It is a theory of mine that one very rarely sees the last of anything. In a sense, of course, we have seen the last of the horsed omnibuses of London; we know that we shall never more behold them lumbering along the streets; those vehicles that would look almost like toys to us now, but then seemed great and gay. The last one that I saw at all was quiescent, and not in motion. There is a wharf by the canal somewhere in Camden Town. It looks as if somebody had thought of pulling it down or of turning it into something else, and had then despaired of his endeavour. On this wharf I noted, a few years ago, an old omnibus standing desolate. It is possible that the owner of the wharf had a notion that it would make a good barge: but this fancy also went the way of his other dreams. We have seen the last of the horse-omnibuses in one sense, but who can come forward and declare that he was a passenger in or on the last journey made by the last horse-omnibus in London? The old machine endured, I think, into the war. I tried to keep my eye on one that plied from Somerset House to Waterloo and back; but it faded imperceptibly and was gone. So with the Valentine. Who bought the last Valentine, and when? I can remember very well indeed the days in which the fourteenth of the month of February came with a flutter of excitement to the breakfast-table. There was no knowing what the post might or might not bring in the way of sentiment or comedy. There were the fine and scented Valentines in cardboard boxes, puffy with cotton-wool and the tenderest feelings; things of silk and satin, delicately scented, painted with flowers. And then there was satire of the milder kind, pictures of absurd young men holding crutchsticks and chewing toothpicks and looking foolish. These mortified the more sensitive recipients; and there was always the anxiety of wondering whose hand had sped the dart. The writing on the envelope was of course disguised, or written by some person whose script was unknown to the receiver of the Valentine. Hence the question: was it only that fool Bill; or, alas! was it from the fair adored Hermione?
But there was a third class of Valentine; the kind which the butcher’s boy sent to the cook, which the housemaid dispatched to the young greengrocer whose suit she scorned. No ‘nice’ stationer kept these Valentines. They were to be sought in back streets, near the rag-and-bone shop, close at hand to the broken-down furniture warehouse. They stood in rows in the windows of mean shops; things made of the thinnest paper, about five inches broad by eighteen long. They bore hideous libels on the human form, outlined in black with liberal splashes of coarse red paint, usually determining to the nose. On these things cook, who in real life was a pleasant, comfortable body, would find herself depicted as bloated beyond recognition. Beside her a bottle of brandy, half finished, might stand, and a horrid verse below would sing:
You always find the kitchen dripping handy: You know the way to turn it into brandy.
Thus insinuating against the poor woman the vice, not only of dishonesty, but inebriety. So the young greengrocer would be counselled to keep his carrots for his own consumption, instead of wasting them on his ass:
To say the least, If he’s a four-legged, you’re a two-legged beast.
And so on, and so on. The satire was somewhat ponderous, perhaps; but those were hearty days. The butcher boy, in particular, was an irresistible and an easy mark. Here was the opportunity for the red pigment, and plenty of it. The poor lad was depicted as gnawing a huge and bloody bone with loathsome appetite and hideous grimaces, and underneath would run the legend:
You starved so long at home You went abroad to gnaw a bone.
And all these fine, brave things are gone! It is years upon years since I have seen them hung up in the small shops in the back streets. I think, somehow, that the last of all must have been on view in the purlieus of Hoxton; Hoxton the home of lost causes; the last place to have a genuine theatrical stock company, the last place, I fear, which will make the toy theatre, the delight of so many childhoods that have since turned to dismal old age. And I am wondering whether any collector, wise in time, felt by instinct that the day of the vulgar Valentines was almost done, and so collected them forthwith. Probably such a man arose in the nick of time; a man who specialized in this one subject, and could tell you the very year of the first Valentine depicting that bloated cook and that sanguineous butcher boy, of the firm which had the monopoly of their production. If you know this man he will show you his portfolio of back-street Valentines, and point out the rarer specimens, even the unique Undertaker Valentine, a lachrymose and drunken fellow, shedding hypocritical tears, and illustrating the couplet:
You swab your eyes, but not with grief, You want more gin for your relief.
There must be some such collection, I am sure, and if it is but given time to age, it will become valuable. For here is one of the most curious things in that complex which we call human nature; age will give merit to anything, or almost anything. The vulgarest abuse scrawled on the walls of Pompeii has a huge interest to us; and the time will come when those old pasquinades of the London slums of twenty, thirty, fifty years ago may give more delight than grave books full of science. For, if one thinks it over, it will appear that science, which has always assumed such great airs, is one of the most fleeting and evanescent of things. It does not last; it becomes perilously near nothing at all. Take a chemistry book of twenty-five years ago, with its dogmas of the intransmutable elements, and the atom as the ultimate of matter. The elements, or some of them, have been transmuted; the atom is a universe of electrons: the chemistry of 1895 is but an idle tale. But old fellows will still chuckle as they draw their bald old heads together in the club window and recall the remark made by the driver of the ‘John Bull’ to the conductor of the yellow ‘Tilling’ in 1895, one fine summer evening.
I think some substitute should be found for the vanished Valentine and its observances. Suppose we made February 14 a day on which we could do what we liked — of course without malice or injury to our neighbours. Suppose we made a regular wild day of it, and insisted on buying chocolate creams — and why not bullseyes? — at 8.15 p.m.; on having another glass of small beer after ten, on buying cigarettes openly at eleven.
Why not — to use a vulgar old expression — go the whole hog on St. Valentine’s Day, and make believe we are Englishmen again, not inmates of a Home of Care and Restraint for the Feeble-minded?
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53