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The Second World War, 80 years ago: ‘A Strange Week’, from the Church Times archive

02 September 2019

A sense of foreboding fills ‘Urbanus’ (Canon C. B. Mortlock) as he writes his ‘Round-about Papers’ column for 1 September 1939

Canon C. B. Mortlock

Canon C. B. Mortlock

A WEEK of tension has passed since I last began at the top of this column with the pleasant duty of making my way to the bottom. The weekly journalist is at a disadvantage compared with his daily brethren in days such as these. He cannot be sure that his words will have any proper aptness by the time they are read. Still, in the twenty years and more that I have been permitted to occupy this place week by week, events have dealt very kindly with me. I have not been made to look ridiculous as was one of the illustrated papers which, some years ago, came out with a double-page picture of what was expected to be an historic and unique scene in the House of Lords, but which never came off. It is true that I do not go in for prediction, but even a lyrical outburst over high-summer may be very poor reading on a Friday of driving rain and twenty degrees drop in the temperature.

I never remember a week that seemed so long as that which began with the news of the Russo-German pact. There was an air of suspense as though time was standing still, or even, as described in one of Sunday’s Lessons, the degrees had gone back ten points on Hezekiah’s dial.

Some quite ordinary, commonplace actions had a new and wistful significance. One wondered if such simple pleasures as strolling through the lillied night with the street lamps splashing golden pools on the pavement and patterned with the shadows of the London trees might not be coming to an end. One noted the savour of them with heightened intensity, storing them in memory for dark and grim days to come.

But the mood was more than half an affectation. In one’s heart one did not believe that, in Sir Edward Grey’s famous phrase, “Everywhere over Europe the lights are going out.” It was one of those exquisitely painful pleasures, like grinding on an aching tooth and compounded with a good deal of self-pity. Then, now and again, one would pause in the midst of an ordinary, everyday job and reflect on its triviality against the background of the vast drama that was being played out.

There has been something extraordinarily fascinating about the normality of life in this strange week. A family setting off for its annual holiday by the sea is not a matter for remark at other times. But this week it was a spectacle to give one heart. And so, everywhere, the outward scene has been little changed — so little, indeed, that a stranger among us might not have suspected that anything was amiss. There was no eclipse of gaiety by night in restaurants and cafés, and though theatres have experienced a falling-off, the streets and other places of resort have been fuller and more animated.

Still, there have been subtle changes. To one attuned to the life of a city or of a
village nothing is more characteristic than its customary sounds. The good Londoner waking in the night can generally tell the hour from the noises drifting from without into his bedroom. The murmur of a great city by night is comforting to those who lie abed in its midst. In anxious times its normality is friendly as the hum of nanny’s sewing-machine in the day nursery used to be when, to its homely sound, we dropped to sleep in the darkened room beyond.

Nocturnal sounds are much more constant in their recurrence than diurnal. The men washing the street with hose-pipe and delicious india-rubber squeegees, market carts, late workers and early workers all give forth a characteristic note. To those sounds others have been added this week. I do not pretend to know their cause, but the well-accustomed ear has detected them, and so they seemed a little ominous, as everything is when it comes by night and is mysterious.

Outside London it was not so much strange noises — though main roads had their heavy rumble of military movement — as strange silence. After being habituated for many months to the drone and whine of night-flying there was something savouring of the sinister in the utter stillness of the night sky, and the air of foreboding expectancy was enhanced by nature’s stillness. The moon not up and not a leaf stirring, and a sultry night into the bargain, all contributed to the sensation that the whole world was waiting, on tiptoe.

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