Triangles of Life and Other Stories

Letters to Jack Cornstalk

I. From an Australian in London


Henry Lawson

        London, September, 1900.

DEAR JACK,—You know I always had a great idea of the value of first impressions—an exaggerated idea, you used to say. I have it stronger than ever—indeed, I sometimes fear that the eagerness to seize first impressions, and write them down before they become blurred and lost, is becoming a mania with me. If I had to write up a big city I’d rather be there a month than a year. We Australians seem to adapt ourselves so quickly to strange places and upside-down conditions. Already London walls seem less dark and dirty to me—London streets less narrow, crowded and sordid, the whole city less like a big squalid village. The houses are growing every day, and I suppose as I go on the lives of the bulk of London humanity, and of two classes of London society especially—that of fashionable West End and that of Spitalfields, for instance—will seem less and less hopelessly useless and unnecessary to the existence of the world. As I make friends, and find halfway houses, so to speak, to drop into in my wanderings about the city, the awful monotony of London ceases to oppress me. For the first few days I thought it more dreadful than the monotony of the Bush, and more utterly hopeless, seeing that the Bush becomes settled and humanized, while London can only change with the changes of the centuries.

I suppose I’ll make some blunders, in detail, with my first impressions, but they will be the blunders of hundreds, maybe thousands, who come to London, get the same impressions, and take ’em away and never lose ’em. So my writings will still hold true as of first impressions. I want to drive all this into your thick head, because I intend to write to you pretty regularly, and I know that you will regard some parts of my letters as cheap copy for that old democratic rag of yours, the Come-by-Chance Boomerang. I don’t mind—it will save me writing at length to all the boys, as I promised.

I am writing under a disadvantage, for which I never bargained when I left Australia. I have heard Australians say that you cannot get round the real size of the difference between Sydney or Melbourne and London until you return to Australia, and I feel now that that is true. A returned Australian once said to me: “When you go to London you don’t think much of it, but when you come back to Sydney the houses seem about a foot high.” This was before they began to build sky-scrapers in Australia. My present impression is that in Sydney city the houses in general are higher than in London—but that is probably because of the few really tall buildings in Sydney. You see, they don’t allow high buildings in London.

You do not so quickly realize the contrast between a big thing and a small thing of the same kind, seen previously, as between a greater thing, seen some time ago, and a lesser thing seen now. See? Well, look here! St. Pancras Railway Station covers, under the unbroken arch of roof (260 feet at the base), five long, comfortable platforms, a wide carriage-way, and ten lines of rail; Redfern Station, Sydney—the largest we have—has only two little platforms and a double line of rail under the main roof. But the general idea is the same, and to me—with three months and some fifteen thousand miles of ocean between the two stations—St. Pancras is only Redfern blown out, or magnified, but enlarged to an extent which I shall not be able to realize until I strike Redfern again. St. Pancras is about—how many times bigger than Redfern? but this doesn’t strike you until you begin to study it out; and I suppose few Australians who visit London would take that trouble. This is scarcely a first impression, but let it pass. I have an idea that when I go back, Sydney—where I spent the greatest part of my life—will surprise me a deal more than London did at first. Then for some first impressions of Sydney. And (this might sound like a ridiculous paradox) I have an impression that Australians, who come to London and stay awhile, never realize the size of their disappointment—they keep on expecting to be surprised presently, and having a vague idea that the street they’re in must lead toward the city proper— that London begins to grow on them and surprise ’em gradually.

There are many things I want to tell you about. We expect to find English people cold, reserved and inhospitable, and are not disappointed; but we seldom study the reasons. No need to come to England for that. They are reserved and inhospitable, because they have to be—they are so hopelessly bound by the same customs (or superstitions) and cast-iron conditions, which are surely, and not too slowly, gaining ground in Australian cities, and which papers like the old Boomerang have been slogging at for years. The English do not seem, to Australian city people, more cold-blooded than the people of Australian cities themselves appear from a bushman’s point of view.

I think, after all, the best thing I can do is to write straight on and describe the things which I have up to date seen and experienced, and the impressions I got from them; and I hope the reason for the real (or apparent) inhospitality of English people, for the vague, irritating feeling of disappointment we have on first visiting London, and for many other things, will appear plain to you as I write.

By the way, they call wheat “corn” in England, so in speaking of you to English friends I’ve had to explain that you were nicknamed after the stalk of the Indian corn (maize), else they’d think you were a very slender reed indeed to lean on or run against, instead of the tough old stalk you are; but I suppose you are pretty slender after the shearing season Out-Back—unless you’ve managed to hang on to the editorial chair of the Boomerang. I think of old Come-by-Chance sometimes; I suppose things are just as dull as ever in that dead-and-alive township.

I’ll tell you all about the voyage some other time. We had fog, thick, heavy and wet as one of old “Curry-and- Rice’s” dampers, from Spain, past Plymouth, and nearly to Dover. Syren going the whole time, and other syrens all round through the night. All the officers on the bridge and the lookout men for’ard. “Light on the port bow, sir!” “Light on the starboard bow, sir!” “Vessel on the port bow, sir!” all the time. Somewhere coming out of the Bay of Biscay we just shaved a big four-masted sailing ship that suddenly developed out of a smudge in the fog. That’s nothing in these waters. The ship’s people kept winding up mud and seaweed from the bottom to see where we were—prospecting the bottom of the Channel. It wasn’t what we’d call “payable dirt” on the goldfields; this submarine prospecting delayed us considerably, but it probably saved our lives. We saw Dover on a fine, bright morning. You remember a picture in a glass case at home, half picture, half modelled, with a cliff like a piece of scraped chalk painted a bright green on top, and little Noah’s ark houses with dabs of colour for windows and doors, and trees—like those in a cheap box of toys—stuck about the top of the cliff. Cliff too white, we thought, and trees and grass altogether too green for anything of the kind on earth—outside a picture. Well, Dover from the distance looked just like that—like a bright little dollhousey picture. And Margate from a distance reminded me of one of New Zealand’s miniature cities in wood—the open sea-front of Napier, for instance.

The Thames is the Melbourne Yarra on a larger scale, and without the smell.

From the time the fog lifted there was no escape from a confounded bore, who’d been there before, and wanted to point out things. He lived part of the year in Australia and the rest in England. He was not an Englishman, as far as I could see, and not an Australian—nor yet what is next best to it, an Englishman Australianized. He’d been all over the world—he was simply a type of the born-and-bred idiots, who travel to see things, so that they will be able to say that they have seen ’em, and who couldn’t describe them any more than they could fly. He hadn’t the brains to be a liar—he had no brains at all—he hadn’t even any politics.

Every now and again he’d come up and say: “Well, we’re in the Thames now—what do you think of it?”

I was leaning over the rail, taking in things quietly, and looking at some old warships cut down to a hulk, when he took a pinch of my arm and stuck his finger out in another direction from that in which I was looking. He paused a moment, as if he was going to say something very impressive, then he said—

“See that boat there?”

I saw a boat like one of our Manly steamers, crowded with holiday people.

“Yes, I see it. What’s wrong with it?”

“There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s an excursion steamer taking a holiday crowd from London down to Margate, or some of them places.”

If the holiday crowd had been naked, and painted in red and blue stripes, there might have been something to look at. As it was, I couldn’t see any difference between them and an ordinary Manly beach crowd. And the pointing-out friend seemed to expect me to stare and be astonished. “You’ll open your eyes when you see the docks,” he said; but I saw nothing in the docks to open my eyes any wider than usual. The docks are simply big dam arrangements of masonry, one leading into another, built in the river bank, and ships are floated in, and the water-gate closed behind them, to keep up the floating depth of water when the tide goes out of the river.

This explains why captains are anxious to catch a tide. Australian boats are timed to arrive on Saturday, and if they miss a tide and get in on Sunday it’s awkward for all parties.

I suppose that when the tide goes out of the river you could row outside on a level with the keels of the vessels in dock. And if the water-gates were to break things would get mixed, I fancy; there’d be a lot of running round and swearing.

The Buster’s father met us at the docks. You remember the day I took you to the Buster’s studio in Sydney, and he showed you how he made men out of mud?

We settled to stay at the Buster’s Dad’s place, in City Road, for a day or two, until we had time to look round.

We hadn’t been allowed to land at Teneriffe, on account of the plague in Australia, so the custom officers weren’t strict. I got on with them all right. You get tobacco cheap at Teneriffe.

We took the train from the Albert Docks to Fenchurch Street, third class, and the worst accommodation I ever experienced. We came over London East, but I was too knocked out to take much notice of it. A wilderness of houses, where you might easily get bushed. The first difference that struck me was the absence of awnings and verandahs.

At Fenchurch Street I said good-bye to my chum of the voyage. He was a lanky Victorian, from West Australia last. He must have been near seven feet. I thought I was the tallest man on board until a couple of days after King George’s Sound (he’d been down sea-sick), when I came on deck one morning and saw him standing by the rail. By way of introduction I went and stood back-to-back with him. He grinned. “That’s nothing,” he said, “there’s some terribly tall fellows where I come from.” He came from Bendigo way, in Victoria. He was of a type of bushman that I always liked—the sort that seem to get more good-natured the longer they grow; yet are hard-knuckled, and would accommodate a man who wanted to fight, or thrash a bully, in a good-natured way. He wore a good-humoured grin at all times, and was nearly always carrying somebody’s baby about, or making tea at the galley for some of the women, or cadging extras for them. He’d been “doin’ a bit of diggin’ in West Australia.” “The West was dead,” he said, and there was nothing doing in the Eastern colonies, so far as he could hear; he’d made a “few quid,” and had made up his mind to take a run across to South Africa and have a look round. I was glad to see him still on board after Cape Town. “I was just beginning to feel at home on the ship,” he explained, “so I thought I might just as well go right on and have a look at London and the Paris Exhibition. You see I booked right through, and I mightn’t get the chance again. I can have a look round South Africa just as well coming back; and things will be more settled there then.”

The fare from Australia to England by the Cape was the same as by Suez, because of competition, but the fare to the Cape was only a pound less; so many booked right through who’d only intended to go to the Cape. This led to trouble over selling and transferring tickets in South Africa.

When I ran against the Victorian at Fenchurch Street he looked the same as ever, and grinned his broadest grin of good nature. He’d stuck to his soft felt hat, and wore a comfortable sac suit of grey saddle tweed—such as you, Jack, wear on Sundays. He had on a white shirt, though it was a hot day, and, out of respect for a strange country, he had buttoned his waistcoat. He had sewn a pocket inside that waistcoat for his money.

“I’ve just heard of a cheap boardin’-house,” he said, “where they don’t pop it on too stiff, and a man can get a square feed. I’ll stay and knock round London for a few days, and see what’s to be seen; and then I’ll take a run over and have a look at the Frenchmen. I reckon I’d better take a cab, or I’ll get bushed. Well, so long, old man, and good luck! We’re pretty sure to run against each other again, knockin’ round the world.” He gave my fingers a squeeze that glued them together with pain; and so I parted with the last of the Australians for a while. Outside the station I saw him grinning good-naturedly down on a very short, fat cabman.

We took a four-wheeler from Fenchurch Street. Looking at things from the outside, the principal business streets of Australian capitals, narrower, without the verandahs, and with a little more traffic, would do for London; and streets like Pitt Street, Sydney, or Collins Street, Melbourne, would ornament the old city. The dirty, gritty, blackened walls are very striking, after the yellow-tinted freestone, clean brick and painted cement of Sydney. The walls of old Newgate are coated like the inside of a neglected chimney. When I first saw the blackened walls I had a vague sort of notion that there had been a big fire round there lately, and for days I had a kind of idea that the terraces had been painted black, or some dark colour, so as not to show the dirt.

Just as we were turning out of the streets which I thought, by the look of them, must run down towards the City, the Buster’s Dad pointed to a dingy black wall, and said: “There’s the Bank.” It was low and very dirty, and not particularly solid looking. I thought it would be all the better for a scrape down and a couple of coats of stone-colour. I would have expected to see a better rear wall to the backyard of the Bank of England, for, of course, I thought the front of the building must be round in a main street. I asked the Buster’s Dad if we’d go round by the front?

“That’s the front,” he said.

The Buster’s Dad lived in a terrace built in a half-circle, back from the street, the space in front filled by a half-moon of stone or cement, with posts round it, and seats on it. The Buster’s Dad says he remembers when trees grew there. On the opposite side of the street was a big hoarding covered with advertisements. After tea, when we had told them all about the Buster’s family in Australia, I sat by the window (it was Saturday evening) and watched the ’buses and horse-trams go by, painted pink and blue and yellow, according to their routes, and covered with advertisements; and I watched the people who drifted round and rested on the dusty seats of the dusty little stone half-moon. It was a hot day, and dust and straw and bits of paper drifted round.

There were draggled girls with rag babies—at least the babies were mostly rags—who came from back courts; there were shapeless, rusty black bundles, tied round the middle, with dingy shawls three-corner-wise over the shoulders, and knobs on top, in the shape of black bonnets: old women who met on their way from the pubs, with jugs half under their shawls, and who rested a while on a seat and helped, no doubt, to blacken a dirty, mean street with their tongues. It would surprise a Sydneysider to see how many respectable working women go into pubs as a matter of course; but you soon get used to these things. There was the drunk who hooked his elbow on to the back of a seat and half hung, half sat, and talked to himself, until he felt able to get up and stagger to the pub.

There was one man, or the shadow of a man, who drifted on to that space with a human eddy from the street, and rested on a seat for a while. He wore a white shirt and a high collar, and his boots were pathetically well polished; his clothes seemed decent and whole, though the cloth rather dull and the linen cloudy; his face was white and worn sharp—a dead white, with something bluish about it, I fancied. He drew in his shoulders, as if he were cold, and, as he sat down he bent forward and hitched up the knee of his trousers. The “dicky,” or false shirt-front, worked up and buckled outwards, and I could see through between it and his bare bony breast. And when he got up and moved away I saw that he was walking on his bare feet. Things hadn’t changed much since Dickens’ time. I had seen something like this in Sydney, and I felt that I would live to see the same scene from a Sydney or Melbourne window. I began to feel pretty dismal.

On Sunday morning the Buster’s Dad and a couple of friends took me round to show me the city, and point out places which were as familiar to me as the face of the old Boomerang cashier—or as mine should be to him—because I had seen those places, from as far back as I could remember, in every variety of picture-show—from the old peep-show and magic-lantern, to the improved cinematograph; and speaking of the cinematograph, it was in a “ride down the Strand” in a vitascope show in Sydney that I first experienced the feeling of disappointment—I kept expecting to come into a big street, or to see something presently, right up to the moment the picture was shut off the screen.

And my London friends seemed to expect me to open my mouth or show some sign of astonishment. The only thing that surprised me was to see St. Paul’s and those places reduced to about half the size I expected them to be, and very black and dirty. I wanted to see the Monument close, and my friends took me round by it, but didn’t seem to think much of it. I drifted back into an old London fog, and saw the London coach come in, and Mr. Pecksniff and his daughters get down and start to walk to the Commercial Boarding-house, where poor silly little Mercy met the brute her father sold her to. I’d have followed (and no doubt have found the Commercial Boarding-house little changed), but I hadn’t time before my friends wanted to point out something else.

English people seem unable to realize the progress of a new country. Leaving out St. Paul’s and the Abbey, and those old institutions, most things that are in London we have in Australia on a smaller scale—some on a larger—and we have—because of our readiness to give Yankee and foreign notions a show—many things that they haven’t got in London yet.

I remember reading a magazine article by a leading English writer, in which he censured the average Australian in London for his “affectation of indifference,” pointed out that it was only an exhibition of weakness or ignorance, and that it would be more manly to express his honest astonishment at the marvels he saw. That writer will probably never understand that his article was only another example of the stay-at-home Englishman’s hopeless inability to realize progress outside his own country.

My first landlady expressed surprise at hearing me speak “such good English”; she said she thought that Australians had a language of their own; and, now I come to think of it, she wasn’t so far out.

The Buster’s Dad took me round some of the way in the underground railway. I noticed that a young friend of his watched me closely, to see if I’d be nervous, I suppose. The Underground was about as hot as the centre of Bulli Tunnel, near Sydney, and a good deal dirtier; in some places the smoke goes up through gratings along the middle of the street. The stations, big, grimy, gritty cellars, and you go up dusty steps and stumble into mean streets and other unexpected places.

The size of London lies in the spread of it; but you can no more realize it than you can the mighty extent of the Bush—the land of magnificent distances. In the latter case you only remember the day’s ride or tramp through scrubs and clearings—and other days like it. The day’s work or walk. It is the same with distance at sea; you realize the horizon around you all day, for weeks—or months—and that’s about all.

To me, the first, the most ghastly thing in London, was broad daylight after nine o’clock at night. When I am hurried round, and things are pointed out to me, I lose my bearings and see through cockney eyes. I like to go alone. So, on Monday morning, I slipped out and took a walk down to the City. It was another hot day, and there was plenty of dust. I was already used to the absence of verandahs, and felt just as much at home as if I were walking down George Street from Redfern. I had decided that the best way to learn the City was to blunder round and ask as little as possible. I called to mind certain instructions given me, but decided to make back for the Bank whenever I got hopelessly mixed, and make a fresh start from there.

But the trouble was to find the Bank. It is the most modest building I ever met; most unobtrusive, as it should be, if only on account of its dirt. On more than one occasion I asked to be directed to the Bank, and was told that I was at it. It had a shut-up and deserted appearance, as if it went bung about fifty years ago, and closed for reconstruction (as most of our banks did in ’92), and had never opened since. I have a faint recollection of having seen a door in the front wall, and, if there really is one, I’ll go in next time I’m down in the City, and see what it’s like inside.

We have in Australia an exaggerated idea of the volume and rush and roar of London traffic. I’d rather cross at the Bank (and not use the subways) than at the corner of King and George Streets, Sydney, where we have a double line of fast electric tramway, and the ’Bus Companies are still hanging on. But this is mainly because London traffic is so perfectly managed.

From the top of a ’bus the only real difference I could see between the business street crowd of London and that of Sydney or Melbourne was, while there is a sprinkling of frock-coats and tall hats in the young cities, there is a shower in London. I fancied that the Sydney people, when I last saw them, seemed the more haggard, worried and hurried; but that might have been a trick of memory.

Down Fenchurch Street I was looking for a place in a hurry, and passed it twice—because it was up a court instead of in the main street, where it advertised itself to be—and was passing it for the third time when I was aware of a shadow at my elbow. Poor devil!—he had been a man, I suppose; there was little manhood left in him now. Imagine a Sydney Domain Dosser in his last stage of dosserdom—imagine him several degrees worse than he could possibly become in Sydney! This man was apparently a hopeless drunkard; long past the bloated stage. He wore an old frock-coat that was in rags round his wrists, and so smeared with grease and dirt that it hung heavy from his sharp shoulderblades. His hat, a level-brimmed stove-pipe, rested on his ears, which supported it like brackets, the rim seemed only held together by grease and dirt, and the crown was of the same materials, with, perhaps, a thin under lining of felt. Where the grease was thin on his clothes there were patches of collar green. And the most wretched Sydney gutter-raker would not do more than turn the boots over with a stick if he saw them lying in the rubbish. His trousers legs (they don’t call trousers pants in England)—his trousers were stiff as buckram, and by the hang of them may have been suspended from his waist by shreds or bits of string. Heaven only knows what ghastly skeleton in dirt that old frock-coat covered.

“Excuse me, sir!” he said, hurriedly and hoarsely, “is there any place you want to find? I can direct you. I’m—I’m a messenger! I’ve been thirty-five years here, and I know every hole and corner——”

“No,” I said, with the distrust of the stranger in London; “I can find my way.” We hear so much about the cleverness of London pickpockets, confidence men, etc., that some of us, for the first week, take precautions which seem childish and silly when we look back at them.

“But—but you’ve passed the place!” (Observation told him that—his wits were sharpened by the drunkard’s thirst.) “Only tell me what place you want to find. I’ll show you at once!” (His hands began to tremble—then to shake.) “What—what place is it, sir? I’ve been here thirty-five years and I——” (every now and again his voice broke into an involuntary whine; the cry that breaks out in the speech of the hopeless drunkard, who is suffering a recovery, and has been too long without a drink). “I can show you, sir. I can show you at once, any place, sir! Only tell me the name of the place!” (He was trembling now from head to foot. I told him where I wanted to go.)

“Come with me, sir! Come with me. I know it! I’ll show you the place!—it’s up here! You passed it! You’d never find it!” (His limbs were trembling violently now. God help us all!) “There it is; go right up those steps and in through that big door! Do you want to find any other place, sir? I’ll show you any place! Shall I wait, sir? I’m—I’m a messenger— I’ve been round here for thirty-five years, and——”

“You’ve been here for thirty-five years?”

“Yes, sir! thirty-five years——” His whine broke loose again on the “thirty-five.”

“You don’t seem to have done much good with your time,” I said.

The words were scarcely out of my mouth before I felt the foolish brutality of them. It benefited him, though, for I gave him enough to drown his hell for a while. He wanted more (“make it even money, sir!” ), but that was human nature.

But London is perhaps the easiest city in the world to find your way about in. It is here that you get the full benefit of the advice, “Ask a policeman.” I like the London policeman; he is large, good-natured and seemingly broad-minded. When you speak to him he doesn’t turn slowly, and, if you are shabby, regard you as if you had shoved up against him on purpose. He doesn’t look you up and down and say, “Phwhat’s that? Oh, the Barrank! You ought to know where that is. Where do you want to go to?” Neither does he turn his back on you, jerk his thumb over his shoulder and say, “It’s beyant.”

He doesn’t scratch his head, think lazily, and say, “Go round the carrner, turn up the third turrnin’ to the rroight. Keep straight down till ye come to the top an a hill. Thin keep straight up till ye see a church forninst ye. And thin arsk.”

No. The London policeman attends to you instantly, and his directions are prompt, plain and concise. He is recruited mostly from the provinces, I believe, and there is a certain democratic dignity about him which appeals to me. I like his “Second to the right, sir” ; or “Third—no—wait a moment” (with a cheerful smile) “fourth to the left—ask the policeman there.”

He knows most things about London. He is supposed to know everything in existence—and many things which do not exist, except in the imaginations of strangers from all possible parts of the world (and from many places which would seem impossible to the untravelled English mind). He turns from explaining to you where you are, and where you’ll have to go to get anywhere else, to attend to a slow old lady who wants to be put in a tram, that doesn’t come within half a mile of where she is, in order to reach a place where trams don’t run. He has to keep one eye on the traffic and the other on her while she finds her purse and looks out a piece of paper with an illegible address scrawled on it; and he must put her right, somehow. Also amongst hundreds of other things, he has to attend to strangers who want clean good board and lodging cheap. And, mind you, all this time he is probably stationed in the middle of a cross street, managing four streams of traffic, of which the vehicles can go in twelve lawful directions (if you count round the corners); while there is sure to be a cabby trying variations. Also he has to take nervous women across the street and save them in spite of themselves.

The London policeman wears two breast-pockets on his tunic (this is a hint for Australian artists), and I think the pockets would be an improvement to the uniforms of the “traps” of a certain city I know—with, in one pocket, a small book in big type, “Defoe” style for preference, setting forth the virtues of common civility, and, in the other, a book which would explain to the Bobby, in language fitted to his comprehension, that he is a servant of the people, and not a recruiting agent for the gaols.

In my next letter I’ll tell you about St. Paul’s, the Abbey, and the Tower, and a good many other things.

Triangles of Life And Other Stories - Contents

Back    |    Words Home    |    Lawson Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback