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HOME > Short Stories > Notes on Novelists > LONDON NOTES June 1897
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 I am afraid there are at this moment only two notes for a communication from London to strike. One is that of the plunge into the deep and turbid waters of the Jubilee; the other is that of the inevitable retreat from them—the backward scramble up the bank and scurry over its crest and out of sight. London is in a sorry state; nevertheless I judge that the number of persons about to arrive undaunted will not fall substantially short of the number of horror-stricken fugitives. Not to depart is practically to arrive; for there is little difference in the two kinds of violence, the shock you await or the shock that awaits you. Let me hasten, however, to declare that—to speak for the present only of the former of these—the prospect is full of suggestion, the affair promises a rare sort of interest. It began a fortnight since to be clear—and the certitude grows each day—that we are to be treated to a revelation really precious, the domestic or familiar vision, as it were, the back-stairs or underside view, of a situation that will rank as celebrated. Balzac’s image of l’envers de l’histoire contemporaine is in fact already under our nose, already offered us in a big bouncing unmistakable case. We brush with an irreverent hand the back of the tapestry—we crawl on unabashed knees under the tent of the circus. The commemoration of the completed sixtieth year of her Majesty’s reign will figure to the end of time in the roll of English wonders and can scarcely fail to hold its own as an occasion unparalleled. And yet we touch it as we come and go—we feel it mainly as a great incommodity. It has already so intimate, so ugly, so measurable a side that these impressions begin to fall into their place with a kind of representative force, to figure as a symbol of the general truth that the principal pomps and circumstances of the historic page have had their most intense existence as material and social arrangements, disagreeable or amusing accidents, affecting the few momentary mortals at that time in the neighbourhood. The gross defacement of London, the uproarious traffic in seats, the miles of unsightly scaffolding between the West End and the City, the screaming advertisements, the sordid struggle, the individual questions—“Haven’t we been cheated by the plausible wretch?” or “How the devil shall we get to our seats after paying such a lot, hey?”—these things are actually the historic page. If we are writing that page every hour let us at any rate commend ourselves for having begun betimes, even though this early diligence be attended with extraordinary effects. The great day was a week ago still a month off, but what we even then had full in view, was, for the coming stretch of time, a London reduced to such disfigurement as might much better seem to consort with some great national penance or mourning. The show, when the show comes off, is to last but a couple of hours; and nothing so odd surely ever occurred in such a connection as so huge a disproportion between the discipline and the joy. If this be honour, the simple may well say, give us, merciful powers, the rigour of indifference! From Hyde Park Corner to the heart of the City and over the water to the solid south the long line of thoroughfares is masked by a forest of timber and smothered in swaggering posters and catchpenny bids, with all of which and with the vociferous air that enfolds them we are to spend these next weeks in such comfort as we may. The splendour will have of course to be great to wash down the vulgarity—and infinitely dazzling no doubt it will be; yet even if it falls short I shall still feel that, let the quantity of shock, as I have ventured to call it, be what it must, it will on the whole be exceeded by what I have ventured to call the quantity of suggestion. This, to be frank, has even now rolled up at such a rate that to deal with it I should scarce know where to take it first. Let me not therefore pretend to deal, but only glance and pass.  
The foremost, the immense impression is of course the constant, the permanent, the ever-supreme—the impression of that greatest glory of our race, its passionate feeling for trade. I doubt if the commercial instinct be not, as London now feels it throb and glow, quite as striking as any conceivable projection of it that even our American pressure of the pump might, at the highest, produce. That is the real tent of the circus—that is the real back of the tapestry. There have long, I know, been persons ready to prove by book that the explanation of the “historical event” has always been somebody’s desire to make money; never, at all events, from the near view, will that explanation have covered so much of the ground. No result of the fact that the Queen has reigned sixty years—no sort of sentimental or other association with it—begins to have the air of coming home to the London conscience like this happy consequence of the chance in it to sell something dear. As yet that chance is the one sound that fills the air, and will probably be the only note audibly struck till the plaudits of the day itself begin to substitute, none too soon, a more mellifluous one. When the people are all at the windows and in the trees and on the water-spouts, house-tops, scaffolds and other ledges and coigns of vantage set as traps for them by the motive power, then doubtless there will be another aspect to reckon with—then we shall see, of the grand occasion, nothing but what is decently and presentably historic. All I mean is that, pending the apotheosis, London has found in this particular chapter of the career of its aged sovereign only an enormous selfish advertisement. It came to me the other day in a quoted epigram that the advertisement shows as far off as across the Channel and all the way to Paris, where one of the reflections it has suggested—as it must inevitably suggest many—appears to be that, in contrast, when, a year ago, the Russian sovereigns were about to arrive no good Parisian thought for a moment of anything but how he could most work for the adornment of his town. I dare say that in fact from a good Parisian or two a window or a tree was to be hired; but the echo is at least interesting as an echo, not less than as a reminder of how we still wait here for the outbreak of the kind of enthusiasm that shall take the decorative form. The graceful tip of its nose has, it must be admitted, yet to show. But there are other sides still, and one of them immense—the light we may take as flood............
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