Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dateline : 110 - 71 Years Ago

Items of Concern

Rooting around amid my office clutter regurgitates four copies of the British Daily Mail newspaper, one each for the years:
1900, 1923, 1936 and 1939.
They are fascinating.  


The front pages of the 1900 issue are full of advertisements of all kinds including one  headed:

(Established 1745)

No this was not a personal hygiene promotional ad.  It merely sought customers for Dirty Dick’s  — a pub on Bishopsgate, opposite Liverpool Street Station in London, and a place I myself often supped a few pints of ale many years ago.  
Another prominent item was the Shipping News, with weather reports and reported sightings of incoming vessels passing points in the outer approaches to the Channel (no ship-to-shore radio then).  

Among personal columns of urgent and serious mien there were two or three like this one:

PW   (illegible)  (sic).  

Yeah!  That’s it.  All there was of it.  Probably sent in anonymously with no return address.  The editor had no choice.  He took the enclosed money-order fee and published what he could of the item.

Some were in code, thus:

FAITHZshbsav nym zyhp jdwljumxxn-ty fw owxx lag tiffin-jwldwhp nymdh always.
(obviously a secret code between two illicit lovers who sent erotic messages to one another, and whose great-great-grandchildren probably text-code each other in similar fashion today).  Clue: Tiffin is Hindi for dinner.  
The Daily Mail charged these personal ads at eight words for three shillings and fourpence per word after.  
(Note: The first Ough-Zone reader to solve this early Enigma-coded message and send it in, accompanied by the lids torn from 24 non-Macintosh laptop computers, will receive a guided tour of the Bletchly Park secret WWII code-breaking facilities in UK.)

Along with ads wanting to buy scrap metal, second-hand watches and jewellery, and stuff, were widespread demands for ‘old used false teeth’.  Yuck!!  Prominent among the ads are those by pawnbrokers with ‘amazing bargains and sacrifices’. 

Other oddments from 1900 include one reporter’s comments on an economic situation which described one group of people as “being screwed” by a certain decision.  I’ve always though that term to be a modern crudity, akin to the other popular term of “blowing opportunities” as often used by the most staid of public figures.  So perhaps both these figures of speech are derived from circumstances different, and less earthy, from what I hitherto believed to be the case with my vulgar seafarer’s vocabulary.

One ad offers “A gentleman’s horse for sale, equally good for riding or driving, £25”.  It’s daring owner indicates his reason for selling is that he has thoughts of buying a motor car.
And a lengthy column is devoted to railway companies’ promotions of special excursions to all parts of Britain.

Chapter XXIX of a gripping serial fiction story is somewhat spoiled by the author butting rudely into his own script to clumsily destroy the magic entrancement he has striven to create, with interjections like: the curtain rises upon a different scene and a wonderful change has taken place in the fortunes of the principal actors in our drama...  This surely brings the reader back down to reality with a bump from the trance of imagination the author must have hoped he had put them in.

And here's an 87-year-old shade of Afghanistan...

News item (1923):
Two British army officers who took their dogs for an after tiffin walk along the Khyber Pass were found later, each with three bullet holes in their heads.  Happily, their dogs were ok and found guarding the bodies.

In 1936 the Royal Air Force was advertising for young men 18-25 to apply for Volunteer Reserve pilot training.  Daily pay of 15/6d was offered, followed up with a £2 annual retainer.  See that?  They got three bob more as flying pay than we were paid on the squadron nine years later—and this when they were still undergoing training.

Also, strangely, in 1936 the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) was already under observation and criticism by the Press and Parliament regarding not only their secret balance sheets and accounting but complaints of having bias and opinions of a subversive character.  This led to a ruling that in future all BBC officials must be British subjects.  
What on earth was this all about?

A lengthy and detailed column on Week-End Angling Prospects for coarse fish, for different parts of the realm, forecast good sport unless the wind was from east or north.

Of real interest is the September 4, 1939 issue—printed just a dozen hours after war was declared.
Of utmost importance, this was the first day that the Daily Mail placed its big news items on the front pages—displacing the classified advertisements from their hallowed traditional place of prominence to unaccustomed obscurity back among the twelve inner pages. 
And what a medley and welter of pertinent-for-the-times ads they carried.
ARP —(Air Raid Precautions) was the advertisers’ key word for attracting customers.  Everything for the astute, abreast-of-the-situation, householder was advertised:  
Rolls of blackout cloth and paper, cans of black paint (guaranteed dense and fully opaque), first-aid kits, blankets, extra-thick combination underwear, camp cots and portable heating stoves for home air raid shelters, flashlights (electric torches), water bottles, rubber boots, and — for the extra timid — there were advertisements for real estate:  dwellings, properties, and accommodations for sale or rent in ‘safe areas’ such as Ireland, Wales, Devon and Scotland.

The blackout curtaining industry was given a government boost when the penalty for allowing stray light through curtains, or doors, was threatened to be as much as two years in jail and a really hefty fine.  If rigidly enforced this law would have seen two-thirds of the population in prison — living on the public purse.

Car lights had to be shaded almost to obscurity with just 1/2” slits (and hooded slits at that) over headlamps, and shades over side lights and the single rear red light (British cars only had one rear light in those days, something modern war film movie makers today are quite ignorant of by always showing staff cars and other WWII vehicles with two rear lights).  
All a bit far fetched this light hiding business, anyway.  Do you think you could have seen a faint glow from a dim 1939 rear light or the thin glowing end of a Wills Wild Woodbine or Players Weight  cigarette from 10,000 feet?  And if you did see it what information could you gather from this momentary glimpse?  Would the keen-eyed enemy observer have at once yelled out by radio to his whole squadron or wing:  “Break starboard 180 and release all bombs”.  Poof!  There goes Farmer Giles field of prize mangel-wurzels or turnips.  Furthermore, if a traitorous glow from a rural citizen’s pipeful of Digger Shag, could possibly have been seen  from two miles above on one particular night, it might well have saved Coventry Cathedral and its surroundings from the devastation they suffered that same awful night.

Yet all in all, this issue of the Daily Mail shows how wonderfully prepared Britain was, how well planned and executed were the essential services required for wartime.  The evacuation of children and mothers was right on time.  All who had applied were already gone or were on their way.  Hesitant, nervous latecomers were given yet another chance  to go to meeting places for latecomers’ removal.  All had been issued with gas masks, thousands more were being manufactured.  
Rules were in force to punish employers who fired male staff of call-up age.  
Free delivery of air raid shelters, stirrup pumps, and small sandbag bags had been carried out smoothly and quickly.  Emergency water supply tanks had been built and street air-raid shelters constructed.  And no terrible foul-ups, political haggling or waste seemed to have marred these efforts.
All this showed that droopy old Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, now, probably rightly so, ridiculed for presenting himself in his silly, kind-old-innocent-gentleman-role vis-à-vis Hitler, was nevertheless all that time also allowing Britain to be readied for war, had been doing so for at least a year, and probably much longer—see item above regarding RAFVR pilots being trained in 1936 (when prototype Hurricane and Spitfire fighter aircraft were first being put through their paces) as examples.  And today the pathetically over-civilized gentleness of Sir Neville’s overdone appeasement of the ambitious, cruel and heartless evil ones, so dangerously echoed by the faint of spirit and the barmy ‘we’re all loving brothers and sisters’ multitudes of today, can be seen being re-enacted ineffectually against  an even more diabolical threat.  It all goes to show that absolute nasty mental-deficients can always rely on being abetted by other well-meaning, faint-hearted, home-grown mental-deficients.

Back on the evening of September 3, 1939, the King’s radio address to the nation is just about the most excellent example of its kind one might ever hear.  Beautiful in word, texture and meaning, clear and simple, not at all insipid, right on target, it is especially a delight to read today.  

The pound sterling, on that historic September 4, 1939, was worth $4.20.  Ten years later it was to be devalued by 45 per-cent.  
Today, it is around $1.52.

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