Saturday , April 13 2024

Thomas Burke’s London

Just discovered the writer Thomas Burke, through a random selection at the London Library of his The London Spy, 1922.

It is a wander around the streets, with a strong focus on the East End and the seamier sides of life, typical of his work – in fact he was the perfect “hack” – said in an entirely non-pejorative way – he reworks the same material four times: as fiction, as essays, as poetry, and as a flaneur. This site has a short biography and a complete copy of his The Song Book of Quong Lee (poetry).

His topic and tone can be very “modern”, as in An Upright Man and Exchange of Compliments.

Also a nice piece of prose, The Russian Quarter (which was Brick Lane). If you fancy a bit of classical melodrama there’s The chink and the child.

As those suggest, much of his London is long gone, although it seems every bit as multicultural as today’s.

Some snippets that took my fancy:

The Ivy
(which seems to be in the same place as today’s restaurant of that name)
“Even when I can afford to lunch or dine there (and I seldom can) I miss the welcome that was mine when it was in its beginning days. Only the very regular or very expensive customer gets that now.
Instead of being ushered to the old corner-table on the ground floor, by the window, I am sent upstairs. You see, the Ivy is now successful and famous, and I do it no credit. When it first opened, under the original ownership, it was only one room with a bare floor and a few mural decorations and you could dine there for two shillings.
Now it has acquired the whole corner block and wears oak panelling, thick carpets and shaded lights for each table. Formerly it was the haunt of hard-up gentlemen of the theatre; now it is crowded with plutocratic ‘stars’ and the smart people who affect that company.” (p. 28)

Lovers’ lanes
“Wherever there is a square or alley or remote corner, they discover it, and make it the scene of their last caresses; and most couples have a special corner of their own … These spots you may locate in the morning. Clues are left for the observant, and the chief clue is — hairpins. On this evidence I judge the Mall to be the favourite spot for dalliance, for often, in a morning walk from the Admiralty Arch to Buckingham Palace, I have counted, under the trees, over a hundred hairpins, not to mention some half-dozen scraps of ribbon; relics of the abandon of the night.” (p. 56-7)

Ham-and-beef shops
“Any ham-and-beef shop had that effect on me, then. You may have noticed, if you have had hungry days, that it’s the ham-and-beef shops that always exasperate … with its genteel and titillating display ready to the eye, that makes you look round for that ‘alf-brick. It’s the sight of the decked and garnished dishes – the ham in cut and its pink and cream slices and its pink odour — that makes a Communist of a hungry Tory.”

Leather Lane market
“A happy hunting-ground for those who find amusement in the foibles of their fellows is afforded by the midday bazaar of Leather Lane. There the hungry office-boy may feed, and the odd minutes of the clerk’s luncheon-hour may be most pleasantly, though, unprofitably, spent. Nothing is here of solid value, but much to tempt the eye. In this narrow lane with its lasting odour of vegetable refuse, elderly professors will sell you the Elixir of Life at a shilling a box; shabby young men will sell you the Secret of Success in Business; venerable and eloquent seniors, whose equally venerable linen is eloquent of a misspent youth, will give you (yes give you) the winner of the Big ‘Un tomorrow…
Elsewhere, you will find brisk young gentlemen who have apparently taken a course of lessons in ‘How to Become a Convincing Talker’, and now, in tones that ring with sincerity, offer you one guinea fountain-pens at two-and-six, or gold watches, sleeve links, solid leather wallets, at the price of a lunch. These do good business; but the boot-stalls, the haberdashery stalls, and the broken-iron stalls, having little excitement to offer for the splendid shilling, suffer by this insidious competition. ….” (p. 164-66)

On Prohibition/Temperance
“One of these days there will be a great public occasion in England – the hanging of the two enemies of civilisation – the millionaire and the missionary. They live, hand in hand, and it is fitting that they should swing together. Until then, my child, live sanely; interfere not with others, nor let them interfere with you.” (p. 204)

The ‘court missionary’
(who seems to have been the forerunner of the probation officer)
“He touches on every angle of human nature. He has to patch-up husband and wife quarrels, to placate landlord and lodger, to get work for the first offender who has been ‘driven to it’ by unemployment, to admonish naughty boys and girls, to keep in touch with offenders released on probation, to take charge of attempted suicides, to reclaim the old offender, to talk with prisoners on remand and seek to help them; and generally to be father, guardian, pastor, teacher, uncle and good friend to the helpless and broken creatures of the highways and hedges.” (p. 216)

The baby board
“Most of the street doors were wide open, and through them I stepped straight into the front parlour. Where there were babies, the doorways were wedged with a protecting board, about two feet high, and over the top of the board peered Master Baby. This is a common custom of poor streets. It enables baby to amuse himself with the sight of the street and take in the ‘fresh’ air, while mother can get on comfortably with the washing or the fish-curing, knowing that he cannot adventure into the perilous gutter.” (p. 259)

I also posted on my blog a lovely account of an old lady in the workhouse.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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