Radio Times/1926/12/19/The Art of Merrymaking
The Art of Merrymaking.
By Jerome K. Jerome.With illustrations by Arthur Watts.
My first dissipation, so far as I can remember, was a visit to the Crystal Palace. Before that, there had been occasional tea-meetings at which, after the tables had been cleared, some elderly and generally bearded gentleman, would rise up to say what he invariably called 'a few words'; but these, involving as they did much effort on my part to maintain long silences and not to shuffle my feet, I had always—in spite of the rolled bread and butter and two sorts of cake—regarded as religions duties rather than mundane pleasures.
But the Crystal Palace belonged to the world of marvels and adventure. It had not so very Jong been built and was still the talk of London. I slept but fitfully the night before; and it seemed to me, when my mother at last opened my door, that the day was already half gone. It wasn't rally, and my sister and I caught the quarter to nine train from Poplar Station, and from Broad Street we took the two-horse bus to Victoria. I climbed up to the knife-board, my sister watching my progress nervously from the curb. The conductor suggested her following me up, and gallantly offered to help her. But ladies did not then ride outside buses: besides, there was her crinoline.
They were building Holborn Viaduct, so we had to go round by Clerkenwell. I remember the old gateway. The journey took us well over an hour, and at Charing Cross I climbed down, and consulted with my sister as to whether we had not better get out and run, It was an Aunt of ours who was giving us the treat, and we were to wait for her and our cousins at the entrance to the platform. But here a difficulty arose. It appeared there were two Crystal Palaces: one a High-level and the other a Low-level Fortunately, my Aunt had arrived first, and saw us from afar. She discussed the matter with a kindly porter, and he strongly advised the High-level. I was glad of that. I had the idea that the Low-level Palace was some poor sort of affair intended only for common people.
It was a wonderful place. It came up to my expectation. So few things in life do. There were other visits spread over the years, and each time I found things strange and new. And then one night there came the fireworks! I visited Wembley the last year it was open. There was, of course, much more to see. But the difficulty of seeing anything rather appalled me, so that I ended by seeing next to nothing, and I could not get anything to eat or drink without waiting in a queue. I ought, I suppose, to have been younger. Shows nowadays would seem to be only for the brave and strong.
Amusement combined with instruction was considered best for youth, when I was a boy. Yet we managed to get our fun notwithstanding. The old Polytechnic was interesting. It was thrilling to stand on the brink of the swimming pool, watching the dark lapping waters, waiting for one's turn to go in the great diving-bell; and Pepper's ghost, in a darkened room with creepy music, was more convincing than the manifestations that are now offered to us as the real thing. One learnt, later, it was only a trick produced by clever arrangement of mirrors, but until one knew one had an uncanny feeling.
The Egyptian Hall or 'England's Home of Mystery,' standing in Piccadilly opposite Burlington House, was given over to conjuring of a high-class kind. I think it was the elder Maskelyne who had it before he went to the St. George's Hall, then occupied by the German Reeds, who gave 'drawing-room entertainments' in conjunction with Corney Grain. The Grossmiths—the grand-father of the present George Grossmith, with his sons George and Weedon—used to do the same sort of thing. It was a genteel age. But I have suffered, in my time, a good deal of boredom from vulgarity.
After Maskelyne left, the Egyptian Hall was occupied by 'Hamilton's Excursions.' Seated in our easy chairs, we viewed the world from China to Peru, coming back the other way round. A gentleman with the aid of a wand, and accompanied by appropriate music, described the pictures as they were unrolled before us, and added information. And often the natives of the country through which we were passing would oblige with folk songs and national dances. I gained much sound knowledge of foreign parts from Hamilton's Excursions. We had also magic lanterns and dissolving views. These likewise told us of strange people and far lands. The pictures were coloured and many of them quite beautiful: everybody did not look like a bleached nigger. There was a panorama, near St. James's Park, of Niagara Falls. Later, I saw the real thing, surrounded by hotels and factories, and preferred the panorama.
Waxworks were popular. In addition to Madame Tussaud's there was one in Islington and another off the Gray's Inn Road. School children were taken to them in parties for purposes. of education; but would persist in staring at the wrong figures. The Brighton Aquarium caught on famously at first. It was interesting to see soles without their bread-crumbs, and to know that lobsters also loved. In London the idea was less successful.
The first exhibitions also combined instruction with entertainment. They took place in wooded grounds that then extended from the Albert Hall to South Kensington Station. Society crowded there in the evening in all its best clothes and listened to good music; and what was to be seen was worth seeing. One sat beneath the shade and treated the beloved one to strawberries and cream or, if one were older, dined her amid flowers and Chinese lanterns. It was all rather simple and cosy. At Earl's Court and Shepherd's Bush, they became bewildering and tiresome shows. One fought one's way through vast surging crowds, and wondered how one was ever to get home. In a rising town of seven million inhabitants this, of course, is inevitable. Not until after centuries of diminishing population is there any chance of London becoming again the pleasant place it used to be.
We had music at home in those days. The girls played the piano and many of them played quite well. Two or three musical families, living near to one another, would organize home concerts. Often one got decent chamber music. Cafés—there were not many of them—were quiet resorts where bearded ruffians played dominoes and chess. The spelling bee was for a time a popular entertainment. It drew good money was followed with laughter and applause. It is what one brings to a thing that matters. Each suburb bad its amateur Parliament, with Liberals and Conservatives, and in one or two there were Labour member—though in those days most people thought that was going too far.
Theatres were fewer. Of course, to my thinking, they gave us better plays—not always on the one eternal theme. At Christmas we had usually three pantomimes. Drury Lane gave us wonderful scenery and the Vokes family and, when they passed, came Herbert Campbell and Dan Leno. In the East End there was the Britannia, where the fun was perhaps a little broader; and at the Elephant and Castle the Conquests, pére and fils, made one's blood run cold with their marvellous leaps and bounds. They made clever use of spring traps so that, coming up through the floor, they would shoot twenty feet into the air, or, shot out from the wings, would fly right across the stage, Zazel used to perform the same feat, later on, at the Aquarium, being shot out of a cannon and falling some hundred feet into a net. We all took her for a handsome girl, till she turned out to be a man. Until late into the 'seventies, many of the theatres gave programmes commencing at six with a farce, and ending about twelve with a burlesque—with a melodrama, an operetta, and something from Shakespeare in between.
At St. James's Hall we had the Moore and Burgess Minstrels. Their entertainment never varied: songs, comic and sentimental, some solemn jokes always admirably acted, a good deal of banjo and a solo cornet. That was the success of it. It lasted for years and and might have continued for years longer if some fool bad not tried to improve it and bring it up to date.
We had good opera at Covent Garden and sometimes at Her Majesty's in the Haymarket also. It was the extravagant fees paid to the stars that killed it. I was with a firm of solicitors who acted for Mapleson. Adelina Patti and the others would insist upon sums that were bound to spell loss to the management even when the house was sold out. The argument was that she drew more than she asked. There was no sense in it. Without the orchestra and the chorus and the other performers, the house and all the rest of it, how much would she have drawn night after night? At the Alhambra and the Empire we had gorgeous ballets, I liked the old music-hall with its twenty or so ;turns' better than the present revues. There was more variety about them, Sunday concerts, when they first came, made a great stir. The programmes included much sacred music, but even then were denounced as lures of the devil.
I never understood what went wrong with the Queen's Hall Sunday Symphonies. When the stalls were three shillings the place was crowded every Sunday afternoon and the concerts paid. When the stalls and circle were raised to seven-and-sixpence and five shillings, empty seats became the rule. I am sure that good-class concerts at moderate prices, and without any expensive stars, could be run successfully all the year round in London on seven days a week.
The coming of the 'movies' passed almost unnoticed. They originated, I believe, in France. I remember some man who had just come back from Paris talking to me about them. He was not much impressed. It was startling at first to see the figures in a photograph moving about as though they were alive; but the faces were indistinct and the constant flickering made one’s head ache. I have seen it stated somewhere that they were first shown in London at the Polytechnic. My own impression is that they came out at the Empire Music Hall.
The first motion-pictures were mostly street scenes, crowds at railway stations and race meetings. The best were of scenery taken from moving trains and boats. Any-how, it was the real thing, not faked up in a studio. Cecil Raleigh was one of the first of us authors to reap substantial benefit. He sold the cinema rights of six of his Drury Lane dramas for five hundred pounds apiece: and the Dramatists' Club sat up and took notice.
The gramophone, I think, had arrived earlier. We had a houseboat on the Thames one summer. That must be over thirty years ago, and the gramophone was just becoming popular. We were near to a reach favoured by picnic parties; and on a fine Sunday afternoon we could count a dozen to twenty boats, moored within a few yards of one another, each one with its gramophone playing a different tune. It had much the effect of a modern jazz orchestra.
A sort of broadcasting followed close upon the telephone. We used to sit with small pegs in our ears and listen to operas and concerts. But we had to be specially "laid on," and it was expensive.
I can see a way in which Wireless may effect important changes in the life of England. Hitherto the cry, 'Back to the land,' has fallen on deaf ears. It is the dullness of village life that has been chiefly instrumental in driving the peasantry into the towns. Now that Wireless has cone to be within the means of the farm labourer, the movement may be stayed, and the English countryside become as popular and populous as that of France.
It is pathetic, the efforts these country-folk make to obtain a bit of fun. I have known farm labourers with their wives and children trudge seven miles to a fair, starting after their day's work was done: fourteen miles there and back. I have met them coming home at midnight; children crying with the pain of sheer fatigue and the father and mother staggering, rather than walking, each one carrying a child too dead-beat to stand upright. And when next year's holiday came found they would all start off again with smiling faces, bent on the same grim jaunt.
It may be said that the craving for amusement is now the ruling passion of all classes. It has superseded even love and greed. Yet I think our young folks would get more enjoyment out of life if they didn't try to get so much, They make such feverish haste to eat and drink and be merry, as if they had abandoned all hope of any tomorrow. They are like the schoolboy who, censured for the extravagance of spreading jam upon his bread and butter, replied that he was really practising economy: the same piece of bread did for both. They try to make one evening do for everything. They begin with a cocktail crawl. They dance with their dinner. Afterwards they drop in to a theatre—if extra smart, they drop into two or three. With their supper comes more dancing, together with a 'midnight revue.' They wind up with a nightclub or two. And a coffee-stall keeper of my acquaintance tells me that very often on their way home they will stop at his place for breakfast and a dance on the pavement. And so home to bed—if bed is still in fashion.
I'm glad I was born last century.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1927, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 95 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.