"This . . . is London": Approaching Edward R. Murrow

I have returned from my latest London trip; my stimulated mind is filled with assorted impressions that I now ready for recollection in relative tranquility. Rather than pouring out those impressions like the content of an overstuffed suitcase, I shall meet the challenge of assembling them into a sequence of composite portraits, portraits not so much of myself but of the experience of gathering ideas and collecting thoughts. You might call this manipulation of the everyday a form of “method living”: a mental aligning and creative channelling of life’s vast, fleeting, and potentially overwhelming influences into something resembling a design of my own making.

There is to me nothing more thrilling than the tracing of a pattern in the patched-up fabric of the everyday. Granted, I often impose such a design by snipping off too many of the loose ends and by choosing that to which I expose myself with rather too thorough discrimination, by excluding the ill-fitting piece or neglecting the odd thread. Yet the satisfaction of finding sameness where others might only detect difference is not necessarily the program of a narrow mind. I try to do as much stitching together as I do selecting or cutting away. Atropos, Clotho, and Lachesis—I intend to do the handiwork of all three fates.

One of the threads I chose to follow during my wanderings through the maze that—compared to the comforting simplicity of New York City’s map—is sprawling London was the career of American journalist Edward R. Murrow. In his late 1930s broadcasts from London, Murrow had encouraged Americans to connect with world affairs by bringing the hardship of those under Fascist attack home to radio listeners who, in the confines of their living rooms, might have imagined themselves immune to such devastating influences. Later, he exposed fascism of another kind in his commentaries on misguided patriotism and undemocratic perversions of unity.

After a brisk two-hour walk from South Kensington, across Hyde Park, I arrived at Murrow’s former residence in Marylebone, not far from the British Telecom tower. I took a few photographs and walked on. I experienced no great stirring of emotions, let alone a spiritual connection. Yet the site itself, along with the act of finding, approaching and appropriating it pictorially became part of a design, enforced by the screening of Good Night, and Good Luck. my mate and I attended a day later. It had not been altogether planned that way; indeed, I was surprised to find the film to be still in such wide circulation. The quietly impressive motion picture and my altogether unremarkable photographs do not so much amount to a biographical composite sketch of Murrow, a man who shaped history by recording it. Rather than capturing his past they suggest his presence—or our need for it.

Much of what Murray reflected upon in his broadcasts—even in reminiscences such as this one from 3 December 1944—is anything but dated, if only you permit yourself to look beyond the names of places and persons and weave his expressions of hope and fear into the fabric of our current wars and crises:

You remember those mean streets in London where so many died; the men stretching canvas over holes in roofs and walls, trying to patch things up before the winter comes, anything to keep out the rain and cold. At the airfield you remember that it was just here you watched Mr. Chamberlain descend from his plane when he came back from Munich, waving his written agreement with Hitler and talking about peace in our time. That was such a long time ago. And you wonder when there will be peace again and what it will be like. . . .

You recall all the talk of a better world, a new social order, a revolution by consent, that marked the desperate days, and you realize that talk of equality of opportunity, of equality of sacrifice, of a peace based on something other than force, comes more readily to the lips when disaster threatens. There isn’t so much of it now [. . .]. 

Europe for a long time will be concerned with the urgent problems of day-to-day existence. The fundamental economic and social conflicts will not have been settled by this war. [. . .] 

For years after this war Europe will be in torment and [ . . . ] you wonder what part America will play in it all. In battle and in production we have been magnificent. We have delivered the planes, tanks, guns and ships and the men to fight with them. The evidence of our strength can be found all around the world. We’re not as tired as the others. Our industrial plant is undamaged. Our homes have not been blasted. We enjoy security and relative comfort and our responsibility is frightening, for Europe will look to us—not for charity, advice or admonition, but for an example. Democracy hasn’t been very fashionable over there in recent years and there are many who doubt that it can survive the strains and stresses of peace. . . .

Is democracy still “fashionable” anywhere? Is it the gear of choice or an imposed uniform that ceases to be fashion by resembling fascism? Has the current war on terror (or the terror of war) done much to preserve it? Are we still talking about a “peace based on something other than force”? The patterns we discover when engaging with the so-called past are often disturbing rather than reassuring. And yet, to ignore them, to refuse recalling them into our everyday, might be more disturbing still—a wilful refusal to connect that, far worse than passivity, is a violent act of tearing apart the fabric along with its flawed design.

3 Replies to “"This . . . is London": Approaching Edward R. Murrow”

  1. There has been a feature in a number of podcasts now appearing in the \”podosphere\” (if I may use that phrase here) of what is being called a \”sound-seeing tour.\” Possibly it was coined by Adam Curry, but as I pointed out to him at that time, Ed Murrow was one of the first to use the \”sound-seeing tour\” concept in his reports from London during WWII. In fact it was very much a pillar of his regular broadcasts to attempt to bring London and what Londoners were going through by both describing, but especially hearing the sounds they were experiencing: the air raid sirens, the sound of their steps as they moved to shelters, the sounds of the bombs, the buses, etc. I think I have mentioned it before here, but like you, I too made a pilgrimage to Murrow\’s former residence in London during the war. Of course, when I was last there, there was no plaque, so I had to assure myself I had the correct address as I peered in trying to imagine the man coming and going from the place each day.

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