Thursday 18 February 2010

London by Night

A nice piece of London journalism by Edmund Yates. Nothing exceptional but evocative of the period (1850s), all the same.

NOT from the gloomy gallery of the now hermetically sealed Coliseum — not from the highest pinnacle of St. Paul's, where stood Mr. Dickens and Dean Milman during the recent illuminations — do I propose oh, reader of mine! to show you London by night. From these heights we should indeed be able to trace the glittering lines of the broad streets, to catch occasional twinkles of variegated colours in chemists' windows, to see the reflection of the bridge lamps shimmering in the thick water below; but of the actual life carried on beneath us we should learn nothing. It is not our purpose to-night to find sermons in stones, but rather to glean an amusing lesson from animate objects. Let us, then, quietly stroll through the streets, jotting down our observations as we go. I, for the nonce, have renounced the ordinary paletot of domestic life, and have that magic garment, conferring invisibility on the wearer, which was given to me by my fairy godmother: cling you tightly to its skirts, and thus unseen, yet all-seeing, we will pass through the streets together.
It is the height of the season, and eight o'clock is just pealed from the extinguisher-steepled church in Langham-place. Coming down Portland-place we have seen at many mansions undeniable tokens of festivity; through open dining-room windows we could just catch glimpses of glittering epergnes and brilliant chandeliers, of airy dresses and pearly shoulders, of stiff white chokers and stiffened moustaches. Borne upon the dusty wind carne an odour of French cookery which tingled deliciously in our nostrils, mingled at some of the houses with the sharp pungent smell of Eastern condiments, for Portland-place is the stronghold of the great Anglo-Indian fraternity, of returned nabobs and ex-collectors; and in the basement floors of many of these residences do Meer Ali and hi fraternity, bright-eyed and agile-fingered, compound such pilaffs and cutcherry and curries as delight the stomachs of their masters, and cause the envy of the Oriental Club Committee. In Portland-place itself there is little enough traffic just now, for the population is of one rank and is engaged exclusively at present in that one great occupation, dining. Turning through the Regent-circus into Oxford-street, we come at once upon a very different scene, where the whole hive is awake and stirring. The street is thronged with business men detained late in the City now wending their way to their snuggeries at burglar-haunted Bayswater, or nightly-ransacked Notting Hill; shop-girls attached to early-closing establishments, escorted by the trimmest of shop-boys with the shiniest of hats, the all-roundest of collars, and the stiffest of boots, wending their way to those establishments which call themselves dancing academies, and are simply casinos on a lower scale. Now and then, too, we pass a seedy-looking man with a very blue-shaven face, a jaunty air, and a thick stick; this is an actor who does not play until the second piece; and occasionally we come across the stout well-to-do sub-editor of a daily newspaper, hurrying down to his nightly avocation. We may, perchance, see something more of the inner life of both these gentlemen, but at present our business is in the street. Passing through Oxford-street and glancing through the large windows of the linendraper's shop where the white-chokered gentlemen are lazily putting away the things and hurrying off to the joys of the Varsoviana, we come into Holborn, and, as nine o'clock is now close at hand, find the shops generally closed, and the wayfarers few in number. Little noise is here heard save from the costermongers, who, standing by their barrows at the corner of the kerb, shout the excellence of their goods, and from the boys, who preternaturally wide-awake, still keep up a volley of slang and "chaff" against each other and all the passers-by. Some establishments, however, are still open; oyster shops, glaring with gas, radiant with lobsters, and trimly arranged oysters laid flat in circular basins, green and tempting with fennel and cold salads arranged in glistening glass, bright with gilt affiches of dried salmon, and haddocks and Yarmouth bloaters. Taverns are here, too, of all kinds, from the old-fashioned public-house with its one open bar, its capital old and mild ales and cooling porter, with its trim old-fashioned landlord and landlady, its hairy-capped pot-boy and time-honoured "parlour" frequenters to the rattling staring gin-palace, with mahogany and plate-glass, with its enormous vats, and glistening gaseliers, and pewter bars, and wired cakebasket ; with its "max" and "old tom" and "blue-ruin," its "dew off Ben Nevis", its "regular stunning and no mistake." Looking through the always-open swing door of this house we see a sight which would fill our esteemed friend Mr. George Cruikshank with horror and dismay. There, in the large space in front of the bar, is wedged together a crowd of men, women, aye and children. There are costermongers in the orthodox fustian coat and knee-breeches, with dirty cotton stockings and ankle jack boots, who have left their basket of wares piled up behind the doors, but who keep looking sharply round occasionally to see that the laws of meum, and tuum are duly respected; seedy men in rusty suits like mechanics out of work or broken down tradesmen, "colloguing" together over little glasses of spirits, which have been filled from the battered noggin on the counter; their conversation harping principally upon "parties that they've knowed " who were" bad lots," and "made no bones about sellin' a feller up root and branch:" little old women in wonderfully wretched clothes and smashed bonnets — old women with moist eyes and red noses, and hands with crinkled shining skin and black nails, who address each other first as "Mum," and then, under juniperial influence, broaden into "my dear;" gaunt, wretched, slammerkin girls, with pallid faces, half defiant half death-like in their expression, dressed in faded finery, with tattered shawls drawn tightly round their thin frames, who do not wait to talk but hurry in, toss of their "go," and are off at once. Screened off from the general assemblage by a wooden partition is the private bar or "Jug and Bottle Entrance," where are three or four young men of a better stamp who are drinking pale ale and talking about the" governor" and the "jolly sheave o' last night," and flirting with the many ribboned girl who is serving them, and imagining themselves the greatest rakes in Europe. The hands are rapidly creeping round the dial, and we shall not have time to go further into the City, nor should we indeed find much there to repay our journey. We should see large warehouses and vast mercantile establishments sleeping quietly in the moonlight, the masters of which are now nodding over the last number of the" Quarterly Review," or playing with the children, or smoking a quiet cigar on the lawn far far away from these hot and stifling thoroughfares. In detached and semi-detached villas, in "parks" and "retreats" and "lodges," ay, by my troth, and even in "hermitages" live they, away by the side of silver Thames or on the breezy downs of Surrey, or among the verdant woods of Sussex: and Berkshire, whither they fly and whence they are borne, steam-rattled by the train each night and morning. We should see little congregation-less churches frowned upon and almost hidden by the erections of Manchester and Glasgow enterprise, large tumble-down inns and coaching houses, whose custom has departed but whose name still remains, "London's tall column pointing to the skies," the Bank, the Exchange, the Post Office, all the great monuments of commerce, but we should come upon very few animate beings, and so at once "westward ho! " Stay! I said we would have one more look at our friend the subeditor whom we met in Oxford-street. It is but a short way from Holborn to the Strand, and in the latter region we shall find him. That large building with the dull beacon lamp burning over the door, and with the brilliant light streaming through the windows of the two upper stories through which the compositors can be seen busily at work, that large building, on nearing which the thumping and clashing of the steam-engine is at once audible, is the Intelligencer office, and here from 9 P.M. till 3 A.M., except on Saturday nights or on the occasion of a month's holiday, is Mr. Sifter, the sub-editor, invariably to be found. A cab has just rattled up to the door, and from it has alighted Mr. O'Shane, one of the "gallery-men" of the Intelligencer. Availing ourselves of our invisibility, we follow him through the door, and up a well-worn staircase, to a large bare room on the second floor. The room js pretty well filled; five or six reporters being seated at the desks, which run round the wall — gallery-men who were first at "the House," a gentleman who has just returned from a public-dinner, and another who is copying from his notes the lengthy speech of the President at the opening of the Bolton-le-Moors Cattle Show. Mr. Sifter is not here; to find him, we must go down to the first flight, and here he is boring over an absurd manuscript account of a military inspection, and endeavouring, hopeless task as it seems, to cut out three parts of the reporter's verbose description, and neatly to join the disconnected fragments. In his room, by special licence, is seated a lively-looking young man in evening dress, with a playbill before him, at which he casts occasional glances, as his quick pen flies over the paper. This is the theatrical critic, whose Gillott has become a creese — whose inkstand is filled with gall — who, in plain speaking, is flaying Mr. Haresfoot for having the presumption to think he can play Hamlet, and for having had the presumption to disappoint the theatrical critic of that great organ, the Intelligencer, by compelling him to give up a pleasant artistic dinner at Greenwich, and to attend to his critical duties at the Theatre Royal Drury Garden. Doubtless, you would like a glance at the chief editorial sanctum; but, as we are pressed for time, you must accept a catalogue raisonnĂ©e of its contents. Here it is:- A bald-headed gentleman; a large desk; piles of manuscript; a heap of "leaders" in proof letters (opened and unopened) from an parts of the world; a framed statement of the current work of the night; a bowl full of cards for theatres, exhibitions, &c.; a mass of books for review lying on the floor; a file of the journal, with hieroglyphics intelligible only to editorial senses, inscribed thereon; a hat, great-coat, and stick; two or three bookshelves, full of works of useful information — cyclopaedias, dictionaries, and such like; gutta-percha speaking tubes, communicating with all parts of the establishment, jutting from the wall, and falling snake-like round the devoted editor; a tea service; and a washing-stand. Now, adieu, Intelligencer-office, and, once more, " westward, ho."
Edmund Yates,Train: a first-class magazine, 1856

1 comment:

  1. I love the flowing language used here,