ALL LONDON AT A BOAT-RACE
Let us remember the Chinese proverb: "What is the glory of having fine clothes if you cannot go to your own village to wear them?" In this spirit London must have turned out of bed on the foggy morning of the 6th of April, 1870. Every man shook out his finest suit; every woman drew forth her dress that to her mind best became her. Nay, the poorest got their mites of finery. The lucifer-match boys, habited in rags of surprising and complicated tenacity, sported their bit of deep or pale blue. The fresh University colors looked very harsh and odd in the lowlier neighborhoods through which the mighty tide of holiday London rushed. The blue, pale or deep, was tied to a stick, crowning ginger-beer barrows, flaunting from broken whips, about the fan-tail of a dustman, nodding over the noses of costermongers' donkeys, and stuck amid the tatters of "gutter children" perched aloft in the river-side trees.
But the holiday was for all London: for Parliament and people, for the Heir- Apparent planted in the Umpire's boat, and for the work-folk lining the sylvan shores. Every tint and shade and film of shade of Gainsborough's Blue Boy was patched upon the myriads who covered the Thames Valley from Putney to Mortlake. They who had blue dresses were indeed fortunate, and sported them; they who could afford to buy, bought and were happy. Every London apprentice aired one University color. I verily believe that the drunkard was on that day happy as he stroked his blue nose. From Hampstead to Sydenham, from Islington to Brompton, London was covered with the blues--the sardonic foreigner would say-and exactly the English way of making holiday.
The "little village" was completely out, even to the babies, and all were happy in the glory of fine clothes put forth in the sight of neighbors, in the sharp way of the Chinaman.
Early in the morning, however, London was quieter than usual. It was the lull before the rush. John Bull was at home meditating on the frolic of the day. Business the most important was put aside. The Land Bill was as far away from men's minds as Magna Charta or the Bill of Rights. The Great Boat--Race of the year had grown gradually to this startling exodus of the million-voiced city!
On the eventful morning I was aroused by a friendly voice--the voice of my fellow-pilgrim-asking what had happened. We were well into the morning, and it was as dark as the darkest midnight. The two Pilgrims confronted one another, candle in hand, speculating on the turn affairs would take on the river in presence of a completely representative London fog. It was choking: it made the eyes ache. It rolled into the house, as a visitor remarked, like a feather-bed, at the heels of every arrival. For sky we had a deep yellow-orange roof across the street; and about the street red specks of light played, borne by lads and men whose voices seemed to reach us through woollen comforters. A fog almost equal to this had surprised us on an early journey, when a coffee-stall proved a most welcome illumination to us; but to-day I could tell my fellow-traveller that he had at last seen one of those famous darknesses which, in every stranger's mind, are the almost daily mantle of the wonderful and wonder-working Babylon.
After all, we should have to give the boat-race up.
"On such a day Charon should be umpire. Not upon the silvery Thames, but upon the ebon tide of the Styx, should there be a tough contest." This from a stranger.
But the true Londoners present got on with their preparations; inquired about horses and carriages; gave orders; filled cigar-cases; and despatched breakfast.
These knew their April London well. While breakfast proceeded the yellow curtains of fog swayed and tumbled, and began to show streaks of lighter finery beyond. It was remarked that the sun was getting power.
"The sun!" exclaimed the pilgrim, who was stuffing his pockets with pencils. "That's a good joke!"
The sun presently answered, and laughed in play of light along the trees, as we trundled forward through Wimbledon.
"Is it possible," was the question that fell upon my ear at every turn of the road- "is it possible that this tremendous rush along both banks of the river, this block of a dozen bridges, this unbroken water procession, and these moving steamers massed to the funnels with humanity, can all be provoked by a single contention among a score of University students?"
Strangers who have been educated in the idea that the English people are just the mournful set-hard, unimpressionable, and addicted to the spleen, as they have been perseveringly misrepresented from Froissart to Heine and the living chroniqueurs of Paris, who look out upon us from a Leicester Square back window, and exclaim, "Heavens! how foggy and full of sadness!"--these misdirected strangers are surprised at a smile, and startled at a laugh, and bewildered by a round of applause when they come into the midst of us. The vibration of vigorous human life that thrilled along the shores on the April day when all London turned out to see a tussle between two University crews was not that of a mournful, dejected population. The towing-paths presented to the view of the more fortunate people upon the private river-side terraces a mixed population that, in its holiday guise, showed marks of the fierce London struggle. The mechanics and their wives and children looked pale; but they were of buoyant spirits. The lines of boats and barges drawn up on either side of the river, leaving a fair open way to the race, and covered with motley thousands, sent forth tumultuous sounds of undying gayety-through hours, pending the event of the day. The laughter rattled in sustained volleys from Putney to the winning-post. Every lane, alley, and road through which the human river, broken into streams, tended to the scene of the day was gay with the happy spirits of the travellers to the race. Even those who could not go stood in their doorways in their Sunday best, and displayed their sympathy by a bit of the light blue or of the deep.
At the same time the popular gypsy tribes and the poor costermongers trotted forth to let out chairs and forms, tell fortunes, and offer the fair-games upon the open spaces which are dear to the mass bent on amusement. The public-houses played their usual part over leagues of ground; and by their doors the road was blocked with thirsty citizens. The frothing pots were everywhere handing to pyramids of drinkers upon the tops of omnibuses; to buxom women crowded by the half dozen, by a most incomprehensible economy of space, into spring-carts; and to the flaunting, impudent roughs perched upon costers' barrows. Authority, in the shape of the police, was alone solemn and stolid.
The people took their refreshment by the way copiously and noisily, presenting extraordinary groups and combinations to the artist; but on the ground, in the reserved barges, on board the chartered steamers, in the launch to which we were so graciously invited for the better use of pen and pencil, along the terrace at Barnes where the carriages were ranged, as by the ropes at Epsom or Ascot, and at the open windows of the villas, and along the animated lines of the rough-hewn stands thrown up as speculations, eyes sparkled and tongues clattered to the well-known music of Epernay and Rheims. Even the Peggys selling "flowers from street to street" had a merry eye. Stately beauties looked down upon the surging tide of uproarious men and women that ebbed and flowed between the files of carriages and the trim villas and stands. The "chaff," which is no little part of the Londoner's enjoyment when holiday-making, was such as it is well for our national reputation the foreigner should not understand. The carriages were unhorsed; the timber-stands were hemmed in; tiers upon tiers of pretty faces were at the windows, curtained with flowers, and bowered in evergreen --all at the mercy of the Cockney tongue. If there was anything to regret in this close and prodigious meeting of class with class, it was not the absence of gayety. The hum rose to a shout and then subsided; but it was taken up along the line of barges, carried across the railway bridge by the men who were packed like flies upon it, and passed along the opposite shore. The shout of laughter or extra thrill of excitement went travelling up and down the river. There was an electric current over all the course, impossible to be understood by the witness who had not got to understand the extraordinary combativeness of the English character.
Why are those urchins, perched up in yonder limes, at the peril of their necks, to catch a glimpse of the struggle between the Oxford and Cambridge crews, so utterly possessed with the keen spirit of the day? Why is the gypsy lad proud of the pale blue in his straw hat? Why are those groups of poor shop-men wrangling over the relative merits of the Cambridge and Oxford stroke? Why is there a sparkle in the eyes of the servant-girls, and the street-folk generally?
The reason is the combativeness which lies deep in the English nature, and which has expressed itself in brutal and in noble forms ever since we were a nation. The keenness of the life-struggle is expressed in the astounding masses of frantic people who are here, upon every boat and plank that will float; upon every inch of vantage-ground-covering every slate and tile of every roof, and swinging upon every valid bough of every overhanging tree. Men and women of all estates, as we have remarked, feel alike the blood dancing in the veins-at the idea of the fierce contention, after long and anxious preparation, that is about to happen. The beautiful women, nested like birds in the ivied house, and peeping timidly out upon the uproarious mob, have a spirit akin to that of the lowliest girls who spin the gypsy's needle for gingerbread. But the ladies express their combativeness in the archery ground. It is not a love of gambling, but the hot desire to be on one side of every conflict, that leads all classes of Englishmen to the race-course. This same spirit is that which has developed our unparalleled extent of trade. That which we saw in the Pool has exactly the same fulcrum as that which stirs this mighty holiday in Thames Valley. It is the race of life in little, or expressed in a happy, festive manner.
The very place whence the University boat-race is started is an ancient gamblers' resort. In the time of Queen Elizabeth the village, in the quiet of which many successive Bishops of London have meditated, was, we are told, the most notorious place for blacklegs in all England. A "fullam" was and is a loaded die: and Shakespeare, in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," reminds us how the passion for play, the spirit of contention--of "besting," to use a popular word--was in the marrow and bone of the race. * (* "contention, after long and anxious preparation, that is about to happen. The beautiful women, nested like birds in the ivied house, and peeping timidly out upon the uproarious mob, have a spirit akin to that of the lowliest girls who spin the gypsy's needle for gingerbread. But the ladies express their combativeness in the archery ground. It is not a love of gambling, but the hot desire to be on one side of every conflict, that leads all classes of Englishmen to the race-course. This same spirit is that which has developed our unparalleled extent of trade. That which we saw in the Pool has exactly the same fulcrum as that which stirs this mighty holiday in Thames Valley. It is the race of life in little, or expressed in a happy, festive manner.
The very place whence the University boat-race is started is an ancient gamblers' resort. In the time of Queen Elizabeth the village, in the quiet of which many successive Bishops of London have meditated, was, we are told, the most notorious place for blacklegs in all England. A "fullam" was and is a loaded die: and Shakespeare, in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," reminds us how the passion for play, the spirit of contention--of "besting," to use a popular word--was in the marrow and bone of the race.* (* For gourd and fullam holds,
On ordinary days Fulham is one of the quaintest and quietest suburbs of London; and people and vehicles dribble over the rickety wooden bridge very slowly to Putney. It is only when the crews go down for their final training that the two old-fashioned inns on the Surrey side are full of life. Day by day, as the time for the race approaches, the bridge toll-keeper wears a merrier look, and has a more active time of it. Every kind of light and nimble and elegant and fast conveyance appears on the scene. The undergraduate becomes a familiar presence, and in the wake of the young gentlemen of England, who have plenty of money, and at the same time very little experience, follow hosts of betting men of all degrees, from the overdressed, sharp-visaged man who lays ten-pound notes, to the coarse, bibulous vagabond who scents the shillings in the waterman's pocket. When this gentry arrive, and are to be seen of mornings scampering along the banks of the river in the wake of the boats, the quiet, handsome shores, fringed with noble timber, and used to no more bewildering sound than the plash of an oar, the splutter of ground-bait, or the shambling tread of the horses along the towing-path, echo the coarse language of the adepts in river-side slang. It seems a vast pity that so fine and manly and honest a struggle, in which skill and pluck are allied, should be marred by such ugly surroundings as those which the booths and beer-houses present to the eye of the observer.
After all, however, it is a brave and hearty and wholesome holiday --the first thorough outing of the Londoner in the brisk and balmy spring. The Vicar of Wakefield remarked that he was ever an admirer of happy human faces, and those who are of his tender and homely way of thinking cannot give themselves a richer treat than that which the young men of Oxford and Cambridge offer the Londoner every spring.
For even the poorest purveyors of the homeliest refreshment to the holiday hosts have a bit of sunlight upon their faces. The match-boys, the letters of chairs and tables, even the shoe-blacks, have caught the laughing spirit of the day. The patterers have a blither voice.
And in the quieter places, under the linden, in the bowers of the ivy-covered houses, it is a day of flirtations, of sweet things said in that time when, the Laureate tells us, a young man's fancy
"Lightly turns to thoughts of love." The lilac is in bloom; from every shady place the violet peeps; the flowergirls gather the honeyed cowslip, the anemone, and the primrose from the woods, and the sad eyes of many a London citizen are on the boat-race morning first gladdened by these sweet messengers of spring.