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Full text of "London"

LONDON 


BY 


G. K. CHESTERTON 


WITH TEN PHOTOGRAPHS BY 
ALVIN LANGDON COBURN 


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LONDON 

 




LONDON 


BY 


G. K. CHESTERTON 


WITH TEN PHOTOGRAPHS BY 
ALVIN LANGDON COBURN 


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LONDON: PRIVATELY PRINTED FOR 
ALVIN LANGDON COBURN AND 
EDMUND D. BROOKS & THEIR FRIENDS 
19 1 4 




LONDON 


T HERE is an old London story that has 
never lost its loveliness for me. It was 
about a stout old lady from the country, who 
travelled round and round the Underground 
Railway in a circle, because at each station she 
tried to get out backvvards, and at each station 
the guard pitched her in again, under the im- 
pression that she was trying to get in. It is a 
beautiful story; doing honour alike to the pati- 
ence of the female sex and the prompt courtesy 
of the male; it is a song without words. But 
there is another and milder version (perhaps 
we might dare to say a more probable version) 
of the same story. It describes an aged farmer 
and his daughter travelling the same sad circle, 
and failing to alight anywhere, partly because 
of the Ùnþed'imenta of country parcels, but 
partly also because they were almost satisfied 
with the staring names of the places set up on 
the Underground Railway. They thought the 
" Mansion House" was rather a dark place for 
7 



the Lord Mayor to live in. They could detect 
no bridges through the twilight of " Westmin- 
ster Bridge," nor any promìsing park in " St. 
James' Park St
tion." They could only sup- 
pose that they were in the crypts of "The 
Temple"; or buried under the foundations of 
" The Tower." 
Nevertheless, I am not quite so certain that 
this cockney tale against countrymen scores 
so much as is supposed. The rustic saw the 
names at least; and nine times out of ten the 
names are nobler than the things. Let us su p- 
pose him as starting westward from the 
Mansion House, where he commiserated the 
dim captivity of the Lord Mayor. He would 
come to another equally gloomy vault in which 
he would read the word "Blackfriars." It is not 
a specially cheery word; but it goes back, I 
imagine, to that great movement, at once dog- 
maticanddemocratic, which gave to its followers 
the fierce and fine name of the " Dogs of God." 
But at the worst, the mere name of Blackfriars 
Station is more dignified than the Blackfriars 
Road. He would pass on to the Temple; and 
surely the mere word "Temple" is more es- 
sential and eternal than either the rich la\vyers 
in its courts, or the poor vagabonds on its 
Embankment. He will goon toCharingCross, 
8 



where the noblest of English knights and 
kings set up a cross to his dead queen. But 
unless his rustic erudition informs him of the 
fact, he will gain little by getting out of the 
train, and going to the larger station. Neither 
porters carrying luggage nor trippers carrying 
babies, will encourage any conversation about 
the original sacredness of the spot. He will 
stop next at a yet more sacred spot, the station 
called Westminster Bridge, from which he can 
visit, as Macaulay says, "the place where five 
generations of statesmen have striven, and the 
place \vhere they sleep together." By \valking 
across the street from this station he can enter 
the House of Commons. But, if he is wise, he 
will stop in the train. He will then arrive at 
St. James' Park; and (as Mr. Max Beerbohm 
has truly remarked) he will not meet St. James 
there. 
Yet these mere names that he has seen on 
a dingy wall, like advertisements, are really the 
foundation stones of London; and it is right 
that they should (as it were) be underground. 
The mere fact that these five names, in a row 
along the riverside, all bear witness to an an- 
cient religion would tell the rustic in the railway 
train (supposing him to be of elaborate culture 
and lightning deduction) the great part of the 
9 B 



history of London. The old Temple Church 
still stands, full of the tombs of those great 
and doubtful heroes who signed themselves 
with the sign of Christ, but who came, rightly 
or wrongly, to be stamped by their neighbours 
with the seal of Antichrist. The old Charing 
Cross is gone; but its very absence is as much 
of a historical monument as itself. For the 
Puritans pulled it down merely for being a 
cross; though (as it says in a humorous song 
of the period) Charing Cross had always re- 
frainedfrom uttering a word against theauthor- 
ity of the Parliament. But these old things, 
though fundamental, are fragmentary; and 
whether as ruins or merely as records, will tell 
the stranger little of what London has been 
and is, as distinct from Paris or Berlin or 
Chicago. London is a mediaeval town, as these 
names testify; but its soul has been sunk deeper 
under other things than any other town that 
remem bers mediaevalism at all. It is very hard 
indeed to find London in London. 
There is a story (one among many) that there 
was a settlement before the Romans came, 
which occupied about the same space that is 
now occupied by Cannon Street Station. In 
any case, it is probable that the seed of the city 
,vas sown somewhere about that slope of the 
10 



riverside. The Romans made it a great town 
but hardly their greatest town, and the barbar- 
ism of the ninth century left it bare. Its 
second or third foundation as a predominant 
city belongs, like many such things, to the 
genius and tenacity of Alfred. He did not in- 
deed hold it as a capital of England, but rather 
as an outpost of Wessex. From his point of 
view, London was a suburb of Wantage. But 
he saw the practical Ï1nportance of its position 
towards the river mouth; and he held it tight. 
The Norman Conquest clinched the condition, 
which was roughly symbolized by the Tower 
of London, \vhich for many centuries was a 
trophy captured and recaptured by opposite 
factions. But, in the main, London had one 
political character from first to last. It was 
always, for good or evil, on the side of the 
Parliament and against the King. Six hundred 
years ago, it was the citizens of London who 
had to stand the charge of the strongest of the 
Plantagenets in his youth, on the downs round 
Lewes. Four hundred years afterwards, it was 
the citizens of London who held the high places 
of Buckinghamshire, when thearmyofCharlesI 
threatened London from Oxford. Later still, 
the Londoners stood solidly against James II 
and splendidly against George I I I. Whether 
II 



Parliament was worth such fidelity, whether 
the merchants of the Thames were wise to tie 
themselves so entirely to the grandees of the 
counties, is no subject for this place. But that 
the tradition of the town was sincere and con- 
tinuous cannot be doubted. To this day the 
Lord Mayor of London is probably proud that 
the King of England can only enter London 
by his leave. That fact is as close a summary 
of the purely political history of London as 
one could want. It exactly expresses the vic- 
tory of the merchants over the central power. 
It is often observed that the French think the 
Lord Mayor of London more important than 
the King. They are an acute people. 
This rather surly love of liberty (or rather 
of independence) is written in the straggling 
map of London, and proclaimed in its patch- 
work architecture. There is in it something 
that every Englishman feels in himself, though 
he does not always feel it to be good; some- 
thing of the amateur; something of the eccen- 
tric. The nearest phrase is the negative one 
of "unofficia1." London is so English, that it 
can hardly be called even the capital of Eng- 
land. It is not even the county town of the 
county in which it stands. That title, I believe, 
belongs to Brentford, which legend credits 
12 



with t\VO kings at once, like Lacedaemon. It is 
just London. As his French friend said about 
Browning, its centre is not in the middle. The 
Parliament sits in London, but not in the City, 
of London; the City of London is not under 
the London County Council; and in spite of 
the opinion of General Choke, the Sovereign 
does not live in the Tower. Crowded and noisy 
as it is, there is something shy about London: 
it is full of secrets and anomalies; and it does 
not like to be asked what it is for. In this, there 
is not a little of its history as a sort of half- 
rebel through so many centuries. Hence it is 
a city of side streets that only lead into side 
streets; a city of short cuts-that take a long 
time. There have been recent changes in the 
other direction, of course; but the very name of 
one of them, unintentionally illustrates some- 
thing not native to the place. A more broad and 
sweeping thoroughfare, in the Continental 
manner, was opened between the Strand and 
HoIborn, and called Kingsway. The phrase 
will serve for a symbol. Through all those 
creative and characteristic epochs, there was no 
King's Way through London. There was no- 
thing Napoleonic; no roads that could be pro- 
perly decorated with his victories, or properly 
cleared \vith his cannon. It had something of 
13 



the licence and privilege of that Alsatia that 
was its sore; the little impenetrable kingdom of 
rascals that revelled down in Whitefriars, 
where now rascals of a more mournful kind 
write Imperialist newspapers. One might call 
mediaeval London a rabbit warren; save that 
the Trainbands who took their pikes, and 'pren- 
tices \vho caught up their clubs at a bell or a 
beacon, were certainly anything but rabbits. 
I have said that this eccentricity, amounting 
to secrecy, remains in the very building of Lon- 
don. Some of the finest glimpses of it are got 
as if through the crack of a door. Our fathers 
gained freedom of vision through the gap in a 
fence; just as they often gained freedom of 
speech through a flaw in an Act of Parliament. 
In their glorious visions of height or distance, 
there is always something of the keyhole; just 
as in their glorious fights for law or liberty, 
there was always something of the quibble. 
There is no finer effect than 5t. Paul's from the 
foot of its hill in delicate and native weather; 
for the English climate (I may remark) is the 
finest in the world. I assume, of course, that 
the spectator is a serious mystic (that is, a ma- 
terialist also) and appreciates the bodily beauty 
of heights, which should always be seen from 
below. The Devil takes us to the top of an ex- 
14 



ceeding high mountain, and makes us dizzy; 
but God lets us look at the mountain. Yet this 
mountain made by man can only be seen in 
London by "sighting;" by getting it between 
t\VO houses, as a pilot steers behveen two rocks. 
Get the sighting wrong and you will see only 
a public-house, or (what is much worse) a shop 
full of ne\vspapers. Had either a French or a 
Prussian temple commanded such an eminence, 
the whole hill would have been swept bare as 
with a sabre and studded \vith statues and gar- 
dens, that it might be seen from afar. Only I 
should not like it so much. But then I was 
born in London. 


15 



PLATES 


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LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS 


I. THE MANSION HOUSE. 
II. THE TOWER. 
III. THE TEMPLE. 
IV. THE EMBANKMENT. 
V. WESTMINSTER BRIDGE. 
VI. PARLIAMENT FROM THE RIVER. 
VII. BIG BEN. 
VII I. ST. PAUL'S FROM BANKSIDE. 
IX. THE THAMES. 
X. " ST. PAUL'S FROM: THE FOOT OF ITS HILL." 


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CHISWICK PRESS: CHAS. WHiTTINGHAM AND CO. 
TOOKS COURT, CHANCER V LANE, LONDON. 


THE ILLUSTRATIONS WERE PRINTED BY THE 
MEZZOGRAVURE COMPANY, LONDON.