Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - Great Public Questions

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GREAT PUBLIC QUESTIONS

As a bachelor of fifty, given to solitary speculations upon men and things from the altitude of my two-pair back, and with leisure enough upon my hands to allow me to look at all things considerately and dispassionately, I possess more advantages for observation and reflection than every philosopher can boast of. I am not compelled to come to a conclusion upon every popular topic that turns up, before I have looked at both sides of it. When I find the morning paper, after Betty has aired it and hung it over the back of my chair, hammering away with the vigour of a Cyclops in favour of one particular course of proceeding, or set of men, and browbeating or bullying the other side, I am not under the necessity of letting myself be crammed with wind from the editor's force-pump, and exciting my nervous system in a disagreeable way. I can afford to let the matter rest awhile, and wait till that unprincipled faction has had its say in its turn, in the evening paper, or in to-morrow's ; and then, if I choose, I can compare notes, and weigh one side against the other, and draw a conclusion, if it be worth while, which it generally is not.
    It is wonderful what advantages I derive by the practice of this compensating system, and what a knowing old person I have the reputation of being, solely from adherence to so simple a plan. The beauty of it lies in the fact, that it enables you to clear off matters as you go, and reduces the amount of important material for judgment to the minimum point. A most surprising number of great public questions [-279-] have I either settled outright, or shelved for future settlement in the course of my time. I would name some of them, but that the catalogue might appear invidious, and give offence to many worthy people ; and I am unwilling to be the cause of scandal to anybody to whom that designation is applicable. But - there are public questions of a kind which do not admit of thus being disposed of; for the simple reason that they are addressed point-blank to the reader personally - that there are no two sides about them, and that they call for a definite answer in a manner unmistakeably plain and candid. These questions have weighed for a considerable time upon my mind, and I have observed latterly that they are growing more numerous, more pointed, more personal. Their notes of interrogation have stared me in the face at the breakfast-table, in my after-dinner chair, at the tea-table, any time for this twelvemonth ; and yet I have never set eyes on a syllable in response. Can it be that they are all addressed to me individually, and that the propounders are waiting for my answers all this while ? If it should be so, how discourteous and unsympathising must I appear in their eyes by this time! Let me hasten to redeem my fault, and let my natural modesty stand in excuse for the slur which my neglect hitherto may have cast upon my character. I will answer your questions, O my persistently inquiring friends! as it becomes me to answer them, and to the best of my humble ability.
    The first - because, according to the best of my recollection, it has the claim of longest standing - asks me rather curtly, "Do you want luxuriant hair and whiskers?"' I might object to this inquiry as a little too personal; but, waiving that, let me say that there was a time when I might have replied more feelingly to the interesting question - when I wanted no luxuriance either of hair or whiskers, but only the sanction of fashion to wear them. In the days of my pilous luxuriance, whiskers were remorselessly mown [-280-] down as fast as they appeared ; and now that all the world is cultivating them, my them, my crop is not worth cultivation. The best I can do is to compromise the matter by a kind of half-shave, and pass muster as well as I may. As to my hair, Time has thinned it somewhat ; but they tell me that, phrenologically, I look none the worse for that. So, with many thanks, my good friend, I will decline the luxuriant hair and whiskers.
    Somebody has been asking pertinaciously for a long time past, "Do you bruise your oats yet?" There is something suggestive and Consolatory about the yet. At present, I am bound to say, I do not bruise my oats ; and this is a painful confession, inasmuch as I have no oats to bruise. If I had been more sparing in the quantity which, with such pleasure, I sowed broadcast wherever I went thirty years ago, I might have had some left to bruise at this present moment. As it is, 1 have no horses to eat oats - pauper et pedester sum - I ride  on Shank's naggie, or in my "Favorite" bus, when business calls me abroad. As yet, that is. I shall live in hopes, on the suggestion of my inquiring friend ; and if he can put me in the way of becoming the proprietor of oats, and the etceteras implied when " your oats" are spoken of, I will undertake to bruise them with all my heart, and on his peculiar principle.
    Somebody else asks seriously, "Do you double up your perambulators?" No sir ; but last Sunday morning, as I was walking quietly to church, I was doubled up by a perambulator in a most shameful and scandalous manner. Whether the fat matron who propelled the abominable machine was an etymologist, and imagined that her perambulator was to walk clean through me, I don't know but she drove the front-wheel right between my legs, and I woke suddenly out of a reverie to find myself sprawling over a couple of gigantic babies. It was a providence that the twins were fat, fleshy, and soft, and that I escaped with [-281-] a slight abrasion of the forehead. There used to be a law against driving wheel-carriages upon the trottoirs ; I should like to know when it was repealed, or, if it never was repealed, why it is not put in force ? Not a day of my life passes now but I am perambulated into the kennel or into an open shop, to avoid being upset. In other respects, I have nothing to do with perambulators, being a bachelor, and having no use for them. Nevertheless, I should have no objection to see them doubled up, once for all, in a way that would not at all gratify the inquirer, I fear.
    A curious person asks, "Where do you purchase fish?"' Never going to market myself, I am obliged to ring the bell for my landlady, Mrs. Jones, and propound this query to her. She tells me that fish of all sorts, from sprats to salmon, and from dried herring to salt cod, "travels about the streets of London on men's heads, and calls at everybody's door" - that "a pair of soles is tenpence ; big uns a shilling, or maybe one and two" - that "mackerel is vareyus ;" and that "salt cod goes up always about Easter-time along with the Catholics." "Eels," she says, "is always alive accordin' to the crier ; but they never shows no signs of life till you've skinned 'em. Her acquaintance with the fish supply of London extends no further than this and for any additional information he may want, I must refer the inquirer to the fountain of knowledge at Billingsgate.
    An inquisitive philanthropist asks, "Why wear a coat that does not fit?" With a protest that I am not bound to reply to such a question unless I choose, I beg to submit that there may be many reasons for so doing. A coat that does not fit may be a fitter coat for many purposes than one that does. For lounging, gardening, dozing by the fire, your non-fitting coat is most suitable. Then, who is to decide what constitutes a fit? Is it a coat that cleaves to a man like an outer skin, in the fashion of George IV.'s time, or [-282-] one that, "like a lady's loose gown," hangs about you, as one sees them now? Perhaps a coat may be either of these, and yet fit, or not fit, according as it is well or ill constructed. But, be the coat upon a man's back what it may, it seems to me a breach of manners to ask him why he wears it. What right have you, my friend, to hint so plainly at the res angustae domi, which often compels many a worthy man to wear any coat he can get to shield him from the weather ? Why wear a coat that does not fit! "Why does the miller wear a white hat ?"
    A querist of the same imperious character blurts out the abrupt question, "Who's your hatter?" What's that to you, I should like to know ? I shan't tell you. The man is an honest tradesman, and makes a decent hat, that I am not ashamed to put my head in, and sells it at a fair price. You have no right to be meddling with his business ; and I hold your inquiry to be a piece of impertinence and I shall not satisfy your curiosity. My hatter pays his way ; I shall be glad to hear that you do the same.
    A captious personage, whom I suspect to have interested motives, wants to know, "Why ladies and gentlemen will wear wigs, fronts or head-dresses which the most cursory glance detects,"  when they might wear others that defy detection ? The question, I must say, betrays a radical want of sincerity on the part of the questioner. He has evidently no notion that a lady or gentleman wears a wig with any other intention than that of deceiving their "friends and the public.'' The proper use of a wig, he requires to be told, is to keep the head warm, and to supply in an honest way the natural covering of which time or affliction has deprived the head - not to deceive the world. The man, or woman either, who shaves off a set of grey or carroty locks in favour of a black Brutus or auburn curls, for which neither has any need, beyond the gratification of personal vanity - such a man or woman lives all day over head and ears in falsehood, [-283-] and only dares the truth in the dark, and under a blanket. Take my word for it, Mr. Holtzkopf, there are people who wear their wigs with a conscience, and are perfectly well satisfied that their wigs shall be recognised as wigs by all and sundry who may think it worth their while to determine the point. You may think them blockheads for the display of such needless sincerity - it would become you better to reverence them for the possession of virtues more valuable than all the wigs in the world, and to which your question, I am sorry to say, shows you to be an utter stranger.
    A question which has been put with considerable pertinacity of late asks, "Have you tasted our thirty-shilling sherry?" I cannot reply with certainty, but I suspect I have. One day last week, on landing at the Great Northern station, after a couple of days trip in the country, I met Captain Gallop on the platform, and he lugged me off to take tiffin - the captain has served in India - with him at his lodgings in the New Road. A cold capon and a plate of Norfolk sausages made their appearance in quick time and the captain drew from the sideboard a black bottle, from which he extracted the cork in his usual dexterous manner, and then decanted the contents, and poured me out a glass. I drank it without misgiving, and though I felt disposed to make a wry face immediately, succeeded, by a hard struggle, in maintaining some degree of composure. Not so the captain. The moment he had tasted the stuff, he grinned as though his great toe were in a vice, and exploded a terrible oath. The offending liquid was immediately ordered out of the room, and its place supplied by a more genial vintage. I am inclined to think the abominable stuff was "our thirty-shilling sherry," but cannot be quite certain, and the Captain is too sore on the subject to permit my venturing an inquiry.
    The next question is the most important one in the whole category, and I can but express my surprise at the deliberate [-284-] coolness with which the inquirer propounds it in the public prints. He asks me point-blank, and without the slightest tinge of the circumlocution office, "Do you think of getting married?" Really, this is coming to close quarters indeed. What if I do? Am I obliged to make him my confidant? And if I don't, am I compelled to confess as much? Please to note, that he does not ask me if I intend to get married. If he had shaped his question to that effect, I might and would have answered at once, that I have no intentions whatever of that sort that, having led the life of a bachelor for fifty years, I consider it now too late in the day to submit myself to matrimonial responsibilities ; and that all views of that kind I had ever entertained have vanished long ago in the dim distance. But he is not satisfied with knowing what my purposes may be in that respect, but must needs rend the veil from my secret thoughts. Suppose it should be the case, that sometimes, in the dim twilight, when the window-curtains are drawn, and those "faces in the fire " look out upon my solitude all fresh and glowing, and full of the memories of days for ever gone - suppose it should happen then that my thoughts revert to what might have been, had Julia listened to my suit five-and-twenty years ago, and that padded and long-legged ensign had not struck in and carried her off. What then ? Has Mr. Blinker any right to participate in these reminiscences? I question it ; at anyrate, I am not disposed to make him the partner of my sad speculations, and I won't do it. What if I sometimes ponder less pensively about the Widow Winkin, with her four hundred a year in the three per-cents., which would have made the decline of life so comfortable, and her interminable tongue and alcoholic temper, which would have made it so miserable ? Is Mr. Blinker to weigh my conduct in that matter in his balances of prudence, and sum me up, and write me down an ass or a Solon, according to his judgment ? I shan't consent to that, if I know it. What [-285-] my thoughts are in this particular, I shall keep to myself, and therefore decline most energetically to answer this question at all.
    To atone for my reticence in regard to the above tender subject, I will answer the next question without the least reservation, verbal or mental. The inquiry is plain, perspicuous, and unsophisticated, and deserves a response in the same spirit. It demands hospitably, "Do you like a dry, hot, mealy potato?" Candidly, I do ; it is the very description of potato I prefer to all others - dry, hot, mealy the epithets are all savoury and appetising - baked in an oven, and served up in their jackets, with butter, pepper, and salt, what can be nicer than they are for supper - when you have nothing better? When you have something better, of course they occupy a second rank ; but place it in what rank you may, a potato that is dry, hot, ouch mealy asserts its own respectability, and cannot be despised. Yes ; the dry, hot mealy potato for ever!
    The last question which I feel called upon to answer at the present time inquires, "Do you keep livery-servants?" This demand smacks somewhat of the tax-gatherer, and might be supposed to emanate from him, were it not that the questioner makes no mention of "dogs," which I have remarked, are uniformly classed with livery-servants in the tax-gatherers schedule. As a lodger, who pays rent for furnished apartments with attendance, I might summarily dismiss this question, so far as I am individually concerned, with a negative; but looking to the respectability of the establishment in which I reside, and of Mrs. Jones, who is at its head, I am bound to record that a livery is not altogether an unknown luxury at No. 24. The boy " Bung," the overactive Mercury of the house, does wear a livery upon occasions. True, he is generally seen in a state of dishabille, his back minus a coat, his arms bare to the elbows, and his feet in a pair (or two odd ones) of cut-down boots. When [-286-] wanted, he has to be excavated from the lower labyrinths of' the basement floor, where, busy as a bee with boots, blacking, and brick-dust, he passes the mornings of his days. But when the parlour gives a dinner, or the first-floor holds a soir?e, if you should happen to be one of the guests, you will see Bung brilliant in a clean face, a milkwhite collar, and "dickey,'' neat slippers, and a showy suit of rather faded livery, a little tarnished in the lace and buttons, only a few sizes too big for him, and not very much the worse for wear - by candlelight. I have observed that the livery has changed three times during the five years of my tenancy with Mrs. Jones. When Bung was what she calls a "brat of a boy," she livened him in blue and gold, which Mr. Solomons brought her in his bag, but which soon went to pieces, and had to be succeeded by a suit of drab and silver. Bung grew out of these, and now disports himself in a man s suit of Oxford grey and frogs, which is very becoming, and sets the seal of gentility upon our establishment. I may add, that whenever Bung waits at table in livery, his services are duly put down in the weekly bill ; but I have great doubts, although Mrs. Jones thus levies a tax for livery upon her lodgers, whether she pays a farthing herself on that score to the revenue.
    I have now answered about a dozen of the most prominent of the great public questions of the clay ; and here, for the present, I shall conclude my responses. Whatever importance the reader may choose to attach to these questions - for myself, I have my own private opinions concerning them - he will not, he cannot deny that they are, among all the subjects of which the press treats from time to time, those which it keeps with the most perseverance and persistency before the public eye. Other topics it treats of by fits and starts, and in a more or less abstract manner. The subject of national education is at a premium one day, at a discount the next; political reform comes and goes upon [-287-] the platform of the broad sheet the peace agitation is rampant at one season and dormant at another and so on. But the whiskers, the oats, the perambulators, the wigs, the hot mealy potatoes, &c. - these things keep their ground their foundations are deeply rooted beyond the mutabilities of the changing years, and bid defiance to the storms of fate. Whether such phenomena be according to the natural course of things, or whether they be the symbols of some profound and unexplained mystery, I leave to be decided by the "coming man" when he shall have made his appearance.

source: Charles Manby Smith, The Little World of London, 1857