Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 4 - After the Season and London Weather

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FROM a social point of view the space of one short week produces a remarkable change in London. Some millions of its population remain, but society disbands and it is customary to say that everybody has left town. By the first of August those who thronged the drawing-rooms of· the West End have scattered, betaking themselves to Scotland, or Norway, or Switzerland; and the thoroughfares are left to the tourist and the common people who are unable to migrate. Houses in Park Lane and Belgravia have the blinds drawn, and in fashionable "Mansions," maids "on board wages" engage in uninterrupted flirtation with the high official who stands at the entrance, like a liveried species of Peri. The club windows along Piccadilly and Pall Mall are also in eclipse, for it appears that only an in considerable number of these clubs are perennial. Many are closed during the shooting season until autumn that they may be "turned out and done over," which innocent phrase is English for the deadliest sort of house-cleaning - scrubbing and scouring, combined with painting and decorating - that drags along interminably.
    In spite of the permanent millions who stay in town, the crowds in the streets are noticeably diminished; there are fewer passengers in the omnibuses; the hansom driver has many less fares than were his portion when the season was in full swing; and there is a falling off in the traffic of the under-ground railway, which is left largely, at least during the middle of the day, to its own black smoke and [-36-] stifling gas. Still, to the visitor seeing London for the first time, the panorama that unrolls itself along Piccadilly is a never-failing delight. There are few smart turn-outs, with the incomparable groom and coachman, with pretty women in gowns that speak eloquently of Felix and bonnets that proclaim themselves the handiwork of Pingat; but, irreverent though it may be to compare them, there are delightful costermonger carts drawn by tiny, mouse-colored donkeys, the carts, or harrows, as they are called, being heaped with flowers and greenery from Covent Garden. Here and there stately natives of India mingle with the passing throng, in robes of dazzling white, with towering turbans of scarlet silk; the pupil of Christ's Hospital - the famous Blue Coat school, soon, alas! to be removed from London - in his apprentice dress of the time of Edward VI, adds a pleasing touch to the picture: he trots along, ruddy, clean and bare-headed, his coat of dark blue fluttering about his heels, the long, full, pleated skirt attached to a tight fitting body, with a leather strap about the waist and white cambric bands at the throat, the costume completed by brilliant orange stockings and buckled shoes.
    There are other interesting lads-tiny chaps wearing the Oxford cap and the neatest of jackets and trousers, others from Eton and Harrow arrayed with equal care and distinguished by their broad collars and top hats; scarlet-coated detachments from the Duke of York's school rival a procession from a girl's school, the daughters of soldiers, uniformed in scarlet dresses, blue jackets and sailor hats, who make quite a streak of color in the shady street.
    The autumn comes on very rapidly in England. If the season has been dry, the leaves begin to fall by the middle of September; if it is wet, the foliage remains unchanged somewhat longer, but the floods that descend from the low, [-37-] dull clouds make one long for frost, instead. The first fogs usually appear in September, and the preliminary phenomenon is described as "a meadow mist." The name, which rather pleases the fancy and brings to mind the soft haze of a summer morning, is in reality an ill-smelling mixture of smoke and vapor, changing from yellow to deep brown and greenish grey, through which the sun appears like a brazen ball. As winter approaches the fogs increase - if it is to be a foggy season - which does not always happen, and as more fuel is consumed and thicker and blacker smoke ascends from millions of chimneys, it changes its complexion and becomes thick darkness. Night appears to be pressing close against the windowpanes at noon-day; lamps are lighted upon passing cabs, in houses, in the shops and along the streets. Traffic is not interrupted, although daylight is completely extinguished - so long as the pall remains above the housetops. When it descends to the surface of the ground, the discreet remain indoors; belated pedestrians are conducted home by link-boys, like fine ladies and gentlemen in the days of the Stuarts; cabmen lead their horses, and vehicles moving at a snail's pace frequently come to grief; the driver of the tram-car is often unable to see his horses, and the conductor is hardly able to distinguish the hand that passes the fare. It is estimated that a black fog of this description costs many thousands of pounds per day for additional gas, which can do little more than make darkness visible; and there is an immediate increase in the death-rate, especially among people predisposed to pulmonary disease. It is difficult to understand how the enormous business of London could be carried on in the face of such an apparently insurmountable difficulty, and there is little doubt that had Americans to contend with such conditions, some means of lessening the difficulty would have been found and the breathless pall have been [-38-] rendered at least opaque. The fog itself can never be entirely obliterated, but it might be made at least translucent with a little ingenuity, which, doubtless, will be accomplished when fuel gas or electricity comes into general use and the English chimney can be dispensed with. This is an architectural adjunct which the British builder has never learned how to construct. One may see upon the inside walls of buildings that are being dismantled, shallow, serpentine channels; these are flues. Why they are made serpentine one is puzzled to know. There is hardly space for the passage of smoke, so that in a short time the chimney becomes foul and clogged, and one is roused at daybreak by an uproar that wakes him from his sleep and makes him wonder if the house is tumbling about his ears. He learns that it is only the sweep on one of his quarterly visitations which the law requires, which, if omitted, renders the householder liable to a fine, and which threatens daily and hourly conflagration. There are few or no London chimneys that do not smoke in some prevailing wind. I had a variety - one from which nothing could be expected, as a matter of course when the wind was in the south-west; another that sulked when the wind was in the north, at which seasons the room had to be vacated until the fire could be extinguished; still others had to be placated by opening a window or leaving a door ajar. When it was stated that American chimneys rarely or never smoked, and that a chimney-sweep was a person whom few Americans had ever seen and whose services were not required in the United States, the proud boast was received with marked incredulity by even the most polite. With the smoke, the unheated or insufficiently heated houses are uncomfortable to Americans, who, it must be acknowledged, go to the other extreme and bake themselves in the super-heated temperature which they prefer. It is true that the mercury [-39-] in London rarely reaches zero, but the cold of the damp autumn and winter is penetrating and paralyzing. The lodger is taxed six pence for each scuttle of coal, although bought in bulk it is much cheaper; but anyone who would brave the wrath of the land-lady by purchasing his own supply would be considered a being of consummate meanness. Bed rooms and corridors are rarely heated, and a kerosene lamp or a gas jet is considered sufficient to raise the temperature of a bath-room to a necessary and comfortable degree.
    But whatever the inconveniences and uncomfortable-ness of the English winter may be, there is measureless compensation in the loveliness of the spring and summer. By the latter part of April the meadows are like velvet, and primroses are thick and yellow in the copses. The sky lark returns, and later the nightingale is heard in the depths of the wood. The hedge-rows are white with blossom, and gardens are purple with the lilacs and aflame with the laburnum; and London street-corners are fragrant with mounds of velvety wall-flowers.
    By the first of July the heated term makes itself felt - not the glaring, torrid heat with winds like the simoon - but humid, stifling weather, during which the sky is occasionally veiled in pale grey clouds. For some occult reason the temperature at 85 degrees is much more oppressive, even to Americans who are inured to the tropics, than a greater degree of heat in the United States. And if the sojourning American feels discomfort, the native Londoner perspires, and gasps, and even dies from sunstroke, or what he calls "heat apoplexy." He resorts to every means of relief of which he can avail himself, except the use of ice. One may perceive, however, that prejudice even in this last extreme is giving way. American "ice-cream soda" is now offered in various fashionable restaurants in Regent Street and elsewhere, and, with the  [-40-] throngs of American tourists that frequent them, partaking of the familiar refreshment of their native land, increasing numbers of English may be seen also consuming the cooling beverage with somewhat disapproving satisfaction. Most significant of all - I saw a lad, one blazing August morning, hauling a block of ice in a hand-cart down Sloane street. It was remarkable to see the ice in the first place, and there was an added touch of the unique in the fact that upon the crystal tube had been fastened, in some manner, a neat placard bearing the name and address of the purchaser. This was a precaution which had been taken to secure its safe delivery to the proper owner, as the average Englishman would not receive under his roof that which we consider one of the necessaries of life and to which he attributes the whole of our national dyspepsia.
    While recent shipments of California fruit have sold readily enough in the London market, it is doubtful if it will ever attain very high favor; it is thought that its flavor has been sacrificed to size, and that it is hardly equal to the native fruit which appeals less pleasingly to the eye. The English fruit crop is comparatively small, but that which is produced cannot be surpassed for delicate and exquisite flavor. English and Scotch strawberries are beyond compare, so large that one berry will furnish several mouthfuls, sweet as honey and almost seedless. The goose-berry, which we scarcely respect, is luscious and delicious, as big as plums and almost as sweet as the strawberry.
    The English are much too sensible to cook fruit, except that which is buried in the yawning caverns of the tart; the most of it comes to the table in the natural state, in plates prettily decorated with a border of leaves. Fruit constitutes what is technically called the dessert - a term which we use indiscriminately - as distinguished from the [-41-] sweets that precede it - the starchy blanc mange, jelly stiffened with Irish moss, the solid and uncompromising pudding, and the tart aforesaid. English apples, except a few choice and costly varieties are altogether contemptible in appearance, but are very deceiving. They are like plain girls of whom it is said, "they are not pretty, but they are good." The smallest, knottiest and most unpromising may be found to possess qualities that many of our larger and more richly colored varieties wholly lack, and they are as fragrant as sweet-briar.
    In 1895 an unprecedented crop was produced; the boughs bent and broke under the weight of fruit and the ground was thickly strewn with it, but prices were so low that the farmer could make nothing by sending it to market. Hundreds of bushels went to waste, for cider making is now almost an unknown industry, so rare are the seasons in which it is practicable.
    English plums cannot be surpassed; I saw a tree weighted down with what, from a fleeting glimpse through a railway carriage window, appeared to be crimson pears. They were plums with a pinkish crimson skin, a rich yellow pulp within, sweet and finely flavored. English pears, especially those grown upon espaliers, are fully equal to our own best varieties. Peaches and grapes which ripen only under glass are beautiful in form and color, but they are disappointing, the peaches especially being somewhat insipid. English vegetables are exceptionally good, lettuce and celery being crisp and with a nutty sweetness. As to the food in general, it is all good, but there is a sameness, even in its very excellence, of which one tires. There are few valid grounds for complaint; one would like once in a while to find fault with heavy rolls or sour bread; tough steak, tough chops and stringy beef are also apparently unknown; one may find some relief in criticising the potatoes which are seldom thoroughly cooked and [-42-] denouncing the practice of stewing mint with peas - a combination that is thoroughly distasteful to the untrained palate. The soup is above reproach; so is the fish with its inevitable egg sauce; the fowl with its attendant bread sauce, its gizzard neatly tucked under one wing and the liver under the other, throwing a flood of light on that unintelligible phrase, "the liver wing," which occurs in English novels. The English tart has been mentioned, but apparently it will not down; it might be described as of the Tudor style of architecture, and is so big and strong and solid that it impresses the unfamiliar mind as having been built by government contract.
    It is a matter of some wonder to the American why the English should enjoy an apparent monopoly of two things that ought to be within reach of all people of limited means - sharp knives and thin bread and butter. Both are practically unknown on our side of the Atlantic, and I remember reading in Crabbe Robinson's Diary how he vainly endeavored to instruct his Spanish friend, Madame Mosquera, in the art of cutting bread and butter, when she was called upon to entertain Lord and Lady Holland who arrived unexpectedly in Corrunna with the English fleet.
    "That there might be no mistake," he writes, "I requested a loaf to be brought and I actually cut a couple of slices as thin as wafers, directing that a plate should be filled with such." Notwithstanding his efforts, he goes on to relate that "after the guests arrived a huge salver was set forth resembling in size the charger on which the head of John the Baptist is usually brought by Herod's step daughter. On this was a huge silver dish piled up with great pieces of bread and butter an inch thick, sufficient to feed Westminster school."
    English bread and butter, like English lawns, must be regarded as hereditary and indigenous - the outgrowth of [-43-] national character and of centuries of custom. English tea, to those who like tea, is delicious, but a cup of good coffee is a thing almost unknown. Except the tiny cup of black coffee which is brought into the drawing-room after dinner, people rarely drink it. That which comes upon the breakfast table is usually of a pale purplish hue, of attenuated weakness and with a faint flavor of licorice; for general unpalatableness it can be matched only in our Western farm houses, where the art of cooking is still rudimentary. A vivacious American who lived in certain Kensington Mansions remarked, with an extravagance of speech that one need not accept literally:
    "I am so tired of joints, and boiled vegetables, and milky puddings that I would give my immortal soul for a good American dinner."
    She expressed herself strongly, but she had lived in London five years and was homesick. The aversion to our cookery is just as marked on the part of visiting English, and there are very few who do not long for the roast beef of their own land: Sala - an epicure of pronounced fastidiousness - liked nothing but our oysters; and a young English girl who sojourned for a time in Kansas made this confession: "The food was absolutely uneatable, don't you know; and it was served in a lot of little dishes like birds' bath-tubs."
    The fish in the London markets are unsurpassed, salmon, sole and plaice being the preferred varieties; the oysters, even the much-vaunted native, are small and coppery.
    The ham and bacon deserve their reputation, and fresh eggs are good when they are what they profess to be. There was once a belief that the date stamped in blue letters on an egg related to the date upon which it was removed from the nest, but there have been occasions when there was self-evident reason to believe that the date had nothing to do with the actual age of the egg. It should [-44-] be said that the practice of breaking an egg into a cup and mixing it up, white and yolk, with salt and pepper, at table, is looked upon as a barbarous and sickening proceeding, and Americans aspiring to shine in English society should take a careful course of instruction in eating their eggs according to established usage, before buying their steamer ticket.