London is a Place

The Fog Skyskine More Fog London Spring Clouds Over London Child in the London Streets Hyde Park London Preachers


So much for London as a material fact. Now let us look at it as a moral entity.

Here the fog lifts, melts into a mist. The source of brightness is not yet seen. But one knows that the sun is shining. There are signatures of light behind that almost perpetual veil of clouds in which London is wrapped. This condition of weather (London’s most usual weather) I have heard Londonites refer to as “skyshine.”

Londonites! Where did I get that name? Perhaps it is a name that is used, perhaps it is a name I invented. In either case, I am going to let it stand. Because I need it. I need it so as to group together both the Londoners and the people of London in an amalgamated moral program, the tenacity and durability of which I believe to be unequalled in any other city of this Earth. Material London is the philosopher’s despair; and if any philosopher, by means of those correct but imperfect standards of thought known as “abstractions,” can solve London as a cosmological riddle better than I did in the last chapter, he is welcome to the assignment; and I am willing to see myself corrected in terms of his logical appraisement, but not in terms of his patriotic or political abuse.

When I finished the first chapter of this essay, called “The Fog,” I read it aloud to a group of London loyalists. They winced at almost every paragraph. When I finished reading, they remarked, almost with one voice: “Oh, come now! There’s much more to London than that!” And I agree with them. There’s always much more to anything than the philosopher alone sees, particularly when he sees it through a fog. The philosopher’s logic is the blueprint of the edifice of thought. But it is not the finished building. And no amount of logic, divorced from the arts and insights of love and leisure, will turn it into a home.

I know, and everyone knows, that the picture of London which I have drawn in the last chapter is not a charitable one, in the sense of being a painting, or even a photograph. It is rather a clinical picture, an X-ray film (a foggy thing at best), showing not what London looks like, but what it is suffering from. Let me now turn from an examination of London’s material weakness to an appreciation of its marvelous moral strength.

London is, beyond all question, the most moral city in the world. I do not mean the most virtuous, for virtue is something more than mere moral performance. It is moral to be patient, moral to be obedient, moral to be pure. But there are times when a situation calls not for patience, but for indignation. The Victorians were not virtuous, but they were obedient. The Puritans were not virtuous, but they were pure.

Morality established by traditional practice, meekly accepted and stubbornly observed, is not virtue, but it sends off little shoots and flowers of character that so nearly resemble virtue that it is hard to distinguish them from it. Such traits as tidiness, neatness, promptness, accuracy, politeness, submissiveness, cheerfulness, thoroughness, reliability — one will not find these asceticisms expressly prescribed in the statutes of ethics or moral theology, but they are the characteristic behavior of nearly all Londonites. Such expressions as: “Cheerio! … Chins up, lads! … Let’s not whimper! … Don’t show the white feather! … Attend to your business! … All hands on deck! … Mind your manners! … Take off your hat to the lady! … Look before you leap! … Too many cooks spoil the broth! … There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, tomorrow, just you wait and see!” … These are hardly the ethical or religious exhortations one expects to find in Plato’s Republic, St. Thomas More’s Utopia, or St. Augustine’s City of God; but they are the kind of civic slogans one hears uttered and re-uttered, charmingly and cheerfully, year after year, in the Temporal City that lies on the Thames. And if my reader thinks I have not found it fascinating to be in the midst of such a moral milieu, surrounded by eight million well-disciplined people, so predictably patient, obedient, thrifty, prompt, cheerful, plucky and reliable, then he will have to explain why I lingered in London for weeks, walked in its streets, listened to its conversation, dined in its mansions and hovels, and always felt myself in the presence of something undeniably and unexplainably precious. What is right with the London moralism, I know. What is wrong with the London morality, it will take a little time to discover.

London morality is built up almost entirely on a few basic and generic observances. Be loyal! Be decent! Be careful! Be economical! Be contented! Be respectable! Be cheerful! Be sporting! Play the game!

Play what game?

Let us look at the game of loyalty, first, as it is played in London by the poor, including paupers and prostitutes; second, as it is played by the privileged, including politicians and princes.

From here on I have no desire to be clever, only to be fair. And if what I say is not fair, let it be put down to a shortage of Londonism in my own character.

Let us go into the London slums, and sit at the table of a pauper, and see what difficulties we encounter in trying to teach him the beatitude of Christian poverty. The blessedness of Evangelical poverty we could never explain to a London pauper, unless he found his destitution unfair, insufferable, unjust. Were he to find it so, and were he to resent it with every energy of his soul, we could then show him how to endure it, with the aid of Grace and the comfort of Christ, Who, for love of us, became the poorest of the poor.

But the astounding — and I am bound to say — admirable feature of the London pauper is that he does not resent his poverty, and does not find it unbearable. He has schooled himself to cope with it entirely on his own resources: a courageous eye, through which cheerfulness shines as through a film of cloud; and a ready smile, that displays a row of soiled and disordered teeth. The London pauper does not love his deprivations (no one could), but he is loyal to them: even in the form of dinginess, dirt, disease and the dole. Nor is it by mere animal courage that he achieves this allegiance. It is by some sort of semi-mystical, but definitely spiritual will-power, that makes him want to remain part of what Gerard Manley Hopkins refers to as “Commonweal”:

… Commonweal
Little I reck ho! lacklevel in, if all had bread.

The London pauper does have bread, thank God. But what kind of bread it is, I leave it to the dieticians to declare.

The case of the London prostitute is even more puzzling. In the guise of respectability, without anything of romance or much of remuneration, she goes street-roaming without remorse or regret. Let us call her to the bar of conscience (symbolized by a constable, a clergyman, or a court inquisitor), and see how she makes her report It would go something like this, with all the h’s unaspirated:

I met him on the bridge, serjeant (or “your reverence,” or “my lord”). It was long after dark, and I didn’t have the best of intentions. In fact, I expect the whole business was pretty much my fault …

I asked him what time he retired for the evenin’. He said: “Oh, about ten o’clock, usually.” I told him it wasn’t my custom to retire quite so early …

“And what do you do stayin’ up so late?” said he. “Oh, this and that,” said I …

We stood chattin’ till it was well on to midnight. It was a damp, cold night, and I expect we were both a bit lonely …

The landlady heard us comin’ into my room. But she’s the decent kind, an’ didn’t say nothin’; though I know she could hardly approve of what was goin’ on …

I walked back with him to the train, at two o’clock in the mornin’. He had to catch a train at that time, because he was leavin’ next day for India on a boat …

He was really a nice sort, and not nearly as wicked as I drove him to be …

“Good luck, lad!” I said to him when we parted. “Good luck to you, wherever you go! I expect you’ll try to forget me in a hurry, and it doesn’t matter. I’m not the decent kind, as you jolly well found out. But some day you will meet a proper girl; and when you do, you don’t even need to mention that you met me …

That’s about all, serjeant. I had to be up the same mornin’ at six, because the landlady is not well, and I likes to help her with the breakfast …

This cheerful unchastity, this feminine chivalry, this impure pluck, may seem, at first blush, appealing. But it is not. It is appalling.

The red-light districts of London wear the same color of lampshade as the areas of respectability. And this is puzzling. And it is not good.

Now, let us go over to London’s fashionable section, and visit one of the politicians.

“Politician” is not a good name for him technically, for only in a limited number of cases is he elected to office by the votes of constituents. He is nearly always appointed to office by someone higher up. He is usually the secretary, or sub-secretary, to someone who, in turn, is secretary, or sub-secretary, to someone else. I call him “politician” in preference to “government official,” “government agent,” or “diplomat,” because the word covers the extreme politesse with which he manages both his government’ s domestic difficulties and his government’s foreign affairs.

Wherever you meet the London politician, whether it be in nearby Downing Street or distant Dakar, his technique is always the same. Unlike the American politician, you never encounter him in a disgusting room, full of cigar smoke, littered with over-stuffed waste baskets and badly-aimed-at spittoons. The London politician always receives you in a formal and conservatively arranged office, seated at a neatly tidied desk, with the portrait of somebody’s ancestors hanging behind him on the wall. And when you finally get in to see him (past the various secretaries and sub-secretaries who have tried so urbanely to discourage the visit), you never have an audience with the London politician, as you might with the Pope. He always has an audience with you. The American politician is all mouth. But the London politician is all ears.

He is a marvelous listener. As long as you do not ask the London politician to talk, he will give you, for the stipulated time of your visit (fifteen minutes at the most) what seems to be (and may well be, for all I know) his undistracted attention. He will rarely offer you a solution of the difficulty about which you came to consult him; but he will invariably be full of sympathy … full of understanding appreciative of just how you feel … most anxious to see if something cannot be done.

He will not, of course, make you any promises. But he will take down your name and address, and will write them slowly and deliberately on a piece of paper. And when he dismisses you, exactly at the end of the fifteen minutes he agreed to give you, if you leave his office with the same grievance you went in with, you will at least have added to it a glow that makes it for the moment bearable. For you will have undergone the exhilarating experience of never having been listened to so uninterruptedly in your life. And you will also remember how courteously the London politician, at one point in your excitement, when you were at a loss for a word, supplied you with the word, the very word you were looking for, right out of Roget’s Thesaurus.

What delightful manners, what quiet repose, and easy reserve, go with the vocation of being always sympathetic, always understanding, always anxious to help, always deeply aware, always non-committal, and always full of regrets, no one can fail to see. And if you add to this political recipe: a good tailor, a good club, good food, and often extremely good looks, you will understand why the London politician is the most irresistible political agent in the universe. Even the Sudanese, the Siamese, the Senegalese, girded with loin cloths, with spears in their hands and rings in their noses, sense his quality: a quality of sustained and unimpeachable loyalty, loyalty to the London scheme of things, which is one of the miracles of moral observance in this messy and perfidious world.

One last word about the London politician. He will rarely make a speech. Speeches are too revealing. But he loves to make a report: a confidential report, bristling with little shy disclaimers such as: “to the best of my knowledge,” “as far as I can observe,” “if my judgment may be trusted in the matter.”

Don’t you worry, Mr. London Politician, your judgment will be trusted. For if there are any facts lying around the world which are to London’s advantage, you will find them, ferret them out, even though you have to go on holding conferences with this one and that one till the clocks run down and all the pages are torn from the calendar. The Temporal City knows it can rely on you, knows that you will never let it down. And if this be not loyalty, then to paraphrase a phrase of Patrick Henry, it’s up to the rest of us to “make the most of it.”

For our last study of a typical Londonite, let us call on an aristocrat. Incidentally, I want a real aristocrat, not a spurious one. For this reason, I shall studiously avoid paying my respects to those very recent peers, Sir So-and-So and Lady This-and-That, who lately blossomed among the nobility, not by the route of blood, but by the route of bigger and better biscuits for the Empire.

I am also anxious, in my quest for an aristocrat, to steer clear of a Lord, for fear of meeting a member of the House of Lords, true aristocrats, to be sure, but somewhat strait-laced, political and uncomfortable, from having always to vote the way the House of Commons thinks they ought to.

Our best bet, therefore, among the aristocrats, will be a Duke, a genuine, genealogical, honest-to-goodness Duke, who inherited his title from his father, and who loyally loiters in London year in and year out, by way of being more on exhibition than anything else.

The Duke at whose door we knock is neither the most dignified, nor the most discreet, of the European titularies. Indeed, there is almost no resemblance between him and what would be called a Duke in any country on the Continent. But he is the most lovable old good-for-nothing that ever could be.

The Duke is delightfully informal. He hates to dress for dinner. He hates to wear those various decorations he received for not fighting in the memorable battles that Britain won. The Duke despises all pretense, all fuss, all bother. As if to discipline him in these vagaries, Providence has surrounded him with a retinue of servants, so rigid and severe, as to be positively terrifying, even to the Duke. The Duke is constantly wanting to do things which his butler forbids with a censorious clearing of the throat, which his valet vetoes with a frown. Even the housekeeper has the Duke well in hand, and frequently dares to administer him a scolding. The Duke’s wife, the Duchess, is usually in league with these higher servants, whose sole function seems to be to put the Duke in his place. It is only among the menials of his household that the Duke may let down, and be his dear old lovable and unpretentious self. The Duke gets along famously with the gardener, the charwoman, the boy who cleans his boots.

Besides being terrorized domestically, the Duke inflicts terror abroad. He is the especial terror of newspaper men and politicians. The news reporters almost never interview him in one of London’s political crises, because the Duke is likely to say the impulsive and totally wrong thing. Such statements as, “Damn it all! why don’t we let Gandhi out of jail? … Damn it all! the Pope is the only man in the world who sees this situation clearly! … Damn it all! why don’t we give the people a picnic or a parade? … The American girls are a pretty lot, don’t you think so? Damn it all!”

The newspaper reporters never hear these remarks. And never, never offer them as copy to their various journals. It wouldn’t be the London thing to do, to “take advantage of the Duke” in one of his explosions of temper.

The London politician has even a harder time with His Highness, the Duke.

Shhhhhhhhhh! ……………..
“But do you think, sir, that would be the wise thing to say just at this moment? … ”
“I know very well, sir, but you must remember there are other angles to the case which we must all endeavor to appreciate … ”
“We are doing everything in our power, sir, to see to it that the people get better living quarters, and just as soon as this present crisis is over, you will see, I trust, sir, the fruits of our efforts … ”
“But that’s because you don’t know the people of Australia, sir … ”
“But that’s because you’ve never been in Canada, sir … ”
“But that’s because the Irish are such an impetuous lot, sir … ”
“But that is the fault of the Indians themselves, sir … ”
Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! ………..

But there are certain territories where the Duke will not be either deterred or hushed up. He will not be deterred from patting a newsboy on the head and paying him sixpence for a penny paper. He will not be deterred from going to the funeral of a dead tobacconist who was wont to supply him with his favorite pipe mixture. He will not be deterred from inviting Pobbles, the professional (not amateur) cricket player to dinner, and asking him to give exhibitions of his wrist-strokes in the middle of the living room. Nor will he be hushed up in calling his misdemeanors the names which properly apply to them: “I made a fool of myself! … I took far too much whiskey. I was completely potted! … I would never have got home if the cab driver hadn’t helped me to find my own house. A good lad! Married, and has six children, so he told me. I gave him three pounds, which was all the money I had on me, and told him to distribute them among his children. I’ll bet they’re damn good-looking children, too, with not nearly enough to eat!”

There was once a London king, who, fantastic as it may seem, had dreams and desires of becoming a duke.

Aristocratically the thing made no sense.

Ethically it was totally reprehensible.

Religiously it was an outrage.

But as an exhibition of person-to-person loyalty, if we may detach the trait from every suitable prop that is needed to give it support, it was one of the most marvelous exhibitions of moral courage of this generation.

“At long last … ” the alarmed Londonites heard him say one day over the wireless. And some of their eyes loyally filled with tears when he came to the unforgettable phrase: “for the sake of the woman I love.”

“Long live the King!” shouted the London politicians and propagandists when the old King had abdicated and the new one was approaching the throne. And the people of London, the peers and the proletariat, all joined in and shouted: “Long live the King!” For loyalty is the badge of all their tribe.

What happened to the drunken slum-dweller who shouted facetiously in one of the pubs: “Long live the Duke!” — it is better not to record.