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Spooky! This 1939 letter about London reopening could have been written today

Read a weird presaging of post-pandemic London in the sentiments of the manager of The Troxy cinema

Chris Waywell
Written by
Chris Waywell

John Peel famously described The Fall as ‘always different, always the same’ and sometimes you can feel the same about London. However much change we go through – and God knows we’ve been through a hell of a lot in the last year – there’s always some core identity to the capital, a sense that things that happen here must have happened before, albeit under different circumstances. Take this eerily prescient letter recently discovered in the archives of Stepney venue The Troxy. The year is 1939, World War II is two months old, and Maurice Cheepen, the general manager of The Troxy – at the time a cinema – is putting his thoughts on paper in what appears to be a kind of monthly newsletter to his patrons. 

‘I found myself ruminating on the recent unhappy period when all places of entertainment were closed; and whilst in this retrospective frame of mind, I thought that cinema entertainment had perhaps been taken more for granted than any other form of diversion from the hum-drum of daily routine.’

London’s cinemas had been closed with the outbreak of war in September 1939 as the authorities worried that concentrating hundreds of people together in an enclosed space made them extremely vulnerable to air raids. However, cinemas were reopened almost immediately as their rôle in maintaining public morale was deemed so vital. The parallels with London in 2020 and 2021 are quite fascinating: how do you keep people safe while allowing venues to stay open and keep up the city’s spirits?

Cheepen continues: ‘[People] were hungry for entertainment and when their demand for it echoed in the national press there appeared a gleam of hope. That gleam turned into a ray of sunshine when the authorities, realizing the necessity, finally sanctioned the re-opening of cinemas. Now that we have settled down to things once again it cannot be denied that entertainment is the sunshine of life.’ 

The Troxy
Maurice Cheepen’s 1939 letter. Credit: The Troxy

It’s a wonderful bit of London history, but also a bittersweet one. The area around the Troxy in the East End was heavily bombed and it’s likely that some of the audience that Cheepen addresses in his letter would have died as a result. Cheepen himself was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, so must have had grave fears at the time about the fate of those he had left behind in Europe. Still, as a testament to London’s eternal hopefulness and resilience, it’s a fine sentiment. Who hasn’t longed for the ‘sunshine of life’ over the last 12 months?

Find out more about The Troxy on its website.

Check out our list of the world’s loveliest outdoor cinemas.

Into London history? The Transport Museum’s lates are back.

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