The Traveler's England

— A number of travelers have recently been giving us, in different reviews, their impressions of this country, and their articles have reminded me that there are two points concerning England in regard to which I have strongly desired to free my mind. One has been rather overlooked in the reports of travelers, and the other is so exceedingly curious an instance of the perversity of the human mind that it can never be sufficiently dwelt upon. I refer, of course, in this last, to the system of not checking baggage.

What have the English to say in defense of their perversity ? They usually find it enough to point out that they do manage to travel upon their system, and hence that there cannot be anything very bad about it. But occasionally they go so far as actually to defend it. Thus, the Earl of Meath, writing of American travel in a recent number of the Nineteenth Century, says : “ To a Briton who does not like to be separated from his baggage, and who has been accustomed to give sixpence or a shilling to a porter [in spite of the notices in all English stations that the porters are paid by the company, and are not to be feed], and drive off in a few minutes with all his worldly goods on the top of his cab, it is irritating to find that neither cabs nor omnibuses are fitted to carry baggage, and that he is obliged to leave his luggage behind him, and quietly wait in faith at his hotel from half an hour to even four hours (as once occurred to the writer) before receiving his possessions.” But the Earl of Meath makes a curious oversight in this passage. We do not defend everything American, but merely the system of checking luggage ; and, in particular, we are far from congratulating ourselves upon the absence of cabs in America. The beautiful, bright, shining, flying London cab is alone enough to make London the most delightful city in the world to live in. But these two forms of comfort stand upon a totally different plane. We can’t get the cabs by whistling for them. Cabs are dependent upon good pavements, and good pavements are dependent upon good city government, and good city government we cannot have, it seems, until we have made ourselves completely over. But the system of issuing checks is merely a matter of turning over the hand. The railroad companies have merely to say, " Let there be checks ! ” and immediately checks would be there. And no doubt the railroad companies would do their part quickly enough, if there were the slightest movement on the part of the traveling public, through the columns of the all-moving Times, in favor of it ; or even if the railroad companies were not well aware that the English people to a man love discomfort far better than they love change.

Really the most important consideration that has bearing upon the matter is the question of the safety of the luggage, and of the consequent peace of mind of the traveler, and not merely the ease of getting hold of your box after it has once been put out at the proper station. I must frankly confess that, as matter of fact, my own sufferings from the English plan were not unendurable, but I was never done wondering how it would work when trains were crowded. I was, therefore, particularly delighted when I came upon the following vivid description of the system when under strain, which is given by Mr. Knowles in his charming article on Lord Tennyson, in the Nineteenth Century for last January, as the only specimen of a familiar letter from the great poet : —

“ I got to the station a full quarter of an hour before the time, but the place was fourmillante.... I stood and bawled ineffectually for porters, till at last I took my portmanteau in hand, and flung it into the truck of one of them, and told him to label it ‘ Lymington,’ which he promised to do ; then I rushed to the ticket office, where I waited among the multitude, and only got my ticket after the time was up ; ran out again, the whole platform seething and buzzing ; could not find my luggage; at the very last saw it being wheeled trainward at the bottom of a heap of boxes ; asked whether it was labeled ‘ Lymington ; ’ bewildered porter knew nothing about it ; train began to move. I caught hold of an open door, and was pulled in by two passengers. When I came to Brockenhurst, no luggage for me ; guard intimated that he had noticed such a portmanteau as the one I described [!] labeled ‘ Southampton Junction ; ’ accordingly I telegraphed up the line. . . . This morning I sent a cart from Farringford to meet the earliest boat, and recovered my luggage at last.” This passage ought to become classical.

If an educated man, accustomed to traveling, is subjected to such cruel anxieties as are here described, what must be the state of mind of women, young people, rustics, foreigners, all those who are not accustomed to taking care of themselves, and all those who have not come to love the system because it is their own ? We were not without experience of what happens in such cases. We were traveling third class, one day, when a working woman with three children got into our compartment. She was apparently going to make a journey of some length, and her husband was seeing her off ; but all the exchanges of affection natural to the occasion were rendered impossible by concern for the accompanying " box.” The woman was at a loss to know how she was ever going to recover it, and the husband, after various forms of reassurance, finally said, " Why, it is in the luggage van which Harry has charge of. You know Harry. He will have an eye on it, and see that it is put out at the right place.” Surely, a system in which one has to rely upon a personal acquaintance with the luggage-guard (if that is what they call him), to secure peace of mind in traveling, is a system which some one ought to be sufficiently benevolent to endeavor to reform.

But the second subject in regard to which I wish to free my mind is a matter of graver import ; for, after all, the first is largely a question of comfort. We had reserved England for the final part of our fifteen months’ stay in Europe, and we had expected that there the charm which one looks for in the Old World would reach its greatest height. England, as I had known it ten years before, had filled me with an neuter enjoyment than I had experienced in any other country of Europe. But the England of to-day is not the England of ten years ago. The England of to-day furnishes one impression which is deeper than any other, which penetrates and pervades and almost obliterates every other, and that is the impression of the ubiquitous advertisement. There is not a railway station in the whole country in which it is possible to make out the name of the station as the train draws in : far and wide, high and low, every available inch of space is covered with the monotonous announcements that Venus soap saves rubbing, that Pears’ soap is matchless for the complexion, and that a thousand other things are indispensable to the comfort or the happiness of the traveler. Especially is this the case in the stations of the Underground Railway in London. As there is no guard, and as the name of the station is absolutely undiscoverable amid the sea of advertisements, one’s place of alighting becomes a pure matter of chance, unless one’s fellowtravelers are polite enough to come to the rescue,

London is an imposing city. Its streets contain vehicles of two sorts only, — the hansom cab, which is always handsome and highly polished, and goes at a very rapid pace, and the omnibus. The omnibus is smaller than with us, less lumbering, more lively, and it would be a pleasing object if it were not that it is one moving mass of advertisements. Everybody who is not old or infirm sits on top, as long as there are places to be had ; and to see the nicest-looking people walled in with announcements, in enormous letters in bright yellow and red and blue,of “Column’s Mustard,”“Custard Powder, Saves Eggs,” “ Hudson’s Soap, Less Labor, Greater Comfort,” strikes the traveler who is not accustomed to it as so strange that he can hardly believe he is not in the clutches of a bad nightmare. But when it comes to Oxford, the High Street of which is lined with the most beautiful college buildings to be found in England, the street in which one has always been told the poetic charm of the Old World reaches its highest point, — when one sees this street invaded by an enormous horse car with its high top wall emblazoned with “ Happy Thought, Use Sunlight Soap,” and all the other familiar devices, then one’s feelings become far too deep for words. Oliver Wendell Holmes has said that England has of late years been turned into the home of Colman’s mustard. It is, in fact, quite impossible to estimate the loss to the traveling American occasioned by seeing the loveliest country on the globe desecrated through and through by this absorbing passion for advertising. In one respect, we hasten to admit, a lower depth has been reached in America ; thanks, it may be, to a more jealous property in land in England, the landscape itself is not so basely treated as with us ; but, after all, mammoth advertisement in fields which are anyway without beauty is a far different thing from the absolute destruction of a species of loveliness which has no rival in the world. This is a feature of English scenery which travelers have seldom dwelt upon, and hence the surprise and shock with which one discovers it are so much the more painful. If it is an element of the so-called Americanization of England, it shows, I fear, that England is destined to out-Amcriea America in sacrificing every atom of the charm which once made life worth living to the conscienceless struggles of modern competition.