Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 29 - Lectured in Basinghall Street

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To the mercantile world the name of Basinghall Street is inseparably connected with the Bankruptcy Court, and the title of the present paper, cursorily glanced at, would argue but badly for the respectability of its author. Miserly uncles would shake their heads and glorify at the fulfilment of their predictions as to their nephew's ultimate end; good-natured friends, and never-failing dinner convives, supper droppers-in, pipe-smokers and grog-drinkers, would shrug their shoulders and call upon each other to testify how often they had said that such a style of living could not continue ; the half-crown borrowers, Charity seekers, sick-wife-and-children possessors, and all those purse- blisters who form a portion of every man's acquaintance, would crow and chuckle over his fallen body, and quickly make off to fatten on some other friend who yet could be made to bleed. But, though it has not come to this; though, being a simple clerk, I have not yet taken brevet rank as a "trader" for the purpose of evading my creditors under the Bankruptcy Laws; though I have not sold a few lucifer-matches to a convenient friend for the purpose of appearing as a timber-merchant, nor made over to my aunt any of my undoubted (Wardour Street) Correggios to figure as a picture-dealer; though I have not been "sup-[-309-]ported" by Mr. Linklater, or "opposed" by Mr. Sargood; though Quilter and Ball have not yet received instructions to prepare my accounts; though the official assignee has had nothing to do with me, and though the learned commissioner has not been compelled, as a matter of duty, to suspend my certificate for six months, which is then to be of the third class - yet have I been lectured in Basinghall Street, and pretty severely too.
    This is how it came to pass. Schmook, who is the friend of my bosom, and an opulent German merchant in Austin Friars, called on me the other day, and, having discussed the late fight, the new opera, the robbery at the Union Bank, and other popular topics, told me he could send me to a great entertainment in the City. I replied, with my usual modesty, that in such matters I had a tolerably large acquaintance. I mentioned my experience of Lord Mayors' banquets, and I enlarged, with playful humour as I thought, on the tepid collation thereat spread before you, on the ridiculous solemnity of the loving-cup, with its absurd speech, its nods and rim-wiping; on the preposterous stentorian toast-master, with his "Pray si-lence for the chee-aw!" on the buttered toasts and the drunken waiters, and the general imbecility of the whole affair. Diverging therefrom, I discoursed learnedly on the snug little dinners of City companies, from the gorgeous display of the Goldsmiths down to the humble but convivial spread of the Barbers. Schmook was touched, and it was some few minutes before he could explain that it was to a mental and not a corporeal feast that he wished to send me. At length he stammered out, "The Cresham legshure! Ver' zientifig! kost nichts! noting to bay!" and vanished overcome.
    Schmook not coming to see me again, I had forgotten the subject of our conversation, when I lighted upon an advertisement in a daily paper setting forth that the [-310-] Gresham lectures for this Easter term would be given - certain subjects on certain named days - in the theatre of the Gresham College in Basinghall Street, in Latin at twelve o'clock, and in English at one. Wishing to know something of the origin and intent of these lectures, I applied to my friend Veneer, the well-known archaeologist and F.S.A., but he was so engaged on his forthcoming pamphlet on Cuneiform Inscriptions that he merely placed in my hands a copy of Maunder's Biographical Treasury, open at the name of Sir Thomas Gresham, the page containing whose biography was surrounded with choice maxims. I proceeded with the biography, and learned that the good old "royal merchant" had by will founded seven lectureships for professors of the "seven liberal sciences," and that their lectures were to be given, gratis, to the people. And I determined to profit by Sir Thomas Gresham's bounty.
    The social science which I chose to be lectured on was rhetoric, thinking I might gain a few hints for improving myself in neat after-dinner speeches and toast-proposings; and at a few minutes before noon on the first day, when this subject stood for discussion on the syllabus, I presented myself at the Gresham College. A pleasant-faced beadle, gorgeous in blue broadcloth and gold, and with the beaver-jest hat I had ever seen - a cocked-hat bound with lace like the Captain's in Black-eyed Susan - was standing in the hall, and to him I addressed myself asking where the lecture was given.
    "In the theatre, upstairs, sir. Come at one, and you'll hear it in English."
    "Isn't it given in Latin at twelve?"
    "Lor' bless you, not unless there's three people present, and there never is! I give 'em five minutes, but they never come! Pity, ain't it ? He's here, all ready" (jerking his head towards an inner door), "he's got it with him; but there's never anybody to hear him, leastways werry seldom, [-311-] and then if there is three or four come in for shelter out of the rain or such-like, directly he begins in Latin, and they can't understand him, they gets up and goes away!"
    "Then they do come to the English lectures?"
    "Bless you, yes ; to some of them, lots, specially the music and the 'stronomy. Ladies come - lots of 'em - and the clerks out of the counting-houses hereabouts, for the music lecture's in the evening, you know ; and they bring ladies with em - ah, maybe as many as a hundred!"
    "Well, I'll go up and take my chance of somebody coming."
    "You're welcome, sir, but I'm afraid you'll be the only one."
    I went upstairs, and soon found myself in one of the prettiest lecture-theatres I had ever seen, semicircular in shape, and fitted with benches, rising one above the other, and capable of holding some five hundred people. The space allotted to the lecturer was partitioned off by a stout panelling, and was fitted with a red-covered table and a high-standing desk. There was also an enormous slate with traces of recent diagrams still unobliterated, and an indescribable something, like a gymnastic machine, behind it. I took a seat on one of the topmost benches, and remained there a solemn five minutes, in the midst of a silence and desolation quite appalling. At last I heard a footstep on the stone stairs, and I hoped, but it was the beadle's. " I told you so," he said, pleasantly. " I always gives 'em five minutes; now, if you want to hear the lecture, come again at one!"
    I went up at one, and found what a Frenchman would call "du monde." There must have been fully seventeen people present. Close down against the rail partitioning off the lecturer's stage, was a crushed and spiritless man, with a fluffy head of hair, like a Chinchilla boa or an Angora cat, who seemed in the lowest possible spirits leaning his head [-312-] against the oaken panelling in front of him, he kept groaning audibly. Immediately behind him sat two seedy old women, in damp, mildewed, lustreless black, with smashed bonnets, and long, black, perspiry old gloves, the fingers of which, far too long, doubled over as far as the knuckles. They looked more like superannuated pew-openers than old ladies, and kept conversing in a hoarse whisper, at every sentence addressing each other as "mem." A little higher up, a fair-haired, light-whiskered man had ensconced himself against one of the pillars, and was cutting his nails. He was properly balanced on the other side of the hall by a black-bearded man, leaning against the opposite pillar, who scratched his head. Close by me, at the upper portion of the hall, were a very pretty girl and a savage fidgety old woman, probably her aunt. Next to the aunt, a spry man with blue spectacles, who commenced taking notes as soon as the lecturer opened his mouth - a man with a red nose and a moist eye, and a general notion of rum-and-water about him - probably in the appalling-accident, devouring-element, and prodigious-gooseberry line of literature; a misanthropic shoemaker, having on the bench beside him a blue bag bursting with boots, which diffused an acrid smell of leather and blacking; and, a miserable old man in a faded camlet cloak, who sat munching an Abernethy biscuit between his toothless gums, and snowing himself all over with the fragments - made up our company. After the lecture had proceeded about five minutes, the door opened, and a thin, sharp-faced man, in very short trousers, very dirty white socks and low pumps, advanced two paces into the room, but he looked round deliberately, and after saying quietly: "Dear me! ah!" as though he had made a mistake, turned round and retreated.
    At a few minutes after one, a very tall gentleman in a Master of Arts gown appeared at the lecture-table, and made a little bow. We got up a feeble round of applause to [-313-] receive him - such applause as three umbrellas and two pair of hands could produce - but he bobbed in acknowledgement of it, looked up at the gallery, which was perfectly empty, and commenced. He had such a low opinion of us, his audience, that he thought we could not read the syllabus, for, instead of Rhetoric, his lecture, he told us, was upon Taste. I am, I trust, a patient hearer. I have lectured myself; and have a feeling for the position of a man being compelled to stand up and endeavour to win the attention of a stupid and scanty audience. I think there are very few men in London who have been better bored than I have in the course of my life; but I am bound to say that anything more appallingly dreary and uninteresting than the tall gentleman's discourse I never listened to. The matter was prosaic, réchauffé, utterly void of originality, and thoroughly wearying; the manner was that fatal sing-song generally indulged in by the English clergy, interspersed with constant desk-smitings, and with perpetual eye-reference to the gallery, where there was no one to respond. The effect upon the audience was tremendous : the Chinchilla-headed man, more crushed than ever, made a perfect St. Denis of himself, and had nothing mortal above the collar of his coat ; the light-whiskered man cut his nails to the quick in an agony of nervousness, and his black-bearded opposite scalped himself in despair; the pretty girl went to sleep, and was roused at intervals by parasol-thrusts from her savage aunt; the "liner" shut up his note-book and amused himself by reading some of the previous productions on flimsy paper; the shoemaker glared indignantly, first at the lecturer, and then at anyone whom he could seduce into an eye-duel; and the old Abernethy-eater betook himself to repairing a rent in his camlet cloak with a needle and thread. As for myself; I bore it patiently as long as I could, then I yawned and fidgeted, and at length taking advantage of my proximity to the door, I rose up [-314-] quietly, and slipped out, the last words echoing on my ear being, "This theory is that of Brown, and for further particulars I refer you to his work on Intellectual Philosophy;" a work which, it strikes me, was doubtless to be found on the book-shelves of all the audience.
    As I walked home, I pondered on the fitness of these things, and wondered whether, in the strange course of events, the law would ever be able to comply less with the letter, and more with the spirit, of the intentions of a good and great man; and if so, whether instead of an unintelligible Latin lecture, and a preposterous English one, it would ever provide really good intellectual and moral culture gratis for London citizens, as was undoubtedly intended by the brave old Sir Thomas Gresham.