London in My Time, by Thomas Burke


The nineteenth century entered upon its final paroxysms with the coming of the war, and from 1914 to 1919 London was an anomalous creature going through paroxysms of its own in its approach to the new century. These were not immediately perceptible to common observation. It appeared to be going about its affairs in the normal way, only faintly perturbed by the horror just over the sea. But closer observation revealed undertones of strain and stress. It was not itself and it was not definitely anything else. Outwardly, it was a London of calm faces, of blue lamps, of women in uniform, and of deliberate geniality. A ruffled London denying to the world that it was ruffled. A London such as no Londoner, present or past, had seen or imagined, but which, when it came, was accepted as natural. As the capital of England and the English, it reflected the English attitude and feeling towards catastrophe, and whatever the failure on the part of the leaders may have been, this attitude and feeling lent as much credit to the common English as any victory of arms or diplomacy. The splendid feature of this time was the tone of the people of every rank, both those in uniform and those without; and in London it could be perceived in the whole. A stranger, noting the prosperity of the theatres, music-halls, restaurants and hotels, might have been excused for thinking that London could never have been so bright. But London was not bright. It was BEING bright; keeping up its spirits and the spirits of the men on leave; and the effect was as strained as when a once-brilliant actor is being brilliant. Everything of the grim and horrid was hidden. The pestilence was treated as new material for jests and japes. People tacitly agreed to accept the brimstone from the sky as if it were rain; and after the first six months one had the feeling, in London at any rate, that war was a constant state and that we had always lived with it.

Looking at the papers of the period gives one little idea of the purgatory through which Europe was passing, and the repercussion of it all upon London. The “lead” stories, streamed across three columns, are of “Great British Advance” or “Peace Overtures,” and the leading article tackles some problem of the war as affecting civilians, or rates Whitehall for its management of affairs in France and elsewhere. But the bulk of the paper — all papers then were reduced in size — is much what it is to-day. That is — gossip; woman’s column; notices of new plays, new books, new concerts; sport; crime; finance; accidents, and all the minutiæ of the everyday round. Where a story impinges upon the war, it is so treated as to suggest that there is nothing the Londoner so much enjoys as war. The general note was: “This is the Great War. Have a good time, everybody!”

This was the attitude not only of the popular press, but of popular entertainment and of social intercourse. Those four years bore, I think, more colloquial stories, printable and unprintable, than any previous twenty. Every new development of the situation brought its own crop of anecdote. There were stories about medical examinations — hundreds of these. Stories about the bantam regiments; about women bus-conductors, about the W.A.A.C. and the W.R.N.S. Stories about ration-cards, and about meatless days, and air raids; about Pink Forms and Blue Forms, and even about wounded soldiers. No aspect was free from Rabelaisian treatment by the great unknown who create these masterpieces of the short story. In the little magazines produced by the men at the front something of the same spirit prevailed. All that war had meant to past generations, all its epic colour and grandeur which the poets and artists had shed upon it, were, by the soldiers of this war, deliberately guyed. Any popular songs which celebrated the splendour of the forces, or any people or group of people who tried to make a sentimental fuss of the fighting men, were rewarded by a riposte of derision. And derision was their response to those hysterical girls who sent white feathers to middle-aged actors and others who were not in uniform. The songs appreciated by them were songs with a gibe in them — “Fred Karno’s Army,” “Send My Mother,” “Take Me Back to Blighty,” “Oh, It’s A Lovely War.” Those strange and tragic years afforded many new sidelights on human nature, but nothing, I think, was stranger than this human and heroic passion for turning misery into farce, and sacrifice into a joke.

One of these minor sidelights was the extraordinary appetite that arose in people of all kinds for humble and hitherto despised foods which happened to be scarce. In ordinary life most people can live comfortably without potatoes. Many do. Some don’t care for them, and others rule them out as fattening. But on the first hint of a shortage of potatoes everybody discovered a yearning for potatoes, and any shop which was serving potatoes drew a queue not only of poor people, to whom the potato was a useful adjunct of meals, but of the well-to-do. Numbers of people would see a queue outside a provision shop, and would automatically join it, without troubling to inquire whether it was offering turnips, biscuits or tripe. Some who had gone through life with no taste for figs, would suddenly find that figs were essential to comfort, and would go to great trouble and loss of time to extract an illicit box of figs from a compliant grocer. I knew a man who never ate jam, and who had no children, for whom, I suppose, jam is mainly produced. But when jam was rationed, this man, otherwise doing his duty as a reliable citizen, hearing that jam could be had at a North London shop without inquiries, made the journey from Surrey to North London and returned in triumph with one pot of jam. This exploit became his favourite and most tiresome anecdote.

Little could then be forecast about the attitudes and responses of the average man. He afforded a succession of surprises; notably when one remembered the popular attitude to the Boer War. I had no close observation of the effect of this upon London and London life. I was at school at the time, and caught only echoes of it from illustrated papers and popular songs. But I do know from hearsay that London went hysterical over this small adventure of crushing a group of farmers who had no regular army. It was seen as a mighty conflict in which the soul of England was the stake. Every victory of the trained soldiers over the burghers was regarded as an occasion for jubilee rejoicings and as one more proof that England was master of the world and mistress of the seas. This may have been because England had not, for nearly a century, been engaged in a real war, and took this miniature affair as an example of a Great War, with Kruger as Napoleon. Anyway, it was the last outburst of jingoism of which we have been guilty, for when the Great War did come, and brought disaster to almost every home, and attack upon our coasts and towns, there was neither moaning nor rejoicing. None of the events of those four years produced a “Relief of Ladysmith” excitement or a “Relief of Mafeking” debauchery. Gains and losses were accepted as facts. Nobody hung out flags because of gains, or talked of what Old England could do. Nobody went sick because of losses. No songs were written about the battle of the Somme of the kind that were written about Spion Kop and Graspan. The spirit of London and of the nation remained imperturbable; the Boer War had taught a lesson.

All the popular songs of the 1899 affair that I heard at school were, as I say, of a distinctly jingo kind; those that were not were of the “sob” kind. There were songs about British Pluck and about Going to Fight the Foe. Men who were boys when I was a boy may remember some of them. “Break the News to Mother,” “Bravo, the Dublin Fusiliers,” “Bugler Dunne,” “Good-bye, my Bluebell,” and that neuralgic example of what a great writer and a distinguished composer can do in their off-moments — “The Absent–Minded Beggar.” Those songs were the last wag of the old tail. Nothing of their note was to be heard in the popular songs made during 1914–1918. In the fourteen years between the two wars the English had acquired a new dignity and a wider outlook. Something of the spirit foreshadowed in Sir William Watson’s Coronation Ode of 1902 had visited them. They knew that this was a testing time, and no time for heroics; and apart from that, they were a generation which had no use for the pearly lorgnette of sentiment. They wanted to look at life straight. Hence the note of all the songs was a mocking of the earlier note. The men knew no great battles. They took part in a “show” at Festubert, or a “show” at Paschendaele, or a “show” at Jutland. They gave pet names to the enemy — Fritz and Jerry. They gave pet names to his weapons. They wrote parodies on songs about courage and about the splendour of war.

This spirit was reflected to London and appeared, as I say, in the attitude of the people and in all references to the war. A small section of the press, and an occasional fugitive song, tried to keep up the old stuff by speaking of every British soldier as a hero, and every German as a coward, but in time even this section was laughed out of it by the soldiers themselves. During those years London was a city in the war-zone which went on with its business and at the same time made itself a playground for men of the forces on leave. It had no flags for them; no cheers; but it had what was more appreciated — a spirit of fellowship and lots of entertainment. It was an ungainly London to which we introduced them, but at that time appearances didn’t count. It was out of joint physically, and in a state of flux spiritually; yet, with its natural flexibility, it managed still to be London. Hotels had become Government offices, and Government offices had become dormitories. Parks and squares had become market-gardens, and superannuated actors came forward to make the male choruses of musical shows. Disused shops and houses had become recruiting centres, and every kind of works a munition factory. Skilled labour was being rewarded as it had never before been rewarded — or since; and the decorators of life, the gilt of civilisation, who had formerly been its pets, had become ten a penny. Buildings which had been in course of erection at the outbreak remained for four years like Jezreel’s Towers, showing their bare bones and eyeless sockets to the London sky; while on the vacant sites of Aldwych and Bloomsbury, Y.M.C.A. huts and soldiers’ recreation-rooms were run up overnight. Indeed, wherever there was a vacant site, there were huts. Along the main roads on the outskirts, little towns of hutments were built in a week or so for munition workers; but for any other kind of building there was no time, money, or labour.

As the war dragged on the city became more and more dingy. Renovation and repainting had to be held over, and only urgently necessary road-work was done. But though its face was unkempt and grey, it maintained a level mood of cheerfulness. The grief that visited so many homes kept itself hidden for the sake of others and for the preservation of the general strength, and there was a top current of geniality and a new affability. Under the stress of the times, English reserve disappeared. Men developed a habit of talking fraternally with strangers, regardless of what schools the fellows went to. In 1917 a constant cause of this fraternising was a day of rain. That kind of day, before and since, usually produced peevish faces; in those years it was an occasion for smiles. Men said to each other: “This is good. They can’t come in this.” “They,” of course, was that new peril from the sky which resembled no peril through which the people of London had hitherto passed. When it came, it was accepted, by the majority, with that phlegm which so amuses the Latin.

London knew many perils during this period, but the one peril common to Londoners of every sort was this air peril. It was this, perhaps, above the general fact of war and suffering, which brought them together and created and maintained that mood of cheerfulness. Many prophets had visualised a war in which “flying-machines” had appeared over London and bombed it, and had pictured the panic and the flight of the people. What would be the reaction of a city to a constant daily and nightly bombardment from the air, nobody at present can tell; it probably would be as prophesied — evacuation and surrender. But so far as the few and intermittent raids of the last war went, the prophets were wrong. The first raids aroused curiosity more than any other emotion, and even the more regular visits, during the September of 1917, only slightly disturbed the surface of London’s routine. Business proceeded normally. Restaurants and entertainments continued their service. People in the streets were ordered by the police to Take Cover, and were marshalled into the Tube stations. Trains halted where they happened to be on the warning of the maroons, and householders took their families to the cellar and played cards until the Boy Scouts’ bugles announced the All Clear. Air-raid parties between neighbours were a feature of that year.

Often during dinner in a restaurant one would hear the boom of the maroons, and the company would look about and say “They’re Over.” At a particularly fierce crash, the remark would be: “Pretty close, that one.” That was all. Dinner went on, and the orchestra went on, and from the atmosphere of the room and the demeanour of the people and the staff the year might have been any peace year. One of the oddest experiences in an odd London, but one accepted then as part of normal life, was to be sitting in the Aldwych Theatre, during Sir Thomas Beecham’s opera season, listening to “The Magic Flute” or “The Marriage of Figaro,” while the barrage crashed and rumbled overhead. This I knew three or four times, and on each occasion not more than a dozen people left the theatre. In music-halls, the situation was treated by the comedians with gags — feeble, perhaps, but effective in their moment. “Hush — I forbid the bangs”; or “I don’t like you in green. Run and put on your maroon frock.”

The entertainers, I think, more than anybody, helped to nourish the cheerful spirit of the town. The spirit was there to begin with, of course, but they gave it tone. Sir Thomas Beecham notably deserves credit for preserving to us a little oasis of grace and light in a time when all else was darkness and violence. Those opera seasons of his maintained the balance of many a man who might otherwise have fallen to nervous bitterness and melancholia; and for the larger public there were vaudeville and gay musical shows, which performed a similar service. Mr. St. John Ervine, in his volume of this series dealing with the Theatre, speaks with distaste of the war-time productions. To some extent I agree with him. Their promoters set out ostensibly to cater for a standardised person whom they called “Tommy,” without any first-hand knowledge of “Tommy’s” taste and intelligence. They seemed to assume that the private soldier of this war was identical with the private soldier of 1881. Still, there were a few sensible productions which did not underrate the intelligence of the average man. I did not see them, not being a theatre man, but I heard about them; and from my own observation I know how thickly each audience of Beecham opera was sprinkled with uniform.

The street scene of this time had somewhat the nature of the first-act crowd in the town-square of a light opera. Soldiers and sailors were as frequent as civilians, and costumes and uniforms were of all kinds. Besides the British uniforms, there were Canadian, Australian and American uniforms; and here and there a French, Belgian, Italian or Serbian uniform. There were special constables and ambulance men. There were the khaki women of the W.A.A.C., the blue women of the W.R.N.S. and the women of the Red Cross. There were Y.M.C.A. uniforms and Church Army uniforms. There were Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. There were the short-skirted women bus-conductors and women taxi-drivers, the women guards and porters of the Underground, and the brown-frocked girl-messengers of the Government offices. A few civilians, having no uniforms or medals or ribbons, but feeling a need of decoration of some kind, went about with buttons in their coats, inscribed “Intern Them All.” In some of the minor departments of life a new note was perceptible — a little garnish of Latin customs. Young soldiers on leave, who had hitherto been roast-beef men, brought home a taste for the dishes of France or Eastern Europe. With the entrance of large numbers of refugees from Belgium and the invaded French areas, came many new restaurants which filled the gap left by those German restaurants which had closed themselves at the outbreak of war or had been smashed by the mob in the riots following the sinking of the Lusitania. (One episode which reflected no credit on the London scene or the deportment of Londoners during those four years.) Belgian patisseries and the French café-bar, complete with zinc counter, arrived, and have remained a constant feature of the central streets. Paris journals and the Caporal cigarette were on sale everywhere. French revues were brought to the theatres. Soho had a boom period. America introduced us to its cafeterias and snack-bars, and to the ball game. Athens opened a couple of restaurants, and the provision shops dressed their windows with exotic foods which we found pleasant after butcher’s offal and mangel-wurzel and stewed goat. Insularity disappeared, and for that period London was truly cosmopolitan.

Certain days of this long winter stand out as expressive of the whole drama. There was that August Bank Holiday of 1914, when the atmosphere was so charged with portent that the most insensitive were aware of it, and Hampstead Heath went through its motions with a preoccupied air. There was that day when the first news of the Jutland battle gave us the impression that the Navy had been annihilated. There was the first air-raid by Zeppelins, when one of them was brought down at Potters Bar, and crowds on the Embankment saw the flaming mass falling through the air, and tried to cheer, and somehow couldn’t. There was the day when the Gothas came at noon. There was another noon when London streets were filled with blank faces and wondering eyes; when a pang greater than that caused by any air-raid seemed to go through the city. It was the noon when the evening-paper bills said: “Kitchener Drowned.” The public had invested that name with a sort of ju-ju magic, and for the first hour the news was received as a sign that England was undone.

And finally there was that morning of November 1918 when, at a signal from the maroons, offices and houses were emptied, and the streets were filled, and faces turned towards St. James Park and the Green Park. Nobody who witnessed that descent on the park can forget it. The signal was expected at eleven o’clock. At half-past ten the park held only a handful of people. By three minutes past eleven, the Mall was a dense mass of people marching twenty or more abreast, and from every gate thousands more poured in to join it. One instinct seized all who were in central London at that hour — Buckingham Palace; and to the Palace they marched, laughing, cheering, singing, weeping, and the King and Queen came out to the balcony to greet them. The moment was aptly caught by Siegfried Sassoon in his poem — “Everyone suddenly burst out singing.” It was not, as I have said, the cheap ballyhoo of Mafeking Night. There was excitement, and, to some extent, hysteria; but it had a more serious basis than the other affair. It was no celebration of victory and the boys of the bull-dog breed. It was a gasp of relief as at the sudden cessation of a pain which all peoples had been suffering. Even the rackety scenes that occurred at night in some parts of town arose rather from sobbing thankfulness than from jubilation; and one felt that the people who were building bonfires in Trafalgar Square, and those who were hanging over the sides of buses, and those who were getting tight in bars, were all the time on the verge of tears.

But the feature of those years of London’s story which remains persistently in the memory is the nights. One never could take them for granted as one took the other conditions of war. As each new and sharp change in our habits and surroundings arrived, it took London but a day or two to adjust itself to them. An innovation of Monday was by Saturday a custom. But the new lighting of London was a recurring phenomenon. Each evening was a mild shock. London by day wore an odd face, but it was still London. This night-London seemed a changeling. One wandered about it, knowing that one was in London, but unable to locate its features and spirit. All outdoor lamps were painted blue, and all shop and house lights thickly screened. All public-houses were shut at half-past nine, and almost every shop. Theatres, music-halls and a few restaurants only were open after ten. Entertainment and distraction of other sorts were held behind closed doors.

Stevenson should have seen this new London. He could have placed in it a New Arabian Night which would have topped all the others in the extravagant and bizarre. Side by side with sorrow and apprehension went curious hushed orgies. Many of the things that happened at that time in this blinded city will never be known; one can only guess at them from the happenings that one did hear about or witness. As no drinks were publicly to be got after half-past nine, men created speak-easies for themselves. I have heard of men who held bottle-parties in the little boxes of lavatory attendants, or took their bottles and sat round the camp-fire with night-watchmen at “road-up” points. Coffee-stalls were well patronised; chiefly for their cups and lemonade glasses. Among a certain small section air-raid nights afforded occasions for pyjama parties. Their attitude seemed to be; To-morrow We Die. Their feeling about dying was stoical; they held roof entertainments during the raids; and they seemed to see the war as a licence for doing things they formerly would have liked to do but had not done; and the blue-lit London of this period was their ally. It was also an ally for wild people of another order, but I believe the four years showed no increase of street crime and assault. Those eclipsed streets, coming so suddenly after the new brilliance of public and shop lighting to which we had become accustomed, and thus confusing us, gave notable opportunity to the law’s enemies. But it was not taken. Not until well after the war did the hold-up men operate on any large scale, and then they chose not the night hours and dim-lit squares but broad daylight and crowded highways. I have heard this absence of crime lightly ascribed to the fact that all the “boys” were serving with the So-and-so’s — various regiments to which the speaker did not belong — in the capacity of quartermasters. However it was, those benighted streets were as safe in all parts of town as when fully lit.

One groped about them, catching sometimes the horns of elfland and sometimes the whispers of nightmare, and one groped in peace, meeting no hazard save that from above. One had the feeling that London had been embalmed and bestowed in a mummy-case. The outline was there and a representation of the features, but it was a case only, and the thing itself was hidden. Brilliant searchlights probed and wiped the sky; we of the streets lived in a blue mist, and seemed to breathe blue mist. A few years earlier the possibility of making such a great city as London invisible from above would have been dismissed. But between 1914 and 1918 many former “impossibilities” became facts, and one of them was this night-cloaking of London. Many of those phosphorescent nights I spent rambling about a London I knew so well, and discovering, under the new lighting, strange shapes on familiar streets, strange atmospheres in commonplace corners, strange aspects of Oxford Street and Victoria Street which I had never before noted. Cloak though it was, it served also to reveal, and in this it was more effective than all your flood-lighting. Reticence always carries more truthful pointers to angles and recesses of character than confession, and in those years one came to “know” London better than before, as one may suddenly know a new friend when he stops talking and sits for an hour by the fire in twilight and silence. It was, as I say, a London one never got used to, and perhaps because of that it came closer and helped us to know it by presenting a new phase every night. When, at the end of 1918, the blinds were raised and the paint removed from the street lamps, the effect, though welcome after the long dusk, was so garish that it worried the eyes and disturbed the mind. Once again we were SEEING London by night, and it went one remove back from the time when we had been feeling it.

Oddly enough, those years showed little change in the Londoner’s outlook and temper. The change was in process of making, and the period was a spasm of labour between the old and the new. It was the agony of Springtime and rebirth. Not until the twenties did we see the full effect of the times in new attitudes, new demands, new forms of entertainment, new modes of speech, new crime, and a new and more violent loosening, especially among the young, of all old restraints. The cry on all sides was for A Good Time. The social type of the pre-war years went into hiding, and left the new type to carry on one long Whoopee.

It seemed that the thunder of the guns and of anti-aircraft defence had so long tormented people’s ears as to bring them to a state in which they could not live without it. More noise, they craved, more noise. And the theatres and the restaurants and the dance-halls and the electric-drills and the motor-bikes and the talkies supplied it. The amusements of the twenties must go on record, I think, as the apotheosis of noise. Noise was their essence, their structure, their whole being; when drum and saxophone and cymbals ceased to have effect upon the drugged ear, it was re-galvanised by semi-human voices reproducing the bayings of the jungle. People of every sort loved it; it was a necessary adjunct to their idea of a Good Time. Anything serene was dull; anything piano was unheard, and was none the sweeter for that. Everything must be prestissimo and fortissimo. Fashionable restaurants and night-clubs were temples of the god of Din, to whom the best people paid homage. The female voice became a screech, and physical manners based themselves on the catherine-wheel.

The outstanding mania of a maniac period was the party-mania. Parties were always a natural part of the life of those whose time is their own, but in former days they were kept in their place. In the twenties they became the whole of social life. A party every night, given or attended, was not sufficient; young people entered into competition on the number of parties they could “look in at” in a given night. So eager did they become in this pursuit that they ceased to pay attention to the elementary matter of invitations; they introduced to London one more American touch. They showed us that good manners were made only for the stodgy, and that for ardent spirits rules of conduct must give way. They introduced us to gate-crashing. Happily, it and they lasted but a short time. What codes of decency or paternal authority could not accomplish was accomplished by the economic slump. Easy money vanished, and under apprehensions of disaster the party mania vanished, and the Bright Young Things and their capers.

London life of that period will afford rather a puzzle to future social historians. It will not, as I have said, yield much in the way of sharp-flavoured character, but it will yield an odd array of follies, against which those of the Regency or the D’Orsay period seem almost staid. And it might yield as much scandal as the Restoration period. But it will be lifeless stuff, empty ho-de-ho noise with no mind or temperament to crystallise it. Fashion is always self-conscious about itself and its doings, but the nineteen-twenties, I think, excelled all other ages in this adolescent trait. Through all its embarrassing behaviour it was crying “Look at me!”, and when people looked and were not amused it was undismayed. But it has learned now that life is not a bowl of cherries or a scat-song. It has learned that life is real and earnest. Its more able members have gone into business; others have realised the fatuity of those years and have settled down and said Good-bye to all that hullabaloo. The present younger set is altogether different. It is more responsible in its attitude and more sensible in its demeanour. It has gentler faces, gentler manners, and is as naturally bright as the others tried to be.

Those manifestations of tarantism, pointless as they appear, afford fruitful material for that modern “Vanity Fair” which every modern novelist thinks about and always shies from writing. But the real significance of that saturnalia of the twenties is that it was our welcome to the new century.

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