|August is the month when exhausted Londoners are supposed to be recuperating amid the quietness of moor, fell and sea.|
LONDON by tradition is "empty". Every night for ten weeks the pattern has remained the same... a whirl of receptions, theatres and dances. The non-stop party has now broken up. Evacuation to remote corners of the British Isles, the Continent, and across the Atlantic has left London a trifle melancholy. To those left behind it has a resemblance of a well-used room after a hectic evening. Litter in morning light is as cheerless and depressing as grey ash in a cold grate. London has entered the unfashionable weeks. The survivors feel inclined to take refuge in self-pity. They confide in letter and over the telephone that there is simply nothing to do. They band themselves together in a fellowship of misery... a coterie of susceptible individuals brooding in the self-created atmosphere of an internment camp. There may be substance to the complaints. Some people are only made happy by artificial expressions of animation that can be produced any hour of day or night. Goodwood may be over. The sleeping-cars from Kings Cross may be occupied by the owners of guns, golf clubs and fishing-rods. But to say that London is "empty" is lugubrious nonsense. It is true that when the London Season ends a rare touch of colour dies. It is a flower of brief but brilliant duration. But London in August has likewise a contribution to make which can be appreciated by the discerning. The tempo is slower. There is time to appreciate the art of conversation. During the Season the effusiveness with which a familiar face is greeted evaporates a few minutes later when someone else is espied in the crowd. Unremitting acquaintanceship never has time to develop into friendship. June and July maintain a fusillade of idle gossip. Such contacts titillate. They are not enduring. Now for the space of six weeks we will be able to discriminate between the dull and the brilliant, to classify and avoid the bores and poseurs. There is a vintage richness about settling down to a long evening with a friend of old standing. There is no need to rush away shortly after nine o'clock to collect an odd partner for a party given by somebody you only vaguely know. Instead, time is on our side. We dine at leisure. While we entrench these friendships and enjoy what life has to offer with full knowledge of what we are doing, the evenings will lengthen, the leaves will assume autumnal colouring, and October will revive the urge for fresh faces and the old whirl of sound and music.
But in the meantime, tastes vary. Many desert our sunless clime and go abroad in search of blue skies and warmth. For them the boat train, passports, and foreign exchange. The prospect is tempting. Even for seasoned travellers the novelty-value remains fresh. We notice how much louder and faster the foreigner talks. In comparison we mumble, possibly due to smog in our throats.
Paris we may find as drab and damp as London, but there is Italy or Spain, Marseilles or Bordeaux, Mediterranean or Atlantic, a medley of potential experiences that must surely mean palms, oranges, pines, eucalyptus, juniper, lemons and myrtle, with intoxicating place-names like Catalan, Alps, Basque, Pyrenees, Sicilian, Tuscan, Portuguese and Venetian. Somewhere in that mass there is sun and warmth. Maybe we shall have to cross the hills to Corinth, or rest content with terra-cotta coloured Greece. We may see again Vesuvius smoking, and feel the midnight stillness of Pompeii. We may find thin air quivering with heat along the Ligurian coast with nothing but sea and shore, fishing boats and nets lying on the sands. Here bathing can be a celestial pleasure. Beyond, into the Ligurian sea, lies Corsica. Somewhere in the haze is Spezia, where we are told lie the marble mountains. The urge to go abroad is understandable. Everything seems translated. The mountains assume a grandeur and jaggedness unknown in Scotland and Wales. Where in our islands can you see terraces set with vines, olives, figs and chestnuts? Oxen draw loads of marble. Mules draw sand. Even the traffic horns echo more gaily than in Britain. Nets heavy with bianchetti are hauled in from the sea. Processions led by acolytes wend their way through the towns. Basques dance the fandango in the squares. Corpus Christi processions under scattered showers of rose petals. Sunshine and warmth, sunshine and warmth, and the scent of flowers in the air. These elong to abroad, that stimulating, invigorating Anglicized picnic.
It may be that simpler pleasures are sought, in which case there is no need to cross the Channel for the improbable continent, instead August gives us yet another opportunity... the opportunity to get to know London intimately. We are inclined to take our capital for granted. Too often are we ignorant of its background. It is not due to lack of affection. As Doctor Johnson said, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford. That emotion is difficult to analyse. If I might quote Paul Cohen-Portheim, no one knows exactly what London is, where it begins or ends, or how many people inhabit it. It is a city, a county, a postal district or a police district, and as it is ever spreading, growing and changing its form, all these divisions do not embrace the whole. London in expansive mood eludes definition. In it, as Doctor Johnson pointed out, a man may live in splendid society at one time, and in frugal retirement at another, without animadversion. Yet it is devoid of superficial charm. It lacks the air of Paris or Vienna. Even so its character is such that it does not pall. There is a plainness about it like unto certain comely virtues that constantly reveal fresh facets to its lovers. Whistler and Monet were alive to its qualities. But none can equal the unquestioned devotion shown by the Cockney for his home. The two are inseparable. Both puzzle the outsider. Hazlitt voiced his views on the Londoner when he said: "I do not agree with Mr. Blackwood in his definition of the word 'Cockney'. He means by it a man who has happened at any time to live in London and who is not a Tory: I mean by it a person who has never lived out of London and who has got all his ideas from it. The distinction was true. How many habitual Londoners really know London? London is so huge that one part of it takes a holiday in the other. Neither ever appreciates to the ull what the other contains.
August is the month when the capital is flooded with a wave of visitors from the provinces and overseas. Every accent and intonation is heard. The Londoner cannot comprehend their mentality. It mystifies him that crowds should want to see Piccadilly Circus, Hyde Park Corner, Pall Mall, and Regent Street. The tourist and the Cockney are poles apart. The casual acceptance of the historic by the latter is matched by the naive acceptance of the obvious by the former. This month London has a sprinkling of young American girls on their first visit to Europe. Thrilled by what they see, they have a nose for history and detail. The 616 steps leading to the ball that supports the huge cross over the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral is a fact to be noted. The Stone Gallery is equally fascinating. The view across London from the dome is breath-taking. The acres of blitzed desolation are gradually being healed by the hand of man and the touch of nature. The serpentine sprawl of intersecting streets. The Thames creeping up to Kew. The restless swarm of people far below. Here is a scene that daily greets bands of tourists. No one will ever know their thoughts as they gaze down on the capital. In their own way this is their "season".
There is talk about which theatres should be seen... where to eat... when Trafalgar Square comes into the itinerary... is Buckingham Palace open to the public... how can the police outside the Houses of Parliament tell which is an M.P. ... what do you have to do to be buried in Westminster Abbey... and so on. The questions and enthusiasm know no end. All is grist to the tourist mill. High in priority on the interest level comes the Tower of London. The visitor is impressed by the Beefeaters or Wardens of the Tower and by the fact that the uniform has remained unchanged since the reign of Edward VI. The chill air of the various towers... the poignant message interred in the words carved by prisoners in the stones and now protected by plate-glass covers... piteous testimony of the desire of man to live even though his existence be meaningless within the limited confines of these walls. The Martin Tower soaked in legend and haunting. The Bloody Tower. The Crown Jewels. Everything is here to impress the susceptible visitor.
But you are at liberty to ask how does all this affect us. Here we are left high and dry in a deserted London whilst our friends are either packing and struggling with time-tables or already sampling life in pleasanter surroundings. Are you suggesting that we should join a queue for a char-a-banc sightseeing tour with an impressionable crew aboard drawn from Lancashire, Ohio, Scotland, New York, Paris, Yorkshire, Salt Lake City and Oddlecomb-in-the-Marsh? Are you suggesting that we should climb 616 steps to the dome of St. Paul's in order to be impressed by the view or trudge round the haunted interior of the Tower? The inference is misleading. I mention them merely to emphasize the insatiable desire of tourists to get to grips with the vast stone octopus of London. They lap up facts and fiction with equal avidity. Their thirst for knowledge of detail is extraordinary. To Londoners such an attitude is incomprehensible and amusing. But this patronizing attitude is often false. The airy criticism postulates superior knowledge of all that is to be learnt. In point of fact the Londoner is often pathetically ignorant of its history and its treasures.
Ask a Londoner to name his London. It is possible that our intimates would murmur such places as Bond Street, Piccadilly, Burlington Arcade, Kensington Gardens, and so on. These are obvious choices, but they are only the cosmetics of London. The core of London lies to the east of Tower Bridge. The Thames has lost part of its significance since the Lord Mayor deemed fit to substitute a ceremonial game of charades for the symbolic river procession by barge. It emphasized a fact of cardinal importance, namely, that here was the capital of a marine nation whose trading life involved the full paraphernalia of watermen, wherries, bargees, quays, and the natural element of water. This pattern remains in different guise. The Port of London adds meaning to the words uttered by Tacitus roughly nineteen hundred years ago when he referred to Londinium as a place which "although not honoured with the title of a Colony, was well known as a commercial centre thronged with merchants". How many Londoners can accurately describe the ramifications and activities of the Port of London Authority?
But such enquiries are for specialized tastes. It is possible to be of an enquiring mind in other ways. It is sometimes interesting to try to recapture aspects of London that have disappeared. To do so it is necessary to have an intimate knowledge of what has been. The London of Dickens is not very long ago. Many of the places remain as they were in his day, but without knowledge of the conditions of his hour they remain prosaic and dumb. The streets that knew those days are still there. The shades of the past still walk for those who have eyes to see. Soho is a typical example of the past and present commingling. Its stones have been paced by royalty and politicians, authors and artists. Soho reflects the cosmopolitan nature of the capital. It has been enshrined by the novelist's pen.
The intricacy of the streets of Soho drives away the memory of London in August. Dark eyes, the vivacious hands of the south, and the facial sallowness of Latin blood create an atmosphere in which macaroni and veal, ravioli and spaghetti, oily dishes and chickens are ever present. Here is a fragment of Italy mingled with the warmth of France set in a corner of London that accepts August as one more month in the year, neither fashionable nor unfashionable.