Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 19 - The Organ Man

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GREAT musicians, and especially great vocalists, are sometimes growled at even by those who most enjoy their music. At the moment of rapture no price, of course, appears too great to give for the privilege of listening to the seraphic strains; but when admiration has cooled, the temper - say of a struggling professional man, or the like - is apt to warm.
    "Isn't it a shame," he murmurs to himself, "that that long-haired fellow," or "that chit of a girl" (as the case may be), "should get more in one night than I make by patiently working away for a year? And for what? For what is in the main a mere physical gift, no more a merit than it is for a man or woman to have a good nose."
    If, however, professional music has magnificent prizes for its pets, on the other hand it puts off the lowest ruck of its votaries with most beggarly wages, or downright dreary blanks.
    The musicians of the streets do not seem to be, as a rule, a prosperous race. The lonely woman that "has seen better days," who suddenly begins to quaver in the dusk in some quiet street of private houses; the skinny [-273-] woman with an infant at her breast, and half-a-dozen little ones holding on to her limp skirts, who goes about making a low despondent noise she supposes to be singing; the white-aproned mechanics who slowly patrol the streets, dolorously chanting that they come from Man-chest-er-er-er, and have got no work to do-oo-oo; the trembling hoary-headed patriarch, who howls hymns to the most depressing of psalm-tunes in pious neighbourhoods; these, and sundry such-like, may perhaps make more money than a good many of their pitiers suppose - money which melts in drops of gin - but still they cannot be called the favourites of fortune.
    Neither do our foreign street-musicians seem to be, as a class, a lively lot. I am not going to write of them with any maudlin compassion. Some of them, no doubt, are deceived by their padroni; and English cowards, big and little, are too fond of persecuting them when the luxury can be indulged in with impunity. But, on the other hand, they are often great nuisances, and impudent to boot, and I am afraid that they are rather indolent.
    "Indolent!" I can hear some reader indignantly interject. "Indolent, when they walk all those miles, with those great heavy organs at their backs!"
    Well, if they are strong enough to walk "all those miles" so loaded, I cannot help thinking [-274-] that, if they had a mind for it, they could get work which would pay them better than their organ-grinding; and it does appear most comically preposterous that we should be expected to give money for the privilege of beholding and listening to a steeple-hatted, blue-coated, thong-sandalled bag-piper, shuffling about with his attendant sprite, a facsimile in miniature, like a lazy bear with its lazier cub. They grin at the copper-dispensing British public while they do it - and well they may!  Nevertheless, some of these vagrant artistes I should be sorry to miss from London streets. Their costume is, generally, too railway-porter-like to be picturesque, but their faces sometimes shed poetry on our prosaic thoroughfares.
    An organ-man, whom for several years I have missed in the North London thoroughfares he used to affect, is a case in point. He went by, even "answered to," the name of Guy - I suppose because his name was Guido - but he was a Guy many an artist must have been glad to get for a model. His face - unlike those of a good many of his brethren, who look like Whitechapel roughs masquerading as foreign musicians - was typically "Italian:" olive complexion, regular features, clearly cut, and great black "lamping" eyes. It was a study to note in what exact harmony with his white teeth they lighted up when he smiled.
    He was very fond of smiling, especially at [-275-] children, with whom he ranked A1 for ever amongst organ-men. The let the little street- children turn his handle, and would play out a tune in what had proved a hopelessly unremunerative locality, rather than bring their dance upon the pavement to an abrupt conclusion. When he saw that more paying little patrons were especially pleased with his music or his monkey, he would go on playing long after he had ground out their coppers' worth. The red-jacketed, blue-breeched monkey, which used to descend areas to beg for nuts, and then ascend gate-piers to crack them, lifted his tasselled black velvet cap with great politeness, before he obeyed his master's tug at his chain, and leaped upon the organ, or Guy's shoulder, to take his departure. But what was his valedictory grace in comparison with his owner's? Lector benevole, I would parenthetically inquire, didst thou ever recreate thyself by noting the modes in which the countrymen, sufficiently civilised to consider it incumbent upon them to perform the operation after some fashion, take off their hats? Such observation is a favourite amusement of mine as I moon along the streets. There are, of course, shades of difference, nuances of style, too numerous to be indicated in a parenthesis, but English hat-lifters may be broadly divided into the Bashful and the Blatant.
    The Bashful hat-lifter considers the process a bore, and one, moreover, that makes him look [-276-] a fool. He therefore shirks it as often as he can, letting his eyes look right on, and his eyelids straight before him, that he may not behold a feminine acquaintance; but if by chance he has blundered on one, or has had his attention called to her by his plaguesomely courteous wife, he raises his hand as reluctantly as if he had the rheumatism, and touches rather than lifts his hat, trying to look all the while as if he were only pinching the brim to straighten it.
    The Blatant hat-lifter, on the other hand, is so fond of the operation that he goes out of his way to find opportunities for its exercise. Every minute up flies his hat about half a yard above his head, and then down it comes again with a kind of inverted valve-and-piston action.
    In both cases the spine continues as stiff as a ramrod, and the face as expressive as a Dutch doll's. 
    There is a small sub-class - that of the hobbledehoys who have just taken to hat-lifting, and who are so proud of the performance that they blandly lift their hats to one another. But whenever an English hand raises a hat, the inflexibility of back, the woodenness of countenance of which I have spoken instantly betray the nationality of the raiser.
    In what a different way did Guido lift his hat, his lithe body swaying like a wind-bent willow, in spite of his clumsy clothes, and his mobile face mysteriously taking in at the same time the [-277-] occupants of the upper and lower windows of the house to which he was bidding an au revoir farewell.
    Guy, besides being a pattern of courtesy, had a good deal of fun and feeling, too, in him. I will report, as well as I can, a few of his experiences.
    "Yes, sare, my organ vant to please. So she play tune to please her customer. Like your butcher, He say, 'buy, buy, buy-vat you buy?' If you no like bif, you can have mouton; and if you no like mouton, you can have de veau or de pork, and moosh of more - I know not. I do not eat de bif and de mouton. Dey cost too moosh. No, nor I do not drink de biÍre. I am not Anglishman, me Italian. I drink vater, and vat de rude Anglish people call de mess. No, I do not intend I drink de mess, I eat her. I vould drink vine of my contree, but vere is he? He vood cost too moosh. But my organ. She play many tune for many people. 'Pop go de Veasel,' and de 'Old Undredt;' Yes, she have more psalm-tune, and dey come close togeder. I vill tell you vy. I go trough place vere de people dat love de psalm-tune live close togeder. If I play 'Pop go de Veasel' dere, no pen-nee. So I no play 'Pop go de Veasel' dere, but de psalm-tune. Who are dey? I know not. Dey love de psalm-tune. Dere is so many kind of religion in Lon-don. I know not, sare, I tell [-278-] you. It cost me good bit to get my tune proper. Do fresh tune cost moosh. But now she is proper. I know de people I go rond, and my organ play to please her customer. Vat you call, sare, a fun-nee fellow, a doctor, dat alvay give me pen-nee ven he is at home - he come out on de step of his shop to give me do pen-nee-he say to me, 'Ah, you have feel deir pulse.' He like not de people dat love de psalm-tune. Dey no vant him, so he no like dem. But he alvay give me de pen-nee. He is vat you call a fun-nee fellow, sare. He vant to give me a drink. I shake my head, but he vant still and say, 'Not out of my bottell.' But I shake my head again. Den he say, 'My lamp scare you. like de railvay.' Vat he mean? You tell me, sare? He have de red lamp, and his nose is red-yes, ver moosh. He is fun-nee fellow, and alvay give me de pen-nee von he is at home. Von day he not at home. I play, and a yong shentleman come out and fling about his arm. I tink he ver rnoosh pleased. I go on playing, but the yong shentleman run avay and fetch de pelisseman. He give me shove, so I say, 'Vat for?' Den he take hold of me, and pinch my arm, and say to de yong shentleman, 'Come,' and ye begin to valk. Fe pelisseman pinch me ver hard, dough I say noting; but I vonder, sare, at your con-tree. But I meet de doctor, and he speak to do pe]isseman, and he scold the yong shentle-[-279-]man, and de doctor scold de yong shentleman, and give me seesepen-nee. So I go, and am glad de yong shentleman run avay for de pelisseman, dough he pinch me - yes,vermoosh. I like to knock him down vid my stick, but me stranger; I must mind de law. My monkey no mind de law. He bite de pelisseman; but den I not have de monkey. Do people, sare, in your contree ver different. Some vill give de pen-nee and tell me go on; and some vill give de pen-flee and tell me go avay queek; and some vill not give de pen-nee, but run for de pelissemau. Me stranger; how know I? No, sare, you not tell me go avay, and de beautiful signora send me de pen-nee by de servante, and de beautiful signorina; and ven she fling him out, she wrap him in papier. No, sare, dat not make him buy more at de cook-shop; but sometime dey fling him at your head, like do brick, or de shell of oyster, and he tomble in de mud. I prefair, me, de pen-nee in de papier. Sometime you not find de pen-nee ven he tomble in de mud. Sometime de yong tief run away vid him.
    "My monkey I have - I vill conseeder-yes, I have him tree year. I have him of a French-man dat die at de house vere I lodge - yes, sare, at Saffron Hill. Vat you know, sare, of Saffron Hill? Yes, sare, many Italian dere. Sometime de Anglish afflict us, and we fight. Yes, sare, sometime do Italian use his knife. De  Anglish [-280-] fight vid de fist, and de Italian fight vid de knife ven he not let alone. Ve never say noting against de Anglish if dey not trouble; and sometime de Anglish and de Irish fight vid de knife also. De Italian vat you call ver respectable. De Anglish and de Irish not at all respectable on Saffron Hill. Oh, yes, sare, some ver respectable, but not our afflicter. Beeg blackguard. My monkey's name Napoleon. De Franchman no like Napoleon den. Me, I hate him. But de monkey have de name, and he stick like de mud. My monkey is good Napoleon; de odor is bad - yes, ver bad, dough you Anglish praytand dat you like him. Ve oder say dat you are afraid, so you smoot him like de tiger. No, sare, I do not say de Anglish are afraid. I love de Anglish - some Anglish; yes ver moosh. I tell you vat say my contreemen. I love my Napoleon. No, sare, I not sell him, not for his veight in gold. I tink I die, Napoleon tink I die also, and he sit on my bed and cry. He bite my ear, he pull my nose, but I not stir; me too veak. Den Napoleon cry, like de beautiful signorina if she tink you die, sare. Ve in de contree den, in Essex, at vat you call-  I forget her name- Bain - Bain - Bain-ah, yes-no, no-Berraintree, vere dere is factory. I play to de gal ven dey come out, and dey give me pen-nee and dance; but dey rob me at de house vere I lodge - not de people of de house, [-281-] but de man dat sleep vid me. I vake in de morning - he gone, and all my mownee gone also. Some of de lodger laugh, but some say dey drub him ven dey catch him; but vat good dat do me, if I no get my mownee? I get more mownee, but not moosh. Den I take ill, and dey say dey must turn me out - I no pay for my bed; but a yong voman pay for my bed, and de people of de house give me someting to eat - not moosh; I not vant moosh. Dey tink I die, and I also, and Napoleon cry. He get into my bed, and put his arm rond my neck, and cuddle like de little shild. Dey try to sell my monkey - not for demself: for me - but Napoleon vill not go. He bite de man dat vant him, dough he feed him ver kind. Ven I get vel, he give me treepen-nee to start. He give Napoleon bit of black-boudin, but Napoleon not like the black-boudin, and fling him in his face, and de man laugh, and say Napoleon vill come to starve if he turn up his nose at good viande, and fling her about dat vay. But Napoleon not come to starve yet. De leetle signorina give him plenty food for tree veek ven she see him. De signorina ver fond of Napoleon, and Napoleon ver fond of de signorina.
    "To promenade in de contree is ver nice ven it make fine. All look so clean after Lon-don. No, not vere ve lodge - dat like Lon-don; but de house and de street, and de tree, and de hedge.
    [-282-] But de tree and de hedge give no pen-nee. Sometime I go to de fair. De fair is ver funnee, and I get plenty pen-nee ven I have de organ vid de doll and dey dance, and Napoleon dance, and de contree people dance and laugh like de bull. But von time dey get tipsee, and knock me down, and break my organ; and now I have no more de doll, I not go to the contree. Nobody pay me for my organ, and, I not like de broken head. Dey tink dat ver fun-nee, but me, I not tink dat fun-nee. Dere vas von pelisseman, but he do noting but laugh. If de contree people knock him down, he not tink it so fun-nee. De pelisseman afraid; dat vy he laugh. Ven de contree people got no biŤre, dey is stupid as ship; but ven dey is dronk, dey like de vild bullock.
    "Now ve stay in Lon-don. Yes, I am vell known in dese part, and Napoleon also. Ve go long vay - dis vay dis day, and oder vay oder day - every day except Sunday. Den ve go to our church vonce - no, no, sare; not Napoleon; dat is ver fun-nee-and de rest of de day ve eat and lie on our bed. Ve valk ver far, and so ve tired, and de sleep is good. Ven I hear de bell ring on do Sunday, I am glad because den I can sleep more. Ven it make fine, and I get de pen-nee, I no mind de long valk; but ven it rain and snow, and blow cold, and I get no pen-bee, den it is different, and Napoleon shiver and climb into my coat. He [-283-] is not fun-nee ven it is cold, and you have moosh of cold in Angland - yes, sare, ver moosh."
    One very cold day we missed Guy when he was due. Another of his days came, and another, but he came not, and soon his round was appropriated by a countryman as coarse and crusty as Guido was finely cut and courteous. We had given up all hope of ever seeing our favourite organ-man again; but one day in early spring he reappeared, looking very, very ill. The bones of his cheeks and hands had a ghastly prominence; his clothes hung loose as bags on his once well filled-out frame.
    He had just been released from the sick-bed on which he had lain all the winter, and carried a little document, drawn up by his priest, soliciting contributions from his old patrons to enable him to return to his native country, as the only chance of saving his life.
    He was quite broken down. lie fairly cried when he told us that Napoleon had died during his illness. At any rate, his friend had disappeared, and he had been told that he was dead.
    Guy was no longer "ver fun-nee," but he tried to smile as beamingly as ever on his little friend the "signorina," who was shocked to see him so white and wasted, and made a pathetic failure of the attempt.
    "Addio," he said, lifting his hat with a [-284-] melancholy ghost of his old grace; and since then I have never seen his face.

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