Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter X - Sunday Linnet-Singing

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THERE is something very Arcadian and un-Cockneylike  in the idea of linnet-singing in Lock's Fields.  Imagination pictures so readily the green pastures  and the wild bird's song, and Corydon with his pipe  and his Phyllis, that it seems a pity to disabuse that  exquisite faculty of our nature so far as to suggest  that the linnets of which we speak are not wild, but  tame and caged, and the fields very much less rural  than those of Lincoln's Inn. This was the announcement  that drew me to the New Kent Road on a  recent Sunday morning to hear what poor Cockney  Keats called the "tender-legged linnets:" "Bird-singing.-  A match is made between Thomas Walker  (the Bermondsey Champion) and William Hart  (Champion of Walworth) to sing two linnets, on  Sunday, for 2l. a side; birds to be on the nail precisely  at two o'clock; the host to be referee. 10s. is  now down; the remainder by nine this evening, at  the Jolly Butchers, Rodney Road, Lock's Fields.  Also a copper kettle will be sung for on the same  day by six pairs of linnets ; first pair up at half-past  six o'clock in the evening. Any person requiring the [-86-] said room for matches, &c., on making application to  the host, will immediately be answered."
    Rodney Road, be it known, is anything but a  romantic thoroughfare, leading out of the New Kent  Road, a little way from the Elephant and Castle;  and the caravanserai bearing the title of the Jolly  Butchers is an unpretending beershop, with no outward  and visible signs of especial joviality. On  entering I met mine host, rubicund and jolly enough,  who politely pioneered me upstairs, when I reported  myself as in quest of the linnets. The scene of  contest I found to be a largish room, where some  twenty or thirty most un-Arcadian looking gentlemen  were already assembled, the only adjunct at all symptomatic  of that pastoral district being their pipes, at  which they were diligently puffing. The whole of  the tender-legged competitors, both for the money  and the copper kettle, were hanging in little square  green cages over the fireplace; and the one idea  uppermost in my mind was how well the linnets  must be seasoned to tobacco smoke if they could sing  at all in the atmosphere which those Corydons were  so carefully polluting. Corydon, besides his pipe, had  adopted nuts and beer to solace the tedium of the  quarter of an hour that yet intervened before the  Bermondsey bird and its Walworth antagonist were  to be "on the nail " and ever and anon fresh Corydons  kept dropping in, until some fifty or sixty had  assembled. They were all of one type. There was a [-87-] "birdiness" discernible on the outer man of each;  for birdiness, as well as horseyness, writes its mark  on the countenance and the attire. In the latter  department there was a proclivity to thick pea-jackets  and voluminous white comforters round the neck,  though the day was springlike and the room stuffy.  The talk was loud, but not boisterous, and garnished  with fewer elegant flowers of speech than one would  have expected. Five minutes before two the noncompeting  birds were carefully muffled up in pocket-handkerchiefs,  and carried in their cages out of earshot,  lest their twitterings might inspire the competing  minstrels. Bermondsey and Walworth alone  occupied the nails. Scarcely any bets were made.  They seemed an impecunious assemblage, gathered for  mere sport. One gentleman did, indeed, offer to stake  "that 'ere blowsy bob," as though a shilling in his  possession were a rarity of which his friends must be  certainly aware. What was the occult meaning of  the epithet "Blowsy" I could not fathom, but there  were no takers; and, after the windows had been  opened for a few minutes to clear the atmosphere,  they were closed again ; the door locked ; the two  markers took their place at a table in front of the  birds, with bits of chalk in their hands; mine host  stood by as referee in case of .disputes; time was  called; and silence reigned supreme for a quarter of  an hour, broken only by the vocal performances of  the Bermondsey and Walworth champions respec-[-88-]tively. If a hapless human being did so far forget  himself as to cough or tread incontinently upon a  nutshell, he was called to silence with curses not loud  but deep.
    The Walworth bird opened the concert with a brilliant  solo by way of overture, which was duly reported  by the musical critic in the shape of a chalk line on  the table. The length of the effusion did not matter;  a long aria, or a brilliant but spasmodic cadenza, each  counted one, and one only. The Bermondsey bird,  heedless of the issue at stake, devoted the precious  moments to eating, emitting nothing beyond a dyspeptic  twitter which didn't count; and his proprietor  stood by me evidently chagrined, and perspiring profusely,  either from anxiety or superfluous attire.  Nearly half the time had gone by before Bermondsey  put forth its powers. Meanwhile, Walworth made  the most of the opportunity, singing in a manner of  which I did not know linnets were capable. There  were notes and passages in the repertoire of Walworth  which were worthy of a canary. The bird no doubt  felt that the credit of home art was at stake, and sang  with a vigour calculated to throw foreign feathered  artistes into the shade. Bermondsey evidently sang  best after dinner, so he dined like an alderman ; yet  dined, alas! not wisely, but too well, or rather too  long. Then he sang, first, a defiant roulade or so, as  much as to say, "Can you beat that, Walworth?"  pausing, with his head wickedly on one side, for a [-89-] reply. That reply was not wanting, for Walworth  was flushed with success; and one could not help regretting  ignorance of bird-language so as to gather  exactly what the reply meant. Then came a protracted  duet between the two birds, which was the  piece de resistance of the whole performance. The  silence became irksome. I could not help congratulating  myself on the fact that no Corydon had brought  his Phyllis; for Phyllis, I am sure, would not have  been able to stand it. Phyllis, I feel certain, would  have giggled. We remained mute as mice, solemn as  judges. The ghost of a twitter was hailed with mute  signs of approval by the backers of each bird; but a  glance at the expressive features of the host warned  the markers that nothing must be chalked down that  did not come up to his idea of singing. Had the  destinies of empires hung upon his nod he could  scarcely have looked more oracular. But Walworth  could afford to take matters easily now. For the last  five minutes the Bermondsey bird did most of the  music; still it was a hopeless case. Success was not  on the cards. By-and-by, time was again called.  Babel recommenced, and the result stood as follows :

Walworth . . . . .3 score 18

Bermondsey . . . . . . . . 1 score 10

It was an ignominious defeat truly; and, had one  been disposed to moralize, it had not been difficult to  draw it moral therefrom. It was not a case of "no  song, no supper ;" but of supper--or, rather, dinner [-90-] and no song. Bermondsey had failed in the artistic  combat, not from lack of powers, as its brilliant part  in the duet and its subsequent soli proved, but simply  from a Sybaritic love for creature comforts. I ventured  to suggest it might have been expedient to  remove the seed, but was informed that, under those  circumstances, the creature - its proprietor called it  an uglier name - would not have sung at all. The  remarkable part of the business to me was that they  did sing at the proper time. They had not uttered  anything beyond a twitter until silence was called,  and from that moment one or the other was singing  incessantly. I suppose it was the silence. I have  noticed not only caged birds, but children - not to  speak ungallantly of the fair sex - generally give  tongue most freely when one is silent, and presumably  wants to keep so.
    The contest, however, was over, the stakes paid,  and Corydon sought his pastoral pipe again - not  without beer. It was a new experience, but not a  very exciting one - to me, at least. It evidently had  its attractions for the very large majority of attendants.  In fact, Rodney Road is generally a "birdy" neighbourhood.  Its staple products, to judge by the shops,  seemed birds and beer. I was much pressed by mine  host to stay for the evening entertainment, when six  birds were to sing, and the attendance would be more  numerous. As some five hours intervened I expressed  regret at my inability to remain, reserving my opinion [-91-] that five hours in Lock's Fields might prove the reverse  of attractive, and Corydon in greater force might  not have an agreeable effect on that already stuffy  chamber. So I took myself off, wondering much, by  the way, what strange association of ideas could hare  led any imaginative man to propose such an incongruous  reward as a copper kettle by way of premium  for linnet-singing.