NIGHTS IN LONDON
Author of "Limehouse Nights."
New York Henry Holt and Company 1918
First published in 1915 Popular Edition . 1918
The day dies in a wrath of cloud, Flecking her roofs with pallid rain, And dies its music, harsh and loud, Struck from the tiresome strings of pain.
Her highways leap to festal bloom, And swallow-swift the traffic skims O'er sudden shoals of light and gloom, Made lovelier where the distance dims.
Robed by her tiring-maid, the dusk, The town lies in a silvered bower, As, from a miserable husk, The lily robes herself with flower.
And all her tangled streets are gay, And all her rudenesses are gone; For, howso pitiless the day, The evening brings delight alone.
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
LIMEHOUSE NIGHTS: TALES OF CHINATOWN TWINKLETOES.
WHO STILL ENJOYS A NIGHT IN TOWN
These chapters on London life deal almost exclusively with the period before war, when the citizen was permitted to live in freedom, to develop himself to his finest possibilities, and to pursue happiness as he was meant to do. Since the delights of these happy times have been taken from us, perhaps never to be restored, it is well that they should be recorded before they are forgotten. T. B.
PAGE NOCTURNAL 11
AN ENTERTAINMENT NIGHT (Round the Halls) 27
A CHINESE NIGHT (Limehouse) 57
A DOMESTIC NIGHT (Clapham Common) 73
A LONELY NIGHT (Kingsland Road) 83
A MUSICAL NIGHT (The Opera, the Promenades) 95
A JEWISH NIGHT (Whitechapel) 109
A HAPPY NIGHT (Surbiton and Battersea) 119
A WORKER'S NIGHT (The Isle of Dogs) 135
A CHARITABLE NIGHT (East, West, North, South) 157
A FRENCH NIGHT (Old Compton Street) 175
AN ITALIAN NIGHT (Clerkenwell) 185
A BASHER'S NIGHT (Hoxton) 197
A DOWN-STREAM NIGHT (Blackwall) 207
AN ART NIGHT (Chelsea) 215
A RUSSIAN NIGHT (Stepney) 225
A SCANDINAVIAN NIGHT (Shadwell) 237
A SUNDAY NIGHT (Anywhere) 249
AT RANDOM 259
From the Circus to The Square There's an avenue of light; Golden lamps are everywhere From the Circus to The Square; And the rose-winged hours there Pass like lovely birds in flight. From The Circus to The Square There's an avenue of light.
London yields herself to men With the dying of the day. Let the twilight come, and then London yields herself to men. Lords of wealth or slaves of pen, We, her lovers, all will say: London yields herself to men With the dying of the day.
NIGHTS IN LONDON
For the few who have an eye for the beauty of townscapes, London by night is the loveliest thing in the world. Only in the London night may the connoisseur find so many vistas of sudden beauty, because London was never made: she has "growed." Paris affords no townscapes: everything there is too perfectly arranged; its artificiality is at once apparent. In London alone he finds those fantastic groupings, those monstrous masses of light and shade and substance.
Take London from whatever point you will and she will satisfy. For the rustic the fields of corn, the craggy mountain, the blossomy lane, or the rush of water through the greenwood. But for your good Cockney the shoals of gloom, the dusky tracery of chimney-stack and gaswork, the torn waste of tiles, and the subtle tones of dawn and dark in lurking court and alley. Was there ever a lovelier piece of colour than Cannon Street Station at night? Entering by train, you see it as a huge vault of lilac shadow, pierced by innumerable pallid arclights. The roof flings itself against the sky, a mountain of glass and interlacing girders, and about it play a hundred indefinite and ever-changing tones. Each platform seems a lane through a dim forest, where the trees are of iron and steel and the leaves are sullen windows. Or where shall you find a sweeter pastoral than that field of lights that thrills the midnight sojourner in lower Piccadilly? Or where a more rapturous river-piece than that to be glimpsed from Hungerford footbridge as the Embankment lights and stones surge east and west towards Blackfriars and Chelsea? Or where a panorama like those that sweep before you from Highgate Archway or the Islington Angel?
But your good Cockney finds his joy not merely in the opulent masses of gloom and glare. For him London holds infinite delicacies. There is a short street in Walworth Road—East Street—which is as perfect as any nightscape ever conceived by any artist. At day or dark it is incomparably subtle. By day it is a lane of crazy meat and vegetable stalls and tumbling houses, whose colours chime softly with their background. By night it is a dainty riot of flame and tousled stone, the gentle dusk of the near distance deepening imperceptibly to purple, and finally to haunting chaos. And—it is a beautiful thought—there are thousands and thousands of streets in London where similar ecstasy awaits the evening wanderer. There is Edgware Road, with its clamorous by-streets, alluring at all times, but strangely so at twilight. To dash down the great road on a motor-'bus is to take a joy-ride through a fairyland of common things newly revealed, and to look back from Dollis Hill is to look back, not on Kilburn or Paddington or Marylebone, but on the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
Moreover, London wears always new beauties for the faithful—new aspects, sudden revelations. What was beautiful yesterday is gone, and a new splendour is presented. Building operations are begun here, house-breaking is in progress there, the gaunt scaffolding making its own beauty against the night sky. Always, throughout the seasons, her townscapes are there to cheer, to entrance, to satisfy. At dawn or noon or dusk she stands superb; but perhaps most superb when the day is done, and her lights, the amazing whites and yellows and golds, blossom on every hand in their tangled garden and her lovers cluster thicker and thicker to worship at her shrine and spend a night in town.
* * * * *
Nights in town! If you are a good Cockney that phrase will sting your blood and set your heart racing back to—well, to those nights in town, gay or sad, glorious or desperate, but ever sweet to linger upon. There is no night in all the world so rich in delicate delights as the London night. You cannot have a bad night in London unless you are a bad Cockney—or a tourist; for the difference between the London night and the continental night is just the difference between making a cult of pleasure and a passion of it. The Paris night, the Berlin night, the Viennese night—how dreary and clangy and obvious! But the London night is spontaneous, always expressive of your mood. Your gaieties, your little escapades are never ready-made here. You must go out for them and stumble upon them, wondrously, in dark places, being sure that whatever you may want London will give you. She asks nothing; she gives everything. You need bring nothing but love. Only to very few of us is she the stony-hearted stepmother. We, who are all her lovers, active or passive, know that she loves each one of us. The passive lover loves her as he loves his mother, not knowing his love, not knowing if she be beautiful, not caring, but knowing that she is there, has always been there, to listen, to help, to solace. But the others who love her consciously, love her as mistress or wife. For them she is more perfect than perfection, adorable in every mood, season, or attire. They love her in velvet, they love her in silk; she is marvellous in broadcloth, shoddy, or corduroy. But, like a woman, her deepest beauty she holds for the soft hours when the brute day is ended and all mankind sighs for rest and warmth. Then she is her very self. Beauty she has by day, but it is the cold, incomplete beauty of a woman before she has given herself. With the lyric evening she surrenders all the wealth and wonder of her person to her lover: beauty in full flower.
As a born Londoner, I cannot remember a time when London was not part of me and I part of London. Things that happen to London happen to me. Changes in London are changes in me, and changes in my affairs and circumstances have again and again changed the entire face of London. Whatever the mood or the occasion, London is behind it. I can never say that I am happy or downcast. London and I are happy, London and I are having a good time, or are lost in the deeps. Always she has fallen to my mood, caught the temper of the hour; always is waiting, the fond mother or the gracious mistress, with stretched hand, to succour and sympathize in sorrow, to rejoice in good fortune.
And always it is London by lamplight which I vision when I think of her, for it was the London of lamplight that first called to me, as a child. She hardly exists for me in any other mood or dress. It was London by night that awoke me to a sense of that terrible spirit which we call Beauty, to be possessed by which is as unsettling and as sweetly frightful as to be possessed by Love. London, of course, is always calling us, if we have ears to hear, sometimes in a soft, caressing voice, as difficult to hear as the fairies' song, sometimes in a deep, impelling chant. Open your window when you will in the gloating evening, whether you live in town, in the near suburbs, or in the far suburbs—open your window and listen. You will hear London singing to you; and if you are one of her chosen you will have no sleep that night until you have answered her. There is nothing for it but to slip out and be abroad in the grey, furtive streets, or in the streets loud with lamps and loafers, and jostle the gay men and girls, or mingle with the chaste silences.
It is the Call not only of London, but of Beauty, of Life. Beauty calls in many voices; but to me and to six million others she calls in the voice of Cockaigne, and it shall go hard with any man who hears the Call and does not answer. To every man, young or old, comes, once in his life, this Call of Beauty. At that moment he awakens to a realization of better things than himself and his foolish little life. To that vague abstraction which we call the average man it comes mostly with first love or religion, sometimes with last love. But come it does to each one of us, and it behoves us all to hearken. So many of us hear, and let it pass. The gleam pauses in our path for an instant, but we turn our backs and plod the road of materialism, and we fade and grow old and die without ever having lived. Only in the pursuit of beauty is youth retained; and beauty is no respecter of person, place, or time. Everywhere it manifests itself.
In the young man of the leisured classes this sense only awakens late in life. He is educated to consider only himself, to regard himself as, in the Broadway phrase, a serious proposition; and some time must pass before he discovers, with a pained surprise, that there are other people in the world, and that his little life matters not at all in the eternal scheme. Then, one day, something happens. He falls in love, perhaps; and under the shock of the blow he discovers that he wants something—something he has not known before, something he cannot name: God, Beauty, Prayer, call it what you will. He discovers a thousand subtle essences of life which his clumsy taste had hitherto passed. He discovers that there is a life of ideas, that principles and ideals are something more than mere fooling for dry-minded people, that thoughts are as important as things. In a word, he has heard the Call of Beauty. Just as a man may live in the same house with a girl for years, and then one day will discover that she is beautiful, that she is adorable, that he cannot lose her from his life, so we live surrounded by unregarded beauty, until we awake. So for seven years I was surrounded by the glory of London before I knew that I loved her....
When I was a small child I was as other children of our set. I played their games in the street. I talked their language. I shared their ambitions. I worshipped their gods. Life was a business of Board School, breakfast, dinner, tea, struggled for and eaten casually, either at the table or at the door or other convenient spot. I should grow up. I should be, I hoped, a City clerk. I should wear stand-up collars. I might have a moustache. For Sunday I might have a frock-coat and silk hat, and, if I were very clever and got on well, a white waistcoat. I should have a house—six rooms and a garden, and I might be able to go to West End theatres sometimes, and sit in the pit instead of the gallery. And some day I might even ride in a hansom-cab, though I should have to succeed wonderfully to do that. I hoped I should succeed wonderfully, because then the other boys at the Board School would look up to me.
Thus I lived for ten years. A primrose by the river's brim was no more to me than to Peter Bell, or, since I had never seen a primrose growing, shall I say that the fried-fish shop at the corner of the High Street was but a fried-fish shop, visited once a week rapturously. But after the awakening, everything was changed. Things assumed a hitherto hidden significance. Beauty broke her blossoms everywhere about the grey streets and the sordid interiors that were my environment.
And my moment was given to me by London. The call came to me in a dirty street at night. The street was short and narrow, its ugliness softened here and there by the liquid lights of shops, the most beautiful of all standing at the corner. This was the fried-fish shop. It was a great night, because I was celebrating my seventh birthday, and I was proud and everything seemed to be sharing in my pride. Then, as I strutted, an organ, lost in strange lands about five streets away, broke into music. I had heard organs many times, and I loved them. But I had never heard an organ play "Suwanee River," in the dusk of an October night, with a fried-fish shop ministering to my nose and flinging clouds of golden glory about me, and myself seven years old. Momentarily, it struck me silly—so silly that some big boy pointed a derisive finger. It somehow ... I don't know.... It....
Well, as the organ choked and gurgled through the outrageous sentimentality of that song, I awoke. Something had happened to me. Through the silver evening a host of little dreams and desires came tripping down the street, beckoning and bobbing in rhythm to the old tune; and as the last of the luscious phrases trickled over the roofs I found myself half-laughing, half-crying, thrilled and tickled as never before. It made me want to die for some one. I think it was for London I wanted to die, or for the fried-fish shop and the stout lady and gentleman who kept it. I had never noticed that street before, except to remark that it wasn't half low and common. But now it had suffered a change. I could no longer sniff at it. I would as soon have said something disrespectful about Hymns Ancient and Modern.
I walked home by myself, and everything answered this wonderful new mood. I knew that life was rapture, and, as I looked back at the fried-fish shop, swimming out of the drab murk, it seemed to me that there could never be anything of such sheer lyrical loveliness outside heaven. I could have screamed for joy of it. I said softly to myself that it was Lovely, Lovely, Lovely; and I danced home, and I danced to bed, and my heart so danced that it was many hours before I slept.
From that day London has been my mistress. I knew this a few days later, when, as a birthday treat, I was taken to see the illuminations in our district—we were living near the Langham Hotel then—for the marriage of some princess or the birth of some royal baby. Whenever I am away from London—never more than ten days at a time—and think of her, she comes to me as I saw her then from a height of three-foot-five: huge black streets rent with loud traffic and ablaze with light from roof to pavement; shop-fronts full of magical things, drowned in the lemon light which served the town at that time; and crowds of wonderful people whom I had never met before and longed deeply to meet again. I wondered where they were all going, what they would do next, what they would have for supper, and why they didn't seem superlatively joyful at their good fortune in being able to ride at will in cabs and omnibuses and take their meals at restaurants. There were jolly fellows, graceful little girls, all better clad than I, enjoying the sights, and at last, like me, disappearing down side-streets to go to mysterious, distant homes.
HOMES. Yes, I think that phrase sums up my London: the City of Homes. To lie down at night to sleep among six million homes, to know that all about you, in high garret or sumptuous bedchamber, six million people are sleeping, or suffering, or loving, is to me the most impressive event of my daily life.
Have you ever, when walking home very late at night, looked down the grey suburban streets, with their hundred monotonous-faced houses, and thought that there sleep men, women, and children, free for a few hours from lust and hate and fear, all of them romantic, all of them striving, in their separate ways, to be happy, all of them passionate for their little span of life; and then thought that that street is but one of thousands and thousands which radiate to every point, and that all the night air of one city is holding the passions of those millions of creatures? I suppose I have a trite mind, but there is, to me, something stupendous in that thought, something that makes one despair of ever saying anything illuminative about London.
Often, when I have been returning to London from the country, I have been moved almost to tears, as the train seemed to fly through clouds and clouds of homes and through torrents of windows. Along the miserable countryside it roars, and comes not too soon to the far suburbs and the first homes. Slowly, softly, the grey incertitude begins to flower with their lights, each window a little silent prayer. Nearer and nearer to town you race, and the warm windows multiply, they draw closer together, seeming to creep into one another's arms for snugness; and, as you roll into the misty sparkle of Euston or Paddington, you experience an ineffable sense of comfort and security among those multitudinous homes. It is, I think, the essential homeliness of London that draws the Cockney's heart to her when five thousand miles away, under blazing suns or hurricanes of hail; for your Cockney, travel and wander as he will, is at heart a purely domestic animal, and dreams ever of the lighted windows of London.
Those windows! I wish some one with the right mind would write an essay for me on this theme. Why should a lighted window call with so subtle a message? They all have their messages—sometimes sweet, sometimes sinister, sometimes terrible, sometimes pathetic, always irresistible. They haunt me. Indeed, when a lighted window claims me, I have sometimes hung about outside, impelled almost to knock at the door, and find out what is happening behind that yellow oblong of mystery.
Some one published a few years ago a book entitled "The Soul of London," but I cannot think that any one has ever read the soul of London. London is not one place, but many places; she has not one soul, but many souls. The people of Brondesbury are of markedly different character and clime from those of Hammersmith. They of Balham know naught of those of Walthamstow, and Bayswater is oblivious to Barking. The smell, the sound, and the dress of Finsbury Park are as different from the smell, the sound, and the dress of Wandsworth Common as though one were England and the other Nicaragua. London is all things to all men. Day by day she changes, not only in external beauty, but in temperament.
As each season recurs, so one feels that London can never be more beautiful, never better express her inmost spirit. I write these lines in September, when we have mornings of pearly mist, all the city a Whistler pastel, the air bland but stung with sharp points, and the squares dressed in many-tinted garments; and I feel that this is the month of months for the Londoner. Yet in April, when every parish, from Bloomsbury to Ilford, and from Haggerston to Cricklewood, is a dream of lilac and may, and when laburnum and jasmine are showering their petals over Shoreditch and Bermondsey Wall, when even Cherry Gardens Pier has lost its heart in a tangle of apple-blossom, and when the statue of James II is wreathed about with stars and boughs of hawthorn as fair as a young girl's arms, when Kensington Gardens, Brockwell Park, and the Tunnel Gardens of Blackwell are ablaze with colour and song, and when life riots in the sap of the trees as in the blood of the children who throng their walks, then, I say, London is herself. But I know that when November brings the profound fogs and glamorous lights, and I walk perilously in the safest streets, knowing by sound that I am accompanied, but seeing no one, scarce knowing whether I am in Oxford Street or the Barking Road, or in Stamboul, then I shall feel: "This is the real old London." The pallid pomp of the white lilac seems to be London in essence. The rich-scented winter fog seems to be London in essence. The hot, reeking dusk of July seems to be London in essence.
London, I repeat, is all things to all men. Whatsoever you may find in the uttermost corners of the earth, that you shall find in London. It is the city of the world. You may stand in Piccadilly Circus at midnight and fingerpost yourself to the country of your dreams. A penny or twopenny omnibus will land you in the heart of France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Russia, Palestine, China, the Malay Peninsula, Norway, Sweden, Holland, and Hooligania; to all of which places I propose to take you, for food and drink, laughter and chatter, in the pages that follow. I shall show you London by night: not the popular melodramatic divisions of London rich and London poor, but many Londons that you never dreamed of and may curious nights.
London by night. Somehow, the pen stops there. Having written that, I feel that the book is done. I realize my impotence. My pen boggles at the task of adding another word or another hundred thousand words which shall light up those thunderous syllables. For to write about London Nights is to write a book about Everything. Philosophy, humanism, religion, love, and death, and delight—all these things must crowd upon one's pages. And once I am started, they will crowd—tiresomely, chaotically, tumbling out in that white heat of enthusiasm which, as a famous divine has said, makes such damned hard reading.
For the whole of my life, with brief breaks, has been spent in London, sometimes working by day and playing by night, sometimes idling by day and toiling through long midnights, either in streets, clubs, bars, and strange houses, or in the heat and fume of Fleet Street offices. But what nights they were! What things have we seen done—not at The Mermaid—but in every tiny street and alley of nocturnal London!
There were nights of delirium when the pulses hammered hot in rhythm to the old song of Carnival, when one seemed to have reached the very apex of living, to have grasped in one evening the message of this revolving world. There were nights, festive with hoof and harness bell. There were cheery nights of homeward walks from the City office at six o'clock, under those sudden Octobral dusks, when, almost at a wink, London is transformed into one long lake of light. There were nights of elusive fog and bashful lamp when one made casual acquaintance on the way home with some darling little work-girl, Ethel, or Katie, or Mabel, brown-haired or golden, and walked with her and perhaps were allowed to kiss her Good-night at this or that crossing.
What romantic charm those little London work-girls have, with their short, tossing frocks and tumbling hair! There are no other work-girls in the world to compare with them for sheer witchery of face and character. The New York work-girl is a holy terror. The Parisian grisette has a trim figure and a doughy face. The Berlin work-girl knows more about viciousness, and looks more like a suet dumpling than any one else. But, though her figure may not be perfect, the London work-girl takes the palm by winsomeness and grace. At seven o'clock every evening you may meet her in thousands in Oxford Street, Villiers Street, Tottenham Court Road, or London Bridge, where the pavements lisp in reply to the chatter of her little light feet. The factory girl of twenty years ago has, I am glad to say, entirely disappeared. She was not a success. She screwed her hair into sausages and rolled them around her ears. She wore a straw hat tilted at an absurd angle over her nose. She snarled. Her skin was coarse, her hands brutal, and she took no care with herself. But the younger generation came along, the flapper—and behold, a change! The factory girl or work-girl of fourteen or fifteen would surprise the ladies of the old school. She is neat. She knows enough about things to take care of herself, without being coarsened by the knowledge. And she has a zest for life and a respect for her dear little person which give her undisputed title to all that I have claimed for her. Long may she reign as one of London's beauties!
Then there were other nights of maddening pace, when music and wine, voice and laughter harnessed themselves to the chariot of youth and dashed us hither and thither. There were nights of melancholy, of anguish even, nights of failure and solitariness, when the last word seemed to be spoken, and the leaves and the lamps and all the little dear things seemed emptied of their glory. There were the nights of labour: dull nights of stress and struggle, under the hard white lights, the crashing of the presses, and the infuriating buzz of the tape machine. There were nights of....
It is these nights that I pretend to show you in this book, in a little series of cinematographic pictures. If you will come with me, we will slip through the foreign quarters. We will have a bloodthirsty night in the athletic saloons of Bethnal Green. We will have a bitter night in the dock-side saloons. We will have a sickening night in sinister places of no name and no locality, where the proper people do not venture. We will have a glittering night in the Hoxton bars. We will have, too, a night among the sweet lights of the Cockney home, and among pleasant working-class interiors. And we will——
But let us get started.
AN ENTERTAINMENT NIGHT
ROUND THE HALLS
Through the sad billowing base of grey and rose, Stung with sharp lamps in its most velvet gloom; Drowsy with smoke, and loud with voice and glass, Where wine-whipped animations pass and pass— Beauty breaks sudden blossoms all around In happy riot of rhythm, colour, and pose. The radiant hands, the swift, delighted limbs Move as in pools of dream the dancer swims, Holding our bruted sense to fragrance bound.
Lily and clover and the white May-flowers, And lucid lane afire with honeyed blooms, And songs that time nor tears can ever fade, Hold not the grace for which my heart has prayed. But in this garden of gilt loveliness, Lapped by the muffled pulse of hectic hours, Something in me awoke to happiness; And through the streets of plunging hoof and horn, I walked with Beauty to the dim-starred morn.
AN ENTERTAINMENT NIGHT
ROUND THE HALLS
Of course, every night spent in London is an entertainment night, for London has more blood and pace and devil than any city I know. Thick as the physical atmosphere is with smoke and fog, its moral atmosphere is yet charged with a sparkle as of light wine. It is more effervescent than any continental city. It is the city of cities for learning, art, wit, and—Carnival. Go where you please at nightfall and Carnival slips into the blood, lighting even Bond Street—the dreariest street in town—with a little flame of gaiety. I have assisted at carnivals and feasts in various foreign parts—carnivals of students and also of the theatrically desperate apaches in the crawling underworlds. But, oh, what bilious affairs! You simply flogged yourself into it. You said, as it were: "I am in Vienna, or Berlin, or Paris, or Brussels, or Marseilles, or Trieste; therefore, I am gay. Of course I am gay." But you were not. You were only bored, and the show only became endurable after you had swallowed various absinthes, vermuths, and other rot-gut.
All the time you were—or I was—aching for Camden Town High Street, and a good old London music-hall. I cannot understand those folk who sniff at the English music-hall and belaud the Parisian shows. These latter are to me the most dismal, lifeless form of entertainment that a public ever suffered. Give me the Oxford, the Pavilion, or the Alhambra, or even a suburban Palace of Varieties. Ever since the age of eight the music-hall has been a kind of background for me. Long before that age I can remember being rushed through strange streets and tossed, breathless, into an overheated theatre roaring with colour. The show was then either the Moore and Burgess Minstrels or the Egyptian Hall, followed by that chief of all child-life entertainments—tea at a tea-shop. But at eight I was initiated into the mysteries of the Halls, for a gracious chef d'orchestre permitted me to sit in the orchestra of an outlying hall, by the side of a cousin who sawed the double bass.
I have loved the music-hall ever since, and I still worship that chef d'orchestre, and if I met him now I am sure I should bow, though I know that he was nothing but a pillow stuffed with pose. But in those days, what a man! Or no—not a man—what a demi-god! You should have seen him enter the orchestra on the call: "Mr. Francioli, please!" Your ordinary music-hall conductor ducks from below, slips into his chair, and his tap has turned on the flow of his twenty instruments before you realize that he is up. But not so Francioli. For him the old school, the old manners, laddie. He never came into the orchestra. He "entered." He would bend gracefully as he stepped from the narrow passage beneath the stage into the orchestra. He would stand upright among his boys for a little minute while he adjusted his white gloves. His evening dress would have turned George Lashwood sick with envy. The perfect shirt of the perfect shape of the hour, the tie in the correct mode, the collar of the moment, the thick, well-oiled hair, profuse and yet well in hand, the right flower in the buttonhole at just the right angle—so he would stand, with lips pursed in histrionic manner, gazing quietly before him, smiling, to casual friends, little smiles which were nothing more unbending than dignified acknowledgment. Then he would stretch a godlike arm to the rail, climb into his chair, and spend another half-minute in settling himself, turning now and then to inspect the house from floor to ceiling. At the tinkle of the stage-manager's bell the grand moment would come. His hand would sail to the desk, and he would take the baton as one might select a peach from the dessert-dish. He would look benignly upon his boys, tap, raise both resplendent hands aloft, and away he would go into the "Zampa" overture.
His attitude to the show was a study in holy detachment. He simply did not see it. He would lean back in his chair at a comfortable angle, and conduct from the score on his desk. But he never smiled at a joke, he never beamed upon a clever turn, he never even exchanged glances with the stars. He was Olympian. I think he must have met Irving as a young man, and have modelled himself on his idiosyncrasies. Certainly every pose that ever a musician or actor practised was doubled in him. I believe he must have posed in his sleep and in his bath. Indeed, my young mind used to play upon the delicate fancy that such a creature could never do anything so common as eat or drink or pursue any of the daily functions of us ordinary mortals. I shrank from conceiving him undressed....
Once, I remember, he came down from his cloudy heights and stood my cousin a drink and myself a lemonade. I didn't want to drink that lemonade. I wanted to take it home and stand it under a glass shade. He himself drank what I was told was a foreign drink in a tiny glass. He lingered over it, untouched, while he discussed with us the exact phrasing of the symphony for the star man's song; then, at the call, with a sweep of his almighty arm he carried the glass to his lips with a "To you, my boy!" held it poised for a moment, set it down, and strode away, followed by rapt gazes from the barmaids.
A stout fellow. He took the conductor's chair with all the pomposity of a provincial borough official. He tapped for the coda with the touch of a king knighting an illustrious subject. And when he led the boys through the National Anthem, standing up in his place and facing the house, all lights up—well, there are literally no words for it....
At twelve years old I grew up, and sought out my own entertainment, prowling, always alone, into strange places. I discovered halls that nobody else seemed to know, such as the Star at Bermondsey, the Queen's at Poplar, and the Cambridge in Commercial Street. I crawled around queer bars, wonderfully lighted, into dusky refreshment-houses in the Asiatic quarter, surely devised by Haroun al Raschid, and into softly lit theatres and concert-halls. At eighteen I took my pleasures less naively, and dined solemnly in town, and toured, solemn and critical, the western halls, enjoying everything but regarding it with pale detachment. Now, however, I am quite frank in my delight in this institution, which has so crept into the life of the highest and the lowest, the vulgar and the intellectual; and scarcely a week passes without a couple of shows.
The mechanism of the modern hall is a marvellous thing. From the small offices about Leicester Square, where the big circuits are registered, men and women and children are sent thousands and thousands of miles to sing, dance, act, or play the fool. The circuits often control thirty or forty halls in London and the provinces, each of which is under the care of a manager, who is responsible for its success. The turns are booked by the central booking manager and allocated either to this or that London hall, or to work the entire syndicate tour; and the bill of each hall, near or far, is printed and stage-times fixed weeks in advance. The local manager every Saturday night has to pay his entire staff, both stage and house; that is, he not only pays programme girls, chuckers-out, electricians, and so forth, but each artist, even the L200 a week man, is paid in cash at each hall he is working. When a new turn is booked for any given hall, the manager of that hall must be "in front" and watch that turn and its success or non-success with the house; and, at the end of the week, a confidential report has to be sent to headquarters in which the manager tells the cold truth: whether the show is good, whether it "went," how much salary it is worth, and whether it is worth a re-booking.
It is, like journalism, a hard, hard life and thankless for every one concerned, from bill-topper to sweeper; yet there is a furious colour about it, and I think no one connected with it would willingly quit. The most hard-worked of all are the electricians. First in the hall of an evening, they, with the band and the janitors, are the last to leave. Following them, at about half-past five (in the case of the two-houses halls), come programme girls, barmaids, call-boy, stage-manager, shifters, and all other stage hands.
All are philosophers, in their way, and all seem to have caught the tang of the profession and to be, subconsciously, of the mummer persuasion. I once had a long, long talk with the chief electrician of a London hall, or, to give him the name by which he is best known, the limelight man. I climbed the straight iron ladder from the wings to his little platform, with only sufficient foothold for two people, and there I stood with him for two hours, while he waggled spots, floods, and focuses, and littered the platform with the hastily scrawled lighting-plots of the performers.
The limes man is really the most important person in the show. Of course, the manager doesn't think so, and the stage-manager doesn't think so, and the carpenter doesn't think so, and the band doesn't think so. But he is. Many of the music-hall favourites, such as La Milo and La Loie Fuller, would have no existence but for him. Skilful lighting effects and changes of colour are often all that carries a commonplace turn to popularity; and just think of the power in that man's hands! He could ruin any young turn he liked simply by "blacking her out"; and, if he feels good, he can help many beginners with expert advice. The young girl new to the boards, and getting her first show, has hardly the slightest idea what she shall give him in the way of lighting-plot; very generously she leaves it to him, and he sees her show and lights it as he thinks most effective.
Long before the doors open he is moving from box to box, in wings and flies, fixing this, altering that, and arranging the other; and cursing his assistants—usually lads of sixteen—who have to work the colours from wings, roof, circle, and side of the house. Lights are of three kinds: spot, focus, and flood. The spot is used on a dark stage, and lights only the singer's head and shoulders. The focus lights the complete figure. The flood covers the stage. Each of these is worked in conjunction with eight or nine shaded films placed before the arc light. Here is a typical lighting-plot, used by a prominent star:—
First Song. Symph.; all up stage and house. Focus for my entrance. White perches and battens for first chorus. Then black out, and gallery green focus for dance, changing to ruby at cue, and white floods at chord off.
The limelight man never sees the show. In his little cupboard, he hears nothing but the hissing of his arcs and the tinkle of the stage-manager's prompting bell at the switchboard which controls every light in the theatre, before and behind. He has to watch every movement of the artist who is on, but what he or she is doing or saying, he does not know. He is, perhaps, the only man who has never laughed at Little Tich.
John Davidson, I think, wrote a series of poems under the title of "In a Music Hall," but these were mainly philosophical, and neither he nor others seem to have appreciated the colour of the music-hall. It is the most delicate of all essences of pleasure, and we owe it to the free hand that is given to the limelight man. You get, perhaps, a girl in white, singing horribly or dancing idiotically, but she is dancing in white against a deep blue curtain filigreed with silver, and the whole flooded in amber light. And yet there are those who find the London music-hall dull!
The modern music-hall band, too, is a hard-working and poorly remunerated concern; and in many cases it really is a band and it does make music. It is hard at it for the whole of the evening, with no break for refreshment unless there be a sketch in the bill. There are, too, the matinees and the rehearsal every Monday at noon. The boys must be expert performers, and adaptable to any emergency. Often when a number cannot turn up, a deputy has to be called in by 'phone. The band seldom knows what the deputy will sing; there is no opportunity for rehearsal; and sometimes they have not even an idea of the nature of the turn until band parts are put in. This means that they must read at sight, that the conductor must follow every movement of the artist, in order to catch his spasmodic cues for band or patter, and that the boys must keep one eye on music they have never seen before, and the other on their old man's stick.
The conductor, too, works hard at rehearsals; not, as you might think, with the stars, but, like the limelight man, with the youngsters. The stars can look after themselves; they are always sure to go. But the nervous beginner needs a lot of attention from the band, and it is pleasant to know that in most London halls he gets it ungrudgingly. A West End chef d'orchestre said to me some time ago: "I never mind how much trouble I take over them. If they don't go it means such a lot to the poor dears. Harry Lauder can sing anything anyhow, and he's alright. But I've often found that these girls and boys hand me out band parts which are perfectly useless for the modern music-hall; and again and again I've found that effective orchestration and a helping hand from us pulls a poor show through and gets 'em a return booking. Half the day of rehearsing is spent with the beginners."
An extraordinary improvement in the musical side of vaudeville has taken place within the last fifteen years. Go to any hall any night, and you will almost certainly hear something of Wagner, Mendelssohn, Weber, Mozart. I think, too, that the songs are infinitely better than in the old days; not only in the direction of melody but in orchestration, which is often incomparably subtle. It is, what vaudeville music should be, intensely funny, notably in the running chatter of the strings and the cunning commentary of woodwind and drums. Pathetic as its passing is, one cannot honestly regret the old school. I was looking last night at the programme of my very first hall, and received a terrible shock to my time-sense. Where are the snows of yesteryear? Where are the entertainers of 1895? Not one of their names do I recognize, and yet three of them are in heavy type. One by one they drop out, and their places are never filled. The new man, the new style of humour, comes along, and attracts its own votaries, who sniff, even as I sniff, at the performers of past times. Who is there to replace that perilously piquant diseur Harry Fragson? None. But Frank Tinney comes along with something fresh, and we forget the art of Fragson, and pay many golden sovereigns to Frank to amuse us in the new way.
Where, too, are the song-writers? That seems to me one of the greatest tragedies of the vaudeville world: that a man should compose a song that puts a girdle round about the globe; a song that is sung on liners, on troopships, at feasts in far-away Singapore or Mauritius; a song that inspires men in battle and helps soldiers to die; a song that, like "Tipperary," has been the slogan of an Empire; that a man should create such a thing and live and die without one in ten thousand of his singers knowing even his name. Who composed "Tipperary"? You don't know? I thought not. Who composed "Let's all go down the Strand," a song that surely should have been adopted as The Anthem of London? Who composed "Hot Time in the Old Town to-night"—the song that led the Americans to victory in Cuba and the Philippines? We know the names of hundreds of finicky little poets and novelists and pianists; but their work never shook a nation one inch, or cheered men in sickness and despair. Of the men who really captured and interpreted the national soul we know nothing and care less; and how much they get for their copyrights is a matter that even themselves do not seem to take with sufficient seriousness. Yet personally I have an infinite tenderness for these unknowns, for they have done me more good than any other triflers with art-forms. I should like to shake the composer of "La Maxixe" by the hand, and I owe many a debt of gratitude to the creator of "Red Pepper" and "Robert E. Lee." So many of these fugitive airs have been part of my life, as they are part of every Cockney's life. They are, indeed, a calendar. Events date themselves by the song that was popular at that time. When, for instance, I hear "The Jonah Man" or "Valse Bleu," my mind goes back to the days when a tired, pale office-boy worked in the City and wrote stories for the cheap papers in his evenings. When I hear "La Maxixe" I shiver with frightful joy. It recalls the hot summer of 1906, when I had money and wine and possession and love. When I hear "Beautiful Doll," I become old and sad; I want to run away and hide myself. When I hear "Hiawatha" or "Bill Bailey," I get back the mood of that year—a mood murderously bitter. Verily, the street organ and its composers are things to be remembered in our prayers and toasts.
* * * * *
Every London hall has its own character and its own audience. The Pavilion programme is temperamentally distinct from the Oxford bill; the Alhambra is equally marked from the Empire; and the Poplar Hippodrome, in patrons and performers, is widely severed from the Euston. The same turns are, of course, seen eventually at every hall, but never the same group of turns, collectively. As for the Hippodrome and the Coliseum—non-licensed houses—their show and their audience are what one would expect: a first-class show, and an audience decorous and Streathamish. I think we will not visit either, nor will we visit the hall with its world-famous promenade, about which our bishops seem to know more than I do.
Let us try the Oxford, where you are always sure of a pleasant crowd, a good all-round show, and alcoholic refreshment if you require it. There are certain residentials, if I may so term them, of the Oxford, whom you may always be sure of meeting here, and who will always delight you. Mark Sheridan, for example, is pretty certain to be there, with Wilkie Bard, Clarice Mayne, Phil Ray, Sam Mayo, Beattie and Babs, T. E. Dunville, George Formby, and those veterans, Joe Elvin and George Chirgwin.
There is a good overture, and the house is comfortable without being gorgeous. There is a sense of intimacy about it. The audience, too, is always on form. Audiences, by the way, have a great deal to do with the success of any particular show, quite apart from its merits. There is one famous West End hall, which I dare not name, whose audience is always "bad"—i.e. cold and inappreciative; the best of all good turns never "goes" at that house, and artists dread the week when they are booked there. I have seen turns which have sent other houses into one convulsive fit, but at this hall the audience has sat immovable and colourless while the performers wasted themselves in furious efforts to get over the footlights. At the Oxford, however, the audience is always "with you," and this atmosphere gets behind and puts the artists, in their turn, on the top of their form. The result is a sparkling evening which satisfies everybody.
It is a compact little place, as the music-hall should be. In those new caravanserai of colossal proportions and capacity, it is impossible for a man to develop that sense of good-fellowship which is inseparable from the traditions of the London hall. Intimacy is its very essence, and how can a man be intimate on a stage measuring something like seventy feet in length, a hundred feet in depth, with a proscenium over sixty feet high, facing an auditorium seating three thousand persons, and separated from them by a marbled orchestra enclosure four or five times as wide as it should be. It is pathetic to see George Mozart or George Robey trying to adapt his essentially miniature art to these vasty proportions. Physically and mentally he is dwarfed, and his effects hardly ever get beyond the orchestra. These new halls, with their circles, and upper circles, and third circles, and Louis XV Salons and Palm Courts, have been builded over the bones of old English humour. They are good for nothing except ballet, one-act plays with large effects, and tabloid grand opera. But apparently the public like them, for the old halls are going. The Tivoli site is to bear a Y.M.C.A. home, and the merriment of the Strand will be still further frowned upon.
There is always an acrobat turn in the Oxford bill, and always a cheery cross-talk item. The old combination of knockabouts or of swell and clown has for the most part disappeared; the Poluskis, The Terry Twins, and Dale and O'Malley are perhaps the last survivors. The modern idea is the foolish fellow and the dainty lady, who are not, I think, so attractive as the old style. Personally, I am always drawn to a hall where Dale and O'Malley are billed. "The somewhat different comedians" is their own description of themselves, and the wonder is that they should have worked so long in partnership and yet succeeded in remaining "somewhat different." But each has so welded his mood to the other that their joint humour is, as it were, a bond as spiritually indissoluble as matrimony. You cannot conceive either Mr. Dale or Mr. O'Malley working alone or with any other partner. I have heard them crack the same quips and tell the same stories for the last five years, yet they always get the same big laugh and the same large "hand." That is a delightful trait about the music-hall—the entente existing between the performer and audience. The favourites seem to be en rapport even while waiting in the wings, and the flashing of their number in the electric frame is the signal for a hand of welcome and—in the outer halls—whistles and cries. The atmosphere becomes electric with good-fellowship. It is, as Harry Lauder used to sing, "just like being at home." It must be splendid to be greeted in that manner every night of your life and—if you are working two or three halls—five times every night; to know that some one wants you, that some one whom you have never seen before loves you and is ready to pay good money away in order to watch you play the fool or be yourself. There they are, crowds of people with whom you haven't the slightest acquaintance, all familiar with you, all longing to meet you again, and all applauding you before you have done anything but just walk on. They shout "Good Boy!" or "Bravo, Harry!" or George, or Ernest. It must indeed be splendid. You are all so—what is the word?—matey, isn't it? Yes, that's the note of the London hall—mateyness. You, up there, singing or dancing, have brought men and women together as nothing else, not even the club or saloon bar, can do; and they sit before you, enjoying you and themselves and each other. Strangers have been known to speak to one another under the mellow atmosphere which you have created by singing to them of the universal things: love, food, drink, marriage, birth, death, misfortune, festival, cunning, frivolity and—oh, the thousand things that make up our daily day.
There is just one man still among us who renders these details of the Cockney's daily day in more perfect fashion than any of his peers. He is of the old school, I admit, but he is nevertheless right on the spot with his points and his psychology. His name is Harry Champion. Perhaps you have seen him and been disgusted with what you would call the vulgarity of his songs. But what you call his vulgarity, my dears, is just everyday life; and everyday life is always disgusting to the funny little Bayswaterats, who are compact of timidity and pudibonderie. The elderly adolescent has no business at the music-hall; his place is the Baptist Chapel or some other place remote from all connection with this splendid world of London, tragic with suffering and song, high endeavour and defeat. It is people of this kidney who find Harry Champion vulgar. His is the robust, Falstaffian humour of old England, which, I am glad to think, still exists in London and still pleases Londoners, in spite of efforts to Gallicize our entertainments and substitute obscenity and the salacious leer for honest fun and the frank roar of laughter. If you want to hear the joy of living interpreted in song and dance, then go to the first hall where the name of Harry Champion is billed, and hear him sing "Boiled Beef and Carrots," "Baked Sheep's Heart stuffed with Sage and Onions," "Whatcher, me Old Brown Son!" "With me old Hambone," "William the Conqueror," "Standard Bread." If you are sad, you will feel better. If you are suicidal, you will throw the poison away, and you will not be the first man whose life has been saved by a low comedian. You may wonder why this eulogy of food in all these songs. The explanation is simple. In the old days, the music-hall was just a drinking den, and all the jolly songs were in praise of drink. Now that all modern halls are unlicensed, and are, more or less, family affairs to which Mr. Jenkinson may bring the wife and the children, and where you can get nothing stronger than non-alcoholic beers, or dry ginger, the Bacchanalian song is out of place. Next to drinking, of course, the Londoner loves eating. Mr. Harry Champion, with the insight of genius, has divined this, and therefore he sings about food, winning much applause, personal popularity, and, I hope, much money.
Watch his audience as he sings. Mark the almost hypnotic hold he has over them; not only over pit and gallery but over stalls as well, and the well-groomed loungers who have just dropped in. I defy any sane person to listen to "Watcher, me Old Brown Son!" without chortles of merriment, profound merriment, for you don't laugh idly at Harry Champion. His gaiety is not the superficial gaiety of the funny man who makes you laugh but does nothing else to you. He does you good. I honestly believe that his performance would beat down the frigid steel ramparts that begird the English "lady." His songs thrill and tickle you as does the gayest music of Mozart. They have not the mere lightness of merriment, but, like that music, they have the deep-plumbing gaiety of the love of life, for joy and sorrow.
But let us leave the front of the house and wander in back of a typical hall. Here is an overcharged atmosphere, feverish of railway-station. There is an entire lack of any system; everything apparently confused rush. Artists dashing out for a second house many miles away. Artists dashing in from their last hall, some fully dressed and made-up, others swearing at their dressers and dragging baskets upstairs, knowing that they have three minutes in which to dress and make-up before their call. As one rushes in with a cheery "Evening, George!" to the stage-door keeper, he is met by the "boy"—the "boy" being usually a middle-aged ex-Army man of 45 or 50.
"Mr. Merson's on, sir."
He dashes into his dressing-room, which he shares with three others, and then it is Vesti la giubba.... The dressing-room is a long, narrow room, with a slab running the length of the wall, and four chairs. The slab is backed by a long, low mirror, and is littered with make-up tins and pots. His dresser hurls himself on the basket, as though he owed it a grudge. He tears off the lid. He dives head foremost into a foam of trousers, coats, and many-coloured shirts. He comes to the surface breathless, having retrieved a shapeless mass of stuff. He tears pieces of this stuff apart, and flings them, with apparent malice, at his chief, and, somehow, they seem to stay where he flings them. The chief shouts from a cloud of orange wig and patchwork shirt for a soda-and-milk, and from some obscure place of succour there actually appears a soda-and-milk. A hand darts from the leg of a revolving pair of trousers, grabs the glass and takes a loud swig. The boy appears at the door.
"Mr. Merson coming off, sir!"
"Right-o! and blast you!"
"No good blasting me, sir!"
From far away, as from another world, he hears the murmur of a large body of people, the rolling of the drum, the throbbing of the double-bass, the wail of the fiddles, sometimes the thud of the wooden-shoe dancer, and sometimes a sudden silence as the music dims away to rubbish for the big stunt of the trapeze performer.
He subsides into a chair. The dresser jams a pair of side-spring boots on his feet while he himself adjusts the wig and assaults his face with sticks of paint.
The boy appears again. He shoots his bullet head through the door, aggressively. "Mr. Benson, please!" This time he is really cross. Clearly he will fight Mr. Benson before long.
But Mr. Benson dashes from his chair and toddles downstairs, and is just in time to slip on as the band finishes his symphony for the fourth time. Once on, he breathes more freely, for neglect of the time-sheet is a terrible thing, and involves a fine. If your time is 8.20, it is your bounden duty to be in the wings ready to go on at 8.17; otherwise ... trouble and blistering adjectives.
While he is on the boy is chasing round the dressing-rooms for the "next call." This happens to be a black-face comedian, who is more punctual than Mr. Benson. He is all in order, and at the call: "Mr. Benson's on, Harry!" he descends and stands in the wings, watching with cold but friendly gaze the antics of Mr. Benson, and trying to sense the temper of the house. Mr. Benson is at work. In another minute he will be at work, too. Mr. Benson is going well—he seems to have got the house. He wonders whether he will get the house—or the bird. He is about to give us something American: to sing and dance to syncopated melody. America may not have added great store to the world's music, but at least she has added to the gaiety of nations. She has given us ragtime, the voice of the negroid Bacchus, which has flogged our flagging flesh to new sensations; she has given us songs fragrant of Fifth Avenue, and with the wail of the American South; and she has given us nigger comedians. Harry doesn't much care whether he "goes" or not. They are a philosophical crowd, these Vaudevillians. If one of them gets the bird, he has the sympathy of the rest of the bill. Rotten luck. If he goes well, he has their smiles. Of course, there are certain jealousies here as in every game; but very few. You see, they never know.... The stars never know when their reign will end, and they, who were once bill-toppers, will be shoved in small type in obscure corners of the bill at far-distant provincial halls. That is why the halls, like journalism, is such a great game. You never know.... The unhappiest of the whole bill of a hall are "first call" and "last call"; nobody is there to listen to "first call"; everybody has bolted by the time "last call" is on. Only the orchestra and the electricians remain. They, like the poor, are always with them.
After the show, the orchestra usually breaks up into parties for a final drink, or sometimes fraternizes with the last call and makes a bunch for supper at Sam Isaacs'. After supper, home by the last cart to Camberwell or Camden Town, seeking—and, if not too full of supper, finding—a chaste couch at about two a.m. The star, of course, does nothing so vulgar. He motors home to Streatham or St. John's Wood or Clapham Common, and plays billiards or cards until the small hours. A curious wave of temperance lately has been sweeping over the heads of the profession, and a star seldom has a drink until after the show. The days are gone when the lion comique would say: "No, laddie, I don't drink. Nothing to speak of, that is. I just have ten or twelve—just enough to make me think I'm drunk. Then I keep on until I think I'm sober. Then I know I'm drunk!" They are beginning, unfortunately for their audiences, to take themselves seriously. This is a pity, for the more spontaneous and inane they are, the more they are in their place on the vaudeville stage. There is more make-believe and hard work on the halls to-day, and I think they are none the better for it. As soon as art becomes self-conscious, its end is near; and that, I am afraid, is what is happening to-day. A quieter note has crept into the whole thing, a more facile technique; and if you develop technique you must develop it at the expense of every one of those more robust and essential qualities. The old entertainers captured us by deliberate unprovoked assault on our attention. But to-day they do not take us by storm. They woo us and win us slowly, by happy craft; and though your admiration is finally wrung from you, it is technique you are admiring—nothing more. All modern art—the novel, the picture, the play, the song—is dying of technique.
I have only the very slightest acquaintance with those gorgeous creatures—the L200 a week men—who top the bill to-day; only the acquaintance of an occasional drink in their rooms. But I have known, and still know, many of the rank and file, and delightful people they are. As a boy of fifteen, I remember meeting, on a seaside front, a member of a troupe then appearing called The Boy Guardsmen. He was a sweet child. Fourteen years old he was, and he gave me cigarettes, and he drank rum and stout, and was one of the most naive and cleanly simple youths I ever met. He had an angelic trust in the good of everything and everybody. He worshipped me because I bought him a book he wanted. He believed that the ladies appearing in the same bill at his hall were angels. He loved the manager of his troupe as a great-hearted gentleman. He thought his sister was the most radiant and high-souled girl that Heaven had yet sent to earth. And it was his business to sing, twice nightly, some of the smuttiest songs I have heard on any stage. Yet he knew exactly why the house laughed, and what portions of the songs it laughed at. He knew that the songs went because they were smutty, yet such was his innocence that he could not understand why smut should not be laughed at. He was a dear!
There was another family whom I still visit. Father and Mother are Comedy Acrobats and Jugglers. Night by night they appear in spangled tights, and Father resins his hands in view of the audience, and lightly tosses the handkerchief to the wings; and then bends a stout knee, and cries "Hup!" and catches Mumdear on the spring and throws her in a double somersault. There are two girls of thirteen and fifteen, and a dot of nine; and they regard Dad and Mumdear just as professional pals, never as parents. This is Dad's idea; he dislikes being a father, but he enjoys being an elder brother, and leading the kids on in mischief or jolly times.
I was having drinks one Saturday night, after the show, with Dad, in a scintillating Highbury saloon, when there was a sudden commotion in the passage. A cascade of voices; a chatter of feet; the yelping of a dog.
"What's that?" I murmured, half interested.
"Only the bother and the gawdfers," he answered.
"I said it's the bother and the gawdfers.... Rhyming slang, silly ass. The Missus and the kids. Bother-and-strife ... wife. Gawd-forbids ... kids. See? Here they come. No more mouth-shooting for us, now."
They came. Mumdear came first—very large, submerged in a feather boa and a feathered hat! salmon pink as to the bust, cream silk as to the skirt. The kids came next, two of the sweetest, merriest girls I know. Miss Fifteen simply tumbled with brown curls and smiles; she was of The Gay Glowworms, a troupe of dancers. Miss Thirteen tripped over the dog and entered with a volley of giggles and a tempest of light stockinged legs, which spent themselves at once when she observed me. In a wink she became the demure maiden. She had long, straight hair to the waist, and the pure candour of her face gave her the air of an Italian madonna. She was of The Casino Juveniles. We had met before, so she sidled up to me and inquired how I was and what's doing. Within half a minute I was besieged by tossing hair and excited hands, and an avalanche of talk about shop, what they were doing, where they were this week, where next, future openings, and so forth; all of which was cut short by the good-humouredly gruff voice of the landlord, inquiring—
"That young lady over fourteen?"
"Well ... er ... she looks it, don't she?" said Dad.
"Dessay she does. But is she?"
"Well ... tell you the truth, Ernest, she ain't. But she will be soon."
"Well, she can come back then. But she's got to go now."
"Righto! Come on, Joyce. You got the bird. Here, Maudie, take her home. Both of you. Straight home, mind. And get the supper ready. And don't forget to turn the dog out. And here—get yourselves some chocolates, little devils." He pulled out a handful of silver. "There you are—all the change I've got."
He gave Maudie four shillings, and Joyce half a crown—for chocolates; and Maudie tripped out with flustered hair and laughing ribbons, and Joyce fell over the dog, and the swing-doors caught her midwise, and there was a succession of screams fainting into the distance, and at last silence.
"Thank God they're gone, bless the little devils!" And Dad raised his dry ginger in salutation; while Mumdear allowed me to get her a port-and-lemonade. It had apparently been a stiff show.
"Funny, but ... if you notice it ... when one thing goes wrong everything goes. First off, Arthur wasn't there to conduct. His leader had to take first three turns, and he doesn't know us properly and kept missing the cues for changes. See, we have about six changes in our music, and when you kind of get used to doing a stunt to 'Mysterious Rag,' it sort of puts you off if the band is still doing 'Nights of Gladness.' See? Then the curtain stuck, and we was kept hanging about for a minute, and had to speed up. Then one of our ropes give, and I thought to myself: 'That's put the fair old khybosh on it, that has.' Gave me—well, you know, put me a bit nervy, like. We missed twice. Least, George says I missed, but I say he did. So one thing and another it's been a bad night. However, we went all right, so here's doing it again, sonny. Thumbs up!"
She beamed upon me a very large stage beam, as though she had got the range of the gallery and meant to reach it. But it was sincere, and though she makes three of me, she is a darling, very playful, very motherly, very strong-minded. Indeed, a Woman. She fussed with the feathers of her boa, and sat upright, as though conscious of her athletic proportions and the picture she was making against the gilded background of the saloon. She had an arm that—but I can say no more than that paraphrase of Meredith: She Had An Arm. When you remember that often four times nightly she holds her husband—no light-weight, I assure you—balanced on her right, while, with her left, she juggles with a bamboo-table and a walking-stick, you can realize that She Has An Arm, and you can understand the figure she cuts in commonplace intercourse. You are simply overwhelmed physically and morally.
"But look here, sonny, why not come home and have a bit of supper with us? That is, if there is any. But come round, and gnaw the old hambone—what? I think we got some claret and I know George's got a drop of Three-Star. Young Beryl's off to-morrow on the Northern tour with the White Bird Company, so of course we're in a devil of muddle. George's sister's round there, packing her. But if you'll put up with the damned old upset, why, come right along."
So we drank up, and I went right along to a jolly little flat near Highbury Quadrant. As we entered the main room, I heard a high, thin voice protesting—
But there were times, dear, When you made me feel so bad!
And there, flitting about the room in dainty lace petticoat, and little else, was young Beryl, superintending her aunt's feverish struggles with paint and powder-jars, frocks, petties, silk stockings, socks, and wraps, snatching these articles from a voluminous wardrobe and tossing them, haphazard, into a monumental dressing-basket, already half-full with two life-size teddy-bears.
She was a bright little maid, and, though we had not met before, we made friends at once. She had a mass of black curls, eyes dancing with elfin lights, a face permanently flushed, and limbs never in repose. She was, even in sleep—as I have seen her since—wonderfully alive, with that hectic energy that is born of spending oneself to the last ounce unceasingly; in her case, the magnetic, self-consuming energy of talent prematurely developed. Her voice had distinctive quality, unusual in little girls of nine. When she talked, it was with perfect articulation and a sense of the value and beauty of words. Her manners were prettily wayward, but not precocious. She moved with the quiet self-possession of one who has something to do and knows just how to do it, one who took her little self seriously but not conceitedly.
On the stage she has been the delight of thousands. Her gay smile, her delicate graces, and her calm, unfaltering stage manner have touched the hearts of all sorts and conditions, from boxes to bar. Eight times a week, six evenings and two matinees, she was booked to take the stage from the rise of the curtain and leave it for scarcely more than two minutes at a time until the fall. This was by no means her first show. Before that she had been pantomime fairy, orphan child in melodrama, waif in a music-hall sketch, millionaire's pet in a Society play, a mischievous boy in a popular farce, dancer in a big ballet, and now the lead in a famous fairy play, at a salary of ten pounds a week. No wonder Dad and Mumdear, and even the elder girls, regarded her with a touch of awe and worship. But feted as she is, she has never been spoilt; and she remains, in spite of her effervescent life, a genuine child. The pet of the crowd behind the scenes, the pet of the house in front, she is accustomed, every night, to salvoes of applause, to flowers left at the stage-door, and to boxes of chocolates handed over the footlights. Night after night, in dance or make-believe of life, she spends herself to exhaustion for the pleasure of the multitude; night after night, in a tinsel-world of limelight and grease-paint, she plays at being herself.
I rather wondered what she thought of it all, and whether she enjoyed it; but, like most little girls, she was shy of confidences. Perhaps she wondered at it all, perhaps sometimes she felt very tired of it all—the noise, the dust, the glamour, and the rush. But she would not admit it. She would only admit her joy at the ten pounds a week, out of which Mumdear would be able to send her favourite cousin Billie to the seaside. So I had to leave it at that, and help with the packing; and at about a quarter to one in the morning supper was announced as ready, and we all sat down.
I forget what we ate. There was some mystery of eggs, prepared by Joyce and Maudie. There were various preserved meats, and some fruit, and some Camembert, and some very good Sauterne, to all of which you helped yourself. There was no host or hostess. You just wandered round the table, and forked what you wanted, and ate it, and then came up for more. When we had done eating, Dad brought out a bottle of excellent old brandy, and Joyce and Maudie made tea for the ladies, and Beryl sat on my knee until half-past two and talked scandal about the other members of the White Bird Company.
At three o'clock I broke up a jolly evening, and departed, Maudie and Joyce accompanying me to Highbury Corner, where I found a vagrant cab.
Perhaps after the cleansing of the London stage, its most remarkable feature is this sudden invasion of it by the child. There has been much foolish legislation on the subject, but, though it is impossible artistically to justify the presence of children in drama, I think I would not have them away. I think they have given the stage, professionally, something that it is none the worse for.
All men, of course, are actors. In all men exists that desire to escape from themselves, to be somebody else, which is expressed, in the nursery, by their delight in "dressing up," and, in later life, by their delight in watching others pretend. But the child is the most happy actor, for to children acting is as natural as eating, and their stage work always convinces because they never consciously act—never, that is, aim at preconceived effects, but merge their personalities wholly in this or that idea and allow themselves to be driven by it. When to this common instinct is added an understanding of stage requirements and a sharp sense of the theatre, the result is pure delight. We live in a little age, and, in the absence of great figures, we are perhaps prone to worship little things, and especially to cultivate to excess the wonder-child and often the pseudo-wonder-child. But the gifted stage-children have a distinct place, for they give us no striving after false quantities, no theatricality, and their effects are in proportion to the strength of their genius. Of course, when they are submitted to the training of a third-rate manager, they become mere mechanical dolls, full of shrill speech and distorted posings that never once touch the audience. You have examples of this in any touring melodrama. These youngsters are taught to act, to model themselves on this or that adult member of the company, are made conscious of an audience, and are carefully prevented from being children. The result is a horror. The child is only an effective actor so long as it does not "act." As soon as these youngsters reach the age of fifteen or sixteen the dramatic faculty is stilled, and lies dormant throughout adolescence. They are useless on the stage, for, beginning to "find themselves," they become conscious artists, and, in the theatrical phrase, it doesn't come off. It is hardly to be expected that it should, for acting, of all the arts, most demands a knowledge of the human mind which cannot be encompassed even by genius at seventeen. That is why no child can ever play such a part as that of the little girl in Hauptmann's "Hannele." Intuition could never cover it. Nor should children ever be set to play it. The child of melodrama is an impossibility and an ugliness. Children on the stage must be childish, and nothing else. They must not be immature men and women. Superficially, of course, as I have said, every child of talent becomes world-weary and sophisticated; the bright surface of the mind is dulled with things half-perceived. But this, the result of moving in an atmosphere of hectic brilliance, devoid of spiritual nourishment, is not fundamental: it is but a phase. Old-fashioned as the idea may be, it is still true that artificial excitement is useful, indeed necessary, to the artist; and conditions of life that would spoil or utterly destroy the common person are, to him, entirely innocuous, since he lives on and by his own self. And, though some stage children may become prematurely wise, in the depths of their souls, they must preserve, fresh and lovely, the child-spirit, the secret glory shared by all children. If they lose that they have justification of any kind.
There was a little girl on the London stage some few years ago whom I have always remembered with joy. I first saw her accidentally at a Lyceum pantomime, into which I strolled after a dull evening in Fleet Street.
The theatre was drowned in a velvet gloom. Here and there sharp lamps stung the dusks. There was a babble of voices. The lights of the orchestra gleamed subtly. The pit was a mist of lilac, which shifted and ever shifted. A chimera of fetid faces swam above the gallery rail. Wave after wave of lifeless heads rolled on either side of me.
Then there was a quick bell; the orchestra blared the chord on, and I sat up. Something seemed about to happen. Back at the bar was a clamour of glass and popping cork, and bashful cries of "Order, please!" The curtain rushed back on a dark, blank stage. One perceived, dimly, a high sombre draping, very far upstage. There was silence. Next moment, from between the folds, stole a wee slip of a child in white, who stood, poised like a startled fawn. Three pale spot-limes swam uncertainly from roof and wings, drifted a moment, then picked her up, focusing her gleaming hair and alabaster arms. I looked at the programme.
It was Marjorie Carpenter.
The conductor tapped. A tense silence; and then our ears were drenched in the ballet music of Delibes. Over the footlights it surged, and, racing down-stage, little Marjorie Carpenter flung herself into it, caressing and caressed by it, shaking, as it seemed, little showers of sound from her delighted limbs. On that high, vast stage, amid the crashing speed of that music and the spattering fire of the side-drums, she seemed so frail, so lost, so alone that—oh! one almost ached for her.
But then she danced: and if she were alone at first, she was not now alone. She seemed at a step to people the stage with little companies of dream.
I say she danced, and I must leave it at that. She gave us more than dance; she gave us the spirit of Childhood, bubbling with delight, so fresh, so contagious that I could have wept for joy of it. It was a thing of sheer lyrical loveliness, the lovelier, perhaps, because of its very waywardness and disregard of values. Here was no thing of trick and limelight. It was Blake's "Infant Joy" materialized. She was a poem.
In the heated theatre, where the opiate air rolled like a fog, we sat entranced before her—the child, elfish and gay and hungry for the beauty of life; the child, lit by a glamorous light. Far below the surface this light burns, and seldom is its presence revealed, save by those children who live very close to Nature: gipsy and forest children. But every child possesses it, whether bred in the whispering wood or among sweetstuff shops and the Highbury 'buses; and I, for one, recognized it immediately this lovely child carried it over the footlights of the Lyceum Theatre.
Hither and thither she drifted like a white snowflake, but all the time ... dancing; and one had a sense of dumb amazement that so frail a child, her fair arms and legs as slender as a flower-stem, should so fill that stage and hold the rapt attention of a theatreful of people. Here was evidence of something stronger than mere mastery of ballet technique. Perfect her dancing was. There was no touch of that automatic movement so noticeable in most child dancers. When she went thus or so, or flitted from side to side of the stage, she clearly knew just why she did it, why she went up-stage instead of down. But she had more than mere technical perfection: she had personality, that strange, intangible something so rare in the danseuse, that wanders over the footlights. The turn of a foot, the swift side look, the awakening smile, the nice lifting of an eyebrow—these things were spontaneous. No amount of rehearsal or managerial thought could have produced effects so brilliantly true to the moment.
I am not exaggerating. I am speaking quite literally when I say that, for me, at that time, Marjorie Carpenter and her dancing were the loveliest things in London. She danced as no child has ever danced before or since, though, of course, it would never do to say so. It was the most fragile, most evanescent genius that London had seen; and nobody cared, nobody recognized it. It attracted no more attention that the work of any other child-actress. Yet you never saw such gazelle-like swiftness and grace.
When she had completed one dance, a new back-cloth fell, and she danced again and yet again. I forget what she danced, but it spoke to me of a thousand forgotten things of childhood. I know that I touched finger-tips with something more generously pure and happy than I had met for years. Through the hush of lights the sylvan music stole, and Marjorie Carpenter stole with it, and every step of her whispered of April and May.
The curtain fell. I was jerked back to common things. But I was in no mood for them. The house applauded. It thought it was applauding Marjorie Carpenter for her skill as a dancer. It was really worshipping something greater—that elusive quality which she had momentarily snatched from nothing and presented to them: the eternal charm and mystery of Childhood.
A CHINESE NIGHT
Yellow man, yellow man, where have you been? Down the Pacific, where wonders are seen. Up the Pacific, so glamorous and gay, Where night is of blue, and of silver the day.
Yellow man, yellow man, what did you there? I loved twenty maids who were loving and fair. Their cheeks were of velvet, their kisses were fire, I looked at them boldly and had my desire.
Yellow man, yellow man, what do you know? That living is lovely wherever I go; And lovelier, I say, since when soft winds have passed The tides will race over my bosom at last.
Yellow man, yellow man, why do you sigh? For flowers that are sweet, and for flowers that die. For days in fair waters and nights in strange lands. For faces forgotten and little lost hands.
A CHINESE NIGHT
It was eight o'clock. We had dined in Soho, and conversed amiably with Italian waiters and French wine-men. There were now many slack hours before us, and nothing wherewith to tighten them. We stood in the low-lit gaiety of Old Compton Street, and wondered. We were tired of halls and revues; the theatres had started work; there was nothing left but to sit in beer-cellars and listen to dreary bands playing ragtimes and bilious waltzes.
Now it is a good tip when tired of the West, and, as the phrase goes, at a loose end, to go East, young man, go East. You will spot a winner every time, if it is entertainment you seek, by mounting the first East-bound omnibus that passes. For the East is eternally fresh, because it is alive. The West, like all things of fashion, is but a corpse electrified. They are so tired, these lily-clad ladies and white-fronted gentlemen, of their bloodless, wine-whipped frivolities. They want to enjoy themselves very badly, but they do not know how to do it. They know that enjoyment only means eating the same dinner at a different restaurant, and afterwards meeting the same tired people, or seeing the same show, the same songs, jests, dances at different houses. But Eastward ... there, large and full, blossoms Life—a rather repellent Life, perhaps, for Life is always that. Hatred, filth, love, battle, and death—all elemental things are here, undisguised; and if elemental things repel you, my lamb, then you have no business to be on this planet. Night, in the particular spots of the East to which these pages take you, shows you Life in the raw, stripped of its silken wrappings; and it is of passionate interest to those for whom humanity is the only Book. In the West pleasure is a business; in the East it is recreation. In the East it may be a thinner, poorer body, but it is alive. The people are sick, perhaps, with toil; but below that sickness there is a lust for enjoyment that lights up every little moment of their evening, as I shall show you later, when we come to Bethnal Green, Hoxton, and the athletic saloons. You may listen to Glazounoff's "L'Automne Bacchanale" at the Palace Theatre, danced by Pavlova, but I should not look in Shaftesbury Avenue or Piccadilly for its true spirit. Rather, I should go to Kingsland Road, Tunnel Gardens, Jamaica Road; to the trafficked highways, rent with naphthas, that rush about East India Dock. There, when the lamps are lighted, and bead the night with tears, and the sweet girls go by, and throw their little laughter to the boys—there you have your true Bacchanales.
So, leaving the fixed grin of decay in Coventry Street, we mounted a motor-'bus, and dashed gaily through streets of rose and silver—it was October—and dropped off by the Poplar Hippodrome, whose harsh signs lit the night to sudden beauty.
To turn from East India Dock Road to West India Dock Road is to turn, contradictorily, from West to East, from a fury of lights and noise and faces into a stillness almost chaste. At least, chaste is the first word you think of. In a few seconds you feel that it is the wrong epithet. Something ... something there is in this dusky, throttled byway that seems to be crawling into your blood. The road seems to slink before you; and you know that, once in, you can only get out by retracing your steps or crossing into the lost Isle of Dogs. Against the wrath of October cloud, little low shops peer at you. In the sharp shadows their lights fall like swords across your path. The shuttered gloom of the eastern side shows strangely menacing. Each whispering house seems an abode of dread things. Each window seems filled with frightful eyes. Each corner, half-lit by a timid gas-jet, seems to harbour unholy features. A black man, with Oriental features, brushes against you. You collide with a creeping yellow man. He says something—it might be Chinese or Japanese or Philippinese jargon. A huge Hindoo shuffles, cat-like, against the shops. A fried-fish bar, its windows covered with Scandinavian phrases, flings a burst of melodious light for which you are grateful.
No; chaste was certainly not the right word. Say, rather, furtive, sinister. You are in Limehouse. The peacefulness seems to be that attendant upon underhand designs, and the twilight is that of people who love it because their deeds are evil.
But now we come to Pennyfields, to the thunderous shadows of the great Dock, and to that low-lit Causeway that carries such subtle tales of flowered islands, white towns, green bays, and sunlight like wine. At the mouth of Pennyfields is a cluster of Chinks. You may see at once that they dislike you.
But my friend Sam Tai Ling will give us better welcome, I think; so we slip into the Causeway, with its lousy shop-fronts decorated with Chinese signs, among them the Sign of the Foreign Drug Open Lamp. At every doorway stand groups of the gallant fellows, eyeing appreciatively such white girls as pass that way. You taste the curious flavour of the place—its mixture of camaraderie and brutality, of cruelty and pity and tears; of precocious children and wrecked men—and you smell its perfume, the week before last. But here is the home of Tai Ling, one of the most genial souls to be met in a world of cynicism and dyspepsia: a lovable character, radiating sweetness and a tolerably naughty goodness in this narrow street. Not immoral, for to be immoral you must first subscribe to some conventional morality. Tai Ling does not. You cannot do wrong until you have first done right. Tai Ling has not. He is just non-moral; and right and wrong are words he does not understand. He is in love with life and song and wine and the beauty of women. The world to him is a pause on a journey, where one may take one's idle pleasure while others strew the path with mirth and roses. He knows only two divisions of people: the gay and the stupid. He never turns aside from pleasure, or resists an invitation to the feast. In fact, by our standards a complete rogue, yet the most joyous I have known. Were you to visit him and make his acquaintance, you would thank me for the introduction to so charming a character. I never knew a man with so seductive a smile. Many a time it has driven the virtuously indignant heart out of me. An Oriental smile, you know, is not an affair of a swift moment. It has a birth and a beginning. It awakens, hesitates, grows, and at last from the sad chrysalis emerges the butterfly. A Chinese smile at the full is one of the subtlest expressions of which the human face is capable.