“I was getting enthusiastic in my speech, but they just stood and looked surlily at us….”

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, September 26, 1936.

“What do you like most,” asked Jimmie Frise, “about London?”

“No matter how funny you look,” I replied, “in London somebody always looks funnier.”

“True,” said Jim.

“And no matter how foolish you act,” I added, “somebody is always acting foolisher.”

“True,” cried Jim.

“The trouble with Toronto,” I explained, “is, that if the Almighty in His wisdom made you kind of goofy, you have a dreadful time, because everybody is down on you and trying to force you to be like them. You know: dress like a mouse and act like a rabbit?”

“Sure,” said Jim, as we promenaded along Piccadilly and looked in all the windows, especially fishing tackle.

“What do you like about London?” I inquired, so as to be mutual.

“I like everything,” cried Jim. “I like it because it is so old and because it is so young. I like all the eating you can do in London. At any time. I mean, you can have roast beef for breakfast if you like.”

“Rare roast beef for breakfast,” I agreed, “With pan roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding.”

“What I like in London,” went on Jim, “is the way they have what they call a floor waiter on each floor of your hotel. You just push a button, beside the bed, and the waiter comes. Any time day or night. And you order.”

“Swell,” I admitted. “And don’t forget the telephones. Especially the pay telephones.”

“Marvellous,” admitted Jim. “When you consider what a nuisance our Canadian telephones are. So perfect. So dreadfully perfect that nothing can save you if somebody wants to get you or you foolishly want to get somebody. How many times do we call people up, in Canada, when we really hope they are out? But always, always we get them. Here in dear old London, the telephone is perfectly adjusted to human nature. Nobody can get you and you can’t get anybody. And when you fail, especially in the pay telephone, everybody is happy.”

“I’ve lost at least eighteen pence-wumpenny,” I declared, “in those pay phones. But what I like is the way they have these little public phone booths all over the streets. You don’t have to go into a store to use a pay phone, and raise some poor merchant’s hopes, only to dash them.”

“Four shillings and nuppence is what I’ve slid into those pay phones,” admitted Jim. “But I really wasn’t trying to get anybody. It was just for the pleasure of not getting anybody I did it. How gloriously free one is in London.”

“Jim,” I cautioned, “you better be careful of that English accent. Don’t let it get you.”

“Has anybody interfered with you yet, in London?” asked Jim joyously. “Or so much as given you a look? No. Never! Why? Because in London, you can’t do anything wrong. Whatever you do it’s your affair. That’s what I love.”

Riding on the Goods Lift

“This morning,” I recounted, as we arrived at Piccadilly Circus and turned north into Regent St., “I walked along the corridor of the hotel and came to the freight elevator, or goods lift, as they call it. I mistook it for the passenger lift, and rang the bell. The porter of the goods lift arrived at my floor, took one horrified look at me and slammed over the controls vanishing hurriedly down again. I was a little mystified. But remembering I was in London. I waited. In a moment, the goods lift returned, this time with another operator in it, one of the passenger operators, resplendent in uniform of light blue and gold. He opened the doors, stepped out, bowed me into the lift, and drove me down. I says to him, ‘What’s the idea?’ And he explained that the goods lift man was not allowed to transport passengers as he was not properly clothed. I asked the lad why the goods lift operator had not merely smiled and told me it was the goods lift and directed me to walk a little farther along the corridor. ‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ he says, ‘but orders is for one of us to take the goods lift when any gentleman wishes to come down.'”

“Yesterday afternoon,” related Jim, in his turn, “I got a little muddled up, thinking north was south and east was west, and all I was trying to do was see the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens, so I asked a policeman. He walked seven blocks with me, to put me on the right track. I asked him if it wasn’t a little off his beat to go all this way with me. He looked very astonished. He says, ‘My first duty, sir, is to the citizens.’ I said, ‘Suppose there is a hold-up while you are away’. And he says, ‘What is a hold-up, sir?’ I explained to him, and he was intensely interested. He got all excited and flushed. ‘You mean to say, sir, that someone might actually walk into a shop with a pistol?’ I said ‘Sure.’ ‘How frightfully exciting. sir.’ said the cop. So I asked him what would happen in that case. ‘Ah,’ said he ‘they would wait until I returned.'”

“Really, Jim?” I asked.

“Really,” said Jim.

Which embarrassed us a little as often happens in London; so we looked in the windows of Regent St. for quite while, and saw shops in which there was nothing but leather; and vast shops filled with incredible beauty of silk; and a shop where nothing but toys are sold, and we got heavy hearts because we were so poor and yet had so many children; and tiny shops where they sold nothing but handkerchiefs, and you could pay five dollars for one hanky embroidered by the nuns of Lhasa, or sixpence for hankies all edged with forget-me-nots, and in due time we came to Oxford St., which is like Yonge St., and we turned west to walk to Hyde Park and the Marble Arch, where we used to put up, long, long ago, when we were little soldiers in the time of fury.

Not a Lifted Eyebrow

“What don’t you like about London?” asked Jim.

“All their soap,” I replied, “is flavored vanilla.”

“Vanilla?” exclaimed Jim.

“It smells like vanilla,” I assured him. “Anyway, I always have to take two baths, one with soap and then another to get the vanilla off me before I dare go out.”

“About the only thing I don’t like,” said Jim, “is the way they sell you an umbrella and then can’t teach you how to roll it. All the Englishmen I see are striding along with a bamboo handled umbrella as neat and tidy as a stick. Look at mine. It looks like a gamp. Look at yours. Yet when I asked the clerk who sold me this to show me how to roll it, you never saw such a mess he got into. He turned purple and began to perspire and glare around the shop so pitifully that I just snatched it from him and ran.

“What I would like to do,” declared Jim, “would be to make London give us a look. If I could just get one Englishman to call me down or bawl me out.”

“In Canada,” I agreed, “Old Countrymen are always bawling us out or telling us how.”

“Yeah,” explained Jim “but they are the ones that left the Old Country.”

“Well, we left the Old Country,” I pointed out.

“A long time back,” said Jim.

“Even so,” I objected.

And so we came to Hyde Park and after a long and tender look at old familiar vistas of the Bayswater Road where we had once on a time been so young and gay and proud and equal to all occasions such as death, we peregrinated, so to speak across by Hyde Park.

Listening to the Orators

“And now,” cried Jim, “let’s go listen to the orators. This is what we Canadians ought to do, before all else. Take a lesson in free speech.”

On a sort of cinder patch, a wide expanse as big as several tennis courts, with the trees and lawns of the great park behind it, were gathered the crowds that listen to orators. And on little ladders and portable pulpits and home-made platforms made of boxes, the orators were hard at it. We were disappointed to find that more than half of the speakers were evangelists. Curious-looking evangelists, bearded old men with distorted countenances, who roared fiercely with eyes tight shut; odd-looking young men with cruel mouths acidly spouting the eternal tendernesses of Judea; incredibly modernistic men speaking coldly in behalf of Roman Catholicism. Around each of them a throng of fascinated people, young and old, rich and poor. I think, privately that the crowds who do the listening in Hyde Park are those shy, speechless Englishmen and they are taking a lesson in talking.

But sure enough we found what we sought; the real challengers of free speech. Men in spare and ragged clothes and wild eyes, with the Jeremiah look, who roared and ranted ….

“I tell you wot,” cried one, with a voice like a diving aeroplane, “we’re governed by a lot of bloody merchants, Baldwin is a merchant, that’s wot he is. A bloody merchant. And wot do merchants sell? Goods? Never. They sell us, they sell our bodies and souls, they reckon up our unborn children and trade away our rotting mothers.”

“What poppycock,” I said to Jim. “Imagine Mr. Baldwin.”

He went on, talking about the revolution. With arms uplifted, he called upon us, the masses, to roise, roise, roise. He conjured us to slay, burn, fire; to cleanse the nation of the merchants, the bloody merchants.

“And the pound,” commented Jim, “at five dollars and seven cents. Some merchants, I should say.”

We went along to another of the mobs. This was a tall gaunt man in black, with a yellow face, who, in a voice as dry and distinct as a mathematics professor, was detailing the elementary principles, as he said, of practical communism. It consisted largely of the ownership of all the means of production by the state, plus a certain amount of firing squads; the emancipation of the masses from all the stupid follies they are capable of under so-called democracy, and the complete surrender of themselves, like in religion, to the state, plus a certain amount of pistoling of the resistant or rigid type who have not that lovely gift of surrender.

“Jim,” I said, after we had listened a little while to this Egyptian of the new school, “I’m going to make them a little speech.”

“Swell,” said Jim. “Be yourself.”

“I mean,” I said, “this is the famous Hyde Park. It will be nice to go back home and tell the boys we made a speech in Hyde Park. It would make it seem more real. Not that we had listened to free speech in Hyde Park but had made a free speech in Hyde Park.”

“Where’s your pulpit?” asked Jim, looking down at me.

We walked out to the street and in a moment found a barrow and from the man hauling it, bought, for fourpence, a fine strong empty box. This we carried back to the cinder court where nine orators held nine crowds spellbound.

We selected a nice clear patch and I got on the box.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said, as one addressing Massey Hall, “as a stranger to your fair city and to these islands, I feel called upon, after listening to some of the speakers here in Hyde Park, to bring to your attention a few facts which seem to be overlooked.”

Several people on the edges of the nearby groups turned on hearing my voice and strolled over to me. Jim stood amiably among them, a sort of capper for me, applauding at the end of each sentence, where you pause for applause. You know.

“For instance,” I laughed, “your pound, which we ordinarily can get for around $4.75 cents we now have to pay $5.07 cents for.”

Again Jimmie led the applause, but nobody followed. In fact, I observed on the faces gathering quietly around me an expression of chill, an unfriendly, a hostile look. And this, despite the fact that I was smiling in that beaming, chin-uplifted fashion that is so useful to Sunday school superintendents and candidates for the board of education.

“Fellow Britishers,” I declaimed, trying a new tack, “fellow Britishers, do you realize you live in one of the securest, freest, happiest, healthiest, most comfortable countries on the earth?”

“None of that there ‘ere,” shouted a large fat man right underneath me. I could have touched him.

“Sir,” I said.

“None of that there ‘ere,” he bellowed, rising on his toes and shouting right in my face.

“None of what?” I demanded indignantly. But I noticed all the others were craning their necks at me, staring angrily, and muttering unsympathetically.

“Bloody foreigner,” said a thin man in the crowd. Now dozens were joining my group Jim put his foot on my soap box, in a friendly way.

“You misunderstand me, gentlemen,” I cried, smiling intensely. “I was merely about to sing the praises of Britain, and of London, in particular. Your own dear old London.”

“Chuck him aht,” came a voice.

A sudden loud murmur swelled, and the crowd began to push and shove around me.

“Pull his box aht. Push ‘im off. Give im the bunt. Bloody foreigner. Tryin’ to come one over us, so he is.”

“I assure you,” I shouted.

“Wot right,” shouted the fat man, who now also had one foot on my soap box, “‘ave you buttin’ in ‘ere?”

“Isn’t this Hyde Park?” I asked furiously. “I thought this was the very altar of free speech.”

“Free speech?” scoffed the fat man and all the crowd growled. “Free speech! That stuff you was tryin’ to give us? We don’t want none o’ that there ‘ere.”

“Well, I’ll …” I said.

“‘Op it,” said the fat man, stepping back.

“Very well,” I said, with dignity.

“‘Ere,” he said. “Take your box.”

Jim took the box. They made a lane for us. They stood, watching us with narrow eyes. When we got a good start, I turned.

“Come out to Canada,” I yelled. “We’ll show you.”

Three or four of them made that sudden start as if to chase us. But they didn’t. So Jim took my arm and hurried me and we hailed a taxi and drove back down to where the tackle stores are.

The only dirty thing we did was leave the box in the taxicab.

Editor’s Notes: Stanley Baldwin was the Prime Minister of Britain at the time.

This story was part of the series that were published in 1936 when Greg and Jim went to Britain and then France for the dedication of the Vimy Memorial. Many old WWI veterans went from Canada as part of the “pilgrimage”, and the Toronto Star sent veterans from their staff to cover it.

Toronto Star veterans on the Vimy pilgrimage. Greg is the short one in the center with his hat askew, with Jimmie on his right, with the usual cigarette in his hand.