Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859 - Chapter 10 - My Swan

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THERE was once a great Italian painter  - the same who had a hand in building Saint Peter's - who, when he came to be nearly eighty years of age, when he was justly considered and renowned throughout Europe as the most learned artist living, as a man who knew by heart every bone, ligament, muscle, and vein, and could pourtray them with the most recondite foreshortening and the most erudite symmetry - which, indeed, he could - designed a rough pencil sketch, representing a very old man (himself) seated in a go-cart, drawn by a little child; while underneath the drawing these [-115-] words were written: 'Ancora impara' -  'Still he learns.' The octogenarian sage - the oracle of art - was wise and modest enough to confess how little he knew, and how much he had yet to learn.
    Now, though I do not pretend to the learning of Michael Angelo, or - I say it in all modesty - to know much about anything, I did flatter myself that I was passably well read in 'public' lore - that, as I once foolishly boasted, I had graduated in beer. Flippantly, as men of superficial acquirements are prone to do, I summed up the phases of 'public' life in three chapters. Fatuitous scribe! I had but broken the ground with the point of my spade. Insensate! I had thought to do in a day what it would take years to accomplish a moiety of. Impotent! I had essayed to dip the Mississippi dry with a salt-spoon!
    Consider the contemplative man's recreation. The fishing public-house! On the banks of a suburban stream, or by the towing-path of a canal, or by the mud-compelling, stream-restraining portals of a lock shall we find the piscatorial public: the Jolly Anglers, maybe, or the Izaak Walton, or very probably the Swan. What connection there can be between a Swan and the gentle craft I know not; but it is a fact no less strange than incontrovertible, that the Swan is the favourite sign for fishing-houses: the White Swan, the Old Swan, The Silver Swan, the Swan and Hook, but the Swan, always.
    The Swan, my Swan - on the little fishing river Spree (which has been playing some astonishing freaks of late - overflowing its banks and depositing roach and dace in back kitchens and dustbins) - always puts me in mind of a very old man with very young legs; for whereas it is above, as far as regards its upper and garret story, a quaint, moss-covered, thatched-roofed edifice with crooked gable ends, and an oriel window with lozenge-panes, it is below an atrociously modern erection of staring yellow brick with an impertinent stuccoed doorway, and the usual rhetorical conventionalities in golden flourishes about neat wines; fine ales, good accommodation, and the rest of it. This doorway faces the high omnibus road, and is a sixpenny ride from the Bank - a great convenience to anglers whose everyday occupations are of a City or commercial cast. The sign of the Swan formerly stood in this high road, or at least creaked and swung within an iron frame affixed to a post standing there. This Swan was a brave bird [-116-] with a neck like a corkscrew, and a head like the griffin's in the City Arms. There were faint vestiges of a gold-laced cocked hat, and a rubicund red nose gleaming through the whity-brown plumage of the bird, and old folks said that before the house had been the Swan, it was known as the General Ligonier. Other old folks held out stoutly that the cocked hat and rubicund nose belonged to the publican's friend, the Marquis of Granby, while a third party swore hard that they were the property of Admiral Byng, and that he was dissignified after they had shot him. When Groundbait, the present landlord of the Swan, took the house, he caused the sign to be removed as too shabby and tarnished, and agreed with Joe Copal, the journeyman decorator, to paint a new one for a crown and a bottle of wine. Unfortunately he paid the money and the liquor in advance, and Joe soon after emigrated to Texas, leaving not only the sign unpainted, but a considerable score for malt liquors and tobacco unsettled; whereupon Groundbait grew moody and abstracted on the subject of signs; refusing to have a new one painted, and replying haughtily to such friends as pressed him on the subject that 'the gentlemen as used the Swan knew his 'ouse was the Swan without a swan being painted up outside like a himage; and that if they didn't they might go to any other swan or goose:' after which he was wont to expel several vehement whiffs from his pipe, and knitting his brows, gaze ruefully at Joe Copal's unliquidated score, which to this day remains in full chalk characters behind the parlour door; it being as much as Dorothy the pretty barmaid's place is worth to meddle with, or hint about effacing it. Groundbait has looked at it a good many times since the discovery of the gold-fields in Australia, as he has an idea that Texas may be somewhere that way; and that Joe, coming back repentant some day with a store of nuggets, may call in and settle it.
    The Swan has been a fishing-house for years, not only as in the neighbourhood of a fishing stream and the resort of metropolitan anglers, but also as a species of house-of-call for freshwater fishermen - a piscatorial clearing-house - a fishing news-exchange, a social club-house for the amateurs of the rod and line.
    The little bar parlour of the Swan, which is of no particular shape and has a paper ceiling, has a door covered on the inner-side half by a coloured mezzotint of George the Third in jack-boots, on a horse like a gambolling hippopotamus, reviewing [-117-] one hundred thousand volunteers in Hyde Park; half by the famous abacus, or slate - the tabular record of scores. Dorothy, the 'neat-handed Phillis' of the Swan, albeit a ready reckoner and an accomplished artiste in stewing carp and frying smelts, is not a very apt scholar; so she has devised a system of financial hieroglyphics to cover her want of proficiency in the delineation of the Arabic numerals. Thus in her money alphabet, a circle (o) stands for a shilling; a half moon (() for sixpence, a Maltese cross for a penny, and a Greek ditto for a halfpenny. Farthings are beneath the calculations of the Swan; and pounds are represented by a very large O indeed; the agglomeration of a score of circles into one circumference. The room is hung round with badges and trophies of the piscatorial craft. Rods of all shapes and sizes, eel-spears, winches, landing-nets, Penelopean webs of fishing-tackle, glistering armouries of hooks, harpoons, panniers, bait-cans, and in a glass case a most wonderful piscatorio-entomological collection of flies - flies of gorgeously tinted floss silk, pheasants' feathers, and gold and silver thread-flies warranted to deceive the acutest of fish; though if viewed through a watery medium, the flies come no nearer Nature than these do, I have no great opinion of the fishes' discernment. With all due reverence for the Eleusinian mysteries of fly-fishing - which I do not understand, be it said. Over the fire-place is the identical rod and line with which J.Barbell, Esq., booked the monstrous and European-famed jack in the river Dodder, near Dublin, and in the year of grace eighteen hundred and thirty-nine; in one corner are the shovel and bucket with and in which at the same place and time the said jack, after being walked seven miles down the banks of the Dodder, and cracking the rod into innumerable fissures (though the superior article, one of Cheek's best, would not break), was ultimately landed. Conspicuous between the windows is the portrait of J. Barbell, Esq., a hairy-faced man, severely scourging a river with a rod like a May-pole; beneath that, the famous jack himself in propria persona, in a glass case, stuffed, very brown and horny with varnish, with great staring glass eyes (one cracked), and a mouth wide open grinning hideously. He is swimming vigorously through nothing at all, and has a neat fore-ground of moss and Brighton-beach shells, and a backing of pea-green sky. There are very many other glass cases, containing the mummies of other famous jacks, trout, roach, dace, and carp, including [-118-] the well-known perch which was captured after being heard of for five years in the back waters of the Thames near Reading, and has a back fin nearly as large as Madame de Pompadour's fan. Not forgetting a well-thumbed copy of dear old 'Izaak's Complete Angler;' a price-list of fishing materials sold at the Golden Perch or the Silver Roach in London, with manuscript comments of anglers as to the quality thereof pencilled on the margin, and the contributions of the ingenious Ephemera to 'Bell's Life in London,' cut from that journal and pasted together on the leaves of an old cheesemonger's day-book; not forgetting these with a certain fishy smell prevalent, I think I have drawn the parlour of the Swan for you pretty correctly. The first thing you should do on entering this sanctuary of fishing is to keep your skirts very close to your person, and to duck your head a little - the air being at times charged with animal matter in the shape of dried entrails twisted into fishing-lines, which flying about, and winding round your clothes or in your hair, produce a state of entangelment more Gordian than pleasant. The chairs and other articles of furniture are also more or less garnished with hooks of various sizes, dropped from the parchment hook-books of the gentlemen fishermen. These protrude imperceptibly, but dangerously, like quills upon the fretful porcupine; and it is as well to examine your chair with a magnifying glass, or to cause a friend to occupy it preliminarily, before you sit down in it yourself.
    If you come to the Swan to fish you cannot do better than tackle (I do not use the word with the slightest intention of punning) Groundbait, the landlord, immediately. That Boniface will be but too happy to tell you the latest fishing news, the most approved fishing places, the neighbouring gentry who give permissions to fish. He knows of fish in places you would never dream of: he has cunningly devised receipts for ground-bait: his butcher is the butcher for gentles, his oil-shops are the shops for greaves; he has hooks that every fish that ever was spawned will gorge, lines that never break, rods that never snap. If you would go farther a-field after an essay at the mild suburban angling of the River Spree, he will put you up to rare country fishing spots, where there are trouts of unheard of size, eels as big as serpents, pikes so large and voracious that they gnaw the spokes of water-wheels; of quiet Berkshire villages, where the silver Thames murmurs peacefully, gladsomely, innocently between sylvan banks, [-119-] through a green thanksgiving landscape, among little islets, quiet, sunny, sequestered as the remote Bermnudas; where the river, in fine, is a river you may drink and lave in and rejoice ever, forgetting the bone factories and gas-works and tanneries, the sweltering sewerage, inky colliers, and rotting corpses below Bridge.
    If you come to the Swan merely as an observer of the world, how it is a wagging, as I do, you may take your half-pint of neat port with Groundbait, or shrouding yourself behind the cloudy mantle of a pipe, study character among the frequenters of the Swan. Groundbait does not fish much himself. The engineer has an objection to see himself hoist with his own petard. Doctors never take their own physic. Lawyers don't go to law. Groundbait, the arbiter piscatorium, the oracle, the expert juré of angling, seldom takes rod in hand himself. He has curiously a dominant passion for leaping, darting the lancing pole, swinging by his hands, climbing knotted ropes, and other feats of strength and agility. He has quite a little gymnasium in his back garden, leading to the river - a kind of gibbet, with ropes and ladders, an erection which, when he first took the Swan, and set up his gymnastic apparatus, gave his neighbour and enemy, the Reverend Gricax Typhoon, occasion to address several stinging sermons to the congregation sitting under him at little Adullam, touching the near connection between publicans and the most degraded of mankind, such as public executioners, with a neat little historical parallel concerning Mordecai and Haman.
    The angling company frequenting the Swan are varied and eccentric. Rarely, I am of opinion, is eccentricity so prevalent as among Anglers. Take Mr. Jefferson Jebb, among his intimates known as Jeff. He is something in the City, that mysterious place, the home of so many mysterious avocations. Every evening during the summer months, and every Sunday throughout the year, he comes to the Swan to fish or to talk of fishing. He is intensely shabby, snuffy, and dirty, and wears a beaver hat brushed all the wrong way and quite red with rust. On one finger he wears a very large and sparkling diamond ring. His boots are not boots but bats - splay, shapeless, deformed canoes, with bulbous excrescences on the upper leather. When he sleeps at the Swan, and you see the boots outside his door, they have an inexpressibly groggy, wall-eyed, shambling appearance, and sway to and fro of their own accord like the Logan or rocking stone in Cornwall. I think Jeff must be in [-120-] the habit of drinking coffee at breakfast, and, purchasing dried sole-skins wherewith to clear the decoction of the Indian berry, be continually forgetting to take his purchases out of his pockets, for there is a fishy smell about him, constant but indescribable. He never catches any fish to speak of. He does not seem to care about any. His principal delight is in the peculiarly nasty process of kneading together the compound of gravel, worms, and soaked bread, known as ground-bait, small dumplings of which ordinarily adhere to his hands and habiliments. He smokes a fishy pipe, and frequently overhauls a very greasy parchment-covered portfolio filled with hooks. His line or plan of conversation is consistent and simple, but disagreeable, consisting in flatly contradicting any assertion on angling, or, indeed, any other topic advanced by the surrounding company. This peculiarity, together with a general crustiness of demeanour and malignity of remark, have earned for him the sobriquets of the 'hedgehog,' 'old rusty,' 'cranky Jeff,' and the like. If he be not a broker's assistant, or a Custom House officer in the City, ho must certainly be a holder of Spanish bonds, or Mexican scrip, or some other description of soured financier.
    The arm-chair immediately beneath the portrait of J. Barbell, Esq., is the property, by conquest, by seniority, and by conscription, of Mr. Bumblecherry, Captain Bumblecherry, who has been a brother of the angle, and a supporter of the Swan for twenty years. For the last five he has boarded and lodged beneath Groundbait's hospitable roof. In his hot youth he was an exciseman; for some years he has been a gentleman, existing on the superannuation allowance granted him by a grateful country. He keeps a vehicle which be calls a 'trap,' but which is, in reality, a species of square wicker-work clothes-basket on wheels, drawn by a vicious pony. Bumblecherry is a very square, little old man with a red scratch wig, a bulbous nose, and a fangy range of teeth. He looks very nearly as vicious as his pony. He bids you good morning in a threatening manner; scowls when you offer him a light for his pipe, and not unfrequently takes leave of the parlour company at night with the very reverse of a benediction. He is a very bad old man; and when he speaks to you looks very much as if he would like to bite you. He does not believe in anything, much, except fishing, at which recreation he is indefatigable; fishing at all times and all seasons when it is possible to fish, singing the while, in a coffee-mill voice, a [-121-] dreary chaunt, touching 'those that fish for roach and dace.' In the evening, when he is in a decent humour, he will volunteer an equally dismal stave called 'The Watchman's nervous,' and a certain song about a wheelbarrow, of whose twenty-four verses I can only call to mind one, running, I think,
        The Mayor of Hull come in his coach,
        Come in his coach so slow-
        And what do you think the Mayor come for?
        Why, to borrow my wheelbarrow-Oh, oh, oh!'
                 Ad libitum.
     It is a sight to see the captain savagely fishing in all weathers, fair or foul; pouring maledictions on all who dare to meddle with his tackle; gloomily cooking the fish he has caught, or driving doggedly along in the basket-cart with the vicious pony - which brute anon attempts to bite crossing passengers, anon stands stock still, whereat Bumblecherry gets out and kicks him till he moves again. He abuses Dorothy very frequently, but as he occasionally makes her presents of odd banks of floss-silk he uses in fly-making, meat-pies, and other confectionary, and once attempted to kiss her in disengaging a double-barbed hook from her dress, there is a report that he means to marry her, and at his decease endow her with the fabulous wealth he is supposed to have accumulated during his connection with the British excise.
    A frequent visitor to the Swan is a tall, high-dried French gentleman in a short cloak, decorated with the almost obsolete poodle collar. Nobody knows his name, so he is generally called, with reference to his foreign extraction, as the Moossoo.' He is a very assiduous, but pensive and melancholy, fisherman, and, sitting on a stump with the poodle collar turned up over his countenance, looks very like 'Patience on a monument.' In hot weather he will not disdain to take off his stockings, and, rolling up his trousers, fish barelegged at a considerable distance from the bank. He is an amateur in the breeding and care of gentles and worm-bait, and generally carries about with him a box of lob-worms, which, he laments to Mrs. Groundbait (who speaks a little French), are continually getting loose, and walking up and down the stairs of his house 'la canne a la main' - an anecdote I venture to relate with a view to signalling a peculiarity, hitherto unknown, in the natural history of lob-worms.
    In summer weather a great crowd of dandy fishermen [-122-] invade the Swan. These gay young brothers of the Angle - bucks of Cheapside and exquisites of the Poultry - come down on afternoons and Sundays in the most astonishing fishing costume, and laden with the most elaborate fishing-tackle. Wide-awake hats of varied hue, fishing-jackets of curious cut, veils, patent fishing-boots, belts, pouches, winches like small steam-engines, so complicated are they; stacks of rods, coils of lines, bait-cans painted the most vivid green: such are the panoplies of these youths. Tremendous is the fuss and pother they make about bait and hooks, elaborate are their preparations, bold and valorous their promises, but, alas! frequently and signally lame and unsatisfactory their performances. With all their varied armament and intricate machinery, I have seen them, many a time and oft, distanced and defeated by a stick and a string, a worm at one end, and a little barelegged boy at the other.