SINCE I first entered London through the granite portals of Euston Station, forty years ago, London has been practically rebuilt. The London of my youth was the London of Charles Dickens, which has to all intents and purposes disappeared: it lay, roughly, between the Strand and Oxford Street and west of Ludgate Circus. If that keenly observing novelist were to come back, it would take some time for him to reëstablish himself; for whole districts which he knew well have disappeared and in their places are wide avenues lacking altogether the character that was distinctive of the London of his day. The Strand, once the narrowest of the great thoroughfares connecting the east with the west end, has been widened and almost entirely rebuilt, but it still remains one of the ugliest important streets in Europe. The semicircle of Aldwych and the wide avenue, Kingsway, abutting upon it, are equally characteristic of New York, Chicago, Berlin, or any other large city.
Probably the finest site in London presents at the moment a rather desolate appearance, occupied as it is by one very large office building, built by Mr. Irving T. Bush of New York, bearing the legend over its principal entrance, ‘To the Friendship of the English-Speaking Peoples.’ Only the middle one of three equally large buildings, all to be under the direction of Mr. Bush and occupying what is termed an island site, is at present completed. I cannot wholly commend the beauty of ‘Bush House,’ as it is called, but it is a magnificent venture, and I am inclined to doubt whether any man in England would have had the courage to undertake it.
Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square remain much as they were when I first saw them. Coutts’s Bank is now occupying the site of an arcade where toys and trash were formerly sold, and a row of mean buildings have given way to a group of unimportant portals called the Admiralty Arch, giving entrance to a superb roadway leading to Buckingham Palace, planned a century ago by John Nash.
The thought of this great architect who did so much to give to London its substantial, if somewhat gloomy character, leads me to condemn as restless and trivial much of the work that has displaced his. He is responsible for the dignified Carlton House Terrace, which yet remains, and for Regent Street which extends from York Steps to Oxford Street, which is rapidly disappearing. His was, as someone has said, a supreme example of good manners in architecture. Nash, having secured an elevation that satisfied him, got out his charts and compasses and laid out a fine wide street with a quadrant and squares and circuses to break its monotony, and then said to the builders, ‘Now go ahead and build two miles of that, one on each side of the street.’ Gradually these old buildings are coming down. Piccadilly Circus is a circus no longer, and soon the old insurance building with its arcaded front, which has been for so long a landmark, under which so many women have waited for the man who never came, will disappear, and there will be revealed in all the cheap tawdriness of white terra cotta, now mercifully hidden, the Regent Palace Hotel of Messrs. Lyons.
It will, I suppose, be another ten years before Regent Street is completely rebuilt; the buildings now being erected are expensive and elegant, but are suggestive of New York rather than of London, only in New York the buildings seem better fitted for their purpose. From the point of view of an architect seeking to make the most of his opportunity, there is, I should say, too much wasted space and too much utterly meaningless decoration.
Who does not know Liberty’s? A shop for several generations famous for household art goods and silks and satins of exquisite texture and lovely color. On the right side of Regent Street going toward Oxford Street, there are several Liberty shops which will be replaced by new and presumably magnificent premises; but Messrs. Liberty are now engaged upon a project in Argyll Place, in the rear of one of their present locations, where they are erecting what seems to me to be the most beautiful structure now building in London. It is Tudor in design, of timber and concrete; in appearance not unlike the old Staple Inn in Holborn. The heavy timber work, the overhanging gables and the window frames are made from oak timbers from old battleships which once formed the wooden walls of England. There are ten gables of different elevations and on different planes on the Argyll Place front, and a mass of handsomely wrought chimneys break up the roof line which is five stories above the street. Had this old world structure been placed conspicuously, on Regent Street for example, it would have been horrible, but in a bvstreet one comes upon it with delight. I took the trouble to ascertain that Mr. E. Stanley Hall is the architect.
Oxford Street, too, has been almost entirely rebuilt, and easily the finest shop in this street is that of Gordon Selfridge, once of Marshall Field & Company of Chicago, now closely identified with the modernization of London. Without a doubt Mr. Selfridge has changed the character of shop building in London, of his quarter in particular. In Baker Street just around the corner great changes are taking place, and an effort is being made to make it a fashionable shopping-centre, The houses in this neighborhood, when originally built, were leased for a period of ninety-nine years; as they ‘fall in’ (‘expire’ would be outword) they are not renewed, but the buildings razed to make way for modern structures. An idea of the constant and rapid growth of London is suggested by a clause which the old leases contained restricting tenants from keeping pigs on the premises.
FOR MEN ONLY
As one looks in the windows of the tailor shops, and there are more such in London than anywhere else in the world, one is struck with the beauty of the cloths displayed in them. Exquisite in weave and color and style, one is powerless to resist the temptation to order one more suit. If you obey that impulse you are lost. Obsequiously the shopman listens while you tell him of the harrowing experiences you have had at the tailor’s in the next street.
’It’s too bad, sir,’he says; ‘it makes it ‘ard for them has tries to please their customers. You shall have no difficulty like that with h’us, sir, h’I h’assure you, sir.’ Seduced by a fine line of talk and beautiful cloth, and a low price, — cloth suits are to-day the only cheap thing in England, — you order a suit, being very explicit in your instructions.
Will you get what you ask for? Not a bit of it. After the third trying-on, the suit, originally cut for a giant, begins to work down to within a few inches of your measure; that is to say, you can stuff only one large sofa cushion in the seat of your trousers, not two. Eventually, after several more ‘fittings,’ in disgust, or despair, or both, you pay for the suit, and have it sent to your hotel. Some weeks or months later, in the seclusion of your own room at home you put on the garments. This is what you find: the waistband of your trousers, which are cut heart-shape in the back as though they were intended to be worn conspicuously on St. Valentine’s Day, is three inches too large; they are four inches too large in the leg; in them you look like a comic music-hall artist. They are several inches too short, while between vest and trousers there is a hiatus of an inch or more which reveals a strip of your shirt, or it may be that for variety’s sake they come well up under your armpits.
Recently a new species of trousers has been introduced with pleats around the waist; but I cannot think that this ‘maternity’ type will long endure. The arms of your coat are too small; you smash your cuffs getting into it — seemingly nothing fits anywhere. Then you begin to explore the pockets. How wonderful they would be were you a shoplifter by profession. In each of your coat pockets you could secrete a large dictionary: in your lower vest pockets you could carry away a nice supply of toilet articles. But hold! here is a small pocket, two in fact, the upper vest pockets, which you insisted upon having made very narrow as you house in one only a narrow leather case containing your commutation ticket, and in the other a tiny cardcase or a lead pencil. These pockets have indeed been made narrow in accordance with your specifications; but only at the top: below they are so large that anything you put therein drops down and extends itself lengthwise, well out of reach. In the fob pocket of your trousers you can carry an extra large Waterbury clock, while in your hip pockets — which, out of deference to your being an American, the cutter insists on calling ‘ pistol pockets ‘—you can conceal such weapons as are necessary only to a villain in a melodrama.
I am wearing at the moment of writing a fine new suit of black-and-white check: I call it a ‘certified check’ to distinguish it from another suit which has been ‘protested.’ Now, would you believe it? the lining of the vest, the back of it, that is, is made not of the satin or fabric usually employed, but of the same check cloth as the front. The effect produced is that of a porous plaster. You have seen the advertisement, ‘Feels good on the back’? Well, this does n’t, and the straps that buckle together are so long that I invariably entangle myself in them in putting the garment on. I have in mind a number of shops in the West End, over the doors of which heraldic animals prance dangerously as though to imply protection to those within from the assaults of outraged customers. I mention no names, but I am preparing a confidential list which may be purchased for a small honorarium, and which will be found much more valuable than those letters to which you are subscribing which purport to tell you how to make money in Wall Street. And lest these remarks are considered too sweeping, I would except the overcoat foundries of Studd and Millington in Conduit Street, famous for topcoats the world over.
Being in Conduit Street, let us call on my friend Mr. Maggs, the bookseller. There are two brothers, — there were three, — who tell me they have struggled hard to overcome their ‘shyness’: this is what an Englishman always calls his inability to come forward and grasp a man warmly by the hand and suggest, at least, that he is glad to see you, as Gabriel Wells does, for instance, when you call on him in New York. But if you are interested in fine books, you will do well to call on Maggs Brothers, and after you have broken the ice — and it won’t be hard — you will see some things that will make your pocketbook look as though it had been stamped on by elephants. Two minutes’ walk further west, and you will be looking into the window of the Dobells, who have moved their finer books from the rather sordid atmosphere of the Charing Cross Road. I would suggest that you enter and do not let Mr. Dobell’s ‘shyness’ affect you. You will probably find some, books that you can be happier with than without. Not far away in Grafton Street is Sawyer’s, whose rise in the world has been rapid and deserved. No ‘shyness’ about Mr. Sawyer; may be you will be more successful than I have been in prying him loose from some of the finest Dickens items in existence. He boasts, so far as an Englishman can be said to boast, the finest Dickens collection in England. He says it is his private collection; but some day, when he gets ready, he will sell it. When I last saw him he had a wonderful copy of Pope’s ‘ Essay on Man ‘ — Pope’s own, full of his notes, and very cheap. While 1 was counting my money to see whether I could buy it and at the same time afford a steamer ticket home, Colonel Ralph Isham stepped in and carried it. off. To quiet my anathemas he gave me a beautiful priced copy of the ‘Sale Catalogue of Boswell’s Library,’ which will match up very nicely with my copy of the ‘Sale Catalogue of Dr. Johnson’s Library’; so I have something to show for my rage.
Quaritch is just next door: more ‘shyness.’ There is little to choose between Mr. Dring, the manager-inchief, and Air. Ferguson, next in command. Both are men of profound knowledge of the old school of booksellers, who might be called scholars first and booksellers afterwards. If in a Quaritch book you see in pencil ‘C & P,’ signifying ‘collated and perfect,’ followed by Ferguson’s initials, you need ask no questions: collated and perfect, it is. Of late years ‘Quaritch’ has relaxed its austerity a little: you might possibly find there a first, edition of Moby Dick, that great, great book which we are all now seeking; but you would be much more sure of getting there a first folio of Shakespeare or a King James Bible. Bookselling in London is a highly specialized trade.
Sabin’s is in Bond Street., just around the corner; not many books now, but. what there are, fine, very fine — and prints! The ease with which Sabin says ‘two thousand,’ when you ask the price, will amaze you; and when, to hide your confusion, you become facetious and say, ‘dollars?’ he hisses ‘guineas’ in a way that will teach you to respect a West-End tradesman. That extra shilling in the pound is a thing no American can ever get accustomed to. But I have n’t the least doubt that Frank Sabin would gladly buy back from me every item I have had from him, and at a profit — to me.
At 29 New Bond Street is the oldestestablished bookselling business in Britain to be carried on continuously for not quite two hundred years on the same spot, Ellis’s. The business was founded by a John Brinley, who chose this location ‘on account of its convenience to the Royal Family and the Quality of England.’ The firm still retains this ‘convenience,’ and no doubt the patronage also, for these things never change in England. A little more than a century ago when this shop bought very expensive books, such as unique Caxtons for three hundred, and Shakespeare folios for a hundred pounds, it was supposed that it must be buying for Napoleon Bonaparte, but it was later discovered that its client was the Duke of Devonshire. I knew the business forty years ago as Ellis and Elvey; now it is Ellis simply; but there has been no Ellis connected with it for more than a generation.
If you go to the top of Bond Street and cross New Oxford Street, you will bump into Bumpus, an old established firm of booksellers, who for years have been handling new books almost exclusively, but who have recently opened an excellent rare-book department in charge of a A ery competent man whose name I have forgotten 7emdash; but my check book shows the scars of several encounters with him. And by all means, wander still farther north and call on my friend Francis Edwards, in Marylebone.
I always think of Austin Dobson’s lines as I go —
Went out of town to Marylebone!
Mr. Edwards has one of the best general bookshops in London, in which I pleasantly loiter away many hours. Or, go the other way toward St. James’s Square, and near by in King Street is Pickering and Chatto, a firm that specializes in Tudor and Stuart literature. No need here to enquire for Samuel Butler, meaning thereby the author of The Way of All Flesh. The only Samuel Butler they have ever heard of wrote Hudibras, whose couplets are always on our lips, perhaps without our knowing who wrote them. From them I secured my copy of Hudibras, with the arms of Charles the Second thereon, whose favorite poet Butler was,
Jimmy Tregaskls has moved his shop from Holborn to Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum, which he laughingly refers to as his annex. A gentleman first, and a bookseller afterward, I have heard him described. Not as young as he was when I first knew him, forty years ago, he is still going strong and will some day hand over a well-established business to his son Hugh, the most popular boy selling books in England, and justly so. I love him for himself, and for his father’s sake and his mother’s.
Reader, if some day you happen to be in that quarter of London known as Soho, about lunch-time, drop into a well-known restaurant, ‘The Rendezvous,’ in Dean Street; go in and keep on going until in the back room you may espy two men seated at a small table in the corner. You must not speak to them but you may listen — and you will learn much. You will observe that the wife of one of them has permitted her husband to retain a great deal of hair: that would be Mr. Clement Shorter, the editor of the Sphere, a most kindly man and a fine bookman, the possessor of an excellent library at. his delightful country place at Great Missenden, where I have spent many happy hours.
The man with him, whose hair is conspicuous by its absence, is Mr, Thomas James Wise, whose library of first editions, from 1640 say, is unexcelled in the world. This is a tall order, but no one acquainted with it would dispute the statement. These two men have been lunching together once every week for — well, how many years old is their business? All that time they have been talking books—nothing but books! For subjects within his range, no man has the knowledge that Mr. Wise has. Alert, shrewd, gifted with a wonderful memory, and with sufficient means to gratify his tastes, he has for fifty years secured the best of whatever has come upon the London market. A stickler for condition, only the best can secure a place upon his shelves. Reader, think of the rarest book (since 1640, mind you) you know, and then go to Mr. Wise’s library (if you can), and you will find it: in boards, uncut, if perchance it was published that way, ‘with the label’; or perhaps a presentation copy with some especially significant inscription.
When I am in London, you will see three men at that corner table; I shall be listening, and when I assume the role of a listener there must be a good reason for it. Into this little coterie, I several times last winter introduced a fourth person, Colonel Ralph Isham, an American officer now living in London, who during the war served in the English army with distinction. Colonel Isham collects Johnson and Goldsmith, which he may, for I have mine; but if he supplants me with my friends he will be in greater danger than he ever was in France. These little verses came to us from him after one of our meetings.
A simple affinity lies
They have mutual books
And tastes — and good looks
And they argue the ‘Wherefores’ and ‘Whys.’
To possess all works seasoned and rare
That were pressed out of Johnson
Or Caxton or Tonson
And thus do they banish dull care.
It is Newton that causes surprise
His dominant suiting
Erom Mayfair to Tooting
Occasions ungracious surmise.
Confusion is apt to arise
But Newton is Shorter —
At least by one quarter —
And certainly Shorter is Wise.
Not everyone can wear plaids with distinction, and I feel that this slur was prompted by jealousy.
‘So this is London,’ I remarked to myself one day as I laid aside my Times. ‘But is it possible that George, the Fifth of that Ilk, is reigning?' From glancing at what is going on in the theatres one might suppose that Queen Victoria was still upon the throne. Bear with me while I run over the list of attractions. ‘When Bunty Pulls the Strings’ and ‘What Every Woman Knows,’ both clever, amusing comedies, but not of yesterday or even the clay before. Would you see a bright sparkling operette? ‘The Merry Widow’ is at Daly’s, as it has been any time these last three years. And there is, of course, that best of all operas, ‘The Beggar’s Opera,’ first, produced at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1728. It is really the most up-to-date show in London. Certainly it is the most artistic and enjoyable performance given here in a generation; but I have seen it seven times and am not qualifying for a place in ‘The Beggar’s Opera Club,’ to attain which one must have seen it fifty times. ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ is playing somewhere, and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is at the Haymarket; this, the most brilliant comedy of my time, I went to see. It is just too old to be young and too young to be old, still I enjoyed it, but to think that I should live to see Oscar Wilde out-moded, to use a phrase of Max Beerbohm’s! ‘Our Oscar!' who introduced the comedy of words to our stage after a century’s absence. The costumes were of to-day and the women were not up to their parts; the country girl, who, when told by the city belle that ‘she had no idea that flowers were so common in the country,’ replies that ‘flowers are as common in the country as people are in London,’ gave these telling lines while people were snickering from the first witticism and, seemingly, no one heard them but myself. I was waiting for them. Once again, one can see ‘Sweet Lavender’ and ‘The Private Secretary.’ One has a horrid feeling that ‘Two Orphans’ are lurking just around the corner — and is that ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ that I see in the distance?
Now there is a tragic reason for all this: the war did alike for playwrights, actors, actresses, and audiences. London to-day has no important playwrights other than Shaw and Barrie; these are still with us but their work is done. The fine actors of a generation ago have passed away, and the people who fill the theatres to-day are a new generation of playgoers who know little either of plays or of acting and do not demand the best. ‘The money has changed hands,’ they tell you in London: the people who had it once have it no longer; it is very sad.
‘You must see “Our Betters.” You won’t like it, but it is the best, thing in London,’ someone told me. Looking in the newspaper, I read: ‘It makes the audience gasp.’ I went, I did not ‘gasp’; I yawned. Somerset Maugham wrote it, and it was played seven or eight years ago in New York. The story is this: an American girl of some charm and wealth comes to London and marries a man with a title. Her husband never appears; he is the only man in London who is never to be seen in his wife’s drawing-room. She is being ‘protected’ by a rich, vulgar American who allows her ten thousand a year, which, with her own fortune, makes her independent. Her younger sister, also with money, comes to London from New York, or Chicago, or somewhere, followed by a stupid American boy very much in love with her. There are two or three women who talk interminably to two or three Englishmen of the ‘silly-ass’ type.
Nothing happens but talk, until the last part of the last act, when the young girl — having become engaged to a Lord, the usual exchange of money for title — discovers that her married sister, being ‘protected’ by one man, is misbehaving with another. The younger girl tells her sister what she thinks of her, whereupon the elder sister gives the younger a piece of her mind. There is something that approaches acting for seven minutes, and some plain statements of the English people’s feeling for us, such as one would never think of uttering at the English-Speaking Union in Trafalgar Square or at a Pilgrim dinner.
‘Do you think,’ says the married American woman to her sister, the ingenue, ‘that without money an American would be tolerated in London society?’
‘Do you think your lord would have proposed to you if he had n’t seen you in the setting in which I have placed you ? ‘
‘Do you think anyone in society would come here if I did n’t pay them for coming by giving them what they love and are too poor to buy for themselves: rich food, fine wines, music, flowers, luxury?’
‘Do you think the English love us? They don’t: is there any reason why they should?’ ‘Do you think English fathers and mothers like to see their best young men married to American girls? Do you think the English girls like it? An American girl that marries an Englishman deserves what she gets — snubs on all sides. The English love our money, but they hate us.’
This was the ‘gasping’ part; it is not a good play but the playwright, an Englishman, told the truth, and it needs telling.
Without a doubt the most artistic production in London was the Nativity Play at the ‘Old Vic,’ which, under the direction of its guiding spirit, Miss Baylis, carries on finely in spite of the blight which has fallen upon the London theatres. Miss Baylis wanted a play suitable for Christmas and communicated her desire to Robert Atkins, who is responsible for its production. He read a score or more of plays in the British Museum, and finally stumbled upon ‘The Play of the Shepherds,’formerly acted by the ‘Paynters and Glasiors’ of the old city of Chester about six hundred years ago. It was handed down from mouth to mouth for several hundred years before it was written out in the form in which it now is, and, as one critic said, ‘to our shame and ecstasy,’it is now given for the first time in centuries at the Old Vic.
Its incidents are very simple: it is the eve of the Nativity; three shepherds are sitting on a hillside; while eating their supper of bread and cheese and an onion, washed down with a flagon of mead, they fall into discussion of the diseases of sheep and boast of their skill in curing them.
It seems curious to one brought up in the tenets of democracy to observe the operation of the principle of rank even among shepherds. They are comic or at least jovial characters, but it is the eldest of them who stands and offers a grace before they begin: —
And take no heed though there be no housing.’
to which another replies, simply : —
While that we have heaven over our heads.’
When they have finished they call their servant, Trowle, and offer him food; but he, being a sturdy and independent fellow, refuses to eat what is left and is brought to a show of friendliness only by the offer of a wrestling match. He floors his masters, one after another, with ignominy, and departs.
The three shepherds, rubbing their bruises and mildly cursing him, then lie down to sleep, from which they are awakened by the Star that blazes over their heads turning night into day and filling them with dread. Trembling they take counsel together and Trowle creeps back to them abashed. They hear a Gloria in Excelsis (in this case a newly discovered Gloria of the Elizabethan composer, Weelkcs) and dispute over such words of it as they can catch. Then an angel appears to them and reassured they start upon their pilgrimage to Bethlehem, singing as they go.
Finding the Virgin and the Christ Child, they lay at his feet such gifts as they have; a sheep’s bell and a flask
To eat thy pottage withal at noon,’
and a stick with a crook in it, for
And be God thyself in thy manhood,
Yet I know that in thy childhood
Thou wilt for something look,
To pull down apples, pears, and plumbs it maybe.’
And Trowle gives him the cap from off his head, having nothing else, and And solemnly the shepherds kiss one another and depart to tell the world what they have seen.
And my prayers till death to me call.’
The effect this old play had upon the audience can hardly be described. One could have heard the fall of the proverbial pin as the loveliest legend of all time was unfolded, with absolute simplicity, with complete reverence, and with profound feeling. If the play had been given at a fashionable West End theatre, the papers would have rung with its praise, but the West End was busy with that hardy perennial, ‘ Charley’s Aunt,’ and it passed almost unnoticed.
Taking only a little over an hour to act, it was followed by Russell Thorndike’s dramatic version of ‘A Christmas Carol, ‘beautifully given, to the delight of the audience who were transfixed with horror at the coming of Marley’s ghost, and enjoyed the transformation of Scrooge and Bob Cratchit’s dinner as much as he did. These performances were given repeatedly to packed houses; most of the audience paid a shilling! Well may Augustine Birrell say, ‘I rank the Old Vic at the very top of our educational institutions’; and the last word from London is that Miss Baylis is to be given an honorary M.A. by the University of Oxford. Well does she deserve it!
I spent three months in England, three of the worst months in the year: November, December, and January. During all that time England was in a fog, but it was financial and political, not atmospheric. I suspect the weather has been much maligned. We had a half-rainy day once, a rainy half-day once, a little fog, and for the rest — well, not bright sunshine, the sun we seldom saw, but it was clear and not cold. Damp? Yes, incredibly so; but I dressed like a Laplander, and I was at all times perfectly comfortable.
When I came home my partner met me at the dock in New York, and in my enthusiasm I said I had had occasion to put up my umbrella only once all the time I was away.
‘My experience exactly,’ he said. ‘The last, time I was in England I put my umbrella up as I came down the gangplank and I put it down as I went up several months later.’
But the fact is, —
When we are together
my ‘ Old Lady London ‘ and I.