Penelope's English Experiences

Chapter VIII. Tuppenny travels in London.

If one really wants to know London, one must live there for years and years.

This sounds like a reasonable and sensible statement, yet the moment it is made I retract it, as quite misleading and altogether too general.

We have a charming English friend who has not been to the Tower since he was a small boy, and begs us to conduct him there on the very next Saturday. Another has not seen Westminster Abbey for fifteen years, because he attends church at St. Dunstan's-in-the-East. Another says that he should like to have us 'read up' London in the red-covered Baedeker, and then show it to him, properly and systematically. Another, a flower of the nobility, confesses that he never mounted the top of an omnibus in the evening for the sake of seeing London after dark, but that he thinks it would be rather jolly, and that he will join us in such a democratic journey at any time we like.

We think we get a kind of vague apprehension of what London means from the top of a 'bus better than anywhere else, and this vague apprehension is as much as the thoughtful or imaginative observer will ever arrive at in a lifetime. It is too stupendous to be comprehended. The mind is dazed by its distances, confused by its contrasts; tossed from the spectacle of its wealth to the contemplation of its poverty, the brilliancy of its extravagances to the stolidity of its miseries, the luxuries that blossom in Mayfair to the brutalities that lurk in Whitechapel.

We often set out on a fine morning, Salemina and I, and travel twenty miles in the day, though we have to double our twopenny fee several times to accomplish that distance.

We never know whither we are going, and indeed it is not a matter of great moment (I mean to a woman) where everything is new and strange, and where the driver, if one is fortunate enough to be on a front seat, tells one everything of interest along the way, and instructs one regarding a different route back to town.

We have our favourite 'buses, of course; but when one appears, and we jump on while it is still in motion, as the conductor seems to prefer, and pull ourselves up the cork-screw stairway,—not a simple matter in the garments of sophistication,—we have little time to observe more than the colour of the lumbering vehicle.

We like the Cadbury's Cocoa 'bus very much; it takes you by St. Mary-le-Strand, Bow-Bells, the Temple, Mansion House, St, Paul's, and the Bank.

If you want to go and lunch, or dine frugally, at the Cheshire Cheese, eat black pudding and drink pale ale, sit in Dr. Johnson's old seat, and put your head against the exact spot on the wall where his rested,—although the traces of this form of worship are all too apparent,—then you jump on a Lipton's Tea 'bus, and are deposited at the very door. All is novel, and all is interesting, whether it be crowded streets of the East End traversed by the Davies' Pea-Fed Bacon 'buses, or whether you ride to the very outskirts of London, through green fields and hedgerows, by the Ridge's Food or Nestle's Milk route.

There are trams, too, which take one to delightful places, though the seats on top extend lengthwise, after the old 'knifeboard pattern,' and one does not get so good a view of the country as from the 'garden seats' on the roof of the omnibus; still there is nothing we like better on a warm morning than a good outing on the Vinolia tram that we pick up in Shaftesbury Avenue. There is a street running from Shaftesbury Avenue into Oxford Street, which was once the village of St. Giles, one of the dozens of hamlets swallowed up by the great maw of London, and it still looks like a hamlet, although it has been absorbed for many years. We constantly happen on these absorbed villages, from which, not a century ago, people drove up to town in their coaches.

If you wish to see another phase of life, go out on a Saturday evening, from nine o'clock on to eleven, starting on a Beecham's Pill 'bus, and keep to the poorer districts, alighting occasionally to stand with the crowd in the narrower thoroughfares.

It is a market night, and the streets will be a moving mass of men and women buying at the hucksters' stalls. Everything that can be sold at a stall is there: fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, crockery, tin-ware, children's clothing, cheap toys, boots, shoes, and sun-bonnets, all in reckless confusion. The vendors cry their wares in stentorian tones, vying with one another to produce excitement and induce patronage, while gas-jets are streaming into the air from the roofs and flaring from the sides of the stalls; children crying, children dancing to the strains of an accordion, children quarrelling, children scrambling for the refuse fruit. In the midst of this spectacle, this din and uproar, the women are chaffering and bargaining quite calmly, watching the scales to see that they get their full pennyworth or sixpennyworth of this or that. To the student of faces, of manners, of voices, of gestures; to the person who sees unwritten and unwritable stories in all these groups of men, women, and children, the scene reveals many things: some comedies, many tragedies, a few plain narratives (thank God!) and now and then—only now and then—a romance. As to the dark alleys and tenements on the fringe of this glare and brilliant confusion, this Babel of sound and ant-bed of moving life, one can only surmise and pity and shudder; close one's eyes and ears to it a little, or one could never sleep for thinking of it, yet not too tightly lest one sleep too soundly, and forget altogether the seamy side of things. One can hardly believe that there is a seamy side when one descends from his travelling observatory a little later, and stands on Westminster Bridge, or walks along the Thames Embankment. The lights of Parliament House gleam from a hundred windows, and in the dark shadows by the banks thousands of coloured discs of light twinkle and dance and glow like fairy lamps, and are reflected in the silver surface of the river. That river, as full of mystery and contrast in its course as London itself—where is such another? It has ever been a river of pageants, a river of sighs; a river into whose placid depths kings and queens, princes and cardinals, have whispered state secrets, and poets have breathed immortal lines; a stream of pleasure, bearing daily on its bosom such a freight of youth and mirth and colour and music as no other river in the world can boast.

Sometimes we sally forth in search of adventures in the thick of a 'London particular,' Mr. Guppy's phrase for a fog. When you are once ensconced in your garden seat by the driver, you go lumbering through a world of bobbing shadows, where all is weird, vague, grey, dense; and where great objects loom up suddenly in the mist and then disappear; where the sky, heavy and leaden, seems to descend bodily upon your head, and the air is full of a kind of luminous yellow smoke.

A Lipton's Tea 'bus is the only one we can see plainly in this sort of weather, and so we always take it. I do not wish, however, to be followed literally in these modest suggestions for omnibus rides, because I am well aware that they are not sufficiently specific for the ordinary tourist who wishes to see London systematically and without any loss of time. If you care to go to any particular place, or reach that place by any particular time, you must not, of course, look at the most conspicuous signs on the tops and ends of the chariots as we do; you must stand quietly at one of the regular points of departure and try to decipher, in a narrow horizontal space along the side, certain little words that show the route and destination of the vehicle. They say that it can be done, and I do not feel like denying it on my own responsibility. Old Londoners assert that they are not blinded or confused by Pears' Soap in letters two feet high, scarlet on a gold ground, but can see below in fine print, and with the naked eye, such legends as Tottenham Court Road, Westbourne Grove, St. Pancras, Paddington, or Victoria. It is certainly reasonable that the omnibuses should be decorated to suit the inhabitants of the place rather than foreigners, and it is perhaps better to carry a few hundred stupid souls to the wrong station daily than to allow them to cleanse their hands with the wrong soap, or quench their thirst with the wrong (which is to say the unadvertised) beverage.

The conductors do all in their power to mitigate the lot of unhappy strangers, and it is only now and again that you hear an absent-minded or logical one call out, 'Castoria! all the w'y for a penny.'

We claim for our method of travelling, not that it is authoritative, but that it is simple—suitable to persons whose desires are flexible and whose plans are not fixed. It has its disadvantages, which may indeed be said of almost anything. For instance, we had gone for two successive mornings on a Cadbury's Cocoa 'bus to Francesca's dressmaker in Kensington. On the third morning, deceived by the ambitious and unscrupulous Cadbury, we mounted it and journeyed along comfortably three miles to the east of Kensington before we discovered our mistake. It was a pleasant and attractive neighbourhood where we found ourselves, but unfortunately Francesca's dressmaker did not reside there.

If you have determined to take a certain train from a certain station, and do not care for any other, no matter if it should turn out to be just as interesting, then never take a Lipton's Tea 'bus, for it is the most unreliable of all. If it did not sound so learned, and if I did not feel that it must have been said before, it is so apt, I should quote Horace, and say, 'Omnibus hoc vitium est.' There is no 'bus unseized by the Napoleonic Lipton. Do not ascend one of them supposing for a moment that by paying fourpence and going to the very end of the route you will come to a neat tea station, where you will be served with the cheering cup. Never; nor with a draught of Cadbury's cocoa or Nestle's milk, although you have jostled along for nine weary miles in company with their blatant recommendations to drink nothing else, and though you may have passed other 'buses with the same highly-coloured names glaring at you until they are burned into the grey matter of your brain, to remain there as long as the copy-book maxims you penned when you were a child.

These pictorial methods doubtless prove a source of great financial gain; of course it must be so, or they would never be prosecuted; but although they may allure millions of customers, they will lose two in our modest persons. When Salemina and I go into a cafe for tea we ask the young woman if they serve Lipton's, and if they say yes, we take coffee. This is self-punishment indeed (in London!), yet we feel that it may have a moral effect; perhaps not commensurate with the physical effect of the coffee upon us, but these delicate matters can never be adjusted with absolute exactitude.

Sometimes when we are to travel on a Pears' Soap 'bus we buy beforehand a bit of pure white Castile, cut from a shrinking, reserved, exclusive bar with no name upon it, and present it to some poor woman when we arrive at our journey's end. We do not suppose that so insignificant a protest does much good, but at least it preserves one's individuality and self-respect.

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