Darkness In London. Cabbages And Rabbits
( Originally Published 1917 )
EVIDENTLY the end, the very end of summer weather, and the decisive arrival of autumn, with its mists and its melancholy. At least the nights are melancholy ; a chill in the air, half-darkened streets, the fall of dead leaves, pale flashes from the searchlights, misty shadows by the river-side, dim ambiguities in the parks. This latest aspect of London I survey to-night from the motor car of a friend, who is a specialist, an authority on our own London's darkness. A worldly and cheerful soul, he nevertheless revels in the obscurity. A few weeks ago he habitually put himself into evening dress and visited elegant restaurants and theatres. But now, a quick chop for my friend, and a cap, mackintosh, " two-seater " and darkness.
" That's nothing," replies my cicerone, when I point out that only every second lamp in St John's Wood Road has been lighted.
" That's nothing," he repeats, when we turn into the partial obscurity of Edgware Road.
That's nothing," he reiterates when, through the railings of Hyde Park and then of St James's Park, I perceive what appear to be dwarf gas-lamps, two or three feet high, dotted about on the paths and the grass.
Gloom of Hyde Park Corner. Then, suddenly, the flash of the searchlight, and a glimpse of shadowy figures, high up on the archway, surrounded by woodwork, who are controlling the apparatus.
" That's nothing," declares my friend, putting on speed. " This way for the Darkness."
Lest this article should fall into the hands of the German Emperor—worse still, into the possession of Count Zeppelin—it is " undesirable" to disclose the precise route taken by my friend into London's deepest darkness. Discreetly and vaguely, let me state that certain parts of Fulham, Hammersmith and Chelsea are plunged into almost total obscurity, whilst, here and there, stretch unimportant little streets enveloped---save for dim lights in the windows—in complete, silent blackness. Why should unimportant little side streets take " precautions " against Zeppelins ?
" Gasworks and waterworks all about here," explains my friend, the authority on London's Darkness. . . . Yes, for sheer, Silent Darkness, impossible to surpass certain corners of Fulham, Chelsea and Hammersmith. . . . Round and about the gas and the water works, policemen, Territorials, or proud special constables.
The Embankment—an important bridge—and special constables and armed Territorials once again. Black, the river ; extinguished, the blinking, lurid electrical advertisements of patent medicines and whiskies invisible, the face of Big Ben. In Whitehall and the Haymarket more semi-darkness. The mixed life of Piccadilly Circus only half alive, Regent Street deserted, Portland Place funereal, Regent's Park enveloped in a pale, ghostly mist—all this chill and darkness depressing me, I persuade my friend to pull up at a small, vulgar coffee-stall.
Two lamps, anyhow. Two lamps of the kitchen description, and the eternal hard-boiled eggs, and slabs of bread and butter, and slices of sallow seed cake, and penny packets of Woodbine cigarettes, and the coffee-stall keeper himself absorbed in a tattered, greasy copy of the very latest " extra special."
No fewer than three eggs and two cups of coffee for my friend, the authority on Darkness. After that, a chilly sardine sandwich. À la guerre, comme a la guerre. Which admirable French saying I translate into English for the benefit of the coffee-stall keeper.
" That's it, that's the proper spirit," he cordially assents. " If we was to start grumbling, wot would 'appen to the war, I should like to know ! Business is rotten. On the top of that, prices gone up. Bar a couple of slices and cups of coffee, you're the only customers I've 'ad to-night. But am I down'earted ? "
" N-o-oo," respond my friend and myself, raising our cups of bitter coffee, in the mist, chill and darkness.
It was not until yesterday that Church Street and Bell Street—narrow, shabby little turnings off the Edgware Road—were " hit " by the war. Up till then life and business had gone on as usual, and the air reeked with the fumes from the naphtha lamps that violently illuminated the various barrows of fruit, vegetables, skinned rabbits, millinery, crockery and fish. In fact, the favourite cheap shopping centre of the humble housewives of the neighbourhood—stout, garrulous ladies in seedy caps and shawls ; whilst their children played about amongst the barrows, and unshaven father, leaning against a lamp-post, clay pipe in mouth, lazily and- indifferently surveyed the scene. However, war is war, and even the barrows off Edgware Road have now become involved in it. Not that they have been commandeered for service at the front. Nor yet that the dubious fish and ghastly rabbits have been impounded by the Officer of Health. What has happened is this : By order of the police, as a measure against- Zeppelins, out and away with the flaming and flaring naphtha lamps.
Now, without naphtha, a street market not only loses its picturesqueness, but finds itself despoiled of its customers. At least, the customers are reluctant to buy goods in the semi-darkness. They want to examine them lengthily and exhaustively, under a strong light. - When Mrs Briggs, of Church Street, goes shopping, it takes her at least five minutes to select a cucumber, then another five minutes about a cabbage, and a third over a cauliflower—and all three objects she closely holds up to the lamp, eyeing and sounding and pinching them all over. As for rabbits---
"Nothing doing, enuf to make yer cry," a rabbit merchant informs me. " Nice and 'ealthy they are, but you carn't get the old women to buy 'em. All becos they carn't 'axe a good look at 'em ! Sick of it, I am. Why don't they turn the lights out altogether and bloomin' well 'ave done with it ! "
Although dark and dejected, Church and Bell streets are by no means deserted. Nor is trade entirely at a standstill. Some of the barrows are dimly lighted by battered old bicycle lamps, and the lamps are being constantly removed from the nail on which they hang and swept across and pointed down upon the food-stuffs. Heavens, the lengthy inspection of this cabbage ! In one hand a stout housewife holds a bicycle lamp, and with the other hand she pulls aside every leaf of the cabbage and peers down into the very depths of its heart. Another housewife overhauls at least twenty bananas before she finally selects three at the cost of a penny. And a third carries off a cauliflower for examination under the nearest gas-lamp, some twenty yards away.
" Don't forgit to come back," the costermonger cries after her. Then, turning to me : " Four cabbages I never saw again last night, becos I let 'em be took as far as the gas-lamp."
" And wot about me ? " exclaims his neighbour, the rabbit merchant. " Up comes an old woman, messes about with the rabbits, carn't make up 'er mind, so I lets 'er take two of the finest up to the gas-lamp and —"
" Done a guy, of course," his colleague interrupts. That there gas-lamp wants watching by the perlice. A bit of Scotland Yard round it, that's wot it wants." Then, most caustically to a passing constable : " Any objection against me lighting a match for my pipe ? "
I grieve to relate that, through the darkness, I dimly but positively behold little boys surreptitiously helping themselves to apples and nuts, and it furthermore pains me to announce that a small girl deftly and illegally obtains possession of a banana, which, however, she generously shares in a doorway with two friends. But, on the whole, the people of Church and Bell streets do not take excessive advantage of the darkness. Only a few rabbits and cabbages " missing " ; the majority of the housewives who make the pilgrimage to the gas-lamp return in good time. On the other hand, it has incoherently got into the heads of these ladies that the lowering of London's lights should be accompanied by a corresponding reduction in prices. A rabbit in the darkness should be worth less than a rabbit in a strong naphtha light.
Becos," one of the housewives confusedly informs me, " becos rabbits, like everything else, is tricky and deceptive. You can't tell the time from the clock when it's dark : and the same applies to rabbits. So if I buys rabbits in the darkness, I takes a risk : and expects them to go down a penny a pound."