Dog and Duck, by Arthur Machen

‘A Thorough Change’

Two happy, musty tags of quotation occur to me as I contemplate this month of August. One is the classic adage which informs you in a grave and ancient manner that you may fork out nature as many times as you like; but back she will come, again and again. The other tag is from the French: Change and change and change again; still the same it will remain. And putting the two together, you have the solution of the problem of the Londoner’s holiday. Why is it that when he goes away for a change he looks out for some place that is as like London as possible?

You see? Expel nature with a fork; tell Mr. Londoner that what he wants is a thorough change, that he must be off to the sea-breezes and the sea-bathing of the peaceful little fishing village of Brighthelmstone, on the Sussex coast. In a very few years the Thrales have heard of it, and Jack Wilkes has heard of it, and the Prince has heard of it; and the peaceful little village of Brighthelmstone has become Brighton, a fashionable place, a place with smart shops and smart hotels, in a word, as good an imitation of London as can be knocked up on the bit of coast under the Downs. You can certainly bathe if you like, and you cannot help breathing the good salt air; but the point is that Brighton is the Londoner’s home from home. And so, to refer back to the second tag, the more he is ordered change, the more he makes it the same thing, so far as it can be made the same thing.

And this by the way: I often wonder what the Brighton man does when he wants a change. If he be the wealthier sort, the case is, of course, easy enough. He moves from a smart hotel on or near the Brighton front to a smart hotel in or near Piccadilly. And he again is perfectly at home; at Brighton-on-the-Park. But some of us, alas! are not smart, whatever our habitat, and I wonder whether the people who keep lodgings in the back blocks, the up-and-beyond of Brighton, know where to go when they are ordered a complete change. I can tell them. There is a region in London little known. It was once called Spa Fields; now it has no name, or none that I have ever heard. It is to be approached by going up the Gray’s Inn Road some way north of Gray’s Inn and then turning to the right. It has its Squares and its Crescents and its Places on the side of a steep hill; it has its dusty little by-streets going off these more important avenues; it has its colonies of small shops, its queer reminiscences and parodies on a small scale of old-fashioned architectural modes; just as in Brighton you come upon the most amusing reproductions of the Pavilion in little. And here is the odd thing. In the back parts of Brighton and of other old-fashioned seaside places, it is only by a strong exercise of the imagination that you can believe that you are near the sea at all. You can’t see it — though your landlady may have advertised that her apartments enjoy a fine view of it. You can’t see it, and nothing around you looks like it. Everything is gritty, urban, suburban, in its aspect. It is only faith, confidence in the scheme of the Universe, and an assurance that the L.B. & S.C.R. would not play a silly trick on you and go round and round London and call Kentish Town Preston Park; it is only a sure faith that prevents you saying: ‘Why, this is Camden Town!’ So, by an odd reversal; it is only faith of the same sort, the knowledge that life is real and life is earnest, as Longfellow said, and not an Arabian Night, that prevents you from looking out for a glimpse of the sea from that London region of which I have been speaking. You don’t expect to see much of it; you know that you are not in the best quarters of the town, where the first floor may run to anything; but you can’t help feeling that there must be a glimpse of the ocean visible from the top windows of that house in Rougemont Square. Actually, I am afraid, you would only have a prospect of St. Pancras Railway Station; still, the impression remains. And hence I say: let the people at the back of Brighton who want a real change, take lodgings up in this east-by-north of Gray’s Inn quarter. They will find it most refreshing; it is so much the same thing.

And, lest I be accused of cheap superiority, let me say that I believe most of these good people, who change to remain the same, are perfectly right. I don’t think that the majority of us are prepared for the real and tremendous changes; I don’t believe that such things would do us any good. I feel no hankerings after St. Helena; I do not wish to take a holiday on the Plains of Alberta, Canada. It is true that most of us are the better for a change; but it must usually be a slight change to be beneficial, and, often, a very slight change indeed. I have been thinking of Guernsey this August, but I shall not go there; for, if I did, I should stay there, which would be out of the question. Guernsey would be a thorough change; and I am not thinking so much of the beautiful old town of St. Peter Port, where you mount a flight of stone steps to get from one street to another, nor of the lovely coast, nor of the sweet airs of the sea. For once I am a political man; I am thinking of the Guernsey Constitution. It seems perfect. The King was there last month, we know, and the royal visit led, naturally, to meditations on Guernsey on the part of the English papers. All of them spoke of the feudal ceremonies that were observed, of the seigneurs who put their hands between the hands of the Duke of Normandy — he also happens to be King of England — and swore to be his liegemen of life and limb, ready to defend him against all manner of folk. And then there was the matter of the lords who had to come through the water to greet their Duke, and of the lord who had to present two mallards, or wild ducks, with gilded bills, on a silver dish; and so with a number of beautiful old rites. But what I heeded was a short leading article in that fairest of papers, the Manchester Guardian. The Guardian was frankly puzzled with Guernsey. The Guardian represents the old school of Liberalism: the school of Bright and Cobden — the school that at its worst was Gradgrind and Bounderby. And here, said the Guardian, was an island, boys and girls — just a little in the M’Choakumchild manner — which is happy, prosperous, loyal, contented. And yet the government of this island is in the hands of a High Bailiff, of the Jurats, elected for life, of the island parsons, and of a few officials. If the High Bailiff objects to a proposed measure, he vetoes it at once, and it is no more heard of. And, what the devil, boys and girls, the Guardian seemed to ask, if it could have used such language, does that island mean by being happy, loyal, prosperous, and contented under such an entirely preposterous Constitution? Now, as it happened, I was talking about the Guernsey Constitution and the Manchester Guardian article to a highly distinguished American. He is not obsolete, he was not born in a hot-bed of aristocratic prejudices. I think I may say he is a live wire. And he said: ‘I only wish we had the Guernsey Constitution in my country. We set out — and we meant well — to have a democracy. What we’ve got is a kakistocracy — a government by the worst men in the country.’

The American spoke on — he was eloquent like many of his countrymen — and showed, correctly, as I think, that politics and constitutions are a means, not an end, that the good and content and happiness of the people at large are the supreme end and law and reason of all governments; that the constitution of Guernsey was, therefore and evidently, perfect. Very likely he was right; and therefore I shall not take my holiday in Guernsey. I do not hold with violent changes, as I have said.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:39