Monday, April 25, 2011

The Piccadilly goat

In a broadcast that went to air on Sunday, December 29, 1935, Max Beerbohm reminisced about the streets of Edwardian London. The original broadcast survives in a rare gramophone recording in the Historic Sound Recordings collection of the Sterling Memorial Library here at Yale, and I have lately listened to the whole thing. Here is a sampling:
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. Much more so is any form of nostalgia carefully calibrated for widespread public consumption. Yet Max Beerbohm’s blasé, somewhat self-conscious goat’s-eye view effectively retrieved part of the mood and much of the appearance of Edwardian Piccadilly, in particular its free-flowing traffic, while nodding respectfully toward the purely private accommodations of Queen Victoria’s elderly Hanoverian first cousin. (Field Marshal H.R.H. The 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.) Note, above all, Beerbohm’s entirely unsympathetic attitude towards the motor car, such a pitiful substitute for high-swung barouches.

No comments:

Post a Comment