My Discovery of England by Stephen Leacock
III. - Impressions of London
BEFORE setting down my impressions of the great English metropolis; a phrase which I have thought out as a designation for London; I think it proper to offer an initial apology. I find that I receive impressions with great difficulty and have nothing of that easy facility in picking them up which is shown by British writers on Ameriea. I remember Hugh Walpole telling me that he could hardly walk down Broadway without getting at least three dollars' worth and on Fifth Avenue five dollars' worth; and I recollect that St. John Ervine came up to my house in Montreal, drank a cup of tea, borrowed some tobacco, and got away with sixty dollars' worth of impressions of Canadian life and character.
For this kind of thing I have only a despairing admiration. I can get an impression if I am given time and can think about it beforehand. But it requires thought. This fact was all the more distressing to me in as much as one of the leading editors of America had made me a proposal, as honourable to him as it was Iucrative to me, that immediately on my arrival in London;--or just before it,--I should send him a thousand words on the genius of the English, and five hundred words on the spirit of London, and two hundred words of personal chat with Lord Northcliffe. This contract I was unable to fulfil except the personal chat with Lord Northcliffe, which proved an easy matter as he happened to be away in Australia.
But I have since pieced together my impressions as conscientiously as I could and I present them here. If they seem to be a little bit modelled on British impressions of America I admit at once that the influence is there. We writers all act and react on one another; and when I see a good thing in another man's book I react on it at once.
London, the name of which is already known to millions of readers of this book, is beautifully situated on the river Thames, which here sweeps in a wide curve with much the same breadth and majesty as the St. Jo River at South Bend, Indiana. London, like South Bend itself, is a city of clean streets and admirable sidewalks, and has an excellent water supply. One is at once struck by the number of excellent and well-appointed motor cars that one sees on every hand, the neatness of the shops and the cleanliness and cheerfulness of the faces of the people. In short, as an English visitor said of Peterborough, Ontario, there is a distinct note of optimism in the air. I forget who it was who said this, but at any rate I have been in Peterborough myself and I have seen it.
Contrary to my expectations and contrary to all our Transatlantic precedents, I was not met at the depot by one of the leading citizens, himself a member of the Municipal Council, driving his own motor car. He did not tuck a fur rug about my knees, present me with a really excellent cigar and proceed to drive me about the town so as to show me the leading points of interest, the municipal reservoir, the gas works and the municipal abattoir. In fact he was not there. But I attribute his absence not to any lack of hospitality but merely to a certain reserve in the English character. They are as yet unused to the arrival of lecturers. When they get to be more accustomed to their coming, they will learn to take them straight to the municipal abattoir just as we do.
For lack of better guidance, therefore, I had to form my impressions of London by myself. In the mere physical sense there is much to attract the eye. The city is able to boast of many handsome public buildings and offices which compare favourably with anything on the other side of the Atlantic. On the bank of the Thames itself rises the power house of the Westminster Electric Supply Corporation, a handsome modern edifice in the later Japanese style. Close by are the commodious premises of the Imperial Tobacco Company, while at no great distance the Chelsea Gas Works add a striking feature of rotundity. Passing northward, one observes Westminster Bridge, notable as a principal station of the underground railway. This station and the one next above it, the Charing Cross one, are connected by a wide thoroughfare called Whitehall. One of the best American drug stores is here situated. The upper end of Whitehall opens into the majestic and spacious Trafalgar Square. Here are grouped in imposing proximity the offices of the Canadian Pacific and other railways, The International Sleeping Car Company, the Montreal Star, and the Anglo-Dutch Bank. Two of the best American barber shops are conveniently grouped near the Square, while the existence of a tall stone monument in the middle of the Square itself enables the American visitor to find them without difficulty. Passing eastward towards the heart of the city, one notes on the left hand the imposing pile of St. Paul's, an enormous church with a round dome on the top, suggesting strongly the first Church of Christ (Scientist) on Euclid Avenue, Cleveland.
But the English churches not being labelled, the visitor is often at a loss to distinguish them.
A little further on one finds oneself in the heart of financial London. Here all the great financial institutions of America--The First National Bank of Milwaukee, The Planters National Bank of St. Louis, The Montana Farmers Trust Co., and many others,--have either their offices or their agents. The Bank of England--which acts as the London Agent of The Montana Farmers Trust Company,-- and the London County Bank, which represents the People's Deposit Co., of Yonkers, N.Y., are said to be in the neighbourhood.
This particular part of London is connected with the existence of that strange and mysterious thing called "the City." I am still unable to decide whether the city is a person, or a place, or a thing. But as a form of being I give it credit for being the most emotional, the most volatile, the most peculiar creature in the world. You read in the morning paper that the City is "deeply depressed." At noon it is reported that the City is "buoyant" and by four o'clock that the City is "wildly excited."
I have tried in vain to find the causes of these peculiar changes of feeling. The ostensible reasons, as given in the newspaper, are so trivial as to be hardly worthy of belief. For example, here is the kind of news that comes out from the City. "The news that a modus vivendi has been signed between the Sultan of Kowfat and the Shriek-ul-Islam has caused a sudden buoyancy in the City. Steel rails which had been depressed all morning reacted immediately while American mules rose up sharply to par." . . . "Monsieur Poincar, speaking at Bordeaux, said that henceforth France must seek to retain by all possible means the ping-pong championship of the world: values in the City collapsed at once." . . . "Despatches from Bombay say that the Shah of Persia yesterday handed a golden slipper to the Grand Vizier Feebli Pasha as a sign that he might go and chase himself: the news was at once followed by a drop in oil, and a rapid attempt to liquidate everything that is fluid . . ."
But these mysteries of the City I do not pretend to explain. I have passed through the place dozens of times and never noticed anything particular in the way of depression or buoyancy, or falling oil, or rising rails. But no doubt it is there.
A little beyond the city and further down the river the visitor finds this district of London terminating in the gloomy and forbidding Tower, the principal penitentiary of the city. Here Queen Victoria was imprisoned for many years.
Excellent gasoline can be had at the American Garage immediately north of the Tower, where motor repairs of all kinds are also carried on.
These, however, are but the superficial pictures of London, gathered by the eye of the tourist. A far deeper meaning is found in the examination of the great historic monuments of the city. The principal ones of these are the Tower of London (just mentioned), the British Museum and Westminster Abbey. No visitor to London should fail to see these. Indeed he ought to feel that his visit to England is wasted unless he has seen them. I speak strongly on the point because I feel strongly on it. To my mind there is something about the grim fascination of the historic Tower, the cloistered quiet of the Museum and the majesty of the ancient Abbey, which will make it the regret of my life that I didn't see any one of the three. I fully meant to: but I failed: and I can only hope that the circumstances of my failure may be helpful to other visitors.
The Tower of London I most certainly intended to inspect. Each day, after the fashion of every tourist, I wrote for myself a little list of things to do and I always put the Tower of London on it. No doubt the reader knows the kind of little list that I mean. It runs:
This itinerary, I regret to say, was never carried out in full. I was able at times both to go to the bank and buy a shirt in a single morning: at other times I was able to buy razor blades and almost to find the National Picture Gallery. Meantime I was urged on all sides by my London acquaintances not to fail to see the Tower. "There's a grim fascination about the place," they said; "you mustn't miss it." I am quite certain that in due course of time I should have made my way to the Tower but for the fact that I made a fatal discovery. I found out that the London people who urged me to go and see the Tower had never seen it themselves. It appears they never go near it. One night at a dinner a man next to me said, "Have you seen the Tower? You really ought to. There's a grim fascination about it." I looked him in the face. "Have you seen it yourself?" I asked. "Oh, yes," he answered. "I've seen it." "When?" I asked. The man hesitated. "When I was just a boy," he said, "my father took me there." "How long ago is that?" I enquired. "About forty years ago," he answered;
"I always mean to go again but I don't somehow seem to get the time."
After this I got to understand that when a Londoner says, "Have you seen the Tower of London?" the answer is, "No, and neither have you."
Take the parallel case of the British Museum. Here is a place that is a veritable treasure house. A repository of some of the most priceless historical relics to be found upon the earth. It contains, for instance, the famous Papyrus Manuscript of Thotmes II of the first Egyptian dynasty--a thing known to scholars all over the world as the oldest extant specimen of what can be called writing; indeed one can here see the actual evolution (I am quoting from a work of reference, or at least from my recollection of it) from the ideographic cuneiform to the phonetic syllabic script. Every time I have read about that manuscript and have happened to be in Orillia (Ontario) or Schenectady (N.Y.) or any such place, I have felt that I would be willing to take a whole trip to England to have five minutes at the British Museum, just five, to look at that papyrus. Yet as soon as I got to London this changed. The railway stations of London have been so arranged that to get to any train for the north or west, the traveller must pass the British Museum. The first time I went by it in a taxi, I felt quite a thrill. "Inside those walls," I thought to myself, "is the manuscript of Thotmes II." The next time I actually stopped the taxi. "Is that the British Museum?" I asked the driver, "I think it is something of the sort, sir," he said. I hesitated. "Drive me," I said, "to where I can buy safety razor blades."
After that I was able to drive past the Museum with the quiet assurance of a Londoner, and to take part in dinner table discussions as to whether the British Museum or the Louvre contains the greater treasures. It is quite easy any way. All you have to do is to remember that The Winged Victory of Samothrace is in the Louvre and the papyrus of Thotmes II (or some such document) is in the Museum.
The Abbey, I admit, is indeed majestic. I did not intend to miss going into it. But I felt, as so many tourists have, that I wanted to enter it in the proper frame of mind. I never got into the frame of mind; at least not when near the Abbey itself. I have been in exactly that frame of mind when on State Street, Chicago, or on King Street, Toronto, or anywhere three thousand miles away from the Abbey. But by bad luck I never struck both the frame of mind and the Abbey at the same time.
But the Londoners, after all, in not seeing their own wonders, are only like the rest of the world. The people who live in Buffalo never go to see Niagara Falls; people in Cleveland don't know which is Mr. Rockefeller's house, and people live and even die in New York without going up to the top of the Woolworth Building. And anyway the past is remote and the present is near. I know a cab driver in the city of Quebec whose business in life it is to drive people up to see the Plains of Abraham, but unless they bother him to do it, he doesn't show them the spot where Wolfe fell: what ho does point out with real zest is the place where the Mayor and the City Council sat on the wooden platform that they put up for the municipal celebration last summer.
No description of London would be complete without a reference, however brief, to the singular salubrity and charm of the London climate. This is seen at its best during the autumn and winter months. The climate of London and indeed of England generally is due to the influence of the Gulf Stream. The way it works is thus: The Gulf Stream, as it nears the shores of the British Isles and feels the propinquity of Ireland, rises into the air, turns into soup, and comes down on London. At times the soup is thin and is in fact little more than a mist: at other times it has the consistency of a thick Potage St. Germain. London people are a little sensitive on the point and flatter their atmosphere by calling it a fog: but it is not: it is soup. The notion that no sunlight ever gets through and that in the London winter people never see the sun is of course a ridiculous error, circulated no doubt by the jealousy of foreign nations. I have myself seen the sun plainly visible in London, without the aid of glasses, on a November day in broad daylight; and again one night about four o'clock in the afternoon I saw the sun distinctly appear through the clouds. The whole subject of daylight in the London winter is, however, one which belongs rather to the technique of astronomy than to a book of description. In practice daylight is but little used. Electric lights are burned all the time in all houses, buildings, railway stations and clubs. This practice which is now universally observed is called Daylight Saving.
But the distinction between day and night during the London winter is still quite obvious to any one of an observant mind. It is indicated by various signs such as the striking of clocks, the tolling of bells, the closing of saloons, and the raising of taxi rates. It is much less easy to distinguish the technical approach of night in the other cities of England that lie outside the confines, physical and intellectual, of London and live in a continuous gloom. In such places as the great manufacturing cities, Buggingham-under-Smoke, or Gloomsbury-on-Ooze, night may be said to be perpetual.
. . . . .
I had written the whole of the above chapter and looked on it as finished when I realised that I had made a terrible omission. I neglected to say anything about the Mind of London. This is a thing that is always put into any book of discovery and observation and I can only apologise for not having discussed it sooner. I am quite familiar with other people's chapters on "The Mind of America," and "The Chinese Mind," and so forth. Indeed, so far as I know it has turned out that almost everybody all over the world has a mind. Nobody nowadays travels, even in Central America or Thibet, without bringing back a chapter on "The Mind of Costa Rica," or on the "Psychology of the Mongolian." Even the gentler peoples such as the Burmese, the Siamese, the Hawaiians, and the Russians, though they have no minds are written up as souls.
It is quite obvious then that there is such a thing as the mind of London: and it is all the more culpable in me to have neglected it in as much as my editorial friend in New York had expressly mentioned it to me before I sailed. "What," said he, leaning far over his desk after his massive fashion and reaching out into the air, "what is in the minds of these people? Are they," he added, half to himself, though I heard him, "are they thinking? And, if they think, what do they think?"
I did therefore, during my stay in London, make an accurate study of the things that London seemed to be thinking about. As a comparative basis for this study I brought with me a carefully selected list of the things that New York was thinking about at the moment. These I selected from the current newspapers in the proportions to the amount of space allotted to each topic and the size of the heading that announced it. Having thus a working idea of what I may call the mind of New York, I was able to collect and set beside it a list of similar topics, taken from the London Press to represent the mind of London. The two placed side by side make an interesting piece of psychological analysis. They read as follows:
THE MIND OF NEW YORK THE MIND OF LONDON What is it thinking? What is it thinking? 1. Do chorus girls make 1. Do chorus girls marry good wives? well? 2. Is red hair a sign of 2. What is red hair a temperament? sign of? 3. Can a woman be in 3. Can a man be in love love with two men? with two women? 4. Is fat a sign of genius? 4. Is genius a sign of fat?
Looking over these lists, I think it is better to present them without comment; I feel sure that somewhere or other in them one should detect the heart-throbs, the pulsations of two great peoples. But I don't get it. In fact the two lists look to me terribly like "the mind of Costa Rica."
The same editor also advised me to mingle, at his expense, in the brilliant intellectual life of England. "There," he said, "is a coterie of men, probably the most brilliant group East of the Mississippi." (I think he said the Mississippi). "You will find them," he said to me, "brilliant, witty, filled with repartee." He suggested that I should send him back, as far as words could express it, some of this brilliance. I was very glad to be able to do this, although I fear that the results were not at all what he had anticipated. Still, I held conversations with these people and I gave him, in all truthfulness, the result. Sir James Barrie said, "This is really very exceptional weather for this time of year." Cyril Maude said, "And so a Martini cocktail is merely gin and vermouth." Ian Hay said, "You'll find the underground ever so handy once you understand it."
I have a lot more of these repartees that I could insert here if it was necessary. But somehow I feel that it is not.