The Scenery of London

Mitton, G. E.
1905

CHAPTER I: Poem: London As A Piece of Mosaic

CHAPTER I: Poem: London As A Piece of Mosaic

 

LONDON is not one homogeneous whole, alike in all her parts, but rather a glittering piece of mosaic work, consisting of innumerable facets, each separate in itself yet united with the rest, and forming together a wondrous and intricate pattern. There are mud-coloured lines and dark patches as well as ruby points: seen from one angle the total result is grey confusion, seen from another the radiant points so scintillate as to conceal the darker parts. Both visions are true, both are equally London, yet neither is the whole truth, for neither of mud nor of rubies is the great city made.

The casual visitor, and the foreigner who looks at her from afar, can never know London. To the latter all detail is lost, her majesty only is manifest; he sees the magnificence of the whole, heightened by the value of her position, and the permanence of her historic setting, but he sees none of the light and shade, the infinite diversity of detail which are really London. The casual visitor sees the detail prominently enough,

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but sees part of it only. He is impressed by one aspect, probably "the dust and din and steam of town," and carries that away with him as his mental reference to London. Therefore it is not the foreigner or the stranger who knows her as she should be known. That knowledge comes only after years of patient intimacy; by slow growth, like the growth of the one friendship of a lifetime; by adding facet to facet and interweaving the mosaic as a part of the background of daily life: thus only can one know the mystery and the fascination of London, and feel it in one's blood until it becomes a love second only to the strong love felt for the home of one's childhood.

The aspect most familiar to the stranger, and probably one of the most repellent, is that of the streets at mid-day on one of those days so frequent in the climatic cycle through which we are passing. A day of grey skies and mud-brown streets, when the drab and stone-coloured walls put on their dingiest tones, and the passers-by form a stream as monotonous and uninteresting as a lowland brook.

 

Any street will do as the background for such a picture. Take the end of Shaftesbury Avenue as a specimen. Here several omnibuses stand at the corner, and the passers-by thread their way amid the inert loiterers. Here is a man moving briskly, he knows what he wants, and thinks little of what may be correctly deemed a "shove "-hardly a push-in order to attain it. He is short without being exceptionally so, spare without actual thinness; his fair hair and

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moustache are sparse and straw-coloured, his face not noticeably differing from them in hue. He is decently and even warmly clothed, yet he cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be called well dressed. Age and position can only be guessed approximately, for he may be anything from five-and-twenty to forty, and in position from a plumber to a clerk. Multiply him by the million, and you have the men who make the wheels go round, with so little pleasure or profit to themselves in the process that the wonder is that the momentum which started them is sufficient to keep them running. And yet perhaps the exertion required to come to a full stop would be greater.

Here comes a boy in buttons pulling on white thread gloves as he walks, a putty-faced lad with abnormally smooth hair, and an expression which may be termed unwholesome. Two elderly ladies in passing hold up their skirts unnecessarily high, and display square-toed boots the worse for wear; they are of a better class than the young man who jumped on to the 'bus before them, "ladies" in the usual, not the shop-girl's, sense of the word. In every line of their clothes, in every movement they make, they betray the price they have paid for this gentility, namely, the loss of freedom and the narrowness of the stultified lives they lead. A bold girl comes next, with her hair in curl papers, her eyes bright and roving; you feel she is ready, on the smallest provocation, to emit the scream which with her is the sign of enjoyment; over her arm she carries a black linen cloth concealing some finished clothes which she

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has been machining for the "sweater." Two nondescript men of an altogether unascertainable rank, but well dressed and smoking cigars, part at the street corner with much affectionate handshaking and returning for another last word. Their very exuberance of friendship, in contrast with their narrow faces and untrustworthy expressions, speaks of their attempts to get the better of each other. These figures and many like them are set in a grey atmosphere, overhung by leaden skies; the surroundings are drab houses, and a muddy street.

 

It is an unlovely crowd in an unlovely environment; and this is the view they take of it who see only the mud-coloured stripes that run throughout the whole mosaic of London.

Take another point of view. Here is a young officer, very young, and fresh as a public-school boy; he is vicious neither by inclination nor habits. He comes of a good stock, which is as much as to say, in London parlance, that he " knows every one " ; he has money in his pocket, and gets away from his rather dreary station for a day or so in London. It is summer, and he plays polo at Hurlingham or Ranelagh surrounded by the fairest Englishwomen, exquisitely dressed; he dines in private houses where the appointments are perfect, the guests entertaining, beautiful, witty, or clever, at any rate never dull. He goes to the first night at a theatre where he sees a play by a well-known playwright. In the stalls some of the most notable men and women in England are pointed out to him, and all

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the time he is surrounded by an atmosphere of comfort from which mud, dirt, and the rough edge of life are carefully excluded. He has in the interspaces of other amusements, one of the best clubs in open to him, where the difficulty is to find that crumpled rose-leaf that so enhances appreciation. After the theatre or the music hall he may go to the Carlton with a party for supper. Here are the best-dressed women in Europe. At that table not far off a cabinet minister is supping with a party, beyond him is a man whom England calls her finest general. The women are all beautiful or have, what is more attractive than beauty, distinction. The soft swish of silk and satin, the delicate yet audacious combinations of colour in the gowns, the priceless laces, the scintillating jewels; the atmosphere of the right warmth, with just a suggestion of scent; the music which blends with conversation; the menu chosen by the highest connoisseur in London-that is to say in the world, and the noiseless waiting; all form a picture appealing to every sense, and soothing all. The young soldier goes back to his barracks, and the mental picture of London he carries with him is one of flashing radiance; the rubies have been his portion.

The gold of London is apparent to those whose tastes are cultivated, who are literary, artistic, scientific, or musical. In London are to be found the men who are at the top of their professions, celebrated authors, artists, and musicians. Even without being aught but a nonentity it is open to all to hear the best music composed by men famed all the world over, to see the great masterpieces

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of painting, to attend lectures by the men who are in the vanguard of science. Priceless objects of art, rare books, ancient treasures, are open free for the inspection of the poorest; these things are the real gold of the richest city in the world. Yet some find it in the evidences of wealth so apparent in what is called the season. In Hyde Park on a summer afternoon, a triple and quadruple line of carriages stretches for a mile or more from Hyde Park Corner upwards, and were the occupants to sit on golden seats they could not proclaim their wealth more certainly. The pair of roans champing their bits with haughty pride are almost priceless, and they are not exceptional, carriage after carriage in its admirable appointments speaks of money; this is one detail by which to measure the wealth of London. The Opera on a gala night may claim to rank equally, so far as display goes, for here is a "dream of fair women," exquisitely clothed and sparkling with jewellery difficult to estimate in terms of money; these women are born to wealth, and live on swansdown.

 

But what of the dark lines that run throughout the pattern, culminating here and there in black patches of terrible poverty, or of vice with or without the accompanying poverty ? These lines and patches are very obvious. Of the darker side of vice this is not the place to speak, but it is well known; the lines of poverty are not generally so much noticed. Take this one, for instance, and follow it out. Stand outside the gates of the Green Park at 4.30 A.M. It is a raw November morning without wind, and all traffic is for

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a while at rest. Near at hand may be heard in the darkness hoarse breathing, and many a husky cough, which, if it emanated from any of those you love, would madden you with anxiety. Then there is the grinding of a key in the lock, the opening of a gate, and that wretched sodden handful of men and women who have paced the wet pavements all night, with the command to "move on" breaking in on any intermittent slumbers, pass through into the wide green spaces where permission to sleep is graciously accorded them. Sleep ! What mockery; with the dawn of a damp winter morning enwalling them round, with the terrible darkness of the sky for a ceiling overhead; with the soaking, tufted grass for mattress upon a bed of sodden soil. For furniture in this vast bedroom, a few dripping trees, and soaked seats. What could one want more ? If it were summer the weary ones would fling themselves in all attitudes on the grass, looking like bundles of old clothes, and lie there half the day, men and women alike, until maybe the sun had put a little reviving life into their chill bodies. But in winter even those stiff and tired limbs decline the inviting "bed," and prefer the hard wooden seat, which does not strike so chill to rheumatic bones, and sitting there at an angle, which ensures with perfect certainty a cricked neck, the miserable, empty, ill-clad creatures sleep in sheer exhaustion until the rumble of the omnibuses in has long been heard; sleep until the sun is well risen, a disc of burnished copper against a sky of solid slate; sleep until the string of brisk clerks of both sexes tramp

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along the diagonal path which crosses the wide green space. These outcasts, when they at length bestir themselves, make a rough toilet in the park in view of all the world. There the women shake out their battered, shapeless hats, and wipe their faces with a dirty bit of rag, smoothing their tangled shreds of hair with their hands. There may be seen a man, in a faded green coat, tying the bit of knotted string that holds his "boot" together. They are pulling themselves up to face once more the infinity of days that stretches before them.

 

Then they sally forth to " pick over" the refuse of the dust-bins, and find therein treasures. They may be seen any morning before the dust-carts have removed the contents of those prim, cylindrical zinc receptacles on which the British householder prides himself. These grim, gaunt creatures, never young and never very old, prowling around with furtive air, turning over filth that makes a decent man sick to look at, and grasping at the revolting details to carry them away. Take as a specimen this one drawn from life, a small man with a woolly black beard and matted hair, who shuffles along in a pair of enormous flat boots that turn up at the toes and look as if they had no feet in them. His trousers are split at the seams and hang in tatters touching the ground, in places they are caked with ancient mud; his coat is of many shades of weather-worn green, bulging at the pockets with the treasure-trove found in the dust heaps, and hangs at the back in rags, showing several linings; the man is a human kite living on offal, and degraded inexpressibly.

In the neighbourhood of, about nine o'clock there may often be seen an irregular army of shabby men, worn and pinched with hunger, scattering to the right and left across the roadway; these are the rejected of the men who give out sandwich boards; they have been unable to obtain a " job" even of the lowest sort, others have been preferred before them. These instances are but lines and threads of that blackness that is woven throughout the pattern. It needs the vocabulary of a Carlyle to describe London, so we will end with straight-spoken Thomas:-

London City, with all its houses, palaces, steam-engines, cathedrals, and huge immeasurable traffic and tumult. What is it but a Thought, but millions of Thoughts made into one; a huge immeasurable Spirit of a Thought, embodied in brick, in iron, smoke, dust, palaces, parliaments, hackney-coaches, Katherine Docks, and the rest of it !