London Children At Home
( Originally Published 1917 )
BARRED at either end with a rope, littered with huge, dislodged cobble-stones, swarming with excited children —such is the present aspect of Bannister Row, a poor street in Bloomsbury. Thus, Bannister Row is " up." And inevitably, like all shabby, " barred " streets, it has become the playground of the ragged, adventurous Jimmies and Billies and 'Enrys of the neighbourhood, and of short-skirted Cissies and Marys and shrill-voiced Gerties and Maudies, their sisters ; all of whom may be colloquially described as having " the time of their lives " as they disport themselves under the dim, watery eye of a feeble old watchman.
Although it is -warm, he wears a sack over his shoulders. But then all watchmen, at all seasons, wear sacks. By some remarkable unwritten law it has apparently been ordained—if you're a watchman, you must absolutely wear a sack.
No less indispensable is a crooked stick, or rather a staff, which the guardian of Bannister Row occasionally shakes at the children. Querulously, in a cracked voice, he cries : " Now then, enuf of that larking. Can't you 'ear me ? I said, enuf of it." But the swarm of little boys and little girls pay no heed. The superannuated watchman doesn't count. Only the cobble-stones count. For cobble-stones are the favourite playthings of street children. Cobble-stones, in a word, are the Joy of the Swarm.
So, in Bannister Row this afternoon, a busy, animated scene. The great work in hand is to build pillars, barricades and houses of cobble-stones ; next—when all this labour has been accomplished—the exciting thing to do is to perch oneself most perilously on the pillars, to assault and throw down the barricades, to enter into possession of the " house."
" This is No. 19 Russell Square. You can come in and 'ave a look if you like. Only you've got to ring first," cries Cissie, aged seven.
" Can't come now, as I'm expecting the milkman and callers. But as you ain't doing nothing, come in and see us yerself. It's No. 12 Oxford Street you've got to ask for," replies Gertie, aged nine.
Truly, an extraordinary conversation and an amazing state of affairs ! All that Cissie and Gertie have done is, partially to surround them-selves with three low walls of cobble-stones--a yard at the most separates their domains. And yet they give Russell Square and Oxford Street as their respective fine addresses ; and yet Cissie tells Gertie to ring the bell ; and yet Gertie expecteth the milkman, and yet---
" Now then, 'Enry Johnson, leave other people's 'ouses alone," shouts Maudie, a third householder, when 'Enry seats himself most unceremoniously on her cobble-stone wall. " Get off it, and quick too ; a droring-room ain't no place for boys."
" Where's the droring-room ? " inquired 'Enry scathingly.
" It's where I'm sitting, and it's meant for lydies ; and none of yer sauce," replies Maudie.
" Where's the lydies ? " asks 'Enry, always scathingly.
" I'll show you where they are." And springing up from her sofa of cobble-stones, and darting out of her cobble-stone drawing-room, Maudie seizes hold of 'Enry Johnson, and is just about to shake him when
" Why, 'Enry, you've got a man's collar on," she admiringly exclaims.
Unpraiseworthy this, in a lady who advertises " Splendid Fireworks," and declares " Now's Your Time," and issues the invitation to " Come In." Nor does Mrs Joy become joyous when I spend fourpence on tobacco. Indeed, she declares in one breath that fireworks, masks, red cardboard noses, false beards and moustaches, and other symbols of the Fifth of November, " will be the 'orrid end of 'er."
Guy Fawksing, they calls it ! I should like to give 'em Guy Fawksing," is the bitter, anomalous complaint of the lady, who is doing handsomely out of the Treason and Plot.
However, out in Brighton Crescent and in neighbouring streets, the Fifth is being cheerfully, if not magnificently, celebrated. A number of little boys have smeared their faces with red paint, others are busy pinning catherine-wheels on to a board, and a certain " William " (who appears to be the hero of the Crescent) struts about in a mask and brandishes a wooden sword. I don't know what " William " thinks he is doing. " Guy Fawksing," I suppose Mrs Joy would call it. At all events, he is followed about by a troop of admiring little girls, and is urged by another little girl with a perambulator to " come and show himself to Biby." But " Biby " howls discordantly at William's " mask ; and " Biby's " mother hurries up with the threat that if William doesn't decamp, she'll " mask " him. A moment later she cries : " Now then, Jimmy Green, I'll give you fireworks if you don't leave 'ern alone," and next : " Just let me get 'old of you, and I'll give you squibs."
Still, in spite of these warnings, the squibs crack and splutter and the catherine-wheels revolve on their boards; though feebly. " Ain't it lovely ! " exclaim the little girls, dancing on one leg and clapping their hands. They are easily satisfied ; and Mrs Joy should be sent to penal servitude for' selling such damp, miserable stuff. After a melancholy flicker the golden rain " expires. Not a " star " escapes from the tube alleged to contain stars ; and the " red fire " glows no more powerfully than a fusee.
Headed by William, in his mask, a group of little boys in paper caps march up and down the street, chanting the refrain : I do Like to be Beside the Seaside. In a corner a number of little girls have made a kind of grotto out of oyster-shells. With the children, a Guy—the very shabbiest and silliest Guy I ever have seen. It is no more than a bundle of old newspapers tied together in places with tape. Pinned to the top of the bundle, a mask with a grinning mouth and a red nose. And the Thing is propped up against the wall, amidst a collection of banana skins and oyster-shells.
Please, sir, remember the Guy," says a small boy, holding forth a grimy hand.
" But it's not the Fifth of November ; it's only the third," I protest again.
Silence—gloom—of the boy. Gloom, too, of his small companions.
" We made it ourselves," ventures a little girl. " And if we 'ad any money we'd buy 'im one of them yeller paper caps that Mrs Tooke sells round the corner, and make 'im look pretty."
" But we ain't got no money," insists another little girl.
" Well, here's sixpence," I say generously. And then, the joy of the children. After infinite chattering they decide to go forth in quest of the yellow paper cap. All of them want to go, but if all go, who's to look after the Guy ? At last, after more chattering and a great deal of whispering, one of the little girls steps forward and boldly addresses me :
Would you mind taking care of 'im while we goes to Mrs Tooke's ? She's only round the corner. We sha'n't be a minute. Mind you takes care of 'im."
And without waiting for my consent the children race off, leaving me, to my horror, in charge of the Guy.
Thank heaven it's a dim street. What a blessing, too, that it's a mean neighbourhood, and that no one is about. Still, there are lights in the grim little houses, and apprehensively do I look up at the windows to discover whether any-body is watching me, is ridiculing me, as I stand here in the damp by the side__ of the Guy. How-ever, no mocking faces at the windows. Nor—thank heaven again—so much as a glance from a man who hurries by on the opposite side of the street.
Reassured, I light a cigarette, and, in the flame from the match, the bundle of old news-papers propped up against the wall in its garden of banana skins and oyster-shells, and topped with its penny red mask, looks particularly hideous. Fancy me, a grown man, keeping watch over this ! Imagine a rate-payer, a member of a club, an uncle, a footsteps, heavy footsteps : and up saunters a constable, who looks first at me and then at the Guy and then again at me. My first impulse is:
" Yes," assents 'Enry. And truly enough, 'Enry weareth a "stand-up " collar many sizes too large for him.
" I don't mind," stammers Maudie, " I don't mind if you come into my droring-room."
Gracious me, the instantaneous, the extra-ordinary success of 'Enry Johnson's " stand-up " collar. It is frayed, it is dingy, it could easily go twice round his neck ; but, as we have seen, it has had an all-conquering effect on Maudie, and it also procures for the wearer pressing invitations to other stone " houses." No sooner has the thrilling news been circulated that " 'Enry's got a man's collar on," than he is shrilly called upon to visit Gertie and Cissie, at 12 Oxford Street and 19 Russell Square. In terrific demand is eight-year-old 'Enry. He completely eclipses Jimmie Styles, whose one dilapidated roller-skate has made him a great personage amongst the Swarm. Yes, for the time being, at all events, the Collar has beaten the Skate. " You do look nice, 'Enry," says Gertie. And Cissie inquires : "'Ow do you feel in it ? I mean, does it make you feel any different ? " To which elegant 'Enry vaguely replies : " Yes, there's a difference somewhere, but I don't know where."
Here and there little girls in curl-papers are engaged in attaching gardens to their " houses." Three or four cobble-stones placed side by side represent a flower-bed, and banana skins, wisps of straw, corks and bits of broken crockery do duty for flowers. Other little girls " join hands and dance round the " houses," in many of which _ a baby has been deposited : and gravely, wonderingly, do the babies survey the scene. However, they are not forgotten, not even neglected. Cissie, for instance, makes them smile by uttering guttural, gurgling sounds ; Maudie sweeps them to and fro-in the air. And, shrilly, Mary sings :
"Byby, Byby, when you're a lydy
As the shadows fall on Bannister Row, the Swarm becomes more and more animated. Down with a crash come the pillars and barricades of cobble-stones, and the Jimmies and Billies cheer, and the Cissies and Gerties clap their hands, and the babies stare more wonderingly than ever, as the cobbles, striking against one another, emit jagged splinters and sparks, and clouds of dust fill the air. Then much jumping over the cobble-stones, and many perilous balancing feats on the cobble-stones, and a great deal of stumbling and falling over the cobble-stones. Legs show cuts and bruises, but on goes the sport. Along the pavement dashes Jimmie Styles on his one dilapidated roller skate, but once again is his sensational performance eclipsed by the elegant 'Enry John-son. Perched upon a pile of cobble-stones, 'Enry waves a dirty handkerchief in the air and shouts "'Ooray." Heaven knows whom or what he is thus acclaiming, but thirty shrill voices take up the cry. More barricades erected and promptly assaulted, and further clouds of dust. Frantic dancing round the " houses " ; music-hall choruses ; sharp words between Mary and Cissie ; a struggle between Billie and Jimmie ; a fall for roller-skating Styles; louder and louder "'Oorays" from 'Enry Johnson ; din, chaos amidst the cobble-stones, and at the end of the street, shaking his staff, the feeble old watchman. For the hundredth time this afternoon he cries querulously : " Now then, enuf of it. Can't you 'ear me ? I said, enuf of it." But the children ignore him. " 'Ooray," shouts the Swarm, led by 'Enry Johnson. The Swarm adore cobble-stones; the Swarm are having " the time of their lives.