H. V. Morton, from The Heart of London (1925)

Henry Morton began work as a journalist and descriptive writer of vignettes for the Daily Express after reporting the discovery of Egyptian king Tutankhamen’s tomb in the 1920s. The following passage displays several of Morton’s impressions of the Cenotaph.

 

“The Cenotaph”

TEN-THIRTY A.M. in Whitehall on a cold, grey February morning.

There is expectancy at the Horse Guards, where two living statues draped in scarlet cloaks sit their patient chargers. A group of sightseers waits at the gate for the high note of a silver cavalry trumpet, for the click of hoofs on the cobbles and a shining cavalcade beneath an arch: the pageantry that precedes that silent ceremony of changing a guard that ‘turns out’ for no man but the King.

Laden omnibuses go down to Westminster or up to Charing Cross, and, as they pass, every passenger looks at the two Life Guards in their scarlet glory, for they are one of the sights of London that never grows stale. Taxicabs and limousines spin smoothly left and right, men and women enter and leave Government offices: a Whitehall morning is moving easily, leisurely, elegantly, if you like, towards noon.

And I walk on to Westminster, and, in the centre of the road, cream-coloured, dominant, stands the Cenotaph.

*

More than six years ago the last shot was fired. Six years. It is long enough for a heart to become convalescent. Sharp agonies which at the time of their happening seem incapable of healing have a merciful habit of mending in six years. A broken love-affair that turned the world into a pointless waste of Time has ended in a happy marriage of six years. A death that left so much unspoken, so much regret, so much to atone for, falls in six years into its pathetic perspective a little nearer Nineveh and Tyre.

I look up at the Cenotaph. A parcels delivery boy riding a tricycle van takes off his worn cap. An omnibus goes by. The men lift their hats. Men passing with papers and documents under their arms, attache and despatch cases in their hands—all the business of life—bare their heads as they hurry by.

Six years have made no difference here. The Cenotaph—that mass of national emotion frozen in stone—is holy to this generation. Although I have seen it so many times on that day once a year when it comes alive to an accompaniment of pomp as simple and as beautiful as church ritual, I think that I like it best just standing here in a grey morning, with its feet in flowers and ordinary folk going by, remembering.

*

Westminster Abbey 1920

I look up to Charing Cross and down to Westminster. On one side Whitehall narrows to a slit, against which rises the thin, black pencil of the Nelson column; on the other Westminster Abbey, grey and devoid of detail, seems etched in smoke against the sky, rising up like a mirage from the silhouette of bare trees.

The wind comes down Whitehall and pulls the flags, exposing a little more of their red, white, and blue, as if invisible fingers were playing with them. The plinth is vacant. The constant changing trickle of a crowd that later in the day will stand here for a few moments has not arrived. There is no one here.

No one? I look, but not with my eyes, and I see that the Empire is here: England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India . . . here—springing in glory from our London soil.

*

In a dream I see those old mad days ten years ago. How the wind fingers the flags. . . .

I remember how, only a few weeks ago, as a train thundered through France, a woman sitting opposite to me in the dining car said, ‘The English!’ I looked through the window over the green fields, and saw row on row, sharply white against the green, rising with the hill and dropping again into the hollows—keeping a firm line as they had been taught to do—a battalion on its last parade.

The Cenotaph and no one there? That can never be.

*

War Office 1922

Look! Near the mottled white and black of the War Office far up Whitehall a platoon of Guardsmen come marching. They swing their arms and stride out, carrying their rifles at a perfect ‘slope.’ They are young, the ‘eighteen-year-olds’ we used to call them in 1918 when they were called up to form the ‘young soldiers’ battalions. I remember how frightened some of them were at this thing that had happened to them, and how often, when one was orderly officer padding round at night, a boy soldier would be crying like a child in the darkness at some harshness, or, in a wave of homesickness.

The old recipe has worked with the Guards! On they come, a platoon of tough Irish soldiers, their solemn faces grim and set under their peaked caps, their belts snow white with pipeclay.

They approach the Cenotaph:

‘Platoon!’ roars the sergeant. ‘Eyes—right!’

He slaps his rifle butt, and the heads swing round.

‘Eyes—front!’

*

The Cenotaph stands there with a wind pulling . . . pulling like fingers touching the Flag.

 


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