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London In November : Guy Fawksing

( Originally Published 1917 )

BRIGHTON CRESCENT is so full of misnomers, incongruities, surprises, that it has become a favourite idling-place of mine. To begin with, it is miles and miles away from Brighton—lies, in fact, in Hammer-smith ; and secondly, heaven only knows (and I don't believe even heaven can possibly know) why it has been named a crescent. For it never bends, it never curves, it contains neither an angle nor a dent : but is the longest, the straightest, the rigidest mean London street I have yet visited.

At a corner, a grimy, sombre public-house, named, oh, audacity, " The Monarch." Then a dark little barber's shop, kept by a Mr John Pole; who exhibits the following intimation (on half a sheet of notepaper) in his window :—"Latest luxuries from Paris." And here and there, a sweep. There must, indeed, be a good dozen sweeps in Brighton Crescent.

" Why," I soliloquise, as I survey the street, " why don't these sweeps operate upon their own chimneys and upon the chimneys of their neighbours ? Mr Pole's chimney, for instance, is in a shocking state; and what a swarm of smuts have fastened themselves on to the windows of The Monarch' ! Smuts everywhere. On the vegetables at the greengrocer's ; on the ghastly display at the butcher's ; on the faces of the house-wives of Brighton Crescent ; on their children ; on this wizened baby in the rickety perambulator ; on --- "

" Give us a penny," pleads a little boy. It's for fireworks. You know—the fifth of November."

" But it's only the third of November," I object, fumbling, nevertheless, in my pocket. " You're anticipating events ? "

" What's that ? asks the little boy.

" Anticipating," I begin, " means--" But the boy doesn't want to be educated ; the boy only wants fireworks the boy runs off with my pennies.

Of course the news of my generosity spreads in Brighton Crescent ; and inevitably, therefore, I am accosted by other children, eager to celebrate the Fifth on this evening of the third. But this impatience is natural : children hate to wait ; they begin to worry and worry about their birthday or Christmas presents a month before the time ; and, as we, in our extreme youth, were equally exacting, we should not fail to recall our own past anxiety and distress and—do as we should have wished to be done by. So I distribute pennies-lots of them—and I notice that the children disappear with them into the dingy little shop of a certain Mrs Joy. In her window, newspapers, strong, bitter tobaccos, lurid-coloured sweets, dusty bottles of ink, and the announcement on a discoloured bit of old card-board :

SPLENDID FIREWORKS !
NOW"S YOUR TIME COME IN.

However, no gaiety about the lady of the name of Joy, and no splendour about her collection of fireworks. Tumbled together in a box are squibs, catherine-wheels and cardboard tubes labelled " stars," " red fire " and " golden rain." Not a rocket amongst them, far less a " Prince of Wales' Feathers." And Mrs Joy herself is a thin, yellow-faced little old woman, who tells me that the children of Brighton Crescent deserve " to be blown up, as most likely they will do to them-selves ; and quick, too, I 'ope."

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 'em 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 tubé 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 to exclaim : " It isn't my Guy. I've got nothing to do with it. I swear it isn't mine." But fortunately—qui s'excuse s'accuse—I remain silent: and the policeman saunters on.

Five, seven minutes must have elapsed, but not a sign of the children. Again I look down the street towards the corner round which they disappeared. Since they love their Guy, why should they linger so long ? Surely to buy a yellow paper cap of Mrs Tooke should be but the affair of a moment ? But no : never a sign, never a sound of the children. And I throw my cigarette away in disgust. And I fancy I perceive a face at one of the windows opposite. And I turn my back upon that window, thus confronting the Guy. And to this inanimate, hideous Object I mutter preposterously : " You Monster, you Atrocity, you --

More footsteps ; then—oh, horror !—a small boy. And he stops, and stares hard at the Guy, and inquires :

Is He yours ?

Truly, a terrible night ! I know from observation—though I cannot explain the phenomenon—that when one small' boy comes to a standstill in the street, he is bound to be joined all in a minute by other small boys, arrived from heaven knows where. Thus, unless I agitate promptly, I shall be speedily surrounded by boys.

" Is He yours ? " reiterates the urchin.

" Of course not," I reply sharply. " How could He be mine ? I'm only looking after it. That is to say " But the boy looks at me so blankly that I stop.

" I don't think much of 'im. 'E ain't got no legs, nor no arms. And what's them shells and banana skins for ? " asks the boy. " That's what I'd like to know," I reply. " Now listen. Do you know Mrs Tooke's, round the corner ? " The boy does. So do I tell him to run to Mrs Tooke's and to warn the children there that their Guy is in peril. Furthermore, I give the boy twopence for his errand ; watch him race down the street and disappear round the corner, and resume my vigil.

Not so closely, however. The Guy has become so odious to me that I walk away from it ; and when a prowling eat approaches it, and sniffs about amidst the oyster-shells, I make no remonstrance. I doubt, indeed, if I should put difficulties in the way, if it pleased the cat to claw the atrocity to pieces. But the eat, like the boy just departed, doesn't " think much " of the Guy. After a sniff or two she goes her way.

And where is the boy just departed ? And where are the children he has raced off to fetch ? It comes to this : you, kindly and humanely, give children sixpence with which to buy a yellow paper cap, and what do they do ? They leave you in charge of a Guy. Then, you give a boy twopence to bring you back those children, and the boy disappears. Not only is one eight-pence out of pocket, but one finds oneself in a humiliating, even a disgraceful, position. One's own fault, no doubt. One should refuse positively and decisively to mount guard over Guys. And if, as in my case, one has had a Guy thrust upon one, against one's will, wholly without one's consent, then one should walk away and abandon that Guy. But .. .

Most assuredly, a terrible night ! And it becomes increasingly terrible when the constable of half-an-hour ago again makes his appearance, and this time regards me with severity, suspicion. Defiantly I look back at him, and he crosses the road and stations himself under a lamp-post nearby, so that I am watched.

And then does this brilliant idea occur to me. Why should not the constable mount guard over this ignoble Guy ? And so, after crossing over to the policeman, I thus address him : <> " I say, constable, you might just keep your eye on that Guy over the way. It belongs to some children round the corner. They've got lost in a sweetshop, I suppose. But they won't be long, and ---"

I've got something better to do than begins the constable.

" Just keep your eye on it," I intervene. " I've had enough of it. It's your turn now."

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