- Historic Sites
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
You may think they are inclined to make too much of New York, the lights of Manhattan, the extent of the prairies and the beauty of Niagara.” “They” are Americans, and I am in London’s Imperial War Museum, reading a pamphlet telling Britons how to cope with meeting one of us. “If you allow yourself to be irritated by their talk it will mean that you cannot find things to equal them in Britain. True, we have not got a Woolworth Building, but then neither has America got a thousand-year-old Tower of London.…” The flyer offers a few more cautionary notes—“Don’t talk about Chicago gangsters as if they represented 90% of the population of America”—and then concludes, “Most important of all, remember that every time you lose your temper with an American or refuse to understand him, you are fighting Hitler’s battles for him.”
Forty-five years have passed since the Yanks dispensed their final boasts about Niagara and the Woolworth Building and headed home, but the city they left behind is still eloquent of why they were there. London has little of the operatic feel of antiquity that, say, Rome imparts, but the past there has a way of hanging like fog in commonplace corners. In the 1930s F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that London’s railroad stations were still sad from the Great War, and today the most mundane sights can suddenly resonate with a sense of the wounded, defiant city of half a century ago: the long descent into Marylebone Road Underground station, for instance, or steam rising from the counter of a sandwich shop early in the morning.
Moreover, Londoners seem uncommonly at home with the past. One night my wife and I ate in the north of the city in a room so obviously venerable that at the meal’s end I mentioned it to the waiter. “Oh, yes, sir,” he said, “this is a very old building.” How old? I asked. “It was built in 1929.” I was so surprised that he went off to seek confirmation. He was back in a minute. “I’m sorry, sir. It was 1629.”
The past is the past, and there’s been so much of it that the odd three centuries don’t signify for a great deal. Still, amid all the calamities and splendors that have been visited on this city, the Second World War is particularly evident. You can see it in the drab new buildings around St. Paul’s Cathedral; and in its simple refusal to dissolve under the Luftwaffe’s hammering, St. Paul’s itself has become as much a symbol of Winston Churchill’s day as of Christopher Wren’s. One night, dashing for cover across a little park under a black and apocalyptic deluge, I caught a teasingly familiar shape out of the corner of my eye and turned to find a bronze Franklin Roosevelt beaming superbly down at me.
But of course, not every one of London’s World War II associations is fortuitous. The Imperial War Museum, on Lambeth Road, commemorates the military history of this century. In fact, says the museum’s director, Alan Borg, the “diversity of interest and the all-embracing nature of modern war make us perhaps the most comprehensive museum of the twentieth century in existence.” It is certainly among the most imaginative. The hardware is here—tanks, planes, a pair of naval guns big as factory chimneys—but so, too, are eerie evocations of just what war has meant to this age. You enter the galleries given over to the First and Second World Wars through a corridor dominated by a stark white disk with a single sweep hand traveling faster than the second hand on a normal clock. Every revolution marks five of the lives claimed by war in this century, and at midnight on December 31, 1991, the tally will be complete: one hundred million. Flanking the clock, screens flash images of particular deaths: a young Briton killed at Ypres in 1915, a couple of smiling ghosts from the German divisions that disappeared into the terrible white immensity of the Eastern Front in 1943.
The World War II galleries are off to the right. A mixture of big photographic panels, movies, paintings, and cases of souvenirs offers at once a sense of the magnitude of the proceedings and the myriad elements…meatless recipes, recruiting posters, a concentration-camp soup bowl made out of a Zyklon B canister, a child’s gas mask, the be-nice-to-Americans pamphlet—that go into the building of that magnitude.
What is perhaps the Imperial War Museum’s most extraordinary exhibit isn’t under its broad roof at all, however, but across the Thames in Whitehall. Here, beneath the dignified classical loom of the Government Offices are the Cabinet War Rooms, the warren of passageways in which Winston Churchill presided over his war cabinet.
The rooms were improvised from the start. In 1938, with Hitler’s intentions toward Czechoslovakia becoming clear, the chiefs of staff settled on a suitable basement where they could continue to coordinate their efforts if it came to a siege. Then Neville Chamberlain went to Munich. “England had a choice between shame and war,” said Churchill, a couple of blocks away in Parliament. “She chose shame. She’ll get the war, too.”