Among the items I’ve recently inherited from my mother is a typewritten journal of a visit to Britain in May and June 1952 by my grandmother’s cousin, John D Lewis, a businessman from Cleveland, Ohio, whose branch of the family emigrated to the US in the 1890s. It gives some fascinating insights into the time, and an outsider’s perspective on ‘austerity Britain’, so I thought I’d post sections of it from time to time. Here’s the start of the journal – and after my recent post about our problems with air travel, it’s good to know that some things have always been the same! I’ve made a few cuts and modified his occasional grammatical oddities, above all by purging the extraordinary number of additional commas that he crams into virtually every sentence.
On Sunday May 25th 1952 I left New York for the international airport, where I was to board the BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) plane for London which left at 5pm. My baggage was all aboard the plane, and as I stood in line, ready to board, ay 4.55pm my name was announced over the loudspeaker, requesting me to come to the desk, where I was told that the plane was overloaded, and that I would be compelled to wait until the next day.
On Monday 26th I left as per schedule. We were out about two hours, when the pilot announced over the loudspeaker that they were having trouble with one of the engines and would return to New York for repairs. We had evening dinner aboard the plane, with the exception of dessert. On our arrival back to New York, we were each given a ticket good for $1.50 at the dining room in the terminal, for our choice of dessert. Mr Charles Laughton, the movie star, was aboard. He was going to London to visit his 84 year old mother. Laughton is quite a guy. It was announced that we would leave at 11pm. However, Laughton became impatient and superstitious, and decided not to go with us that night.
It was somewhat disappointing not to leave on Sunday evening, and after my second start, here I was back again in New York. The 11pm flight would be my third attempt. I was not discouraged, but was determined to go. The old saying came to mind, that a Welshman has three chances. So all aboard at 11pm. It was scheduled to be a non-stop flight, but owing to gas shortage, we stopped off at Goose Bay, Labrador. This was an air base, where we added gas. What a deserted place. We were there about 45 minutes, passengers got out and had coffee and cookies. This was about 3am, and then all aboard again. Up we go above the clouds, travelling at a height of 19,000 feet [and] 300 miles per hour. Sleep was sketchy. I guess everyone was too excited. Looking out the window, and what a magnificent sight. The soft white pillowy clouds, with the sun shining down, were really something to behold. No artist could do it justice…
It was all a thrilling sight, and after 14 hours from the time we left New York, [we descended] out of the clouds, and here was another delightful scene to witness – Ireland in all its majestic green beauty. The home of the Blarney stone, and the shilala (sic). It would be nice to land and visit with these friendly people, but our destination lay ahead. In less than an hour we landed in the Heathrow airport. We were ushered into the Customs office, where baggage was quickly examined and checked. Then a 14 mile ride by limousine to the terminal building. Here I was in jolly old England. From here I took a taxi to the Kensington Palace Hotel, where I spent my first three days. I had reservations there, beginning on Monday, so when I did not show up on Monday, my room was cancelled. What a plight!
The hotel was bombed during the last war, and it was necessary to rebuild most of the building. The new part was modern, with all the conveniences, including a private bath. The old part was quite obsolete, and was used only when overcrowded. I was told by the clerk that if I was willing to take a room in the old building for one night, that on the next day I would be moved into the new part. This seemed like a satisfactory arrangement, but evidently I did not know what I was letting myself in for. However, with the porter as my guide, we started out in search of my room. We walked and walked, took two elevators, and walked some more. We finally found the room. It was clean and looked satisfactory. I kindly asked the porter to show me where the bathroom was located. So we descended the stairway, and to the right was the bathroom. I looked into the room, with its huge tub but no toilet facilities. So again we started out in search of this important department. After about ten minutes of futile search we gave up, and the good porter said that he would go back to the office and make enquiries, and would telephone me as to its exact location. After a few minutes, he called. Please note the interesting and descriptive directions: walk down two sets of stairs, turn right past the ‘lift’ (elevator) and walk down to the left a bit, then turn right, and it’s the third door on the left. Another search without results, so in final desperation, I called and asked that the good porter come up and make another search. However, minutes and hours passed, but he never showed up. I think he was lost in the mammoth building, as I never saw him afterward during my stay. I possibly should have notified Scotland Yard.
I later found in my room a small stand with a cupboard below, and to my surprise and amazement, here it was, the ancient ‘pot’ – man’s best friend. I think they should have inscribed on the door, ‘to be used only in case of grave emergency’. I later found in all my travels, in both England and Wales, that this was standard equipment. One of the things I missed most was America’s soft, silky toilet paper. In comparison, the English grade was comparable to coarse sandpaper. Enough of that nonsense. Before passing, may I state that the next day I was happy with the luxury of my room. Another custom throughout my travels is where the maid comes in about 5pm and opens up the bed and places your bedroom slippers nearby. I enjoyed the courteous service.
Let’s leave ‘John D’ at this point, still pondering the respective merits of British and American toilet paper, and with the ghost of the hotel porter still wandering the corridors in search of the loo. At least one other instalment to come! There’ll be no post next week, though, due to Easter.