From the papers of Ifan Kyrle Fletcher, sometime book dealer, Edward Gordon Craig specialist, theatrical history and dance expert. Published in a somewhat revised form in 'London Calling' (BBC Overseas service journal) June 5 1941. 6 million books lost in blitz at Paternoster Square - unimaginable treasures.
BOOKS, THEATRES & BOMBS.
by Ifan Kyrle Fletcher
February 7, 1941.
Nearly eight years ago, as we can now see, the Nazis revealed themselves in their true colours. What happened on the night of May 13 1933 was no obscure diplomatic or political more, unknown to all but statesmen. It was a simple act of destruction which has profoundly effected the lives of us all. Do you remember? Twenty-five thousand books were made into a bonfire outside the University of Berlin and were destroyed in the presence of about forty thousand people.
At the time it may have seemed nothing more than the triumph of one political party over another but we know now that all the violence and suffering of the interviewing years are, as it were, lit up by the flames of that bonfire. By its light we see and understand another fire seven and a half years later - the fire of the night of December 29, 1940, when, in the district around St Paul's Cathedral, nearly six million books were destroyed and some of the most precious treasures of our architecture were wrecked. By its light we see and understand other events, the destruction of the library of University College, London; the destruction of the library at Holland House and the partial destruction of this lovely and historic mansion, for which the people of West London had feelings of the warmest affection. We see and understand the destruction of the library of the city of Tours and the looting of the museums and art collections of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Holland, and Belgium. Recently, the Louvre and the famous chateaux of France have been plundered, not to satisfy artistic craving for possession but to provide funds from the art markets of neutral countries for more weapons of destruction.
This is a sad tale of fire, bomb and pillage. It has led us into a state of war so complete that, in the words of E.M.Forster, "civilisation, culture, art, literature, music, philosophy - it is difficult to discourse on such topics without sounding unreal. In wartime especially do they lose prestige." And yet we have only to think of the real purpose of that bonfire in 1935 to realise vividly that such topics are not unreal and that in wartime more than ever must they retain their prestige. We are all a little timid in talking about the pleasures of art - it is so easy to sound pretentious, isn't it? But in these dangerous days it seems right to forget our timidity and remember the simple pleasures that everyone must have received at some time from the world of art. Was it a snatch of an old song sung round the fire on a winter's night or the pleasant jingle of a rhyme? To everyone is given the chance of these pleasures, the chance to make what Proust calls "the only true voyage of discovery" - to everyone, that is, except those ruled by the Nazis. The bonfire means that to them, certain roads at the beginning of that voyage are blocked, the free play of choice is forbidden.
Let me tell you a story which seems to symbolise our attitude to this destructive force. During the last war it seemed that the great Dr Johnson himself must have admired the woman who was the keeper of his house in Gough Square, then a museum to his memory. During the air raids she scorned to take shelter in a cellar but mounted to the immortal attic and there read Boswell's Life until the raiders had passed. A sad epilogue to this story is that in the great fire seven weeks ago Dr Johnson's house was completely burnt to the ground.
In the midst of all this destruction it may be encouraging to consider how men and women, who in peace-time are writers, actors, dancers, singers or artists, are facing the new conditions. As I am living at present in a pleasant village on the border of Wales let me give you examples from amongst the people of this country or from amongst those who have come here as refugees, evacuees or temporary visitors. Taking our visitors first, I hope and believe that they are finding the same warm welcome which was given centuries ago to the Flemings, who settled in Pembrokeshire and left the mark of their lovely architecture upon the face of the land, and to the Quaker craftsmen who sought refuge at Loughor at the end of the 17th century and created there the beautiful Delft pottery for which the place became famous. There is a Viennese singer at Monmouth, a famous chemist in Anglesey, an artist at Pontypool giving his leisure to training the young people of the district, a bibliographer to tell me some of the things he had noticed about his new home and he replied immediately: "The way Welsh wives and mothers spoil their menfolk. Probably only a stranger could see how the women love to treat their men, even the male children, like little kings". He had much to say that we have often heard about the grandeur of the scenery and the drabness of the towns but it is worth recording that he felt that the most abiding impression is of the strength of family ties. Before we leave our visitors I would like to read you some extracts from a letter I have received from Dame Sybil Thorndike about the tour of "Macbeth" which brought her to the mining valleys of South Wales last autumn. I think this is interesting - Dame Sybil says, "I can't remember playing 'Macbeth' to what is called a sophisticated audience and not having to cope with coughs and fidgets. The miner audience is ideal - no one fidgets, no one coughs, they sit in a positive silence." This distinguished actress believes that people who are working under strain want as entertainment stuff with meat and thought in it. She ends her letter with a plea which I feel I must pass on. "I hope you will urge actors, writers and musicians to give the best, not to play down to what they think the workers want; for their taste is good and should not be spoilt by sickly food."
And now let me turn to the Welsh people themselves. Have their intellectual topics become unreal? Are their ideals losing prestige? In an attempt to answer these questions let me ask you to listen to a few sentences that Emlyn Williams has asked me to read to you: "When war broke out," he says, "it looked as though there would be no time or place for the creative arts, till the flight was won; everybody forgot that when beings are jaded after intense work or worry, the most powerful restorative in the world, after the first one of Sleep, is make-believe, the capacity of the human spirit to imagine. With its partner Literature, the Theatre is there to supply this magic balm, and we are finding that people will not do without it. Every day, all over the country - sometimes at the very moment the air-raid warning wails out over the town - it is our pleasure as players and playwrights to raise the curtain on romance and philosophy, on laughter and on poetry. It is more than our pleasure: it is our privilege."
Emlyn Williams is one of the people who in wartime must be counted fortunate. He has been able able to continue his creative work along new paths, making contacts with new audiences and bringing pleasure to thousands of people who have never before seen one of his plays. His Sunday night postscripts for the BBC are proof of his vigorous reaction to the war. In differing ways the same may be said of two other men, famous in their own spheres in Wales. Richard Hughes, the novelist, is writing a book about the glorious exploits of the Navy during the Battle Norway. He has been granted access to all the necessary documents by the Admiralty and at the same time is able to write with objective freedom. Everyone who remembers the description of the storm in "High Wind in Jamaica" will await this new book with keen anticipation. The second man who has found increased opportunities through the war is Illingworth, the famous cartoonist. He has spent nearly the whole of his life at the little village of St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan and it has needed the war to drawn him for the first time to work in London as cartoonist on a great national newspaper.
Now let me tell you of another well known Weshman who has encountered the difficulties which the war has brought to many people and has been determined to continue with his work in spite of them. This is Robert Herring, editor of "Life and Letters Today". He has been bombed out of both office and home; the members of the staff of his paper have joined the R.A.F.; contributors have joined up or been bombed; subscribers have disappeared in occupied countries. There seemed every excuse for a policy of fatalism but this Welsh editor would have none of it. He moved his office to the country and is bringing out the magazine by his own efforts, doing everyone's work from his own to the office boy's. He tells me that he finds this is. He thinks it may be because the paper has not changed; it it still, to use his own words, " reminding people of the realities which war might have seemed to overlay - art, culture, the need for a writer or indeed any artist, to keep his head, and to keep himself spiritually and technically in training. We insisted that the writer's weapon is the word and he must be proud to use words as best he can." Later in the same note there is a touch of regret: "I have never before stayed so long in England unbrokenly and I miss the companionship of Welsh voices, quick Welsh minds and Welsh generosity. I am missing these all the time."
A few months ago I was present at a complicated rehearsal of scenery and lighting in a London theatre. Everything seemed quite normal except of ballet right through the Blitz but of increasing its performances from one a day in one theatre to six a day in two theatres. I found when I visited the theatre a week or two ago that nearly a dozen people connected with the companies are of Welsh origin. This may seem surprising when you see the names on the programme but I can assure you that a nom-de-danse such as Vera Lavrova sometimes conceals the homely identity of Miss Topsy Harris of Llanelly.
All these people and many others are continuing their work in spite of bombs. To them the pleasures of books, of theatres, of music, of art, seem very real even under the threat of war. They know that these things must not lose prestige, must not fail to win our affection and bring us happiness, because they are the only vital answer to the spirit of destruction which created its infernal symbol in the burning of the books on the night of May 13, 1933.
Upon transcribing, I had to remove what I presume were 70 year old paper clips, and couldn't avoid ripping the pages slightly doing so, and fumbling them onto the floor of the coffee shop I was working in. And having moved from the couch to a table to save my back while transcribing, aloof to their possible value, I didn't bother asking the fellow now sitting in that spot if I could scramble around for these rusty clerical artifacts, which I imagine are now resting comfortably in the vacuum cleaner dust bag in Cafe Pergolesi.