lloyd George and ancient Viscount Bryce, whose classic volume, ''The American Commonwealth,'' devotes a chapter to why Americans don't elect ''great men'' as presidents. They prefer more ordinary people, Bryce argues, with whom they can more immediately identify. (Was he wrong? Run over the last eight presidents since Roosevelt and ponder the matter.)

Root spoke slowly but his weighty sentences had accumulating power, and I noticed he could bring the crash of applause whenever he wanted. Lloyd George spoke in reverence and noted Lincoln's magnanimity to a conquered enemy. Was there significance here? How about prostrate Germany? At the end somebody in the middle of the sea of glistening umbrellas started singing, ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic.'' A great moment. The Anglo-American crowd came in on the chorus and a group in the center sang the verses, and here in a foreign land the new statue dripped rain and recalled the tall, humble man who split rails and would have been as surprised as I was at the genteel panoply at Lords.

It got to be midnight one Sunday on Fleet Street, and gentle-voiced Mr. West finally got up courage to leave me with the telegraph operator in the other room (who incidentally was a DSO (Distiguished Service Order recipient) but you got used to things like that). He reminded me where the ''obits'' were kept and went home. I was in charge. Our leased wire went to Nottingham and Sheffield and Darlington and if any crisis came over the Postal Exchange system I was to digest it for early editions as fast as I could. The operator would send it by Morse code. Nothing happened.

It was chilly in the office and the coal strike had reminded our employers to be thrifty with heat. Finally a fire started over in Wapping, and I got a ''snap'' over the press association wire of the loss of two firemen. So I woke my operator who was coiled on three chairs in the next room, and got off a ''stop press'' for my three early editions.

The DSO and I returned to the comparative warmth of my room, listened to the wind on quiet Fleet Street and considered each other. Yes, I said, I had been in service, too; hadn't got across. ''Officer?'' he asked suspiciously. Well, yes, I said, if you want to call it that; it didn't amount to anything.

He was reassured. He had been in the Air Force. He was tall, dark, with British aquiline nose, and easygoing. He'd been on seaplane patrols. His lieutenant steered the plane and ran it; he was mechanic, observer, machine-gunner, and bombardier. Rank? Private.

''It was routine,'' he said, ''till they started the 'Gotha raids.' '' He went out with another patrol one day looking for the zeppelin R-33, which headquarters reported was due to make its trial flight. They went over to France and started hunting at 3 a.m. but couldn't find a thing. The other plane kept five miles off and they watched either side. Clouds were thick and they dove down, and just in front was the R-33 coming back from its trip.

''There's the beggar!'' he shouted.

DSO's vocabulary was limited and he used one sanguinary adjective so often that it got in the way of his narrative. I will omit it for succinctness. He said the other plane was just coming out of the clouds five miles off. Didn't remember how he felt; too busy. He automatically cut the 100 or so yards of copper wire radio antenna hanging from the plane, and the same dive out of the clouds carried them over the zeppelin. He picked up his machine gun from the left-hand side and slammed it on the pivot on the edge of the little seat behind the pilot. The R-33 was right under him.

He grinned and illustrated on his chair how he looked over.

How did he feel?

He couldn't remember. It was too fast. It was them or us now.

''You know how our guns work? Cartridges come in bunches of five; every fifth a 'tracer.' It's got no metal head and it's put in to follow where you're firing at night. Bullets go right through a Zepp, you know, and it never knows the difference. Not tracers. I pulled the trigger for a burst and it stopped automatically on five. I looked out to see what I'd done and the cover was alight. They have great thick covers, you know.

''The fire was along the top, like maybe you've seen paper burn that's got saltpeter on it? It ran along slow like that and there was no hope for her. Just those five shots - or just one, anyway, did her in. But how about us? The only thing to do was to get out of there quick. We did.''

He leaned back. ''Gas, you know; they're filled with illuminating gas. When one of those goes off, a plane that's around goes off, too. So we got out.''

They couldn't hear the explosion over the noise of their own propellers, but they could see the flash over in Holland. It looked like a great oily rag, he said, settling down on the channel with black smoke coming out of it and his plane circling down with it about as far away ''as we are now from the Ludgate Circus, and pieces of her falling down all about as big as this room.''

So what happened? My DSO grinned and really began to get interested. They couldn't sit still, he said. They kept jumping up and touching things and sitting down. His officer, honestly, he leaned over and kissed DSO. Then they went home.

''I would have sent them a wireless, but I'd cut the aerial: I didn't know I had till I looked, but of course you always do that when there's trouble or you're flying low, to save winding it in.

''Getting back to the base I tied my handkerchief to the pilot's and then that onto the gun, and that made a fine flag.'' DSO stopped and drank it in. ''. . .And you know those Veery lights in our pistol? We had signals for separate days but when we got over the base we fired them off regardless. They couldn't make it out below and some of the boats thought we'd stove our hull and put out crews before we sank.

''They took us ashore and the Commandant was there. 'What do you mean by this?'

'' 'It was just for fun, sir,' said my Lieutenant.''

'' 'Just for fun! . . .'

'' 'Yes, sir, we've just sunk the R-33, sir.'

'' 'What's that, what's that, I must have confirmation of this,' '' and the Commandant sent out two of the fastest destroyers. They reported burning wreckage on the water and a boat with the letters R-33 on it. Meanwhile, the photographs came out. The whole camp churned. And he saw his picture in ''Sketch'' saying he'd won a DSO, and he went out and got the Ribbon, and sewed it on himself and the girl he was engaged to wouldn't believe it. This was the part my DSO relished most. At first he pretended it was all a mistake. He did properly pull her leg! And the King couldn't come down to give the medal himself and some general did, before the whole camp, and they carried him on their shoulders for six miles. Later in the war he got a bar to go with the medal, the eqivalent of the same honor over again. This time it was for an enemy submarine.

Here I got another ''snap'' about the Wapping fire, which was becoming serious, and we returned to the wire room. I sent out some more stop-press bulletins. I thought I could sell the Zeppelin story when I got back to America. (I did, too, to the old Open Road magazine, now defunct.)

What did I make of England? I loved it and sometimes thought I could understand it, and then wasn't sure. It was good to be young, to drink it in. They were so good to Yanks. We had come in the nick of time, with 2 million men. We were everyone's friend.

But strange things were happening in the United States. I couldn't understand them; I had been away too long even though I was writing about them in the Sheffield Independent.

By coincidence I met my old teacher, Harold Laski, now at the London School of Economics, on the street one day - a coincidence so extraordinary that it defies fiction and could happen only in real life. He regarded me. I had been in England how long? 18 months? I was beginning to ask questions about economics, philosophy, politics, and labor. (I could feel him mentally rubbing his hands with satisfaction.) He told me he thought it was about time for me to go home - maybe by way of Ireland? - they were having more trouble there. (He was on the side of the rebels, of course.) He would give me letters of introduction, he said, that might lead me to a story. The Lord Mayor of Cork, now; he was in hiding. . . .

I hated to leave. In the glow of the slumbering city outside my office ran fabled Fleet Street. It was bathed in the aura of journalism past and present: the home of Dr. Johnson, the famous Inns of Court, the Cheshire Cheese, my own quick nightly walk home to Dickens's former house on Doughty Street where I lived. Here in London at the tender age of 22, just after a world war, I had somehow arrived and now my employer was offering me the breathless salary of (STR)8.

But America was beckoning, too. America was the greatest power on earth if it would only assert itself, with Europe pleading and prostrate. (What was happening in America? - The fall of Wilson, the rise of Harding. . . . Who was Harding anyway, but a small town publisher from Marion, Ohio, taking America back to ''normalcy'' which meant isolationism.)

I walked down echoing Fleet Street for the last time. On my way back to America there would be still new adventures, an interview with the fugitive lord mayor of Cork in a two-roomed fisherman's hut in Ireland, where my luck and naivete guided me. I was avid for adventure and the world ahead. . . .

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