Attending last year a revival of that “heart-throbbing, domestic drama” of the sixties, “The Streets of London,” I was moved by the title to compare the streets of Diamond Jubilee time with the streets of to-day. The streets of to-day are the streets I trod then, but how different in complexion and atmosphere! How much lighter, cleaner, brisker; how improved in visibility! The streets of the old London in wet weather always implied mud. Women crossed the street gingerly, with skirts lifted high. Even men went carefully, picking their steps here and there. The surfaces used then seemed to produce mud, and the horses’ feet churned it and kicked it up, and the many wheels going over it corrugated each roadway with little hills of viscid mud. The street-orderlies were busy all day, if not with mud then with horse-droppings. With all their efforts, the streets were still not half so trim as they are to-day.
It was during the nineteen-noughts, if I remember rightly, that Bernard Shaw (or was it H. G. Wells?) made some comment on these conditions, and suggested that with the increased use of petrol Londoners would begin to realise that their streets might and could be as inoffensive to the sight and to the boots as the floors of their drawing-rooms. We have not quite reached that ideal, but the wholesale use of the car, the decline of horse-traffic (which agitation may in time completely ban from the main streets), and the new surfaces of our roadways, have helped us a good way towards it. Falling down when crossing the street on a wet day is not now the wreckage of your day which it was. You may get somewhat soiled, but a quick brush will put you right. Forty years ago you could only put yourself right by a complete external change.
That London was not only a London of mud, but a London of darker nights. It had its great glittering streets, but these were mainly in the central west. Away from the principal streets it was none too well lit. There were miles of sad streets, heavy houses and small, glimmering shops. One of the terrors of my childhood was those long, silent side-streets, with only a sickly lamp here and there, stretching into an infinity of murk and pathos. They added a grievous burden to the general sigh which is the breathing of all great cities. They seemed crowded with invisible presences and fears, and one turned from them to the light and movement of the main streets as to sanctuary. To-day one finds few of them in central London or even in the near suburbs. The most secluded squares and byways are now so illuminated that one is never at any point in darkness.
The city is not yet free of fogs, as we learned at the beginning of 1934, but we suffer now none of the sulphurous descents common at the end of last century. Our fuller and wider lighting makes even a black fog penetrable. In the past, if you left your house on a night of fog, to post a letter twenty yards away, you often had a perilous journey back, and were likely, after fifteen minutes, to find yourself far from home. I have been in fogs when one could see nothing a yard ahead, and when bus-drivers and cab-drivers, even when armed with torches and leading their horses, have led them down area-steps or into shop-fronts. Such chaos does not happen to-day in central London. Fog does sometimes paralyse the traffic, but only on the outskirt roads, where lamps are few.
The climate of London, under electrification, has made a change for the better. By our wider streets and our fuller use of glass in place of brick, and our larger and airier buildings, we do not suffer such sticky summers as we once knew, nor such misty winters. We still do not get the full power of sunshine, but our pastel tones seem proper to our streets. They are kind to the eyes, and they give us our cool pulse and comfortable skin. Most of us would not have it otherwise, for it needs only a few days of heat-wave to start us complaining and panting. When the sun retires and the heat-wave breaks, and the streets are grey and violet, we smile and become normal Londoners again.
Another point of change, on which country visitors do not agree with me, is that of noise. The London of to-day is, I maintain, far less noisy than the London of my boyhood. I am constantly being challenged on this, but I stick to it. The VOLUME of noise may be greater, but it is less cruel in its effect upon the ear than the old discordant noise. We have a concerted drone in place of random artillery. In those days we had vehicles of all sorts, paving of all sorts, vocal outcries of all sorts, each type making its particular noise in its own key and at its own pitch. Three horse-drays going uphill on cobble-stones, under the vociferous encouragement of their drivers, could make more teeth-grinding and ear-splitting noise than four motor-buses assisted by an electric drill. The motor-buses and the electric drill, by sheer power, cancel each other out, and become as a roll of drums, where the other noise was as of children playing with fire-irons and coal-scuttles. A traffic-block to-day is just a traffic-block. It disentangles itself by the waves of a policeman’s hand or a flashing light. Formerly it disentangled itself by forty solo voices yelling forty unrelated recitatives in forty different keys. When two buses or drays locked each other’s wheels around the Bank you had turmoil or clamour for some minutes.
Those were the days of self-expression by voice and gesture. Bus-conductors shouted the destinations of their buses; the drivers, when they were not urging other drivers with loud “Ire-ups,” abetted them with voice and cracking whip. Newsboys shouted the news. Pedlars shouted their wares. Strident whistles were used for calling cabs. Errand-boys whistled and tried to pierce through each other’s whistles with that nerve-rending whistle on two fingers. Carts and buses had iron-bound wheels; you could hear them coming two minutes before they reached you. Throughout the day the larger streets gave out an intermittent racket. To-day they give out a constant grinding hum, through which the changing of gears can scarcely be perceived. After midnight, London is certainly, without argument, quieter than it was. No whistling for cabs; scarcely ever a drunken quarrel, and then only a quiet one; no roaring boys in dishevelled evening clothes, save on Boat Race nights; and little work for the police. In this petrol and electricity age, the centre of London is quickly cleared at night, and though the “three o’clock in the morning boys” still exist they do not trouble central London. They make their whoopee at night-clubs and road-houses twenty and thirty miles out.
One reflection of the conquering motor is the closing to passengers of many London railway stations. Among those which have gone in the last twenty-five years are Grosvenor Road, Walworth Road, Spa Road, Borough Road, Southwark Park. The motor-bus and the Tube, which penetrate and extend to regions untouched by the old horse-buses, have rendered them unnecessary. In addition, there is the general movement outwards. Workers need not now live in the near suburbs; the vast development of little towns of small-priced houses in the far suburbs, and the increased activity of the building societies, enable them to live if not in the country at least on the edge of it. That edge is, of course, much farther from the centre than it was in recent times. I have before me a map of London and environs of 1912, which shows many a green space around Willesden, Lee, Mitcham, Wanstead and Finchley. You cannot find those green spaces now; it is difficult even to locate their site. Main roads, which once were lined with hedges and ran through open country, are now built up with shops and residences, and the once-open country is a populous suburb with a name of its own. Shops and houses are with you almost to Uxbridge, Croydon, Slough, Cheshunt, Romford, Dartford and Orpington. Even farther afield, where the current maps show green spaces, they are not really open country spaces. They are pitted and pocked all over with factories, institutions, warehouses, “works,” and incipient building operations. Travelling by road to-day you must travel at least thirty miles before you have shaken off the fact and the rumour of London.
Still, however much the fastidious may deplore the scarring of the countryside, and the cheap bungalow and the “ribbon” villages, it must be recognised that this outward thrust has done a great deal towards the clearance of the inner slums. The late nineteenth century made a tentative effort towards dealing with the problem, but one could hardly call it successful. In place of decayed, but rather picturesque, hovels, it gave London those gaunt Bolshevik-looking barracks known as tenements or dwellings. Apart from being a good deal uglier than the original slums, they did nothing to solve the problem. They merely perpetuated it in another form. They merely replaced over-crowded alleys with over-crowded boxes. They took away the lateral slums and created a series of vertical slums, which, even if they were not worse, LOOKED worse. The later development of Council estates on the outskirts was a much more sensible idea, and though it has had to meet some criticism, chiefly on the point of the want of social amenities, it will no doubt in time, by combining with the satellite towns and industries, prove to be a solution of the problem. We are seeing all these new urban-rural estates in their transitional, settling-down stage, a stage at which everybody and everything is open to criticism; and we cannot yet perceive what they are going to be. When the years have matured them and made them part of the future English scene we may find that they sink aptly into that new scene.
This sweeping expansion of London into the fields, within the last thirty years, while it has made some once-green suburbs wholly urban, has operated so irrationally that it has missed many a corner, and left bits of the country crystallised in a rocky surrounding of town. Again, a new traffic route, or a by-pass, turns a once-urban district back to its old sequestered green. A few days’ wandering around the suburbs reveals many of these incongruities. While some, in these thirty years, have so changed as almost to have shed their old selves, others remain almost as they were, save for the addition of a movie-palace or a tea-shop.
Living in a constantly-changing London, with the ever-present sense of impermanence, there is something of the terrible in coming, as one may, upon some corner familiar to one’s childhood, and never seen since, and finding it just as one left it. This has happened once or twice to me, and on each occasion I have had to fly from the spot. Why, I don’t know, unless it is fear of meeting oneself, or fear of what London is going to do next. In a hoary cathedral town, or some little place on the Cotswolds or the Cleveland Hills, such a discovery of an unchanged spot gives no surprise to the returned wanderer; but in London it is uncanny. To see the baker’s shop, the sweetstuff shop, the ironmonger’s shop, just as you left them, with the same names over their doors; the house with the stone portico and the Modes et Robes with the worn red-brick steps unchanged after forty years of London movement, is to suffer a rupture of the time-sense, if not a doubt of the very existence of time and of the reality of one’s present self. Almost one expects to see oneself in knickerbockers coming out of the sweetstuff shop, and one’s sweetheart, now forty-two, come skipping out of the toy-shop. Or one sees them as goblin shops, living on when long dead in the frozen animation of a spell put upon them on the day one last saw them. To look back upon the past is interesting, if not always pleasing. To walk through this fermenting London, and come suddenly upon the very physical structure and fixtures of the past is frightening. Yet, as I say, it is still possible, and I have had the experience at Ealing, Dulwich and Clapham.
A few weeks ago I went to see whether there was still a spot of London called Dulwich Village. I did not expect to find anything of “village,” and I doubted whether even the name survived. But I found that not only the name but the village atmosphere survived. There it was, still a village, and with all the “points” I had known thirty years ago. No trams, no buses, no movies; but red-roofed cottages, front gardens, church, a pent-house shop or two, and a few Georgian mansions. And not far from it an old toll-gate, still taking toll of vehicles. Just a village, as mellow and picturesque as one would find in the rural distances of Surrey or Kent; and ten minutes from Victoria. Yet a near neighbour, Streatham, has so changed in the same period that scarcely any of its topographical points could be identified by one of its returning sons.
After my Dulwich experience I had the contrary experience at Eltham. I had last seen Dulwich thirty years ago, and found it the same. I had last seen Eltham only twenty years ago, and I could not find it. In my time London had not reached it. London then ended at Lee Green, and one got to Eltham and Well Hall either along hedge-bordered roads or across corn fields. On this visit I was aware that we had passed Lewisham, but was not aware when we had passed Lee Green. We were still on tram lines and among houses. I was waiting for Lee Green. Then my friend who was driving me stopped at a cross-roads amid a cluster of shops, and said This was Eltham. I told him he must have made a mistake, and taken the wrong road at Lee. He assured me he hadn’t, and produced his map. He then indicated the church, which seemed faintly familiar, but in the wrong place. It was like one of those dreams in which you are in London and the Lake district at the same time, or crossing the Channel in St. Paul’s Cathedral, or dining in a restaurant and fighting wolves in Siberia between the soup and the fish. I strongly combated his statement that this was Eltham; I could not link what I saw with what I had known. He got out and asked me to look round the churchyard, and he showed me the memorial of “Seton Merriman” and of other of its prominent sons. I knew then that this was Eltham, but I could see very little of the Eltham I had known, beyond the names of the roads and streets. All the old topographical features were gone, or hidden in a busy little suburb of shopping-streets, tea-shops, movie-palaces, trams, buses, and massed houses. Similar change has visited Elstree. This, up to the time of the war, was a peaceful little village, whose peace in its long life had only once been convulsed. That was when Thurtell and his friends committed their horrid crime upon William Weare:
They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His brains they battered in.
To-day its name is “on the map,” and it is convulsed every hour by traffic more portentous than the midnight gallop of Mr. Thurtell’s gig.
Some of the near suburbs have suffered much less change than those which were, thirty years ago, on the edge. Those districts near the bridges reached their ultimate development in the seventies, and enterprise left them alone and went seeking for other fields. There are corners of Clapham, for example, which are to-day as I knew them in childhood; the Old Town, and The Pavement and The Triangle; and Carpenter’s, the confectioners, still display each Christmas their gigantic cake, which was one of the Christmas sights of Clapham in my youngest childhood. Highgate Village, and its Grove and Pond Square are little changed. The Borough High Street has moved scarcely at all from my earliest recollection of it; it is still a dishevelled thoroughfare of miscellaneous shops, warehouses, and old inn-yards serving as railway receiving offices. And Drury Lane, though in the fastnesses of central London, has known little development, save at the Strand end. While Kensington High Street would be almost unrecognisable by one who last saw it in Jubilee year, Notting Hill has scarcely changed its face, and all the difference that Adam Wayne, its Napoleon, would note is an increase of traffic. East Croydon Junction is now an urban station, almost as busy as Clapham Junction. Yet much nearer to London you may find a little wayside station, sunk in a dell, gay with flowers and rockery, with fields on either side of it, and only the spire of a village church, rising above it, to suggest a human settlement. The station is Sydenham Hill, twelve minutes from Victoria. Its clock still bears the initials of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway.
That Clapham should have so many remains of its past is no puzzle, since it was for many years after its early growth a district of large houses kept by well-to-do people of the conservative sort. This helped to maintain its original rural atmosphere and to protect it, in the eighties and nineties, from the “development” of large houses and grounds into twenty little houses, which was going on in suburbs around it and farther out. Those large houses, notable those of Clapham Park and of North Side and South Side of the Common, had also large gardens, which were among the earliest gardens I knew. Some of them even had meadows and cows, and thirty-five years ago I often became sunburnt in those meadows while helping with the hay-making. Tram-cars, buses, and the “electric railway” were running five minutes away, but once you had passed through the fronts of those houses you were, in a sense, “in the country.”
A certain South Side garden was a constant factor of my childhood. It was a proper garden; that is, an assembly of gardens: rose-walk, orangery, vinery, shrubbery, kitchen-garden, hot-house, wall-garden, rock-garden, orchard and paddock, and cedared lawns. There were wonderful children’s teas on those lawns; strawberries and cream, the strawberries picked by oneself from the beds; cherries and mulberries from the trees; and unsurpassed cakes made by a queen of cooks. And after tea one raided the currant bushes, or played Spies in the shrubbery, or Hot Rice in the paddock. Just outside were newsboys with the four-thirty winner, ice-cream stalls, penny bazaars, Home and Colonial stores, and all the fixtures of town; but the evening sun falling across those lawns and paddock, and the thrushes in the pear-tree and the rooks in the elms, suffused it with the feeling of a garden in the deep shires.
By my own observation, and vicariously, through the talk of parents and grandparents, I have a hundred years’ memories of Clapham, and it seemed to me then that the Clapham of those old houses and gardens was outside the time-action which was tinging all the rest of that suburb. It was, I felt, my grandfather’s Clapham, preserved behind the modern High Street by some alchemy of his, so that he could show it to me. To some extent it was, for amid all the bustle of a main-road suburb one was constantly meeting, as one can meet to-day, isolated patches of the hamlet atmosphere. Side by side with the tram-cars you could then see “the squire of Clapham” (Mr. Thornton, I think), riding horse-back round the Old Town; and the cottage to which my grandfather took his bride was still in occupation and unaffected by the “electric railway” or any other progress. Within two minutes of the High Street was a farmyard (Denny’s) from which children, as though in the heart of the country, fetched milk in the afternoons; and off the streets of little villas one could find an occasional hedgerowed lane leading to another street of little villas.
Most of the old houses and their gardens had been built and tended by three generations, and some of the names of Clapham families of my day are to be found in a directory for the “Environs of London” of 1780. It was that kind of place. People came to it and stayed, and their sons stayed, and THEIR sons stayed. In a smaller way it still is that kind of place, for it is one of those suburbs where I see over the shops the same names that were over them in the year of Diamond Jubilee. But while many of its topographical features remain as they were, ignored by development, and the Triangle and the Pentagon and Wren’s houses are still there, my garden is not. About 1909 the heirs of the old families took advantage of the car and sought the real country, leaving their large houses unwanted by a labour-saving age. Some of them, on either side of the Common, remain as family houses, but numbers of them were re-constructed and some of them pulled down. That garden which means to me all gardens is now buried under a block of mansion-flats.
A certain part of Ealing, modern as most of it is, shares with Clapham, Wandsworth, and Dulwich, a survival power against the horns of progress, and the little corner where my Aunt Sara lived still looks much as when she saw it. The fields are gone — in Jubilee Year it was really in the country — but the general surroundings keep their old tone. At least once a year I went to “stay” with Aunt Sara, and I can identify now some of the shops where pennies and threepences were spent, notably the Shop of the Super–Excellent Doughnut. I have never eaten doughnuts since my Ealing days; they may still, for all I know, be only a penny each, but I would have to pay a far higher price than that for my doughnut-joy. It is distracting to recall that in those days of clear air I could play with four in a morning, and then eat a mid-day dinner. The sweets shop, which sold penny prize-packets of a more ornate kind than those sold in Clapham, I also found, and the church with its lych-gate, and the ironmonger’s shop where I bought my first fret-saws.
When I first knew that corner of Ealing, the District Railway was already running to it; yet it was still country. Behind Aunt Sara’s house all was open fields and brooks. Just across those fields was a large house at which I always looked with respect, as most boys of those years would have done. It was the home of a hero; the home of the monarch of the tight-rope: Blondin. Wandering around it one morning (trespassing, I suppose) I had the honour of seeing and speaking with His Greatness himself, and the further honour of being invited to a glass of milk and a cake at his own kitchen door. That house is now gone, and the fields in which it stood. They have been “developed,” and while the little urban corners of that part of Ealing remain as I knew them, the fields are streets of little houses.
These new little houses of the outer ring are a surprising advance on the little houses once considered the standard for small incomes. In this matter, too, things that forty years ago were only to be had by the well-to-do are now part of the everyday of Mr. and Mrs. Everyman. On almost all the new “estates,” one finds these little concrete and glass houses fitted with garage, or space for garage; and the kitchen fitted with constant hot water and the latest kitchen gadgets; the bathroom with mirror, towel-rails, wash-basin, oxydised taps, and often a shower; the bedrooms with gas-fires and wardrobes, and the dining-room with oak panelling. Many of the latest have roof sun-parlours, and an all-electric basis. Gas and electric light are so obvious that they are not mentioned. Yet in inner London whole streets may be found where electric light is unknown, and in my youth there were many streets where even gas was unknown. The people in those streets spent their evenings with lamp and candle light, and all cooking throughout the year had to be done by coal fire. The houses were just boxes. Bath-rooms were unknown and fittings other than fireplaces and a cupboard or two, were unthought of. What is commonplace today, such as picture-rails, hot and cold water upstairs, tiled kitchens, etc., belonged then to luxury standards. To-day, indeed, Mr. and Mrs. Everyman enjoy so much comfort that the real “luxury” flats of the expensive districts have a hard job to keep ahead of them.
But there is one point of these new suburban houses, and even of the mansion flats of the better sort, which is not wholly satisfactory. That is the size of the rooms. A few years ago it was announced that, under a planning scheme for London, certain tracts of Victorian London were to be preserved. I wondered why. I felt that with the Houses of Parliament, Shaftesbury Avenue, Bayswater Road, Northumberland Avenue, and a few other treasures, we had all the relics of that period we could need, and that the disappearance of the stucco villas around Regent’s Park would be no loss. Each age has the architecture that suits it, and it is only rarely that the architecture of one age delights other ages. The Tudor and early Georgian architects produced towns and streets that have satisfied many generations, but Victorian work was for Victorians. Uncomely building came in with industrialism, about the time of the Regency, and lasted over one hundred years. You may see it in being all over London, and when you see it you may wonder as I did what there is about it to merit preservation.
Now that industry, through mechanisation, has begun to shed much of its ugliness, we are beginning to find beauty again, and I can imagine antiquarian folk of 2034 protesting against the vandalism of pulling down those charming little pieces of the early twentieth century — Shell–Mex House and Broadcasting House. I could not, at the time, see any vandalism in pulling down the Victorian streets, whether they were in Kensington or in Kennington, and I thought for half an hour before I could see any reason in preserving them. The reason, of course, has nothing to do with æsthetic. It lies, if my fancy is right, in that very solidity we used to despise, but which those who live in modern flats are beginning to reconsider. It is still certain that the Victorians knew little about beauty. It is fairly certain that they knew nothing about convenience. It is not so certain that they did not know something about making homes.
They did at least know what a ROOM was, and they did not take the rabbit-hutch as their standard. When they gave you a dining-room they gave you a dining-room, not a cupboard into which a table and six chairs and a Jacobean dresser just fit. When they gave you a kitchen, they gave you a kitchen; not a couple of telephone-boxes, but a room in which three cooks would spoil the broth without colliding. They did not, naturally, offer any labour-saving facilities, since in their time there was no occasion for saving labour. Money had such value that servants could be had for ten, twelve, fourteen pounds a year, and could be happy on it. Few people to-day have sufficient means to keep up those houses, which require four or five servants at much higher wages than fourteen pounds. But, split up into flats, they make a good object-lesson for our modern flat-designers. In small portions they are just as easy to run as the labour-saving rabbit-hutches, and what they lack in convenience is compensated by the larger personal radius they offer.
I happen to live in a part of one of these Victorian homes, and have found that it has its qualities. It has not the latest American conveniences and none of the elegance of the Queen Anne period. But it has points not to be found in the newest examples of home-building. Friends of mine, who used to pity me and tell me of the snappy little gadgets fitted in their up-to-date flats, have begun to remark on the size of my rooms; on the fact that they can take a walk in them. In their own flats they can take five steps from the drawing-room and reach the bedroom; and four steps from the bathroom brings them to the breakfast-table. The size of their kitchinette absolves them from giving dinners to their friends at home, and enables them to entertain in restaurants at seven times the cost of entertaining at home. In my Victorian flat the drawing-room would permit twelve couples to waltz without collision, even if their waltzing was of the standard of the parish hall. To reach the front door from my study means a journey of eighteen paces, and the hall is long and wide enough for a game of badminton.
Clearly there is a case for preserving these Victorian houses, since two friends of mine, who are paying three times my rent for modern rabbit-hutches, have asked me to let them know if I think of giving up my flat. These houses have little claim to preservation as historical pieces, but they could, if preserved, be of some service. Classes of young architects, who will be designing our children’s villas and flats, might be driven out to them once a week, and shown practical illustrations of what a “room” should be. Labour-saving was an excellent and necessary development, but I cannot understand why the architect should have said in his heart: “I am saving you labour. Therefore you must have smaller rooms.” It seems tautology.
But these new little houses on the extra-suburban estates have had a good effect on London and on the people’s condition and spirits. Poverty, as I said earlier, still smudges the city, but it is not so dense black as it was, and it is centred mainly on lack of work, not, as formerly, on wretched wages. There is better distribution of amenities and a higher tone in the living of all classes. Even in the poorest alleys you no longer see children clad in ungainly assortments of their parents’ clothes. Today, however shabby they may be, they wear their own clothes. You no longer see barefoot waifs begging in the streets. They still beg, but they make a sport of it, as with grottoes, or with painted faces and fancy dress a fortnight before Guy Fawkes Day. If you do, in the summer, see children scampering about without shoes or stockings it is due to their delight in modern hygiene, not to social misery. Even outside the Labour Exchanges and Night Shelters, and in the processions of Hunger Marchers, you do not see men in the utter rags that were common at the end of last century. They are not sufficiently clad, but they are outwardly decent. The poverty that is still with us — and dire poverty it is — is a silent and invisible poverty, and therefore perhaps more potent in its after-effects, which the next generation will be meeting. It is a poverty, not of rags and beggars, but of under-nourishment, of unoccupied minds, of daily frustrated hopes, of fruitless endeavour, of the gradual seeding of moral quality and independence. It is a poverty of which the general public gets only a flashing revelation when some despairing creature, hitherto respectable, is driven to petty offences.
As this poverty is invisible, so is its opposite of great wealth. The car made the first bite towards the decay of displayed equipage and strings of footmen. The war was another factor, in that it made display indecent. With the coming of the post-war days people had got used to the easier and simpler life of war-time, and had no desire to return to display. The service-flat attracted many people from the trials and troubles of keeping up large town houses, and the younger people among the rich preferred to forsake the solidity of the parental home for the adventure of studio life and camps in the haylofts of mews. Families used to live in their homes. To-day they only lodge in their homes, and live out. Even where establishments are kept up, they are kept up with a minimum of formality and style. Public ostentation requires leisure for the doing and for the result. To make its effect it must have people to look on. To-day nobody has time to look on at a pageant or to produce one. Liveries are plainer; domestics are fewer; social occasions are speedier. It is difficult now to guess from outward evidence who is wealthy and who is not. The woman who gives a reception in a mansion of one of the statelier squares may have merely hired it and an outside staff for the night. The man riding in the bus or the Tube may be wealthier than the man in the Rolls–Royce. In the fashionable restaurants of the St. James district you may see any evening really wealthy people, quite hard-up people, and people who are neither, all looking alike.
Wealth is about, but it does not flaunt itself in public. The streets of London are no longer a melodrama of St. Giles and St. James. St. Giles strolls about St. James, and sits in tea-shops at the corner of streets where rents are eight-hundred a year; and the male residents of those streets stroll about in clothes which seem expressly designed to make them indistinguishable from the three-pound-ten St. Giles. From casual observation a foreigner might assume, and be justified in assuming, that London was a city whose people had all about the same level of income. Appearances convey nothing to-day, except to credulous West End shopmen and hotel-keepers, and to those whose greed makes them the victims of confidence men.
All streets are everyman’s streets. The East End is as quiet and respectable as any other quarter; the lower reaches of the river are perhaps safer for the innocent than Shaftesbury Avenue; and crime has no longer any definite headquarters, nor is it limited to any definite class. The last battle fought on London’s soil — the battle of Sidney Street — put the finishing touch to the East End as a crime-centre. Lawlessness now breaks out anywhere, but, like wealth, it operates with as little fuss as possible. The police-whistle is heard in the streets much less frequently than at any time in my recollection, and a street-fight in any quarter is a rare event.
The modern streets of London, deficient as they may be in melodrama, are none the less as rich in interest as they ever were, and while millions of human creatures keep them in being they will continue to be so. From my earliest years they have been my hobby. Before I was in my teens I loved, when possible, to roam about them alone. I was not then allowed or able to get far, but later, from fifteen onwards, I spent my evenings in lonely wanderings. I went about and got muzzy with London, swallowing every second so many thrilling impressions that I could digest none of them. One wanders now at night through a London of brilliance; only here and there does one find a gorge of darkness, and then it is only violet darkness. One wandered in those days through a London of sombre magnificence, its black darkness shot with gleams and twinkles. It was the London which Whistler saw, a London of low tones and melting shades. Under to-day’s wide and intense lighting, the thousand and one lovely nocturnes which then presented themselves each night have been dissolved, and he would have to search in distant alleys to find his silver and lilac tints.
I found many of them on those wanderings, and encountered many little episodes which remain with me to this day when important public spectacles have passed from memory. When I sit still and recall those wanderings I recall none of the big scenes through which I passed nor any of the moments which at the time were profound. I recall only trifles which at the time I did not consciously notice. Why these things stick, and, without mental guidance, paint themselves on the mind when it is empty, I cannot say; but when brooding on London I find myself seeing things of this sort —
A voluble market-woman in a horse-bus of thirty years ago, describing to an aloof and embarrassed passenger the perfect way of cooking bloaters.
A Sunday morning in South London — one of hundreds which by some trick has isolated itself. Deserted street. Blind shops. Refuse in gutter. Dust blowing in clouds. The whole scene set to music by the miserable bells of four churches wrangling against each other.
Portland Place in the dim past. Langham Hotel. Hansom cabs. Broughams. Cockaded footmen. Milk-women. A voice from an open doorway: “Tell them I’ll be dining at the club.”
Wooden stands for the Coronation show in Borough High Street. Workmen testing their stability by jumping on them at the word of command.
The smell of the original Underground Railway.
Midnight in Caledonian Road. A woman crossing the road; a man standing at a corner under a lamp; a cat in a doorway; a poster, half-torn from the hoarding, flapping in the breeze.
A waiter doing up his bootlace at the door of an Italian restaurant in Soho.
Young girl and schoolboy kissing in a dark doorway of Church Street, Notting Hill.
The crowd under the clock at Charing Cross station one winter night. A girl in a blue dress; a porter stroking his face; an old lady with a dog; a young man in brown overcoat reading a newspaper.
October evening in a street of Bloomsbury. The street powder-blue. The two lamps making sick gasps. The glow of a roast-chestnut stall. A solitary policeman funeral-marching.
Cornhill at one in the morning. Not a creature or vehicle in sight. A full moon. A breathlessness in the air. The buildings rapt and watchful, as though waiting for some portentous event. And then somebody whistling.
Why this stuff thrusts itself forward and ousts more serious things, is a question which only the Vienna school, I suppose, could answer. Though, looking over my Caledonian Market of memories, I doubt if even they could make much of it. The only use I can see in it is that of a working scenario for a plotless novel.
The new aspects and vistas disclosed by modern lighting have their own quality. London at night is no longer lapped in sullen brooding. It shines. It is a proud and burnished London, dressed for social life. Throughout its centre it offers white avenues, all of light, and elsewhere are caverns and recesses of gold and diamond. Even the roofs, which once met the upper darkness in an invisible smudge, are now defined in sharp relief. Seen from a height, it is a glittering plain, slashed with bands of processional light, which are the main streets; and even the minor byways make their gilded chains. It does not, of course, match Paris or New York, because it is London. However flooded with light it may be, it will still be heavier in tone than those examples of song and yell. Neither its body nor its spirit can throw back light in their exultant fashion. It wears its light rather with grandeur, absorbing it; and while that light may be considered not too lustrous by visitors from European cities, in London it is brilliance. If George R. Sims were writing his Lights of London to-day, he would have to intensify his epithets; incidentally, since the lights of London are now met far beyond Highgate, his young people would have a shorter walk. The mystic quality of the old, long-spaced lamplight, which so moved De Quincey, vanished long ago; and even the much later Richard le Gallienne could not now sing of the iron lilies of the Strand. Peonies or orchids would be the word. Yet now, as always, they are the lights of London. From rush-light and candle-light, through lanthorn and oil and gas, to these days of electricity and flood-lighting, they have had, beyond their purpose of showing the way, the potency to live in the memories of those who have been happy or forlorn among them.
Much of the modern brilliance is due not only to municipal operations but to the advertisers and their night-signs. Some of us feel that they have overdone it, but as advertisers do that with everything, complaint is futile and perhaps, in the circumstances, ungenerous. They have given the evening face of London, if not jewels, at least bright gauds, and have eased that note of grief which used to mark its nocturnal. If, in doing so, they have robbed it of serenity, the young may be trusted to tell us that they miss nothing. When the first night-sign was set up above the heads of Londoners I cannot say. No doubt the advertisers keep some record of the pioneers in that calling whose very essence is pioneering. The earliest that my memory offers is one in Trafalgar Square which advertised Vinolia Soap. I do not think it spelt it letter by letter; that was a later innovation for the vexing of our nerves. I think it was a stationary blaze. I know that we stood and stared at it, even as people from the shires now stand and stare at the coruscating fables of Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square.
Perhaps the changes that have come over the streets of London in my time are most immediately observed in that stronghold of conservatism and has-been-ism, the City. There they stand out, and wandering about it the other day I had some trouble in finding my way. When I knew it, Crosby Hall was standing where it was built, and in those days it still held many traces of the hard gloom and mouldering dinge in which Dickens presented it. There were still numbers of dens below ground in which ill-paid clerks worked for small firms under all-day artificial light. There were dusty garrets up four pairs of stairs in which six or seven people worked together. Light, in its narrow alleys, was so hard to come by that they tried to trap it by means of sheets of glass projecting from each window. Many of the side-streets, which housed hundreds of offices, were as slummy as a court of King’s Cross or Haggerston. The general impression left with me, after the short time I spent there, was of fustiness, superannuated gloom, and cramp; plus, of course, the tight-lipped commercial spirit which took no account of these things so long as it could do business. One quarter of its life in those days, I should imagine, happened underground. Men worked underground, and when they went out to lunch they again went underground. Almost every building had a basement, and it was always in use. On a summer day, one could look down through gratings, and see clerks scribbling in books under electric light.
Wherever one looked the scene was colourless. The buildings had a tone peculiar to the City, for which there is no name. It wasn’t black or brown or dun or drab. It was not so definite as the tone of mud or the tone of cobwebs or manure. It was such a tone as you might get from wet smoke mixed with Army-blanket fluff and engine smuts. Every street was riddled with courts and alleys, where this tone was thicker, and each of these courts and alleys was a rabbit warren. In some kinds of business the “living-in” system was in force; the young clerks had a dormitory at the top of the building and a dining-room in the cellar; and, save for a few hours of the evening, they spent their young lives in the City’s atmosphere. Nobody thought it anything but a sound system. They never do. It is the hardest job to get any one generation to perceive the distresses of its own time. It can perceive only the distresses of the past, and will talk complacently of how enlightened and progressive WE are as compared with the last generation, and will regard anybody who points out current short-comings as a sentimental agitator.
Still, the present generation has made a great improvement in the appearance of the City, and in its conditions generally, as against what they were. It has more air, more space, less twilight, and fewer nests of moles and bats. Its nineteenth-century dinge has been replaced by brilliant stone and much glass. Cornhill, Leadenhall Street, Moorgate Street and Gracechurch Street have all responded to the spirit of the age and the new attitude to commerce. In the past it was held that anything pertaining to this trite and shabby matter must be dour and funereal — goodness knows why, unless to hide the trite and shabby reality. To-day, however, business men seem to have realised the truth of huckstering. Business premises now have a musical-comedy touch, and business is conducted almost with nonchalance. Field-marshals at the door, dapper young men within, and almond-paste and frosted-sugar on the front. Business is the new career, the new fun; and the streets have caught this spirit. Even the Bank, the last spot where one would look for change, has put on a Montparnasse head-dress.
In my wanderings about the streets whose stones I once so hated, I had, as I say, some trouble in recognising them. Even after checking their names at the corners, I had to look again to see anything of the street I knew. Leadenhall Street, Lime Street and Fenchurch Street have quite changed their faces, and I recognised Leadenhall Street only from the entrance to its labyrinthine Market, which still makes an incongruity in that world of banks and shipping-offices. Gracechurch Street I walked through and did not know that it was Gracechurch Street until I saw the statue of King William at its end. The “oldest house in London” was gone from Cheapside; also Williamson’s Hotel, once the residence of London’s Lord Mayors; but Honey Lane Market I found still living, and still, with its little shops, a retail market. The plane-tree of Poor Susan still takes up space which might be used for money-grubbing, and casts its agreeable shade over the corner of Wood Street, and Bow Bells are still there, though at the time of writing the church is under repair. The Royal Exchange is still waiting for somebody to put a glass case over it, and Pimm’s is still serving its “No. 1 Cup.” Queen Victoria Street and Cannon Street look pretty much as they did, and in a world of change it was reassuring to find Cannon Street Station still lending its comeliness to a somewhat less comely street. But elsewhere, differences met me at every corner. Eastcheap and Pudding Lane were both more trim than when I last saw them, and Billingsgate had shed much of its reek and noise. New Broad Street and London Wall were more imposing, and the approach to London Bridge much brighter. But the Bridge, at nine in the morning and six in the evening, is still one of the major sights of London for those to whom London means something more than museums and fashionable streets. There, at those hours, you have in essence the life of the average man of all time — Going to Work; Returning Home. It is a spectacle of every city of the world today, and a modern replica of the spectacle that has punctuated every day of our world since first there were cities and work. It is one of those spectacles which, after you have seen the historical monuments and the great streets and the high features of London, and its major social events, may give you a flash of illumination upon its spirit and bring its secret to life for you.
One missing feature, whose absence I regretted, was a person who, in his day, was known far outside the City boundaries, and came to mind as naturally as Gog and Magog whenever the City was mentioned. I mean that true stalwart of the City, the Lord Mayor’s Coachman of the period of the nineteen-noughts. He was always the most impressive and imperturbable figure of the Show, and London reserved a special cheer for him as the procession passed. He was so much a public figure that in those days you could buy picture-postcards of him. Among the too-unpleasantly familiar points for which I looked in vain (and was thereby glad) was one which had some associations not wholly unpleasant. This was the cheap tea-shop where I spent some burning hours in first looking into some new country of the World’s Classics or the Camelot reprints. In its place I found a portent of the new times; what in my City days would have been an anomaly in that square mile of the masculine: a shop devoted to perfumes, lip-sticks, face-creams and perms.
With all my wanderings of day and night about London there are still some streets I have not walked through. This sometimes worries me until I remember that not even taxi-drivers know every street within the four-mile radius. I don’t believe Mr. Wilfred Whitten does. No man can. Life is not long enough, and the time for wandering is no more ample than the time for standing and staring. Only Mr. W. H. Davies’ cows have enough time for this, and only cats have enough time for exploring every by-street. We humans can know only a little of the earth, and we Londoners can know only a little of our London. The born Londoner having the whole giant city to love, is so embarrassed by its richness, that he is compelled to set his affection upon a few spots of it. Those spots become for each of us a crystallisation of all that London means to us. It is seldom that they are chosen from the major tracts of the city; they are scarcely ever guide-book spots. As we do not remember people by their flagrant characteristics, but by their oddities and subtleties, so the Londoner, far from home and thinking of London, does not think of Big Ben or St. Paul’s or the Tower Bridge. It is the trifles that stick, and almost always he will think of a lamp-post or a street-refuge; a bus-stop or an Underground station. A friend of mine, who lives in the hard sunshine of California, sees instantly, on hearing the word London, Doulton’s tower at Lambeth. For myself, the word flashes to me, before I have time to think, Victoria Street on a wet evening. There may be, here and there, men in whom London evokes only Piccadilly or Bond Street or Pall Mall. But these are men who have never really known London; men to whom London was merely a playground during vacations, and who know only the outstanding bits known to visitors. These bits are no more than the lowest common denominators of London for the lazy and unperceiving mind. This type of mind, at the word Paris sees the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame or Montmartre; and at the word New York sees sky-scrapers. But these features, prominent as they are, say little about their cities. The whole of Paris may be caught in a letter-box, and the whole of New York in a store-clerk’s gesture.
So charged with life is London that its most common attitude, its smallest finger-joint, seems to be its complete expression; and it is here that the true Londoner catches its pulse. I learned from a sailor that whenever he thought of London he saw first the ferry-boats at Woolwich. Another, not a native, but a twenty-years resident, told me that the essence of London for him lived in the first bit of London he saw — Praed Street, Paddington. An American, when I asked him what he saw as the essence of London; what it was that gave him the realisation of being in a foreign city, said — “Pavement artists.” Six native Londoners to whom I lately put the question mentioned these points as rising unbidden to their minds at thought of London: The shot-tower at Waterloo Bridge — the “Angel” at Islington — the Battersea Power Station — St. Clement Danes — Holborn Viaduct — the view of Cannon Street Station seen from Southwark. These were, for them, intrinsic London, surpassing in expression any of the picture-postcard features. London in slippers, as it were. It is this London which the stranger ought to see, and seldom does, except when he walks about with me. And then he doesn’t like it; behind my back he curses me for showing him such dull stuff when he wanted to see lively features like The Bank and the Mansion House and Nelson’s Monument.
But to see the Londoner’s London you MUST walk through streets which, to the eye, and to certain kinds of mind, are drab and insipid. Behind this outward drabness and insipidity is the real London. You will find it in Southwark, in Pimlico, in Finsbury; and in Islington, Clerkenwell, Bloomsbury, Lambeth. For these quarters are the womb whence grew the great London of to-day. You might try a walk from Oxford Circus to Theobald’s Road, and thence by Clerkenwell Road and Old Street (the first of London’s highways) to Shoreditch. On this walk many essential factors of London are to be seen, but you will probably give it up half-way, and I won’t blame you. Essentials are seldom picturesque. If you do make it, and find it interesting, you might care to make others. You might go over Westminster Bridge, turn into Lower Marsh and on to the New Cut, and across Blackfriars Road, and through Union Street to Southwark Bridge Road. Follow this road to Southwark Bridge and Bankside. Explore Bankside, in and out of its courts and alleys. Here is an active bit of London of today linked with the importance of three hundred years ago, as you will note from the street-names: Clink Street, Paris Garden, Bear Garden. If that bores you, wait for a Saturday evening, and from King’s Cross ascend Pentonville, and half-way up turn into Penton Street. Take the fourth on the right of this, and you come into Chapel Street — a typical Saturday-night London market. If you want to know something of London life and Londoners, apart from Jermyn Street and Knightsbridge, talk with the stallholders. From Chapel Street you can get into Liverpool Road, which brings you to Upper Street, Islington. Islington has played a large part in London’s everyday life since the end of the seventeenth century, and a study of the wide thoroughfare of Upper Street, and its representative life, should teach you a good deal about London. You might then cross the road into the quaint and neglected byway which is the original High Street of Islington. From there you could go north and explore the lost land enclosed by Essex Road (part of the original Great North Road to Scotland), City Road and Kingsland Road; or you could cross the road by the “Angel” and improve your mind at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre. If you make these walks without a wholly damped spirit, you might be able to stand the one that follows — though I doubt it. At the south of London Bridge turn into Tooley Street and take Stoney Lane on the left, which brings you into Pickle Herring Street. Follow this into Shad Thames, and follow Shad Thames to Dockhead. Then, by way of Mill Street, to Bermondsey Wall, which leads into Rotherhithe Street, and so to Surrey Commercial Docks and Deptford. This walk is pricked at every step with the spirit, and often the stuff, of history; and, as a makeweight, it is loaded with the voice and the hand of the London which supports the London that everybody knows as London. But you don’t know what I’m offering you in that walk. Long before you reach Deptford, you will, I fancy, be looking anxiously for taxis, buses, or even trams.
Really, there is but one way for the stranger to see London in such a way as to know it. That is, by not looking at it. If you go about with carefully studious eyes and a programme of sights to be visited — famous streets, buildings, amusements, galleries, parks — you will learn a good deal about the London that every stranger knows, but you will never catch the heart-beat of London. There is no intensive method of doing this. You catch it by fits and starts in a hundred-and-one unexpected and unconsidered spots; by moving about London as you move about your own city or town, taking it in by casual glances, or even ignoring it. Do not go out to “see” anything or “do” anything. Wander idly about it and let it enter your skin in its own haphazard ways. If you do this, you may leave London without being able to say how many kings are buried in Westminster Abbey, or in which part of the Tower Raleigh was imprisoned; and yet you will have seen more of the essential London than the guide-book student. You may not be able to tell your friends at home which restaurant has the best cabaret, or what is the “right” hotel to patronise, but you will be able to tell them where De Beauvoir Town is, and why; and how you found Freezywater; and how you went to Cyprus. You might be able to tell them more than I can; you might be able to tell them where Fulham Road ends.
Most people, when visiting London, see only a minority aspect of its life. They spend their time in the particular world into which they happened to alight. They see historic London, or architectural London, or fashionable London; literary London or political London; and go away thinking they have seen London. The special is never typical, and whatever is most talked about and clamours for attention should always be suspected as unrepresentative. The typical life of a city is seen not in its best features or its worst; not in its highest or its lowest ranks, or in its coteries. It is seen in the daily moods and phases of its unexpressive streets and its unvocal millions. It is these that give it its rich and abiding spirit, across which the changes of fashion and the play of the minorities merely flit; and it is these that you must see if you would know that city. The best way to do this is to go about by yourself. Lose yourself in London. Take your lunch wherever you happen to be at lunch-time, in any kind of café. Just be in London, doing nothing that you would not do at home, and within a week or so London, the uncelebrated but essential London, will have revealed itself to you.
The man who leaves his companions to be conducted round the Tower, and slips off and wanders about East Smithfield, looking into doorways and windows, will come back with a better collection of Londoniana than they. And if they spend the evening in dining at a cosmopolitan restaurant and sitting in the stalls of a West End theatre, while he goes off and dines with a London friend at the friend’s everyday club, and finishes in the circle of a music-hall, he may not have so high a time as they, but he will learn a lot about the backbone-life of London. And when, later, he reads of London in his own papers, it will mean something more to him than Whitehall and famous streets and antiquities. A good way of getting some impression of the London known to its daily millions is to take the first bus you see, and go as far as you may for threepence. Then get another bus and spend another threepence. And so on. Or take one of the circular-route tram-cars from the Embankment, which go to places unheard-of by those who regard London as a square half-mile centred on Piccadilly Circus. Then try a ride at two o’clock in the morning on an all-night bus-route. This will give you a new view of London and an idea of the many worlds that go to make up the superficial worlds. The tour may bore you or depress you; perhaps both; and you will wish yourself back in the centre of things. But you will have seen the average Londoner’s London. No doubt you will never want to see it again, or to have any acquaintance with the average Londoner. And I will grant you some justification. But your tour will not have been wasted. It will have given you, for one thing, some idea of the vast extent of London, which the average visitor never gets. And your experience of the typical London of the millions will have helped you to resolve that unpolished life with the life of political London and intellectual London and fashionable London, and the tradition of historic London; and so lead you to an understanding of London as a living body functioning as one but composed of a hundred incongruous organisms.
If you follow my suggestions of aimless wanderings, you will come upon picturesque or odd corners that are not recorded in even the more esoteric guide-books; and upon many a little encounter and experience. It will be from one of these — the peculiar moment that mates with your peculiar vibrations — that you will get a vision of the soul of London. It may be that London Bridge morning and evening crowd, just mentioned. It may be an old building or a new building. It may be a vista of chimneypots. It may be a restaurant scene. It may be a lonely figure crossing a deserted street. It may be a Sunday crowd in a park. It may be a view from one of the bridges. It may be a chance remark overheard from passers-by. It may be a queer-shaped lamp in a side street. It may be a domestic interior seen through open windows. Whatever it is, it will have more power over you than any of the known and much-celebrated points. I have tried this method myself in strange cities; in Brussels, in Marseilles, in Paris, Lyons, Antwerp; and always the little thing, the everyday thing which the people of that city never mentioned, was the thing which enabled me to realise that city and isolate it from all others. Do not, therefore, make yourself interested in what you have heard or read about London. Wait until you find something that really stirs you. When you do, you will recognise it as the one thing which, where all the “sights” have failed, has brought London to life for you.
One or two of my suggested rambles will take you over the bridges to a London which few people see unless they happen to be going to Waterloo or the Oval. It has always seemed to me a little unfair that the north bank should have almost all the London that “counts,” and that the south side should be a draggle-tailed terra incognita. All that the world means when it says London is to be found on the Strand side, which has seen almost all the official and cultural development of the city. Possibly the marsh-lands on the other side had something to do with this in the beginning, but as they were drained centuries ago one would think that the south might now have a share in recognised London. So far it possesses two features only — important features, though of little interest to the general visitor. It possesses London’s seat of Government, the County Hall, and the Church’s seat of Government, Lambeth Palace. It is also the real land of Cockaigne, the true home of that spirit which gives the common Londoner his distinctive hue and quiddity. But that fact seems to interest nobody save comic draughtsmen. What it seems to need to bring its territory into London proper is a Changing of the Guard or a Leicester Square. It might then begin to look up. Failing those features, it must jog along unregarded, as it has jogged along for the last century or so. In the past, it was not without attention. It was once the centre of the theatre and amusement world (Bankside), and later it was the resort of fashion (Vauxhall). But since those days it has lived, not as London, but as South London, and I doubt if even the shifting of Charing Cross station to its bank, which has long been talked-of, will restore it to the picture.
That, of course, is looking into the distant future. It is possible that my infant godson may live long enough to see the removal of Charing Cross and the end of its bridge. (To think that that structure took the place of the graceful bridge now at Clifton-on-Avon.) It is possible that he may live to see the completion of a new Waterloo Bridge. When the English have been talking about a necessary action for ten years, and have spent another ten in planning how to carry it out, it is a fair bet that one fine day, within a third decade, they will make a job of it. That is our way, and that is why London has time to grow a patina and to develop character in new streets and new buildings often before they are completed. And by the time some ugly and long-condemned feature actually comes to be demolished, we have grown fond of it and are loth to let it go. It is these bits of ugliness standing alongside the beauties of London that arouse the astonishment of strangers. They wonder why, and none of us can explain. We can only make some limp reference to the illogical English character, which does these things, and then waits for people to ask why. There are our public statues which, like our railway stations, have stood firm against the spirit of dignity and amenity that has affected most other aspects of London through this century. Our commercial men have been more alert than the public authorities, and such good statuary as London has is due to them. They have been sensible of the times; but while their buildings are adorned by the work of Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill, the public statues of the great remain as banal as they always were. With two such spaces as Parliament Square and Trafalgar Square offering perfect sites for beautiful statuary, the best we can do with them is to fill them with Madame Tussaud effigies. Foreigners look at them and then look blandly elsewhere, as they would if served with a dusty plate at an elegant table.
On the question of South London, many foreigners have asked me why the map of London shows it as a city divided by a river, when in fact the vast tract on the south bank has no part in it, and the river is really its boundary. I have been able to give them no answer save that it’s just happened like that, and nobody has bothered about it. The streets of London, for all allusive purposes, are those on the north bank. The streets on the other side are merely streets in Lambeth and Southwark.
There are none to-day in the remotest hamlets so credulous as to think of the streets of London as paved with gold, or even of a London rich in opportunity. Yet still those streets are the magnet for all that counts in England. The provinces may hold themselves of more importance; Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Leeds may have scant regard for the metropolis, and see it only as a clearing-house for their thought and their action. But the desire of nine Englishmen in ten is to reach London and London’s approval. All who are outstanding in art, literature, science, music, medicine, law and the other intelligent departments of life, come sooner or later to London. And few provincials come to it who are not caught and held by it, and, after all their early criticism, do not find it and its life superior to life in Bradford, Huddersfield, Leicester, Nottingham, or even Manchester. Often those who want to go back find themselves staying on year by year, unable to leave it. They have found that it is a city affording little opportunity to the seeker; a city of closed doors; a city where fortunes may be spent and very seldom made; a city that remains indifferent to industry and enterprise; a city that has broken more hearts than it has rejoiced. And still they would rather be poor in London than rich in Huddersfield. Without making the smallest effort to placate them or hold them, it has got them for the rest of their lives. And it will continue to get them, for without them it could not be London.
No matter how often or how violently it changes its face and its dress, its mighty heart remains unchanged. The making of history does not tire it. The longer its story becomes, the more vigorously does it pulse and move, since it draws upon the young blood and ardent fancy of every generation. It is fed and coloured not by the people of any one part of England, but by people from the streets and pastures of every county. From Lydgate’s London, through Chaucer’s, Dekker’s, Ben Jonson’s, Addison’s, Dr. Johnson’s, Lamb’s, Dickens’ and H. G. Wells’ Londons, it remains constantly the expression of the soul and temper of the nation. From time to time, the elderly, faced with change, foresee the end of London, forgetting that what they are foreseeing is merely the end of their own idea of London. Many expressions of this attitude occur in literature; premature elegies on its passing. There is Maginn, with his lament on the destruction entailed by the making of Trafalgar Square:
Oh, London won’t be London long,
For ’twill be all pulled down;
And I shall sing a funeral song
O’er that time-honoured town.
A bad miss, that first line. Almost all the London that Maginn knew HAS been pulled down, and London is still London. It has been a thousand personalities to successive generations, and it has survived all their ideas of it, as it will survive ours. It may in time come to such an end as that of the once-important Cinque Ports, but it is scarcely likely to reach that end in this century. If the adult eyes of to-day could see it in the year 2000, they would doubtless find little to remind them of the London they knew; but for the people going about it, it will mean everything that our London means to us. It will be then, as always, the crystallisation of the contemporary spirit of the English.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51