Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Shady Side of Nottingham




"The harp, the viol, the timbrel, the lute, and the pipe," as Canon Morse would put it, arrested my homeward steps one early morning less than a month ago. The music was more muscular than harmonious, but it appeared to answer the purpose and was ever and anon loudly penetrated by laughter of that semi-insane order which has been so well described as "the crackling of thorns beneath a pot". How shall I get through that low-browed door into that tall ramshackle building, whence break out those sounds of revelry by night? "Faint heart never won fair lady," nor ever stormed Redan, so here goes
    "Rat-tat-tat." In a moment the door is opened the length of the chain and a pair of piercing eyes under shaggy eyebrows discriminatingly scrutinise my face et tout ensemble. Their decision evidently is that I look sufficiently rowdyish to gain admission, for the chain is undone and I pass quickly through the gloomy portal into a primitive scullery. Whew! The atmosphere beats the "forty well-defined and separate stinks" which Coleridge diagnosed at Cologne. A "nip" of well-watered gin is not only necessary to establish my footing, but to give a passable stability to my stomach and happily it is accessible.
    Herrings in a barrel, sardines in a tin, oranges in an "original package" - only by such illustration can I describe the crowded condition of the first room I overlooked. But the customers of the house - pardonne! the members of the club - are here, many of them good, decent fellows whom I have no met before, and it is not them I am after on this occasion. What a horrible den lies to the right! It seethes with smoke, it reeks with perspiration, it is redolent of drunken breath; and, worst of all, the room is the receptacle of the very old, the very young, or the undanceable middle-aged, who would rather drink, swear and manipulate the "flats" than convert themselves into "teetotums".
    The mystery to me is, that when mature people are anxious to "go the whole hog" they do not leave the children at home. Will the children of this generation not learn cards and cursing soon enough, unless the good God or His ministers interfere, without being deliberately conducted by their parents into the pandemonium of those pernicious pastimes? Let me draw the veil closely on the scene where parents were dissipating before the discerning eyes of their children of both sexes.
     Turn we to the left. It is step nearer the facilis descensus Averni. They are mostly young men, intellectually dissipating in strong tobacco and coarse chaff, while not neglecting to replenish their beer cans and keep a keen eye on the few young women who have ventured into the unhallowed precincts. Ordinary language will not adequately enable my readers to realise this scene. Two young girls at least, I should say, are unaccustomed to it. They are pestered by rude attentions, and ruder invitations to liquid indulgence. For a while they laugh, and for once they drink. Then a Bacchanal more forward than the rest, whispers to one of them a sentence. She blushes like a peony, bursts into tears, passionately exclaims, "I am not one of those;" until the reproof of the "manager" of the Club, that he does not keep apartments for crying in, stilled the indignation of innocence. When I saw the girl I could not help asking myself:- 
    Who was her father, who was her mother,
    Had she a sister, had she a brother?
Why was it permitted that she should be dragged by a female companion, a little more indoctrinated in the ways of a ball at a "Working Man's Club" than herself, into the very jaws of moral death? There is much more that is noticeable on the way to the ball-room, which I cannot pause to describe. At the receipt of custom sits a puffy-faced red-shawled woman who gathers in the sixpences galore from her masculine patrons. She is not connected with the "Club". The ball is her venture. Very good, but by what licence is the drink sold which circulates between the dances? I only ask our authorities the question and do not venture, after recent official threats, to propound the solution of it. Ah, here at last is the band of music, which wooed me from the street; it is not altogether after Canon Morse's Hebraic model, but quite serviceable, nevertheless. The musicians are sober and amused. On the top of the grand piano, however, a reveller is stretched out at full length, bibulously imagining himself in the seventh heaven of happiness, until perhaps his head in the morning may remind him that one who would drink with the gods must be a god himself, and not a very mediocre moral. What do I see? Twenty or thirty couples engaged in a waltz. Who could look at the scene without a shuddering of disgust? The young women are tolerably well dressed. Some of them are very young, and in other scenes and with other expression on their faces would be exceedingly attractive. Others are not old in age, but very old in appearance with their attenuated figures, hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. The latter are the veterans of these illicit "hops". Alas, that they should show the uninitiated or partially initiated such an evil example of ribald jest and abandoned gesture; and still worse, alas, that the former should show such aptitude in aping that dissolute example of their more experienced companions. 
    What I saw in a so-called Nottingham "Working-man's Club" would never have been permitted at Cremorne or in the Argyll Rooms. The young men, who by their clothes might have been the sweepings of the factories, were as vulgar as they were slovenly. The emblem of refinement was to smoke a cigar during the dance, and to watch the curling smoke delineating in the air the terpsichorean figures cut upon the floor. But it was perhaps a more difficult fear, according to the general custom, to deftly balance a long clay pipe between the teeth, and fiercely fumigate into your partner's face, who quietly shuts her eyes and refuses to open them except in the event of a serious collision. By the young men keeping their hats on, I presume that they considered them only safe from the kleptomaniac while they reposed on their heads. I have not seen the same amount of hugging, nor the particular attitude in which, for innumerable rounds, a pair of waltzers rested their right cheeks against each other, since I spent a soul-harrowing Sunday night of enquiry in the lowest quarter of Altona. Then when the musicians crashed their finale, it was the correct thing for the young men to swing themselves to a chair or a form, or perchance a table, and roughly hoisted their dizzy partners on their knees. When more air was wanted an adjournment was made to the staircase, where couples sat or reclined in the most negligĂ© style, cracking rough jokes and exchanging coarse caressses, when they had recovered breath enough for such lewd bye-play. Then - and I might be allowed to ask if that was the contemplated sphere of "clubs"? - they intensified their thirst by stupefying their senses with beer or maddening them with fiery spirits, until the band again summoned them to what proved to be no longer the light fantastic, but the besotted and stumbling toe. The bleared eyes, the blaring faces, the reeling forms, the lascivious language of young men and young women, consequent upon the orgy, are beyond description or recapitulation, and I must drop the curtain on the awful possibilities of the sequel. Will social reformers pardon me if I ask them this question: What is the use of passionately fighting against the comparatively mild dissipation which you see on the surface of the "Shady Side of Nottingham" until you attack and demolish the secret places where drunkards and prostitutes have been, and are now being manufactured wholesale?

Nottinghamshire Guardian, 26 January 1877


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