Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1895 - A Banquet at Fishmongers' Hall

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A BANQUET AT FISHMONGERS' HALL

    You were favoured some days since with a card neatly printed in blue, and embellished with an engraved coat-of-arms, surmounted by a casque, bearing a crown regal; the shield bearing quarterings of crossed keys and crossed gurnets; together with some strange spiky creatures which might be either porpoises or sea hedgehogs. The supporters of this escutcheon were a mermaid, with her looking-glass and flowing locks, on the dexter, and, to all appearances, Mars, God of War, with a fish's tail, to the sinister; while the card itself was an invitation from the Prime Warden, the Renter Warden, and the Court of Assistants of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, who requested the honour of your company at dinner at their Hall at the north-western foot of London Bridge, on a given Wednesday in May. This gratifying communication likewise contained the pleasing intimation that dinner would be on the table at 6.30 for 7 P.M. precisely, and polite request for an early answer, with a friendly hint that evening dress was to be worn on the occasion. Evening dress, forsooth! As if any true Briton would venture to come to a fishmongers' dinner in a suit of dittoes, or even in that hypocritical [-26-] apology for evening dress, a Monte Carlo jacket and continuations.
    On the morning of the banquet, at the foot of the bridge; you have "read up" the London Past and Present; the expansion by Mr. Wheatley, F.S.A., of Peter Cunningham's historic Handbook of London. You had a good reason for conning Wheatley-Cunningham. You happen to have been endowed, to a slight extent, with that fatal faculty known as the "gift of the gab"; and the Prime Warden of the Company had, as a supplement to the card of invitation, sent you his compliments, and requested you to respond to the toast of, say, "lobster salad," or "smoked salmon," or "red mullet," or "periwinkles," or something of an appropriately fishy nature.
    The late Earl of Beaconsfield was accustomed to remark that the most difficult speech to make was an after-dinner one, seeing that it was usually a speech about nothing; but you venture for once to dissent from the illustrious statesman. You are of opinion that there is a good deal to say, about a great many topics, in a post-prandial oration; and that if you be really in straits for a topic in which to descant, you can always talk about yourself; relate some pleasing anecdotes of your early days; or say something disagreeable concerning something or somebody that you dislike. But Fishmongers' Hall! The enchanting theme! The invaluable Wheatley-Cunningham informs you that the Fishmongers' dinners are among the most famous of the civic banquets, and that frequently they have been the [-27-] occasion of grand oratorical displays, and sometimes, it is whispered, of equally grand failures. Even the great Lord Erskine, so brilliant at the bar and in the House, was not a good after-dinner speaker; and on one occasion, at Fishmongers Hall, he made such a mournful mess of his speech that Jekyll asked him if it were in honour of the company that he floundered so. You booked that little jokelet, - a chestnut possibly, but still an edible one; and, besides, everybody has not read Wheatley-Cunningham. You would risk Erskine and the flounders, you thought.
    A few minutes before seven you arrive at the foot of the bridge. It is a "Court dinner;" but you miss in the entrance hall the scarlet-jerkined watermen who have won the red ribbon of the river, Dogget's coat and badge. Dogget was an actor of some repute, who in 1721 bequeathed a sum of money for the purchase of a coat and badge, to be rowed for on the 1st of August in every year, in commemoration of the accession of George I. to the throne of these realms. Loyalty to the illustrious House of Hanover will not exempt you from the suspicion that there is somewhat of a solecism in associating the name of the first English monarch of the Brunswick line with the Fishmongers, since George I., it is notorious, was very fond of bad oysters; and it is one of the functions of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers to overlook Billingsgate Market, and seize and condemn all fish unfit to be used as food. You book that little point to be utilised, if possible, in your speech.
    [-28-] Meanwhile, you are received with smiling greetings by a number of gentlemen in evening dress, who seem to have known you during the best part of your life, so affectionately affable are they. And just as they are welcoming you, there comes over you the half-gratifying, half-embarrassing impression that you are being hovered round, inspected, reckoned up, and generally taken stock of, by a Golden Beadle. You are old enough to remember when small boys were mortally afraid of the beadle; and when that functionary wore a huge cocked hat and a scarlet waistcoat and, when he was not carrying his wand of office with the gilt knob at the top, bore in his grip a penny cane, the terror of the young and turbulent. So you grew up, in wholesome veneration, mingled with a little dread of all beadles - Parish beadles, Ward ones, and Inns of Court ones. Often have you gazed with earnest eyes at the imposing beadle of the old India House in Leadenhall Street who, it was rumoured, was a toastmaster at night. The beadle of the British Museum was also one of your early familiars; and you have even bowed to the beadle of the Burlington Arcade. But this is a sadly irreverent age. Small boys may fear, but they have ceased to respect the policemen; and as for the functionaries still dignified by the name of beadles, they are completely ignored by the audacious youth of the period. Why? Because they have been deprived of their cocked hats. You met recently on the Victoria Embankment a large contingent of Bluecoat boys marching westward, and bent, you hoped, on some [-29-] gamesome errand. They were escorted by an "up-to-date" beadle, whose head-gear, instead of the orthodox cocked hat, was a kind of semi-military kèpi. The old order changeth; and things generally, so you feel inclined to think, are going to the dogs.
    One of the affable gentlemen in evening dress has banded you a folded document, which, on being opened, proves to be a plan of the tables, with the names of all the guests as they are to be seated at the feast; and opposite your own name is a neat little "tick," indicating your post at the board. So, having deposited your hat and coat in the cloakroom, and shaking your head a little mournfully at the sight of so many gentlemen in the first week of the merry month of May divesting themselves of the thickest of ulsters, and even of heavy pelisses, lined with astracan or with sable, you ascend a handsome carpeted staircase, and find yourself in a spacious apartment, crowded with gentlemen - elderly, middle-aged, and young; - and when you have made your bow to the Worshipful Prime Warden, a stately personage, with a handsome, jewelled badge, hung by a ribbon round his neck, you reflect for a moment on a somewhat curious phenomenon apparent to you, while the Prime Warden is receiving his guests.
    If truth must be told, this is not by any means the first time that you have been bidden to a banquet at Fishmongers' Hall. Indeed, your remembrance will carry you back to a period full five-and-twenty years since, when you were first privileged to behold Walworth's statue and dagger, and the wonderful piece [-30-] of broidery known as the "pall" or "herse" of the Fishmongers', which dates from the time of Henry VIII. A generation since, so it seems to you, the worthy Fishmongers, physically speaking, were apt to be bald of head, and to run to amplitude of - well, waistcoat. Gentlemen of patriarchal age were also pleasantly plentiful among the Court of Assistants, and now and again, a long white beard, worthy of Lionardo da Vinci, or King Lear, was visible; but moustaches were few and far between. They have changed all that in the City, generally, and at Fishmongers' Hall in particular. Half pleased, half astonished, you notice this May evening that, although the patriarchs have not vanished, and bald heads are here and there manifest, there are members of the Court whose juvenility of appearance, and general up-to-date smartness, induces the persuasion that Fishmongers' Hall has been invaded by a contingent of "mashers" from the Bachelors' Club. There cannot be any mistake about it. The "mashers" are Fishmongers, and not guests; since, oddly enough, you know personally, or by sight, four-fifths of the invited gentlemen present.
    The banquet is one most gracefully held in honour of Literature and Art; and there must be some twenty Royal Academicians present, together with a goodly gathering of authors, newspaper editors, and, at least, one poet. He is an amiable poet, refreshing to look upon, and does not bite, unless the accuracy of his scansion be impeached. Then there is pointed out to you the gallant general who will return thanks for the Army. [-31-] He must be well on in the sixties, but is certainly no masher to look upon; and the same may be said of the equally gallant admiral who, in due course, will respond for the Navy. This distinguished officer has indeed sacrificed to the Graces by growing a full and glossy beard, which is not yet grey. An admiral with a full beard? Such a portent could scarcely have been told in Gath thirty years since.
    When, after an intimation with a sonorous voice in the distance - can it be that of the beadle or of the toastmaster? - the guests troop into the great banqueting-hall, and you manage by dint of eyeglass to find at the table the card corresponding with your name printed on the plan, you discover with flustered feelings that your next neighbour to the left is the Chairman of the School Board for London. Conscience makes a coward of you. With trembling remorse you find yourself mentally confessing that, educationally speaking, you have not mastered any kind of "standard," and that if you had to pass an examination for the post of a tide-waiter or a turncock you would in all probability be plucked. The more you look at the Doge of the School Board Senate the more strongly are you convinced that your speech will be a lamentable, or a ludicrous, fiasco. Throughout its delivery the eye of the fearsome potentate of school-books, slates, maps, and the blackboard will be upon you.
    But why, it may be asked, should you feel such extreme perturbation? You have been tolerably well educated? You haven't. You know how to construct [-32-] a sentence grammatically? You don't. You never knew five rules in Lindley Murray's Grammar, nor in any other grammar of the English language; and you are perfectly certain that when you rise to speak with the School Board Chairman's eye upon you, the accusatives will all skate hopelessly away from the nominatives; the abstract nouns will resolve themselves into so many concrete stammerings and "trying back," while the subjunctive mood, like Morality in the Dunciad, will expire unawares.
    Well, carpe diem: there is no use in running away and losing a good dinner. Embrace the opportunity enjoy the time, work your way discriminatively through the bill of fare; preferring clear turtle to thick, eschewing the delicious, but too generous milk punch served therewith; avoiding cucumber with the salmon; partaking only gingerly of the entrées; and thinking twice before you yield to the fascinations of ice-pudding. But you look upon the champagne when it is dry, and sip tenderly perhaps one glass of Madeira, as old as the battle of Salamanca. There may be "mashers" among your hosts, but there are no juvenile wines here I promise you; the vintages are all potent, grave, and reverend signiors. Ancient servitors of the Company flit behind your chair and whisper in your ears comfortable legends bearing upon rare hocks that gurgle in the glass when poured out; peculiar sherries that the Allied Sovereigns and Marshal Blucher have tasted, and port that is crusted and bees-winged; that is tawny and in its way as patriarchal as the most venerable [-33-] member of the Court. Who drinks port nowadays? you may have frequently heard it sneeringly inquired. All you can say is that the rarest of rare old port - such port as inspired Blackstone when penning his Commentaries; such port as you get at St. John's, Newfoundland - will not be without its patrons this evening. There are ten thousand pipes of port, you have read in the papers, that will soon be offered for public sale in London. Be assured that if that port be of the right sort every one of the pipes will find its purchaser at a rotund price.
    All this while the banquet is being discussed with much heartiness and merriment; you mark how the ripple of conversation rises to a pleasant surge of prattle just about the time when the whitebait has been served, or the first bumpers of Pommery and Greno, or Jules Mumm, Extra Dry, have gone round. Of all keys that will unloose the human tongue and unlock the human understanding, good champagne is the easiest and the safest. Old Sir Theodore Mayerme, King James the First's physician, used to say that all wine was poison, but that bad wine was sudden death; still, of bad examples of the vintage of Epernay, it may surely be said that they mean the protracted and agonising tortures of gout, and of a dozen other members of "the Painful Family of Death, more Hideous than their Queen." You will not meet any members of that painful family at Fishmongers' Hall; nor, indeed, at the board of any guild eastward of the Griffin. The spurning chalices at London Bridge, having made the hearts of [-34-] the guests glad within them, there is, of course, much laughter, and a good deal of story-telling. The much-dreaded School Board Chairman is an abstainer; but, for all that, he has his share in the hilarity, and enjoys it. It is a capital thing to laugh and to tell stories at dinner; joyous speech helps digestion, and you don't eat so much if you converse during the repast. That most disastrous personage, the glutton, is generally taciturn at table. He eats, or rather he "stokes" his meal, till the veins in his forehead swell, and his eyes grow glassy, and he breathes hard. You prefer the people with moderate appetites, who laugh and jest as they feast. Has not the philosopher told us true when he counsels us to laugh whenever we can, because we never know how soon the time may come when we shall have occasion to weep?
    By and by, when the dinner is concluded, and the dessert is handed round, they will give you magisterial old burgundies and claret, with the true Bordeaux bouquet-the bouquet which should be subtly suggestive of the scent of the violet and the flavour of the raspberry. But ere the time for Laffite and Clos-Vougeot arrive, it will be announced in trumpet tones by the toastmaster that the Prime Warden wishes as a hearty welcome to all his guests to pledge them in a Loving Cup; and then there makes the circuit of the tables a number of tall goblets of silver-gilt, filled with some mysterious compound, the secrets of which have never been divulged by the Company's butlers. Most of the civic guilds have their own particular loving cups, made from in-[-35-]gredients the nature of which is never communicated to the profane vulgar. But as regards one Company, the tradition is to the effect that the original cask containing the mixture for the loving cup was laid down in the year 1667, and that the beverage itself is composed of equal parts of burgundy, Lisbon wine, curaçoa, nectar, ambrosia, cognac, rum, arrack, and Apollinaris. An irreverent American tourist once ventured to make the rash assertion that the Mansion House loving cup contains, in addition to claret, burgundy, and maraschino, a considerable infusion of treacle, old tom, ginger wine, and Nubian Blacking; but this is clearly a baseless calumny. It is generally understood, on the other hand, that some of the civic loving cups have very antique foundations.
    Men laugh and revel, the poet tells us, till the feast is o'er; then comes the reckoning, and they laugh no more. There is obviously no bill presented to you after a banquet at Fishmongers' Hall ; there is no collection; but there is a reckoning in the shape of speech-making interspersed with pleasant songs and glees and violin recitals. The loyal and patriotic toasts having been effectively proposed by the Prime Warden, the Navy, the Army, the Reserve Forces, and the Houses of Parliament, are eloquently responded to by representatives of those bodies. An eminent Royal Academician returns thanks for "Art"; and a gaunt individual, with spectacles and long red locks, says something about "Literature." Then you yourself, having the fear of the Chairman of the London School Board always before [-36-] your eyes, having blundered and stumbled through half a dozen sentences of incoherent platitudes about what you will be glad to forget next morning, depart from the hall of feasting; light a cigar in the vestibule; accept with gratitude a parting cadeau from the Company in the shape of an elegant casket of walnut wood full of candied sweetmeats, and come forth into the nocturnal world of LONDON UP TO DATE.

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