“The Hut-Sut is their dream”; or, Accent on Eurovision

Folks flicking through the May 25-30 issue of Radio-Movie Guide back in 1941 were told about a “New Song Sensation,” a novelty number written by Ted McMichael (of the Merry Macs), Jack Owens and Leo V. Killion. The identification of the tunesmiths aside, this was probably no news at all to America’s avid dial twisters. Published only a few weeks earlier, the “Sensation” in question had already “featured on the air by Kate Smith, Bob Hope and Alec Templeton.” In fact, as early as 23 April, listeners to Eddie Cantor’s It’s Time to Smile program would have been exposed to what was tongue-in-cheekily billed as a “Swedish Serenade” overheard by an illiterate boy who “should have been in school”:

Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit,
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla sooit.
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit,
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla sooit.

According to Radio-Movie Guide, Benny Goodman was so keen on the ditty that he wanted to “buy an interest in its profit for five thousand dollars.” It is easy to see the attraction of such novelty nonsense at a time when news from Europe were similarly bewildering yet decidedly less diverting. And before we tut-tut a nation at war for going gaga over a trifle such as “The Hut Sut Song” while being gleefully indifferent to—or woefully ignorant of—the world, we might consider the musical offerings conceived for the current Eurovision Song Contest, an annual agit-pop extravaganza that, in this, its fifty-fifth year, is playing itself out against the somber backdrop of the European fiscal crisis.

Much of Europe may be cash-strapped and debt-ridden, but the thirty-nine nations competing in Oslo this year have it yet in their means to bestow points and favors upon one another—or to withhold them. Even the least affluent countries of greater Europe may take comfort as well in the potentiality of turning freshly minted tunes into pop-cultural currency. Europe is less concerned, it seems, with the phrases it must coin to achieve such a feat.

The emphasis on rhyme over reason is apparent in traditional Eurovision song contest titles—and winners—like “Boom Bang-a-Bang” (United Kingdom, 1969), “Ding-A-Dong” (Netherlands, 1975), and “Diggi-loo, Diggi-ley” (Norway, 1984). It is an orchestrated retreat to the banks of a mythical “rillerah,” a clean plunge into a stream of pure nonsense beyond the realities of the Babel that is Europe. Might an agreement to be agreeably meaningless be a key to intercultural understanding?

“The Hut Sut Song” came with its own dictionary:

Now the Rawlson is a Swedish town, the rillerah is a stream.
The brawla is the boy and girl,
The Hut-Sut is their dream.

By comparison, most Eurovision entries, which, in the past, included “Volare,” “Waterloo,” and some inconsequentiality or other performed by Celine Dion, do not make much of an effort to render themselves intelligible. While by and large performed in some approximation of English, today’s Eurovision songs are, for the most part, incomprehensible rather than nonsensical, as if members of the vastly, perhaps inordinately or at any rate prematurely expanded union were determined to avail themselves of the English language as a means of keeping apart instead of coming together, inarticulate English being the universal diversifier.

Eurovision songs have always suffered—or, you might well argue, benefited—from less-than-sophisticated lyrics. Take these lines from this year’s Armenian entry, performed by one Eva Rivas: “I began to cry a lot / And she gave me apricots.” Which begs the question, I told a friend the other day: if she had only laughed a little, might she have gotten . . . peanut brittle? Well, perhaps not. Apricots are a symbol of Armenian nationality.

In its well-nigh incomprehensible delivery, “Satellite” takes the cake, though. According to British bookies and the internet downloads on which they rely to establish the odds, the quirky, bouncy little song representing my native Germany—where it became an instant success—is second in popularity only to the entry from Azerbaijan (which, as the contest rules have it, lies within the boundaries of Europe).

A Danish-German-American collaboration, “Satellite” scores high in both the “bad lyrics” and “strange accent” categories, proving, as only a Eurovision song can, that those categories are not mutually exclusive:

I went everywhere for you
I even did my hair for you
I bought new underwear that’s blue
And I wore it just the other day.

The singer, Lena Meyer-Landrut hails from Hanover. Not that this should lead us to expect any pronounced British connections in her house. Still, being a graduating high school student, she ought to have a firmer grasp on the English language. At least, her origins and education cannot account for—or explain away—references to painted “toenates” and underwear “thay blue.” Since, after weeks of tryouts and rehearsals, she still can’t, er, “nate” those undemanding lyrics, her accent is clearly an affectation. Could it be anything else?

Just what kind of “Hut-Sut” are European “brawla” dreaming of these days as they insist on diving, seemingly pell-mell, into the turbid “rillerah” they make of English? Not of a unity achieved through universality, I reckon. Perhaps, they are simply getting back at the native speakers by twisting their tongue in ways that are as likely to alienate as to amuse, and are having the last laugh by turning this recklessly appropriated language into Europop gold with which to pay back the British for steadfastly refusing to adopt the sinking Euro. The apricot stones-filled cheek!

Whether “Satellite”—or Germany—wins this Saturday has perhaps more to do with the recent bailout of Greece than with the merits of the song or the quality of the performance. Then again, a Eurovision song, however frivolous, is generally looked upon as something larger than its number of bum notes and odd intonations. It is, at best, ambassadorial—and the outlandish accent of the German envoy makes for a curious diplomatic statement indeed.

I’m Not a Fan

Well, I’m not a fan of . . . anything. That is to say, I am not a fan of the word. Fan, fanatic, fanaticism. Those lexical expressions of inflexibility, those dictionary indicators of obduracy ought to be reserved for folks who are determined to blow themselves up for what they believe to be their beliefs, for the indiscriminals who are prepared to take the lives of others around them for the sake of an idea or an ostensible ideal (I’ve got Glasgow and London on my mind). No, I am not inclined to go quite so far in my devotion. It does not follow, however, that I am incapable of getting passionate or downright pigheaded, even when such fervor goes against my better judgment.

Permit me to opine for the sake of defining. For instance, I strongly disliked Britain’s former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, simply because I could not stand his grin and his (to me) mannered way of speaking; never mind his policy in Iraq, which was reason enough to disdain him. I have nothing yet to say about Gordon Brown, who mercifully abstains from mugging. I am opposed to Britain’s newly enforced smoking ban, no matter how many lives could presumably be saved by such a curtailing of pleasure. I refuse to visit my native country of Germany, along with Switzerland and France, and have choice words for those who turn down a nice cut of meat in favor of bean sprouts or tofu.

Unlike notions, opinions are never vague. Voicing them—a hazardous prerogative these days—is a retreat into what lies past caution, beyond apprehensions of censure known as political correctness, adjustments in expressed thought commonly disguised as reason, or, at any rate, as what is reasonable. Uttering what you can barely get away with can be a welcome getaway from the sincerity-divested shelter of platitude to which the mealy-mouthed have chosen to confine themselves. That goes only for the intelligent and open-minded; the unthinking, who can do nothing but opine, have no use for such relief, which makes them far more dangerous than any strongly voice opinion could ever be.

Meanwhile, I much rather rave than rant. I prefer to reserve my energy—and this little nook in the web—for things I look upon with uncommon fondness (such as radio, whose neglected virtues I extol in this journal) and people I adore in a manner that I, an atheist, refuse to label idolatry. A few decades ago, I decided that, while not fanatic, I fancied a certain leading lady of Hollywood’s aureate days. The lady in question is Claudette Colbert. French-born, no less. My latest acquisition—above poster for the 1947 thriller Sleep, My Love—arrived today and awaits a spot on whatever wall remains to display it. Space, by now, is at a premium; only yesterday, I made room for this announcement for Colbert’s 1941 vehicle Skylark. It is probably not what you’d expect to find in a Welsh cottage—unless, that is, you knew me and knew I had come to live there with someone so willing to humor my foibles and fancies.

So, what is the difference between a fan and a fancier? The fan cannot see; the fancier has a selective gaze. The fan discriminates; the fancier is discriminating. The fan is dead to the rest of the world; the fancier is alive to the idiosyncrasies of his or her passions. No, I am decidedly not a fan . . .

On This Day in 1930: ‘”Mystery Gun” Disappears As Lights Go Out’ in Invisible Courtroom

I don’t suppose I shall ever get used to it. The Welsh weather, I mean, the nocturnal roars and howlings of which I often drown out by listening to the familiar voices of old-time radio, reassuring and comforting voices like those of Harry Bartell or Elliot Lewis, both of whom were born on this day, 28 November, in 1913 and 1917, respectively. Storms are part of the Welsh soundscape, much like the bleating of sheep on the hills. If such climate conditions were faced by the people of New York, among whom I numbered for some fifteen years of my life, I wager that the local television newscasts would report little else. To be sure, last night’s storm did make headlines, being that a tornado wreaked havoc in a village just a few miles from my present home.

Thanks to some well-chosen radio thriller, I managed to sleep through it all, losing myself in dreams that, once radioactivated, tend to become particularly vivid. I often wonder just how much my mind, conscious or not, is influenced by the popular culture I consume by listening in. Sometimes, though, it is what we hear about, and not what we perceive, that stirs our imagination. There are a few listening experiences I can only dream of, plays I have only read or read about and consequently fascinate me no end. One such unheard soundplay is the serial The Trial of Vivienne Ware (previously mentioned here and discussed at some length in Etherized, my study of American radio dramatics). Pulled by the Hearst press and propagated on the air by station WJZ, New York, it was a spectacular publicity stunt designed to promote Hearst’s less than reputable papers.

Those tuning in did not only get to hear the proceedings, but were cast as jurors. They stood a chance of being awarded $1000 for coming up with the most convincing verdict (be it “guilty” or “innocent”), thus making it unnecessary for the author of the story—one Kenneth M. Ellis—to determine upon a reasonable conclusion and the fate of his titular character.

From the 25th to the last day of November, the fictional trial was broadcast live, with eminent figures of law and politics, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner and prominent attorney Ferdinand Pecora, heading a cast that included noted stage actress Rosamund Pinchot. Here is how the New York American, the Hearst paper sponsoring the series, described the session of 28 November 1930:

It was almost at the close of the session that the lights suddenly were extinguished and the court plunged into total darkness. Women’s screams, the shouts and bustle of court attaches, and the hammering of the gavel filled five or six black seconds with sound. Then the lights came on again—but the .38 caliber revolver which George Gordon Battle, chief counsel for Vivienne Ware, had just introduced as evidence had disappeared from the table where it lay.

Now, that’s a melodramatic conjuring act fit for the airwaves. It probably wouldn’t do much good during a stormy night, though, since such interactive thrills—let alone the pondering of the verdict, and what to do with the prize money—are, unlike much else that was presented on American radio with comforting predictability, anything but soporific.

Election Day Special: Could This Hollywood Heavy Push You to the Polls?

Well, I don’t know how many voters turned out to re-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt on this day, 7 November, in 1944 because they had been listening to the radio the night before. Those tuning in to affiliate stations of the four major networks were informed that regular programming was being suspended for a “special political broadcast.” Stepping up to the microphone were Hollywood leading ladies Claudette Colbert, Joan Bennett, Virginia Bruce, Linda Darnell, and Lana Turner, composer Irving Berlin, radio personalities Milton Berle and “Molly Goldberg,” as well as the gangster elite of Tinseltown—Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, and James Cagney (pictured). Along with fellow Americans “from a great many walks of life,” Humphrey Bogart explained, they all had a “deep and common interest” in the outcome of the election.

Heading the parade of A-listers was Judy Garland, who burst into song with this “suggestion for tomorrow:”

Here’s the way to win the war, win the war, win the war
Here’s the way to win the war, you gotta get out and vote.
To get the things we’re fighting for, fighting for, fighting for,
To get the things we’re fighting for, you gotta get out and vote.
To clinch that happy ending,
On the Tokyo, the Berlin, and the Rome front,
The fellow with the bullet is depending
On the fella with the ballot on the home front.
Oh, we wanna have a better world, better world, better world,
Wanna have a better world? You gotta get out and vote.

There was no doubt just what kind of “suggestion” Garland and company had in mind. What radio listeners were treated to was an hour-long campaign ad for the Democratic party. Sing it, Judy:

Now we’re on the right track, right track, right track,
Now we’re on the right track, we’re gonna win the war.
Right behind the President, President, President,
Right behind the President for 1944.
The track ahead is clear now,
Let’s keep the engines humming.
Don’t change the engineer now,
‘Cause the ‘New World Special’ is a-coming.

Throughout the program, those fighting overseas or laboring at home for victory voiced their fears of a “Third World War,” presumably less likely under the current administration, expressed themselves grateful for Democrat bureaucracy (which, they held, kept the groceries affordable to everyone), or openly attacked a dangerous “amateur” of a Republican candidate by whom they claimed to have been “torpedoed.” Dewey was argued to have rigged the voting laws of New York State, making it “impossible” for “thousands” to go to the polls and cast their ballots for FDR. Even registered Republicans came out in support of the President, expressing themselves dismayed at or ashamed of the candidate representing their party.

It’s a rousing hour of radio electioneering, concluding with an address by the President—and his prayer. With all the microphones on the Democrats that night, the opposition (even if aided by Dewey’s decimating system) simply had none.

So Proudly We Hail(ed); or, Movies They Dare Not Make Today

Well, they sure don’t make them as they used to. I don’t know how many times you have uttered that line, indifferent to the rules of grammar, whether as a lament or a sigh of relief. Take So Proudly We Hail, for instance, the 1943 war drama I watched last night. Until I decided that doing so would be rather too self-indulgent (considering my love for a certain leading lady), I thought of discussing it yesterday, corresponding with the anniversary of the radio version in which stars Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake reprised their original roles (along with the long forgotten Sonny Tufts) on the Lux Radio Theatre.

So Proudly We Hail is a well-crafted, surprisingly unsentimental, and highly engaging melodrama about US army nurses serving their country in the battlefield that was the Philippines during the Second World War; as such, it is also unabashed wartime propaganda. I do not think that any producer in Hollywood today would dare to remake it, say, with Julia Roberts, Winona Rider, and Scarlett Johansson (to pick three contemporary actresses approximately of the respective ages of the three original leads). Why not? Allow me to speculate.

There’s a war on, lest we forget; but it doesn’t seem to reunite the West (or any Western nation) against a clearly defined enemy. Instead, we find ourselves in a war on terror—and the terror appears to be as much the cause as it is the effect, violence and violations being brought on by so-called anti-terrorist measures that continue to provoke it. This is not a time in which to express pride in one’s country or its elected representatives; and those making decisions in Hollywood today seem least inclined foster a sense of loyalty and regard. I don’t think, though, that widespread dissatisfaction and skepticism—a critical attitude only the thoughtless or unthinking ever entirely suppress—account for the current rejection of propaganda drama.

As the reception of Clint Eastwood’s latest film suggests, people are not lining up to see movies with a political message. They might accept a controversial documentary inviting us to take sides; but they no longer appreciate being manipulated or swayed by dramatic fare. Propaganda is a dirty word these days, dirtier by far than advertising, which is still being tolerated. However much we might groan, we tend to allow the promotion of a product, but get squeamish when it comes to the advancement of an idea. Corporations have taken a prominent place in—or even taken the place of—the government; and when peddling products, advertisers appeal to the individual, whereas propaganda seeks to motivate the community. It simply pays to stimulate division and selfishness, a targeting strategy generally marketed as choice. There no longer is a public, it seems; there are only people; and for advertising purposes, several million of these supposed individuals will do.

Unlike today’s conflicts, the Second World War was not endorsed by big business; companies were not eager to surrender sales or give up the production of consumer goods for a nation that needed to consolidate precious resources. So, I don’t think we’ll get to see Scarlett Johansson grabbing a hand grenade and blowing herself up for the sake of her country (as Veronica Lake’s character does) or picking up an empty can of soda for the benefit of the planet. Instead, she’ll grab that soft drink or lipstick or pair of designer shoes and fight for what she believes in . . . or what those placing the products in her hands want us to believe.

I did not grow up in a country or an age in which it was easy or felt right to be proud of one’s people; and, watching a film like So Proudly We Hail I sense that to be a profound loss. We so proudly hail individuality these days because corporations hand out the flags and buttons to match, knowing that we are at our most receptive and vulnerable when we are at our greediest.

How About a Cup of Freshly Mined Uranium?

Well, we’ve all pulled stunts the memories of which are best pushed back into the farthest recesses of our cranial database—unless, of course, such anecdotal evidence of our dimwittedness might serve some educational purpose or is just too temptingly absurd not to be passed on for a few laughs at our expense. Ever tried walking on water? I sure did—and very nearly drowned in the realization that slipping your feet into a pair of water wings won’t do the trick.

Some folks, myself included, never entirely grow out of this awkward—and at times perilous—stage of rationed rationality, a protracted dizzy spell during which life unfolds as a series of trials by misfire. How comforting it is then to find one’s preposterous self in fictional characters—and to find oneself outdone by them in folly and futility.

At a period in not-too-distant American history—the Great Depression of the 1930s—when formerly secure or relatively well-to-do folks were suddenly forced to live by their wits and found them wanting, radio was a reliable purveyor of reassuring fall-guy tales, stories of crazy schemers like Lum and Abner, proprietors of the Jot-Em-Down Store in the imaginary backwoods community of Pine Ridge, Arkansas.

Never quite satisfied to run their unassuming store, Lum and Abner were always in search of a sure-fire get-rich-quick venture, whether it meant digging for oil or running a matrimonial bureau. Their common sense did not match their ambitions, creating plenty of opportunities for quacks and swindlers.

On this day, 27 April, in 1942, for instance, they were dreaming of real estate, a mighty complex of “Wonderful World Apartments,” for the erection of which they were promised, free of charge, a contractor who, they had not reason enough to doubt, had been responsible for the construction of the Empire State Building.

During the lean years of the depression and the time of personal sacrifices that was World War II, Lum and Abner’s antics were occasionally rendered relevant by drawing attention to a particular need or service, be it the demand for scrap metal or the benefits of local bookmobiles.

Shortly after the end of the war, however, such built-in public service announcements and dramatized propaganda seemed out of touch with listeners who had been told to do without (or do with less) for too long. Freed from the constraint imposed upon them during the war, the creators of radio entertainment could once again be unabashedly escapist and thoroughly commercial.

The dropping of the atomic bomb—a drastic act of getting it done and moving on at last—was greeted as the dawn of a new era: a peaceful one, it was hoped; but certainly one of renewed and indeed unprecedented consumerism, of wish-fulfilment and instant gratification. Rather than being rendered dreadful and threatening, radioactivity was sold to the public as a boon, the very fount of ready-made enrichment.

Barely a month after V-J Day (14 August 1945), Lum and Abner believed themselves to be in possession of this new and most magical source of energy—uranium. If only their neighbor, Cedric Weehunt, had not attempted to boost his own strength by having a sip from the cup supposedly containing “that uranium stuff.” In one of the serial’s ostensibly comic cliffhangers, Lum and Abner assume their friend to have been transformed into a dog as a result of imbibing the substance.

Such clowning around, such Enola Gayety, was a heavy-handed attempt at making light of an incredible burden. Even if the long-lasting effects of radiation were not fully grasped for some time—a horrifying discovery exploited in the sci-fi thrillers of the 1950s—the trivializing of uranium so shortly after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki now comes across as a distasteful act of raising a cup to nuclear fallout, of toasting the loss of thousands of civilians.

On This Day in 1939: Pearl S. Buck Gets Into the “Patriot” Act

I had intended to spend much of today al fresco, our long-neglected garden being in serious need of attention. Dragging the old lawnmower out of hibernal retirement a while ago, I had managed to knock over a can of paint and, the spilled contents being blue, very nearly ended up looking like a Smurf in the process. No sooner had we unleashed the noisy monstrosity, engulfed in a cloud of smoke, than one of its wheels broke off, which immediately put a stop to my horticultural endeavors. It is to the latter mishap on this Not-So-Good Friday and the fact that I am all thumbs (none of which green) that you owe the questionable pleasure of this entry in the broadcastellan journal.

An afternoon’s dilly-dallying among the daffodils may be just as escapist an act as tuning in an old radio program. In either case, however, it is difficult to get very far away from the news of the day, headlines so maddening and haunting that there is little relief even in irreverence, in mocking those among our political leaders who turn a blind eye to the signs of the times or who succeed in nothing more than in making enemies and alienating their allies.

Are we to believe, are we to accept that a nuclear attack from Iran is to be expected and that a pre-emptive raid is therefore necessary? Is it impossible to win a war—on terror, no less—without waging one? Is it possible to win (in) any violent conflict? On this day, 14 April, in 1939, Nobel Prize winning author Pearl S. Buck (pictured above) appeared on the Campbell Playhouse to address this very question.

Orson Welles, the official producer of this weekly radio series featuring adaptations of stories, plays, and motion pictures, had chosen Buck’s latest novel, The Patriot, as the “best new book for April” and presented a dramatization of the narrative starring Anna May Wong. Shaking hands with Welles and Wong during the curtain call, Buck was invited to comment on the “situation in the east,” the Chinese-American war that may have seemed even more remote, incomprehensible, or irrelevant to Americans than the crises in Europe. Welles inquired whether it was possible to sympathize with China and Japan alike in this conflict. To this, Buck responded:

When one has had experience of many wars, one comes to see that the pattern is always the same. No matter who is the aggressor and who is attacked, both are victim and both lose in the end.

To be sure, such a remark would not have been welcomed some two and a half years later, when the US felt compelled to enter the Second World War after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Yet patriotism might find expression other than jingoist speech and the complexities of war called for responses other than simple slogans. Realizing the significance of radio as a means of connecting (with) the world and addressing far-reaching political and humanitarian crises, Buck decided to become a radio dramatist herself.

As Erik Barnouw relates in his Media Marathon, Buck enrolled incognito in his class (Radio Writing U2) at Columbia University to prepare for a proposed series of plays titled America Speaks to China. During the Second World War, she went on to write a number of propaganda plays about Asian-Americans and the relationship between East and West.

Today, perhaps, more people are beginning to discern the pattern Buck pointed out. And, once again, the definition, the concept of the patriot is changing: the action hero, the go-getter of few words now seems infinitely less desirable and rare than the thinker who not only knows how to use each word effectively but can be trusted to keep it.

"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.

White House Warnings, the Iran "Challenge," and the Art of Recycling Words for the Atomic Age

Only yesterday I was leafing through my dusty copy of Rogues’ Gallery: The Great Criminals of Modern Fiction. Granted, the story of pickpocket Thubway Tham (discussed in my previous journal entry) was anything but “great,” the dubious gentlemen among whom he appears in this anthology, figures like Raffles or Arsene Lupin, being far worthier of the appellation. Putting the book aside and glancing at today’s headlines, I got to thinking about those real-life acts of roguery and their perpetrators, thieves and tricksters fit for a place in that proverbial gallery.

Without being facetious, I think that most of us are eager to put certain politicians right up there with confidence men, embezzlers, and racketeers. Unlike fictional smugglers, highwayman, or cardsharpers, however, our misleading leaders rarely inspire cloak-and-dagger romances, at least not while they are still in office. Their potential to do harm to a far greater number of people than any pirate of old renders them too treacherous to be enchanting, and too powerful to be defused by mere ridicule. That we might have contributed to their ascent—either by having been taken in by their words or by having stood aside while others made what we’ve come to suspect as the “wrong” choice—only drives home that the joke, if ever it was one, is decidedly on us.
In the United States, the people’s trust in their political leaders may be reaching a new low these days, giving way to an indiscriminate, haphazard scepticism that could potentially be more hazardous than the actions that triggered it. So, hearing the latest White House warning about the Iranian nuclear program, I wonder who among us, the citizens or allies of the US, is willing to accept or heed it. Is it a danger real or imaginary, pre-existing or newly conceived in the act of pronouncing it true? What’s more, is not even a manufactured threat a concrete one nonetheless, whether as propagandist tool or diplomatic blunder?
Thinking this, I was reminded again of “Air Raid,” a verse play for radio by Archibald MacLeish, a big name in American poetry and pamphleteering. “Air Raid” is a didactic drama about an unheeded warning. Now, as I remarked when I commemorated the anniversary of the its premiere, the play was originally an appeal designed to caution US citizens against isolationism. Confronting the public with an enactment of a deadly attack on civilians, MacLeish went so far as to suggest that those who lose their lives to wartime terror are responsible for the consequences of their inaction.
However questionable his achievement, the anti-fascist cause that motivated its author was a noble one. “Air Raid” suggests that the greatest threat facing a people is not posed by foreign aggressors or domestic demagogues, but by an attitude of indifference to or ignorance of the political affairs makes the public vulnerable to acts of suppression and obliteration. Yet, like all propagandistic speech—and the melodramatic vehicles in which it hits its target audience—these words of caution were readily coopted.
On this day, 10 March, in 1956, nearly two decades after its first broadcast, “Air Raid” was restaged by the CBS Radio Workshop. The same words poured once more from the speakers—but their context had changed entirely. Now the play had the stamp of the Eisenhower years pressed upon it, the gullibility of the public being relied upon rather than challenged with the announcer’s insistence that “Mr. MacLeish’s prophesy” had become “grim reality” in an age of “guided missiles” capable of “nuclear destruction.”
“Learn what you can do to increase your chances of survival,” the program’s announcer implored listeners at the close of the broadcast: “Contact your Civil Defense Office.” As American families retreated into their picket-fenced homes—or into dreams of such—they were left with the impression that the world outside the United States was evil and that their leaders had solely their safety, rather than profits, in mind. It was thus that the lucrative armament of the cold-war years was being justified. MacLeish’s warning had become “grim reality,” all right—so much so that the public was not to appreciate his original message.
So, given that we have mostly familiar words of warning to go by once more, how can we determined the honesty or falsehood of those who utter them? Does the present truth lie in the perceived deceptions of the past? And how far should we remain willing to listen with the generosity of an open mind—instead of hiding behind the reflecting shield of satire—to keep an essentially sound and worthy political system such as democracy from falling apart?

On This Day in 1942: The Wannsee Konferenz Maps Out the Final Solution

An engagement with old-time radio need not be an escape from the world; it can be a return to the very realities we may have been desirous to avoid or void altogether. Listening to recordings of historical broadcasts can become a confrontation with the past, its representation, and, in the act of relating, with the present itself. Today, for instance, marks the anniversary of the Wannsee Conference at which, on 20 January 1942, the fate of eleven million European Jews was being debated and decided upon with the matter-of-factness and statistical precision known as the “final solution” (the minutes of which genocidal get-together can be found here). Few radio playwrights were as committed to representing the Jewish experience as Morton Wishengrad, whose 1942 play “The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto” is as chilling and relentless as the calculated cruelty of the master(race)minding behind the massacre on which it comments.

Wishengrad, a prolific and politically engaged playwright whom noted radio actor Joseph Julian once called the only writer beside Corwin to have created a “body of radio literature that deserves a perennial life,” lets the record speak for itself in his chilling echo of fascist calculating and cataloguing—of a nation’s counting, counting down, and accounting of murder millionfold. In “The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto,” first heard on NBC on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1943, the personal story of a holocaust victim, related from the grave, is reinforced by the sound of “black trucks” rolling out of the Ghetto to the concentration camps, by the three voices of fate (the three fates?) calling up the facts with a statistical precision that echoes the calculated ruthlessness of the acts planned and committed:

VOICE I. July 22, 1942.
VOICE II. Six thousand two hundred and eighty-nine.
VOICE III. Destination . . . Tremblinka.
VOICE I. July 23rd.
VOICE II. Seven thousand eight hundred and twenty.
VOICE III. Destination . . . Oswiantzem.
VOICE I. July 24th.
VOICE II. Seven thousand four hundred and forty-four.
VOICE III. Destination . . . Belzec. 

(Biz: Voices and truck sounds hold under narrator.) 

NARRATOR. Done with method, precise, efficient, recorded. To Tremblinka, Oswiantzem, Belzec, Sobibor, Majdany—a lethal gas chamber, an electric furnace, a poison pit, an execution field, a cemetery. And add also ten thousand brave, hopeless, tragic men who seized sticks and stones and knives and bare fists and charged the tanks and tried to halt the trucks. Add their bodies to the list for the ten days of June, 1942. Make your total and then add two precise, methodical, documented months in August and September, 1942. Reckon it. Do it carefully. You cannot do it on your fingers. No! Let me give you the sum. Listen, 275,954 fewer bread cards in the Ghetto! Swift, accurate, final. Quicker than typhus, surer than hunger.

The records of the Wannsee Konferenz became instrumental in the gathering of evidence for the Nuremberg Nazi trials, another somber occasion dramatized on 16 October 1946 by playwright Arnold Perl, whose docudrama “The Empty Noose” suggested that, while the masterminds of the Third Reich had been hanged, the thoughts behind their actions were still very much alive, both in America and abroad. The regularly scheduled whodunit The Adventures of Ellery Queen was not heard that night.

“The medium needs writers who have something to say about the culture,” Wishengrad remarked in his foreword to The Eternal Light, an anthology of scripts from the series. Old-time radio drama also deserves listeners who take in and respond with their ears and minds open.