A SQUALID VILLAGE -|- Educational Philosophy Theory


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Strange that the wealthiest class in the wealthiest country in the world should so long have been content to inhabit a squalid village!

I'm not going to compare London, as Englishmen often do, with Paris or Vienna. I won't do two great towns that gross injustice. And, indeed, comparison here is quite out of the question. You don't compare Oxford with Little Peddlington, or Edinburgh with Thrums, and then ask which is the handsomest. Things must be alike in kind before you can begin to compare them. And London and Paris are not alike in kind. One is a city, and a noble city; the other is a village, and a squalid village.

No; I will not even take a humbler standard of comparison, and look at London side by side with Brussels, Antwerp, Munich, Turin. Each of those is a city, and a fine city in its way; but each of them is small. Still, even by their side, London is again but a squalid village. I insist upon that point, because, misled by their ancient familiarity with London, most Englishmen have had their senses and understandings so blunted on this issue, that they really don't know what is meant by a town, or a fine town, when they see one. And don't suppose it's because London is in Britain and these other towns out of it that I make these remarks: for Bath is a fine town, Edinburgh is a fine town, even Glasgow and Newcastle are towns, while London is still a straggling, sprawling, invertebrate, inchoate, overgrown village. I am as free, I hope, from anti-patriotic as from patriotic prejudice. The High Street in Oxford, Milsom Street in Bath, Princes Street in Edinburgh, those are all fine streets that would attract attention even in France or Germany. But the Strand, Piccadilly, Regent Street, Oxford Street—good Lord, deliver us!

One more caveat as to my meaning. When I cite among real towns Brussels, Antwerp, and Munich, I am not thinking of the treasures of art those beautiful places contain; that is another and altogether higher question. Towns supreme in this respect often lag far behind others of less importance—lag behind in those external features and that general architectural effectiveness which rightly entitle us to say in a broad sense, "This is a fine city." Florence, for example, contains more treasures of art in a small space than any other town of Europe; yet Florence, though undoubtedly a town, and even a fine town, is not to be compared in this respect, I do not say with Venice or Brussels, but even with Munich or Milan. On the other hand, London contains far more treasures of art in its way than Boston, Massachusetts; but Boston is a handsome, well-built, regular town, while London—well, I will spare you the further repetition of the trite truism that London is a squalid village. In one word, the point I am seeking to bring out here is that a town, as a town, is handsome or otherwise, not in virtue of the works of art or antiquity it contains, but in virtue of its ground-plan, its architecture, its external and visible decorations and places—the Louvre, the Boulevards, the Champs Elysées, the Place de l'Opéra.

Now London has no ground-plan. It has no street architecture. It has no decorations, though it has many uglifications. It is frankly and simply and ostentatiously hideous. And being wholly wanting in a system of any sort—in organic parts, in idea, in views, in vistas—it is only a village, and a painfully uninteresting one.

Most Englishmen see London before they see any other great town. They become so familiarised with it that their sense of comparison is dulled and blunted. I had the good fortune to have seen many other great towns before I ever saw London: and I shall never forget my first sense of surprise at its unmitigated ugliness.

Get on top of an omnibus—I don't say in Paris, from the Palais Royal to the Arc de Triomphe, but in Brussels, from the Gare du Nord to the Palais de Justice—and what do you see? From end to end one unbroken succession of noble and open prospects. I'm not thinking now of the Grande Place in the old town, with its magnificent collection of mediæval buildings; the Great Fire effectively deprived us of our one sole chance of such an element of beauty in modern London. I confine myself on purpose to the parts of Brussels which are purely recent, and might have been imitated at a distance in London, if there had been any public spirit or any public body in England to imitate them. (But unhappily there was neither.) Recall to mind as you read the strikingly handsome street view that greets you as you emerge from the Northern Station down the great central Boulevards to the Gare du Midi—all built within our own memory. Then think of the prospects that gradually unfold themselves as you rise on the hill; the fine vista north towards Sainte Marie de Schaarbeck; the beautiful Rue Royale, bounded by that charming Parc; the unequalled stretch of the Rue de la Régence, starting from the Place Royale with Godfrey of Bouillon, and ending with the imposing mass of the Palais de Justice. It is to me a matter for mingled surprise and humiliation that so many Englishmen can look year after year at that glorious street—perhaps the finest in the world—and yet never think to themselves, "Mightn't we faintly imitate some small part of this in our wealthy, ugly, uncompromising London?"

I always say to Americans who come to Europe: "When you go to England, don't see our towns, but see our country. Our country is something unequalled in the world: while our towns!—well, anyway, keep away from London!"

With the solitary and not very brilliant exception of the Embankment, there isn't a street in London where one could take a stranger to admire the architecture. Compare that record with the new Boulevards in Antwerp, where almost every house is worth serious study: or with the Ring at Cologne (to keep close home all the time), where one can see whole rows of German Renaissance houses of extraordinary interest. What street in London can be mentioned in this respect side by side with Commonwealth Avenue or Beacon Street in Boston; with Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio; with the upper end of Fifth Avenue, New York; nay, even with the new Via Roma at Genoa? Why is it that we English can't get on the King's Road at Brighton anything faintly approaching that splendid sea front on the Digue at Ostend, or those coquettish white villas that line the Promenade des Anglais at Nice? The blight of London seems to lie over all Southern England.

Paris looks like the capital of a world-wide empire. London, looks like a shapeless neglected suburb, allowed to grow up by accident anyhow. And that's just the plain truth of it. 'Tis a fortuitous concourse of hap-hazard houses.

"But we are improving somewhat. The County Council is opening out a few new thoroughfares piecemeal." Oh yes, in an illogical, unsystematic, English patchwork fashion, we are driving a badly-designed, unimpressive new street or two, with no expansive sense of imperial greatness, through the hopelessly congested and most squalid quarters. But that is all. No grand, systematic, reconstructive plan, no rising to the height of the occasion and the Empire! You tinker away at a Shaftesbury Avenue. Parochial, all of it. And there you get the real secret of our futile attempts at making a town out of our squalid village. The fault lies all at the door of the old Corporation, and of the people who made and still make the old Corporation possible. For centuries, indeed, there was really no London, not even a village; there was only a scratch collection of contiguous villages. The consequence was that here, at the centre of national life, the English people grew wholly unaccustomed to the bare idea of a town, and managed everything piecemeal, on the petty scale of a country vestry. The vestryman intelligence has now overrun the land; and if the London County Council ever succeeds at last in making the congeries of villages into—I do not say a city, for that is almost past praying for, but something analogous to a second-rate Continental town, it will only be after long lapse of time and violent struggles with the vestryman level of intellect and feeling.

London had many great disadvantages to start with. She lay in a dull and marshy bottom, with no building stone at hand, and therefore she was forecondemned by her very position to the curse of brick and stucco, when Bath, Oxford, Edinburgh, were all built out of their own quarries. Then fire destroyed all her mediæval architecture, leaving her only Westminster Abbey to suggest the greatness of her losses. But brick-earth and fire have been as nothing in their way by the side of the evil wrought by Gog and Magog. When five hundred trembling ghosts of naked Lord Mayors have to answer for their follies and their sins hereafter, I confidently expect the first question in the appalling indictment will be, "Why did you allow the richest nation on earth to house its metropolis in a squalid village?"

We have a Moloch in England to whom we sacrifice much. And his hateful name is Vested Interest.

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