After a train journey of a couple of hours we arrived at Boulogne. Here we had to go through the business of passports once more. At the gangway of the boat I asked the man what time the boat sailed and it was good to get an immediate reply in English. After going on board for a short time I discovered there was a photograph I wanted to take and although we were not allowed on shore again I thought I would try my luck. I went down the gangway and in reply to my special request the man in charge said, “I see you are a Rotarian” (I was wearing my button), “so I will let you off”.
The boats crossing the channel are very small, about the size of the Tamahine. We selected seats on deck, but before we had been away from the shore for more than a few minutes a very cold wind sprang up and we were glad to get down below. It is definitely colder than any other part of the trip and as I did not expect it, my only overcoat, which was nothing more than a rain coat, was packed in my suit case as usual. I had scarcely found it necessary to use this coat on the whole of the trip across the continent, but now it was badly needed. We were only 1½ hours crossing the channel, but before we reached the other shore there was a storm and a tremendous downpour of rain. When we got to the coast it was dreary with fog and rain.
So this was the bright England we had been looking forward to for such a long time! It was still raining hard when we landed and I got wet. Then we had to go through the customs. Our suitcases had been taken by Cooks and they would be examined when we got to Victoria Station, but now we had to open any hand bags which we were carrying. I had my little attache case with a few odds and ends, as well as my field glasses and my latest camera which I had purchased in Germany. He spotted the field glasses immediately, but I convinced him that they were presented to me before I left New Zealand, as they were engraved accordingly. Then he picked up the camera. “Where did you get this?” “In Germany” I replied. Of course, he knew he had found something this time. I tried hard to bluff him, but it was no good. He said I would have to pay duty. “But”, I remonstrated, “I am only passing through England and will be leaving here in two months”. “You still have to pay the duty and when you leave if you still have the camera it will be refunded to you”. As there was nothing else to do I agreed to pay the duty.
The calculation was made and to my surprise the duty was £25, which was just about what I had paid for the camera. As I only had a few English pounds with me I had to let them take the camera until the duty was paid. To add to the annoyance I had to pay 1/- to have the camera sent to Victoria Station, so that I could get it when I had enough money for the duty. This put me into a very bad temper and my first impressions of England were not at all what I had expected them to be.
By this time all the other people were on the train and when I got aboard amongst the party once more there was a cry of “Where is the camera?” After travelling across the continent with them they all knew me as the man with the camera and it was a great joke to them to know of my difficulty. I felt like telling them all to go to places, but being a perfect gentleman I only THOUGHT it.
On the way up to London I was wondering what would happen when my other suitcases were opened and they found a number of other things on which I would have to pay duty. I told a few others what had happened as as they also had dutiable goods and some of them also had cameras they all had the wind up. However, when we got to the station our luggage was stacked up in a huge pile and the man from Cooks saw the customs officer and explained that we were only tourists and apart from some souvenirs and things of that kind we had nothing on which duty was payable. After a little parley every bag was allowed to go through without any opening! The incident at Folkestone where we landed was not so bad after all, as it might have been much worse if the other bags had been opened.
We left the hotel in Paris at 9.30 in the morning and at 7 p.m. we were in the Royal Empire Society’s Building close to Trafalgar Square. The first thing I asked for when I arrived was the mail and I got a lovely pile of it. There were letters from Moonah, a birthday cable from Phil and a very short letter which fortunately was supplemented by over 20 pages of home news from Else, a letter from the General Manager telling me to take the trip quietly and about a dozen others from various people. It was just beautiful to get this mail and you must actually be out of touch with everyone and everything for nearly ten weeks to understand what it means to at last get the news. Before we did anything else I sat down in my room and read these letters.
Then I discovered that our cabin trunks had not arrived. By the time we had dinner and got unpacked from our suitcases it was bed time and the cabin trunks were left until next morning. Before going to sleep I could not help thinking of the many differences we had discovered on the continent. For instance, the butter was not salted, there was no brown bread, we had not seen toast since we left the Orcades a month ago, fruit was very scarce and hard to get in the hotels, the tea was usually bad and coffee had been mostly drunk by us, there was no proper breakfast, as coffee and rolls was the order of the day in all continental cities, I had not tasted cream since leaving the boat, nor had I tasted what I like with it – apple pie! It had also been very difficult for us to get baths on the continent and in practically every case I understand Cooks had to pay extra for the baths which we required. We also had to supply our own soap on the continent. Here in the Royal Empire Society’s rooms we had our own private bath, the soap was supplied, and it was very much appreciated.
Next day it was still raining, but everyone said it was badly wanted, as they had not had any rain for some weeks, so we did not complain. I went out to Cooks to see about our luggage and before leaving the Society’s building I enquired the way. “Turn right outside the door, go straight across Trafalgar Square, turn left, go up two blocks, then turn right and you will find it between two large buildings”. All of this was done and as the office was still nowhere in sight I realised I was lost and then hailed a taxi to get me out of my difficulty. Fortunately the taxi drivers speak English and they know London. However, before the morning was out I was finding my way about on foot and was slowly but surely getting my bearings on all points.
I went into a barber for a haircut. I had been waiting for this for some weeks. Putting on my best English accent I told the barber I wanted it cut. “Have you come very far, sir?” Apparently I could not disguise the fact that I was a stranger and so I gave him the truth at once. “New Zealand”, I replied. “Ah!” he said, “I knew your colour was not obtained in London”. I might explain that I had scarcely worn a hat since I left home and was well browned coming through the tropics and across the continent. When I got back to the rooms I was feeling much happier about London and I found an invitation awaiting me for lunch with Sir Robert Rankin, a member of the House of Commons, who wanted to entertain some overseas visitors at his home on Monday.
At night we went to the theatre to see the musical comedy, Going Greek. It was screamingly funny and we all enjoyed it. It was at the Gaiety Theatre and we heard the original orchestra playing some of the pieces we had heard on records on the way over on the boat. Unfortunately, Lo had a bilious attack and I had to go out with her just before the play was over. I was reminded of home during the show when I heard the definition of a pedestrian – a man who owns two cars and has a wife and a grown up daughter. As I had my wife and grown up daughter with me I was wondering what those two grown up sons were doing with that Airflow!
Next day was Sunday and we started out to see something of London on foot. We passed St. James palace and just missed the changing of the guard, but we saw the men marching away.
Then we went to Buckingham Palace but were only allowed to go as far as the gates. We went on through Hyde Park and had lunch at “Lyons”, which appears to be a well known firm with many restaurants around London. We went on through Kensington Gardens and once more only saw the outside of Kensington Palace.
At night Lo and I went to St. Paul’s cathedral. I was disappointed. It is a wonderful building and reminded me of St. Peter’s in Rome. There were between 900 and 1,000 people there, but the church was almost empty. The singing was not good, because the people did not sing loudly enough to fill the vacant places and there was an echo of both singing and speaking which was very distracting. Apparently this reverberation is something which has to be faced in all large cathedrals, as our guides had explained the same difficulty in other places, and particularly in Milan where special loud speakers had been installed.
When I was going out after the service a man came up to me and said “How do you do, Mr. Wallace?” I got a great shock as it was Mr. Fortune from Auckland, who was a member of the Institute of Secretaries and who had met me at the meetings there. He had been in London for some time and told me he often came across New Zealand people. Just before I left for church Rozie had suggested that I should change my clothes, but as it was raining I said it would not matter and in any case no one would know me. It was strange that I should meet a man from New Zealand in this manner.
Next day the camera was rescued and the duty paid. Then I had to get ready for the luncheon party at the home of Sir Robert Rankin. As the invitation was only for two I could not take the three ladies with me. There was some discussion as to which one should go and it was finally settled that the experience should go to Lo. She therefore spent the first part of the morning with the hairdressers and in generally splashing up a couple of good Bank of England notes. After being examined to see that the creases were perfect and every other detail just right we got into one of London’s best taxis and gave the instructions.
We had only allowed the exact time to get there, but as it was raining there was an incident which delayed us for a short time. Our driver tried to stop too quickly in a traffic jam and he skidded on the wet road and hit another car. He and the other driver got out and had the usual arguments, but in the end it was settled and we drove on.
As soon as the taxi stopped outside one of London’s typical old homes in Berkeley Square the footman opened the door as he was apparently watching for us. We entered in the orthodox manner as we had seen so many times in the pictures and handed over my hat and coat. Then the butler took my card and led us to another room where we were announced to Sir Robert. The only other guests were Mr. and Mrs. Sanders from Adelaide. He had been to London several times before and appeared to be very well known, as he was talking about Lord so-and-so and other big men as though he had known them for years. Miss Skip, the daughter of Lady Skip, was acting as hostess. We were introduced by Sir Robert, but he did not hear the announcement of the butler properly and thought Lo was my wife. Of course there was a hearty laugh when the error was corrected and it gave the party a good start.
We were then given a glass of sherry, which was very acceptable considering the excitement of the moment and the cold day. Timed to a second, as soon as the sherry was finished the butler announced that luncheon was ready. We went to the diningroom. It was most strikingly French. There was not a picture of any kind on the walls, which were covered with some kind of enamel, but the whole room was made by the dining table and chairs. They were Queen Anne style, decorated in green and gold with an inlaid top on the table. I would not like to place a value on them, but I would say that to me they were priceless. The table was further brightened by a large square of pink sweet peas with short stalks and in low vases. In the middle of the square were some white porcelain miniature dogs and a couple of little statues. It was all arranged with great taste and was further beautified by the chased silver forks, spoons, etc. and the accompanying dinner set. It was all most appetising and artistic. White wine was served with the first couple of courses and then came the red. When the dessert was finished the hostess gave the signal and the ladies rose.
When they had left the room we returned to our seats for liquor. Sir Robert wanted my impressions of the continent and was particularly interested in my remarks concerning the youth of Italy. He is an elderly man with a strong and pleasing personality. He told me he intended to retire from politics at the end of his present term and then he will spend a few years in travel. He already knows most of the world, including New Zealand.
It was nearly 3 o’clock before we said goodbye. He came to the door with us where we said goodbye and he asked Lois to see him again on her return to London. It was truly a delightful party and an incident of my trip which will be long remembered.
In the evening we went to another theatre, where the comedy, The Housemaster was being played. This was most enjoyable, particularly as I had managed to get four seats in the centre of the front row of the dress circle. Once more, we went to bed in the early hours of the morning, but as we are getting used to this we did not notice it. There is so much to do and see in London that we will have to keep going hard to carry out our programme.