"This . . . is London": Getting Ready to Take in the Sounds Again

Broadcasting House, London

Well, it has been a rather gloomy weekend, a few hours of which were spent finding a publishing house and home for Etherized, my doctoral study on old-time radio. I have been slow to send out proposals but am aware that I cannot rest on my laurels until they begin to smell. The fresh air being too damp, cold, and swiftly circulated, I sought shelter by the fire and found pleasant company in an unflappable adventuress by the name of Eve Peabody. Surely you’ve met Eve Peabody, the blues singer whose voice, by her own admission, is strictly of the “bathtub” variety? You know, the gal who once crashed a ritzy social gathering with a pawn ticket for an invitation. Yes, that Eve Peabody—the gold-lame garbed, Bronx Local-hardened heroine of Mitchell Leisen’s deucedly clever screwball comedy Midnight (1939).

There’s much to be learned from an urbane charmer like Eve (as portrayed with pitch-perfection by Ms. Claudette Colbert). Lessons in picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting all over again, I mean. Having escaped a Monte Carlo disaster—a failed system that left her practically penniless at the roulette table, with the exception of that one French coin with a hole in it—Eve takes a gamble by hopping on a train to not so gay Paris.

Alighting none too delightedly with damp and dreary prospects before her, she inquires with sarcasm, rather than incredulity: “So this, as they say, is Paris?” Not altogether reassured by the conductor, she wryly remarks: “Well, from here it looks an awful lot like a rainy night in Kokomo, Indiana.” I might find myself saying something not unlike this when I step out of the train in London this Wednesday. The forecast is not promising; but, like Eve, I am determined to make the most of my stay.

Perhaps, my idea of a good time differs from that of most visitors, but, aside from the shops and a West End show or two, Edward R. Murrow’s house in Hallam Street is right up there on my list of must-see attractions. As I reported a few weeks ago, a blue plaque has been placed on the façade of Weymouth House earlier this year, commemorating the contributions of its former resident, Murrow, to bringing the terrors of the London blitz home to American radio listeners, many of whom may have otherwise been indifferent or downright hostile to the British, quite willing even to let my Nazi ancestors have their way with them.

“This . . . is London,” of course, was Murrow’s famous introduction to his blitz broadcasts. His reports made a distant fight for survival seem real and urgent—unlike that picturesque firework display that stood in for the air raids in the recent Judy Dench-starrer Mrs. Henderson Presents. After all, radio can produce terrors far more immediate than video or photography, provided you have mind, heart, and guts enough to translate dreadful sounds into horrible images.

Walking through London again, I might do what I used to do when I first came to New York City, which is, besides taking in the sights, to take in the sounds as well. When the broadcastellan journal was still in its infancy, rather than its present adolescence, I contemplated the soundscape of Britain. For, surely, London has one of the most distinct sonic designs of any Western metropolis, the chiming of Big Ben being its most memorable earmark. So, as an exercise in getting in tune with said town, I will tune in again to “A Portrait of London” (20 July 1956), a CBS Radio Workshop tour conducted by Winston Churchill’s daughter Sarah, who took American listeners right into the bell tower of Big Ben.

“So this, as they say, is London, huh?” I might find myself saying on Wednesday as I step out onto the platform at Euston Station: but, hearing the inimitable sounds of the big city, I am unlikely to add “Well, to me it sounds an awful lot like a rainy night in the Welsh hills.”

2 Replies to “"This . . . is London": Getting Ready to Take in the Sounds Again”

  1. Harry, looking forward to your posting of the home of Murrow during the war. As I mentioned last time you posted, I took a photo of what I believed to be his apartment building when I was last in the U.K. I was never sure because there were no plaques then.Might I point others to my own paean to Ed Murrow with additional sound clips: http://www.otr.com/murrow.shtml.

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  2. Sorry to disappoint, Jim, but I never got to go inside; the site is not a museum. Are you willing to share the picture you took? I might be able to identify the location.Thank you for providing the link to your essay and to the Murrow recordings.

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