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Between Camden Town and Holloway

For me,

one of the more insightful parts of The London Adventure — both as a reader and also as curator of the Agincourt Project — are the four pages devoted to Machen’s ramble between Camden Town and Holloway, two north London neighborhoods. Camden Town is surely the better known of the pair, but the territory between them must have had very little prominence in the early 1920s. Which makes Machen’s observations all the more intriguing. So I have transcribed them here for your interest, edification, and entertainment.

Oh, and a note on Machen’s style: quite aside from certain Briticisms, which I’ll footnote as I am able, he eschews paragraphing as a convenience for his readers; indeed, the whole book is somewhat a stream of consciousness; there are “chapters” but I’m damned if I know why. So, as an aid, I have taken the liberty of paragraphing this excerpt to afford a little visual breathing room. It’s probable that Machen would think I’d done disservice to his tale.

…I remember once, I think it must have been in this borderland between the two quarters, coming at haphazard upon an unpretending street that to me was a whole chapter in social history.

The houses were modest little places enough, standing back from the road, houses for small incomes, one would say. But each one of them had its little coach house and its little stable; and for me here were compact histories of the “Sketches by Boz” period. Here lived, I suppose, people of the £250–£350 a year standard, as money was in those days. I conceive them as living quite carefully.

There would be one little maid who did the rougher work of the house, who got up very early indeed in the morning and swept the rooms and lit the fires. But the mistress, or perhaps a daughter, helped her to make the beds and very likely—see Miss Trotwood—washed up the real china cups and saucers, and was responsible for the cakes and the tarts and all the niceties of cookery.

The boy or hobbledehoy who looked after the pony and the basket-work chaise for six pounds a year, blacked the boots and did all sorts of odd jobs about the house and garden. I should suppose there were two joints of meat a week, but no more. There were eggs for breakfast but no bacon.

If master were “retired,” then the principal meal of the day was between one and three of the afternoon; otherwise the boy, the pony and the chaise took him into the city in the morning and brought him back to dinner in the evening. The gig and pony were sometimes put up in the dim stable yards and back places, the very site and existence of which, in our modern London, must remain a profound mystery; and what the boy did in the interval, between morning and evening I cannot imagine. Perhaps, even probably, he drove back to Camden Town and cleaned knives and worked in the garden till five o’clock, and then set out again to fetch the master.

Sometimes he would drive his mistress to Hornsey where Cousin Jane lived. Then master would walk back from the City and think nothing of it. It was a very small life. On the sideboard—Sheraton, very likely, for people of slight means could not afford to buy smart modern furniture—there were cake and wive; sherry wine and port wine—ready for anybody, who might pay a morning call; but in the absence of such visitors, I do not think that the mistress of the house or her daughters often partook of these dainties. The cake, I daresay, was apt to get somewhat dry and the wine to grow somewhat flat and weary before the sentence was uttered: “We may as well finish them.”

Three or four times a year the family started early in the morning and drove off to Twickenham go see Uncle James, who was well-to-do. There was roast veal or goose for dinner, veal and ham pie or beefsteak pudding, Scotch Ale or Madeira. There might be salmon, there might be pheasant—according to the season—and if there were ay sort of family anniversary, champaign might well be produced. If it were warm weather, the men of the party spent and hour or two of the afternoon in the summer house overlooking the river, drinking punch. The ladies did their “work” in the drawing-room and told family histories. At ten o’clock, after a bowl of bishop and a sandwich with the alternative of tea and thin bread and butter, the bell was rung, the boy was ordered to put in the pony, and the party returned to Camden Town. There was probably, almost certainly, “something hot” before going to bed; and this was also the case after one of the rare visits to the play.

These people took no regular summer holidays; now and again they stayed for a week or two with relations in Somerset, and that was all, and in return, a son or daughter of the relations in Somerset would stay for a week in the house in Camden Town, and for that week the family budget would be swollen. There would be ham for breakfast, something extra in the pudding way for dinner, a couple of theatres in the week, and oysters for supper afterwards, instead of the usual bread and cheese. Very few books in that house: odd volumes of Pope, Akenside, Smollett, the Rambler, Don Quixote, Drelingcourt on Death, Law’s Serious Call; none of them much read.

So much I saw as I passed down that street, Camden Town–Holloway, and I believe that most of it is truly seen, deduced rather, from the little coach houses and the little stables; and all a vision of a mode of life that has passed utterly away. [from The London Adventure, pp. 60-65.]

Arthur Machen could take for granted that his readers were acquainted with several terms and place names peppered causally through his narrative. Here are some that I’ve looked up:

  • hobbledehoy” — a clumsy or awkward youth.
  • Sketches by Boz” — a collection of short pieces Charles Dickens originally published in various newspapers and other periodicals between 1833 and 1836.
  • Hornsey“— a district of north London.
  • Twickenham” — during the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of fine houses were built and Twickenham became a popular place of residence for people of “fashion and distinction”.
  • Miss Trotwood” — Aunt Betsey Trotwood, a character in David Copperfield.
  • a bowl of bishop” — the word “bishop” was 19th-century code for port—which referred to a roasted clove and orange-infused port punch, warmed and mulled with baking spices.
  • Somerset” — A county in southwest England.
  • Smollett” — Tobias Smollett [1721-1771]
  • Drelingcourt on Death” — Drelincourt, Charles, The Christian’s consolations against the fears of death : with seasonable directions how to prepare ourselves to die well (1826).
  • Law’s Serious Call” — Law, William, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1729 and ff).

Just imagine. That’s a request to speculate; an invitation. Imagine the accumulated knowledge required for Machen to draw so much from an unfamiliar landscape. Imagine having such insight to the lives of other people, other times. It isn’t what he says that inspires; it’s that he can and with such conviction.

PS: By a remarkable coincidence, Fargo architect George Hancock lived in London municipal ward of Upper Holloway during the 1881 UK census.


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