Quiet Old Towns by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

A rather popular writer, who first came into notice by dint of naming a book of essays, “Is Life worth Living?” gave us not long ago a very sweet description of an English country town; and he worked himself up to quite a moving pitch of rapture as he described the admirable social arrangements which may be perceived on a market-day. This enthusiast tells us how the members of the great county families drive in to do their shopping. The stately great horses paw and champ at their bits, the neat servants bustle about in deft attendance, and the shopkeeper, who has a feudal sort of feeling towards his betters, comes out to do proper homage. The great landowner brings his wealth into the High Street or the market place, and the tradesmen raise their voices to bless him. We have all heard of institutions called “stores”; but still it is a pity to carp at a pretty picture drawn by a literary artist. I know that rebellious tradesmen in many of the shires use violent language as they describe the huge packing-cases which are deposited at various mansions by the railway vans. I know also that the regulation saddler who airs his apron at the door of his shop on market-days will inform the stranger that the gentry get saddles, harness, and everything else nowadays from the abominable “stores”; but I must not leave my artist, and shall let the saddler growl to himself for the present. The polished writer goes on to speak of the ruddy farmer who strolls round in elephantine fashion and hooks out sample-bags from his plethoric and prosperous pockets; the dealers drive a brisk trade, the small shopkeepers are encouraged by their neighbours from the country, and everything is extremely idyllic and pure and pretty and representative of England at her best. The old church rears its quaint height above the quainter houses that cluster near. In the churchyard the generations of natives sleep sound; one may trace some families back for hundreds of years, and thus perceive how firmly the love of the true townsman clings to his native place. Perhaps a castle looms over the modest streets and squares–it is converted into a prison in all probability; but the sight of it brings memories of haughty nobles, or of untitled personages whose pride of race would put monarchs to the blush. The river flows sweetly past the sleepy lovely town, and sober citizens walk solemnly beside the rippling watery highway when the day’s toil is over. On Sunday, when the bells chime their invitation, all sorts and conditions of men meet in the dim romantic precincts of the ancient church, and there is much pleasant gossiping when morning and evening worship are ended. Good old solid England is put before us in miniature when we glance at such of the community as choose to show themselves before the artistic observer, and, as we drive away along the sound level roads, we say–if we are very literary and enthusiastic–“Happy little town! Happy little nation!” Now that is all very pretty; and yet the conscientious philosopher is bound to admit that there is another side–nay, several other sides–to the charming picture. I do not want any students of the modern French school to prove that rural life in small towns may be as base and horrible as the life of crowded cities–I do not want any minute analysis of degradation; but I may prick a windbag of conceit and do some little service if I try to show that the state of things in some scores of these delightful old places is base and corrupt enough to warm the heart of the most exacting cynic that ever thought evil of his fellow-creatures.

Let us go behind the scenes and see what the idyllic prospect looks like from the rear. We must proceed with great deliberation, and we must take our rustic society stratum by stratum. First, then, there are the idle men who have inherited or earned fortunes, and who like to settle in luxurious houses away from great centres of population. Such men are always in great force on the skirts of quiet old towns, and they are much revered by the tradesmen. I cannot help thinking that the fate of the average “retired” man must be not a little dolorous, for I find that the typical member of that class conducts himself in much the same way no matter where he pitches his habitation in broad England. He is saved if he has a hobby; but, without a hobby, he is a very poor creature, and his ways of living on from day to day are the reverse of admirable. If such a revolutionary institution as a club has been established in the town, he may begin his morning’s round there; or, in default of a club, there is the “select” room in the principal hotel. If he is catholic in his tastes and hungry for conversation, he may wander from one house of call to another, and he meets a large and well-chosen assortment of hucksters who come to bind bargains with the inevitable “drink”; he meets the gossip who knows all the secrets of the township, he meets flashy persons who have a manly thirst which requires perpetual assuagement. Then he converses to his heart’s content; and, alas, what conversation it is–what intellectual exertion is expended by these forlorn gossips in the morning round that takes up the time of many men in a quiet town! There is a little slander, a good deal of peeping out of windows, a little discussion of the financial prospects ascribed to various men in the neighbourhood, and an impartial examination of everybody’s private affairs. The regular crew of gossips hold it as a duty to know and talk about the most minute details of each other’s lives, and, when a man leaves any given room where the piquant chatter is going on, he is quite aware that he leaves his character behind him. The state of his banking account is guessed at, the disposition of his will is courageously foretold, the amounts which he paid to various shopkeepers are added up with reverence or scorn according to the amount–and the company revel in their mean babble until it is time to go to another place and pull the character and the financial accounts of somebody else to pieces. By luncheon time most of these useful beings are a little affected in complexion and speech by the trifling potations which wash down the scandal; but no one is intoxicated. To be seen mastered by “drink” in the morning would cause a man to lose caste; and, besides, if he said too much while his tongue was loose, he would not be believed when next he set down a savoury mess for the benefit of the company. Through all the talk of these wretched entities, be it observed that money, money runs as a species of key-note; the men may be coarse and servile, but a shrewd eye can detect every sign of purse-pride. Let a gentleman of some standing walk past a window where the grievous crew are wine-bibbing and blabbing, and some one will say, “Carries hisself high enough, don’t he? He ain’t got a thousand to fly with. I bet a bottle on it! Why, me, or Jimmy there, or even old Billy Spinks, leaving out Harry, and let alone the Doctor–any one on us could buy him out twelve times over, and then have a bit of roast or biled for Sunday’s dinner!” This remark is received as a wise and trenchant tribute to the power of the assembly, and they have more “drink” by way of self-gratulation. Those poor “retired” men, and “independent” men, often go deeper and deeper down the incline towards mental and moral degradation until they become surprisingly repulsive specimens of humanity. In all their dreary perambulations they rarely speak or hear an intelligent word; they are amazingly ignorant concerning their country’s affairs, and their conceptions of politics are mostly limited to a broad general belief that some particular statesman ought to be hanged.

As to the government of these quiet old places, there is much to be said that is depressing. While men prate about the decay of trade and the advance of poverty, how few people reflect on the snug fortunes which are amassed in out-of-the-way corners! We hear of jobbery in the metropolis, and jobbery in Government departments, but I take it that the corporations of some little towns could give lessons in jobbery to any corrupt official that ever plundered his countrymen. Some town councils may be very briefly and accurately described as nests of thieves. The thieves wear good clothes, go to church, and do not go to prison–at least, the cases of detection are rare–but they are thieves all the same. As a rule, no matter what a man’s trade or profession may be, he contrives to gather profit pretty freely when once he joins the happy band who handle the community’s purse. In some cases the robbery is so barefaced and open that the particulars might as well be painted on a monster board and hung up at the town cross; but tradesmen, workmen, and others who have their living to make in the town are terrorised, and they preserve a discreet silence in public however much they may speak evil of dignities in private. As a general rule, a show of decorum is kept up; yet I should think it hardly possible for the average vestry or council to meet without an interchange of winks among the members. John favours Tommy’s tender when Tommy contracts to horse all the corporation’s water-carts, dust-carts, and so forth; then Tommy is friendly when John wants to sell his row of cottages to the municipality. If Tommy employs two horses on a certain work and charges for twenty, then John and some other backers support the transaction. Billy buys land to a heavy extent, and refuses to build on it; houses are risky property, and Billy can wait. An astute company meet at William’s house and take supper in luxurious Roman style; then James casually suggests that the east end of the town is a disgrace to the council. Until the block of houses in Blank Street is pulled down and a broad road is run straight to join the main street, the place will be the laughingstock of strangers. James is eloquent. How curious it is that the new road which is to redeem the town from shame must run right over Billy’s building plots, and how very remarkable it is to think that the corporation pays a swinging price for the precious land! Billy looks more prosperous than ever; he sets up another horse, reduces rivals to silence by driving forth in a new victoria, and becomes more and more the familiar bosom friend of the bank manager. I might go on to give a score of examples showing how innocent rate-payers are fleeced by barefaced robbers, but the catalogue would be only wearisome. Let any man of probity venture to force his way into one of these dens of thieves and see how he will fare! It is a comic thing that the gangs of jobbers consider that they have a prescriptive right to plunder at large, and their air of aggrieved virtue when they are challenged by a person whom they call an “interloper” is among the most droll and humiliating farces that may be seen in life. The whole crew will make a ferocious dead set at the intruder who threatens to pull their quarry away from them; he will be coughed down or interrupted by insulting noises, and he may esteem himself highly fortunate if he is not asked to step outside and engage in single combat. Everything that mean malignity can do to balk him will be done, and, unless he is a very strong man physically and morally, the opposition will tire him out. There is usually one dominant family in such towns–for the possibility of making a heavy fortune by a brewery or tannery or factory in these quiet places is far greater than any outsider might fancy. The members of the ruling family and their henchmen arise in their might to crush the insolent upstart who wants to see accounts and vouchers: the chairman will rise and say, “Let me tell Mr. X. that me and my family were old established inhabitants in this ancient borough long before he came, and we’ll be here long after he has gone bankrupt. We don’t require no strangers: the people in this borough has always managed their own affairs, and by the help of Providence they’ll go on in the good old way in spite of any swell that comes a-sniffin’ and a-smellin’ and a-pryin’ and a-askin’ for accounts about this and that and the other; and I tell the gentleman plain, the sooner this council sees his back the better they’ll be pleased; so, if he’s not too thick in the skin, let him take a friendly hint and take himself off.” A withering onslaught like this is received with tumultuous applause, and other speakers follow suit. It is seldom that a man has nerve enough to stand such brutality from his hoggish assailants, and the ring of jobbers are too often left to work their will unchecked. Are such people fit for political power? Ask the wretched rich man who indirectly buys the seat, and hear his record of dull misery if he is inclined to be confidential. He does not like to leave Parliament, and yet he knows he is merely a mark for the licensed pickpocket; he is not regarded as a politician–he is a donor of sundry subscriptions, and nothing more. The men in manufacturing centres will return a poor politician and pay his expenses; but the people in some quiet towns have about as much sentiment or loyalty as they have knowledge; and they treat their member of Parliament as a gentleman whose function it is to be bled, and bled copiously. A sorry sight it is!

One very remarkable thing in these homes of quietness is the marvellous power possessed by drink-sellers. These gentry form the main links in a very tough chain, and they hang together with touching fidelity; their houses are turned into scandal-shops, and they prosper so long as they are ready to cringe with due self-abasement before the magistrates. No refined gentleman who keeps himself to his own class and refrains from meddling with politics could ever by any chance imagine the airs of broad-blown impudence which are sometimes assumed by ignorant and stupid boors who have been endowed with a license; and assuredly no one would guess the extent of their political power unless he had something to do with election business. The landlord of fiction hardly exists in the quiet towns; there is seldom a smiling, suave, and fawning Boniface to be seen; the influential drink-seller is often an insolent familiar harpy who will speak of his own member of Parliament as “Old Tom,” and who airily ventures to call gentlemen by their surnames. The man is probably so benighted in mind that he knows nothing positive about the world he lives in; his manners are hideous, his familiarity is loathsome, his assumptions of manly independence are almost comic in their impudence; but he has his uses, and he can influence votes of several descriptions. Thus he asserts himself in detestable fashion; and people who should know better submit to him. One electioneering campaign in a quiet town would give a salutary lesson to any politician who resolutely set himself to penetrate into the secret life of the society whose suffrages he sought; he would learn why it is that the agents of all the factions treat the drink-seller with deference.

So the queer existence of the tranquil place moves on; petty scandal, petty thieving, petty jobbery, petty jealousy employ the energies of the beings who inhabit the “good old town”–the borough is always good and old–and a man with a soul who really tried to dwell in the moral atmosphere of the community would infallibly be asphyxiated. Nowhere are appearances so deceptive; nowhere do the glamour of antiquity and the beauty of natural scenery draw the attention away from so vile a centre. I could excuse any man who became a pessimist after a long course of conversations in a sleepy old borough, for he would see that a mildew may attack the human intelligence, and that the manners of a puffy well-clad citizen may be worse than those of a Zulu Kaffir. The indescribable coarseness and rudeness of the social intercourse, the detestable forms of humour which obtain applause, the low distrust and trickery are quite sufficient to make a sensitive man want to hide himself away. If any one thinks I am too hard, he should try spending six whole weeks in any town which is called good and old; if he does not begin to agree with me about the end of the fifth week I am much in error.

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