Wednesday, May 20, 2009


In a broadcast that went to air on Sunday, December 29, 1935, the great Max Beerbohm sketched from memory a view of the streetscape of Edwardian London.
Mayfair and Westminster and St. James’s were grand, of course, very urban, in a proudly unostentatious way...They were places of leisure—of leesure, one might almost have said in the old-fashioned way. And, very urban though they were, they were not incongruous with rusticity. St. James’s Park seemed a natural appendage to St. James’s Street; and the two milkmaids who milked two cows there, and sold the milk, did not seem strangely romantic. The Green Park seemed not out of keeping with the houses of Piccadilly. Nor did the Piccadilly goat strike one as more than a little odd in Piccadilly. I don’t know much about him, though I often saw him and liked him so much. He lived in a large mews in a side street, opposite to Gloucester House, the home of the venerable Duke of Cambridge. At about ten o’clock in the morning he would come treading forth with a delicately clumsy gait down the side-street—come very slowly, as though not quite sure there mightn’t be some grass for him to nibble at between the paving-stones. Then he would pause at the corner of Piccadilly and flop down against the railings of the nearest house. He would remain there till luncheon-time and return in the early afternoon. He was a large, handsome creature, with great intelligence in his amber eyes. He never slept. He was always interested in the passing scene. I think nothing escaped him. I wish he could have written his memoirs when he finally retired. He had seen, day by day, much that was worth seeing. He had seen a constant procession of the best-built vehicles in the world, drawn by very beautifully bred and beautifully groomed and beautifully harnessed horses, and containing very ornate people. Vehicles of the most diverse kinds. High-swung barouches, with immense armorial bearings on their panels, driven by fat white-wigged coachmen, and having powdered footmen up behind them; seigniorial phaetons; daring tandems; discreet little broughams, brown or yellow; flippant high dog-carts; low but flippant Ralli-carts; very frivolous private hansoms shaming the more serious public ones. And all these vehicles went by with a cheerful briskness; there was hardly ever a block for them in the traffic. And their occupants were very visible and were looking their best. The occupants of those low-roofed machines which are so pitifully blocked nowadays all along Piccadilly may, for aught one knows, be looking their best. But they aren’t on view. The students of humanity must be content to observe the pedestrians. These, I fear, would pain my old friend the goat…
All memory is suspect. Any form of nostalgia carefully calibrated for widespread public consumption is even more so. Yet in retrieving and setting out his ostensibly eyewitness account of the mood and appearance of Piccadilly, c. 1903, and, in particular, its free-flowing private traffic, Max Beerbohm’s blasé, self-conscious goat’s-eye view ignores the insistent clarion call of the blanket advertising that shrieks so insistently from placard to omnibus, from hoarding to shop window, in the many surviving strips of footage that were shot in London before the First World War. And the unequivocal visual evidence of cinema more accurately attests to a complicated skein of insistent appeals for public attention than the ostentatious display afforded by those “very ornate people” in their high-swung barouches, or even the unostentatious, purely private accommodations of that elderly Hanoverian first cousin of the old queen, whose long life was spent rising ever higher in military rank, and gradually descending countless notches in the order of succession to the throne: Field Marshal H.R.H. the second Duke of Cambridge, K.G., K.T., K.P., P.C., G.C.B., G.C.S.I., G.C.M.G., G.C.H., G.C.I.E., G.C.V.O., died on March 17, 1904.

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