The Club of Queer Trades
The Painful Fall of a Great Reputation
Basil Grant and I were talking one day in what is perhaps the most perfect place
for talking on earth--the top of a tolerably deserted tramcar. To talk on the top of
a hill is superb, but to talk on the top of a flying hill is a fairy tale.
The vast blank space of North London was flying by; the very pace gave us a
sense of its immensity and its meanness. It was, as it were, a base infinitude, a
squalid eternity, and we felt the real horror of the poor parts of London, the horror
that is so totally missed and misrepresented by the sensational novelists who
depict it as being a matter of narrow streets, filthy houses, criminals and
maniacs, and dens of vice. In a narrow street, in a den of vice, you do not expect
civilization, you do not expect order. But the horror of this was the fact that there
was civilization, that there was order, but that civilisation only showed its
morbidity, and order only its monotony. No one would say, in going through a
criminal slum, "I see no statues. I notice no cathedrals." But here there were
public buildings; only they were mostly lunatic asylums. Here there were statues;
only they were mostly statues of railway engineers and philanthropists--two dingy
classes of men united by their common contempt for the people. Here there were
churches; only they were the churches of dim and erratic sects, Agapemonites or
Irvingites. Here, above all, there were broad roads and vast crossings and
tramway lines and hospitals and all the real marks of civilization. But though one
never knew, in one sense, what one would see next, there was one thing we
knew we should not see--anything really great, central, of the first class, anything
that humanity had adored. And with revulsion indescribable our emotions
returned, I think, to those really close and crooked entries, to those really mean
streets, to those genuine slums which lie round the Thames and the City, in
which nevertheless a real possibility remains that at any chance corner the great
cross of the great cathedral of Wren may strike down the street like a
"But you must always remember also," said Grant to me, in his heavy abstracted
way, when I had urged this view, "that the very vileness of the life of these
ordered plebeian places bears witness to the victory of the human soul. I agree
with you. I agree that they have to live in something worse than barbarism. They
have to live in a fourth-rate civilization. But yet I am practically certain that the
majority of people here are good people. And being good is an adventure far
more violent and daring than sailing round the world. Besides--"
"Go on," I said.
No answer came.
"Go on," I said, looking up.