By a Novice - II.
Saturday night, the eve of Whit-Sunday, seemed a good evening to select for a visit to a well-known music hall in Paddington, patronized mostly by the poorer classes of society. Well-to-do people unconsciously get their views about the poor coloured by the police reports in the newspapers (as, it may be, the poor judge of the rich from the published accounts of divorce cases), and it must be confessed that I for one had some apprehensions as to the character of the entertainment at which my friend and I had imposed on ourselves the duty of assisting. [--sic--typo for 'assessing'?] Such fears, however, turned out not to be only an additional proof of the existence of that ignorance of classes other than our own in which it is the fate of so many of us to live and die. As a matter of act, on this occasion at any rate, the whole entertainment was immeasurably superior, in moral tone and decency, to that of the fashionable West End music hall previously visited by us and described in last month's Vigilance Record. Of course there was vulgarity, but vulgarity of a downright honest, homely kind, unseasoned by vicious jests or indecent allusions. Indeed, the audience seemed of a fresher and more wholesome type, more child-like in nature, easily amused, and readily expressing approbation or the reverse, but not requiring as did the educated gentlemen who formed the mass of the former audience, either vice or indecency to whet their jaded appetites.
The prices of the seats ranged from 6d. to 2s. for reserved stalls, and on pushing through the handsome swing glass door leading into the pit, we found ourselves in the midst of a thickly-packed mass of working men, mostly standing, and all smoking short clay pipes. We made our way with some difficulty through the crowd to a side bench in front of a bar; from here we have a fairly good view of the "house", which was like a good-sized theatre, built in octagonal form. The performance had already begun as we took our seats on the wooden form, by the side of some clay pipes, with clay pipes in front and clay pipes behind us. As the evening advanced, the atmosphere became insufferable.
The reserved stalls filling the parterre in front of us were chiefly occupied by quietly behaved decent-looking young men, with a sprinkling of entirely respectable women and girls, many of them shop-girls, who came in couples, in fact we could only discover one girl who might from her appearance be of doubtful character.
Of women in the humbler ranks of life there were scarcely any, though their brothers and husbands and sons swarmed, and a factory girl, denoted by the unmistakeable scanty feather and thick fringe of hair, was a quite a rara avis; apparently poor women do not largely participate in the amusements of their male relations. The readiness with which the people inconvenienced themselves for their neighbours, and their true politeness to each other was remarkable; two men in front of us left their seats several times, and retired to the bar in order to replenish their glasses with porter, and although their places were immediately occupied by the bystanders, they were invariably cheerfully relinquished on the reappearance of those who claimed them; indeed all behaved well, and we saw no drunkenness or disorder of any kind, Owing to our position under the balcony, we had some difficulty in hearing the words of all the songs evidently familiar to the greater part of the audience who joined vociferously in the choruses; and in one song sung by a young lady, attired in scarlet satin, and vivid grass green silk stockings, interpolated a deafening shout at a given pause in each verse, which sounded like a Brobdingnagian "WHY?"
Although we were treated to a very fair rendering of the Toreador's song from Carmen by a man with a fine baritone, the songs, as a whole, were certainly not meant to gratify refined taste; one of the most unpleasant being sung by a comedian who acted in character the part of an "unfortunate father," and deplored, with the naive irresponsibility of the British parent, the misfortunes showered on an innocent victim in the shape of seventeen daughters. The audience roared with gusto the chorus:
Will any one marry my daughters?
Will any one cart of the whole blooming lot?
For I want to get rid of girls.
On the other hand, the same man sang a character song with great effect, containing a very visible and impressive moral; he gave highly dramatic sketches of the fate of the dishonest city clerk, the gambler, and the drunkard, and finally of the little actress, "Flo," who was betrayed by the fine gentleman in whose promises she had put her faith, and who ended her life by a fatal plunge off London Bridge. The entertainment was varied by acrobatic performances, conjuring, and some dancing of a comparatively decent kind. Having endured semi-asphyxiation for nearly three hours and a half - and as there was no apparent prospect of the entertainment, which began at eight, drawing to a close - we could stand the poisonous atmosphere no longer and made our escape into the reviving air. Never did London air appear so fresh and balmy to two poor mortals, and to us it was Spring itself, with healing on its wing, that we breathed anew. The night was a beautiful one, and we came out upon a very picturesque scene - the whole of Edgware Road turned a huge market, with stalls crowded with many coloured ware and lit by flaming jets of naptha lining the pavements, which were so thronged with purchasers we could scarcely get along. A quiet, patient, orderly, dowdy throng it was, absorbed in the paramount duty of purchasing food to sustain a life which, to the large majority among them must be one long weary grind. Here were whole families doing the shopping for the week-end, heaving inert-looking fathers, and wan-faced worn-out mothers, with tiny children in their arms of dragging at their hands. The things seemed to us marvellously cheap, from the bonnets and hats and second-hand clothing to the disorderly piles of paper-covered books - (by the way, why does not the S.P.C.K. get its rival penny dreadfuls on to these stalls?) - bacon, vegetables, fish, periwinkles, and flowers in profusion: as many beautiful pink tulips as you could hold for one penny. We were investing when my friend noticed a poor, pinch-faced woman gazing with long eyes at the bright flowers; she said to her, "They are very pretty, aren't they?" and the poor thing replied with such a depth of yearning in her voice, " 'Deedm an' they are, mam; I was just thinking whether I could get a ha'porth." "Of course you shall," was the reply; "which would you like?" "Oh, mam, something a bit green, please." As I turned I caught the exquisite smile of voiceless gratitude which lit up the poor wan face as she shook hands with her unknown friend. The glory of the earth's spring was never perhaps to rejoice her sad eyes, but into her heart at that moment the power of the spirit, which is of the spring entered; and we felt that our evening had not been spent wholly in vain.
Vigilance Record, July 1888