I’d dropped my papers at the office. Warner is one of these cheap American dentists, and he has his consulting-room, or ‘parlour’ as he likes to call it, halfway up a big block of offices, between a photographer and a rubber-goods wholesaler. I was early for my appointment, but it was time for a bit of grub. I don’t know what put it into my head to go into a milk-bar. They’re places I generally avoid. We five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers aren’t well served in the way of eating-places in London. If your idea of the amount to spend on a meal is one and threepence, it’s either Lyons, the Express Dairy, or the A.B.C., or else it’s the kind of funeral snack they serve you in the saloon bar, a pint of bitter and a slab of cold pie, so cold that it’s colder than the beer. Outside the milk-bar the boys were yelling the first editions of the evening papers.
Behind the bright red counter a girl in a tall white cap was fiddling with an ice-box, and somewhere at the back a radio was playing, plonk-tiddle-tiddle-plonk, a kind of tinny sound. Why the hell am I coming here? I thought to myself as I went in. There’s a kind of atmosphere about these places that gets me down. Everything slick and shiny and streamlined; mirrors, enamel, and chromium plate whichever direction you look in. Everything spent on the decorations and nothing on the food. No real food at all. Just lists of stuff with American names, sort of phantom stuff that you can’t taste and can hardly believe in the existence of. Everything comes out of a carton or a tin, or it’s hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube. No comfort, no privacy. Tall stools to sit on, a kind of narrow ledge to eat off, mirrors all round you. A sort of propaganda floating round, mixed up with the noise of the radio, to the effect that food doesn’t matter, comfort doesn’t matter, nothing matters except slickness and shininess and streamlining. Everything’s streamlined nowadays, even the bullet Hitler’s keeping for you. I ordered a large coffee and a couple of frankfurters. The girl in the white cap jerked them at me with about as much interest as you’d throw ants’ eggs to a goldfish.
Outside the door a newsboy yelled ‘StarnoosstanNERD!’ I saw the poster flapping against his knees: LEGS. FRESH DISCOVERIES. Just ‘legs’, you notice. It had got down to that. Two days earlier they’d found a woman’s legs in a railway waiting-room, done up in a brown-paper parcel, and what with successive editions of the papers, the whole nation was supposed to be so passionately interested in these blasted legs that they didn’t need any further introduction. They were the only legs that were news at the moment. It’s queer, I thought, as I ate a bit of roll, how dull the murders are getting nowadays. All this cutting people up and leaving bits of them about the countryside. Not a patch on the old domestic poisoning dramas, Crippen, Seddon, Mrs Maybrick; the truth being, I suppose, that you can’t do a good murder unless you believe you’re going to roast in hell for it.
At this moment I bit into one of my frankfurters, and — Christ!
I can’t honestly say that I’d expected the thing to have a pleasant taste. I’d expected it to taste of nothing, like the roll. But this — well, it was quite an experience. Let me try and describe it to you.
The frankfurter had a rubber skin, of course, and my temporary teeth weren’t much of a fit. I had to do a kind of sawing movement before I could get my teeth through the skin. And then suddenly — pop! The thing burst in my mouth like a rotten pear. A sort of horrible soft stuff was oozing all over my tongue. But the taste! For a moment I just couldn’t believe it. Then I rolled my tongue round it again and had another try. It was FISH! A sausage, a thing calling itself a frankfurter, filled with fish! I got up and walked straight out without touching my coffee. God knows what that might have tasted of.
Outside the newsboy shoved the Standard into my face and yelled, ‘Legs! ‘Orrible revelations! All the winners! Legs! Legs!’ I was still rolling the stuff round my tongue, wondering where I could spit it out. I remembered a bit I’d read in the paper somewhere about these food-factories in Germany where everything’s made out of something else. Ersatz, they call it. I remembered reading that THEY were making sausages out of fish, and fish, no doubt, out of something different. It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth.
When I’d got the new teeth in I felt a lot better. They sat nice and smooth over the gums, and though very likely it sounds absurd to say that false teeth can make you feel younger, it’s a fact that they did so. I tried a smile at myself in a shop window. They weren’t half bad. Warner, though cheap, is a bit of an artist and doesn’t aim at making you look like a toothpaste advert. He’s got huge cabinets full of false teeth — he showed them to me once — all graded according to size and colour, and he picks them out like a jeweller choosing stones for a necklace. Nine people out of ten would have taken my teeth for natural.
I caught a full-length glimpse of myself in another window I was passing, and it struck me that really I wasn’t such a bad figure of a man. A bit on the fat side, admittedly, but nothing offensive, only what the tailors call a ‘full figure’, and some women like a man to have a red face. There’s life in the old dog yet, I thought. I remembered my seventeen quid, and definitely made up my mind that I’d spend it on a woman. There was time to have a pint before the pubs shut, just to baptize the teeth, and feeling rich because of my seventeen quid I stopped at a tobacconist’s and bought myself a sixpenny cigar of a kind I’m rather partial to. They’re eight inches long and guaranteed pure Havana leaf all through. I suppose cabbages grow in Havana the same as anywhere else.
When I came out of the pub I felt quite different.
I’d had a couple of pints, they’d warmed me up inside, and the cigar smoke oozing round my new teeth gave me a fresh, clean, peaceful sort of feeling. All of a sudden I felt kind of thoughtful and philosophic. It was partly because I didn’t have any work to do. My mind went back to the thoughts of war I’d been having earlier that morning, when the bomber flew over the train. I felt in a kind of prophetic mood, the mood in which you foresee the end of the world and get a certain kick out of it.
I was walking westward up the Strand, and though it was coldish I went slowly to get the pleasure of my cigar. The usual crowd that you can hardly fight your way through was streaming up the pavement, all of them with that insane fixed expression on their faces that people have in London streets, and there was the usual jam of traffic with the great red buses nosing their way between the cars, and the engines roaring and horns tooting. Enough noise to waken the dead, but not to waken this lot, I thought. I felt as if I was the only person awake in a city of sleep-walkers. That’s an illusion, of course. When you walk through a crowd of strangers it’s next door to impossible not to imagine that they’re all waxworks, but probably they’re thinking just the same about you. And this kind of prophetic feeling that keeps coming over me nowadays, the feeling that war’s just round the corner and that war’s the end of all things, isn’t peculiar to me. We’ve all got it, more or less. I suppose even among the people passing at that moment there must have been chaps who were seeing mental pictures of the shellbursts and the mud. Whatever thought you think there’s always a million people thinking it at the same moment. But that was how I felt. We’re all on the burning deck and nobody knows it except me. I looked at the dumb-bell faces streaming past. Like turkeys in November, I thought. Not a notion of what’s coming to them. It was as if I’d got X-rays in my eyes and could see the skeletons walking.
I looked forward a few years. I saw this street as it’ll be in five years’ time, say, or three years’ time (1941 they say it’s booked for), after the fighting’s started.
No, not all smashed to pieces. Only a little altered, kind of chipped and dirty-looking, the shop-windows almost empty and so dusty that you can’t see into them. Down a side street there’s an enormous bomb-crater and a block of buildings burnt out so that it looks like a hollow tooth. Thermite. It’s all curiously quiet, and everyone’s very thin. A platoon of soldiers comes marching up the street. They’re all as thin as rakes and their boots are dragging. The sergeant’s got corkscrew moustaches and holds himself like a ramrod, but he’s thin too and he’s got a cough that almost tears him open. Between his coughs he’s trying to bawl at them in the old parade-ground style. ‘Nah then, Jones! Lift yer ‘ed up! What yer keep starin’ at the ground for? All them fag- ends was picked up years ago.’ Suddenly a fit of coughing catches him. He tries to stop it, can’t, doubles up like a ruler, and almost coughs his guts out. His face turns pink and purple, his moustache goes limp, and the water runs out of his eyes.
I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loud-speakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners. I see a top-floor-back in Birmingham and a child of five howling and howling for a bit of bread. And suddenly the mother can’t stand it any longer, and she yells at it, ‘Shut your trap, you little bastard!’ and then she ups the child’s frock and smacks its bottom hard, because there isn’t any bread and isn’t going to be any bread. I see it all. I see the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows.
Is it going to happen? No knowing. Some days it’s impossible to believe it. Some days I say to myself that it’s just a scare got up by the newspapers. Some days I know in my bones there’s no escaping it.
When I got down near Charing Cross the boys were yelling a later edition of the evening papers. There was some more drivel about the murder. LEGS. FAMOUS SURGEON’S STATEMENT. Then another poster caught my eye: KING ZOG’S WEDDING POSTPONED. King Zog! What a name! It’s next door to impossible to believe a chap with a name like that isn’t a jet-black Negro.
But just at that moment a queer thing happened. King Zog’s name — but I suppose, as I’d already seen the name several times that day, it was mixed up with some sound in the traffic or the smell of horse-dung or something — had started memories in me.
The past is a curious thing. It’s with you all the time. I suppose an hour never passes without your thinking of things that happened ten or twenty years ago, and yet most of the time it’s got no reality, it’s just a set of facts that you’ve learned, like a lot of stuff in a history book. Then some chance sight or sound or smell, especially smell, sets you going, and the past doesn’t merely come back to you, you’re actually IN the past. It was like that at this moment.
I was back in the parish church at Lower Binfield, and it was thirty-eight years ago. To outward appearances, I suppose, I was still walking down the Strand, fat and forty-five, with false teeth and a bowler hat, but inside me I was Georgie Bowling, aged seven, younger son of Samuel Bowling, corn and seed merchant, of 57 High Street, Lower Binfield. And it was Sunday morning, and I could smell the church. How I could smell it! You know the smell churches have, a peculiar, dank, dusty, decaying, sweetish sort of smell. There’s a touch of candle-grease in it, and perhaps a whiff of incense and a suspicion of mice, and on Sunday mornings it’s a bit overlaid by yellow soap and serge dresses, but predominantly it’s that sweet, dusty, musty smell that’s like the smell of death and life mixed up together. It’s powdered corpses, really.
In those days I was about four feet high. I was standing on the hassock so as to see over the pew in front, and I could feel Mother’s black serge dress under my hand. I could also feel my stockings pulled up over my knees — we used to wear them like that then — and the saw edge of the Eton collar they used to buckle me into on Sunday mornings. And I could hear the organ wheezing and two enormous voices bellowing out the psalm. In our church there were two men who led the singing, in fact they did so much of the singing that nobody else got much of a chance. One was Shooter, the fishmonger, and the other was old Wetherall, the joiner and undertaker. They used to sit opposite one another on either side of the nave, in the pews nearest the pulpit. Shooter was a short fat man with a very pink, smooth face, a big nose, drooping moustache, and a chin that kind of fell away beneath his mouth. Wetherall was quite different. He was a great, gaunt, powerful old devil of about sixty, with a face like a death’s-head and stiff grey hair half an inch long all over his head. I’ve never seen a living man who looked so exactly like a skeleton. You could see every line of the skull in his face, his skin was like parchment, and his great lantern jaw full of yellow teeth worked up and down just like the jaw of a skeleton in an anatomical museum. And yet with all his leanness he looked as strong as iron, as though he’d live to be a hundred and make coffins for everyone in that church before he’d finished. Their voices were quite different, too. Shooter had a kind of desperate, agonized bellow, as though someone had a knife at his throat and he was just letting out his last yell for help. But Wetherall had a tremendous, churning, rumbling noise that happened deep down inside him, like enormous barrels being rolled to and fro underground. However much noise he let out, you always knew he’d got plenty more in reserve. The kids nicknamed him Rumbletummy.
They used to get up a kind of antiphonal effect, especially in the psalms. It was always Wetherall who had the last word. I suppose really they were friends in private life, but in my kid’s way I used to imagine that they were deadly enemies and trying to shout one another down. Shooter would roar out ‘The Lord is my shepherd’, and then Wetherall would come in with ‘Therefore can I lack nothing’, drowning him completely. You always knew which of the two was master. I used especially to look forward to that psalm that has the bit about Sihon king of the Amorites and Og the king of Bashan (this was what King Zog’s name had reminded me of). Shooter would start off with ‘Sihon king of the Amorites’, then perhaps for half a second you could hear the rest of the congregation singing the ‘and’, and then Wetherall’s enormous bass would come in like a tidal wave and swallow everybody up with ‘Og the king of Bashan’. I wish I could make you hear the tremendous, rumbling, subterranean barrel-noise that he could get into that word ‘Og’. He even used to clip off the end of the ‘and’, so that when I was a very small kid I used to think it was Dog the king of Bashan. But later, when I got the names right, I formed a picture in my mind’s eye of Sihon and Og. I saw them as a couple of those great Egyptian statues that I’d seen pictures of in the penny encyclopedia, enormous stone statues thirty feet high, sitting on their thrones opposite one another, with their hands on their knees and a faint mysterious smile on their faces.
How it came back to me! That peculiar feeling — it was only a feeling, you couldn’t describe it as an activity — that we used to call ‘Church’. The sweet corpsy smell, the rustle of Sunday dresses, the wheeze of the organ and the roaring voices, the spot of light from the hole in the window creeping slowly up the nave. In some way the grown-ups could put it across that this extraordinary performance was necessary. You took it for granted, just as you took the Bible, which you got in big doses in those days. There were texts on every wall and you knew whole chapters of the O.T. by heart. Even now my head’s stuffed full of bits out of the Bible. And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord. And Asher abode in his breeches. Followed them from Dan until thou come unto Beersheba. Smote him under the fifth rib, so that he died. You never understood it, you didn’t try to or want to, it was just a kind of medicine, a queer-tasting stuff that you had to swallow and knew to be in some way necessary. An extraordinary rigmarole about people with names like Shimei and Nebuchadnezzar and Ahithophel and Hashbadada; people with long stiff garments and Assyrian beards, riding up and down on camels among temples and cedar trees and doing extraordinary things. Sacrificing burnt offerings, walking about in fiery furnaces, getting nailed on crosses, getting swallowed by whales. And all mixed up with the sweet graveyard smell and the serge dresses and the wheeze of the organ.
That was the world I went back to when I saw the poster about King Zog. For a moment I didn’t merely remember it, I was IN it. Of course such impressions don’t last more than a few seconds. A moment later it was as though I’d opened my eyes again, and I was forty-five and there was a traffic jam in the Strand. But it had left a kind of after-effect behind. Sometimes when you come out of a train of thought you feel as if you were coming up from deep water, but this time it was the other way about, it was as though it was back in 1900 that I’d been breathing real air. Even now, with my eyes open, so to speak, all those bloody fools hustling to and fro, and the posters and the petrol-stink and the roar of the engines, seemed to me less real than Sunday morning in Lower Binfield thirty-eight years ago.
I chucked away my cigar and walked on slowly. I could smell the corpse-smell. In a manner of speaking I can smell it now. I’m back in Lower Binfield, and the year’s 1900. Beside the horse- trough in the market-place the carrier’s horse is having its nose- bag. At the sweet-shop on the corner Mother Wheeler is weighing out a ha’porth of brandy balls. Lady Rampling’s carriage is driving by, with the tiger sitting behind in his pipeclayed breeches with his arms folded. Uncle Ezekiel is cursing Joe Chamberlain. The recruiting-sergeant in his scarlet jacket, tight blue overalls, and pillbox hat, is strutting up and down twisting his moustache. The drunks are puking in the yard behind the George. Vicky’s at Windsor, God’s in heaven, Christ’s on the cross, Jonah’s in the whale, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are in the fiery furnace, and Sihon king of the Amorites and Og the king of Bashan are sitting on their thrones looking at one another — not doing anything exactly, just existing, keeping their appointed place, like a couple of fire-dogs, or the Lion and the Unicorn.
Is it gone for ever? I’m not certain. But I tell you it was a good world to live in. I belong to it. So do you.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58