London in My Time, by Thomas Burke


There was a time within recent memory when the London streets were, or seemed to be, full of “characters.” Some of these were celebrated by the press and became known outside London. There was “Spring Onions,” the Stepney poet. There was Craig, the cricket poet of the Oval. There was Humphreys, the Paternoster Row bookseller, of picturesque appearance, who decorated his shop with blue-pencilled exhortations from the Scriptures. There was the man who haunted the Strand and announced by a card in his hat that he was from Australia, seeking his lost daughter. There was the man who sold the Pall Mall Gazette at the bottom of Regent Street, dressed in the clothes given him by club-men — silk hat, frock coat, watered silk waistcoat, etc. And scores of others.

But of late years, under the general movement for uniforms and uniformity, they have been slowly passing from the London scene, and the only examples to be seen to-day are those who address the crowds from the rostrums of Hyde Park on Sunday afternoons. The war, which altered or obliterated so many factors and features of London life, obliterated the “characters.” Old dodderers like myself miss them. They were a condiment to the every-dayness of the streets. They lived as they wished to live; behaved as they wished to behave; dressed as they wished to dress. Standardisation had not then set it, and the first ten years of this century marked perhaps the last phase of individualism. In those days variety was permitted and encouraged. To-day we must be homogeneous or perish.

Character was displayed not only by these quaint, obscure eccentrics of the streets. It was also displayed by the serious and famous. The outstanding figures in the various walks of life were not too shy to proclaim, by style and habit, their difference. Politicians, musicians, actors, lawyers, poets, bookmakers, comedians — each type announced its detachment from the common run, and lent the crowd a touch that made it a carnival crowd rather than a marching army. They recognised as keenly as anybody of today that all men are brothers. They saw no reason for trying to pass themselves off as a twin. Distinguished people then LOOKED distinguished. To-day, at any gathering of the intellectually distinguished, half the company look like bankers and the other half like shop-assistants. One or two survivors of the old guard are with us, and in a world of sameness remain defiantly picturesque. One glance at Mr. Arthur Machen tells us that here is the romantic story-teller, and one glance at Mr. Augustus John discloses the painter. Thirty years ago most writers, painters, and musicians blazed themselves against the herd, and the Café Royal in those days was an assembly of strikingly personal costume, hair-dressing and deportment. Many of the figures, it must be admitted, looked far more distinguished than they really were, and it was perhaps this intrusion of the amateur, self-made Bohemian which led the artists and writers to react towards bourgeois formality.

The actor and comedian, too, presented themselves to the world in a sort of challenge costume, and made no attempt to be mistaken for young men about town. The actor’s appearance announced the theatre, and the comedian’s the music-hall — then two separate worlds which did not meet. The rank-and-file actors haunted the Strand, Bedford Street and Garrick Street. The music-hall people gathered around Waterloo Station and York Road, and on Sunday mornings at Brixton. Newspaper men also were recognisable from other folk, and from other kinds of literary men. The popular novelist was only beginning to break into Fleet Street with “special articles,” and at that time one would not have mistaken him for a pressman, or vice versa. Fleet Street, throughout its history as newspaper-street, had its constant pageant of picturesque figures, but I think we saw the last of them in the nineteen-twenties. In this last group were Arthur Machen, T. W. H. Crosland, Randal Charlton and Hannen Swaffer. All of them were, and two still are, men of an “appearance” and panacherie too rare in these days when potential personalities masquerade as so many peas in a pod. Those who are old enough to compare the diversified group that used to gather in the defunct “Green Dragon” with the group that gathered until lately in Poet’s Corner of Poppin’s Court, will realise that what we have gained in conformity we have lost in piquancy. No man, whatever his talents, has the power to be both correct AND interesting, and when the memoirs of the twenties and thirties come to be written they will make rather thin reading. They may be helped by the follies and stupidities of the immediate post-war period, but so far as personal “character” is concerned, the diarists will have as hard a job to give zest to their records as current cartoonists have to make pungent pictures out of commonplace figures and faces. (Though it is possible they may find a relish to their narratives in Sir Thomas Beecham.)

In those early years the mixing of classes and professions was only beginning. Clubs, taverns and restaurants still preserved a special and regular clientèle, and strollers from outside were strollers from outside. Bohemia was as watertight an enclosure as the inner circles of Society. You were in it or not, and neither Society nor Bohemia displayed any desire to enter the other’s preserves. To-day, there are few preserves, and the social Bohemia and the arty Bohemia are constantly mingling. Few restaurants keep any special note; they are just restaurants, cheap or expensive. One could once be sure that of the company in a certain restaurant every man was connected with either the theatre or sport. In another restaurant, that every man was somewhere concerned with the literary world. In another, that every man was engaged in some capacity in the law. To-day everybody goes everywhere, and in any restaurant you may get if not the best at least a sample of all worlds. The arty Bohemia was then fixed in Chelsea, with a rather more wealthy and more formal offshoot at St. John’s Wood. The Fitzroy and Charlotte Street Bohemia did not arise until after the war. Bohemia is an unsatisfactory word, since it conveys to most people something deliberate and cultivated, connected with drink and loose morals, whereas truly it is a state of mind rather than a way of living. But there is no other word immediately available to cover a mode which disregards herd-thought, herd-behaviour and herd-attitudes. Fleet Street had its own Bohemia, but by the time I knew The Street it was conventional and business-like. I am too young to have known the Rhymers’ Club at the “Cheshire Cheese” where gathered Dowson, Lionel Johnson and other men of the nineties; too young to have known even the later group — The Songsters — and too young to have known that rather knockabout but very capable group which made the Sporting Times: John Corlett, Arthur Binstead, Edward Mott, Newnham–Davis, Arnold Goldberg, and others whose names escape me.

The literary world, at the time I began my wanderings, was beginning to move from Paternoster Row to Covent Garden, and very soon Covent Garden was a centre for publishers, literary agents and magazines. From 1907 to 1930 Henrietta Street was almost wholly literary, and to a young beginner in literature it was full of interest. Around mid-day, in the years before the war, one might see W. L. Courtney and Arthur Waugh coming from the offices of Chapman & Hall; H. W. Massingham dashing into the offices of The Nation; Edward Garnett carrying a bag of MSS. to the offices of Duckworth; Sir Home Gordon, cricketer and publisher, coming from Williams & Norgate; Austin Harrison and Norman Douglas outside the office of The English Review; and authors at every twenty yards. In one morning one might see Joseph Conrad, W. H. Hudson, John Masefield, Hall Caine, Israel Zangwill, H. G. Wells, and D. H. Lawrence. Zangwill and Hall Caine, callous to the suffering they might cause to the editor of The Tailor and Cutter, maintained the tradition of dress by which one could recognise an author on sight. The others affected the modern, self-obscuring style.

Henrietta Street and its neighbours have still, in the main, a literary atmosphere, but of late years publishers have shown a tendency to scatter. One finds them now in all parts of London. Paternoster Row, though now rather more drapery than literary, still houses some dozen. Others one finds in the Adelphi, in Bloomsbury; a few in Mayfair; a few in Soho; and one at least as far out as South Kensington.

If one’s interest was in the theatre, Bedford Street, which adjoins Henrietta Street, afforded an amusing pageant. The Yorick Club was there and the Bodega was there. The Bodega, still there, made quite a figure in the theatrical and literary life of those days. It was there that Robert Sherard found Ernest Dowson at almost his last gasp. It was there that Joseph Conrad and Stephen Crane had their first long talk. There you could meet three or four hundred old actors, each of whom, it seemed, had played Second Grave-digger to Irving. There, on Saturday noons, you could see most of the lions who were appearing at the Tivoli matinee. They made a group of their own, distinct from the actors; a Bohemia within a Bohemia. Few of these distinctive rendezvous remain to-day. Once upon a time those in a particular walk of life seemed to find delight in getting together. Now they seem anxious to get apart. They live as far from each other as possible, and if they join a club it is often not a club frequented by their profession. They no longer live in enclosed worlds of “shop.” They scatter and penetrate to as many other worlds as possible. The old colonies have broken up, and scarcely any district of London now retains any fixed residential note. Where one does find a group with a regular meeting-place, it is composed usually of students or mere dilettanti of the arts. The chief cause for this is the car, which enables people to live some way out, and at week-ends to escape all town concerns and flee to the hills. Forty years ago escape was not so facile, and men tied to town over week-ends were driven to gather in confraternities.

Time and changing mode, besides carrying away the “character,” have carried away many other once-common sights of the streets. Street entertainment, though it still exists in the form of Welsh miners singing choruses, ex-Service men playing jazz, and acrobats performing to theatre queues, is no longer so rich and varied as it was. You could once find some form of public amusement at every half-mile, and every suburban High Street on a Saturday night was a mixture of market and music-hall. At one point you would find a Highlander (probably from Camden Town) with bagpipes, and a lady partner doing the sword dance. A few yards away a man and woman doing a thought-reading act. Then a trained horse spelling “corn” and “hay” from lettered cards. Then a peep-show of a village street which sprang into activity if you put a penny in the slot. Then a preacher calling you to repentance. Then a one-man band — a man who carried and worked with mouth and with different limbs, a big drum, a triangle, Pan-pipes, cymbals, and concertina. Then a contortionist and escapist being roped and manacled. Then a weight-lifter; an Italian woman with a cage of fortune-telling budgerigars; a tattooed sailor advertising a tattooist — in short, a small Batholomew Fair every Saturday night, and a gusto to it which is, or seems to be, absent even from the Bank Holiday Fairs of today. The naphtha torches of the stalls, the incandescent lamps of the shops, and the candles used by the performers, gave the affair a carnival note which the modern stall, with its electric fittings, cannot equal. Electric light can give brilliance, and can make a brave display, but after the naphtha torch it seems austere and thin.

Casual carnival is no longer in fashion. We still have our carnivals, but they are organised: you buy tickets for them. We have lost the habit of breaking into spontaneous street-carnival, and perhaps in the interest of order it is well we have. Yet in such casual carnival as the return from Epsom on Derby Night I do not recall much disorder. This affair was a feature of the South London year. All the young of that part of South London on the road to the downs turned out for it, and from six o’clock to ten o’clock the road from Epsom through Ewell, Morden, Merton, Tooting, Balham, Clapham and Kennington to the bridges was a madly mixed procession. Four-in-hands, with amateur whips and liveried guards sounding the post-horns; victorias, landaus, traps, dog-carts, brakes, governess-carts, donkey-carts, milk-floats — anything that went on wheels. And the whole procession moving to that spirit of deliberate insanity which used to inspire the carnivals of Nice. It was, of course, a much heavier affair than any Latin carnival, being an English affair, but it caught something of that state of the human creature who is for once what he wants to be instead of the servant of his inhibitions. Every vehicle was decorated, if not with flowers, with paper streamers, flags, ribbons. The four-in-hands, the victorias and the landaus were sufficient show in themselves, but in the humbler vehicles eccentric head-dress, eccentric costume and eccentric decoration of the horses and donkeys prevailed. A typical example of the period’s idea of fun was to dress the donkey’s fore-legs in a pair of lady’s knickers. The travellers saluted the crowd on the pavement, and the crowd saluted the travellers. The salutations were seldom in the best of taste. Indeed, the whole humour of the thing was of a kind which this age could not tolerate. It was that crowd-humour of London which Chaucer knew and Shakespeare knew, and which persisted until general education brought self-consciousness and better deportment. It took to its bed after Mafeking Night, and the general use of the car gave it its final despatch.

Another mortality is the street-cry. Of all the picturesque vendors, each with his peculiar chant, who gave colour to the streets, we have now only the lavender-woman and the muffin-man. But when I recall my childhood, and the blurred streets of those days, I hear the cry of the salt-man who, with donkey and barrow, hawked salt which he cut as required from one large block. I hear the last faltering accents of the penny pie-man. I hear the sweep’s mournful herald of his presence, and the coal-man was heard “with cadence deep” in my day as in Dean Swift’s day. The milk-woman, carrying her cans on a yoke, could be heard with her “Mee-yul-koo,” and one of the terrors of my young life was an unseen creature which went through the October twilight, chanting to a down-scale tune: “Old Moore’s Almanack, Old Moore’s Almanack.” I did not hear what he was chanting; I heard only the accent, which seemed charged with all the woe and mystery of London. He was one of the ravens of the night, of which the other was a fearful voice, not now permitted to scare wakeful children; the voice of the newsboy, with his “‘Nother horrible mur-der by the Rip-per. . . . Pa-per.” And there were the “Chairs to Mend” woman, the “Hot Rolls” boy, the Sarsaparilla hawker, the cats’-meat man, the rag-boddler-bone man (with balloons and flag) and the geranium merchant — “three pots a shilling.” But unless you lived in a suburb you won’t know anything about those mysteries. And you won’t know, or care, why the baked-potato man has disappeared, or what has happened to the Italian with his pedestal organ and his monkey, or why the changing mode needed to have changed so violently as to rob you of hot rolls, and balloons and flags.

I spoke earlier of the disappearance of the Cockney slang and its replacement by American slang. Equally notable, at this day, is the disappearance of the Cockney himself. A fourth generation of the London-born is hard to find. The coster, of course, threw away his distinctive clothes and deportment as soon as Albert Chevalier brought him to public view on the music-hall stage. So, later, did the navvy, as you will discover if you have the hunt I had for corduroy trousers for the garden. And now the Cockney seems to have been exterminated, or to have hidden himself so successfully that there is no tracing him. I believe he must be about somewhere in the city, but the evidence is meagre. What song the sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed among women, are not greater mysteries than the hiding-place of the Londoner in London.

I have met Londoners keeping seaside hotels, Londoners keeping lemonade stalls in the middle of Dartmoor, Londoners driving buses in Cumberland, Londoners in the Welsh hills, and Londoners working in Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Cannes and Nice. But to find them in London . . . You may lunch at one of London’s best-known grill-rooms. The scene is assumed by strangers to be typical of London and London life. Actually it is typical only of the provinces. It is filled with a company connected with London and commonly associated with London — famous actors, actresses, famous musicians, social leaders, authors — all part of the London scene and leading their lives in London; and not one of them a Londoner. The born Londoner can spot his fellow or the man from outside without seeing his face or hearing his voice. He need only see him walk across the room, or shake hands; he need only see the back of his neck or the set of his shoulders, and he knows him for Londoner or provincial. Over there is a man who has written many novels about London and is known as a London novelist. Every line of his body carries the marks of the shires. Next him is a Cockney comedian whose ears and neck proclaim his Midland origin. Elsewhere is a “well-known man about town,” whose very walk announces him as Devonshire; a man to whom London means nothing but a “season” with its hub at Hyde Park, and who knows less about the intimate London than a Northumbrian who has a cousin living in Bloomsbury.

You may go to Fleet Street and look among the men who produce in London the daily record of London’s life. You will see many Scots, numbers of Welshmen and Irishmen, and men from the northern shires. But if there is a Londoner at work among them he has closely disguised himself. You may go to cheap tea-shops at busy hours. A stranger, observing the customers, would think “Here, at any rate, is typical London.” But let him talk to the people, and he will find that this one came from Hampshire last year, that one’s home is in Nottingham, and another came from Shropshire two years ago, and the family of another moved in from Norfolk twelve years ago. You may go to Brixton Road, where, if anywhere, you should find true London. You talk to the shop-keepers. This one came from Southampton, the other from Cardiff, another from Colchester. Try Camden Town. Talk to the stall-keepers, who look as Cockney as any figure drawn by a comic artist to represent the Cockney. This one is a gipsy, the other from Suffolk, another from Berkshire. Wherever you go, you find that the “typical London crowd” is composed mainly of people who were born far from London. After ten or fifteen years they call themselves Londoners but on challenge they collapse to Birmingham or Liverpool or Leeds.

It is the same all over the seven hundred square miles. Scratch a self-styled Londoner and you find a provincial. London has a bad name for crime, while actually the Londoner is a good law-abiding fellow. I doubt if twenty per cent. of London crime can be traced to true Londoners; the bulk of it is the work of these expatriated provincials. They have taken London. They have taken our restaurants, our bars and our clubs. They have taken the best jobs. They have given themselves the leading rôles on the London stage. They have pushed the Londoner right off the main streets, and compelled him to retire to the back streets. I don’t complain of the success of their drive; the Londoner has allowed it, and deserves his defeat by his quiescence. But if Government protects me from the cheap and good produce of men who live in foreign countries, why can’t the L.C.C. protect me from the competition of people who belong to foreign COUNTIES and who invade my territory and seize the best things in it? If a musician who speaks Italian is barred from England because English musicians are out of work, why should a musician who speaks Yorkshire be allowed to work in London when London musicians are out of work. Or why should a Devonshire entertainer be allowed to practise in Surrey? Why can’t we have London for the Londoners, and an immigration fee of say, a hundred guineas from all provincials who wish to become Londoners? Or plates of poisoned tripe at the northern railway termini and poisoned pasties at the southern?

In another sphere the Londoner has allowed himself to be pushed into the background by the provincial. Think of all the novels of London life which are accepted in the country as authoritative. How many of them were written by Londoners? Not one in fifty. The “regional” novel has been for the last century or so a notable feature of English fiction, but all the novels of this kind which survive have been the work of natives of those regions. No immigrant could have written the Wessex novels of Hardy or the Warwickshire novels of George Eliot; the Shropshire novels of Mary Webb or the East Anglian novels of R. H. Mottram. Yet the bulk of the “London” novels, which the provincials accept as we accept the rural, have been written by immigrants. The outstanding novelist of London life came from Portsea. Thackeray came from India, but came at so early an age that perhaps one may stretch a point and allow him as a Londoner. But one cannot make this allowance to the others who have been identified with the interpretation of London and London life: they did not settle in town until early manhood. We have Walter Besant, from Portsmouth; George Gissing, from Wakefield; Arnold Bennett, from the Potteries; Jerome K. Jerome, from Walsall; Pett Ridge, from Kent; Michael Arlen, from Lancashire; J. B. Priestley, from Yorkshire; Thomas Moult, from Derbyshire. All of them accepted as “London” novelists. To-day we have among us only one “London” novelist who is a Londoner. That is Mr. Frank Swinnerton.

How this has happened I do not know, for London is not without its great names in literature. But they have turned, oddly enough, not to the novel, but to poetry. And even in poetry they have used none of the swarming themes which London life affords. There seems to have been a mutual change-over. The country people rushed into London to write novels about London life; the London-born poets rushed into the country to write pastorals. They make a noble company — Chaucer, Spenser, Herrick, Crashaw, Dekker, Ben Jonson, Milton, Gray, Pope, Blake, Keats, Byron, Hood, Browning and Rossetti; yet, London-born as they were, not one of them wrote a “London” poem. All of them tuned their lyres to the country key; even Herrick, who loathed the country life of which he sang with such a golden note. No Londoner, as I say, could, after a few years in Yorkshire or Somerset, produce a Yorkshire or Somerset novel which would satisfy the natives of Yorkshire or Somerset that he knew what he was writing about and had got their inwardness in his bones. But these provincial immigrants can produce their “London” novels without challenge, despite their deplorable contortions when they present a London character talking what they think is Cockney. If a Londoner, writing a Potteries novel, made the characters begin their sentences with “Iss fay” and “Look you, indeed,” he would be making no greater break than some of these authors make with their attempts at Cockney dialect. But they get away with it and are accepted, and perhaps the explanation is that London is not a “region” in the sense that the West Riding or East Anglia or Dorset is a “region.” It has no permanent soil, no unchanging background, no rooted life that can be absorbed only through the bones and the blood. The Cockney will not “stay put” as rural families do, and consequently London is always fluid. It is a fusion of all elements of English life, and any man from any part of England can find his place in it. It will accept him and open to him. The country is more reticent. It gives itself only to its sons, and when the Cockney goes to make his home in it he has to wrestle with it. Perhaps that is where he has gone and why the country districts are in such a sad state. I don’t know. I only know that he is not easily located in London these days.

I think the “character” whose disappearance from the London scene I most regret is that character which was so popular that at various times it was given affectionate nick-names. I mean the golden sovereign. For with the disappearance of that pleasing trifle came a complete change in the price of things. Apart from the fact that pieces of printed paper do not give you the feeling of being rich — however many you may carry with you — you can buy so little with them. The sovereign looked like riches and was. His potentialities were vast. His very gleam gave promise of good things and many of them. His weight reassured you. Often in hard times he was a widow’s cruse. He might be the last you possessed, but while you could feel him in your pocket he lent you a confidence which your last five-pound note never lends. I have sometimes told young men what I have done in a London evening with one sovereign, and they look at me and look at each other, silently remarking that the old man’s memory’s going. But it isn’t.

Often and often, in the years just before the war, a friend and myself have met at six o’clock, possessing a sovereign each. We have had aperitifs. We have dined in Soho at one of the places which soared beyond the general run of one-and-sixpence by serving a half-crown or three-shilling dinner — five courses, including game, and very good, though not Lucullan. We have had a bottle, often a bottle and a half, of reasonable claret, or flasks of Chianti, and have finished dinner with a liqueur. We have taken a cab to a theatre. We have bought seats in the dress-circle. We have taken a cab from the theatre to the station. At the station we have had a parting drink or so. And always, even if we had gone to a Caruso and Melba night at Covent Garden (gallery 2s. 6d.) we got home with some loose change. Indeed, we have often had amusing evenings when we had only five or six shillings each. On those hard-up occasions, the half-crown dinner was beyond us. We went instead to the Dieppe, the Franco–Suisse, or one of the many other places which did a four-course bourgeois dinner for one shilling. A bottle of ordinaire was a shilling; in some places tenpence. In these smaller places any of the usual liqueurs was sixpence. The ordinary brands of cigarette were threepence for ten, and good Turkish were sixpence for ten. One shilling would admit you to the Promenade Concerts or to the pit of a music-hall, which mostly had a bill of sixteen or eighteen turns, twelve of them “stars.” After the show you could get a bottle of beer of one of the famous brands for threepence, or a proprietary whisky for fourpence. And even if you had two or three you still would not, at the end of the evening, have spent six shillings.

That is what poor young men could get in those days. The well-to-do must have had real trouble in spending their money, for even in the best restaurants five pounds went somewhat laggingly. The duty on wine was then much lower, and though the best restaurants put the best price on wines which were cheaper in the smaller places, they were still asking the sort of price now asked by second — and third-rate places. I have just looked at a wine-list of 1912. In it I find a Dow’s port of 1884, at eighty-eight shillings a dozen; a Clos de Vougeot of 1894, at sixty-three shillings a dozen; a Château Lafite of 1890, at forty shillings a dozen; and of the Moselles, the princesses of the wine realm, a Berncastler Doktor of 1907 at fifty-eight shillings a dozen. Prices which one now pays for ordinary table wines.

Almost anything you wanted could be got then at a price which today purchases only the commonplace. To qualify as a spendthrift you must have had to think hard. One of “Pitcher’s” stories about Phil May illustrates this. Phil May had attended the National Sporting Club, and had backed a lad who was not thought to have a chance. His lad won, and Phil May drew thirty pounds. Being Phil May, he saw no purpose in taking that thirty pounds home. It must be spent. It was then half-past eleven, but it must be spent. He invited all the people round about to come and have supper with him. He took them in cabs to a restaurant. He ordered a light but (as he thought) expensive supper, and kept the wine-waiter busy. Five or six friends had followed him as guests, but half-way through the meal he noted with some dismay that they were drinking very little, and that few bottles were being opened. This would not do: the thirty pounds must be spent. He called the waiter, and announced that he would like to finish the meal with a FRESH fruit salad, and liqueur dressing. The waiter demurred and called the head-waiter. The head-waiter said that it COULD be done, but did Mr. May remember that it was January and that fresh strawberries, cherries, peaches, were likely to be — “Make the salad,” said May. After some furious rushing around Covent Garden by the Kitchen Staff, the salad appeared; a magnificent bowl of out-of-season fruits. It was eaten and approved. The bill came. Phil May looked at it; then threw it down with a “Damn!” Even with the salad he hadn’t spent his thirty pounds.

Phil May was a good specimen of the London “character,” though he was really an immigrant from Leeds. Stories about him are innumerable. I can think of nobody to-day whose personality so constantly gives rise to anecdote and legend, and I can see none coming from the young. Nobody eagerly approaches you to tell you the “latest” about So-and-so, as I have heard they did with the “latest” about Phil May and Whistler and a few others of that period. We have our geniuses, but they do not claim their right to full BEING. There is no “latest” to be told. They seem, as I have said, only anxious to show that they are as sensible as merchants and as conventional as lawyers; as, at root, true genius always is. But genius has a licence to permit its little devils to play in public, while commercial men and lawyers dare not display their little devils outside the privacy of their own set. It is odd that modern genius ignores this licence. I recall from thirty years ago a music-hall song which petulantly inquired: “MUST you have beef with your mustard?” We have the beef to-day in our geniuses. I wish they would bring with them a dash of mustard and give us a touch of the old fire of character.

Apart from individual characters, whole types of character have merged themselves in the common stock. Just as the London man has suffered from the craze for standardisation, so has the London girl. She is always, of course, under a fire of criticism concerning her behaviour and her dress and her masculine activity, but that comes mainly from prejudiced elders. We all, I suppose, fix our ideal of girlhood on the girls we knew in our teens. Men who were seventeen or eighteen in the forties of last century had nothing good to say of the hoyden of 1870, and those who were seventeen or eighteen in the sixties remembered girls of the “Alice” sort and looked askance at the fast miss of 1900; while those who were youths in 1900, though they have more tolerance than their fathers and grandfathers, and are prepared to approve the young thing of 1934, still see the ideal girl as a girl with flowing curls, and untroubled profile, and calm blue eyes. In most matters the modern London girl is an improvement on her elders, and notably in her absence of feminine humbug. She is direct, self-reliant, and honest in her attitudes. She knows more, and her mind is quicker. Forty years ago most girls were “dumb,” and nobody thought of giving them that label. To-day that condition is the exception, and a word had to be found for it.

The only criticism I would make of her is that she is too much of a muchness. In my youth all girls were different. Prettiness was the standard then, where piquancy is the standard to-day. But it was a prettiness in variety. A dozen girls in a room were a dozen distinct girls. To-day, you may talk separately to a dozen girls in a room and all the time feel that you are talking to the same girl. Among the well-to-do classes particularly, the girl in face and figure is a stereo of all other girls: thin face, slim hips, slim fingers, and standardised expression. And in the street it is difficult to guess at a glance, save from the quality of her clothes, where she belongs. In the past you could immediately recognise the social girl, the middle-class girl, the City girl and the factory-girl. Each had its own tone, its own dress, and its own bearing. The factory-girl wore a black straw hat, ear-rings, a “Mizpah” brooch, and hair dressed in rolls over her ears. The City girl was neat and severe. The middle-class girl was also neat, but added a touch of the style and chic which in those days could only be had by money. The Society girl was consciously and demonstrably the Society girl. In these times, while the higher and the lower ranks are still distinguishable, the intermediate rank, and all the little ranks within it, have fused, and only fine and closely-observed shades mark the difference between the shop-assistant and the actress, or the young girl of Mayfair and the young girl of Hampstead.

The credit for this sameness, if it is a credit, must go to that bold and ardent portent of the nineties — the New Woman. It was she, in her Trilby hat and bloomers and tweed jacket and collar, who opened the world to the young girl of to-day. It was she who blazed the trail for Votes for Women, for entrance to all professions until then reserved to men, for mixed bathing, for sun-bathing, for tennis shorts, for bachelor flatlets and — for uniformity. She was the Woman Who Did, and she did well in all these things, save the last. When John Knox wrote of “this monstrous regiment of women,” he can hardly have guessed how accurate the word regiment would be, centuries later. Women and girls have won their freedom, thanks to the New Woman, but, having won it, they seem unable to use it. After running about for a while, and tasting it, the next thing they did was to enter a new servitude and make themselves look as much like each other as possible. To-day there are neither pretty girls nor plain girls; everywhere you see the same keen features and alert eyes; the same scarlet lips and scarlet finger-nails; the same poise, the same rather arctic charm, and the same funny little hat. They are the progeny of the New Woman — a regiment of Good Sorts.

As the coster and the navvy have changed their costume and their deportment, so have less agreeable types. In my childhood there was much talk of a certain figure of the rougher quarters called the “hooligan.” He was recognisable on sight. To-day he is not to be seen. He went out at the same time as the roaring, round-the-town boys of the West End. He was a lower example of their sort, a figure of an age, a smasher of things for the sake of smashing things. When life became more severe, and expenditure of energy had to have some purpose, he ceased to be, and his place was taken by neatly-tailored young men who do not break idly into disorder. They break with purpose and with method, and with fast cars. They are the smash-and-grab men and the hold-up men. You might sit with them in trains and buses and restaurants, and never know them from book-keepers and respectable householders. The hooligan had a contemporary, a more serious and business-like fellow, but equally recognisable. He, too — Burglar Bill — has ceased to dress his part and announce his calling to the world. He appears now as the cat-burglar, and often doubles the part by posing as a young man about town. He frequents West End bars and restaurants, and often is found to be mixing with reputable people. Just as many of the pleasures and conveniences once restricted to the rich can now be had by the people, so many of the activities once restricted to the poor have been taken over by the educated whose education has unfitted them for the new intellectual demands of the professions or the far-sighted enterprise of modern commerce.

Another type for which you will look in vain is that figure who, up to 1914, was so common that at various periods he had a stock name. At one time he was a Swell; then a Johnny; then a Masher; then a Blood; and his last manifestation was the K’nut. The nearest figure we now have to him is the gigolo, but there is a great gulf between the demeanour and operations of the two types. The Gay Old Boy, too, once a familiar figure of the West End, has gone, and his Lady Friend cannot easily be found. These types, I think, went out when the Empire Promenade went out and when Leicester Square suffered an overhaul, and lost those cosmopolitan bars which were the rendezvous of the Pretty Ladies. The Johnny, the Gay Old Boy, and the Lady Friend were part of the furniture of Leicester Square, as you may see from the pictures of the black-and-white artists of the period. With the passing of the Leicester Square legend they also passed. Outside London, however, the legend seems to survive. Young provincials, I notice, and visitors from the Dominions still want to see Leicester Square. This may be due to its being enshrined in old songs; but though these songs carried its legend into all sorts of remote villages, it was not, I think, the songs that set it on the map, nor anything that it possessed in itself. It owes most of its fame, I fancy, to Mrs. Ormiston Chant. Until she arrived, nobody, not even frequenters or casual visitors, realised what a depraved spot it was. It was from her that it had its best time. About ten years later, in the early nineteen-noughts, it began to flag. The music-halls, who had been its major celebrants, suddenly turned on their old favourite, and the late George Formby hastened the end of that particular phase of its life with his songs ridiculing the new kind of youth about town — “It’s My Night Out,” “I’m One of The Boys” and “We All Went to Leicester Square.” The funeral hymn of its raffish phase was sung by the soldiers when they chose “Tipperary” for their marching song. In that song the author wrote better than he knew. “Good-bye, Piccadilly; farewell, Leicester Square.” It was an adieu to an age. Piccadilly and Leicester Square survive, as bright as ever they were; but the self-conscious gaiety and that note which caused music-hall comedians to smirk when they mentioned them, are gone. To-day, Leicester Square is clean and lively, and on a Spring morning it is one of the most pleasant spots of the town. Entertainment is there, but of a fresher, more sensible kind, and people of all sorts frequent it at all hours of day and night. It is within my not-too-aged recollection that at one time women alone at night went some way round to avoid passing through it.

In place of the old type of lounge, in which women only of a “certain type” were seen, we have the hotel lounge. As America has captured our entertainment industry, and taken the marrow out of our colloquial talk and substituted trans-Atlantic zest, so it has imposed upon us the American feature of the hotel lounge, which in every American town is everybody’s rendezvous. It can be, and is, put to many uses. People sit in it, and stand in it, and think in it, and walk in it, and meet their friends, or day-dream in it. There seems to be only one thing people don’t do in a hotel lounge. They may sit, but they don’t lounge. Only once have I seen a man actually lounging in the lounge, with all his limbs at disorderly ease; and it turned out that he was drunk, and the staff quickly stopped him from using the place in accord with its name. There should be some new word for it, since an hour in a lounge is anything but an hour of ease; it is more like an hour in a maelstrom.

Spend an hour in the lounge of one of the new popular hotels. From half-past ten in the morning until midnight it is in such a stir that for all the lounging you can do you might as well be in the middle of Cheapside. In the morning and afternoon it is occupied mainly by tourists and by women from the suburbs and provinces taking refreshment between spells of shopping, or meeting their friends. In the evening the company is diversified — clergymen and small business men; young people of all kinds; foreign students and wanderers for whom there is no label. The lounge lizard is neither so numerous nor so highly developed in England as in America, though if America will give us time we may be able to produce it as a successor to the Johnnies, the Mashers and the K’nuts. What we already possess is what I may call the Lounge Lizzie. She is not the housewife taking an hour’s rest between shoppings. She is a quiet, respectable woman — and lonely. She appears to have no shopping to do, no work to do, nothing to do, and very little money. She sits in these places hour by hour, sipping coffee and wearing in her eyes the guilty look of one engaged in the dreary business of getting through life without living. The business is called Killing Time, and I think the hotel lounges of Europe and America have seen more of this kind of moral murder than any other enclosed places.

These lounges make a strong appeal to those living in cramped villas on cramped incomes. They are in the topographical centre of things. They are spacious and lofty. They are furnished like a private drawing-room imagined by a film-producer. They give to tired people a reflection of the world which they taste vicariously in novels and in movies: a Monte Carlo world which, in their view, is Life. They appease a modern appetite. They give colour and movement, and a tonic sense of affluence and ease, to millions who have never before had a share of them, and this reacts pleasantly upon the general social tenor and outlook.

In Victorian days, when places were built for the use of the people, nobody thought of making them gorgeous replicas of palaces. As little as possible was spent on them, and the promoters went on wondering why they failed. Then some bright spirit came along with the idea of building the kind of place that had formerly been built for the well-to-do, and of making the same charges that were made in the old dingy places. I can hear the comments of the prophets, who, like so many prophets, were thinking thirty years behind their time. “Hopeless. He’ll never get his money back. How could he — with all that outlay and those ridiculous prices?” They forgot the simple economic fact that twenty shillings are the same as one pound; that three thousand people bringing in a shilling every day are as good as one hundred and fifty people bringing in a pound. More certain, too; since there are millions from whom the place can draw its three thousand, and not so many from whom it can draw its hundred and fifty. Mr. Woolworth’s success is due to his discovery of the fact that millions of people can spend sixpence at five different times, or threepence at ten different times, who never at any time have half-a-crown to spend. It is irritating to be faced with proof of a proverb which you don’t like and never believed; but these people have proved that if you look after the pence, the pounds will look after themselves.

The doubting attitude of the business-man-prophet recalls a story I read recently in a book of London gossip published in the late nineties. It was the recollections, mainly of clubs and taverns, of Edward Callow, who at that date could look back to London life in the eighteen-forties. The story concerns the time when there were no Charing Cross Station and no Charing Cross Hotel. In the Haymarket of those days there stood, where His Majesty’s and the Carlton now stand, the Italian Opera House, still remembered in the Opera Arcade, running from Charles Street to Pall Mall. The Charles Street side of this block was occupied by a small hotel which, some time during the sixties, was wound-up and put on the market. The author and a few of his City friends formed a plan for purchasing the hotel, and with it all other interests in the whole block, and erecting upon the site the kind of hotel which is now the prevailing London hotel — namely, a huge American hotel. The plan went well. Many important people became interested in the project, as directors, and an advisory board of men with long experience of hotel management was formed. Plans and estimates were drawn up, and all arrangements made for the purchase of existing leases. Then, at one of the board meetings of the new company, it was announced that the South Eastern Railway had lodged plans for the erection of a large hotel at their new terminus at Charing Cross. Whereupon the advisory board of the proposed large hotel on the Haymarket site, the men experienced in the hotel business, gave advice to their directors as follows: That it was useless for them to proceed with their project, since London COULD NOT POSSIBLY SUPPORT TWO SUCH HOTELS. A few years later, as the author, with just bitterness, remarks, this advisory board had before their eyes Northumberland Avenue and its hotels.

Another type who was regarded at the beginning of the century as a permanent feature of London life, and is now in retirement, is the old horse-bus driver. The motor-bus driver of to-day is a fine type, and performs an exacting job with unusual skill and suave temper. But one does not know much about him. The horse-bus driver was in touch with his front-seat passengers, and they could talk to him. Londoners then were not over-sensitive to wind and rain, and the open top of the bus gave them a view of the world through which they rumbled, and inspired that casual conversation which open air always inspires among strangers, and which enclosed places always stifle. In sunshine or pouring rain the mere presence of the driver, and perhaps the presence of the horses, was an incentive to talk; but on the motor-bus, whether covered or open, the driver is set apart from his passengers. There is no chance of talking to him, and he goes so swiftly through the streets and makes such brief pauses that there is little chance even of observing him. In the past, men who lived in the suburbs and went every day to the City got to know their bus-driver, and their front seat was always reserved for them. If they were not at the corner when their bus stopped, the bus would wait for them. On the way to town they would discuss the news and the outlook with the driver. He made a faint link with the old coachmen whom the railways had expelled from the roads of England. He had their weather-beaten face, their independence, their stolidity. At times he was gruff, but he was seldom morose. When he, in his turn, was expelled from the roads of London, the public, which had taken him for granted, began to miss him. It even got sentimental about him, as it does about ordinary things which have ceased to be, and attributed to him many qualities which he did not possess.

One of these was wit. Older people began to tell each other about the witty bus-drivers they had known, and to recall examples of their salt. Within my own experience I am unable to confirm this ana. I was going about London for twelve years before the horse-bus left the streets, and was keeping my ears and eyes open, and not once did I encounter a flash of wit. Not once did I hear those drivers or conductors say anything of original spirit. What I did hear, and often, was constant echo of the latest music-hall gag. I may have been merely unlucky, but I believe that was all that anybody heard. A fair specimen could be heard when a horse-bus was passing one of the early motor-buses which had broken down — as they frequently did. “Hi — why donya sit on his head, mate?” The uneducated Cockney is not truly a wit. Where he does shine, and where he is richly characteristic of a great city, is in truculence and invective.

“Wodger mean, gin me that nasty look?”

“Oo — me? I-ne-geeya no nasty look.”

“Su did.”

“Ono I din. Yad it fore I sawya.”

As no city can so abash the hero who sets out to conquer it in a week as London, so no man can wither and blast the pompous as the Londoner. But not with wit; with well-frozen scorn. And the Cockney girl is perhaps even better at it than the Cockney lad.

Around 1906–7 we could travel about London by the new vehicles or the old. We could make part of our journey by horse-bus and continue it by venturing on a Vanguard, an Arrow, or a Rapide. We could go to the theatre by hansom and return home by taxi. At that time the sway of the battle was not clearly indicated, and taxis and motor-buses were impertinent intruders among the horse-traffic, which pronounced upon them such bitter comment as is to-day pronounced upon what remains of the horse-traffic. By 1909 the issue was clear. The horse must go. By 1911 so far as buses were concerned, it had gone. It was in that year that the last horse-bus made its last over-the-bridge journey. For a few years more the hansom kept up a sort of guerilla warfare with the taxi, and up to 1918 it was not such a rarity on the streets as to be pointed out and looked at. But its day in London, and the horse’s day, was done, and since the end of the war street-orderlies, lads who ran in and out of the traffic with pan and brush, have had little to do. Our main streets, which, since the beginning of London, had held the smell of the stable, were thenceforth to hold the reek of petrol. The taxi and the motor-bus were fixed, and will remain fixed until those plans for aerodromes and landing-stages in the centre of London become facts, and change yet again the face and tone of the London scene.

We have little chance, as I say, of knowing the motor-bus driver and comparing him in personality with the horse-bus driver. But the taxi-driver we can exchange words with, and get to know, and in comparing him with the hansom cabby of yesterday I think the balance falls in his favour. He and the motor-bus driver, I believe, are officially recognised as the most skilled and considerate of road-users. Foreign visitors to London talk so much and so often of the courtesy and efficiency of our police that one might think they had never noticed our other public servants. Could they not spare the blushes of the police for awhile, and give a nod of recognition elsewhere? Could they not tell us sometimes that our telephone operators sure know their stuff, that our postmen have gotten the world beat for snappy delivery, or that our taxi-drivers are — how you say? — zo zweet, n’est-ce pas? Like the contemporaries of the horse-bus driver, we too much take the taxi-driver for granted, and if we talk of him at all we talk of his faults. Only when he is gone shall we get sentimental about him and recall his peculiar flavour.

How many times, when I have been lost in wildernesses, has he picked me up and returned me to civilisation. When a storm has caught me in a lonely street without an overcoat he has appeared at the corner and rescued me. When I have had to keep an appointment at a club whose address I did not know he has delivered me there. When I have, on two occasions, stopped him and said “Nearest doctor” he has found him. And when, as happens to the best of us, I have had no money for his tip, and have told him so, he has not cursed me. “That’s all right, sir. Another time, perhaps.” Much of the vague hostility towards him seems to centre on this matter of tipping, but I have always found that if you frankly tell him you are short, he will accept the explanation civilly. To neglect this explanation, and to hand over the exact fare without a word, does sometimes lead to hard feeling. His economic position is by no means the bed of roses many people think it to be, and considering the hours he works, and that his best work is done in foul weather, his rough-and-ready good manners and his level civility are to be applauded.

He seldom bursts into spring-tide smiles, and is not much given to joking. This is because he has to be alert not only for his job itself, but for many external details. He has to be on his guard against those who consider him an easy mark — the bilkers, and those who want to treat him as taxi-man, porter, footman, banker and street-guide. His only job is driving a taxi, and he need perform no other service; though for people who behave decently he often will. He will almost always help with the luggage if you ASK him; he will oblige a request where he is within his rights in ignoring a command; and his knowledge of London is usually available to any inquirer, whether his taxi is wanted or not. If you have run short of money, and can prove where you live, he will drive you anywhere and call for his fare next day; and I have met many instances of his kindness to really poor people.

Anybody who has had a year’s experience of Paris taxi-men ought, I think, on meeting the London taxi-man to give him a benediction. You know how it is in Paris. You take your taxi and name a street. If it isn’t a main street, the driver asks you where it is and how to get to it. If you don’t know, out comes his Map and Guide. I fancy that any London taxi-man who was driven to consult a Map and Guide would either commit hara-kiri or be despatched by his colleagues. His knowledge of London is unassailable. Never have I known him hesitate, unless, that is, the street you want is an obscure street in a distant suburb. In the mad pride of my own knowledge of London I have sometimes put some pretty problems to him, but I have never puzzled him. I have taken a taxi in Coldharbour Lane and said “Percy Circus,” and the man has nodded and landed me there. I have taken a taxi from a rank in Lewisham and said “Goldsmiths’ Hall,” and have been asked no question. I have tried the old trick of Trafalgar Square, but have never won. Always the man has come back with “Charing Cross, Chelsea, or Stepney?” I have tried to catch him taking a longer route than was necessary, but have never succeeded. There have been times when I have thought with impish delight that I had got him. “He’s going the wrong way. He doesn’t know. At last I can tell a taxi-man something.” Then a sudden turn has brought us into a familiar street, and has taught me a quick way I didn’t know. Sometimes I have been so sure that he was using too long a route that I have stopped him and challenged him. Always I have been crushed. “I know all about that. But the road’s up in Euston Road. Take ten minutes getting through there.”

Just as the coachmen of the early nineteenth century received their celebration in social history, and, later, the railway men received theirs, and the hansom cabbies received theirs, so, in time to come, will the motor-bus driver and the taxi-man receive theirs. I am sure it will be an affectionate celebration. The aerobus pilot we have yet to know in London, but we may be confident that when he does arrive he will be as efficient and as quietly cheerful as all other public figures of London’s daily life.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51