The People's Picnic
THE PEOPLE'S PICNIC.
The Provincial suggested it, insisted on it, and carried the whole affair through. There were things he had missed, he said, and things he could afford to miss, but Hampstead Heath on a Bank Holiday was one of the experiences from which no exemption could operate. It was as London as was the Row, Fleet Street, or St. Paul's. It was something to be seen and talked about afterwards at Pogstall-sub-Marsh, and if no one knew how to set about getting there he would undertake to run the thing himself.
Directly the Heath is reached we are carried back twenty years by the association of ideas that inseparably connects the half-holiday and the boy fishing. There they sit in several degrees of rapturous attention, heedless of sun, dust, babel, and badinage. The ponds are more suggestive of a brickfield than a dewy meadow; around them float, empty bottles, sticks and holiday débris. Cocoanut "shies," flung by fair but inexperienced hands, hurtle in dangerous proximity, but nothing moves them, and they conscientiously drop the lines into the two feet of mud and water, and hopefully watch the pieces of timber which it is no misnomer to call "floats." They haven't caught anything; they never will, but—some memories are ineradicable—we know that they are happy.
The Provincial has been watching the cocoanut pitches in the background, and has discovered two things. In the country, he says, you get as many nuts as you knock off, but here, whether you displace one or a dozen, it is all the same, you only get one. His other observation refers to more subtle craft on the part of the cocoanut man. The rows of sticks on which the nuts are placed are about a yard apart, and each row is four or five sticks deep. The first peg stands about six inches above the ground, the next a foot, the next eighteen inches, and so on. The Provincial notices that nuts knocked off the first peg of each row are seldom replaced, and as women and children nearly always bowl up instead of throwing, these empty pegs form a fairly efficient barrier. These examples of Metropolitan duplicity the Provincial mentally notes for the edification of Pogstall.
The dust and heat are fearful, and the people seem really to enjoy shovelling their feet along the powdered clay and throwing up clouds of it. The shows are innumerable, and each enterprise' relies on some individual and particularly noisy way of attracting public attention. One has a foghorn worked by machinery, another a brass gong, a third a gigantic rattle. Outside the home of the "Electric Lady," the subject herself—a tall girl with her hair down—leans against the canvas, and nonchalantly munches apples, while her manager hoarsely harangues the crowd below. "You can touch 'er where you like," he says, liberally, "and whether it's 'er 'ands, 'er 'air, 'er face, or 'er clothes, you get a helectric shock."
The lady conjurer is also out on her platform, but here the crowd is thinner, and even when she produces a live rabbit from a hat, previously shown to contain nothing but sawdust, the spectators only seem to be slightly bored. Neither the Three-legged Child, the Half-man Half-Elephant, nor the Mermaid ("A puzzle to the Medical Fraternity; she sets at Defiance all the Laws of Nature") show themselves publicly, but occasionally a "Zulu" rushes out and prances about in what is presumably a vain attempt to remember his native war dance. But the tents form only a fraction of the show. Besides dozens of cocoanut grounds, there are all varieties of shooting ranges and skittle-alleys, all sorts of swings, boats, and mechanical horses. Things to hit with hammers, to hit with fists, to pull, to turn, to wrench, to push, and to blow. Innumerable places where to get refreshments, and it is even possible to order a pancake, and see it cooked from beginning to end. What is more, there are people who do it! Up by the flagstaff a man is working out conic sections on a blackboard, and is prepared to prove that theis bound to commence at an early date in the next century. Less spiritual food is provided by a telescope through which, on the payment of a penny, you can look at the Abbey at St. Alban's—and if fortunate see it. Down in the valley glitters the white tent of the Ambulance Corps, an object, of engrossing interest to a somewhat morbid crowd, whose chief hope is that a case will soon be brought in. There will be many before the day is passed, but it is surprising what some of these pallid, small-bodied East-enders can stand. A girl, leaning carelessly over the side of a swing when at its highest point, is caught by the head on one of the side beams, dragged from the seat, and dropped some fifteen feet on to the ground. Instead of requiring the ambulance, she gets up and slangs the swing man for objecting to her finishing her time without another payment.
Whatever individual taste may demand or reject in ether matters, there is at least one point of unanimity: that scent squirts are de rigueur. "Did you notice that lovely girl with the red and blue paper feathers in her hat?" says the Provincial eagerly, when he has reached me, after tossing in an eddy of the crowd. The latter part of his description, distinctive as it might seem, would afford no clue at all, but as it happens I had noticed her; she had emptied half a scent-squirt down my neck. When I tell the Provincial, he appears sightly and altogether unreasonably jealous. I tell him that he has only to buy some scent, and go after her if he wishes for a similar civility. "I simply couldn't do it," he expostulates. "How on earth can I go up to a girl to whom I have never spoken, and douse her with scent? It would be a frightful ordeal. And besides, it isn't scent; I saw a man filling the things, and he was using a tub of particularly muddy water from the ponds." But the Provincial is not neglected, and before half an hour passes he has saturated a pocket-handkerchief in wiping himself dry. He mentally calculates that some hundred gallons of water, at about ten shillings a gallon, have helped to lay the dust.
"It's a great show," said the Provincial that evening, after we had changed everything and got rid of all the external dust. "I am glad we went; I wouldn't have missed it for a lot,. And if I am spared a long life I hope never to go through it again!"