Elia and The Last Essays of Elia / Charles Lamb, by Charles Lamb

Newspapers Thirty-Five Years Ago

Dan Stuart once told us, that he did not remember that he ever deliberately walked into the Exhibition at Somerset House in his life. He might occasionally have escorted a party of ladies across the way that were going in; but he never went in of his own head. Yet the office of the Morning Post newspaper stood then just where it does now — we are carrying you back, Reader, some thirty years or more — with its gilt-globe-topt front facing that emporium of our artists’ grand Annual Exposure. We sometimes wish, that we had observed the same abstinence with Daniel.

A word or two of D.S. He ever appeared to us one of the finest tempered of Editors. Perry, of the Morning Chronicle, was equally pleasant, with a dash, no slight one either, of the courtier. S. was frank, plain, and English all over. We have worked for both these gentlemen.

It is soothing to contemplate the head of the Ganges; to trace the first little bubblings of a mighty river;

With holy reverence to approach the rocks,

Whence glide the streams renowned in ancient song.

Fired with a perusal of the Abyssinian Pilgrim’s exploratory ramblings after the cradle of the infant Nilus, we well remember on one fine summer holyday (a “whole day’s leave” we called it at Christ’s Hospital) sallying forth at rise of sun, not very well provisioned either for such an undertaking, to trace the current of the New River — Middletonian stream! — to its scaturient source, as we had read, in meadows by fair Amwell. Gallantly did we commence our solitary quest — for it was essential to the dignity of a DISCOVERY, that no eye of schoolboy, save our own, should beam on the detection. By flowery spots, and verdant lanes, skirting Hornsey, Hope trained us on in many a baffling turn; endless, hopeless meanders, as it seemed; or as if the jealous waters had dodged us, reluctant to have the humble spot of their nativity revealed; till spent, and nigh famished, before set of the same sun, we sate down somewhere by Bowes Farm, near Tottenham, with a tithe of our proposed labours only yet accomplished; sorely convinced in spirit, that that Brucian enterprise was as yet too arduous for our young shoulders.

Not more refreshing to the thirsty curiosity of the traveller is the tracing of some mighty waters up to their shallow fontlet, than it is to a pleased and candid reader to go back to the inexperienced essays, the first callow flights in authorship, of some established name in literature; from the Gnat which preluded to the Æneid, to the Duck which Samuel Johnson trod on.

In those days every Morning Paper, as an essential retainer to its establishment, kept an author, who was bound to furnish daily a quantum of witty paragraphs. Sixpence a joke — and it was thought pretty high too — was Dan Stuart’s settled remuneration in these cases. The chat of the day, scandle, but, above all, dress, furnished the material. The length of no paragraph was to exceed seven lines. Shorter they might be, but they must be poignant.

A fashion of flesh, or rather pink-coloured hose for the ladies, luckily coming up at the juncture, when we were on our probation for the place of Chief Jester to S.‘s Paper, established our reputation in that line. We were pronounced a “capital hand.” O the conceits which we varied upon red in all its prismatic differences! from the trite and obvious flower of Cytherea, to the flaming costume of the lady that has her sitting upon “many waters.” Then there was the collateral topic of ancles. What an occasion to a truly chaste writer, like ourself, of touching that nice brink, and yet never tumbling over it, of a seemingly ever approximating something “not quite proper;” while, like a skilful posture-master, balancing betwixt decorums and their opposites, he keeps the line, from which a hair’s-breadth deviation is destruction; hovering in the confines of light and darkness, or where “both seem either;” a hazy uncertain delicacy; Autolycus-like in the Play, still putting off his expectant auditory with “Whoop, do me no harm, good man!” But, above all, that conceit arrided us most at that time, and still tickles our midriff to remember, where, allusively to the flight of Astræa —ultima Calestûm terras reliquit— we pronounced — in reference to the stockings still — that Modesty taking Her Final Leave of Mortals, Her Last Blush was Visible in Her Ascent to the Heavens by the Tract of the Glowing Instep. This might be called the crowning conceit; and was esteemed tolerable writing in those days.

But the fashion of jokes, with all other things, passes away; as did the transient mode which had so favoured us. The ancles of our fair friends in a few weeks began to reassume their whiteness, and left us scarce a leg to stand upon. Other female whims followed, but none, methought, so pregnant, so invitatory of shrewd conceits, and more than single meanings.

Somebody has said, that to swallow six cross-buns daily consecutively for a fortnight would surfeit the stoutest digestion. But to have to furnish as many jokes daily, and that not for a fortnight, but for a long twelvemonth, as we were constrained to do, was a little harder execution. “Man goeth forth to his work until the evening”— from a reasonable hour in the morning, we presume it was meant. Now as our main occupation took us up from eight till five every day in the City; and as our evening hours, at that time of life, had generally to do with any thing rather than business, it follows, that the only time we could spare for this manufactory of jokes — our supplementary livelihood, that supplied us in every want beyond mere bread and cheese — was exactly that part of the day which (as we have heard of No Man’s Land) may be fitly denominated No Man’s Time; that is, no time in which a man ought to be up, and awake, in. To speak more plainly, it is that time, of an hour, or an hour and a half’s duration, in which a man, whose occasions call him up so preposterously, has to wait for his breakfast.

O those headaches at dawn of day, when at five, or half-past-five in summer, and not much later in the dark seasons, we were compelled to rise, having been perhaps not above four hours in bed —(for we were no go-to-beds with the lamb, though we anticipated the lark ofttimes in her rising — we liked a parting cup at midnight, as all young men did before these effeminate times, and to have our friends about us — we were not constellated under Aquarius, that watery sign, and therefore incapable of Bacchus, cold, washy, bloodless — we were none of your Basilian water-sponges, nor had taken our degrees at Mount Ague — we were right toping Capulets, jolly companions, we and they)— but to have to get up, as we said before, curtailed of half our fair sleep, fasting, with only a dim vista of refreshing Bohea in the distance — to be necessitated to rouse ourselves at the detestable rap of an old hag of a domestic, who seemed to take a diabolical pleasure in her announcement that it was “time to rise;” and whose chappy knuckles we have often yearned to amputate, and string them up at our chamber door, to be a terror to all such unseasonable rest-breakers in future —

“Facil” and sweet, as Virgil sings, had been the “descending” of the over-night, balmy the first sinking of the heavy head upon the pillow; but to get up, as he goes on to say,

— revocare gradus, superasque evadere ad auras —

and to get up moreover to make jokes with malice prepended — there was the “labour,” there the “work.”

No Egyptian taskmaster ever devised a slavery like to that, our slavery. No fractious operants ever turned out for half the tyranny, which this necessity exercised upon us. Half a dozen jests in a day (bating Sundays too), why, it seems nothing! We make twice the number every day in our lives as a matter of course, and claim no Sabbatical exemptions. But then they come into our head. But when the head has to go out to them — when the mountain must go to Mahomet —

Reader, try it for once, only for one short twelvemonth.

It was not every week that a fashion of pink stockings came up; but mostly, instead of it, some rugged, untractable subject; some topic impossible to be contorted into the risible; some feature, upon which no smile could play; some flint, from which no process of ingenuity could procure a distillation. There they lay; there your appointed tale of brick-making was set before you, which you must finish, with or without straw, as it happened. The craving Dragon —the Public— like him in Bel’s temple — must be fed; it expected its daily rations; and Daniel, and ourselves, to do us justice, did the best we could on this side bursting him.

While we were wringing our coy sprightlinesses for the Post, and writhing under the toil of what is called “easy writing,” Bob Allen, our quondam schoolfellow, was tapping his impracticable brains in a like service for the “Oracle.” Not that Robert troubled himself much about wit. If his paragraphs had a sprightly air about them, it was sufficient. He carried this nonchalance so far at last, that a matter of intelligence, and that no very important one, was not seldom palmed upon his employers for a good jest; for example sake —“Walking yesterday morning casually down Snow Hill, who should we meet but Mr. Deputy Humphreys! we rejoice to add, that the worthy Deputy appeared to enjoy a good state of health. We do not remember ever to have seen him look better.” This gentleman, so surprisingly met upon Snow Hill, from some peculiarities in gait or gesture, was a constant butt for mirth to the small paragraph-mongers of the day; and our friend thought that he might have his fling at him with the rest. We met A. in Holborn shortly after this extraordinary rencounter, which he told with tears of satisfaction in his eyes, and chuckling at the anticipated effects of its announcement next day in the paper. We did not quite comprehend where the wit of it lay at the time; nor was it easy to be detected, when the thing came out, advantaged by type and letter-press. He had better have met any thing that morning than a Common Council Man. His services were shortly after dispensed with, on the plea that his paragraphs of late had been deficient in point. The one in question, it must be owned, had an air, in the opening especially, proper to awaken curiosity; and the sentiment, or moral, wears the aspect of humanity, and good neighbourly feeling. But somehow the conclusion was not judged altogether to answer to the magnificent promise of the premises. We traced our friend’s pen afterwards in the “True Briton,” the “Star,” the “Traveller,”— from all which he was successively dismissed, the Proprietors having “no further occasion for his services.” Nothing was easier than to detect him. When wit failed, or topics ran low, there constantly appeared the following —“It is not generally known that the three Blue Balls at the Pawnbrokers’ shops are the ancient arms of Lombardy. The Lombards were the first money-brokers in Europe.” Bob has done more to set the public right on this important point of blazonry, than the whole College of Heralds.

The appointment of a regular wit has long ceased to be a part of the economy of a Morning Paper. Editors find their own jokes, or do as well without them. Parson Este, and Topham, brought up the set custom of “witty paragraphs,” first in the “World.” Boaden was a reigning paragraphist in his day, and succeeded poor Allen in the Oracle. But, as we said, the fashion of jokes passes away; and it would be difficult to discover in the Biographer of Mrs. Siddons, any traces of that vivacity and fancy which charmed the whole town at the commencement of the present century. Even the prelusive delicacies of the present writer — the curt “Astræan allusion”— would be thought pedantic, and out of date, in these days.

From the office of the Morning Post (for we may as well exhaust our Newspaper Reminiscences at once) by change of property in the paper, we were transferred, mortifying exchange! to the office of the Albion Newspaper, late Rackstrow’s Museum, in Fleet-street. What a transition — from a handsome apartment, from rose-wood desks, and silver-inkstands, to an office — no office, but a den rather, but just redeemed from the occupation of dead monsters, of which it seemed redolent — from the centre of loyalty and fashion, to a focus of vulgarity and sedition! Here in murky closet, inadequate from its square contents to the receipt of the two bodies of Editor, and humble paragraph-maker, together at one time, sat in the discharge of his new Editorial functions (the “Bigod” of Elia) the redoubted John Fenwick.

F., without a guinea in his pocket, and having left not many in the pockets of his friends whom he might command, had purchased (on tick doubtless) the whole and sole Editorship, Proprietorship, with all the rights and titles (such as they were worth) of the Albion, from one Lovell; of whom we know nothing, save that he had stood in the pillory for a libel on the Prince of Wales. With this hopeless concern — for it had been sinking ever since its commencement, and could now reckon upon not more than a hundred subscribers — F. resolutely determined upon pulling down the Government in the first instance, and making both our fortunes by way of corollary. For seven weeks and mote did this infatuated Democrat go about borrowing seven shilling pieces, and lesser coin, to meet the daily demands of the Stamp Office, which allowed no credit to publications of that side in politics. An outcast from politer bread, we attached our small talents to the forlorn fortunes of our friend. Our occupation now was to write treason.

Recollections of feelings — which were all that now remained from our first boyish heats kindled by the French Revolution, when if we were misled, we erred in the company of some, who are accounted very good men now — rather than any tendency at this time to Republican doctrines — assisted us in assuming a style of writing, while the paper lasted, consonant in no very under-tone to the right earnest fanaticism of F. Our cue was now to insinuate, rather than recommend, possible abdications. Blocks, axes, Whitehall tribunals, were covered with flowers of so cunning a periphrasis — as Mr. Bayes says, never naming the thing directly — that the keen eye of an Attorney General was insufficient to detect the lurking snake among them. There were times, indeed, when we sighed for our more gentleman-like occupation under Stuart. But with change of masters it is ever change of service. Already one paragraph, and another, as we learned afterwards from a gentleman at the Treasury, had begun to be marked at that office, with a view of its being submitted at least to the attention of the proper Law Officers — when an unlucky, or rather lucky epigram from our pen, aimed at Sir J——s M——h, who was on the eve of departing for India to reap the fruits of his apostacy, as F. pronounced it, (it is hardly worth particularising), happening to offend the nice sense of Lord, or, as he then delighted to be called, Citizen Stanhope, deprived F. at once of the last hopes of a guinea from the last patron that had stuck by us; and breaking up our establishment, left us to the safe, but somewhat mortifying, neglect of the Crown Lawyers. — It was about this time, or a little earlier, that Dan. Stuart made that curious confession to us, that he had “never deliberately walked into an Exhibition at Somerset House in his life.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lamb/charles/elia/book2.18.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38