H.M. Hyndman

Further Reminiscences

Further Reminiscences

Chapter XX
Country Life

I AM, I believe, essentially a town and not a country mouse. Great cities suit me well, and I sometimes say that, though there may be others who know certain strata of London life better than I do, I do not believe there is a man living who knows this vast metropolis, from one end to the other, from bottom to top, so thoroughly as I do. When I hear well-to-do people say they like London, they adore London, they are never happy out of London, and so on, I feel inclined to ask them how much they really know of London. Not so much, I verily believe, as I did six-and-forty years ago, when I came back with an old college friend from my investigations into the cholera-haunted districts of the East End in 1866. London, to the ordinary man of the world, is practically comprised within the parks, the clubs, the main streets, and the prettier of the suburbs. The rest is outside his personal ken. He knows it only from books, newspapers, police reports, and the like. It is as if a student “knew” the British Museum by frequently visiting the Reading Room, and by continually inspecting the Elgin marbles and the Egyptian antiquities. To know London well is to long to destroy two-thirds of it at least. I should certainly die happier if I could see it done, or could feel quite sure, as I was passing over to the majority, that the complete demolition would take place within a few years of my decease.

By far the greater part of London is hateful to the last degree. The very improvements which have been made since, say, 1870, the year of the great war, only make its hatefulness more revolting. “Hell is a city very much like London.” My conception of Hell, even when viewed from the sputter, and fry, and crackle, and fizz point of view of the devout and Torquemadaish Puritan, is that it must be much better than London. I anticipate, at least, good company, and variety in the cookery, should my “judex ergo cum sedebit” condemn me for my virtues to a sempiternal roasting in Pluto’s kitchen below-stairs. But I have seen, I now declare, in many parts of our metropolis, thousands of human beings living under conditions that nothing in Dante’s Malebolge could surpass for sheer horror to those who had eyes to see. If that were to be my portion in any future sentient existence, without the power to relieve myself of its hideous squalor and misery by suicide, I should regard that as the worst punishment ever heard of.

As I think I have said before, I would not go through these detestable slums again on any account whatever, and it makes life appreciably less worth living to know that not only are they just as bad as ever they were today, but that they are hourly getting worse. Nevertheless, when that side of the mind is shut down, and a mental blind eye is turned also to all the mean monotony of fairly prosperous London, depressing enough by itself, the metropolis is a pretty good place, for the Londoner of means who knows how to live in it. I know of no other capital, for instance, in which a man can walk from his own door straight ahead for fully two miles through charming parks, without crossing more than two public roads, and all in the very heart of the great city itself.

It is almost as impossible too to recall London as it was, as to put oneself back again in the Paris before Haussmann; when to get from the Boulevard des Capucines to the Palais Royal was quite an expedition, if the attempt was made to walk thither direct. What Londoner of today can imagine the time when there was no Thames Embankment, and mud-flats stretched all along from the Houses of Parliament to the wharves and warehouses near London Bridge; when Northumberland House and the great stone lion, with its stiff tail, which a crowd once collected to see wag, stood right across the road to the river from Charing Cross; when Holborn Viaduct was not, and Middle Row blocked Holborn itself; when good hotels were much scarcer than black swans, and Verrey’s and the Café Royal were the only decent restaurants in the west; but when, as a set-off to all this, the old City of the Corporation was full of beautiful gardens, and it was impossible to get out of sight of a tree?

London of 1912, so far as the rich quarters of the metropolis are concerned, is certainly the deformed transformed, while most of what was previously attractive remains unspoiled. Moreover, fogs are nothing like so bad, on the whole, as they used to be, while communications have been miraculously bettered, and the eternal reek of manure has been replaced by the more pungent, but less disagreeable and dangerous smell of petrol. On the other hand, visions of sudden death, beside which De Quincey’s description of the immolating stagecoach seems a trifling incident, meet the rash foot-passenger at every street corner, and huge locomotives, running at railway speed along the streets, slaughter peaceful citizens as a mere detail in their daily hunt for dividends.

Westminster, which, when I first lived in it, had an almost village life of its own, where I used to meet quite decent people wandering around in the morning in the loosest of footwear and the easiest of raiment, has now become an office-ridden financial centre. The mournful Aquarium, which told of a really fine idea born out of a due time, has been swept away, and in its place a great Methodist temple dedicated to the twin deities of Mammon and Jehovah – the London City and Midland Bank below, and the holy Nonconformist Conscience above – has been erected in garish rivalry to the old Abbey over the way; while not very far off the Catholics, who still believe that some day they will come by their own, have built, as their new Cathedral in the meantime, what the late Cardinal Vaughan, looking down upon it from a flat in the neighbourhood, told me, forgetful of the appalling ugliness of Queen Anne’s Mansions hard by, was the most hideous fabric he had ever beheld.

Not long ago, however, the wiseacres, who had begun to fool with our splendid open spaces, after the manner of regularised and regimented Berlin, were about to bring our charming St. James’s Park, the most lovely bit of city-rural gardening in all Europe, into keeping with this well-arranged but somewhat depressing new Westminster. For once the long-suffering Londoner, who puts up tamely with restrictions that no other Englishman would submit to for a moment, raised a great and exceeding bitter cry. Lords and Commons put in their pipe to give additional shrillness to the popular protest, and, to the universal rejoicement of all, from nursemaids to dukes, the blundering Luttyens, with his bridge and his statues and his agreed commissions, was sent to Jericho, where I hope sincerely he fell among thieves.

Anyhow, London, for a man of means, is, as I say, a very jolly place to live in; but, after a time, in spite of all its pleasures, which so disgusted Sir George Cornewall Lewis, it is also a jolly place to live out of. So I have found at separated epochs of my existence. Then I feel that I must seek the repose and delights of English country life, which we all of us, I suppose, long for now and then, but which comparatively few can enjoy. Yet I have the sensation that I am not a genuine man of the country. I was not a bad shot, I believe; but I have not the slightest desire to go out and kill something because it is a fine day, unless that something should display an inclination to kill me. I could certainly ride – a bit at least I was told so in Australia and in the west of America, where one learns and unlearns a good deal in that exercise.

As to fishing, I have caught salmon, where nobody could help catching them; but I should be romancing more than ordinary if I were to say that I either like fishing or can fish. So as nearly all my shooting and hunting have been done outside of this island, and to fish I am ashamed, I admit the truth is stated when I am told that I do not know what real country life in England is. Nevertheless, I have met some not wholly irrational persons who could taste of great happiness in a garden, who could experience real pleasure from a walk, or a ride, or a drive over our wind-swept downs, with no object in view other than merely the joy to breathe and live, and I have myself experienced heartfelt satisfaction even in prising up a whole cartload of impertinent daisies and offensive dandelions and plantains from a beautiful but neglected lawn.

So some years ago my wife and I took an old house, belonging to some cousins, in the village of Brasted, one of the prettiest parts of Kent. We were at once transported back into the long ago. When my great-uncle, John Mayers, had the house in the beginning of the last century, and divided his time between the land and the law-courts, he was horrified to discover, fresh as he was from the supposedly barbarous West Indies, that the lunatics of the neighbourhood were paraded about the roads in chains, and were housed under conditions of indescribable abomination. This state of things he set himself to alter, and succeeded in getting them treated with a little humanity. It was the opinion of the inhabitants, and I thought so myself when I went down merely as a visitor many years after this, that a better-arranged and more generally comfortable village did not exist.

But we soon discovered its limitations and deplorable drawbacks. To begin with, we did not go to church, the good old parish church, such a nice, easy stroll on the Sunday through our fields at the bottom of the garden. Neither did we go to chapel, which, though on a lower level of sanctity, would have been an intelligible course heavenwards for revolutionary persons, who, it was said, actually addressed meetings of violent strikers in the open air. There was no disposition shown either to drive over to the little Catholic place of worship at Sevenoaks, barely six miles distant, which would have been better, after all, than nothing. Therefore, we must be not only subversionists, but, horror of horrors, Atheists! Think of that! Why, Lord Stanhope, the great man of the countryside, whom, with his wife and brother Edward, I had known pretty well in my pre-Socialist period, would barely let a farm to a Nonconformist farmer, and when he did, even at a high rent, he was none too pleased about it.

What, then, were such people as we doing in a district noted for its God-fearing piety, and in a house whose owners had always acted in strictest harmony with the prevailing creed? This would never do. Happily, we were tolerably independent of these dwellers in the cloud-cuckoo-land of the day before yesterday. But as we found it impossible to get small matters attended to and trifling services rendered, by a sort of conscientious boycott on the part of those who really wanted wages, we did not consider it worth our while to undergo petty martyrdom where we went for rest and recreation, and my wife duly made her appearance in the family pew, and reverently took part in the service.

From that time forth no difficulty. We had propitiated the local fetish, and, my personal recalcitrancy notwithstanding, we were again on the plane of propriety, and were recognised as, like St. Patrick, having come of decent people. What was much more important, we got our washing done, and our various little odd jobs carried out with more or less alacrity in return for reasonable remuneration. There was one person in the household, however, who never forgave this temporary boycott. That was a dear Irish terrier named Nell, whom we inherited from those who had been there before us. Others might take it all as a matter of course, not she. Whence she obtained her powers of discrimination I know not; but certain it is, that from that time onwards this animal displayed the most violent animosity against all who had failed to work for us when asked. One whole family she literally hated. Not a single member of it was safe from her, though there was no evidence whatever that they had done her any harm at any time. Perhaps her canine materialism unconsciously sympathised with ours.

The rector of Brasted was cut out for an archbishop. It was the belief of his contemporaries at Trinity College, Dublin, I have heard, that this was the precise position in the ecclesiastical hierarchy that he was destined to occupy. I have an idea that he was of the same opinion himself. I saw no reason why he should not have worn the queer garb associated with such a dignitary when I made his acquaintance towards the close of his life. For he was well read, capable, and eloquent, with the sort of benevolent air one associates with a well-paid and influential father of the Church spiritual and temporal. Yet there the Rev. Mr. Rhind was in bad health, occupying a country living with a declining income, and giving the impression that he would not regret the coming of the day when he would bury himself in his own churchyard, having previously interred his capacity in this country parish.

1 do not know that there is any sadder spectacle to witness than the decay of the man who might have been, and who incidentally admits to you it has been all his own fault that he did not arrive at the heights which he had set out to climb in his youth. Rhind was distinctly of this type, nor was it difficult to see why he had failed. A less able man might have done very much more with the people around him than he did. One of his daughters, for instance, saw much more clearly than he into the nature and disposition of the people about them, and some of her sketches of men and women in the neighbourhood were quite admirable. But the rector mourned on, and refused to be comforted.

The aristocracy of the neighbourhood, outside Colonel Tilling, whose family I remembered when they were weaving a big fortune out of cotton, what time I was a boy who thought himself a man in Stockport and Manchester, lived on the hillside leading up to the ridge called the Chart, from which is to be seen one of the finest views of its kind in England. They were mostly bankers, stockbrokers, and other people of high financial degree, whom we knew slightly, or not at all, who clustered together on this healthy spot.

As to its healthiness I had good evidence. In travelling up to London, I made the acquaintance of an enthusiastic rose-grower, who somehow appeared as if he were not entirely satisfied with what he was doing. I asked him what had brought him to Brasted, and had induced him to perch himself up at such an elevation, whence the walk to and from the station was no light task for a man of his years in bad weather? “Oh,” said he, “I came down here thirteen years ago to die of cancer.” “Thirteen years ago!” I exclaimed, startled, “and not dead yet, and you look pretty well, too. It can’t have been cancer.” “Not only can it have been, but it is,” was the reply, “and I frequently suffer terribly, but there can be no doubt the air here has given me strength to bear up against it, and, to some extent, to check its spread. The doctor who recommended me here is surprised at the result.” Whether or not potassium or radium furnishes an alleviation or a cure for this frightful disease, the influence of that locality on the malignant growth ought to be more fully tested.

Anyhow, there were two men living up on the Chart who were well worth knowing. One was Mr. Okey, who, with his wife, had a cottage there, and the other was the famous French artist, M. Legros, to whom Okey introduced me. It seemed to me a favourable instance of our English catholicity in some directions that here was Legros, who not only could not, but would not, speak a word of our language, and rather prided himself on his narrow-minded obstinacy, engaged as an official professor of Art in London. I cannot imagine a similar case in Paris, Brussels, Berlin or Vienna. However, he was as bigoted on this matter of acquiring English as Rochefort, though for different reasons. What made the thing more ridiculous was that his wife was an Englishwoman, and that his daughters, I was told, were much more English than French. However, there it was, and had I not been able to speak French I should have been unable to hold any conversation with the old man. Probably, indeed, he would have preferred not to see me. As it was, we got on very well. To hear him denounce the impressionists was an education in forcible, not to say vituperative, French.

His opinion of them could be put on the same lines as Henry James’s view of Zola. The comparison occurred to me as Legros sat and fulminated against the unfortunates who had roused his unquenchable wrath, with a ferocity that age had deprived of none of its vehemence. I was walking back with Henry James very late one night from Putney to Piccadilly more than thirty years ago: walking because we had missed the last train, there were no ’buses, and cabs and cabbies had betaken themselves to their rest. It was a fine night, and the long walk and conversation were to me very pleasant.

But Zola! I had said good words of Zola, and had declared that the novelist was a very great writer. Then it came. Henry James, who, truth to say, I had always looked upon as a man of a mild temperament, one not given to letting his parts of speech get the better of him under any provocation whatsoever, vouchsafed to me his ideas on Zola and that unholy Frenchman’s degradation of literature, with a power of expression that left nothing to the imagination, in respect either of directness or force. He stood still in the middle of the road to do it: he could not spare breath for perambulation while the paroxysm lasted. Of course there was a great deal of truth in his criticisms. Zola is often quite unnecessarily detailed, and too photographic in his descriptions; he also depicts scenes and uses words, which, however justifiable, and no matter how pronounced, would grate upon nerves far less sensitive than those of Henry James. But the power of the whole thing, the realistic imagination of it, like the scene I mentioned in Germinal, when the priest comes forward and stands between his people the strikers and the soldiers sent to shoot them down, Zola himself being a violent anti-Catholic – well, Zola needs no defence from me, and he will long survive the attacks of another literary artist writing on quite a different plane.

So it seemed to me to be with Legros and his favourite enemies. He smote them, from Manet upwards or downwards, hip and thigh, with great slaughter. Not one of them was left whole when he had finished his diatribe. Scattered fragments of undeserved reputations littered the floor. It was all exceedingly interesting. For once at least I was a good listener. It was a lesson in full-flavoured art criticism, and the powerful head, with its fine white hair, gave impressiveness to the utterance, which swept on unbroken, never at a loss for a word. In fact, the whole interview impressed me much, and perhaps, since then, I have detected less of hardness and lack of sympathy than I previously thought I saw in the artist’s own work.

I speak as a fool. What do I know about high art, silver point, and technicalities generally? Nothing. But I cannot forget how, one day, being in Colnaghi’s, I saw a picture which seemed to me no better than a series of blobs of colour thrown on the canvas anyhow. Knowing nothing then of impressionism, I asked Mr. M‘Kay what on earth it all meant. “Come to this end of the room,” was the answer, “and you won’t need to ask again.” And that was true enough. A most powerfully-depicted scene, peopled with figures full of colour and life, broke right in upon me, and I felt instinctively I was face to face with an effort to break through the somewhat finicking conception which takes it for granted that you can see the faces and descry the folds in the garments of men and women who are standing a hundred yards off. All that really can be seen at such a distance is, of course, the general figure, attitude, pose and colour. But not a word of this did I so much as hint at to Legros. I did not know enough to venture such a statement. I was content to leave, convinced that I had been listening to a very able man, who perhaps did not try quite as hard as he ought to comprehend a phase of art which might contain something more than the germ of a new and valuable development. But if the “Impressionists” awakened in old M. Legros a prophetic fury of almost Hebraic fervour, what would he have said of the Post-Impressionists whom Sir W.B. Richmond has so conscientiously belaboured? Though Legros has joined the majority, full of years and of honour, I none the less flee in imagination from his wrath to come.

Mr. Okey, who made me known to M. Legros, was a Socialist of the early days, who had withdrawn from active participation in the movement, partly owing to the pressure of his own work, and partly, I think, from not unnatural disappointment at the manner in which the Socialists, or semi-Socialists, themselves, have thrown away their opportunities. He is, I consider, better informed upon the details of the development of modern Italy than, perhaps, any man in Europe, and many Italians are themselves of that opinion. It pleased me to find that a careful survey of all the circumstances had led him to the conclusion which I had come to myself, when the events with which he was dealing were quite fresh, that Cavour’s masterly statesmanship, which neglected literally no means to attain its end, had not received at the time of our conversations full recognition even from his own countrymen. Matters have improved since then in this respect.

But it was not necessary to go to Brasted in order to hear attacks on Impressionism, or to confer upon the resurrection of Italy. What the city could not afford us was that indescribable charm derived from an exquisite old lawn, partly fringed by the old, uncultivated flowers, which recalled the delights of childhood, with the ancient tower of the church peering out above the trees across the fields, and the grass-covered hills stretching away beyond in the distance. There was no rush of restless human endeavour here, no thought of appointments to keep, or of speeches to deliver. The songs of the birds, the ripple of the brook, destined later to be a river, the swish of the wind among the leaves, the glimpse of a heron as it sailed away to its ancestral fisheries, the pleasure of lazy conversations with intimate friends on everything above and below which led no whither – these are the things which rejoice the mind and refresh the body in the country, and sweep away those tendencies towards cynicism, bred in the town-keeping citizen by study of human nature, lack of exercise, the turmoil of life, and too good fare.

Besides, no part of England is fuller of historical memories than Kent. There, for instance, in that chalk pit, whose wide, white mouth you can just descry through the foliage, lives a colony of snails, great in size, and, doubtless, of marvellous succulence: true Escargots de Bouillon. How came they hither those erst well-cared-for and valuable, but now despised and rejected, foreign slugs? That is a question indeed. A thousand years in rural Kent is as one day, and one day as a thousand years. Those snails carry with them ancient history written all over their shells of long descent. They were imported from Gaul, I would have you to know, what time the Roman legionaries paraded this charming valley, and possibly piled their spears against that worn-out old stump of an oak. The snails themselves were specially brought here, so tradition has it, in order to tempt the appetite and arrest the disease of the beautiful wife of the Roman pro-consul, who was dying of consumption not far from this place. Agrippa, or it may have been Albinus, called to see her as she lay sick. How few of us remember that our Roman predecessors in piracy lived in this island for some 500 years, and had an uncommonly good time of it too, if we are to judge by their disinclination to leave. 500 years! That would take us back in our own history to the reign of Henry IV – a good long time ago.

But the old pilgrim road just skirts that snailhaunted quarry, and then winds down the hill to mount up again on the opposite slope, on its way to Canterbury, after passing by the village. Along this very same bridle-path rode Chaucer and his party on their jolly journey towards the great shrine, which has lasted even unto this day. And so it is everywhere around. Ightham Mote, Knole, Penshurst, Heaver, all take us back into the days of long ago, and we wish sometimes, maybe, that we could exchange even the enjoyments of our epoch for the rougher times, when fine Jack Cade drew his revolutionary contingent in great part from this district and marched on London with full stomach for the fight. Not much revolution, or fight, or stomach either, hereabouts just now, I fear. The yeomen of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries would look down with pity, not unmingled with contempt, on their descendants of our day, though they never got what they strove for any more than we do.

But Brasted is a pretty village. There is no doubt about that. The place has quite a prosperous air about it. The cottages, most of them of the old black barge-board variety, look clean and well-kept, the windows have nice white curtains; there is, or was, until the confounded motor-cars made life a burden with their dust and stench and danger, an abiding sense of peace and comfort about the whole place for everybody. Good shops, well-built and well-ordered public-houses, a handsome public hall – quite a show village, in fact.

All on the outside. The labourers are badly paid, badly housed and badly fed. The schools are anything but what they ought to be. The outlook for energetic young men, if any such there happen to be, is hopeless. The curse of charity is over the entire village. Thus the highest wages paid to labourers are fifteen shillings a week, with none of the easements common in the old time, and most of the farmers pay less. Rents for cottages are quite monstrous, running up as high as nine shillings a week for by no means good dwellings. As a result those very cottages, whose prettiness attracts the passer-by, present problems of overcrowding and squalor similar in kind, and differing only slightly in degree, from those which press for solution in the great cities.

The matter of feeding was, as it so chanced, looked into, and recorded by an official inspector of the Government when we were living at Brasted House. This lady was the sister of the wife of one of the great hill-men. But she refused to stay in his house, took lodgings in the village, and, to her honour, be it said, did her work thoroughly, without fear and without favour. She proved beyond all possibility of question that the working families of Brasted did not get enough to eat, and that for some days in each week turnips were the principal item of their fare. And then there was a pretty to-do. The turnip-eaters themselves rose in their wrath against this exposer of their cherished but shamefaced poverty. It was an imputation upon the village of Brasted to tell the world how its inhabitants existed on inferior nutriment, and lived for the most part pigged together in unwholesome proximity. I have often observed that. The city workers themselves, who are crushed down by economic forces into the direst penury, not unfrequently resent bitterly the publication to the world of their sad estate. And here in the country it was the same. It was worth a couple of black eyes to any man to whisper the word “ turnip “ in Brasted for many a long day after this too truthful official report saw the light. Then all went on just as it was before.

The whole of the facts bore out what I had foreseen and predicted so long ago as 1883, when I briefly analysed the condition of the agricultural districts in my Historical Basis of Socialism. And one interesting detail for me in the matter was that some of the most terrible facts in relation to all this woeful depression for the people and its inevitable continuance all through the country-side, were brought out in the Agricultural Report of my old friend, Mr. Edward Stanhope, on whose brother’s estate this same village of Brasted was placed. If I had not had enough work of the kind in hand already, on a much more extensive scale, I should certainly have started an agitation in this district; as, even under the present law, and in the economic conditions existing, things need not have been as bad as they were. But I went down to Brasted to get out of the storm and stress of the class war, and for once in my life I refrained from stirring up strife, where strife was greatly needed.

The longer I live, however, and the more I see of English life, in all its various manifestations, the more convinced do I become that nothing short of complete social transformation can do any good at all in the long run. Alike in town and in country, we have arrived at the end of a social and economic period.

My finish up a tBrasted was a serious illness, which is of no interest to anybody but myself, except for one thing. Foreign medicine men speak with enthusiasm of our surgeons, and I have heard it said by a foreign doctor of repute that you will find better and safer surgery in an English village than you will often discover in big towns on the continent of Europe. But of our MD’s, as a whole, they have a very poor opinion. The best, they say, are very good – and that I have myself sufficient reason for accepting as a sound judgment – but of the general run of them – beware! When I fell ill in the country, as I did, I sent for the local doctor, who, when he saw I got no better for his treatment, suggested I should send for a London physician. I did so, and for my sins my choice fell upon a foreigner of very high reputation and position in the metropolis, whom I happened to know personally, and whom, in fact, I had consulted before. He came, and had his will of me for a fortnight. So bad did I get under his care that I began to reflect seriously as to the proximity of my latter end. So he went, and another Hippocrates, of even greater distinction, reigned in his stead.

He was very frank, if not what might be spoken of as optimistic. After a most thorough investigation of my suffering carcase, and elaborate inquiries from myself and my wife as to the nature of my malady – I was all the time in great pain – he stood at the end of my bed and delivered himself in oracular fashion to the following effect: “It is obvious, Mr. Hyndman, that you are ill and in pain; but though I cannot tell you precisely what it is that is the matter with you, I will pledge my professional reputation you are not suffering from the illness for which you are being treated.” That was very comforting to a person who was apparently doomed to suffer many things from many physicians. My wife naturally became seriously alarmed, and bethought her of my old friend, Dr. Henry Maudsley, who was quite certain to be able to diagnose the malady, whether he could cure it or not. So another old friend, who was much distressed at my apparently approaching dissolution, went in search of him; he very kindly travelled a long distance to see me, would accept of no fee – and here I am, able to poke fun at my own narrow escape from an untimely farewell to my fellow-humans. So the Englishman beat the foreigner after all.

We left Brasted because it lay too low, and the running up and down to London was so wearisome. But unless I die in my boots I should like to take my leave of life in the country. Even as I lay in my bed ready to depart, the sun and the view consoled me.

Last updated on 1.11.2007