Child in the London Streets
The child in the London Streets is not just any stray child in a large city. He is not the Greek paidarion, precious with unregenerated eagerness, impetuous in appetite for the lost apples of Paradise.
The child in the London streets is not the child in the avenues of Berlin, dwarfed by adult ideas. Nor is he the child in the squares of Rome, doomed to adult destinies. He is not even the child in the boulevards of Paris, dismissed in adult arrangements.
London’s child is the child of the simple thoroughfare, the child who belongs to a place. The very sidewalks of his city have been measured for his footsteps. He can run down one well-known London lane in the very time it takes to say an Our Father. This brief byway is London’s Paternoster Row. At the end of it comes Amen Corner, where he must not forget to say “Amen.” I suspect that even London’s Fleet Street was named after running children.
The London child, during the period in which he is listening to language, and learning how to think, is a little knight in a Kingdom not of this world — for he is almost never not baptized. One Christian Sacrament London still clings to, and to the preserved little dresses and bonnets that go with it. And that is the Sacrament of Baptism.
Now, there are not many Baptisms — a Baptism in the true Church of Christ, and other baptisms in the churches of the heresies. There is only one Baptism. Whoever receives this Baptism, is given all it was meant to impart, provided he puts no obstacle in the way — a thing a young child is incapable of doing. And so, the child in the London streets is, almost certainly, a little son of God — about to be cheated, alas, by unbelieving elders, of all the rest of his supernatural heritage.
Were the London child to die before refusing his second Sacrament, the Sacrament of the Bread of Life, and for which his Baptism was a divine preparation, he would go to Heaven, as an adopted son of God. And this is the Church’s clear teaching.
There are millions of such London children in Heaven. Their titles to beatitude were in spirit, not in flesh. They have stolen in by reason of their sanctified innocence — non Angli, sed Angeli — to steal a phrase from St. Gregory the Great.
My reader now knows my intolerant feeling about all little London boys and girls; and if I may use this bigotry as a background, I think I can interpret them as they deserve to be known.
The child in the London streets is not taught very much by grown-ups. Most of what he knows he has had to teach himself. No one, for instance, can tell you where his favorite nursery rhymes come from. They seem to have been evoked out of nowhere, handed on by children to children, from generation to generation. Whenever a London adult has gone out of his way to publish, in Fleet Street, a book of rhymes for a London child, it has almost never reached a child who will read it. It is kept on the shelves of London’s fashionable clubs, and chuckled over by a lot of bibulous old boys when they are potted.
The London child is a wonderfully self-sustained little waif, with an imagination whetted for the conquest of anything. Jumping over the moon seems too easy. So he gives this assignment to a clumsy cow. The killing of giants, however, he views with respect, and keeps this as one of his own special privileges.
The London child has a marvelous sense of the sounds of things. Standing on a street corner, at Angelus time, in silence, and listening to the bells in a church tower ring, he manages, by a fascinating mixture of noises, to give exactly the music of what the bells are saying:
Oranges and lemons
Sing the bells of St. Clemens.
No child in the streets of any other European city was ever more delightfully inventive.
The child in the London streets loves approximate, rather than accurate, sounds in his songs. But so, indeed, does God, in the music of nature — in the breezes of the trees, the ripples of the waters, and the chirpings of the birds.
Rhymes which are correct, just for their own sake, never please the London child. He does not deliberately avoid good rhymes. He simply does not care whether or not they occur, as long as you are pleased with the tones of what he is telling you. He defends the pussy-cat with a rhyme like this:
Who never did him any harm
But killed the mice in his father’s barn.
He tells a Rock-a-bye-baby that:
On the tree top
The cradle will rock.
He lets Jack and Jill ascend and descend a hill together, as perfect companions in everything, except rhyme.
To fetch a pail of water
was the way they both went up;
And Jill came tumbling after
was how one of them came down.
Only a happy child could put together such unmatched sounds with such confident assurance and lyrical delight. You feel that these little rhymes match about as much as patches on his breeches, or buttons on his shirt.
Psychological historians of recent times have assigned deep, adult meanings to many of London’s nursery rhymes.
The King was in the countinghouse,
Counting up his money
they tell us, was Henry VIII.
The Queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey
was Catherine of Aragon.
The maid was in the garden
Hanging out the clothes
was Anne Boleyn.
Along came a black bird
And snipped off her nose
was an ecclesiastic from the Diocesan Matrimonial Court, who warned her that she must not break up a royal and valid marriage.
The study of London’s nursery rhymes has been given much importance recently in some American universities. Theses are written on them so as to secure graduate degrees in the fields of psychology and political science. I think it ought to be noted, however, that (a) political nursery rhymes are not the ones that London children really love; and (b) the creators of them must have been listening to the rhythms of children in the streets so as to know how good cadences go.
I have often wanted to take some of these nursery rhymes, which the scholars have not yet decoded, and offer a few good guesses of my own. Could it be that:
Baa, baa, black sheep
Have you any wool?
Are there any more Cardinal Wolseys
Among the clergy?
Could it be that:
This is the malt that lay
In the House that Jack built
The refreshment that Londoners are likely to miss
In John Milton’s Paradise Lost?
Frankly, if this last were true, even I would be driven back to the morbid wisdom of A. E. Housman, when he said:
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Not only are the nursery rhymes of the London child the fruit of some unestablished authorship — part child and part parent, lodged together God knows where, collaborating God knows how — but it is to be noted that both in London and in all its surrounding towns, to no one does an adult speak with more careful exactitude or more enunciated respect than he does when speaking to a child.
Childishness, in London, is not a characteristic of children. But it is of grown-ups. When situations get too intense for London grownups, they violently turn to simplicities. The poor betake themselves to a cinema, or a pub, and act skittishly for the rest of the evening. The less poor go off to a music hall, and listen to a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, the most childish entertainment ever seriously produced.
The London child begins life, as I have said, with a Christian challenge in his eyes. This purity of gaze annoys the skepticism of his elders, and so, as his years advance, he is kept from believing lots of things he would like to.
Disgusting experiments on London children have recently been made in the name of pediatrics. Lord Bertrand Russell has been one of the most realistic of these experimenters. The uneducated English child kept torturing the conscience of this impurely educated Englishman. And so, Russell started a school for children, with a curriculum that would do credit to a stable. He put this school in the country. The children were exposed to all temptations, and encouraged to settle them in terms of their own instincts. No counsel or correction was allowed to be given them. It was a school where impulses were fostered, and noted, and statistics constantly kept.
Lord Russell was forced to close this school. The children had turned into savages. Light begets light. Darkness generates darkness. The offspring of a demon are little devils in the flesh.
In the field of supposedly polite education, we have the English public school. English writers have let us know that these public schools are not good. Dickens went out of his way to say so. Shelley shrieked it. Any graduate of these schools will quietly admit it, if you can get him to give you his confidence.
The child in an English public school is a darling little boy, put into long trousers long before his time. He is learning how to hold his head high by way of mastery over himself. He is learning how to try not to let anyone know the disappointments that he feels in his soul. He calls his parents, in Anglicized Latin, “Pater” and “Mater.” He greets them almost with a salute. He knows he must stand on his own two feet, more than any poor mortal was ever intended to. The Empire may need him, so he must prepare for banishment. The local offices of the Kingdom may require him, so he must set himself for slavery.
The public-school boy of London, and of greater England, must ignore disappointment and disillusionment, and meet all disasters with a smile. It is only the least-paid servant in his house who knows the secrets of his heart. It is on her shoulder that he buries his head, in some hidden seclusion, where he may weep, and weep, and weep.
The Catholic public schools of England have not made much improvement on this Protestant public-school arrangement. Catholics have no universities in England, but of public schools they have a number.
These Catholic public schools — in America they would be called private schools — are always anxious to let the Ministers of Education see, that, though Catholic beliefs are alien to what London generally holds, Catholic customs can be kept in conformity with the practice of the majority. Boys in Catholic schools are still flogged, because flogging is an accepted public-school discipline. The manners and terminologies in England’s Catholic schools are rarely illustrative of any of the truths of the Faith. Every Catholic public school feels singularly honored when one of its graduates is accepted for Oxford or for Cambridge.
There was a time when the Vatican forbade English Catholic boys to go to Oxford or to Cambridge. When the English hierarchy secured permission for this to be done, the Vatican was somewhat reluctant to give in. But modern England has a way of influencing the Vatican. Everyone in London speaks of this. Everyone in Rome whispers it. For the sake of a share in British prestige, the Vatican is anxious not to displease England.
The letter of permission from the Vatican allowing English boys to attend Protestant universities contained a warning. It purported to have come from the Pope. He said, “I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves.” This is a new version of an old parable — the parable of the Good Shepherd.
Perhaps some of these animadversions I make on the London child are the fruit of heartaches I had, walking in the London streets. It was for two years I did so, when I was a young priest. And here is how I mused, as I walked, in a verse called simply,
When I go out walking
On Bloomsbury Street,
Children say “Here he comes!”
Children I meet;
The Margarets and Marys
And Michaels and Matts,
Dropping me curtseys
And lifting their hats.
The children! The children!
They load me with love,
In Bloomsbury Gardens
And Bloomsbury Grove.
By Bloomsbury Chapel
And Bloomsbury Mart,
I often go walking
To kindle my heart.
But, when I go out walking
On Buckingham Lane,
Children say “Here he comes
The Gladyses, Gwendolyns,
Grovers and Guys,
Lifting their noses
And arching their eyes.
The children! The children!
They hurt me with hate,
In Buckingham Terrace
And Buckingham Gate.
By Buckingham Mansions
And Buckingham Inns,
I often go walking
To pay for my sins.
In the last one hundred years, while the skeptical London mind has kept thwarting the London child, the worst tyrants have not always been those who have had charge of him in public schools. They were very often the parents he met when he returned for a holiday, whose adult playful interests never matched his serious thoughts. His pater and mater — by way of offering him homestead pleasantry — could give him phrases from The Rivals, and quotations from a play called Lady Windermere’s Fan. In the books of his father’s library, he found nothing that could nourish the needs of his soul. Obviously not the insipid novels of J. M. Barrie, who was the namby-pamby boy in his own books: And the situation was just as bad in books for girls.
There was once a little girl named Liddell. Her father was a famous London lexicographer — of the team of Liddell & Scott. An older friend of hers was a popular Protestant minister, who for the sake, perhaps, of modesty, started writing under a pseudonym. This Protestant minister called himself Lewis Carroll; and he put Miss Liddell in a book. He called her Alice; and the book in which he put her he called, Alice in Wonderland. There was only one thing wrong with the book. Little Miss Liddell did not especially care for it. She never understood that, when Reverend Mr. Carroll was writing, it was she who was supposed to be speaking.
I do not know where this tragic London child of the Nineteenth Century ended in literature. Perhaps in the Beau Geste novels of Sir Percival Christopher Wren. One place, I know, where there is not a hint of him is in the Christopher Robin of A. A. Milne. And I may mention two other places where there is not even a hint of his ever having existed. It is in the adulterous fiction of John Galsworthy, and in the superannuated dramas of G. B. Shaw.
If my reader wants to remember the anguish of the child I am trying to commemorate, let him avoid all the routine children’s books: A Kiss for Cinderella and Peter Pan. Let him stand, some quiet evening, beneath a London church tower, whose bells are commencing to ring, and let him repeat:
Oranges and lemons
Sing the bells of St. Clemens.
And then he will probably know what temporary treasures are still skipping ropes and rolling hoops in the foggy London streets.