It will probably have seemed to many that in London the evening hour between seven and eight o’clock is the most distinctive and significant of the twenty-four, the one that is most expressive of the city’s real life and character. It has something in its mellowness and repose that stimulates in the spectator ,a subtle receptiveness and quickens a special sensitiveness to the trooping impressions of this manifold, multi-faceted community. One comes nearest then to truly “sensing” colossal, world-weary, indomitable London, as she relaxes a gracious hour to catch breath in the turmoil and struggle that has endured for more than a dozen centuries. For quite the same reason as you would not say that the ocean is most characteristic in either calm or storm, but rather when rolling in long and steady swells, so London is not so much her real self at her most vacant hour of sunrise when the milk carts clatter where the omnibuses usually are and the street lights turn as wan and sickly as the tramps on the benches, nor yet at the height of her turbulence when busy men are dashing hatless about Cheapside and loaded drays are delayed for hours in traffic blocks, but rather in the agreeable period of early evening “let-up” while truce is effective between the working-hours of day and the playing-hours of night.
Of course, “let-up” is meant in a comparative sense only, for in the bright lexicon of London there is properly no such word; but there comes at seven o’clock at least as much of a lull as is ever to be looked for here. The savage roar of the streets is dulled to a deep growl, the crowds become shuffling and idle and their relative depletion and the proportionate activity and congestion in restaurants, pensions, and hotel dining-rooms are eloquent of the fact that the great city is now engaged in solemn rites before the Roast Beef of Old England. Nor does the altered complexion of things come amiss to the distracted foreign visitors who, though at odds in everything else, are of one opinion in this, that, without reservation on the part of humor, during the greater part of the day they cannot see London for the people. By that they mean that the life of the streets is so intense and so varied that it proves a serious distraction from taking adequate note of the appearance and significance of the city itself. It is, therefore, with profound satisfaction that they welcome an hour in which they may devote a portion of their energy to something more edifying than jostling pedestrians or escaping sudden and sordid destruction by motor-car, hansom, or bus. It is now that the town throws off the yoke of its drivers and the very buildings become instinct with individuality and character. Every little dim and noiseless square, each broad and lordly park, the massive mansions of the great whose names have been in history for ages, business blocks of Old-World charm to which trade seems the merest incident, blackened pavements and Wren’s slender steeples, every memory-haunted nook and corner, all wrought by smoke and fog to a blood-brotherhood of neutral tones, are joining the song’ Father Thames is singing of dignity, power, and grandeur, – all breathe the common exultation of being London. It is more than Self-Assertion. It is Apotheosis!
If this may seem an extravagant idea to some, it is certain there can be but one mind as to the relief that comes with the “let-up.” It gives a man a chance to find himself after being lost and daunted and disheartened all day, and to square off and give the giant a good look between the eyes and happily attain to some just impression. “Some just impression” is doubtless within the possibilities, but any complete one is not. London is so vast in territory, interests, activities, and history – such a “monstrous tuberosity of civilized life,” as Carlyle observed – that it effectually defies comprehension. It cannot betaken in. Look south on it from Hornsey or Primrose Hill, or west on it from Blackwell or the Greenwich Observatory, or east from the top of the opera house at Hammersmith, or north from Crystal Palace, and you may see a vast prairie of house-tops and sharp, aspiring steeples and irregular, twisting streets, but you also observe quite the same kind of prairies rolling away under the horizon beyond your ken. If one were to try such an experiment right at the heart of things, futility would still be obvious, for either the Victoria Tower of Parliament or the slightly higher dome of St. Paul’s lifts you only four hundred feet above the pavement to hang like a lookout in midocean. There might be hope of a completer impression if you tried an aeroplane; in which case prostrate London-town would take the seeming of some fabulous “questing beste” of the “Morte d’Arthur,” in format the traditional lion, rotund, monstrous, and oddly marked, half-reclining and gazing fixedly seaward down the Thames. A monster, indeed, fourteen miles by ten, and of a vitality so expansive that his nebulous aura pervades an area of seven hundred square miles! Along his grim, grimy side the Thames draws a crawling blue band with a deep U for the convenience of his paws as it swings around the Isle of Dogs, the Regent’s Canal marks him lightly up the shoulder and clear across the upper body, and along the profile of the head meanders the marshy River Lea. Odd green patches would stand for the parks – Regent’s on his back, Hyde, Green, and St. James’s on his flank, and on his right ear, Victoria. At the present hour he is speckled with a myriad of lights from the tip of his tail to his chin-whisker, and doubtless in all respects looks wild enough to daunt Sir Launcelot himself.
To the average visitor London is the Strand, Fleet Street, Regent Street, the Embankment, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, the British Museum, and the Tower. But tastes differ in this as in other things, and Boswell was doubtless justified in amusing himself by noting how different London was to different people. Opinions on the subject have always been very decided but hopelessly conflicting. “Sir,” quoth Dr. Johnson to Boswell at the Mitre Tavern, “the happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it.” Note Heinrich Heine, on the other hand, observing in his “English Fragments”: “Do not send a philosopher to London, and, for Heaven’s sake, do not send a poet. The grim”seriousnessof all things; the colossal monotony; the engine-like activity; the moroseness even of pleasure; and the whole of this exaggerated London will break his heart.” There is wisdom, as always, in a happy mean; and one might do worse than to go about his sight-seeing with the whetted curiosity and flaming imagination of those country children once described by Leigh Hunt as fancying they see “the Duke of Wellington standing with his sword drawn in Apsley House, and the Queen, sitting with her crown on, eating barley-sugar in Buckingham Palace.”
To such a mood as this, evening impressions are fresh and vivid, and the goggle-eyed stranger, suddenly set down at seven o’clock before the Shaftesbury Fountain in the centre of Piccadilly Circus, – “feeling in heart and soul the shock of the huge town’s first presence,” – would probably have his own opinion of any intimation that there was really very little doing at that time in view of the hour and the absence of Londoners in the country. He would rather incline to the view of the Chinese prince who took one look at the wave of humanity sweeping across London Bridge and went back to his hotel and wrote home that he had reached the spot where all human life originates. Certainly the stranger at Piccadilly Circus would need but one wild glance at the glare and blaze of lights, the excitement around the “Cri,” the beckoning bill-boards of the Pavilion, the dazzle of shop windows in the sweeping curve of the Regent Street quadrant and the tremendous interweaving of carriages, swift hansoms, delivery bicycles, lumbering busses, “taxis,” “flys,” and “growlers,” to start him shouting to the nearest “Bobby” through the roar of the wild surge for safe passage to the sidewalk – which would be readily and obligingly accomplished by that calmest and most tranquil of officials, the mere lift of whose hand is as miraculously effective as the presence of a regiment at “charge.” And yet the intimation to the stranger would be entirely within the facts, for a good proportion of Londoners are too far away to hear the seven o’clock bells ring in town. The Briton’s passion for out of doors leads him far afield. Thousands are at this hour in the surf at Brighton or strolling on the terraced streets of the chalk cliffs there; hundreds are at Harrow enjoying the wide prospect beloved by the boy Byron; others in the pleasant villages of Hatfield and St. Albans; some are spying for deer in Epping Forest; and a happy multitude is turning from the “Maze ” and Dutch Gardens of Hampton Court to roll homeward by brake and motor-car along the incomparable chestnut avenue of Bushy Park, among the placid deer of Richmond, and the manifold delights of Kew Gardens. For hours the “tubes,” surface cars, and busses have been working to capacity to get business men home, and loaded trains have been groaning out of Charing Cross, Euston, Paddington, St. Pancras, Victoria, and Waterloo. They have all arrived by now at their various destinations – around the picturesque Common of Clapham, the breezy heights of Highgate, the river greens of Hammersmith, the lush meadows of Dulwich, the stuccoed villas of Islington, the quietude of Bethnal Green, or the wooded gardens of Brixton Road. Fancy residential property, in every guise of architectural surprises, is drowsing in the shade of elm and oak and poplar and humming to the contented chatter of reunited families. The fortunate stranger whom Sir Launcelot has “asked down” to “Joyous Garde” is reveling in the generous roast that makes its august appearance between courses of Scotch salmon and Surrey fowl, and presently there will be politics and Havanas after the ladies have left, and later on a general assembling in a serene walled garden with light laughter and low-voiced talk and mild discussion of water-parties, dinners, and dances.
The London parks are in full revelry now, with bands at play and tens of thousands of loiterers crowding the benches and moving along broad, graveled walks under the deep shadows of old elms and in the fragrance of trim flowerbeds. At Hampstead Heath, for example, not so much as the ghost of a highwayman haunts the bracken-carpeted hills, and East-Enders are out there in force along “Judge’s Walk, “and in the “Vale of Health” that Keats and Leigh Hunt admired, or up at the “Flagstaff” inspecting “Jack Straw’s Castle,” as Dickens so often did, or speculating upon the sources of the ponds with as much aplomb as ever did Mr. Pickwick himself.
Down on rugged and untamed Blackheath the band is playing at “The Point,” and in all that region where Wat Tyler and Jack Cade stirred Kent to rebellion the talk is now of London docks and the latest scores of the golfers.
Up at airy Victoria Park the swans in the ponds and the chaffinches in the hawthorn bushes are performing to enthusiastic audiences, and the Gothic Temple of the Victoria Fountain is rimmed with rough gallants and the “Sallies of their Alleys” who betray no inclination to “attempt from Love’s sickness to fly.”
The cyclists are foregathered at picturesque Battersea Park and chatting with their sweethearts over tea in the refreshment rooms, while hundreds of unemployed who can afford neither bicycle, sweetheart, nor tea gaze gloomily on the gorgeous blooms of the sub-tropical garden, loll over the balustrade of the long Thames embankment, and end up by sprawling face down on the grass or dozing fitfully on the benches.
Perhaps the largest outpouring of all is at ever popular Regent’s Park, preferred by the substantial middleclass, – long noted, like George I, for virtues rather than accomplishments. Doubtless they are now rambling through the Zoo, exploring the Botanic Gardens where flowered borders and large stone urns are spilling over with brilliant color, watching the driving in the “Outer Circle,” or swelling the throng on the long Board Walk. Hundreds on these shady acres are taking their ease with all the unction of Arden –
“Under the greenwood tree Who loves to lie with me, And tune his merry note, Unto the sweet bird’s throat.”
In all probability tremendous admiration is being expressed at aristocratic Hyde Park, as usual, for the broad reaches of velvety turf and the venerable oaks and elms. More than one will indulge a pleasant reverie over the dead and gone who have braved it there – Pepys in his new yellow coach, dainty ladies in powder and patches flashing sparkling eyes on the gallants, and the scented, unhappy beaux who have sighed with Shenstone along these allees:
“When forced from dear Hebe to go What anguish I felt at my heart.”