Triangles of Life and Other Stories

Letters to Jack Cornstalk

II. From an Australian in London


Henry Lawson

        England, December, 1900.

DEAR JACK,—In my last letter I promised to tell you something about St. Paul’s, the Tower, and those places. You remember the story of a rising young Australian politician who came home (how glibly the “home” comes!)—who came home on business, stayed some months, and went back without having seen either Westminster Abbey or the Tower, and without having been once inside the British House of Commons. He saw St. Paul’s—he couldn’t very well have dodged it. We couldn’t understand his constitution at the time, but I think I realize the thing now. You see, we have come so far to see the big, old, or otherwise wonderful (or eccentric) things that we’ve been hearing about since childhood, and they are so near that we experience that feeling of dullness or disinterestedness that comes after long waiting, or expectation, and just before the climax. Besides, we come from the land o’ lots of time and bring the atmosphere of it with us, round ourselves; so we reckon we’ll just take things easy to-day and go and do the Abbey or one of those places to-morrow—take a full day for it. I wouldn’t be surprised to know that hundreds come from Australia to London, stay some time, and go away without having seen anything to talk about.

If you come to make a living in London it doesn’t do to lean up against the Post of To-morrow. Rent days fly round and bills fly in. Your landlady, if you board and have apartments, meets you with a smile of anticipation before you know where you are, and they all think that because you came from Australia you must have plenty of money. You can’t take a supply of tea, sugar and flour and pitch your camp down the creek, where there’s plenty of wood and water, and take a fortnight to think over things. No; you must hustle round. You can live about as cheaply or as expensively as you like in London, but you’ve got to find those things out before you blue your cheque. You can’t borrow a few quid from your mate Jim, or Bill, and take another week or so waiting for something to turn up. A Sydney University boy of my acquaintance came “home” about two years ago to make a living in London with his pen, and he took things easy for a while. Now he answers letters by return post, with perhaps a letter-card following his letter, and containing something which he forgot to say in the letter; and I have known him to dash off a postcard by the same post with something of importance on it which he forgot to mention in the letter-card. When he arrived he wore comfortable clothes and a soft felt hat; now he wears a frock-coat, a top-hat, gloves, a stick, a card-case, a pair of glasses to nip on to his nose with a spring, and all the rest of it. When he has an appointment you’ll see him burst out of the front door and rush down the street, jerking his watch out every few yards, his coat tails flying and his top-hat lowered like a battering-ram. It’s a wonder he doesn’t telescope into that hat against something.

He is a good magazine writer, and a grand chap personally; and when I get him quiet for an hour he’s just the same old chap I knew in Sydney. He has had a gruelling which he will never forget. Some day I’ll tell you about his life in London—the tragedy of it scared me. Talk about heroes!

But where was I? Oh, about St. Paul’s and those places. I went through St. Paul’s because I found myself on the steps and couldn’t think of anywhere else to go just then. I went through the Art Gallery and the Abbey because my literary friend rushed me round and through those places. I must go and see for myself later on.

St. Paul’s is one of those places which are built too big, in a way, to look large. Looming out of London, it does not appear more imposing than a big corrugated iron shed looming out of the lonely scrubs Out Back in Australia, and certainly less impressive when you are properly impressed (or rather oppressed) by the extent and loneliness of the mighty Bush.

I haven’t seen the ruins of ancient lands—probably they would impress me; but as far as I have seen of the works of modern man, I can’t help thinking that when he sets to work to build a great, useless building with an eye to bigness only he succeeds in putting up a perishable monument to his own paltriness and the littleness of all his works. And the monument is usually an obstruction to the air, the view, and the traffic—a square with a fountain would be far better there. There’s a lot more sense in an ant-hill than in St. Paul’s. When man builds a big thing like St. Paul’s or St. Peter’s, he builds so high that when he wants to put stone josses—I mean statues—on the walls and in the niches, and pictures up round inside, he has to make representations of giants—monsters—else they wouldn’t be visible to people on the pavement or floor. And of what use is the result? You’ve got to study relative distance and heights—say, the size of a man as against the size of the building—in order to get some idea of the “vastness” of the work or structure, and when you have got it of what use is it to you? When a dome swells as big as the dome of St. Paul’s it suggests a silly attempt to rival the dome of the sky—and there you are.

Mind I am not writing with the idea of pulling down everything that’s up in theory without suggesting anything in its place. Have patience with me for a while. Neither am I going to use the worn-out argument that the millions spent on these buildings would feed and clothe thousands who are starving and in rags. The great majority of mankind would not be content for a month unless they were slaves; and so why abuse the few who will not be slaves, at least not slaves from a worldly point of view—who escape from being slaves to man, either by making money and sticking to it or by blowing out their brain matter.

I’ve seen buildings in Australia and elsewhere of less than half the size of St. Paul’s, which look much more imposing—the Hotel Australia in Sydney, for instance, or the Yankee insurance offices next the G.P.O.; but then in one case we have unbroken height, and in the other fresh clean granite and freestone work. In the guide-book pictures St. Paul’s stands out complete—as in the guide-book pictures of most buildings in the world. There is an atmosphere suggestive of wide spaces—of asphalt walks and gardens running out a mile or two in any direction. This is one of the apparently useless lies of civilization—but I suppose it’s born of commercialism, like most other lies—a little branch line lie of commercialism. You don’t see much of St. Paul’s in London—it is so crowded by buildings nearly as grimy and dingy as itself. A coat of soot round the lower part of the building hides the fine or graceful lines which may be in the stone work, and throws the columns—which should stand out clean and defined—flat against the inner wall; also it reduces the height of the building. The upper half of the building is a dirty, rain-washed white, and the soot is washed in streaks down over the ledges. I remember a black cliff in a corner of the coast in New Zealand with a cave in it and a round tussock hill on the top; on the upper ledges of the cliff millions of sea-birds were in the habit of roosting. St. Paul’s, from a distance, reminds me of that cliff.

A Londoner tells me that by and by I’ll look at St. Paul’s and other London things, and be ready to kick myself to think I was so foolish as to write as I am writing now. If I do, I’ll say so—and probably kick myself. I have so often had occasion to kick myself that I am getting hardened to it.

This Londoner says that he’ll go past St. Paul’s every day for nine days and see nothing in it, but on the tenth day he’ll look up and have a feeling. I suppose when I go back to Sydney and see the General Post Office or the Town Hall, I’ll have a feeling too—because of many things; but when I was in Sydney I passed those buildings nearly every day for years, and the only feeling I had was one of resentment, called up by the vicinity of a cheap restaurant in which I did a six months’ perish in other and braver years. Different billets make men look at things in different ways.

English home people are remarkable for their invulnerable common sense, but they allow the appearance of an awful lot of senseless idolatry in London. And worse!—there is in London a fashionable dog graveyard—headstones and all complete—and on one of those headstones the fashionable bereaved one expresses a hope that she’ll meet her darling in heaven. But I didn’t mean to touch on that; I’m not ready for it yet. Such things excite me.

I take off my hat and go into St. Paul’s (you have to take off your hat, and that fact is pregnant). I take off my hat and go into St. Paul’s, expecting to be impressed and awed—and wishing to be. I think it’s a very good and hopeful thing to be impressed, and to feel a reverence for something in these shallow cowardly days of a false feeling of manliness, and of the sex problem. But the interior of St. Paul’s does not impress me; it suggests to me an imitation of the interior of some older and larger building which I haven’t seen yet. The statuary, of white marble, is so smoked that it suggests at once cheap plaster casts coated with grey or stone-coloured paint to preserve and keep them together. This after the pure white marble in Sydney gardens.

There is a sprinkling of people on a regiment of seats in the centre, under the dome, between the shafts, and the organ is playing. I am not educated to classical or organ music. I suppose that if I were to hear a good voice now, singing “Bonnie Doon,” or “Annie Laurie” or “Mary of Argyle,” or any of those old songs, I’d feel nice and miserable. Those are the sort of tunes that impress me. To me the volume of the organ of St. Paul’s does not seem greater than that of the Sydney organ—the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere. But I remember what I said in my last letter about not seeing the contrast between a great thing and a small thing of the same kind seen previously.

I go round one side of the nave behind the shafts and meet a spectral figure in a black gown—a man who looks as if he’s just come out of the hospital—and he closes a wicket noiselessly and raises a ghostly hand against me—as if there’s some one dying up there. He doesn’t impress me at all. He might impress the majority, but he impresses me least of anything in St. Paul’s. I think he ought to be swept up and taken away in the dust cart.

I go back and round the other way and try to get impressed by the sculpture, and the following groups in succession is what I see (according to notes taken on the spot, while another convalescent in a black gown looked as if he’d expire before they got him back to the hospital)—

Major-General Andrew Hay.—Officer in uniform falling sideways, in most awkward position, and supported awkwardly by big, naked man on left (why naked?), who holds the Major-General as if he’s got something in his hands in which he is not interested, and which he doesn’t know what to do with. Supporter seemingly blind and sea-sick; lips suggest exhausted disgust. If he has any expression at all, it is the expression of a tired man who is doing a useless and idiotic thing, and knows it, and can’t help himself. On the right stands the figure of a private, holding his chin and looking as if he is sorry he got the Major into his present fix. In the background to the right the usual squeezed-out little row of wooden undersized soldiers charging. The rank looks as if it’s skewered.

Sir Thomas Picton.—Dressed as Alexander the Great, or something, with a property helmet on and little else. Inevitable angel handing him a wreath across the head of a lion. Lion looks currishly, maliciously inclined to bite because the wreath isn’t meat. Behind Sir Thomas, and leaning familiarly on his shoulder, a naked girl, with wings on, stands cross-legged; she has a woolly head, and all the points of a third-rate Sydney barmaid in the old sub-letting days.

Lord Rodney.—Figure of Lord Rodney up in the background. Angel standing on right, with hand thrown back towards Rodney’s waistcoat, and dictating to angel on left, who sits with a book and pencil, and looks up at angel No. 1 as if to ask, “You surely don’t want me to write down that?” The whole suggests the designing of a new uniform on a tailor’s dummy.

Lord Rodney wears the indignant and dignified expression of a local magnate who is stopped by a beggar in his own grounds. Sir Thomas Picton wears something more like a string of small sausages bunched up than a beard, and an expression of quiet annoyance. Others regard their angels with looks more or less pained and idiotic, though some of the expressions would be natural to men accosted by strange ladies wearing wings.

Now, let any intelligent Englishman who reads this go into St. Paul’s and look at these groups, and decide as to whether the sculptors were impudent humbugs, or I’m one.

How contemptible this “art” would seem by the side of the statue of Burke and Wills (the Australian explorers) in Melbourne, or of Bobbie Burns in Ballarat (the statue with a twinkle in the eye), or a hundred others in Australia.

Talking of statues, there is often, from one point of view, an unforeseen effect which is not possible in pictures—a point of a cocked hat, for instance, which suggests a beak, or a rapier sticking out behind, and giving the figure a tail. There is in the statue of Lord Nelson, on a tall column in Trafalgar Square, an effect which is greatly admired by the Americans who patronize Morley’s Hotel on the Strand side of the Square. There is a similar—or even more so—effect in the statue of Captain Cook in Sydney, seen from one point of view. It’s strange that these things are never foreseen. The sculptors must have had a rough time amongst their friends.

The Misguide Book says: “Generally speaking, the monuments in the Cathedral are more interesting from personal associations than from great artistic merit but some of the groups display vigorous action, and the likenesses are well preserved,” etc., etc. You’ve read the same sort of stuff before. If the likenesses are preserved, then most of the heroes must have been born idiots. From my point of view, most of the statuary in St. Paul’s is crude and—no, not theatrical—it doesn’t even deserve that term. Reversing time, I would say that it belongs to the concert hall, living-picture school—the whole business has a concert-hally atmosphere. And I needn’t have reversed time either, for the sentiment of the British Empire of to-day is popular concert hall sentiment. We can’t get any lower, and that’s some comfort.

When I look at a stone angel I mostly see a shallow-brained, soulless artist or sculptor’s model in part of a sheet, and with a pair of wings. The stone angel business has been carried to a sickening extent in St. Paul’s. If it were not so concert-hally, and thus beneath contempt, I would call it—well, Jack, I would call it blasphemy—and you know I’m no saint. To see everywhere crude angels in stone in senseless attendance on stone gods supposed to represent dead heroes, who were only lucky to be leaders, who were no braver than thousands who fought under them, and some of whom were greater cowards in domestic life than the majority. As our friend, the shearer’s cook at Come-by-Chance Station, used to say, “There’s more money and sympathy wasted over dead an’ rotten humbugs than there is common justice done to straight honest living men.” It’s the way of all the world, and all time. Make gods of the dead! Crucify the living.

If a man’s name cannot live in the history of a nation it cannot live in a stone idol.

Londoners admit that the statuary in St. Paul’s is notoriously bad. Then why is it there? Why is it not broken up and buried, and something sensible put in its place? Or is it an object lesson of the times when conceited, untalented humbugs, with nothing but “cheek” to recommend them, got by influence and court favour large sums of the public money for spoiling marble, while men who had the genius to put life and sense in stone were left to starve and eat their hearts out in garrets, or drink themselves to hell in wine cellars?

There is no escape from a superstition called Wren in London. Going round with my literary friend the other day, he pointed and said—

“Do you see that spire?”


“Perfect! by Wren.”

The spire looked all right—anyway, I couldn’t suggest any alteration on the spot. Looking at it later on, I had to admit that it was beautiful.

By and by he pointed to another spire.

“See that spire?”


“Horrible—by So-and-So.”

It did look ugly. After a while he pointed again.

“See that spire?”


“By Wren—perfect. Slightly different in design from the other.”

There was a slight difference. Later on we came to Westminster Abbey.

“See that tower?”


“Restored by Wren. But—” (he hesitated), “but the top doesn’t somehow seem——”

It didn’t seem to fit the bottom. That’s what he meant. But he was too much a Londoner, and too great a worshipper of Wren, to see where the trouble was. I think I saw it at once. Wren had simply taken the tops of four spires he had on hand and put one on each corner of the tower. If ever a pun was justified, Wren was an inspired man. He wasn’t a tower man, and in restoring the Abbey he wasn’t laying to his book. He was working on his reputation—or, maybe, he was hard up at the time. I’ll take you into Westminster Abbey when I’m in a more cheerful frame of mind.

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