The Haunts of Old Cockaigne by Alexander M. Thompson

The Haunts of Old Cockaigne by Alexander M. Thompson


I want the hum of my working brothers—
London bustle and London strife.

H. S. Leigh.

Let them that desire “solitary to wander o’er the russet mead” put on their clump boots and wander.

I prefer the Strand.

The Poet’s customary meadow with its munching sheep and æsthetic cow, his pleasing daisies and sublimated dandelions, his ecstatic duck and blooming plum tree, are all very well in their way; but there is more human interest in Seven Dials.


The virtuous man who on the sunless side
Of a romantic mountain, forest crowned,
Sits coolly calm; while all the world without,
Unsatisfied, and sick, tosses at noon—

may have a very good time if his self-satisfaction suffice to shelter him from Boredom; but of what use is he to the world or to his fellow-creatures?

I have no patience with the long-haired persons whose scorn of the common people’s drudgery finds vent in lofty exhortations to “fly the rank city, shun the turbid air, breathe not the chaos of eternal smoke, and volatile corruption.”

By turning his back to “the tumult of a guilty world,” and “through the verdant maze of sweetbriar hedges, pursue his devious walk,” the Poet provides no remedy for the sin and suffering of human cities—especially if the Poet finds it inconvenient to his[17] soulful rapture to attend to his own washing.

It offends me to the soul to hear robustious, bladder-pated, tortured Bunthornes crying out for “boundless contiguity of shade” where they can hear themselves think, when they might be digging the soil or fixing gaspipes.

I would have such fellows banished to remote solitudes, where they should prove their disdain of the grovelling herd by learning to do without them. I would have them fed, clothed, nursed, caressed, and entertained solely by their own sufficiency. Let them enjoy themselves.

Erycina’s doves, they sing, and ancient stream of Simois!

I sing the common people, and the vulgar London streets—streams of life, action, and passion, whose every drop is a human soul,[18] each drop distinct and different, each coloured by his or her own wonderful personality.

I never grow tired of seeing them, admiring them, wondering about them.

Beneath this turban what anxieties? Beneath yon burnoose what heartaches and desires? Under all this sartorial medley of frock-coats, jackets, mantles, capes, cloth, silk, satins, rags, what truth? what meaning? what purport? How to get at the hearts of them? how to evolve the best of them? how to blot out their passions, spites, and rancours, and get at their human kinship and brotherhood?

All day long these streets are crowded with the great, the rich, the gay, and the fair—and if one looks one may also see here the poorest, the most abject, the most pitiful, and most awful of the creatures that God[19] permits to live. There is more wealth and splendour than in all the Arabian Nights, and more misery than in Dante’s Inferno.

Such a bustling, jostling, twisting, wriggling wonder! “An intermixed and intertangled, ceaselessly changing jingle, too, of colour; flecks of colour champed, as it were, like bits in the horses’ teeth, frothed and strewn about, and a surface always of dark-dressed people winding like the curves on fast flowing water.”

There is everything here, and plenty of it. As Malaprop Jenkins wrote to her “O Molly Jones,” “All the towns that ever I beheld in my born days are no more than Welsh barrows and crumlecks to this wonderful sitty! Even Bath itself is but a fillitch; in the naam of God, one would think there’s no end of the streets, but the Land’s End. Then there’s such a power of people going[20] hurry-scurry! Such a racket of coxes! Such a noise and halibaloo! So many strange sites to be seen! O gracious! I have seen the Park, and the Paleass of St. Gimeses, and the Queen’s magisterial pursing, and the sweet young princes and the hillyfents, and pybald ass, and all the rest of the Royal Family.”

In two minutes from Piccadilly Circus I can be at will in France, in Germany, in Italy, or in Jerusalem. Even at the loneliest hour of the night I can have company to walk with; for in Bond Street I meet Colonel Newcome’s stately figure, in Pall Mall I encounter Peregrine Pickle’s new chariot and horses, by the Thames I find the skulking figures of Quilp and Rogue Riderhood, in Southwark I am with Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller, in Eastcheap with immortal Jack Falstaff, sententious[21] Nym, blustering Pistol, and glow-nosed Bardolph.

With such companions at my side,
I float on London’s human tide;
An atom on its billows thrown,
But lonely never, nor alone.

In a hundred yards I may jostle an Archbishop of the Established Church, a Prostitute, a Poet, a victorious General, the Hero of the last football match, a Millionaire, a “wanted” Murderer, a bevy of famous Actresses, a Socialist Refugee from Spain or Italy, a tattooed South Sea Islander, a loose-breeched Man-o’-War’s man from Japan, Armenians, Cretans, Greeks, Jews, Turks, and Clarionettes from Pudsey.

The mere picturesque externals suffice to entrance me; but the spell grips like a vice when I look closer and discriminate between the types.


Such a commodity of warm slaves has civilisation gathered here! Such a fascinating rabble of addle-pated toadies, muddy-souled bullies of the bagnio, trade-fallen prize-fighters, aristocratic and other drabs, card and billiard sharpers, discarded unjust serving-men, revolted tapsters, touting tipsters, police-court habitués, cut-purses, area sneaks, and general slum-scum; pimpled bookmakers, millionaire sweaters and their dissipated sons; jerry-builders, members of Parliament, phosy-jaw and lead poisoners; African diamond smugglers, peers on the make, long-nosed company promoters, and old clo’ men; Stock Exchange tricksters, fraudulent patriotic contractors, earthworms and graspers; fog-brained and parchment-hearted crawlers, pigeons, rooks, hawks, vultures, and carrion crows; the cankers of a base city and a sordid age; the flunkeys,[23] pimps, and panders of society; the pride and chivalry of Piccadilly; the carrion, maggots, and reptiles of an empire upon whose infamies the sun never wholly succeeds in hiding its blushing countenance.

There is no fear of my forgetting the misery and crime underlying London’s splendour. I never invite Mrs. Dangle’s admiration to the flashing lights of Piccadilly but she sharply reminds me of the pitiful sights which they illuminate. The ever-fresh and ever-wonderful magic of the Embankment’s circle as seen by night from Adelphi Terrace does not efface the remembrance of Hood’s “Bridge of Sighs,” nor of Charles Mackay’s “Waterloo Bridge.”

In she plunged boldly, no matter how coldly the rough river ran:—
Over the brink of it, picture it, think of it, dissolute Man!
Lave in it, drink of it, then, if you can!


I have seen our painted sisters standing for hire under the flaring gas-lamps. I have seen ghastly wrecks of humankind slinking by the blazing shop fronts as if ashamed of their hungry faces; and others, bloated out of womanly grace, tottering from gin-palace doors into side-dens that make one pale and sick to glance into.

And the interminable battalions of foolish-faced men in foolish frock-coats and foolish tall hats, who suck their foolish sticks as they foolishly amble by!

What tragic and comic contrasts! What variety!

Faces black and copper faces; yellow faces, rosy faces, and martyrs’ faces ghastly white; cruel crafty faces, false and leering faces—faces cynical, callous, and confident; faces crushed, abject, bloodless, and woebegone; satyrs’ faces, gross, pampered, impudent, and[25] sensual; sneering, arrogant, devilish faces; and shrinking faces full of prayer and meek entreaty; vulture faces—eager, greedy, ravenous; penguin faces—fat, smug, and foolish; faces of whipped curs, fawning spaniels, and treacherous hounds; wolves’ faces and foxes’ faces, and many hapless heads of puzzled sheep floating helpless down the current; faces of all tints and forms and characters; and not a few, thank Heaven! of faces strong and calm, of faces kind, modest, and intrepid! of faces blooming, healthy, pretty, and beautiful!

Gold and grime, purple and shame, squalor and splendour, contrasts and wonders without end. And all of it—all the flotsam and jetsam of these tumultuous streets—gallant hearts, heroes, criminals, millionaires, pretty girls, and wrecks—they are all charged, and overbrimming with interest, for, as[26] Longfellow says, “these are the great themes of human thought; not green grass, and flowers, and moonshine.”

Yet flowers too can London show.

In the densest quarters of Whitechapel I have seen grass and trees as green as the best that can be seen in the choicest districts of Oldham or Bolton.

As for the West End, no richer, riper scenes of urban beauty are to be found in Europe than the stretch of park and garden spread out between the Horse Guards and Kensington Palace.

Stand on the steps of the Albert Memorial and feast your gaze on the woody vistas of Kensington Gardens; or, from the suspension bridge of fair St. James’s Park, look over the water to the up-piled, towering white palaces of Whitehall; or, without exertion at all, lie down amongst the sheep in the wide green[27] fields of Hyde Park, and listen to the hum of the traffic.

Hyde Park’s verdurous carpet is shot in its season with the golden lustre of the buttercup, dotted with the peeping white of the timorous daisy, and spangled with the flaunting, extravagant dandelion. Every tree is in spring a gorgeous picture, and every thorn bush a bouquet of fragrant flower.

As for London’s outside suburbs, no English town can show such charming variety of wood and meadow, of hill and plain.

Smiling uplands and blooming slopes; bushy lanes, flowered hedges, and crystal streams; cottages overgrown, according to the season, with honeysuckle, roses, and creeping plants of gorgeous varying hues; smooth green lawns bedecked with flowers; bracken and woods upon the hills; scampering rabbits, scattered meditative cattle, placid[28] sheep, singing birds, swifts and swallows, rooks high sailing o’er tufted elms; and, above all, the sweet, blue, cloudless, southern sky;—all these may be found on a fine summer’s day within an easy cycle-ride in any direction from London.

Where shall we find nobler views than those exposed from Muswell’s woody slopes, or Sydenham’s stately terraces; from happy Hampstead, or haughty Highgate; from rare Richmond, or, best of all, from glorious Leith?

Where are sweeter woods than those of Epping or Hadley? Where such glades as at Bushey or Windsor? Where so sweet a garden, or so gracious a stream to water it, as lies open to the excursionist in the valley of the Thames between Maidenhead and beautiful Oxford?

To hear the lark’s song gushing forth to the[29] sun on Hampstead’s golden heath, to see the bluebells making soft haze in the Hadley woods, to watch the children returning through Highgate to their feculent rookeries laden with the fair bloom of hawthorn hedges, to lie on Hyde Park’s soft green velvet, is to bring home the knowledge to our tarnished hearts that even this city of fretful stir, weariness, and leaden-eyed despair, might be sweet and of goodly flavour—that even London’s cruel face might be made to beam upon all her children like a maternal benediction, if they were wise enough to deserve and demand it!


Mammon is their chief and lord,
Monarch slavishly adored;
Mammon sitting side by side
With Pomp and Luxury and Pride,
Who call his large dominion theirs,
Nor dream a portion is Despair’s.


The wealth and the poverty! the grandeur and the wretchedness!

Sir Howard Vincent, a Conservative M.P., lately told his Sheffield constituents, after a round of visits paid to “almost every state in Europe,” that—

He had no hesitation in saying that in a walk of a mile in London, and in the West End too, they saw more miserable people than he met with in all the countries enumerated—more bedraggled, unhappy, unfortunate out-of-works, seeking alms and bread, and strong men earning a few pence loitering along with immoral advertisements on their shoulders. He granted that there were more people in London with palatial mansions, luxurious carriages, and high-stepping horses, but there was much greater poverty and dire distress among the aged.

As regards the luxury, this is true enough. As regards poverty, London’s state is bad—God knows!—infinitely worse than that of Paris, which I know intimately; but not so[31] bad, according to my more travelled friends, as that of Russian, Italian, or even Saxon industrial regions. London’s destitution at its worst is perhaps more brutal, and more repellent, but not more hopeless than the more picturesque poverty of sunnier climes.

Poplar, Stepney, Hoxton, Bethnal Green, and Whitechapel are as hideous tumours upon a fair woman’s face.

They are vile labyrinths of styes, where pallid men and women, and skeleton children,—guileless little things, fresh from the hands of God,—wallow like swine.

Yet, except for vastness, London slums are not more shameful than the slums Sir Howard Vincent may find, if he will look in the town which he has the dishonour of representing in Parliament.

I saw the slum-scum sweltering in their[32] close-packed, fœtid East End courts during the great water famine last summer (miles of luxuriously appointed palaces in the gorgeous West standing the while deserted), but even then I found them cleaner, fresher, and sweeter than the slums of Manchester, Liverpool, Dublin, Dundee, Glasgow, Birmingham, or Darkest Sheffield.

For over all these London possesses one precious, inestimable advantage—the wide estuary and great air avenue of the Thames, through which refreshing winds are borne into the turbid crannies, bringing precious seeds of health and sweeping out the stagnant poisons.

I have beheld the great city in many aspects, fair and foul. I have seen St. Paul’s pierce with ghostly whiteness through a mist[33] that swathed and wholly hid its lower parts, the great dome rising like a phantom balloon from out a phantom city. I have seen a blue-grey “London particular” transform a dingy, narrow street into a portal of mystery, romance, and enchantment. I have loitered on Waterloo Bridge to gaze on the magic of the river and listen to the eerie music of Time’s roaring loom. I have heard the babel of Petticoat Lane on Sunday morning. I have surveyed the huge wen and contrasted it with the pleasant Kentish weald from Leith Hill’s summit. And I would not go back from London to any place that I have lived in. I like London. I am bitten as I have seen all bitten that came under its spell—bitten as I vowed I never could be.

London’s air is in my lungs and nostrils, its glamour in my eyes, its roar[34] and moan and music in my ears, its fever in my blood, its quintessence in my heart.

I came to scoff and I pray to remain.


Categories: English Literature

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