Thursday 9 June 2011

I can do nothing with these people.

Here's the great George Sala on street nuisances - musicians, acrobats, and his neighbours - from the excellent collection Twice Round the Clock (1859):

First Italian organ-grinder, hirsute, sunburnt, and saucy, who grinds airs from the "Trovatore" six times over, follows with a selection from the "Traviata," repeated half a dozen times, finishes up with the "Old Hundredth" and the "Postman's Knock," and then begins again. Next, shivering Hindoo, his skin apparently just washed in walnut juice, with a voluminous turban, dirty white muslin caftan, worsted stockings and hob-nailed shoes, who, followed by two diminutive brown imps in similar costume, sings a dismal ditty in the Hindostanee language, and beats the tom-tom with fiendish monotony. Next comes a brazen woman in a Scotch cap, to which is fastened a bunch of rusty black feathers, apparently culled from a mourning coach past service. She wears a faded tartan kilt, fleshings, short calico trews, a velveteen jacket, tin buckles in her shoes, and two patches of red brick-dust on her haggard cheeks, and is supposed to represent a Scottish highlander. She dances an absurd fling, interpolated occasionally with a shrill howl to the music of some etiolated bagpipes screeded by a shabby rogue of the male sex, her companion, arrayed in similar habiliments. Next come the acrobats — drum, clarionet, and all. You know what those nuisances are like, without any extended description on my part. Close on their heels follows the eloquent beggar, with his numerous destitute but scrupulously clean family, who has, of course, that morning parted with his last shirt. Then a lamentable woman with a baby begins to whimper "Old Dog Tray." Then swoop into the street an abominable band of ruffians, six in number. They are swarthy villains, dressed in the semblance of Italian goatherds, and are called, I believe, pifferari. They play upon a kind of bagpipes — a hideous  pig-skin-and-walking-stick-looking affair, and accompany their droning by a succession of short yelps and a spasmodic pedal movement that would be a near approach to a sailor's hornpipe, if it did bear a much closer resemblance to the war-dance of a wild Indian. Add to these the Jews crying "Clo'!" the man who sells hearthstones, and the woman who buys rabbit-skins, the butcher, the baker, and the boys screaming shrill Nigger melodies, and rattling pieces of slate between their fingers in imitation of the "bones," and you will be able to form an idea of the quietude of our street. From the infliction of the soot-and-grease-bedaubed and tambourine-and-banjo-equipped Ethiopian serenaders, we are indeed mercifully spared; but enough remains to turn a respectable thoroughfare into a saturnalia.
     I can do nothing with these people. I shout, I threaten, I shake my fist, I objurgate them from my window in indifferent Italian, but to no avail. They defy, scorn, disregard, make light of me. They are encouraged in their abominable devices, not merely by the idlers in the street, the servant-maids gossiping at the doors, the boys with the baskets, and the nurse children, but by the people at the windows, who seem to have nothing to do but to look from their casements all day long. There is an ancient party of the female persuasion opposite my humble dwelling, who was wont to take intense interest in the composition of my literary essays. She used to bring her work to the window at first; but she never did a stitch, and soon allowed that flimsy pretext to fall through, and devoted herself with unaffected enjoyment to staring at me. As I am modest and nervous, I felt compelled to put a stop to this somewhat too persevering scrutiny; but I disdained to adopt the pusillanimous and self-nose-amputating plan of pulling down the window blinds. I tried taking her portrait as she sat, like an elderly Jessica, at the casement, and drew horrifying caricatures of her in red chalk, holding them up, from time to time, for her inspection; but she rather seemed to like this last process than otherwise; and I was obliged to change my tactics. The constant use of a powerful double-barrelled Solomon's race-glass of gigantic  dimensions was first successful in discomposing her, and ultimately routed her with great moral slaughter; and she now only approaches the window in a hurried and furtive manner. I daresay she thinks my conduct most unhandsome. She and the tall man in the long moustaches at number thirteen, all the pupils at the ladies' school next door, the two saucy little minxes in black merino and worked collars at number nine, and that man with the bald head shaped like a Dutch cheese, in the parlour at number nine, who is always in his shirt sleeves, drums with his fingers on the window panes, and grins and makes faces at the passers-by, and whom I conscientiously believe to be a confirmed idiot, are all in a league against me, and have an alliance, offensive and defensive, with the musical canaille below. They cry out "Shame" when I remonstrate with those nuisances they shout and jeer at me when I sally forth from the door, and make rabid rushes at the man with the bagpipes: they inquire derisively whether I consider myself lord of the creation?


  1. daniel connolly15 June 2011 at 13:05

    Now I believe in reincarnation; how often do I objurgate from my window or compare someone to an elderly Jesicca; when will I ever get to use the word pusillanimous? I fear I lack the valour for all but in my mind...
    Great writing (his not mine)

  2. Sala is great, when he gets it right. I am, by the way, about to publish this on the Kindle.

  3. daniel connolly16 June 2011 at 12:09

    I'm afraid my technological belongings are nearer to those you write about rather than those you write for, I still struggle with the concept of a Kinder Egg never mind a Kindle Book

  4. Wonderful writing! What does he mean by a "powerful double-barrelled Solomon's race-glass of gigantic dimensions" though? I'm desperate to know how he managed to scare off the "elderly Jessica"...

  5. I think he means a pair of binoculars - ie. glasses used for spectating at the races ...?