Oxford Circus

Sepia postcard image of Oxford Circus, 1920s or 30s.

Oxford Circus, London. Junction of Regent Street and Oxford Street. One of the principal shopping centres of the world. Noted for its magnificent Buildings.

[Oxford Street] has seen in our time a marvellous transformation, for those who are not even old remember the day when men smiled at Mr. Selfridge coming from America and setting up his great shop at the wrong end of Oxford Street where nobody came. People come today in their thousands and hundreds of thousands, and all the world knows Selfridge’s, the greatest shop in England that has no need to put its name on it. Its massive row of stone columns stretches for 500 feet along the street. Its windows are one of London’s annual shows at Christmas, and in summer its roof is a daily delight.
‘London’, Arthur Mee, Hodder & Stoughton, 1937.

Postcard image of Oxford Circus from Regent Street c. 1930s.

Approaching Oxford Circus from Regent Street.


Parachute training

parachuteParachutes are to the airman what lifeboats are to the sailor; the service pilot of to-day has one for use in emergency. More than 100 lives have been saved since they were introduced into the R.A.F. ten years ago. Training in their use is given to all pilots in the Service, and a mass descent demonstration has been a feature of the annual display at Hendon for several years past. We show a cheerful parachutist on the wing of an aeroplane, waiting to pull the ripcord which will release his parachute and draw him backwards into space.
Cigarette card, Ardath Tobacco Co., 1936.

If this caption is accurate, parachutes were first issued to R.A.F. pilots in 1926, so they took their own sweet time in handing out the “lifeboats”. You can read more about the Service’s shameful attitude to parachutes here.

Pulling the ripcord before jumping sounds like a good way to get the canopy wrapped around the aircraft’s tail, but we have to assume they knew what they were doing. Don’t we?

You can see a British Pathé newsreel of the 1937 Hendon air display on Youtube.

Creative Difficulties – censorship in the ’30s.

With the coming of peace [after WW1] the Allied Powers abandoned the use of the propaganda film. Producers found they had enough trouble with the censorship in foreign countries without adding to it by making films which would offend foreigners by open propaganda. All kinds of pitfalls – religious, political and moral – have to be guarded against and a company with an eye to the export market must always be on the look-out for incidents that may lead to wholesale cutting or total banning abroad.

A novelist, for example, may make his villain any nationality he pleases. Not so the film producer. So many foreign countries have taken exception to Hollywood pictures on this ground that most villains are now thoroughly cosmopolitan or else American!

Recent examples of censorship [1930s] illustrate the remarkable diversity of objections that are raised by countries acutely conscious of the influence of films on the minds of audiences.
Poland, for example, cut from Showboat the lines in Ole Man River,
“You an’ me, we sweat and strain,
Body all achin’ an’ racked wid pain,”
on the grounds that they were likely to stir up class enmity.

China banned the British Picture Jack Ahoy because the story of a naval life included a burlesque of Chinese pirates.
Mutiny_bounty_stillItaly cut from Mutiny on the Bounty all laudatory references to Britain, shots of the Union Jack, and the final words: “We’re off for the Mediterranean, lads. We’ll sweep the seas for England!” Germany, apart from banning particular films that offend the Nazi viewpoint, imposes a general veto on all foreign films in which non-Aryans take a part either as producers or actors.
Japan rejected the film The King Steps Out because it tended to ridicule royalty. A number of countries, including Italy, Germany and Poland, banned the film version of the sinking of the U.S. gunboat Panay by the Japanese.

Morality lays many snares for the producer. The film Black Legion was changed at the request of the Hays Office (the unofficial film censors in the United States) so that when a girl character leaves the man whose mistress she has been, she asked him for her hat and bag, not her trunk – the idea being to establish that she had not been living with him ‘but just dropped in for a visit’.


Humphrey Bogart in ‘Black Legion’. Racism, arson and lynching were o.k. but any hint of sex outside marriage was not!

Gilbert Seldes declares [in Movies for the Million] that during the depression the companies in Hollywood “tottered and one by one put themselves into the hands of banking houses”. Then, when they wanted to make a film to expose the munitions racket, it was found the subject could not be handled without giving offence to the bankers. So the project was dropped.

The list might be extended indefinitely with films in which references to sacred subjects, suicides, torture and whipping, bathroom and bedroom scenes, have incurred the wrath of different censors. No matter how innocent and free from controversy a story may appear, a film producer must handle it with kid gloves and walk on eggs until it is completed.
‘Propaganda Boom’. A. J. Mackenzie. The Right Book Club. London. 1938.

Reduced circumstances

J.E.B. (Jack) Seeley, soldier, politician and industrialist, claimed in his book For Ever England (1932) that the English class system was not as rigid as it used to be. Social divisions, he believed, were narrowing and he offered this as evidence –

Before the World War the landowner, whether squire or nobleman, although he grumbled about agricultural depression, was rich and powerful. In my boyhood I remember him with a stable of six or eight carriage-horses, and later with three or four motor-cars. If he lived in a well-known hunting county, he or his sons would have eight or ten hunters [horses], in less fashionable hunting districts four or five. A butler, four footmen, and ten or twelve maid-servants was a very usual household. In my youth there were shooting parties, lasting for a week or more, of the same guests; later, before the War, and much more expensive, perpetual week-end parties. I am not describing the famous houses in London and the provinces, but the average of the countryside in rural England.

To-day, although much property has changed hands, the same families are living in the same districts, some in part of the big houses, others more fortunate in smaller houses on the same estate, doing the same county duties and rendering the same service to the community in which they live.

The carriage-horses, of course, are gone – they would have gone in any case; but instead of four big motor-cars there is one Austin or Morris. The shooting parties have come to an end; the week-end parties take the form of occasional visits from a very few real friends. The butlers, the footmen, and the ten maid-servants are replaced by possibly four maids and often one faithful butler at a reduced wage. The house in London has been sold. The boys, instead of a hunter apiece, think themselves lucky if in their short leave they can afford to hire a hunter for a week. The girls are going through courses of shorthand, typing, or cooking in London or the county town, or following commercial pursuits for a salary.

For Ever England, J.E.B. Seeley, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 1932.
This must have been a great consolation to working class families living in squalid overcrowded slums throughout Britain at that time. After all, life must be terribly beastly when one is down to one’s last butler (on a reduced wage) and one’s children have to find gainful employment – and let us not speak of the Austin!

No such thing as bad publicity

“The first essential in propaganda is repetition. In the short memory of the public lies the propagandist’s greatest asset and his greatest handicap. It helps him to turn on his tracks without fear of exposure; but it imposes the imperative duty of ceaseless reiteration. Journalists, perhaps, more than any other people, realise how quickly the public will forget. An event flashes up from the darkness into the glare of the headlines, then as quickly fades. New incidents crowd so quickly upon one another that often before their true significance can be appraised they are forgotten. This inexorable rule applies in every cross-section of human interests. At the peak of a murder trial, the life-story of an illiterate farm labourer is familiar to millions who, a few months later, would be unable even to recall his name. Or, to go to the other extreme, a statesman makes a speech that is flashed almost instantaneously across the world, to be eagerly scrutinised in the chancelleries, excitedly discussed in the press, and debated by the man-in-the-street. Yet, here again, the curtain of oblivion falls…..

Behind this confused, uncertain panorama of day-to-day events the propagandist must be ceaselessly at work. If he has merely to telephone his orders to various State-controlled publicity men his task is comparatively simple.

But when he is working with no official backing, perhaps in opposition to the ruling Government or social system itself, he must reckon with all kinds of complications. He must play countless variations on the main theme. This repetition, if obvious, carries with it the danger that his public may be bored, and lose interest in his arguments. But if he persists and secures a sufficient number of new ‘slants’ to his appeal, he is bound to impress some section of the public. And, in time, what he preaches becomes woven into the warp and woof of their minds. It is something to be accepted without argument as part of that deep core of loyalties every human being must possess.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Make certain that somewhere all the time, someone is considering, discussing or criticising the propaganda subject. The deadliest enemy of any cause is indifference, and violent attacks are infinitely preferable to being ignored. When Sir Oswald Mosley was injured by stone-throwers at a public meeting, papers in opposition to him insistently appealed that he should be ‘left alone’. They realised that one foolish impulse had made Fascism front page news in every paper in the country. Its leader had purchased the publicity at heavy personal cost, but there is no doubt the incident was valuable propaganda.”
Propaganda Boom. A. J. Mackenzie. The Right Book Club, London. 1938.

This book could have been subtitled The Powers of Persuasion. The word propaganda, today, is used in a negative sense (the enemy produces propaganda, we “release information”) but in 1938 Mackenzie insisted that propaganda was “ethically neutral” – it could be used for good or bad – and gave it a fairly wide definition.

“Propaganda is an attempt, either unconsciously or as part of a systematic campaign by an individual or group holding certain beliefs or desiring certain ends, to influence others to adopt identical attitudes.”

Which covers what we would call P.R. “spin”, not to mention the output of the entire advertising industry! In other words, we are bombarded with it all the time. So here’s a thought that should encourage us to keep our guard up –

“Where the object of propaganda is to convince the greatest number of people in the shortest possible time, it is not, as a rule, rational in its appeal. The fundamental point in this type of propaganda is that reflection is a slower process than instinct. Since few people have the necessary strength of will to choose the harder road, an approach which arouses instinctive reactions is much more likely to succeed than one which imposes a tax, however slight, on the mental processes.”

The Glory Hole

In January 1935, Australian journalists Noel Monks and John Hetherington signed on to the passenger/cargo ship Largs Bay to work their way to England, where they hoped to find a job on a Fleet Street newspaper. Monks remembered the crew quarters in his book Eyewitness, published in 1955.

“It was twelve years since I had been to sea, when British merchant ships were notorious for their shocking crew accommodation. Time seemed to have stood still, for it was the same old slum that John and I were bundled into…. In our section of the Glory Hole, the hell where all British merchant stewards live, twenty men were accommodated in tiered bunks. There wasn’t enough air, good or foul, to interest a canary, and the stench nearly lifted you off your feet. So far below the waterline that port-holes were out of the question, the Glory Hole was ventilated by shafts bringing wind down from the upper deck. If there was no wind, then there was no ventilation. On the Australian run, that is a condition that exists for days on end. There was some sort of forced draft contraption that either blew you out of your bunk, or scorched you. It certainly never helped you to breathe. There was nowhere to put your belongings, and a conscientious shore sanitary inspector would have had a seizure at the toilet arrangements for a hundred men.”

This accommodation, remember, was for stewards – men who handle food!

Compare this description of life below decks to the company’s advertising brochure for passengers, and here is a more detailed history of the ship.

These conditions in the Glory Hole were not so far removed from those on some ships three decades later when the long steel corridor linking, admitedly smaller, cabins was commonly known as the Burma Road.