The fading of the music-hall from the London scene, which I regretted earlier, has been in process for some years. Vaudeville is still not wholly gone, but it is no longer a natural part of the furniture of the people’s recreation. It began to suffer a change with the American invasion of 1909 and the substitution of flaring and blaring revues for the native man-to-man appeal. It suffered a distinct set-back when, a little later, the movies made their crashing assault upon the threepences and sixpences of the poorer people. And when the twentieth century began in 1920, it seemed to be doomed. It may come back to us, but it can never come back in its old style and spirit. The life and character and scene which it represented are gone. The types, both high and low, which it ridiculed are gone. Red noses and eccentric costume are no longer in favour. Humour, for the time being, has had to give way to wit.
The music-hall which I knew in the nineteen-noughts could not have stayed long with us, since it was, like many other London features which have only lately gone, a hang-over from the nineteenth century. It was the comic spirit of an age, and when that age passed it, too, had to pass. It had to give way to a new and younger kind of entertainment — lighter, thinner, more polished, more conscious of itself. The concert form of entertainment, centring round a dress-suit and a piano, or a dance-band and a drilled chorus. Cabaret is the expression of the present age, and it serves it as aptly as music-hall served the past age. Music-hall was but one of many hang-overs. Comic journalism also remained for some time definitely of the past century, and lingered on in the form of Pick-me-up, Judy, Ally Sloper, Scraps, Moonshine, Sketchy Bits, Photo Bits. The spirit of these journals was the spirit of the old halls, and that there is still a public reverting to that spirit is shown by the success of the English Razzle and the American Ballyhoo, which are sort of nephews of those journals.
The music-hall was never, like current entertainment, an acidulous critic of life. It had no Voltaire. It was instead a hearty acceptance of life, and its presiding lord was Falstaff. Its funniest jokes centred on the woes of poverty, and its audience, mainly poor people, accepted them with relish. It gave neither sneer nor civil leer. It laughed at its audience, and its audience laughed back. Of taste it knew nothing, but while some of its coarsenesses would affront modern ears, it is equally true that some of the smirking innuendoes of modern cabaret songs, longing to be completely French yet not quite daring, would affront those who laughed at the old music-hall. It sang and told, without finesse, of tripe, kippers, mothers-in-law, lodgers and adultery, garters and lingerie. It put no burnished gleam or rose-pink twilight of art on these things. It did not dress them in evening clothes. It presented them in their everyday earthiness and left it at that. The only comedy it knew was the elemental comedy of disaster. The only drama it knew concerned A Woman’s Honour. But it was rich mixture, dug direct from English soil. To-day there is little soil from which to dig it. Classes no longer live in their own tight compartments, and, as I said earlier, individual and typical oddity have been obliterated. Without them, music-hall of the kind we middle-aged people knew cannot live. It may survive, but only, I think, as the fair and the circus survive, or Punch and Judy.
What chiefly comes to mind when thinking of music-hall is its songs. I don’t know what was in the air at that time, from 1897 to 1909, but all the songs I remember, especially the wildly comic songs, had in their melodies a pathos that beat unbearably on the heart. They were songs intended to rouse Homeric laughter, or to prod you with memories of rude and raffish nights in the West End; and all they did was to play upon the nerves with a Verlaine tristesse. The airs of those songs, when I recall them, evoke for me the sadness of London streets in October twilights; crying children; the throb of London life coming muted over intervening roofs. Many a time, when wandering through rainy suburban byways, I have had my blood chilled almost to tears by a distant organ playing the latest comic song. Time may have done something to one’s memory of them, as Time has done something to the little dance-airs which one hears on musical-boxes of a hundred years ago; jolly little airs when they were made, though for us full of pathos. But think of the air of “She was a Dear Little Dicky Bird,” of “A Fair Old Rickety–Rackety Crew,” of “Our Lodger’s Such a Nice Young Man,” of “All Round the Houses,” and of “It’s a Different Girl Again.” It isn’t entirely due to Time that one hears the shyly-poignant note of grief. The note is there as clearly as it is in the airs of Tschaikowsky. It is the note of the London streets, and if you seek a true musical expression of London you are nearer to it in these rough comic songs than in such considered works as Elgar’s “Cockaigne” overture or Vaughan Williams’ “London” Symphony.
For music-hall songs of those days were made by the people for the people. They were not made, as popular songs are made to-day, by sleek young men living in Piccadilly flats and drawing, by various “rights,” two and three thousand pounds from a song which has a run of four months. A few guineas was the general reward then, though the composers had that other reward desired by the poet who cared not who made the nation’s laws so that he might make its songs. Their songs did not have a run of four months: they had a run of some years, long enough to sink into the public memory and become the heritage and expression of an age. That they did sink in is proved by their immense popularity when the B.B.C. revives them and sends them across the air. In the library of my ears I hold an anthology of them. The earliest item is one sung by Gus Elen, concerning the view that might be had from his London garden “if it wasn’t for the houses in between”; and by succeeding items I can date the stages of my life more clearly than by the years of the calendar.
One reason why they had a long life and sank into the public mind was that there were not then the mechanical means that exist to-day for thrusting them upon the entire British public in one week. There was only the street-organ to carry them to those who did not frequent music-halls, and even the organs took some time to cover their itinerary. Also, people did not then demand constant change; they were willing to hear a comedian sing again the songs he sang last year or the year before; even to demand them. “Back numbers,” so far from being scorned, were petted, and some comedians, who themselves were sick of their songs, were often thwarted in their efforts to introduce new songs. No matter what new things Chirgwin tried to present; the audience would give them a patient hearing, and then would come the plaintive cry — “Blind Boy, George; Blind Boy!” To-day, the case is reversed; a singer may not sing in Spring the songs he was singing the previous Autumn. Mechanical devices transport them to millions of ears soon after their introduction, and his potential audience is soon used up. Thus the public has none of that long-continued acquaintance with songs, as part of an age’s voice, which enabled people of the past to link them with their little private epochs. A comedian then could launch his new song in London, and take it on tour, and wherever he went it would be new. It never got ahead of him. By the time he got back to London he could offer it again to London audiences, and they would welcome it, and cherish it for him. There is a certain song of the past by which I date all the happenings of a certain two years. I cannot name those two years; I only know that during that period the nerves of the London streets were tingling with a plaintive melody which so worked itself into the woof of London and into all my occasions that whenever I recall a few bars of it I recall also all my affairs and all the London scene of that period. I know it as the “Hiawatha” period.
The hold which the music-hall had on the people was as firm as the present hold of the movies, and perhaps more deeply founded. In London to-day, at the moment of writing, there are five music-halls operating as music-halls, and in the near suburbs scarcely half-a-dozen more. Up to 1912, as I have said, there were in central London and the near suburbs over forty. The London halls were the Alhambra, Palace, Empire, Hippodrome, Coliseum, Palladium, Canterbury, Pavilion, Middlesex, Metropolitan, Oxford, Holborn, Tivoli, and Victoria Palace. The principal suburban halls were the South London, the Empress, the Duchess, the New Bedford, the London, the Euston, the Cambridge, Collins’, and the Alexandra.
Almost every suburb had its hall, and for the younger working-people it was a sort of social centre in a way the movie-palace cannot be. In a music-hall the people were together, often packed tightly together; and they could see each other and hear each other. But in the movie-palace they gather in the dark, and, however full the place may be, there is no feeling of being together. Despite the popularity of the “theme-song,” you never hear them join in the choruses. They are units or couples, enclosed in separate bowls of darkness, and though this may be appreciated by sentimental couples it goes oddly against the spirit of this age, which is all towards communal amusement, communal feeding and communal labour. In the past people were individuals who liked, now and then, to gather at a music-hall and be one of a great mass. To-day, in our general life, we are but one of a mass, and can only recover our individuality by going to the movies and enclosing ourselves in the opaque bit of gloom allotted to us. Perhaps that, among other things, is why the movies are so successful. Not only do they give the poor what the poor of this age love to see — not the comic pictures of themselves which amused their fathers, but pictures of gilded palaces, “luxury” hotels, platinum bathrooms and enamel blondes, steel-true and blade-straight heroes, million-dollar night-clubs and a world where money is as common as dust in the parlour. Not only do they give the poor these Arabian pipe-dreams; they provide also an anodyne to the mass-instincts of these times. The young working-people consciously like them for the Arabian Night stuff, and would rather go alone to see a bad movie than go with two or three others to see a good music-hall. But it may be that unconsciously they like the movies and their surroundings for the opportunity they give for withdrawal into themselves and escape from crowd action and crowd thought.
The rapid growth in popularity of this form of entertainment is a sign of the modern speed of things. In these days one may present a novelty to the public, win their approval of it, load them with it and sicken them of it, and retire with a fortune — all in the time it formerly took to introduce a novelty. I do not know how long the music-hall took, from its early beginnings, to fix a hold on the English public, but I am willing to bet that it was twenty times as long as it took the movies. In 1908 the movies were practically unknown to intelligent people. They were then shyly showing themselves (strange to reflect that the movies WERE once shy) in parish halls and in little fit-up places in side streets of the poorer quarters, and were mainly patronised by children — as they still are, if we stretch the term “children.” At first the performers were anonymous; nobody thought that the public could possibly care about the lay figures who were going through those banal motions. A little later they were given nick-names of the crude schoolboy sort — “Fatty,” “Skinny,” etc. There came a time when a man mentioned to me with surprise that his children, who were receiving a serious education, were infatuated with this idiotic entertainment, and, rising to a note of astonishment, said that the children actually knew the names of the people who were photographed doing those silly things. That man has passed away. Had he lived through the movie age he would have been gradually accustomed to finding these photographed people receiving the homage of the great, plus an income of two thousand pounds a week. Had I been able to tell him, at the time he was talking to me, that it would come to that, he would have been rude — and with justice. Nevertheless, it has come, and stranger things yet will come.
By 1915 the movies were everywhere and were everybody’s entertainment. In eight years they had conquered London and England. By 1920 the intellectuals were taking them up, examining them, discussing them, ranking them; and Charles Chaplin, whose comedy was discovered and whose fortune was made by poor children, became an “artist,” and serious essays were written upon his technique. They are now as much a part of everybody’s life as the daily paper. You may be, like myself, one who does not care for them and does not go to see them, but you can no more escape them and their influence than you can escape the influence of the Daily —— which you never read. They have reached the point now where they can erect their palaces in such once-august spots as Curzon Street and Park Lane; and where a film “first-night” produces as brilliant an assembly as a reception at a great embassy.
They are, as I say, everybody’s entertainment, but they could not have been that without the help of the poorer people. It was the threepences and sixpences of the side-street public of the past which built the palaces in the West End, and it needs a philosopher, possibly of the Viennese school, to tell us why. Given the points I have mentioned, of the Arabian Nights and the escape from crowd-contact, one would think the patrons would leave these places in a mood if not of delight at least of refreshment. But they don’t. If you are old enough to remember the London and suburban music-halls, you will be able to recall the spectacle of the crowd when it came out. It came out, or poured out, bubbling. It came out humming choruses. It came out with bright eyes. At the worst, it came out cheerful. Watch the people coming from a movie-palace. They come out frowning. They come out without speaking. They come out as though there were nothing in life worth living for. They have had for their sixpence or shilling much more than the music-hall people of the gallery ever had — more in upholstery, more in imitation marble, more in regimental attendants, more in general comfort, and any one picture they have seen cost far more than the whole week’s bill of a music-hall. The people of the old music-hall gallery came out as though Uncle John in Australia had left them a fortune. The movie audience comes out as though it has just left the sick-room of a poor relation.
The theatre, happily, is still a part of the London scene, though it is to-day more a function than an integral part of the life of the people. Despite the frequent building of new theatres, London is still, under the movie-conquest, below the pre-war period of this century in its number of theatres, and the suburbs are hopelessly outpointed. In 1912 central London had thirty-four regular theatres, not counting music-halls which occasionally lent themselves as theatres. Other parts of the town supported twenty-three more. To-day it is much below those numbers. The suburbs have lately broken out into experimental “little” theatres, but the majority of the old houses have disappeared, and only four remain in action. When I was a youth you could see a play with a “West End Company” at the Coronet, Notting Hill; the Marlborough, Holloway Road; the Kennington; and the Borough, Stratford. You could also see plays at the Camden, Camden Town; the Dalston; the Surrey, Blackfriars; the Metropole, Camberwell, where I saw my first pantomime; the Elephant and Castle; the Crown, Peckham, and the Britannia, Hoxton. And there were the West London, off Edgware Road; the Crouch End Opera House; the Grand, at Woolwich; Terriss’, at Deptford; the Grand, at Islington, and the Pavilion, at Mile End. But of course the young person, reading this, will say “Who wants to sit on a hard bench and see a play with only three changes of scene, when she can see two movie plays and a lot of news reels in comfort?” Given the young person’s outlook, I think the young person has it. The theatres afford her no answer. The movies do. They have set themselves to be a part of her life, and they make it their business to serve her. The theatres go on expressing themselves. The movies go on impressing the young person. The contest recalls Spurgeon’s advice to the candidate for ordination. He told the candidate to come to him and deliver a trial sermon, treating him as a congregation. The candidate delivered his trial sermon. Spurgeon’s verdict was — “A good sermon. Remarkably good for one of your years. But quite useless. In that sermon you were engaged in expressing yourself. Your job, as a preacher, is to get something INTO ME.”
Spurgeon’s name leads to another feature of London life which has suffered some decay; a feature which, though not properly to be called entertainment, was often so regarded. The vogue of the Great Preacher. As a boy I was often taken about to this form of instructional pastime, but as I was thinking all the time of that unfinished chapter of Talbot Baines Reed, I have no clear recollection of whom or what I heard. People went then to hear Great Preachers as to-day they go to the Albert Hall to hear great singers and musicians; and went with fervid interest. The last pulpit orator I can recall who could draw the London crowd with his oratorical fire is one who is no longer in London — R. J. Campbell. Before him they could be counted thickly. Spurgeon himself, Dr. Parker, F. B. Meyer, Bernard Vaughan, Hugh Price Hughes, and others whose names I once knew but cannot now recall. But I remember clearly how they were discussed and weighed and compared, and how Aunts would come with news of a wonderful preacher heard at some outlying church, in the manner of an impresario reporting to the opera-directors on a new Wotan. Parties would be made up to visit this discovery, and on return they would sit about criticising his matter, his delivery, his gestures, and how far he surpassed or fell short of their particular standards of unction and oratory.
The modern lack of stirring preachers is due, I suppose, to natural law. As a constant patronage of painting produces great painters, and a keen demand for opera produces great singers, so churches regularly filled with congregations spiritually awake, produce great preachers. When there is no public interest in painting there are no great painters, and half-empty churches and a tepid interest in the Church’s life mean indifferent preaching. That was the situation up to the last few years, but lately there have been signs of change. We are beginning to hear of churches which are regularly filled, and of a widespread interest in the Sunday broadcast services, though the preaching I have heard is rather of the correct and arid order, wanting fire. From all sides we are learning of a religious revival, particularly among the young. Campaigns of all sorts are in progress, and all sorts of new bodies are gathering adherents. There is talk in newspapers about this new interest, this search of the young for Something in a reeling world, and many papers have taken to reporting religious activities. But religious revivals are not necessarily synonymous with spiritual revivals, and it is only from spiritual passion that great preaching is born. We have, I believe, as many stirring preachers among us to-day as the latter part of last century had. We shall hear them only when we indicate that we want to hear them; when the religious revival becomes a SPIRITUAL revival and our preachers are fertilised by the chemistry of their congregations’ vision.
It may come, and it may come, paradoxically, from the change in the conduct of Sunday and in the public attitude towards it. The puritanical Sunday had little to do with things of the spirit. It was concerned with material things; with forms and ceremonies and groanings and other distractions from that quietude in which alone the spirit can grow. The modern Sunday has changed all that. Religious forms themselves have been simplified, and religion has not insisted that everybody shall walk in gloom, whether they accept the Thirty-nine Articles or not. A comparison of the London Sundays of to-day with Sundays so historically recent as those of the Diamond Jubilee year affords one of the most striking of all changes in the London picture. The London Sunday is still not what it might be, as the worker’s day of freedom. It is still far from that goal of Satanism which certain minds express by the awful word “Continental.” We are all familiar with a sentence which appears so regularly in the press on Monday mornings that I think all newspaper offices must keep it in stereo: “Nobody wishes to see the Continental Sunday introduced into England.” Every time I see that sentence I wonder how many Continental Sundays the speakers have seen, and what degree of black iniquity is displayed by going respectably and quietly to fairs, circuses, theatres and operas on the one day of the week when the mass of the people have control of their own bodies and activities.
Dickens’ pamphlet, “Sunday Under Three Heads,” which gave sad pictures of the London Sunday of about the fifties, did something towards making the day a little less penitential for the mid-Victorians workers; but my memories of Sunday in the London of my childhood show only how small that something was, and how deadly the day must have been before he wrote. To-day, as I say, it is not yet the day of full freedom that it might be, but it is sufficiently cheerful to make a few aged hands rise in horrified condemnation. In my childhood one was taken to church at least once a day; and for the rest one could amuse oneself with bound volumes of Sunday At Home, Good Words and The Leisure Hour, or the horrific Paradise Lost of Doré. Comic papers were barred; indeed, anything amusing was barred, even such dull table-games as Snakes-and-Ladders or Word–Making. I wonder what a ten-year-old of to-day would say to such restrictions? Nothing, I expect. He would just ignore them and give Public Enemy No. 1 clear indication as to where he got off.
The pioneer in the demand for a sensible Sunday for the masses was the National Sunday League, which at its inception had to face sharp antagonism. But by its gradual enlightenment of public opinion it has been able to increase and widen its early activities in the way of concerts in town and cheap trips to sea and country, and to win general support for its efforts towards a full and free use of the rest-day. Instead of mooning stiffly up and down the local High Street, and creating for it the term “Monkeys’ Parade,” boy and girl workers can now get out by cheap tickets to the country, and, when they get there, they can find refreshment places open to serve them. Others can keep the whole Sunday in the fields by going off for Saturday-to-Monday walks. Still others get the car out and go exploring. These outlets, once possible only to a few, are now possible to millions. Many working-people now own family cars — second-hand things, bought for ten pounds, and sometimes less — and Sunday for them, instead of being what it was for their fathers — a day of lead — is a day of pagan refreshment, which can be nearer to spiritual refreshment than some sects imagine. Most of them probably are not capable of spiritual exercises, and, that being so, they are receiving just as much personal enrichment from the mere sight of flowers and hills as if they perfunctorily sat through a service.
Indeed, perhaps more, for when I compare a London Sunday crowd of forty years ago with a London Sunday crowd of to-day, I notice that the old grumpiness, which was an adjunct of the Sunday streets, has disappeared. People look and are more pleasant in manner and lighter in tone. If they are not healthier — and some doctors declare they are not — at least they radiate that air which we associate with health, and on the spiritual side I do not perceive that they fall below their fellows of the past. Those who observe the day in the old formal way also look happier than they did; more alert, more open-faced, more talkative. Everywhere one notes more spontaneous kindness and less benevolence. We of to-day have many more worries than our grandfathers had, but we are more resilient and adaptable in dealing with them.
Many factors have helped in this, but the strongest, I think, is our new way of spending Sunday. In the past the mass of the people were cheerful during the week, and had to be miserable on Sunday, thus cancelling the spirit of the week. To-day Sunday comes as a culmination of the week’s cheerfulness, a day of active and conscious recreation which gives people a warm and companionate attitude to their fellow-creatures. I remember that somewhere about 1904, when cars were displacing carriages among the wealthy, Marie Corelli wrote a solemn onslaught on “The Motoring Sunday.” It was a grim picture of the depravity of High Society, which, instead of attending church and promenading in Hyde Park after church, thus setting a delectable example to the lower ranks, went out to the air and sky in those new infernal machines, with Satan at the wheel. It foreshadowed the end of everything. One would like to know what she would have thought of the present Sunday, with all its innocent amusements, and with the roads crowded with the cars not only of the rich, but of the poor.
To us of to-day her attitude seems inexplicable, but at that time it was common, and even now, in certain odd corners, one may find it. Attitudes, however, are useless against the spirit of an age. Nothing can thwart the operation of a spirit, and within the last forty years it has manifested itself to the point where people may spend their Sunday in almost any way they please without being regarded as moral lepers. They may spend it in the open air of the country or the coast, or, if they possess a machine, they may spend it literally in the air. To the poorer people who are confined to town the spirit of the age has given concerts, tea-shops with music and song, boxing-matches, games in the parks, and, in the evening, picture-palaces, fun-fairs, pin-table saloons and dancing. Others of more means may have dancing and cabaret at their favourite restaurant or night club and, in a semi-secret, “subscription” way, theatres. They can enjoy all these things and still be regarded by serious people as fit to introduce into an unspotted home.
One is constantly hearing, from the elderly, peevish complaints about the restrictions of London life, but most people of wide experience will, I think, agree with me that in no other city can one be so comfortable as in London. Certain of the Sunday restrictions may be irksome and, to some people, irrational, but they are trifles compared with the Sunday restrictions operating upon the people of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff, Melbourne, Adelaide, and the capital cities of some American States. As to the ideal “freedom” which is popularly supposed to be the lot of the people of European countries, it scarcely bears examination. The illusion of French freedom particularly persists, but if you press the upholders of it closely enough you find that it resolves itself into the fact that you can get drinks in Paris at any hour, and that in London you can’t. This fact so overwhelms them that they can see nothing else; yet even a brief consideration will show that as between London and other capitals there can be little doubt as to which city gives its citizens most freedom. If these Paris devotees attempted to address a meeting in Paris with all the freedom of the Hyde Park Sunday afternoon orators, they would find their meeting charged and dispersed, and themselves under arrest. You can walk about London, if you wish, with your belt filled with knives and daggers, and, so long as you walk peaceably, you will meet no trouble. You would not be allowed to go far in Paris with that make-up. In any London public place, restaurant, bar, railway-carriage, theatre, you may say what you like of England and the English and their government, and nothing happens. In Paris any such comments, spoken in the wrong café, would mean a riot of which you would be the centre. In London you may take a girl of respectable middle-class family, to whom you are not engaged, to dinner and a theatre or dance, and deliver her home in the early morning. You cannot do that in Paris. The bourgeois French are really more prudish than the English; their god is still comme il faut. What happens behind closed doors, or on the stage, is nobody’s business, but in public their rules are stiffer than those of Jane Austen’s middle-class. In London the young worker may lounge on the grass of Hyde Park or Green Park with his girl, and kiss her if he wishes, and public opinion is not disturbed. Let him try that little freedom in the Luxembourg or the Tuileries gardens. Let anybody, in short, live for twelve months in Paris, and then see what he has to say about the glories of Paris liberty and the grandmotherly restrictions of London.
From the advertisements in the daily press I fancy that public pleasure for the mass of Londoners must have increased ten-fold in the three decades of this century. Besides the inescapable picture-palace, you have dance-halls, whist-drives, greyhound stadiums, boxing, wrestling, ice-rinks, roller-rinks, fun-arcades, sun-bathing by the Serpentine, open-air theatres, public golf-courses and tennis-courts, and cabaret, which is to be had not only in the West End, but in a mild form in the suburban public-houses and tea-shops. There is also the private club, which is to be found in hundreds in west and central London, and in almost every suburb. All these amusements may in these days be had by people of quite humble means. For such people in my childhood there was very little. There were, of course, theatres and music-halls, and cricket and football, but most of the entertainment which is now general existed for particular groups. When my Aunt Jane was taking me about there was no very wide choice. I recall Hengler’s Circus, where the Palladium now stands; the Royal Aquarium, near Parliament Street, which was an assembly of side-shows with a music-hall bill as the main feature; the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, where one saw Maskelyne and Cooke’s entertainment; Mdme. Tussaud’s; the Crystal Palace; and the St. James’ Hall, now covered by the Piccadilly Hotel, where the Moore & Burgess minstrels had an annual season. And there was the glory of Earl’s Court and its Big Wheel, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. That is all that the icebound album of the Old World affords me. There were other amusements, I know, but they were not available to people with narrow purses. For us there were these things — and the streets, whose coloured life, as I have said, perhaps compensated for the lack of other public pleasures.
When I tell children of to-day about the hours of delight we spent at those places, and what we saw and what we did, I can see from their faces that they are suffering one more pang of kindly contempt for the naïve pleasures of those who were born before they were. But we did have those hours and they did yield delight; as much delight as Wembley yielded to the children of 1924. Every age has its standard by which the spirit of wonder is excited. There was a time when Rosherville Gardens with their grottoes and statuary could excite wonder. There was an earlier time when Vauxhall Gardens with their few hundred fairy-lamps dazzled the Society of their age. There was a time when the marble tea-shops which young people of to-day take for granted would have been the objects of excursions by the best people. Escalators are now an every-day feature of our Tube stations. I first saw this invention at the Royal Aquarium, where it was a centre of interest. It served no purpose there; it was a side-show, and you paid a penny to go up and down the “moving-staircase.” Friends of mine have told me that when Matisse visited New York he couldn’t be kept away from Roxy’s cinema. Yet ten years from now, when Roxy and Radio City magnificence is as common as escalators, people will be wondering why they were impressed either to admiration or to hollow laughter. Give people something good, and they are delighted. Give them something better, and they not only find it better, but become contemptuous of the good thing that once afforded them delight. Though it sometimes happens that somebody, years later, revives the contemned old thing, and everybody finds it again delightful.
London, of course, however large its stock of public pleasure, will never have the holiday feeling of some of the cities of southern Europe. Its essential character through the ages has been always strong and deep and business-like. But this present London, despite the bad times, is wearing its strength and depth with easy shoulders. One sees everywhere more movement, more light, more air and more outdoor living. Restaurants, not only in the West End, but in the City too, have discarded their old Gothic heaviness of menu and decoration. The boudoir has displaced the baronial hall. Simpler diets have brought simpler and gayer fittings. Social London is not now the static jelly it once was. It is fluid, and is navigable by all sorts of interesting craft. All this reflects the new tone of life. London at any time has always reflected the spirit of that time, and the present lightening and blossoming of the town’s life is a civic expression of the desire for a cleaner, fuller life for everybody, and a more seemly setting for it.
It was a general movement, but some credit for the brightening of outdoor life is due to Mr. George Lansbury for the example he set by his work on the London parks. It is odd that they should have waited so long for somebody to see their possibilities and use them to true advantage. The people of the past appear to have thought that it was sufficient to have an open space and plant it with formal beds, and cut walks through it, and set a brass band performing in it twice a week. That was a Park, and the stiffness of it matched the stiff word. In my childhood memories the word is associated with all varieties of stiffness. One was taken for stiff walks in the Park on stiff Sunday evenings. One went along stiffly-cut paths bordered by beds of stiff flowers, and paraded by people as stiff as oneself, though looking much stiffer. You were in a Park, and its stiff atmosphere sensibly changed you from what you had been in the street, five minutes before you entered it. During the war we made many jokes about the German verboten, but when I think of the parks of my childhood I think first of “Keep Off . . . ” “Do Not . . . ” and similar injunctions. No wonder we walked stiffly.
George Lansbury changed all that. He gave the children real playgrounds, sand-pits, and lakes and boats to themselves. He gave the adults a bathing-beach around the Serpentine — Lansbury’s Lido, as it came to be called — and made the parks a riot of blossom. Most valuable of all, he contrived to enliven their tone and to infuse them with a real spirit of pleasure-garden which reacts upon the people in brighter faces and happier steps. All sorts of amenities were added or improved under his benign rule, and since the spirit he introduced has continued to flourish, it is now possible, thirty-three years after the death of Queen Victoria, for the Londoner to do as his grandfather did in the puritanical Victorian days — take a glass of wine or beer in at least one of the London parks.
I do not know how the myth of the puritanical Victorians arose, but lately it has been firmly fixed in the public mind by critics and novelists of the lifelong-undergraduate type, who seem to have been in search of a theme on which to display their undergraduate smartness. Being funny about the Victorians became the new literary sport. You didn’t pin yourself to facts; you just wrote “out of your own head.” These men, indeed, whose books have enjoyed during the last few years a vast sale among the non-studious, can have read little more social history than their readers. For had they made even a cursory survey of the popular press and popular amusements of the age, and looked half an inch below the bourgeois surface, they would have realised that their self-conceived notions of its primness and puritanism were wholly at fault, and that their fun-poking had scarcely anything to rest upon. The odd thing about these books is that, written in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, they are really a case of a distinctly black pot of prudery and repression making charges of blackness against an aluminium kettle of honesty and freedom. Those who do study London life of the mid-Victorian period know that whatever the life of the Court may have been, the life of the people was Anything But. It was an age of coarse and foolish amusements in which all classes joined, but it differed from ours in that they were pursued OPENLY. Really, any charge of sham rectitude and humbug can more justly be brought against our own age than against the Victorians, for those same coarse and foolish amusements are still being pursued, but furtively and out of sight.
London under Victoria was as candidly and carelessly unmoral as it was under the Regency. A brief study of the less-guarded Society memoirs of the sixties and eighties will disclose this, and a study of the popular press will show that it was openly recognised and taken for granted. The press, in those supposedly strict days, was much freer than it is to-day. It could publish almost anything, and did. There was no conspiracy of silence about abuses and scandals, as there is to-day. It is we who do just what these modern critics accuse the Victorians of doing; it is we who maintain a hush-hush policy about disagreeable things. Those “hypocritical” Victorian editors did what no editor of these enlightened days can do; they told the truth about things and about people; even the most powerful people. They reported, in a quite casual way, things that no paper of to-day dare report, and as for comment, any editor of to-day who published comments half as free as those which George R. Sims was publishing in the seventies, would find himself in serious trouble.
Where DID this absurd legend of prim and prudish Victorians have its beginning? It must have begun with somebody who had observed only provincial life, for London life, as I say, claimed and enjoyed licence to be what it chose. There were few laws against indulgence; the town was open all night; drinks and drugs were easily to be had; and the most secret amusements of to-day were available in the open. Certain queer doings, which we like to regard as “Modern” and “Freudian” had, each of them, somewhere in Victorian London, its temple; and what they didn’t know about those things we haven’t yet learnt. There is an amusing little work which may sometimes be found in secondhand book-shops, and of which I once saw a copy. It throws an interesting light on the real life of that age. It was a pocket-volume, dated 1851, the year of Albert’s Great Exhibition; and it bore this title-page:
The Swell’s Night Guide
The Great Metropolis
Displaying the Saloons; the Paphian Beauties;
the Chaffing Cribs; The Introducing Houses,
the French Houses, etc.
The Lord Chief Baron
It was the kind of book that, since Harman and Thomas Dekker, has appeared every half-century or so; a companion to Ned Ward’s London Spy and Pierce Egan’s Life in London and Westmacott’s English Spy; except that each of these somewhat unkempt authors could have given this Victorian a lesson in seemliness and reticence. Not that there is anything in it that would shock a sensible person, and obviously nothing that shocked the supposedly susceptible Victorians; only gossip about things that people in those days accepted much more calmly than modern authority accepts them. It only says openly to its Victorian readers the kind of thing that intellectual novelists of this emancipated age have to print privately.
The editor, the “Lord Chief Baron,” was a man named Renton Nicholson, well known to students of nineteenth-century life. He kept various taverns and hotels in London, and was the inventor of the successful Judge-and-Jury Trials, held nightly at one of his houses, the “Garrick’s Head” in Bow Street. These were mock trials of imaginary divorce cases and unsavoury criminal cases. The judge was Nicholson himself; the jury was empanelled from his customers; and out-of-work actors played counsel and witnesses. They did it so well that, by contemporary report, they drew “all London.” The whole object of this parody of a court was to elicit improper evidence and point it with improper comment; and these shows, which matched any entertainment devised by Sedley or Rochester, were publicly performed and regularly patronised by “the nobility and gentry” and most other classes throughout the second decade of the Age of Staid Propriety. Encouraged by their success, Nicholson went further, and introduced an exhibition of Poses Plastiques, which describe themselves. These were publicly advertised, admission one shilling, and were shown twice daily, and they had a long and profitable run before any protest was made against them. The “Baron” wrote of these shows, and of their reception by his patrons, in terms that, to a reader of this polite era, are almost embarrassing.
His Guide opened with a Preface on the twin joys of Bacchus and Venus, and then went on to describe the various night-resorts of London, high and low, and the individual tastes for which they catered. It ended with a directory of the names and addresses of the most noted women of the town, and comments upon the peculiar attractions of each. The principal all-night house, in tone and price, was the Royal Saloon, Piccadilly. It was famous for its cuisine, its cellar, and its women. The women were personally invited by the management, and no others were allowed to enter. The “Baron,” I remember, found it a “somewhat scandalous” place, and if this widely experienced Victorian found it “somewhat scandalous” in comparison with some of the extraordinary “Introducing Houses” which he so freely and casually described later in the book, then it must have been a house that would have sent the broad-minded Watch Committees of 1934 into a swoon. Other prominent all-night houses of the West End were the “Baron’s” own Garrick’s Head; the Coal Hole, the Finish, the New Crockford’s, the Elysium, the Windmill Saloon, and the Adelphi Shades. Across the river were a score of others, among them the New Inn, the Surrey Coal Hole, the Victoria Saloon, the Jim Crow, and Astley’s Wine and Supper Rooms. There were also the saloons and foyers of the theatres, which were public rendezvous of a kind against which the Empire Promenade of the nineties was a Dorcas Meeting.
In all these Victorian night-resorts, those of fashion and those of the working classes, supper entertainments, not then made exotic by the word cabaret, were a regular feature; indeed, no tavern could hope to attract custom without an entertainment. Judging by the Guide’s descriptions, each place appears to have afforded the spectacle of Victorian unfortunates behaving with all the free manners of the modern world of fashion — smoking, drinking, and painting their faces. The proverb about luxury is true, but so also is its converse. The deportment of the Victorian unfortunate is now the deportment of the respectable, and cabaret, which in 1851 was everybody’s evening treat, is now the luxury of the few who are willing to pay its excessive price. The kind of cabaret they offered was mainly in the key of the master of the art, this “Baron” — disgusting, but open and frank, and perhaps less acid in its effect than the half-hearted smirks at impropriety offered by the cabaret entertainers of our London of to-day.
The matter and style of the book might be described as a gale which leaves scarcely a wrack behind of that prim public life which the smart historians have offered to us as typical of the Victorian age. In his attitude to what the present-day prudishly labels “complexes” and “inhibitions,” he was what Fleet Street calls “fearless” and “straight from the shoulder”; only he didn’t know that he was. In those dark days, before short hair and cocktails and freedom and sincerity, and all the other blessings of the nineteen-thirties, they had neither the prudery that is easily shocked nor the prudery that delights to shock. Mid–Victorian women enjoyed the Mazeppa performance of Adah Isaacs Menken, and talked as bluntly as their men about the facts of life. It was only a small section — the petty bourgeois — who cultivated the “refined” attitude, and the blind eye to the human functions, and “genteel” amusements. It was only those papers produced “for the home” which called trousers “unmentionables,” and depicted young men who smoked cigars on Sundays as on the road to the devil. The majority of the people held a John Blunt attitude to facts, where we of to-day are so self-conscious about our recognition of them that we become pop-eyed at meeting them and almost juvenile in showing everybody that we have been introduced. Our newspapers claim to treat all aspects of life in their columns, but most of them, I think, would shy at the “Baron’s” utterances; I doubt if even those papers published on the Lord’s Day would allow him to be quite as “fearless” as the Victorian age allowed him to be. He was most typical of his age, as it really was, in the section where he described prominent women of the town, and their manners and accomplishments in what he rather extravagantly called their private lives. I remember thinking at the time that it read like an auctioneer’s address at a bloodstock sale.
But I will make the smart historians a present of one point for their case. In one spot of the book he did conform to their conception of his age. In a paragraph of blunter statement about certain matters than any “privately-printed” modern novelist has yet achieved, he wanted to use the word damned. He printed it “d —— d.”
A minor effect of the recent increase in the stock of public pleasure, both week-day and Sunday, may by some be regretted. It has made us forget the gracious art of lotus-eating. People have now so many things to “do” that they are like children in a toyshop. You cannot get them to sit down. The idea has got hold of us that action in itself — any action — is virtuous, and that idleness is shameful. We constantly talk of the need in public life for “men of action.” It doesn’t matter what tomfool things the man of action does, or what kind of muddle he creates; he is still, in the modern opinion, superior to the calm man who waits for things to take their course. He is one of the current heroes, and the majority of people take him for a model. Even those who have no need to be busy feel that they must simulate busy-ness, and the majority of the leisured classes know no more what to do with themselves and their time than the suddenly unemployed. All they can do with their blessed gift of leisure is to debase it into scampering action — in dancing, golfing, calling on friends, going to parties, telephoning, “running” something. Those who really have work to do make that work their commander and themselves its slave. Men in the past did as much work as is done to-day, but they were able always to adjust themselves to a little lotus-eating. To-day they are incapable of reclining; the glorification of work has poisoned their systems. For work and busy-ness are as stealthy and as potent in their dreadful effects as morphine. Once you get the habit you can’t stop. It gives no pleasure, but you must go on. We see constantly the spectacle of men who have made fortunes in business and cannot retire. The poor creatures simply do not know how to do nothing. I have had specimens of them at my three-hour lunches, which begin about one o’clock and dawdle into tea-time. They were ill at ease. They kept fidgeting and murmuring about Getting Back or Getting Along or Busy Day. They shook their heads at my “wasting” of time.
Scarcely any little office of our daily round is free from this poison of snap and pep. Our bath and our shave are perhaps the last occasions left to us for wallowing in leisure, and these are in danger. You cannot have a leisurely bath in a hotel unless you book a suite; and advertisers are constantly offering us some new shaving cream which will do the job in fifteen seconds. Dinner, when I was a boy, was dinner. To-day it is a race against time. The gentle vespers of the table are interrupted by the clamant theatre or movie, and often what might have been a dinner to remember is ruined by the anti-digestive rush to an inane first-night. Only in a corner here and there, in the little homes of artists and scholars, and among those who follow angling (one outdoor recreation which has so far escaped “brightening”) is leisure cherished and enjoyed. There the nineteenth-century models of those two futile insects, the ant and the bee, have no shrine. The models, if any, are those of the moth on the sunny wall and the cat on the cushioned chair. The cat has a far better instinct for the art of living than the general run of humans. It works with zest when work is necessary, and when there is no reason for work it takes its ease hour after hour. Through indolence it grows in grace and self-content, while we, with our constant action, grow nerve-ridden, tight-lipped and hard-eyed. All because of this doctrine that work and busy-ness are of themselves admirable, and that even such a beautiful thing as leisure must be “used.” One does not put butterflies and flowers to the base purposes of “use.” One enjoys them, which is what one should do with leisure.
Much of the economic trouble from which we are now suffering is due to this very vice of work. If we had done less work we shouldn’t have reached this pass. As for the old warning that Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do, one can only retort that if the man had used his eyes he would have seen that it isn’t true. Idle hands won’t allow themselves to be disturbed by any suggestion, not even from Satan, of “doing” things. Nine-tenths of the mischief wrought in this world is wrought by the active hands. It is for them that Satan is so zealous in finding things to do, and it is they who should be reproved and the indolent who should be applauded. Our present gods — Isaac Watts and Samuel Smiles — should be demolished, and we should set up in their place those gentle guides to true living — Izaak Walton and Quintus Horatius.
In some degree the decay of lotus-eating may be traced to women. I believe that men, left to themselves, would still cultivate idleness. It is their women who prod and upbraid them with suggestions of sin. It is they who compel them to Go Places and Do Things, and who break up the lovely still-life of leisure with comminations. Under women’s urge, plus the glorification of work, they have become slaves to activity. They are the creatures of an age of movement. Most of it is purposeless movement, but it is as necessary to this generation as the movement on his wheel is necessary to the dormouse.
Still, those of us who dislike it must console ourselves with the reflection that anything we say has been said by every generation. Life is never fast enough for the active and never sufficiently tranquil for the lovers of the lotus. Ever since London began there have been complaints of the hot pace of London life. Lydgate complained of it; Stubbes complained of it; William Langland complained of it. Throughout English literature, stage by stage, you may find this plaint of the whirl of London, the quest for pleasure, the rush, the noise. Smollett’s Matthew Bramble let off his spleen against the turmoil and fever of London life in the mid-eighteenth century, in terms almost exact to the terms used by moralists about the London of last year. There are always some who are a little behind the contemporary beat; slack or querulous members of the orchestra who WILL make their entry two bars late and then complain that the others are rushing it. Every generation has its beat, always an acceleration of that which preceded it; and those who were contemptuous of their grandfather’s complaints about the nerve-racking pace of London in the eighties are in their turn complaining of the pace which their grandsons find easy and necessary. And fifty years hence those grandsons will be making similar complaint of the pace of the times, and will look back to the quiet, leisurely days of the nineteen-thirties.
One feature of the times which has always agitated the elders is the dance. To-day, as always, while the young are enjoying modern dances and modern dance-bands, the elders, true to type, are raising peevish objections to their ugliness and noise. They didn’t like the Cake Walk; they didn’t like the Turkey Trot or the Bunny Hug; they don’t like the Fox Trot or the Charleston, and they can’t do the Tango. They consider the Rumba vulgar, and could hardly bring themselves to mention the Black Bottom. They knew the graceful waltz, and can’t understand why anybody wants anything else; forgetting, or not knowing, that Byron — even Byron — found the waltz vulgar. There are still to be found people who consider any kind of modern dancing vulgar, and public dance-halls as ante-rooms to something so dreadful — or perhaps so vague — that they cannot give a name to it.
The Palais de Danse and the professional partner, now a regular feature of London life in all classes, are developments of this century which would have made my Aunt Jane dislodge her spectacles by over-lifted eyebrows. Thirty years ago dancing COULD be had by ordinary, small-pocket people, but it was not as now a constant every-evening affair, and there were no halls solely devoted to it. It was “got-up” on occasions, and everything was done to a formula. It was usually held in the “Assembly Rooms” of the suburb, and prices ranged from five shillings to threepence, according to the district. Among the well-to-do, dances were mostly held at home, though hotels were being more and more used. Dancing at dinner in the better restaurants was an insanity not then thought of. The thé dansant crept into the hotels about 1912, but the diner dansant, with dancing between courses, did not arrive until just after the war. By that time we had thrown away the tango, the seductive voice of Buenos Aires, and set up temples to the negroid Priapus. And had canonised the dance-band.
I can recall the time when hostesses who had engaged a band for their dance treated the leader of the band, believe it or not, with no more ceremony than they used to their butlers. They had hired him to perform a job, and they paid him for it, and that was that. They seldom knew his name nor cared whether he had one. Young men who wanted special dances played told him what they wanted, and at the end of the evening slipped him a sovereign or so. They did not nervously ask him if he would be so kind; they did not invite him to their bachelor party; they did not tell their friends that they knew him; they did not beg him to give them lessons. They would no more have thought of that than of asking the gas-fitter to give them lessons in gas-fitting. To-day he is just a little lower in esteem than Schnabel, and considerably higher than Caruso ever was. He and the gigolo are the lions of to-day’s London scene; and it is possible that the fact that no dance-band leader has yet been knighted is causing some feeling in dance-band circles.
Byron, in the opening of “Don Juan,” remarked that his wanting a hero was an uncommon want, when every month brought forth its own. In these times heroes are everywhere, all day and every day, and the favourites are those who supply public amusement. In one world the dance-band leader and the gigolo are rulers, but in other worlds they are run pretty close by the odds-on greyhound and those men with the queer names who seek self-slaughter on the motor-cycle dirt-track. My Aunt Jane lived long enough to see Hengler’s Circus turned into a “real ice” skating-rink. She thought it dangerous, physically and morally; she would not like any niece of hers to go there. Skating in the country was one thing, but skating in town . . . she understood there were instructors — handsome young men. It didn’t seem quite right for young ladies to be escorted round the rink by strange young men. . . . I am glad she did not live to see her grand-nieces ogling the vacuous eyes of a crooner, to see her middle-aged niece languishing in the arms of a professional partner, or to see young girls falling on the muddy neck of the dirt-track hero.
The young London girl now goes everywhere and goes alone if she wishes. No public amusement is barred to her. You see her at the race-course, the greyhound-course, the dirt-track, the boxing-match, the wrestling-match, the football-match, the night club (both town and riverside), the palais de danse, the smoking-rooms of tea-shops, the brasserie, and even in your own club. You can’t keep her out of anything. When I was a youth a frequent advertisement in popular magazines was that of a firm offering detachable billiard-tables. It was headed “Keep Your Boys at Home.” I never discovered why it was thought desirable to keep boys at home, but there may be many people to-day who would think that course desirable for girls. The girls might not like it, but in these days of the constant mingling of the sexes there come, even to the most companionate men, occasional hours when they would like to be apart from women. And there are not three places where they can be.
A necessary adjunct of all entertainment is the restaurant, and as public entertainment has developed so the restaurant has developed with it. Few people, I imagine, of the eighteen-eighties can have foreseen the enormous growth of this industry over the whole face of London. It comes almost next to transport as one of the visible factors of change in the life and habits of the people. To young people of to-day a London without popular restaurants to which anybody can go for any sort of meal, is almost inconceivable; yet fifty years ago it had very few, if any, of that sort. It had, of course, plenty of restaurants, but they were specialised. The West End had a number of imposing restaurants and supper-rooms and lounges, and the foreign refugees who had settled around Leicester Square, and were beginning the Soho of to-day, had opened restaurants for their compatriots. Neither of these groups was available to the ordinary person — one by reason of expense, the other by reason that these foreign cafés WERE foreign and did not then seek general patronage. The middle-class restaurants and “dining-rooms” to be found in the Strand, Covent Garden and Haymarket catered almost wholly for men, and family groups lunching or dining out usually patronised hotels. For ordinary people there was the tavern — a thing distinct from the public-house. For people of the artisan class there was nothing but the grubby coffee-shop or “cook-shop.” In the suburbs, such catering as existed was done by an Italo–Swiss café (“from Gatti’s”).
In the City there were but two kinds of restaurant. Women had not at that time invaded its offices, and at lunch-time it was concerned only with men. The employers patronised the chop-house — William’s, Thomas’s, Baker’s, Pimm’s, the Bay Tree, Birch’s — or such taverns as the London and the Dr. Butler’s Head; the employed patronised the cook-shop. Women were not seen in these places, nor, as I say, in the more central places — Cheshire Cheese, Simpson’s, Keene’s, Gow’s, Snow’s, Stone’s, Carr’s. The male attitude to women in those days was distinctly Sultanic. But it was the last flicker of that attitude. Even as Abdul was being shorn of his prerogatives by the Powers, so was the English male being forced by his women-kind to forego his Sultanism, and admit them to his snuggeries.
In the late eighties and early nineties, that period of New manifestations, a few people observed this breaking out of women and the lack of suitable catering for the extra floating population, and set out to meet it. The tea-shop arrived. It began cautiously. But it soon found that, unlike so many innovations, it did not have to create a want for itself. It actually did, as many innovations falsely claim to do, fill a want which had been long-felt, not only by women but by numbers of men of the City-office class, who were tired of the eating-house and the public-house. Within a few years it bred and multiplied until it was represented all over the City and in all the popular streets. To-day, of course, under the control of two or three firms, it is everywhere, and in different forms and styles it caters for everybody, from the tea-and-bun to the table d’hôte dinner.
Many explanations of the easy mixing, if not levelling, of the classes which has happened in the last fifty years, have been put forward, among them popular education, the decay of the professions, the extension of the franchise, the Social Conscience, and so on. None of these, I think, had much to do with it. Political enactments certainly did not, and could not. The chief factors in the matter I would name as the Tube, the cheap car, and the tea-shop. Before the Tube arrived, the masses travelled by tram and bus — and only the masses. Nobody of any social position used either; they belonged to the workers. When the masses needed refreshment they used their fixed retreats — eating-houses, coffee-shops and sausage-shops; and only themselves were seen there. To-day, people of all classes use the Tube and the tea-shop. In certain districts one may regularly see lawyers, artists, writers, bankers and Whitehall figures taking coffee in the tea-shop. These places have become the equivalent of the European café, where you may meet anybody and everybody. In the past one would have wondered to see Judges of the High Court, or Counsel, taking refreshment in the people’s refreshment places, or riding in the people’s conveyances. They may often be seen to-day. Similar-sounding terms (coffee-shop and tea-shop) have a wide social gap between them. The former is still the Good Pull Up for Carmen; the latter an affair of marble and gilt, efficiency and cheapness, which at odd times is found convenient by people of all sorts. So with the Tube and the motor-bus; they are beneath nobody’s dignity.
The tea-shop of to-day is the twentieth-century form of the eighteenth-century coffeehouse — another term which, despite similarity, indicates something widely different from the coffee-shop. Everybody may use it, and almost everybody does. Looking around the company of one of these places at coffee-time, it is difficult to judge from appearances whether a man is a clerk, a controller of a big business, a novelist, a motor-coach driver, or whether he keeps a stall in a market-place or holds a portfolio in the Cabinet. Accent is still some clue, but even here it gives no clear direction. The fine accent may come from the coach driver and the ugly accent from the powerful business man. The man who, by old standards, looks as though he kept a stall may be one of England’s four outstanding poets; and the man who, by old standards, looks as though he were in the Diplomatic Service, is probably a chorus man in a musical show. Outward distinctions, as I have said, are rapidly being obliterated in all departments and occasions of London life, but there is no place like the tea-shop for making everybody the lowest common denominator of a crowd. It is now as constant a feature of London life as the public-house used to be, and there is scarcely any shopping street within the six-mile radius where it is not to be found.
The company at these places is representative of the note of the district in which each is situated. In the City the company is clerks and perhaps junior partners. In Bloomsbury it is students. In Oxford Street it is women shoppers and shop-assistants. Around the railway termini it is travellers of any and every sort. In Fleet Street it is journalists and young barristers. In Whitechapel it is jewellers and furriers. In Hatton Garden it is pearl and diamond dealers and their assistants. During the evening hours they are used mainly by the lonely; people who have no homes, but “lodge” somewhere. You may see there the old book-keeper who sits every evening at the same table at a given minute of each evening, and never varies his austere meal or the newspaper that he reads column by column. There are men of his sort who have sat regularly at their tea-shop table these twenty-five years; characters, some of them. In the past, when I was one of those evening customers, I came to know, by use of the same table, uncelebrated philosophers; grey-haired, unpublished poets; apostles of strange religions; and a few nice old fellows with no special hobbyhorse. I listened to plans for the reconstruction of society; to expositions of Swedenborg; and to discourses on matters of which I would otherwise have remained in ignorance — such as the æsthetic thrill of philately, the antiquities of Kensal Green, the symbolism of chess, the significance of blue in primitive painting.
People of this sort are not found in the more gorgeous development of the tea-shop. The company in those places is not there for the purpose of getting necessary food. It is there for warmth, light, rich carpets, ornate walls, music, the surge of people. It is there for refreshment of nerves and spirit. It is there for its share of splendour, which these places have democratised. The fastidious among us may wish that it had been done in some less flamboyant style, but who are we among so many?
Side by side with this tea-shop growth, and its development into palaces and pavilions, has gone the growth of the proprietary restaurant. Since the brothers Gatti opened the first large café- restaurant, and were followed on a similar scale by Nicol and others, it has spread rapidly and regularly, year by year. The innovation of mansion-flats, the gradual decay of formal domestic cooking, and the new pleasure which people found in restaurant life, gave it a sharp impetus, and to-day it is one of the major London industries.
In the nineties came the fashion of “those little places,” and Soho’s fortune was made. The little places provided new food, more varied menus, “different” surroundings, a vivacious atmosphere, and deft service; all at prices little higher than those of the eating-houses and below those of the chop-house. At the beginning of the century, as I have said, one could find between Shaftesbury Avenue and Oxford Street a dozen places serving a four-course bourgeois dinner at a shilling, and many more serving dinner at one-and-six; while at half-a-crown you could eat well, and at five shillings you could dine. The Dieppe, now vanished from Old Compton Street, lived for many years on its shilling dinner, and was packed every evening, and the half-crown dinners of the more glossy places, frequently of seven courses, were so well known among the slender-pocketed that if you were not there early you could not find a table. Across Oxford Street, in Charlotte Street, you could find, as now, similar places, though mostly German and Swiss, and many of these served dinner at even less than a shilling. These were quite small places, where the customers knew one another, and Madame knew them all, and conversation was general between tables and between Madame and clients. You dined there almost as one of the family.
Those Soho places came and went. A few of them were fixtures, and some which are in flourishing operation to-day have had over forty years of prosperity. But others had short lives, or moved about from street to street. You would know them for two years. Then, after an absence, you would go along one night, and they weren’t there. But you would hear of a new place down the street, just opened, and you would become one of its occasionals until it, too, disappeared, and you would learn that its waiter (service in the smaller places was seldom plural) had opened a place of his own in Greek Street or Frith Street. Or you would seek a favourite restaurant at its old address, and find it gone, but would learn that it was flourishing in a new home three streets away. Or you would find the old place, but you would find that a change had come over it which meant finis for that café so far as you were concerned; you would find that it had been discovered by the smart and semi-smart. And you would look about for a new place with the right intimate atmosphere, and help to make its owner’s fortune until he, too, was discovered by the wrong people.
The war, as I have said, gave Soho a boom period, and it was during this period that it lost its old personal note and became anybody’s place. The suburbs and the provinces invaded it, and the young officer from the small town proved his knowledge of London by exhibiting its cafés to his relations. It became self-conscious, and from doing a casual job in a casual but effective way, unaware that it was doing anything remarkable, it laid itself out to attract all London. It became a cult and performed its job with display and advertisement. But it is still one of the pleasantest quarters of the town, and it is unique in that within its small acreage one can eat with almost every country of the world. France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, the Balkan states, Greece, Turkey, Palestine, Japan, America, Poland, Hungary, Armenia, Russia, China, India, Brazil — all are represented here. Only the Scandinavian countries are missing. Their cafés you must seek in Rotherhithe.
As the Soho places come and go, so do the larger places. Many a restaurant in high fashion thirty years ago has disappeared. Others, while still alive, are prospering from a different clientièle. Others again, obscure in my youth, are now in favour. Among those that have gone in my time are the Globe, in New Coventry Street; the Continental, in Regent Street; the Gaiety, in the Strand; the Pall Mall, Les Gobelins, Pratti’s in Whitehall, the St. James, and more whose names escape me. Yet despite all changes of taste and fashion, and all new arrivals, there are some which have gone on from decade to decade. Gatti’s, the pioneer of café- restaurants, is still with us; also Verrey’s, the Café Royal, Oddenino’s, Romano’s, Scott’s, Prince’s, Les Lauriers, Jules, and others which date back to the distant past. Notable and highly successful arrivals of the new generation are Sovrani’s, Monseigneur, Quaglino’s, Hungaria, Boulestin’s, Bellometti’s, the Ivy, and that restaurant frequented by the staff and artists of the B.B.C., the Bolivar.
Hotels, too, are favourites or victims of the whims of fashion. Many that once were world-famous have gone from the London scene within the last few years, and the “family” hotel is hardly represented at all. Ridler’s has gone, and Morley’s; the Golden Cross, the Tavistock, the Inns of Court, the Cecil, De Keyser’s, the Salisbury, the Walsingham House, and the Grand — all of which seemed to be permanent landmarks of the streets. Yet others, many of them older than these, such as the Langham, Brown’s, Batt’s, the Berkeley, and Garland’s, remain and prosper. The oyster bar alone in the refreshment world seems armoured against change, as though oysters conferred some spirit of permanence. White’s, Driver’s, Bennett’s, Pimm’s and Scott’s flourish as when I first knew them.
The chop-house, solid and fixed as it seemed in the eighties, has suffered a thinning-out. But the three Simpson’s survive, one in the Strand, another off Cheapside, and the third in St. Michael’s Alley; also the George & Vulture, the Cheshire Cheese, Snow’s and Stone’s; and Birch’s, though it has gone from Cornhill, is still Birch’s in Old Broad Street. They are not today restricted to their former business of chop and steak. As the modern grill-room no longer restricts itself to grills, so these chop-houses are full-blossomed restaurants, with a double-fronted menu from smoked salmon to savoury and sweet. Let us hope they may stay with us yet awhile, for they are the only really ENGLISH restaurants London has, and our only link with the dining habits of the past. They are the city’s equivalent of the old inns of the countryside; visible factors in the continuity of London life. I am not moved by their “old-world” atmosphere; there is nothing “romantic” in dining at the chop-house, and at the same table, where your great-grandfather dined. But it is useful and pleasant in that it reassures you that there is no such thing as the past. There is only one long present, and we and our great-grandfathers are moments of it, making one of the changing company of that chop-house which survives us all.
The waiters of the many vanished City chop-houses were in a class by themselves. They had little in common with the dapper, ballerino waiters of the foreign cafés. They were grave, suave, and fatherly; something of the butler type. When they were deferential it was with the assured deference of a prince. They were Old Masters of their craft, who had the air of having begun their career when the chop-house was built, and of being as much a part of it as the old fireplace and the blue table-china. They were in a tradition which went back to Francis of the “Boar’s Head,” and through George of Ben Jonson’s “Mitre” and the stout head-waiter of Tennyson’s “Cock.” And however aged they were — and my recollection is that they were all grey — it was correct to address them by Christian names — Henry, William, Charles, Fred. They were as deft in service as any of the Italians, but what mainly won my admiration was that in days before there were any schools for memory-training, they had memories which missed nothing. Any face they had once seen, any name they had once heard, any individual preference in food or drink, they remembered. Often I have gone as a stranger to a chop-house twice in a fortnight, and each time have ordered the same meal — say a chop, boiled potatoes, and a Guinness. Then there has been a gap of two months. Being in its neighbourhood at the end of the two months, I have gone again to that chop-house, and ordered of that same waiter a chop, boiled potatoes, and — “Yessir, and a Guinness?”
On affairs of the past they were reliable referees. Young men, disputing of this or that, could summon them to settle the argument. “When did Pomposo win the Gold Cup?” or “Who was the corespondent in the Poodlechuck case?” or “What was the Benson case?” They would reflect for a moment; then, with a recitative of “Why, now, let me see — that’d be — ” out would come the information. When those young men were suffering from last night, the Williams, Johns and Henrys could suggest right remedies, and accompany them with sage advice on how to manage an evening. They could advise them on the ways and wiles of women, and particularly on the ways and wiles of City adventurers. In times of stress they could come to the rescue with a loan. Many of them were more economically secure than numbers of their customers, but always, in the chop-house or when meeting in the street, the customer was the customer and they were waiters. They were the figures of an age, and that age has passed. But they are enshrined in its story. In their day men remembered them and talked of them in lonely places thousands of miles from London. I am told that in these days men in lonely places thousands of miles from London wear the old school tie and dress for dinner. That is another reason for regretting the chop-house; such barbarian customs as stiff shirts were never fostered on their sand and sawdust.
Since the war we have seen another kind of restaurant spring up all over London, mainly in side-streets of the central quarters. These places are in all points the opposite of the chop-house. They are run by women for women. They have no licence. They are usually of one room, furnished with slim chairs and with tables two-feet square intended to accommodate four people. They serve dainty lunches and bear some “whimsy” name out of children’s books. So far as their food and service are concerned, they are good enough, but they lack the one thing that makes a restaurant, which is the restaurant ATMOSPHERE. They are just rooms where people feed, and their “dinky” furniture, paper-napkins, tiny tables, synthetic flowers, and their revealed efficiency and anxious attentiveness (which one should never be aware of) are all the opposite of what one evokes by the word restaurant. I prefer the revealed INefficiency??? and deformed organisation which one sometimes finds in a newly-opened foreign café, when Madame rates the waiter, and the waiter retorts to Madame, and the chef appears from below, and the trio, careless of the customers, engage in a match of recrimination. And then Madame announces to the first few customers, hoarsely and honestly and dramatically, that Everything Is Wrong, and how could she expect it to be Right with two such people as those? But it will be right to-morrow, bien sûr. However, as those places are intended chiefly for women, a man’s views are not in place. The fact that they are successful and are constantly appearing proves that they supply a need and are appreciated. They make a pleasant change for the business-girl who is tired and who seeks a quiet place in preference to the over-crowded and rather noisy tea-shop. And perhaps, when they have been a part of the London scene for a few years more, they will develop their own atmosphere and patina, and in time found a tradition and become to women what the chop-house became to men.
There is one point which marks all restaurants of to-day from the restaurants of forty years ago, and that is over-crowding. With the increase of restaurants to meet the increase of London’s daily and nightly population, we still seem to have too few. At the beginning of the century one could dine almost anywhere in comfort, but now every place, cheap or expensive, good or bad, is uncomfortably crowded. Hard times or prosperous times make little difference; wherever you go, at whatever time, the crowd has got there before you. In those days a restaurant could be only half-full (thus giving not only space to those who were there but the SENSE of spaciousness and ease) and still be commercially successful. To-day, apparently, commercial success is only attained when the place is jammed to capacity for both lunch and dinner, and tables are set twelve inches from each other. A bromidic utterance of my Aunt Jane’s, when she was in town, was that the sight of the streets made you wonder where all the people came from. I don’t care where the people come from, but whenever I enter a restaurant these days I have a deep desire that they would go back to wherever it is.
It is scarcely possible now to take even a drink in comfort. In the days before the war, bars, being open all day, were cool and comfortable places. Their custom was spaced out through some sixteen hours, and at no time were they crowded. One could sit at one’s table in almost any lounge in the centre of town, as serenely as in one’s own home; and even the ordinary public-house was much less flurried and rib-jamming than it is now. Strange as it sounds in these times, men used then to go into a public-house to seek a little peace away from the crowd. They could go to a wine-house for a ninepenny goblet of champagne as other people go to a cathedral. They could be sure of a retired seat and of room to move their arms. To-day, the world is with us soon and late, and during the restricted hours of opening it is almost futile to look for one of those “quiet” places of which London once had so many. All places seem to be popular and to have their constant crowd, and all hours are rush-hours. In the past, each London district had its set population during the day, varying only a little this way or that; but in these times of rapid transport people come to everywhere from everywhere, and all through the day the provinces and the suburbs fill up what used to be the thin hours and the unfertile spaces.
Apart from this matter of over-crowding, the London public-house or tavern of to-day is a much more seemly affair than its recent forerunner. Everywhere the old gilt and glass, frosted-mirror and mahogany gin-palace of the eighties and nineties, with its enclosed counters and heavy doors, is disappearing, and in its place we have a less ornate and more open structure. In place of the four penitential compartments we have imitation Tudor snuggeries. In the bars of a more expensive sort, the Long Bar, an American innovation of the nineties, has given place to open lounges and smoking-rooms. Most of these rebuilt places are fitted with cold-lunch bars, and drinks are more varied than they were forty years ago. American and French drinks are in favour, and the old cordials, which then were a feature of every London bar — shrub, clove, lovage, noyeau; and spruce beer — are seldom seen. In the suburbs, a recent development has been the family house, which is public-house, restaurant and tea-shop, all in one, with gardens and public rooms available to children as well as adults. But nobody seems to have found a new design for the public-house. All over central London one sees ugly old Victorian places rebuilt to a copy of Elizabethan or Stuart styles. Those styles were very well for the people of Elizabeth and the Stuarts, but they have nothing to do with the London of the nineteen-thirties, and when you find them set among new buildings of the latest northern concrete style, they are a foolish incongruity. If we must hark back for ideas, the late Georgian style would mix better with our current Scandinavian outlines; but why cannot we have our taverns as apt to the times as the new commercial buildings? Why do their designers inevitably think Tudor instead of thinking Le Corbusier?
While the old-style public-house of the later nineteenth century has gone or is going from central London, specimens of it are still to be found by the amateur of curiosities. He need only look in the near suburbs, the best ground being, I think, the south-eastern districts. There he will find many a saloon with the furniture and appointments of the eighties and nineties. He will find green “art” pots of aspidistras on walnut tables, horsehair chairs and lounges, and “art” overmantels. On the walls he will see coloured prints of Buller, Wauchope, Hector Macdonald. If he is lucky he will also see that once-popular print in which Lord Roberts figures in an unmartial and far from King’s Regulations moment — “Can’t You See I’m Busy?” A friend and myself used to “collect” these superannuated bars and make competition in our new additions. I once scored heavily by discovering a remote house with ancestral pictures of Sir Garnet Wolseley, and of the Last Stand at Isandlwana; but my friend drew level the next week by finding one with a presentation-plate of Stanley presuming he saw Dr. Livingstone and a steel engraving framed in old maple of The Rt. Hon. John Bright, M.P., Addressing The House. We have found saloon bars with chiffoniers and anti-macassars; with what-nots and rustic brackets, and artificial flowers under glass shades. Indeed, by careful scouting one can make a tour of time, via these public-houses, through various decades even into the sixties. There is a strong conservatism in some of these near suburbs. They live in a world of petrol and electricity and sun-parlours, and in that world they enjoy the benefits of these things. But in their own homes and their own minds they stay where they grew up, and they like their public-houses to reflect not antiquity but the time when the middle-aged of to-day were young. So they hold on to the walnut what-not, and see no reason for replacing it with steel chairs and chromium tables.
The changes that have operated upon most of London’s amenities have operated also upon the club. The small, intimate club, with a limited membership, can hardly be run in these days without heavy loss, and many clubs, neither large nor small, have had difficult times since the war. The sudden economic slump led many men to abandon their clubs, but apart from hard times men do not find a club so necessary as they formerly did. Affairs for the engagement of time are now so profuse and so varied that large numbers have “no time” for a club. The growth of the restaurant, too, has robbed the club of one of the advantages it had when restaurants were few and formal; and it looks as though the club-life of which our elders talk with such enthusiasm is in danger of decay. The younger men certainly do not seem to take to it very keenly, in spite of the abolition of entrance-fees; they are more attracted by the Country Club, which is an institution of another colour — American, too.
Within my short time the club atmosphere also has suffered a change, or, as a specific atmosphere, disappeared. One has no longer the feeling of being in a secluded gathering. The dining-room, lounge and smoking-room of the average club to-day might equally be rooms in a good hotel. The purely masculine note also is gone. In most clubs, before the war, women could get no farther than the entrance-hall. To-day, almost all clubs have a room where members can entertain their ladies, and some, which once were limited to men, are now admitting women members. Thus, monastic hours are no longer possible, and all that men knew by the word “club” has gone into the common stock, and set them in the family atmosphere from which the original club was an intended escape. But a number of the older clubs of the St. James district have set a stout front against this innovation, and are still the preserve of the male; and I believe there is one other kind of club to which women have not yet penetrated — the cabmen’s shelters, which became a cult with young poets of the nineties. They used them as night-clubs, and retired to them at four o’clock in the morning for eggs-and-bacon. Not because they wanted eggs-and-bacon at four o’clock in the morning, but because the bourgeois did not eat eggs-and-bacon in cabmen’s shelters at four o’clock in the morning.
This habit has lately been revived in London since the coming of the all-night tea-shop and café. This all-night service supplied a real need — the need of the night-workers who, until then, could get refreshment only at the draughty coffee-stall, and not very good refreshment. But in addition to supplying a need it created one; it caught the custom of people who were not night-workers and who did not have to be about the streets at all hours. Ordinary people discovered that they liked having a meal at three o’clock in the morning, chiefly because they could get it. It was “fun.” When these places were first opened, many people who had no reason for staying out deliberately stayed out; sometimes deliberately went out; and ate a meal which they did not want, just for the new sensation of sitting in a public café between midnight and six o’clock. The American supper-stand, an arrival of the last ten years, is a more resplendent kind of coffee-stall, offering a wider menu than the ham-rolls, hard-boiled eggs and gravelly cakes of the original stalls. They supply fried sausages, hot-dogs, apple fritters, sweet corn, and most of the snacks to be had at the delicatessen stores. Other night restaurants are the carmen’s “caravanserai,” usually set under arches or within vacant building lots. These are to be found not only in London, but on all the roads out of London; so far out that you find them set in hedgerows or at the corner of a meadow facing cross-roads, even as travellers found similar places four hundred years ago. On these roads also, some ten miles from the London boundary, are proper carmen’s restaurants and carmen’s hotels.
The road-houses on the London sections of the great main roads I have already mentioned. In the summer they do well with their all-night swimming-pools, and in the winter they do equally well with their dance-bands and badminton courts. They, too, have supplied a modern need; a need which the Londoner did not know until New York impregnated him with it; the need of “some place to go.” It doesn’t apparently matter what you find when you get there. The going is the thing, and anybody who can provide any reason or excuse for “going” somewhere is certain of a profit. Entertainment value is an almost incalculable factor, and those whose business it is to provide the Londoner with entertainment find him a creature of capricious tastes. Often the atmosphere of entertainment, if he has had to go to some trouble to reach it, pleases him more than its substance, and many of those who have sunk money in providing real entertainment have found that the Londoner prefers to put a shilling in a new kind of slot and get nothing, to handing a shilling over an everyday counter for a solid shillings-worth. Years ago I knew a small boy who was sent to a fair on a Bank Holiday, and given a shilling to spend. Among all the carefully-calculated and thrilling entertainments of that fair, this boy chose to spend his shilling on things that were part of his everyday. He bought himself two ice-creams and FOUR WASH-AND-BRUSH-UPS. He was a typical Londoner.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51