During the World War II, several million foreign servicemen and women were stationed in Britain for varying periods of time. These included many Australians, for most of whom it was their first glimpse of Britain.
In 1940, one of them described his impressions of the mother country in an article for the Spectator entitled “An Anzac on England”. His name was Sydney Melbourne (although for some reason I strongly suspect this was a pseudonym), and he was probably serving with one of the Australian Army units diverted to Britain after the fall of France. So to mark Anzac Day, and this being a British history blog, here’s what one wide-eyed colonial had to say about Pommyland. And it mostly wasn’t flattering!
The first thing which struck him was the shocking waste of good farming land.
Why is so much land that is obviously fertile lying idle in farms of 1,000 acres and even larger? Why are so many patches of scrub and useless bushes left uncleared? We [Australians] can respect good timber - that is always an asset - but stunted copses and brambles are an eyesore which no good farmer should tolerate a day longer than he can help.
According to Sydney, in the Antipodes (he fraternally provided some examples from New Zealand) settlers fought hard to cultivate land much more marginal than that which was left unused in Britain, and despite droughts and fires exported their produce overseas and made a good living.
He praised Hitler’s agrarian policy, which utilised German land more fully and reduced the need for imports, and was puzzled that the British preferred the picturesque over the productive, “the dangerous result of a short-sighted policy […] beauty will not feed a nation’s workers (or employ them), and in these times efficiency is a more valuable asset than is scenery”.
There’s no question that Britain in 1940 was under utilising its land, since during the war it made strenuous efforts to increase the area under cultivation, so as to reduce the need for imports (and hence vulnerability to U-boats). But from the perspective of 2007, in the middle (or, hopefully, near the end) of the worst drought on record, it seems strange to boast of how intensely Australia uses even marginal land: it’s precisely this sort of behaviour that has landed us in the current fine mess.
Syd was also disappointed in the Metropolis itself:
An Australian comes from Sydney’s busy streets and modern buildings expecting to find London, the heart of the Empire, a modern and efficient city. And his actual impression of London: dirt, dirt everywhere. Shabby, broken-down old houses and fewer modern buildings in the whole city than he would see in Sydney’s Pitt Street alone. He finds a people with no civic pride in their city, a people who tolerate inefficiency.
He did make some allowances for the fact that there was a war on, but didn’t think things would be much better in peace-time. But I doubt he could have gotten away with disparaging the civic pride of Londoners even a week later: the Blitz had just begun, and keeping the city running was one way of sticking it to Hitler. That wouldn’t have gone down too well at all. (Not that they didn’t complain themselves, mind you, when things weren’t working.)
The English sheilas were apparently a bit of a shock to the system:
He [the Australian] is used to “rough joints” in Sydney. But he has never had to push his way to a public bar through a crowd of women. It is a new experience to stand shoulder to shoulder with women while buying a glass of beer. And he has not yet got accustomed to the spectacle of women smoking in a public place, a street or an omnibus.
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