Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 48


Even though it was early July when our battered old liner poked her nose southward into the North Sea, there was fog all the way down the east coast of Scotland and England. There hadn't been a single sight of land, but we began to imagine it, off to starboard, behind every fog bank.

The southern end of the North Sea is shallow, with sand and mud exposed everywhere, and precious little room in which to navigate. However, there are multitudes of markers, buoys, and lightships, and, even in the continuing moderate fog, we always knew where we were. Finally, the impressive procession of steamers coming toward us and dividing in streams for the Channel, the North Sea, and the Baltic indicated that we were in the Thames estuary itself.

There were so many whistles and sirens echoing around that they served only to create confusion. Even though every ship was going dead slow, the potential for collison was still great. Vignis and I, standing at the rail, were aware of our officers, on the open bridge just behind and above us, nervously conferring and trying to see into the fog. After a couple of sharp turns and one reversal of the engines, a small pilot boat appeared suddenly and came alongside. After the pilot had climbed the rope ladder and proceeded to the bridge, we soon found our place in the inbound stream behind a small Dutch freighter.

Each ship added her quota of smoke to the greasy dark masses of it drifting through the fog. The invisible sun illuminated the whole scene with a peculiar gray-orange glow through which gulls swooped toward the garbage being pitched overboard. Every whiff of air seemed to bring a new set of smells, few of them pleasant. Underneath the sounds of whistles, horns, and various other noisemakers, there was the slow and steady thrashing of the partly exposed propellors of ships loaded only with ballast. While the scene wasn't a romantic one in the ordinary sense, and I could feel Vignis' unspoken disapproval, I found it interesting. At one point, she stretched out her arm and said,

"That darker bit over there is probably England."

Soon, there was a glimpse of a low-lying shore, evidently a swamp. A little later, a structure of considerable size, perhaps a gas-works, disclosed itself. Almost immediately afterwards, there was a large power-plant, evidently on a point sticking out into the narrowing estuary. It produced even more smoke than the shipping, and I could taste the grit in my mouth as we passed slowly through it. Vignis said,

"Last time, we arrived at the white cliffs of Dover. This is a bit anti-climactic, I'm afraid."

"Well, the amount of industry is impressive. I hope we see a train soon."

I didn't have long to wait. The fog lifted enough to reveal another cluster of industry, a kind of island in the marsh, with a switcher on some sidings, "shunting" as the English say. I had already known that British locomotives were roughly half the size of American ones, but I hadn't been prepared for the dinky little four-wheeled freight cars, seemingly only about a fourth the size of standard American ones. In fact, they looked only slightly larger than the little cars which we carried inside our converted passenger cars.

Not only that, we could see that the cars didn't have automatic knuckle couplers. If one could believe it, there were only short lengths of chain looped over hooks. It reminded me of the old link-and-pin couplers on American railways, which, fortunately, had disappeared around 1890. The crowning ignominy in the present situation was that there were no brake hoses, thus indicating that the engineer, or "driver", had only the engine brakes with which to stop his train. This went even further back in American practice, nearly to the Civil War. I burst out,

"How can they possibly fight a war with equipment like that?"

Vignis replied,

"They managed to last time."

"They must run an incredible number of very light freight trains almost constantly."

"I remember Mac saying that the scheduling on British railways is very tight, particularly anywhere near London."

The fog thinned further as we penetrated up the Thames, and we passed some little residential neighborhoods entirely enclosed by industry. They consisted of practically identical rows of houses, their brick stained almost black by the smoke. The houses seemed to be entirely free of any sort of ornamentation, and they were built wall-to-wall with their front doors opening directly on to the sidewalk. Each house had a tiny "back garden", which wasn't really a garden, but a collecting area for trash cans, old bicycles, and rusted baby carriages. Vignis' only comment was,

"I'm glad I don't live there."

"It might be rather exciting. Ships arriving from every exotic port in the world, thundering great industries going full blast, and the greatest city in the world just up the river."

"More likely, these people never get to London, and wouldn't have the money to enjoy it if they did. As for ships from exotic places, the only things that are exotic about the ships are the flags. Most of the people there are probably too depressed to notice or care about the flags."

"Are you speaking as an Icelander who insists on natural beauty or as a town planner?"

"Well, they can't help the physical environment, but they could certainly build towns that would do more to lift people's spirits. Sidonie would say it's because they don't care about the spirits of working class people."

We were now proceeding steadily upstream, only a short distance from the bank, and, at the end of a street, we caught sight of a brightly lit pub. In the midst of all that gloom, it stood out like a beacon. I was sure that it was just that, in more than one sense of the term. With a large flamboyant sign, bright gilt lettering on the white-washed building, and rose colored lights visible through the large multi-paned windows, it was the only source of color and gayety in the whole neighborhood. Vignis and I both laughed. It was hardly necessary to say that the life of the neighborhood centered around the pub. I remarked only,

"Not bad, as cafes go."

"No. It's pretty. But I doubt that they serve much coffee or tea, and I bet women aren't welcome there."

A few streets further on, we passed a different sort of establishment which was right on the waterfront. This one served fish and chips, but had only a dingy sign and a dirty shop-front. We could see in enough to make out people sitting at long bare tables with nothing more than cups and saucers in front of them. I said,

"Those people are drinking tea, and some of them are women."

"Yes. It's a very ugly place. I'm sure that's not an accident."

"It may be cozy and homey. At least, it's probably warm and dry."

"Which may be more than you can say for the homes."

The industry and associated squalor was broken only very briefly here and there by a small park or open area, and, at last, we came to our destination, the Isle of Dogs. This peninsula is actually more water than land, having been hollowed out for the West India and Milwall docks, great rectangular pools capable of accomodating many such refugees from the seas as ourselves.

As it was high tide, we could enter the docks directly. Guided by a tug and using our own engines judiciously, we moved slowly through the tidal basin and were pushed into a vacant berth in the middle section of the West India Docks.

Hardly had the lines been thrown over when we saw two men waiting on the stone quay. One was extremely large, with his great paw clutching an umbrella around the middle. It looked as if he might either spear an offender with the point or club him over the head with the handle. The other man was as small as the first was large. He looked nervous even at that distance, as if he thought that his companion might pick him up with one hand and send him sailing off the end of the quay.

Both men, in their different ways, looked American. They also looked utterly ridiculous in their tight-fitting English suits. The big man looked as if he might burst out of his, but, rather cruelly, the little man's suit emphasized the thinness of his arms and his bowed legs, making him look rather like a particularly sensitive and intelligent insect.

Vignis and I surmised that the men were there to meet us. Indeed, Mac had told me that he would arrange for us to be met by the man Glencannon had sent to be our chief mechanical engineer in England, Ross MacRitchie. By reputation, MacRitchie was the best of A. C. Glencannon's younger men, and, having drawn up a plan for the rationalization and improvement of freight operations in London and environs, he had come over in December to solve any problems that might arise. I had never met MacRitchie, but he was a colorful man concerning whom stories abounded, and I knew that the big man must be he. Neither Vignis nor I had any clue as to the identity of the little man.

Vignis was, of course, impossible to miss. The two men came over the minute we reached the quay, and the little man introduced MacRitchie and himself rather obsequiously in an atrocious accent. His companion said nothing, but lifted his hat ponderously and bowed slightly, keeping his hat exactly parallel to the ground throughout. The little man was named Sammy Sigiloff, and he hastened to explain things.

"Crunchie, see, works for A. C., you gotta to be like that to work for A. C., and I work for Uncle Ed. Now don't get me wrong, Crunchie's a real gentle person, and he's got a nice sense of humor too, but he's got the tact of an elephant and Uncle Ed sent me along to keep him from rubbing the English the wrong way. I can't design an engine or nothin, see, but I don't threaten nobody, and I know just what to say to the English. As a matter a fact, I've learned some of their lingo, and most of em think I am English."

Sammy Sigoloff spoke in a fast sing-song way, rather softly, in what must have been some sort of New York accent. The idea that he could pass for an Englishman was bizarre, even to one such as I who had just landed.

The rest of his remarks baffled me. MacRitchie, on the other hand, smiled pleasantly, as if his companion had said no more than the truth. Vignis partly cleared matters up by asking if Uncle Ed were not General Atwater. When Sigiloff, who had never really stopped talking in that murmur of his, assented, I realized what the situation was.

MacRitchie, a man of about thirty five, was in command of the GER personnel presently in England, and was answerable to Glencannon, back in Huntington. However, Glencannon's superior, Atwater, didn't trust MacRitchie, who was evidently known as "Crunchie," to carry on the delicate negotiations that would be required. He had therefore sent a man about ten years older to conduct those negotiations even though he was, in all technical respects, little more than an observer. It looked like a hopelessly confused command situation, and I was surprised that Atwater had been willing to court disaster in such an obvious way. It then occurred to me that Atwater might be relying on me to pull things together.

MacRitchie, still without saying anything, cheerfully picked up all of our luggage and took it to one of two waiting taxis. Sigoloff, leading the way and talking back over his shoulder, went on,

"I got two taxis, see, I figured the lady would have a lot of luggage, women always do, and, anyway, Crunchie and I practically take up a taxi all by ourselves."

At this, Sigiloff flexed his arms in a muscular way, as if the space he occupied was roughly equal to that occupied by MacRitchie. As soon as Sigiloff had decorously closed the door on her, Vignis said to me,

"What an extraordinary man!"

"What an extraordinary pair!"

"MacRitchie's all right, I think. He's forbidding looking, but he seems pleasant. He must have the patience of a saint to put up with Sigiloff."

"Did MacRitchie say anything at all the whole time?"

"Not words exactly, but he keeps up his own commentary on Sigiloff. He says "um" if he agrees and something like "bumf" if he doesn't."

"Well, I suppose that's better than nothing."

After that, I concentrated on my new surroundings. Driving on the left in our funny little taxi was exhilarating, particularly when we took an occasional corner at speed, but the traffic generally held us to little more than a walking pace.

The area was heavily industrial and commercial, but there were little shops, at once threadbare and intriguing, tucked into corners. Since there were a fair number of people on the sidewalks, I guessed that there were also residential areas at no great distance. As I soon discovered, the residents of the East End of London don't at all match a foreigner's idea of English people in dress or general appearance. These people, rather shabby and looking intensely local as they chatted on street corners, hardly looked as if they ran an empire on which the sun never set.

When the traffic brought us to a halt near a fat woman who was having a loud argument with a child, Vignis remarked,

"This isn't much like Iceland, is it?"

"The Icelanders are much bigger and more impressive, and they never look shabby, even in rags."

"These people may have rather similar ancestries, but I don't suppose the life here is good for them. Have you noticed how so many have faces in which there are no clear lines."

"Yes, their features seem to wobble together."

On the other hand, there was a business-like efficiency in some of the people, particularly the butcher with red moustaches who came out of his shop to shoo away some urchins loitering in front of it. Business-like efficiency was something the wild Icelanders often lacked, and I hoped that the railwaymen of England would turn out to be like the butcher.

We got briefly stalled at a place where men were putting in a new water main, and I pointed out to Vignis,

"Practically every man is wearing a suit, even the ones who're covered with mud."

"Yes. I guess they must wear a suit for best when it's new, and then demote it for work. Or they may buy second-hand suits. French workmen wear work outfits of that special shade of blue, but I've never seen anything like that here."

"It must be funny to get up in the morning, put on your suit, knot your tie, and then go down a manhole to work in the sewer."

Vignis replied,

"Perhaps it's considered that there's dignity in even the least dignified work."

"I hope so. There's plenty of undignified work on a railway."

At that point, we had passed out of Stepney and Whitechapel, and were entering the City, the oldest part of London which now serves as the financial district. As we passed along some streets with archaic and picturesque names, I began to see Englishmen of another sort, ones very like the pictures in magazines. I said,

"These people seem to be about a foot taller. They look like a different race."

"Everyone notices that. It seems to be a matter of diet and nutrition. The poor in England are often hungry, and they eat starchy things."

The men who walked along with their tightly rolled umbrellas often used them as walking sticks, moving them in a rhythm of their own choosing. Vignis said,

"I once saw an elegantly dressed young man who strode along and brought his umbrella up exactly parallel to the ground, both in front and in back. He was dangerous to be near. Someone later told me that he would have been a Guards officer in civilian dress."

I was fascinated by a society in which one could tell so much about people by such little things. Vignis, spotting an East Ender who had strayed out of his turf, pointed out,

"You could tell him because he's got a tweed suit even if he didn't have that kind of cap. Gentlemen wear tweeds only in the country, never in town. In town, they wear the sort of suit that MacRitchie and Sigiloff have."

"I noticed that they both had umbrellas even though it wasn't raining."

"But they don't know how to use them! Sigiloff looks as if he's about to use the handle to hook someone into a peep show at a carnival. MacRitchie clutches his around the middle. That's supposed to be uncouth, and it's either Teutonic or Scots."

Despite having spent only a few months in London, Vignis knew the streets as well as the customs. We passed St. Paul's, descended to Ludgate Circus, and then entered the newspaper world of Fleet Street.

I was amazed then, and am amazed still, that so many of the world's great and/or notorious newspapers can be, not only edited practically on top of one another, but printed in and distributed from such a tight, constricted, and traffic- bound area. We only inched along, and, looking at the headlines on the stands, it looked as if everyone expected war at any time. On the other hand, no one passing and taking in the news seemed particularly depressed by it.

The Strand was wider, and we picked up speed. With a final burst, we turned into the broad forecourt of Charing Cross Station and pulled up to the door of the rather ornate railway hotel. The other taxi arrived at almost the same time, and Sigiloff paid our driver before it even occurred to me that the man would be unlikely to accept Icelandic kroner for his services. MacRitchie, moving with surprising speed and agility, had our luggage before the hotel staff had gotten itself organized, and we checked in quickly.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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