[... back to menu for this book]
BOXING-DAY ON THE STREETS.
BOXING-DAY in the London streets, and especially a
wet Boxing-day, can scarcely fail to afford us some
tableaux vivants illustrative of English metropolitan
life. In a metaphorical and technical sense, Boxing-day
is always more or less "wet" - generally more,
and not less; but this year the expression is used
climatically, and in its first intention. Christmas-eve
of the year about which I write was bright and
springlike ; Christmas-day dismal, dark, and un-Christmas-like ; but Boxing-day that year was essentially
muggy, sloppy, drizzly, and nasty. A day to
avoid the London streets if you want to take a
romantic Rosa-Matilda view of London life ; but the
very day of all others, if you wish to see real London
as it is. Boxing-day will inevitably be "wetter" in
every sense than usual this year, internally and externally.
So let us commence our series of living
pictures at ten o'clock in the morning. Suppose we
begin with something that shall bear reference to the
past festival - the eve and the day of the Great Birth,
recollect. See, here is Grotto Passage, Marylebone,
and at its extremity Paradise Street - the names
sound promising, but alas for the reality! We are
going to turn for a moment into the Marylebone
Police Court, where Mr. D'Eyncourt is dispensing
summary justice to the accumulations of the last two
days. These are the people who have been spending
Christmas-eve, Christmas-day, and some portion of
Boxing-day already in the police-cells. Let us take
one as a typical case. Let that poor little eight-year old
Arab step down from the dock and go off with his
mother, who, we hope, will take the magistrate's excellent
advice, and keep the child from begging - that
is why he has spent Christmas in the cells - lest he
be sent to a school for eight years, and she have to
pay for him - God help her! she does not look as
though she could afford very high terms. A bruised
and bleeding woman, not young or good-looking,
enters the box with her head bound up. Her lord
and master confronts her in the dock. It is the "old,
old story." A drop of drink yesterday - the day of
the Great Nativity, never forget-series of "drops of
drink" all day long; and, at five o'clock, just when
gentility was beginning to think of dinner, the kitchen
poker was used with frightful effect. A triangular
cut over the right eye, and another in the dangerous
neighbourhood of the left ear, administered with that
symbol of domestic bliss, the kitchen poker, sends the
wife doubled up into a corner, with an infant of two
years old in her arms. The head of the family goes
out for a walk after his exertions. The woman lies
there bleeding until the neighbours hear her "mourning,"
as she terms it - the result being that the lord
and master's "constitutional" is cut short by a policeman,
and the happy pair are this morning separated
for six months, at the expiration of which period
Paterfamilias is to find surety for another six months'
good behaviour. Such, starred round with endless
episodes of " drunk and disorderly," "foul language,"
and so on, is our first tableau this Boxing-day. It is
not a pleasant one. Let us pass on.
Along Oxford Street, despite the Bank Holidays Act, many shops are open, chiefly those devoted to the sale of articles eatable, drinkable, and avoidable; these last being in the shape of chemists' shops, and shops for Christmas presents - to be shunned by miserly old bachelors. Let us turn into the British Museum and see sensible, decorous Boxing-day there. At the corner of Museum Street there is a lively itinerant musician, evidently French, who plays the fiddle until his bow tumbles all to pieces, but he goes on playing with the stick as though nothing had happened. When his instrument has come entirely to grief he turns to a clarionet, which he carries under his arm, and plays "Mourir pour la Patrie" with extraordinary vocal effect and irreverent gestures. Punch-and-Judy is largely attended at the other end ; Punch is kitchen-pokering his wife, too, like the gentleman we have just left; but we pass in with the [-137-] crowds to the Museum itself. Halting a moment in the reading-room, to jot down there a few notes, one is struck with the scanty show of students. They are spending Boxing-day somewhere else. Passing through the little knot of people who are permitted by special order to come as far as the door of the reading-room, and who evidently regard the readers as some curious sort of animal exhibited for their special delectation - perhaps the book-"worm" of which they have heard so much - we go up the stairs, now thronged with crowds in unwonted broadcloth and fragrant with the odour of the inevitable orange. Next to the drinking fountain, which is decidedly the chief attraction, comes the gorilla, and then the extinct animals. One stout old lady, contemplating the megatherium and mastodon, inquires in what parts "them creeturs" are to be found, and seems considerably damped by being informed that Nature has been "out" of such articles for several aeons. The mummies, with the bones of their toes sticking out, also come in for a large share of admiration. There is a good deal of rough flirtation going on; but, on the whole, the pleasure is rather of a placid order, though still contrasting favourably with the settled gloom visible on the faces of the attendants in the various galleries. How well we can understand such gloom! How utterly hateful must that giant elk and overgrown extinct armadillo be to a man con-[-138-]demned to spend a lifetime in their close contemplation!
But let us pass on to the artistic Boxing-day keepers at the National Gallery. The walk will take us through the Seven Dials, and can scarcely fail to be suggestive. It is now one o'clock, the traditional hour of dinner ; and in Broad Street, St. Giles's, I see, for the first time to-day, the human barometer evidently standing at "much wet." A gentleman in a grey coat and red comforter, who bears palpable signs of having been more than once on his back, has just reached that perplexing point of inebriety when he can walk quickly or run, but cannot stand still or walk steadily. He is pursued by small children, mostly girls, after whom, every now and then, he runs hopelessly, to their intense gratification. The poultry and bird shops in the Seven Dials are objects of some attraction, though they savour too much of "business" to be in very great force. The National Gallery is crowded with unaccustomed art students. There is about the visitors a quiet air of doing their duty, and being determined to go through with it at any price. One brazen-faced quean speculates audibly - in fact, very audibly - as to which " picter" she should choose if she had her "pick," and decent matrons pass the particularly High Art of the old masters with half-averted gaze, as though they were not quite sure of doing right in countenancing such exhibitions. [-139-] Hogarth's evergreen "Marriage a la Mode" is a great centre of attraction, and the youngsters never tire of listening, as "with weeping and with laughter still is the story told" over and over again by their elders. Gainsborough's likeness of Mrs. Siddons is also a great favourite; but perhaps the picture that attracts most attention is Van Eyck's "John Arnolfini, of Lucca, and his Wife." The gentleman wears a portentous hat, which tickled the fancy of the Boxing-day people immensely. There were great speculations too among them as to whether the curious Tuscan pictures at the top of the stairs were "needlework" or not. Still, who shall say that these visitors were not the better for their visit, surrounded as they were by forms of beauty on every side, even if they did not examine them with the eyes of connoisseurs ?
Boxing-day on the river : The silent street is almost deserted. There is no rush for the Express boat today. It is literally the streets - muddier and sloppier than the Thames itself - that are the attraction. Some little boys are making the trip from Westminster to London Bridge as a treat; and it is an intense joke with them to pretend to be dreadfully seasick. Boxing-day in the City is synonymous with stagnation. It is a howling wilderness, with nobody to howl. On the Metropolitan Railway I verily believe travellers were tripping it like the little boys on board the penny boat. And so theatre time draws on, and the [-140-] interest of Boxing-day grows to a climax. Soon after five o'clock groups furtively collect outside the playhouses, half-ashamed of being so early, but gathering courage from numbers to form the disorderly queue, so unlike that of a Parisian theatre. Boxing-night in the theatres others will describe. It is too much to expect of one whose mission has been the whole day long on the streets.