Truly Rural by Israel Zangwill

Story type: Essay

“ENGINEER AND SURVEYOR’S DEPARTMENT.

5 & 6 Wm. IV., cap. 50, sect. 65.

“SIR,

“I am directed to call your attention to the present condition of trees within your premises, which now overhang the public footpath adjoining, and thereby cause considerable inconvenience to the public. I shall be glad if you will kindly give the matter your best attention, with a view to lopping or cutting the trees in such a manner as to obviate the inconvenience at present complained of.

“Yours obediently,
“P. LEONARDO MACREADY,
Engineer to the Board.”

Amid the cosmopolitan medley of letters on my metropolitan breakfast-table–the long and formal-looking, the fat and foreign, and the over-scrawled and the underpaid (the last mainly requests for autographs)–this delightful home-grown epistle came with refreshing piquancy. It brought a breath of summer into the grey chillness of a London winter, a suggestion of rustling foliage about the chandelier, and the scent of the hay over the gaslights. “My dear!” I exclaimed to the partner of my bosom (a tame white rat that likes to perch there), “Have we any trees?”

My partner gave a little plaintive squeak. That is her idea of conversation. She screams at everything. She would scream at the sight of a mouse.

I pushed away my plate. I had sat down hungry as a hunter, and had had two helpings of everything; but now I could eat no more. Excitement had taken away my appetite. The prospect of rural discoveries agitated me. I hastened to the window and looked at the front garden. To my astonishment and joy there was vegetation in it. There was a dwarf evergreen bush and a fragment of vine stretching itself sleepily, and a tall thin tree–they might all have got comfortably into one bed, but they had been planted in three far apart, and this gave the garden a desolate Ramsgate-in-winter air of “Beds to let.” The tall thin tree was absolutely naked, without an inch of foliage to cover its wooden limbs; a mere mass of dry sticks. I looked hard at the tree to see where it offended, determined to pluck it out. But it returned my gaze with the stolidity of conscious innocence–it held up its wooden arms in deprecation. I re-read Mr. P. Leonardo Macready’s letter. “Which now overhang the public footpath”! Ah! that was what was the matter with my trees. It was raining, but I am an Englishman and the law is sacred, and I went outside into the public highway and looked at the tall thin tree from the new point of view. Sure enough–very far up–there was a bough overhanging the public footpath.

I looked up at it and shook my fist menacingly, but it waved its twigs in response with an irritating amiability. I began to understand what an annoyance it must be to have a bough up there that you couldn’t flick at with your stick as you passed by, and that even when weighed down by its summer greenery would bemock you if you made a casual clutch at its foliage, and laugh at you in its leaves. I went inside and returned with a step-ladder and an umbrella and a carving-knife, and I stood on the summit of the ladder and made abortive slashes at space with my right hand, while the open umbrella in my left made equally abortive efforts to soar with me skywards. After nearly stabbing the partner of my bosom I went in, both of us wet like drowned rats, and as I settled myself again to coffee and correspondence, I could not help wishing that Chang, the Chinese giant, had remained alive to triumph over my tantalising trees. Nor could I help wishing that the activity of the local engineers and surveyors had been directed by His Gracious Majesty King William IV. into quite a contrary channel.

William, spare that tree,
Touch not a single bough;
If you had planted three,
They would protect me now.

If, instead of being requested to amputate a beautiful overhanging arm of foliage, every citizen of London were served with a notice to plant a tree in front of his demesne, the face of the great stony city would be transformed. It would become a rus in urbe. Why not? Everybody knows what the late Duke of Devonshire made of Eastbourne; and the beauty of Bournemouth is mainly an affair of trees. Why should we not walk under the boughs of Oxford Street? What law of nature or William IV. ordains an eternal divorce between shops and trees? Why should one not hear the birds sing in the Strand as well as in the Inns of Court? Let us have trees instead of lamp-posts–with electric lights twinkling from their leaves. Already there are London streets quite well-wooded. Even in the Whitechapel Road it is possible to read–

A book of verses underneath a bough;

but I shall not be content till Matthew Arnold’s exquisite quatrain comes literally true of London–

Roses that down the alleys shine afar,
And open jasmine-muffled lattices,
And groups under the dreaming garden-trees,
And the full moon and the white evening star.

It might be well if we could transplant to our more prosaic city ways the beautiful old custom of planting a tree on the birth of a child. It is true that ladies might object to having their age recorded by the growth of rings on the trunk; but then they could easily pass the tree on to an elder sister when they got beyond the average wedding-ring age. Besides, people would quickly forget whose birth it marked, and the town trees would soon become anonymous. I would therefore suggest the formation of a tree-planting party, pledged not to support any candidate for Parliament who would not vote for the ruralisation of the Metropolis. To the Home Rule of Mr. Gladstone, with his weakness for cutting down trees, must be opposed Home Ruralisation. What a fine platform cry–“a truly rural London!”–with the unique advantage of being unpronounceable by demagogues in drink. The poor would welcome the policy as a boon. They are not by any means so unpoetical as Gissing would make out. Only the other day a baby was found buried in a window flower-box; which is practically the idea of Keats’ “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil,” an idea which was itself a graft from the stock of Boccaccio.

If the parish dignitaries became thus associated in our minds with the Beautiful instead of with bills and blue papers, one might be able to whip up some enthusiasm for the civic life, and contemplate even income-tax schedules with a Platonic or Aristotelian rapture. It is not everybody who can rhapsodise with Mr. Bernard Shaw or the Fabian Society over sewer rates, and find in the contemplation of communal gas and water something of the inspiration and ecstasy that the late Professor Tyndall found in the thought of the conservation of energy.

In firing us to local patriotism by the example of provincial cities, the enthusiast does not allow sufficiently for the size of London. It swallows us all up; there are twenty provincial cities in its maw: it is not a city, but a province. We cannot rouse ourselves to an interest in Brixton and Camberwell, in Poplar and Highbury. There is no glory in being a dweller in so amorphous a city, whose motley floating population is alone sufficient to stock a town; there can be no sense of brotherhood in meeting a Londoner abroad, still less a Middlesex or Surrey man. Devonians may feast off junkets and cream, in touching fellowship, and the hearts of Edinburgh men stir with common memories of Princes Street; but a Cockney, who has far more to be proud of, is overwhelmed into apathy. It is only in a compact city that one can develop that sense of special belonging which George Eliot contends is at the root of so many virtues. I might just as well be taxed to beautify Dublin as Canonbury, for all the difference it would make in my grumblings. And if our city is too large to inspire us, our parish is too small. And so to most of us, I fear, parochialism is a bore. Theoretically, we know that the parish we live in is greater than many a provincial town. We know that we ought to take an interest in its history, and be proud of its great men. But somehow, despite Mr. Frederic Harrison, our suburb leaves us cold. Our real life does not centre about our own parish at all. We circle about the great thoroughfares that radiate from Charing Cross, and the pivot of our lives is Piccadilly. Born to the Metropolis, we cannot narrow our minds to a district, nor to parish give up what was meant for London. We refuse to become provincials. We do not even know that we boast of a Town Hall, till we are compelled to attend and show cause why we have not paid the rates, or any part thereof, the same having been lawfully demanded. If there are any other great men in the neighbourhood, we do not know their addresses. They are shy and retiring. It is only the retired who are not shy. That sort of great man comes forth in his tens. He has been a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker, and he is–a bore. Once he solicited your patronage, to-day he solicits your vote. Having given up making profits, he now wishes to make by-laws, and finds a gleam of his old delight in sending out heavy bills to the neighbourhood. You get a list of him, which policemen announce their intention of calling for. You are asked to decide among a column of him, uniformly obscure, but divided invidiously enough into tradesmen and gentlemen. Who compiled this list or nominated these gentlemen and tradesmen, you have not the ghost of a notion. They are sprung upon you as imperiously and mysteriously as their own demand-notes. You look down the column and make random crosses by the wayside. You select a sanitary engineer in preference to an undertaker, forgetting that he is the deadlier of the two, and you vote for your retired wine-dealer to prevent him going back into business. But most of the names convey nothing to you, and give you the sensation of a donkey between two heaps of straw, or of a straw between two heaps of donkeys. And having thus exercised that high English privilege, for which you would shed your blood if it were taken away, you are content for the rest of the year to grumble at the doings of your representatives. It does not occur to you that public duty calls upon you to comprehend the parochial mysteries and solicit the parochial dignities. They seem too petty for a man of any stature–a sort of small beer for babes and sucklings.

May it not be that the voice of public duty, when it calls upon you to be a citizen and a parishioner, calls with too piping a voice? There is no rousing note, nothing of the resonance of a clarion call. A suggestion of poverty and the workhouse clings to everything parochial, something of drab and joyless. Is there no way of infusing colour into this depressing greyness, a martial timbre into this anaemic note? If we are to pay the piper let us hear him. Let the tax-collector go his rounds at the head of a brass band, playing patriotic airs. Let brocaded standard-bearers raise aloft a banner with the soul-stirring insignia, “England expects every man to pay his duty.” Let the hollow roll of the drum thrill the dull suburban street, and animate the areas of semi-detached villas. No longer shall the devil and General Booth have all the good tunes, and the ragged rearguard of urchins keeping time with their bare feet shall follow the drum to the surer and saner goal of civic salvation. The music of the streets will become a joy instead of a terror, and English performers will find a new market. See paterfamilias prick up his ears as the distant strains of national music impinge upon his tympanum, see his heart heaving his shirt-front with patriotic ardour, while, with a joyous cry “The Collectors are coming, hurrah, hurrah!” he rushes to his cheque-book as the soldier rushes to arms. Is he not serving his country as much as the soldier, and without pay–or even discount? Nay, why should the idea of patriotic duty be so emphatically connected with the shedding of blood, and all the pomp and pageantry reserved for the profession of Destruction? Why should not the lifeboat be launched, or the coal dug, or the drain-pipe laid, or the taxes paid, to a musical accompaniment, and under the shadow of the national flag? Great is the power of the Symbol: for a few inches of rag at elevenpence three-farthings a yard (warranted not to shrink) men will give their lives. And greater still is the power of music.

Dear to the London housemaid,
The fife of fusilier,
And to the Cockney urchin
The drum of Booth is dear;
Sweet sounds the barrel-organ
Where’er the cits parade;
But the dearest of all music
The Tax-Collectors played.

You will be glad to hear that scarcely had this grumble appeared in print when I saw a procession that made me think Birnam wood had come to Dunsinane. Soon either pavement was planted with ready-made trees, all a-blowing and a-growing. If it had happened in the night, I should have rubbed my eyes and imagined some good genius had transported me to the Boulevards. I hastened to place a little gueridon outside the garden gate, and to decorate it with glasses of absinthe and vermouth; but a gendarme came along and asked me to move on.

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