SEA-BREEZES WITH THE LONDON
THROW up the window; come into the balcony—here we are, my dear, at the seaside.
Yes! we have actually got away from town. I survey the ocean instead of the opposite houses, I smell sea-weed and salt water instead of smoke. Looking in the glass, I see myself reflected in a costume which would be the ruin of my character for respectability if I wore it in my own street. Turning affectionately towards my wife, I behold a saucy-looking hat on her head instead of her usual quiet bonnet. Thirty years ago, when she was. a young girl, the at would have set off her youth and beauty becomingly. Now, it makes her look, singularly enough, many years older than she really is. I dare not acknowledge it to her, I hardly venture to confess it to myself, but a middle-aged woman in a girl’s hat is scarcely a less anomalous sight, to my eyes, than a middle-aged woman would be in a girl’s short frock and frilled trousers. However, as no Englishwoman appears to consider herself too old for a hat at the sea-side—not, as I observe in some instances, even when she wears a wig—I have no right to remonstrate with my wife, who is still on the right side of fifty. Let us keep to our national peculiarities, and let no antics in costume be too ridiculous for us when we are away from home.
Well, as I said before, we have actually got away from town. What induces me to repeat that extremely common-place phrase? What sinister influence is making me begin to doubt, in defiance of the view from the window, in defiance of our conjugal change of costume, in defiance of the salt-water smell in my very nostrils, whether we have absolutely left London behind us, after all? Surely it must be the organ playing before the next house? Yes! A London organ has followed us to our refuge on the coast, playing the well-known London tunes; bringing us back by the force of the most disagreeable of all its associations, to our street at home. Can I order the dirty, leering Italian vagabond to take himself out of hearing? No; for here, at the sea-side, I am not a housekeeper. The merciful consideration of the English law for all men who live by the perpetration of nuisances; necessarily protects the organ and abandons me. There was a case in point, the other day, in the paper. A gentleman occupied in making some elaborate calculations connected with important public works, charges an organ grinder with interrupting his employment, and with refusing to move out of hearing. The magistrate looks at the Act, finds that ‘nobody but a housekeeper has any legal right to protection from organs, ascertains that the gentleman whose occupation has been fatally interrupted is a lodger only, and, as a matter of technical necessity, dismisses the application. Evidently I can hope for no chance of peace and quiet in my new abode unless I can get my landlady to complain for me. She has a family of eight small children, and no one to look after them but herself. Can I expect her to find time to appeal to the local magistrate perpetually, on my behalf, even supposing (which is not at all probable) that the Police Act extends to this place? Certainly not. This is a pleasant prospect, if I look to the future. I shall do better, however, if I occupy myself with the present only, and make my escape from those hateful London tunes which are taking me back to town faster than the express train itself brought me away from it. Let me forget that I am a tax-paying citizen who helps to support his country, and let me leave the musical foreign invader who helps to burden it, master of the field.
I take my hat and fly. I hurry down the lane; through the short-cut at the back of the stables; along the dusty little street where the post-office is; round the corner by the chemist’s shop; past the blank wall with the lettered board and plump pointing hand in white paint on it, which obligingly informs me that I am on my way to The Esplanade. I am out of hearing of the organ at last, and the happy result follows—London takes its proper place, invisible and inaudible in the far distance, and the joyous excursionist who writes these lines feels gratefully that he is at the sea-side again.
The Esplanade is long, and the Marine Buildings beyond it are longer. The two lead me on, as I dawdle forward mechanically, to the Pier. What sounds are borne towards me by the sea-breezes? The notes of a brass band. What do I see as I advance? As I live, London again! London, under another musical. form, following me to the sea-side! There they are, the gentlemanly German instrumentalists; the classical, orchestral, strictly professional street band; which carries its long-legged music-desks about with it, and plays elaborate works by great masters, and indulges in the luxury of a conductor to keep it in perfect order. Only last week these accomplished sons of Orpheus drove me from my desk in London; and here they are now, taking the free air itself into custody, and making the atmosphere metropolitan even by the sea-side!
Again I turn my back on the enemy; again I fly from the sea-breeze with the London smack. Retracing my steps, I get out of the town altogether, ascend the cliff, and walk on till I find a lonely gully descending steeply to the beach. I follow the downward path, and come out on the sands. The tide is at the ebb; and the flat rocks near at hand are richly. brown and green with sea weed. The long pools of water lie out. beyond them under the high sun, as still in their blue brightness as if they were fragments of the sky set for gems in the bosom of the earth. Farther yet, the faint, idle sea shows its white wave-edges thinly and wearily on the moist brownness of the sand. Over the low horizon hangs a mist of heat which veils the hulls of distant ships, and lets the sails above shine through softly, hanging cloud-like on the sky. The sultry silence is so intense that in the intervals of the sea-whispering along the margin of the beach, I can hear the hum of insects on a sunny spot of the cliff above my head. Where the first shade offers, I lie down on the dry sand, and give myself up gratefully to the stillness of the hour and the beauty of the scene.
My mind wanders insensibly towards a certain train of familiar and favourite thoughts, which may one day take form and place, and go out from me into the world to ask such welcome as they may deserve from the minds of others. My stick traces strange figures on the sand; my eyes look absently out to sea; my attention to external things dwindles and dwindles till nothing is left of it. Although I am physically wide awake, I am mentally fast asleep and dreaming—dreaming happily, but not for long. Sudden as a flash of lightning, a strange sound darts into my ears, and startles me in one cruel moment from my trance. Powers above! What spectre appears before me as if it bad risen out of the sand? Have I taken leave of my senses, or is this vagrant stranger who has stolen on me suddenly, the sturdy old Frenchman with the husky voice, the guitar, and the dancing dog—the very same individual who sang before my area railings in town not three days since? It is—it is the man. London again! London in the loneliest sea-shore nook that I can find a hundred miles away from the sound of Bow bells!
Thus far, the town element has presented itself to me in the character of a visitor like myself. A very few days’ experience, however, of my new abode suffices to reveal it in another form—in an unmistakeably settled and resident aspect.
The shops, for example, are not the characteristic offspring of the country and the sea-side—they are the poor relations and abject imitators of the shops in London. What business has my marine butcher to be a copy in miniature of my metropolitan butcher? Why does he display nothing in the least degree suggestive of his own peculiar locality? I am disgusted with the man for not wearing a Guernsey frock, for not having salt provisions in his shop, for not chopping his meat on a ship’s barrel. I object to his London awning when the sun shines—why is it not a sail? How dare his young man who comes for orders take me back to town by being just as greasy of head and just as blue in costume as the young man who comes in London? Only yesterday, I distinctly saw him bring us our joint in the usual wooden tray. What does he mean by not reminding me that I am at the sea-side by carrying it in a net?
Last Wednesday, we had a cold dinner. I sent for pickles—the local pickles, I said distinctly, expecting to receive and eager to relish, something brinily characteristic of the coast. There arrived instead, the familiar London bottle from Soho Square, with the familiar London label, informing me that what my pickles had lost in attractiveness of colour they had gained in genuineness of composition. Vainly the waves murmured, vainly the salt breeze blew. Soho Square asserted itself against both, in the middle of the table; and made our dinner a London meal. Our first breakfast was spoilt in a similar manner. I came down-stairs in high spirits, characteristically dressed in a monkey jacket, characteristically humming The Bay of Biscay. The very first object that met my view on the breakfast table was a half-quartern loaf that might have come out of Saint Giles’s.
The postman again—I am so angry with the postman that I feel inclined to hit him every time he hands me a letter. I put it to any moderate reader, whether a marine post man is not bound to give us a hail instead of a knock? “House, ahoy!”—surely he ought to say, “House, a-hoy!”? Instead of doing any thing of the sort, he, too, sets up the London element at the sea-side, by knocking like a London postman. Nay more, he carries the base imitation a point farther, by being violently angry with the servant if he is kept waiting an instant at the door. How am I to derive benefit from the sea-side when this licensed tyrant comes twice a day to take me back to town again?
There are some walks about our neighbourhood here, some exceedingly pretty’ inland walks, which I am given to understand are in the country. I certainly do see cornfields and lanes, trees, ditches, stiles, cottages, windmills, and so on. And yet, I really don’t know. The other day, when I thought I was walking, in pastoral solitude, along a lonely road, I was! overtaken by an Omnibus. I could hardly believe my eyes. I said to myself, incredulously, “No, no; this is either a waggon or a bathing machine.” I looked again, and a Conductor, an active, all-observing Cockney Conductor, hopped up on a London footboard, and “plied” me with uplifted hand as if I had been in Holborn.
This afternoon, the rain has come at last; and we have been obliged to stop in-doors and amuse ourselves by looking out of window. What goes by in the street, as dinner-time approaches? A fly—one of the London sort, which tries to look like a private brougham—carrying a gentleman inside, in formal evening costume, with that look of mournful expectation and suffering self-importance, peculiar to Englishmen on their way to festive assemblies. This is a very bad sign; the worst I have seen yet. Here are the visitors themselves conspiring to poison the fresh sea-side with the unwholesome metropolitan atmosphere. Why go to London dinner-parties, in London costume, here? Why not get away from town customs and town amusements, and establish something which is characteristic in a social way of the free ocean on whose borders we live? “Mr. and Mrs. Jones request the company of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, to box the compass. Small and early. Bathing-gowns and slippers. Grog and shrimps.” Why not establish some such marine form of invitation as this? Why not strengthen the conviction even in our most festive moments, that we are still at the sea-side?
I am sorry to observe it, but my own servant-girl, my once trustworthy and attached housemaid, whom I have brought here for the benefit of her health, has rewarded her master’s kindness by using his marine residence as if it was his London house. One night I come back late from my walk, and I find her enjoying the cool air of the evening at the area gate here, just as I see her enjoying it at the area gate in town. Nay, more, as I approach nearer in the dusk, I find that she has got a follower on the other side of the rails. As a man, I have learnt philosophy; as a master, I am proverbially indulgent towards the little frailties of my domestics. Abstractedly speaking, the discovery of the housemaid’s new sweetheart does not discompose me. My anger is solely aroused by the entire absence of characteristic local peculiarity in the reigning follower. The area Lothario of the sea-side is a base repetition of the area Lothario in town. He has the same mysterious slouch in his walk; the same sinister compromise in his apparel, between the dress of a broken down gentleman and a prosperous artisan. He has also the one singularly dreary method of courting the opposite sex, which obtains among all his class. He stands mutely staring at the beloved object, first on one leg, then on the other: he varies the proceeding by looking first over one shoulder, then over the other; he occasionally whistles, he occasionally scratches his head, he occasionally says, “Well, I must be off.” Exactly like the man in London—in the smallest particulars, the very image of the man in London. No smell of shrimps about him, a stick in his hand instead of a boathook, a long-tailed coat in place of a blue jacket. What do I hear my servant saying to him? Just what she says under similar circumstances in town,—“Fine evening, ain’t it?” Wretched girl! why not be characteristic, and say “How’s the wind?” Why not offer his trousers to wash, and his grog, too, to make? Think of the sea breezes, Mary, and be a tight lass, a trim little craft, a bumboat-woman—anything, anything but a London housemaid.
And yet, what right have I to expect a marine course of conduct from my servant, when her betters set her the example of importing the London element? Here are the “swells” on the pier, surveying the sea. through their opera-glasses, exactly as they survey the audience at the theatre in London.. There are the ladies on the Esplanade, with nothing that is not metropolitan about them, except their hats. The same spread of petticoat, the same circumambient hoops, the same critical intensity of expression when they look at each other as they pass—just like Regent Street. Regent Street, did I say? here is a shabby man, doing his best to complete the disastrous analogy by thrusting a bill into my hand as I walk by him. What is it? Concert at the Assembly Rooms. Ha! Something appropriate to the locality here, surely? Madrigals of the forecastle? Fishermen’s choruses? The song of the stroke-oar, and the coxswain’s catch? Let me repair to the Assembly Room. London again—stop my grog, if here is not London again! The charming young vocalist in pink satin, the youthful tenor with the wavy hair, the fatherly-looking bass with the dingy gloves. Selection from the Trovatore, airs from La Traviata. Ball later in the evening, under the direction of Mr. Whiff, from London. No chance, no change, no local character. The sound of Bow-bells and the sound of the waves always together, go where I may.
It is of no use, I suppose, to complain of this anomalous condition of things at the sea-side, or to offer any suggestions towards banishing the intrusive London element from the region of the coast. So far as I can see, the artificial taste of the present day appears to relish the sea-breeze with the London smack. One observation, however, I must positively take leave to make before I conclude. It is inconceivable to me how such a phrase as “going out of town,” continues to exist in the language. The sooner we study correctness of expression, and banish such an absurd form of words from our vocabulary the better. Instead of telling each other that we are going out of town, let us henceforth approach nearer to the truth, and say that we are going to remove from Metropolitan to Marine London. That phrase is, I submit, strictly descriptive of what we all do now, when we leave the city for the coast—excepting, of course, the case of any enterprising individual who may be fortunate enough to make a watering-place for himself on a desert island. At present I can only call to mind one British visitor to the sea-side who is entitled to assert that he has really been out of town. That visitor is Robinson Crusoe.
First published Household Words 4 September 1858 XVIII 274-277
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