London in My Time, by Thomas Burke


My earliest impressions of London were, as I say, of lamps and shop-windows. The city seemed to me to be all shops: hundreds, thousands, millions of shops, every one of them an invitation, so that one was worried as to which to accept and which to pass. The shops of the little side-streets made as keen an appeal as those of the great streets. Each was an Aladdin’s Cave, its windows only hinting at richer wonders awaiting those entitled to explore its dim recesses. Sometimes I was grieved to think that however zealously I set about it I would never, could never, look in the windows of every shop in London.

Among the first shops I ever saw was one whose window, at this moment of writing, is dressed as it was when I saw it from a height of three feet. While so many old-established businesses in one particular line have, in the past thirty or forty years, demolished their premises and returned to life as general stores, or at any rate six sizes larger, this shop has neither altered nor extended itself, nor even changed its style of display. It stands to-day as it did, and its windows have suffered the ferment of the years without ageing and without apeing the frantic young. It makes no concessions to those “times” which are often responsible for disastrous experiment. It has no need to. London can rush ahead or pull itself about as it pleases; this shop remains static and shows that window-dressing of the old sort can attract as many eyes as the most Picasso or Matisse challenge. It is pleasant in a world of change to find something which is at once an immovable object and an irresistible force, and I can never pass along Oxford Street without pausing at the old, familiar windows of Buszard’s.

Their window-dressing may have changed in a minor point here and there, but to my eye they are the very windows of my childhood, holding the same number of tiered bride-cakes of the same design and confection, the same number of Falstaffian Dundee cakes, and the same fascinating juvenilia of the cake world. The first cakes I ever tasted must have been Buszard’s, for I have a very early memory of being given money and of going in and of being served with objects more lustrous than jewels — jam-puffs, cream-buns and what-not. So long have its windows remained unchanged that it is possible that my infant godson, in his middle-age, will be able to pass along Oxford Street and show them to HIS infant godson as the windows to which his godfather brought him when he was a boy.

It is not the only London shop which has sat with folded hands and looked blandly upon all the change going on around it. The West End has some dozen examples, and the City one or two, while every suburb except the up-to-the-minute suburbs keeps an odd one tucked away somewhere. When one has used up all the general programme tours of London, one might make an Old Shop Tour. Freibourg and Treyer’s, in Haymarket, looks much as it must have looked when my grandfather passed it. Berry’s, the wine-merchant’s, and Lock’s, the hatter’s, both in St. James Street, have also insisted upon retaining the hues of youth and growing old in the cravats and silk waistcoats of George Brummell. There is the chemist’s shop in Drury Lane, which my mother, at the age of eighty-one, recognised as having the selfsame appearance and dressing it had when she was fourteen. There is the book-shop of Ellis, in Bond Street, one of a number in that street and its by-streets which have seen no good reason for having their faces lifted to six storeys of concrete.

My early acquaintance with Buszard’s arose from my Aunt Jane and her shopping expeditions. We have all, I suppose, had an Aunt Jane, and have all, once or twice at least, gone shopping with her. Remembering those expeditions, one sees what a revolution has happened in thirty years in shops and the business of shopping, and in Aunt Janes themselves. The Aunt Janes of to-day are mainly Aunt Joans or Aunt Corals or Aunt Leslies, and are a very distant strain of the breed of Aunt Jane.

Recently a schoolboy friend brought his Aunt Leslie to see me. It was long since I had seen an aunt, as such, and it was amusing to note the thirty years’ difference between her and my Aunt Jane. To the middle-aged the term Aunt still carries something which evokes respect, if not awe; for in our childhood Aunts were personages. Aunt Jane was affectionate and well-disposed towards “the children,” but in the manner of a benevolent head-mistress. When she was visiting, it was necessary to be a little more or a little less than one’s true self. She had an eye for failings; a gentle eye, perhaps, but still an eye. When she moved she rustled, as though her very dress were aware of its office in decorating so august a figure and were sh-sh-ing the surroundings into respect. “The children” to her were a lovely but alien tribe from a country beyond her borders. Her notion of amusing you was to tell you of the worm-eaten games she played when she was young; games no decent child would be caught playing. But she made up for this by the exciting packages she brought, by her “treats” to circuses and pantomimes, her postal orders on birthdays, and the shopping tours which we were allowed to share.

There was nothing of this about Aunt Leslie. Aunt Jane’s first words to her nephews were — How were they getting on at school? Aunt Leslie’s first words to HER nephew were a question — why was he wriggling about there like a rheumatic eel instead of taking her coat. At five o’clock Aunt Jane always took tea. She didn’t drink tea; she “took” it, with an elegant finger. Aunt Leslie said no tea for her; rather have a spot of gin and soda if that was gin she could see on that rickety table. She was at the age at which I remember Aunt Jane — fortyish; but there was no bearded and moustached “romance” in the background. She was unmarried because, running a little business with four branches, she had no time for it. Aunt Jane regarded any change of ways and habits which happened after she was twenty as unworthy of notice, or, if noticed, to be deprecated. Aunt Leslie regarded anything that didn’t belong to this week as woolly and lousy. She liked things to change frequently and violently. When Aunt Jane spoke, one listened and kept silent until she had finished. One accepted, even if one didn’t approve, everything she said. Aunt Leslie’s nephew derided most of her views, as being three days behind the times, and more than once it appeared that they would come to blows. Three times he told her she didn’t know what she was talking about, and her only answer was profanity. I tried to visualise myself saying that to my Aunt Jane, but chaos and lightning kept blurring the picture.

When Aunt Jane left us she always slipped half-crowns into the children’s hands. When Aunt Leslie left my flat she stated that she was broke, and that her nephew must lend her half-a-crown for a taxi, and it was no good his saying he hadn’t got it because she’d seen his mother that morning give him a pound note. Aunt Leslie, I think, could give her nephew a better “time” than Aunt Jane gave hers, though Aunt Jane tried hard enough; but while no modern nephew would welcome the gift of an Aunt Jane, there was a little something about Aunt Jane which Aunt Leslie hasn’t got. She wasn’t so “human” as Aunt Leslie, but she has left an aroma. She had dignity, delicacy, tenderness, and pathetic traits of that sort. At most times she was a bore, though maybe that was our fault for being bored; but when you were sick or in trouble she was magnificent. Aunt Leslie is always the good companion, and always ready to do what she can for people if it doesn’t involve too much trouble; but I doubt her lasting capacity for sympathy. Still, she will probably earn her place in the heaven of Aunts. It won’t be the same heaven as Aunt Jane’s, which is a quiet, elegant heaven of chintz parlours and silver tea-sets. It will be a jolly heaven with golf-courses and dance-bands. And both heavens will be London, for Aunt Jane loved London in her way as much as Aunt Leslie in hers.

I do not now go shopping with women, but in walking about London and occasionally buying something, I observe the customers and the staff, and I can perceive a wide gulf between the old and the new technique of shopping. Even in the most serious of all departments of shopping, the dressmaker’s studio, there is an air which — forgive the profanity — is almost snappy as compared with the rites and ceremonies of those places at the Diamond Jubilee era. When Aunt Jane entered her dressmaker’s, or for that matter her chemist’s, or grocer’s, or florist’s, she entered with the air of having come for the day. She never did spend the day there, not even at the dressmaker’s, but it seemed like it. Often she got out of the chemist’s, the grocer’s, or the florist’s, in forty-five minutes, I have known her do it in thirty. But the atmosphere of the affair in each shop was that the clock had stopped, and that she and the shopman were free to discuss until next week this matter of flowers or soap or biscuits. Women still, I suppose, take it leisurely at their costumier’s and hair-dresser’s, but “leisurely” is a relative term, and what passes as leisurely in 1934 would in 1897 have been thought rush. In the matter of minor purchases they are almost as brisk as men. In the time Aunt Jane took to buy a hair-net the modern women has given her favourite store the once-over and is snapping into one purchase after another. The shopman saves her the trouble of looking for bargains; he thrusts them before her in special departments. In Aunt Jane’s time they had to be scented and stalked, and Aunt Jane had a nose for them. Her major expeditions were centred on the Autumn sales and the January sales, but she carried her bargain-hunting zeal into every shopping visit. It was her firm conviction that all shops existed for the purpose of swindling her. Even the sales did not satisfy her: half-price she considered an outrageous price.

Husbands of to-day often complain that their wives make a fuss about shopping. They should have seen Aunt Jane preparing for a descent on Regent Street, St. Paul’s Churchyard and, occasionally, Bond Street. The week of the campaign was fixed well ahead; the route and the tactics were planned; and bundles of catalogues (quaint bibelots for us, those shop catalogues of yesteryear) were scrupulously examined. I recall being an eye-witness of many stages of the campaign, notably at Gorringe’s, Peter Robinson’s, Dickins and Jones, Liberty’s, and “Phoebe’s,” where her bonnets came from.

Her way of checking any unruly outbursts on our part was to tell us what “ladies” did and did not do, though why she expected healthy boys to be patterns of English ladies I don’t know. However, by close observation of her lady ways, we learned a lot. We learned how to deal with careless or casual shop-assistants, and particularly how to deal with cab-drivers. She was nervous of hansoms; they looked dangerous, and I believe she thought them a little frivolous. She would trust herself only to four-wheelers. The driver of the growler, if you remember, was inclined to be not perhaps so high-handed as the driver of the hansom, but much more surly. You should have seen Aunt Jane dealing with him. In those encounters her frailty and timidity and English-lady delicacy strangely went overboard. Many a strong, silent man was crushed by the drivers of those four-wheelers, but not Aunt Jane. The driver who questioned the sum which she handed to him — she had a fixed tip for any distance: twopence — usually, after a few seconds of speech from her, drove off. They all drove off; it was only a question whether they could stand ten seconds of it or a minute and a half. Those who stood ground longest got her ultimatum — “Another word from you and I take your number.”

On these shopping campaigns she seemed to fight her way to victory by use of the mystic threat of taking people’s “number.” Three or four times a day, if she were impeded on her march, she would threaten to take cabmen’s numbers, bus-conductors’ numbers, porters’ numbers, District Messengers’ numbers, and there was a family rumour that she had been heard to threaten to take a policeman’s number. What she was going to do with these numbers when she had “taken” them, I never discovered. I don’t think she knew herself, and I never actually saw her take a number. But in her spinster wanderings about London she had found that the phrase had some runic potency of creating alarm among the lower orders and of making things easier for herself, and she used it on her shopping campaigns as ignorantly and as effectively as Ali Baba used the “Open, Sesame.”

She expounded to me her attitude on these occasions by saying that it never “did” to stand any “nonsense” from these people. “Nonsense” meant for her what other people mean by business. She would stand no “nonsense” from shop-keepers or restaurateurs, or from anybody who wanted to make a living. She would stand no “nonsense” from her hotel — one of the many quiet places, now vanished, which used to stand thickly in the byways of Oxford Street. She knew that the hotel hoped to make a profit out of her visits, and she refused to be the victim of any such nonsense. She would beat them down until she reached a price for her room which she thought “fair,” which usually meant that the hotel made nothing out of her. Having won that victory, she would give lavish presents to attentive chamber-maids, would feed them menthol and lavender water when they had headaches, and if they were run down would arrange holidays by the sea at her cost.

Full of sympathy for certain kinds of worker, she was merciless on the more public servants — cabmen, shop-assistants, etc. She would keep shop-assistants on hot days pulling down box after box of lace or ribbons for three-quarters of an hour, and then, if their courtesy relaxed under the strain, she would talk of “reporting” them. In these days, happily, the London shop-assistants (or store-clerks, seeing that we’re all American) are manumitted souls who would soon show any Aunt Jane that they, in their turn, were not standing any “nonsense”; but at the beginning of the century the customer could unload all its pent-up bad manners on the assistant, and get away with it.

To-day, a woman can do her household shopping under one roof, but in those days the big department store for women, covering most of her personal and household requirements, was only in its infancy. Aunt Jane’s shopping was therefore a business of visiting, during her week, some thirty different shops, and this meant a series of buses and four-wheelers. The buses in those days still lived in the last throes of the coaching atmosphere. Instead of cabalistic numbers and initial letters, they had names. Just as the coaches had been named Defiance, Quicksilver, Wonder, Rapid, Reliable, so the buses were The Atlas, The Favourite, The Royal Blue. Most of my early rides seem to have been associated with the Royal Blue. I forget its route, but I feel sure that it touched Piccadilly Circus, and I have memories of mounting and dismounting from it at that spot on these shopping tours. It may have touched Oxford Circus, too, since it seems that one was in the Royal Blue at a few minutes to eleven, and at eleven one was buying glories in Buszard’s.

I recall visits to other “pastrycook’s” besides Buszard’s; it was Aunt Jane’s regular custom to withdraw from the fray at mid-morning and take biscuits and a glass of “sherry wine,” giving me the freedom of the pastry counter. I cannot find those pastrycooks now. Indeed, I know of but one pastrycook’s of the old style remaining in London, and that one is in Jermyn Street. Unless Gunter’s and Rumpelmayer’s can be covered by that term. Aunt Jane would never patronise the new tea-shops, which were then opening in different parts of the town, chiefly because they were new and not of her youth. She must always find a pastrycook’s. Lunch meant returning to her hotel, or looking about for one of the few restaurants to which a solitary female could go. In this matter the modern woman shopper enjoys another advantage over her mother and grandmother. Not only can she do her household and garden shopping under one roof; she can spend the day there and take lunch and tea in agreeable surroundings, without leaving it. If she cares to go elsewhere, any restaurant is open to her; she could even go to a public-house if she wished to, without incurring the suspicion, common in Aunt Jane’s day, of being no better than she should be. (Though how any human creature could be anything else is a question which used to puzzle me every time I saw or heard the phrase.)

I believe it was some suburban drapery store which was the pioneer in this matter of refreshment. I think I have heard that somewhere in South London a large establishment of this sort made the experiment of setting aside one room of its premises for afternoon tea. The experiment was a success, and on the news of its success a number of central London houses followed its example, and soon extended it from afternoon tea to lunch, and finally to an all-day service. Then, of course, the giant stores arrived, with their roof-garden restaurants, their palm-lounges for tea, their rest-rooms, writing-rooms, telephone-rooms, hairdressing-rooms, exhibitions and entertainments, and all the other services of a metropolitan High Street. So that the housewife of to-day can not only cover all her domestic business in one shop, but can get for nothing the sort of Happy Day which her grandmother had when she went to the Crystal Palace.

The great store certainly has advantages over the old system of little individual shops, though, on the few occasions when I have done any shopping in one of these places, I have found that at the end of the business I have walked just as far as if I had been in the street and going from one shop to another. And really, had I been in the street, dodging from one shop to another, I would not have been so tired. I would have been able to hop into taxis or buses, and drop off at the particular shop I wanted. The stores do their best for us with lifts and soft carpets, but they have not as yet any taxis or bath-chairs to convey us from department to department. Another point in which I find them at variance from the little shops is the feeling one has of being secretly watched. In the shop there is a counter, and the goods are usually on the thither side of the counter. In the store the goods are spread openly before you, all round you, on open stands and often on the floor, in such a way that you almost feel that you are invited to Please Take One. At times you may find two or three stands without assistants, and when you want to buy something you have to wander about and search for somebody who is authorised to take the money. And while you are thus wandering with your intended purchase, you have the feeling of unseen eyes following you. Nobody minds being openly watched, but this feeling of secret watching is unpleasant. There is another side to this. If these people will display their goods in this casual way, and leave the stands without attendants, can they wonder at the temptation they offer to some poor women to Take One? They constantly complain of their losses by shop-lifting, and are constantly detecting and prosecuting poor women, when it need not happen at all. Shop-lifting doesn’t happen in the small, personal shops; only in the big stores. And it wouldn’t happen there if the stores saw that no stand was left without an attendant, and that their shop-detectives were open watchers in uniform. This is recognised in the outside world. The plain clothes man is useful in DETECTING the commission of crime, but the greatest PREVENTIVE of crime is the constant presence of the uniformed constable. So, in the stores, the sight of the uniform, which meant detection, would quench any temptation.

I think I still prefer the small, personal shop, but no doubt that is because I am middle-aged. The sight and associations of our first twenty years remain with us for ever and are the standard by which we judge all innovation and development. The store is an inevitable and useful growth from the shop, but, like so many large things, it has no room for character. The flavour and aroma of those small, personal shops are outside its comprehension or attainment. The store has one large and nondescript smell, but when I think of shopping I think of each separate shop and its separate smell. There was the smell of the draper’s shop; the smell of the chemist’s; the smell of the grocer’s; the smell of the pastrycook’s — what a smell! — the smell of the oil-and-colourman’s; the smell of the fruiterer’s; the smell of the newsagent’s; the smell of the sweetstuff shop; the smell of the furniture shop. You could range the gamut of the human nose from pungent to mawkish. With the peculiar smell went the peculiar type of proprietor or assistant. Mr. Jones, who served at the grocer’s, was quite unlike Mr. Smith at the oil-and-colourman’s, and Mrs. Brown who kept the sweetstuff shop was a notable divergent from the type of Mrs. Robinson who kept the newsagent’s. In the large shop or store there are none of these salty distinctions. One assistant is much like another, whether serving at the chemistry counter or the lingerie counter. One felt that Mrs. Robinson had carefully decided that of all lives she desired most that of newsagent, and that Mr. Jones found himself in grocering. With these others of today one feels only that they decided to be shop-assistants — I mean store-clerks.

But the store and the mammoth shop have their credit entry. They are lighter, cleaner, brighter. The atmosphere is brisker. There is more space and more air to breathe. There is more display, or perhaps exhibitionism is the truer word. Window-dressing is cast in a high key, as though the flamboyant friend of Wells’ Mr. Polly had dressed them. (You remember the ferocious mêlée resulting from that young man’s ambition to do a “temperamental window.”) There is less servility and more actual service. And of course, with the wider facilities for transport and trade which the last forty years have brought, there is a much more varied and fresher stock; and articles which formerly could be had only by the well-to-do are now available to the many. In these modern shops you can get to-day all the commodities of all the countries of the world, fresh and fresh. Think of something odd that you would like; something Peruvian or Hondurastian or Icelandic. It is fairly certain that some London shop has it.

I seldom enter a draper’s shop in these days; not once in ten years, perhaps; but when I do, though I admire the new fabrics and the new arrangements and the rainbow colours, there is one thing I miss. One thing which used to reconcile me to otherwise dreary half-hours in those dim, poky shops, when Aunt Jane and the assistant were out on the pavement matching a ribbon by the daylight which never reached the shop. That thing was the cash-railway, by which the assistant packed the bill and the money in a wooden ball, and sent it up a spiral to an overhead track, whence it travelled across the shop and dropped off the rails on to the cashier’s desk. I could have watched for many more half-hours than I did the dozens of balls whizzing along the rails from all parts of the shop, never falling off even when crossing the points, but arriving patly at the station of the cashier. And then making the return journey and dropping your change into the hands of the assistant who had served you.

In those days most personal shopping had to be done in Aunt Jane’s way, travelling across the town from the glove-shop to the “mantle” shop, but to-day, while the larger shops and stores make everything easy for personal shopping, even this can be avoided by those who wish. With the spread of the telephone into small homes, a great deal of shopping for common household purposes is done by this means. And there is the C.O.D. service for everybody, and for known customers the “on approval” service. One or two popular shops in central London, I notice, have caught at the C.O.D. service in a novel way. They keep their windows lit at night, so that evening strollers can see what they are offering. On the front of the shop, for the convenience of women who do not pass that way by day, is an automatic machine which, in return for sixpence, delivers a pencil and a paper pad. The woman who sees something in the window that suits her, writes her order on the pad, with name and address, and drops it in a special letter-box. The goods are sent to her next day C.O.D., and the sixpence which she put into the machine is deducted from the price.

Looking about this modern London and comparing it with the London of 1900, one sees how deeply it has become imbued with the American principle of Bigger and Better Elephants. Everything that I recall about the London of my boyhood was small. To-day everything seems much bigger. Usually the grown-up is surprised to find how small are the places and objects which in childhood he thought big. With London and myself, it is the reverse. The small-scale London that I knew is gone; even those places which have not expanded, such as Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, SEEM much bigger. Buses are bigger, railway-carriages are wider, trams are longer. All buildings are bigger; even bus-tickets are bigger. Newspapers are bigger; public-houses are bigger; government departments are bigger; restaurants, even those of Soho, are bigger; theatres are bigger; newsboys are older and policemen are younger. The only things that have grown smaller in these thirty years are postal orders and restaurant tables. Every shop I used to know, save Buszard’s and the few others I mentioned, has grown to five and six times its original stature and bulk; and banks, which used to present the appearance of being the resort of bearded misers, are now sometimes mistaken by strangers for tea-shops or movie-palaces. Even the august dress-makers of the Hanover Square region have larger premises, and no longer hide behind discreet curtains and demand three knocks and a password before admitting the stranger.

In yet another direction London’s shops have shed their former selves and come out in new array. When in my childhood you went to the chemist, you found that he had nothing to sell but drugs and toilet articles. When you went to the tobacconist, you found that he sold tobacco in various forms; nothing else. When you went to the sweetstuff shop, you went to buy sweets, and that was all you could buy in that shop. To-day, one doesn’t know where one is, or what shop is what; and I often wonder how the owners of some shops describe their business. Having renounced specialisation, they seem anxious to display versatility. You see a sign announcing a chemist’s shop. You enter, and you find, first, a lending library; then a leather-goods counter; then a stationery counter; then a counter of silver knick-knacks. You find that the London chemist’s activities are now as heterogeneous as those of a New York drugstore. Elsewhere you find provision-merchants selling sporting equipment; gramophone makers selling refrigerators; tobacconists selling cutlery; cutlers selling foreign stamps; greengrocers selling butter and eggs, and bookshops selling gramophone records. Very soon, I fancy, we shall not be able to speak of the grocer’s shop or the confectioner’s; we shall have to speak, as they do in villages, of The Shop. Not only in the great streets but in the minor streets of all parts of London one notes how many shops have ceased to be identified with the one kind of commodity proper to their business. One can understand a small concern embracing new lines touching its business. But these small concerns don’t do that; they seem to look around for the most incongruous side-line. When you find shops mixing sewing-machines and Egyptian pottery; face-cream and pedigree pups; Gladstone bags and marmalade; you may be excused for thinking that commerce has fallen under the control of the Walrus, the Carpenter and the White Knight.

And you may be justified in wishing for the days of your youth, when shopping was perhaps more bothersome but less complicated by abortive efforts at simplifying it. In the dingy offices of the old days, men kept their letters in open trays on their desks, and when they wanted a particular letter they routed through each basket until they found it. Bothersome but certain. They kept their collars and shirts and studs in one drawer, so that the hunt was narrowed to one spot. In the kitchens the cooks had every utensil lying untidily about them. When you wanted your hoe you went to the garden-shed and routed for it. There was no neat little hoe-container to look for first — and find empty. A slow business, perhaps; almost as slow as the solving of one of Powys Mather’s cross-words; but you knew where to look for what you wanted, and you knew that it wasn’t disguised. To-day, all departments of life are so simplified that for almost every occasion one needs a code and an index. In the past, shopkeepers knew their own minds and minded their own business. They described themselves on their shop-fronts in terms of definition. The butcher was a “purveyor of meat.” The greengrocer was a “pea and potato salesman.” The man who sold hats was a hatter and it was useless to ask him for overcoats or skis. The man who sold milk was a “cow-keeper and dairyman.” He might supply butter and cheese, which are of the dairy; he had no coffee or tinned peaches. The man who sold fowls and game was a “poulterer,” with no interest in hair-dressing or confectionery. The stationer sold stationery, the fruiterer sold fruit and the florist sold flowers, and they left each other alone. None of them had a tobacco licence. To-day, as I say, few businesses remain faithful to the line of their origin, and their habit of encroaching on other lines may in time spread to the professions. Already actresses and baronets run millinery shops, and many an Army officer combines his military life with a business life on the boards of City companies. We may live to see ornaments of the Bar practising as M.D. as well as K.C., solicitors opening dental surgeries, professors of music running a sideline as Commissioners for Oaths.

It springs, I suppose, from the general expansion of life, the widening of interests, and the desire, which the physical bulk of London signifies, for More and Bigger. But the widening, I think, carries often the penalty of thinning. When you have too many things to look at it is not easy to derive much from any of them. And as between the large and the small, the small is often richer in content. I like all this space and variety and crashing colour and immensity, but there are times when I like a rest from it; times when I like to pause at a shop-window which displays one hat or one bottle of claret, one box of tea or one fountain-pen. Even at Christmas-time, when one looks for and allows a flourish of display, the windows seem to be overdone. Christmas may be the feast of plenty, but nobody wants too much of everything, and all in mammoth proportions. Profusion stupefies where economy stimulates. After looking at the Christmas shops of recent years, I find it restful to remember the Christmas displays of the little shops of the Diamond Jubilee year.

It is, I suppose, because one was young that one found them more alluring, more significant of festival, more charged with spirit than the lavish and gigantic exhibitions of these days. Or were they truly so? It is possible that they were, for each of them was a single voice giving out its little carol, and therefore more intimate in its message than the massed choirs of to-day. They were just little shops selling toys, “gifts,” and other bright merchandise of the season, and they remained shops. They did not trespass into other fields and give us ballets, lectures, transformation-scenes and World’s Fairs. The spirit of the season was present in each of those little shops. It was not driven into a corner by displays in its honour more concerned with the display than with the subject. When you had made your purchases in these shops, you were not given free rides to the South Pole, or free aeroplane trips, or presents from the mammoth Christmas Tree. The proprietors manifested the spirit of the season by presenting you with one coloured air-balloon. Therein I think they were right, since one trifling symbol is always more potent and expressive of an idea than twenty or thirty.

A London toyshop in those benighted days considered that it had only to be a shop which sold toys. It did not feel that Christmas was any occasion for gutting itself and becoming an Eskimo igloo or an Arizona ranch or an Ancient Briton’s cave. The blessed word sophisticated (pronounced in the less elegant circles “fed-up”) was not then the watchword of everybody over twelve. Our little minds were prepared to be amused by little things, and if a toyshop was frankly and sufficiently a toyshop, we made no complaint because it wasn’t something else. We found quite enough interest in the small stock of goods; enough to keep us worried for some days in coming to a choice.

But maybe the children of this age are adjusted to Plethora and Colossus. Maybe the modern Christmas bazaar, with its two whole floors and basement of toys and games, and its half-dozen side-shows, its radio music and its three Father Christmases, does not bewilder the young as it bewilders me. Anyway, in rebuking myself for finding rapture in the backward view, I may console myself with the knowledge that when the present young are middle-aged, and are faced with still larger stores, they will be doing the same. They will be looking back just as wistfully at the quiet little Christmas stores they used to know — little six-storey affairs, with only three restaurants and two bands — and will be telling the spoiled youngsters how much more fun could be got out of those simplicities than the spoiled youngsters can get.

And the spoiled youngsters, reaching from the fireside for the televisor, and calling up the stores and asking the assistant to explain and show them on the screen the new models of party frocks, will pity their old aunts. Or, more likely, won’t be listening.

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