Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - Under the Yellow Flag

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A popular lodge of the Y. R. A.s - The loquacious potman of the establishment who gave me the "right tip" - A society for the promotion of moderate drinking - I attend a meeting, and don the yellow badge - Speeches in support of the cause - The brick-moulder's challenge - Literature for budding Blue Ribboners - An out-and-out "Yellow" man - The pipe-maker's complaint - His domestic persecution - Killing him with kindness - The gird that at last goaded him to desperation.

"IMPORTANT notice! Members of the Yellow Ribbon Army meet upstairs every Saturday and Monday evening, at eight o'clock. The principal object of the 'Y. R. A.' is to oppose the Blue Ribbon Army, and all tyranny, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness as regards moderate drinking. The 'Y. R. A.' does not advocate intemperance, but that freedom which is an Englishman's birthright, and which should enable him to partake, when he chooses, of the glass that cheers and, unless abused, does not inebriate. Admission free. Discussion invited."
    The potman attached to the public house - the "Curly Badger," near the Hackney Road  - was mounted on some steps cleaning the windows at the moment when I chanced to pass, and the above-quoted strange announcement caught my eye. He happened to be polishing the particular pane behind which the placard was stuck, so that I could catch only a line at a time as he moved his arms. This caused me to halt so long that the potman presently observed me, and what I was doing.
    "That's a warm 'un for 'em, guv'ner!" he remarked, indicating the placard with an approving flick of his duster. "That's coming to the pint, that is. Sport your colours, chuck out your challenge, and if they ye got any fight in 'em, let 'em come on."
    His familiar and friendly manner encouraged me to make a few inquiries respecting the "Y. R. A.," and whether it was anything else than a joke. He was indignant at the latter part of my question. A joke, indeed! If I had been upstairs in the club-room last Monday night I should have seen the sort of joke it was. If there was one person in the room when it was [-206-] most crowded there must have been at least fifty, all of whom were pledged to take a ticket of membership as soon as they were printed, and in other ways acknowledge themselves regularly enrolled. His master, he informed me, had taken the matter up only about a month ago, and every succeeding meeting night there were more and more visitors and speakers.
    "Not harf-'arted fellers neither," the potman imparted to me, with a grin that had more depth in it than his words, "but regler staunch ones, who met early, and did not separate until the house closed."
    "Drinking all the time, of course?" I remarked.
    "Only in moderation," returned the potman, with sudden seriousness - "No mistake about that. Most of them are the proper sort, and what they say they'll stick to. When they all turn out of the club-room, I'll wager there isn't one wot isn't fit to walk straight home without anybody doing him a kindness. Mind yer," he added, conscientiously, "I m a-talking about how they are as long as they're up there. If they like to have another drop or two at the bar when they come down, that s their look-out."
    I inquired if there were other lodge houses of the Y. R. A., and to my astonishment he at once mentioned the signs and the whereabouts of three others, at the same time confidently predicting that the time was not far distant when the "yellows" would get such a hold on the sensible portion of the British public that the "blues" would be licked clean out of the field. In short, he told me, one way and another, so much that was curious and interesting that I resolved on the following Saturday night to pay a visit to the "Curly Badger," and find out the advantages of becoming a "Y. R. A."
    Eight o'clock was the appointed meeting-time, and though it was barely a quarter past when, unchallenged, I passed up to the club-room where the banded opponents of too rigid temperance assembled, there was already a considerable muster of members. They all wore the yellow emblem. Indeed, an ample supply of the gaudy morsels of ribbon was generously supplied free by the landlord. They were contained in a cigar-box on the centre table for any one to take one that chose to do so. Of the score members that had already arrived more than half were young men or mere lads, but the others were men of [-207-] mature years, of the prosperous mechanic and artisan class seemingly, and, judging from their demeanour, quite seriously disposed. Each sat with his pipe or cigar, and his pot or glass before him, and out of which he occasionally sipped in such an ostentatiously moderate manner that I began to think that the gulf that separated "yellow" and "blue" was neither so wide nor so deep as I had been led to suppose.
    I took possession of a vacant seat near the chairman, and accepting his civil offer of a yellow badge of the order, together with a pin to pin it on with, at once placed myself on a friendly footing with him. We got into conversation, and he explained to me that personally he entertained no animosity for the members of the Blue Ribbon Army as such. In his opinion, if a man had a liking for tea or any other sort of slop, he had a perfect right to gratify his depraved taste. Only, continued the chairman, let him set about it in a sober and temperate manner. If he must blow his blessed trumpet, let him blow it among those that are of his own persuasion, and not make himself a nuisance to those who have not got any ear for that kind of music. He could not enlighten me as to how the present movement originated. He knew of several publicans who had taken it up on the principle of fair play, and so that the public might learn something of the side of the picture that was not the "blue" side. Malicious and mean-minded people had put it about that the Yellow Ribbon Army was merely a public house dodge to secure an increase of customers; but it was nothing of the kind. It was an endeavour on the part of those who had the real interest of the working classes at heart to make it more generally understood than at present that a British workman could indulge in a social glass and still remain a rational being, with a decent regard for himself, his wife, and his home.
    The chairman began by addressing himself in an undertone to me, but discovering that what he was saying was attracting general attention, he gradually raised his voice and addressed the company generally, and so the real business of the evening commenced. By the time his "opening remarks" were concluded and warmly applauded and his health drunk, we were at least five and thirty strong, and it was announced that if any member present had anything to say, now was his time.
    Three gentlemen promptly rose in response, but on the chair-[-208-]man waving his pipe towards one, the other two sat down. The member in possession of the house did not occupy it for long, however. He had a proposition to make, he said. It wasn't his own, but one his wife had suggested to him, and he did not think it at all a bad one. It was that members' wives be admitted to their meetings. (Cries of "No, no," and laughter.) Why not? If they really were in earnest in practising moderation in their drinking, it would be better for them if as many people as possible, and especially their wives, were able to convince themselves that there was no humbug about the business, and that-
    But at this point the speaker was rendered inaudible by derisive laughter, and by cries of " Sit down!" and "Shut up!" and he resumed his seat.
    The speeches that followed were of a homely character, and somewhat monotonous, nor could it well be otherwise when they were all based on the one foregone conclusion that any man who could so far forget himself as to become a "blue-ribboner" was a milksop, and altogether unworthy the confidence, or even the acquaintance, of a man that was a man, and who unmistakably demonstrated it by standing up through thick and thin for John Barleycorn. There was one individual of bulky build and a suspiciously pimply countenance, and who was, I was informed, by trade a brick-moulder, who was possessed of a novel and brilliant idea, and which he propounded with great satisfaction to himself and his audience. The brick-moulder's were precisely of a pattern with those of the potman before-mentioned: "Sport your colours, chuck down your challenge, and fight it out." His suggestion was that the proper way to settle the question all round as to which was the better man - the total abstainer or the moderate drinker - was to make a match of it of so many on each side as represented the principal businesses and amusements of life, and prove their prowess one against the other. The speaker was in favour of some large and convenient building, such as the Agricultural Hall, being hired for the occasion, the price of admission to the general public to be one shilling, and the whole of the proceeds to be given to the men who showed themselves to be the best in a fair field and no favour, and the side - the blues or the yellows - that scored the greatest number of chalks to hold social sway for ever after, the other side [-209-] to be forthwith put down and extinguished beyond the possibility of resuscitation. It does not require much space to epitomize the brick-moulder's sagacious proposition, but being anything but a fluent speaker, and afflicted with a hoarseness of utterance, and also with hiccups, his rigmarole outlasted the patience of the company, and while he was in the midst of his catalogue of subjects that should constitute the great test programme, cries of "Time!" and the rattling of pots and glasses brought him to a standstill, and he scowlingly quitted the room, but not before, indignant at the insult that had been put on him, he had banged two half-crowns on the table and flung his cap on to the floor, at the same time offering to fight the chairman for the amount mentioned if he would favour him by coming outside.
    By this time it was growing towards ten o'clock, and though as far as I could observe no person present had overstepped the bounds of moderation, each time a member raised his liquor to his lips the measure was somehow emptied much more quickly than at the earlier part of the evening, and the two waiters were as busy almost as though it had been an ordinary drinking bout. Much amusement was created by one young gentleman, who produced a book of what he said were Blue Ribbon Army convivial songs. With questionable taste, though with some humour, he favoured the company with a specimen or two, tacking to each verse a "tooral-looral" chorus, which was taken up by everybody with great heartiness and spirit. The singer was vociferously encored, and I believe that at this early hour all graver business would have been shelved in favour of harmonic entertainment had not the chairman, in a neat speech, delivered with some severity, reminded them of the purpose that had brought them together.
    Speechifying was forthwith resumed, the individual who next claimed the attention of the room being a fierce-looking little man with a shining bald head and spectacles, through which in his virtuous indignation, his eyes glowed like burning coals He, like the speaker that preceded him, held in his hand some printed matter, but nothing so frivolous as a comic song was in store for us.
    "Gentlemen," exclaimed the little man in a tremulous voice, "I hold in my hand an example of what, in my opinion is the [-210-] most pernicious part of this Blue Ribbon business. What gets over me more than anything else is their enlisting mere children into the service, preaching to 'em and persuading 'em whenever and wherever they can get a lot of 'em together on the quiet, and poisoning their young minds against the ways of their parents. But they don't stop at water, gentlemen. They encourage disobedience and, vulgarly speaking, cheek on the part of childhood towards even grey hairs, by means of print. This I hold in my hand, gentlemen, is a penny magazine devoted to the teetotal cause, and I will read to you one or two of the precious anecdotes contained therein for the improvement of the infant mind. The first one is headed 'A Promising Young Soldier.' A little boy, a member of our Army, was asked the other day by his father to fetch a pint of beer from the public house. 'Which jug shall I take, father?' said the child. 'Why, the proper one, of course,' replied his parent. The boy brought the jug, and at the same time a small hammer, with which he dexterously knocked a hole in the bottom of the earthenware measure. 'There, father,' he remarked, with a look full of meaning at his misguided parent, 'that's the proper jug to fetch beer in!'"
    Murmers of disgust ensued on the reading, but the little bald-headed man checked them by flourishing the paper, and remarked,
    "Hold hard, there's something here that's better than that. 'Father,' said a merry young rogue of five summers to his parent, whose nasal organ was highly inflamed through long intimacy with the grog-glass, 'why is it that you have no whiskers?' 'Because, my son,' replied the father, 'nature never gave me any.' 'I am glad to hear that,' returned the cute little fellow; 'I thought, perhaps, at one time you had whiskers, and the heat of your brandified nose had scorched them all off." "I don't know how you feel about it, continued the irate 'Y. R.,' "but I rather think that if either of those nice little fellows had belonged to me, and played me such a trick, he would have found it much easier to stand up than to sit down for a considerable time afterwards" - a sentiment that was heartily applauded by every one present.
    The next speaker was a gentleman who had already attracted the attention of the company towards him by attempting to [-211-] catch the chairman's eye. Failing in the attempt, he had audibly expressed his disgust that some fellows should have all the jaw to themselves, while other fellows wasn't allowed to get a say in, edgeways even. The individual in question was undoubtedly entitled to a hearing, if only on account of the conspicuous display he made of being heart and soul devoted to the Yellow cause. Not only did he wear the society emblem pinned to the breast of his waistcoat, but a silk neckerchief, evidently brand-new, of a bright orange hue, encircled his throat, and in a buttonhole of his coat he sported a yellow dahlia that for size, if not for beauty, might have taken first prize at a flower show. Finding at last the opportunity he desired, he rose to his feet pale with excitement, and so disturbed with conflicting emotions that he found it necessary to steady himself by holding on by the edge of the table. When the thumping of tables and the jingling of glasses had subsided, and the chairman had encouragingly adjured him to "fire away," he proceeded to do so, going straight to the point at once.
    "Gentlemen," said he, "being a pipe-maker by trade, I'm a man that finds malt liquor, and, perhaps, now and then, a drop of something short, agrees with me. I haven't come here to make believe to spout on principle, because that's a thing I don't believe in. I come here because I was drove here." (Murmurs and incredulity.) "Yes, gentlemen, believe me or believe me not, I ain't going to eat my words, and if I chew 'em over a bit it's because I've been aggravated to it. So I say again that I've been drove here. I've gone in, as p'r'aps you might have noticed, for something more than a morsel of yallow ribbon - I've gone in for a yallow silk neck-handkercher, which I bought on purpose this afternoon, and likewise I wear a flower of the favourite colour. Why do I do it? Because, I tell you once more, I am drove to it. Why? says you. Not by my conwiction that it is my duty to'rds my neighbour so to do. If I owe my neighbour any duty, let him come and ask for it, and he shall have it, and not before." (Several "Hear, hears" greeted this expression of manly sentiment.) "No, gentlemen; I am drove to do what I'm now doing by my own son-in-law." (Murmurs of sympathy and a pause, during which the pipemaker soothed his choked utterance by taking a pull at his [-212-] pint.) "By my own flesh and blood, gentlemen, or leastways next door to it.
    "What for? says you. Is it because that there son-in-law of yours is a drunkard, and you seek to shun his ways by joining them that are pledged to moderate drinking? No, gentlemen, he's not that. He's wuss. I've told him so to his head five and forty times, and I'd tell him so again if he stood before me this minute. He s a Blue Ribboner." (Groans.) "He lodges along of us, having our parlours, and he's made my home a wretchedness." (A Voice: "Why don't you kick him out? ") "If you hadn't been in such a blessed hurry to put your spoke in you would have heard why not without asking," continued the pipe-maker severely. "I don't kick him out because all the family cling to him. His wife, my wife, young George wot's apprenticed, the very gal - all the whole kit of 'em cling to him. It's only lately. It isn't more than four months ago since my son-in-law became a 'blue.' Before that we used to take our pint together all manly and proper, and I'd see him home if he had a drop too much, and he'd see me the same, happy as the birds in the air. But, all of a sudden, he took it into his head to become a 'blue,' and that happiness is all over."
    "They try to convert you, I suppose?" remarked the chairman.
    "They do so," returned the pipe-maker, with a defiant chuckle which ended with a hiccup; "not by violent means, mind you; I wish they went that way to work stead of the other. They try to get at me with the meek and unreproaching dodge. They're all as amerble and resigned to'rds me, bless you, as though I was a bad complaint that had got among 'em, and which not being able to be cured must be put up with. It's all my son-in-law's doings. He's made Blue Ribboners of the blessed lot of 'em, and one's just as bad as the other. No matter how much the wuss I go home, nobody don't sulk or jaw at me. They sing at me, that s what they do. I've been that wild with 'em sometimes that I've gone home a staggerer, and no mistake, and meaning to have it out with 'em. But they won't have it. Poor, poor man the missus says, when she opens the door, and they all get round me with faces long as fiddles, offering me all manner of hacts of kindness, just as though I d had a accident - been run over, or something of [-213-] that - and then they strike up. Not as though they were doing it on purpose, and it was me they was getting at, but while they're going about the house in the or'nary way."
    "The artfullest, cussedest things some of them temperance songs is, you'd never believe - in the tunes, I mean. There's one that goes to the tune of The Cork Leg; it was only this afternoon I was swindled with it. I'd had a little drop, and when I got home they started singing it. 'Hallo!' thinks I, 'this is better; they're coming round to sensible ways at last.' And to give 'em a bit of encouragement I joined in. All of a sudden my son-in-law, along with his wife, comes running into the kitchen. 'Give me your hand, father,' he ses; 'this is indeed a joyful time. Oh, what a happy change to hear you joining in one of our temperance songs!' 'But,' says I, The Cork Leg is not a temperance song; it's as much more t' other as any I know of.' 'Ah! the tune is the same, but the words are very different,' he ses; 'what we were singing wasn't The Cork Leg - it was The Drunkard's Doom.'"
    And, cheered by the now hilarious company, the excited pipemaker could have continued the story of his domestic grievances for another hour at least; but just then the landlord looked in to say time was up, and he was about to lower the gas.