HOW SOME PEOPLE GET ON IN LONDON.
Article written in 1860
LONDON contains 2,500,000 inhabitants, or thereabouts, the great bulk of whom have some amount of coin in their pockets. There must be a living to be made out of them by any lady or gentleman possessed of a moderate degree of ingenuity.
Two millions and a half of human beings, who must be fed, and clothed, and lodged; who are afflicted with various diseases; who are constantly at loggerheads with each other; who must be consoled in their miseries, and amused in their prosperity; who must be conveyed hither and thither in cabs and omnibuses; who have immortal aspirations, and are troubled with corns; — surely there must be something grievously amiss in the mental organisation of any one who cannot manage to screw the means of an easy existence out of the complicated necessities and follies of such an enormous mass of human beings.
The unlikeliest men “get on,” the likeliest men “get off,” in this desperate struggle; for the struggle is a desperate one, save in the cases of those who are born in trade-purple, and who inherit fortunes, or the means of making them. There must, however, be something wrong about our usual definitions in these matters. We have not yet arrived at exact conceptions of likely and unlikely men.
The possession of brilliant intellectual qualities in in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand, a bar, not a help, to advancemente in the world. If you try to cut a stone with a razor, the razor will lose its edge, and the stone remain uncut. A very high education again, in the majority of instances, unfits a man for a contest with his fellows. You have rifled the cannon till the strength of the metal is gone. Each individual will just bear so much of intellectual culture, and no more, without loss of moral vigour.
A too early and too sudden success has proved the ultimate ruin of thousands; if, again, success be too long deferred, the courage of others will give way. Lord Eldon used to say that the possession of a bare competence was, with rare exceptions indeed, an absolute bar to all chance of forensic distinction. Within my own experience of the struggles of the struggling profession suggested, I have seen the absolute necessity of providing means for a bare livelihood until the opportunity of entering upon the exercise of the profession might arise, produce similar results.
Speaking in general terms, and omitting for the moment all consideration of those extraordinary men who from time to time flash like comets through the firmament of humanity, I should say that a somewhat dull unimaginative man, with great powers of continuous labour, and the patience to abide results, and profit by the failures of his more brilliant fellow-creatures, is the likeliest man ultimately to ‘get on” in London.
Youths of a more filibustering turn of mind, who are impelled by their own inner restlessness to take the chances of the game as it is played out in Australia or California, of course possess, and had need possess, other qualities. In London thefaculty of sitting still on a chair or stool is largely rewarded ; but then it is a faculty which in the majority of instances can only be educed by culture. Few men on the simny side of forty can sit still.
Again, it appears to me that people in London obtain great rewards and emoluments, simply because they are forty years of age and upwards. A curate’s most brilliant pulpit effusions stand little chance by the side of his rector’s prose. Medical men get trusted, simply because their names have remained for twenty years on the same brass plate, on the same green doors. Men of letters, indeed, obtain distinctions and notoriety at an earlier period of life, but they do not very commonly reap the harvest until they are past forty, and are writing not quite for immortality.
This, however is fair enough; they are but discounting their past career, and the British public will for a long time continue to honour their drafts, which, in truth, at the time of presentation, should scarcely contain the words ‘for value received.”
There is also another point well worthy of consideration,—it is a great thing to be fat. To be a fat man is a great element of success in London. The world is willing to pay heavily for ballast. In almost every social circle you enter you will find a fat man to be the king of it. How unctuously common-places fall from his mouth, as though they were good things. How impossible it is to maintain against such an one that six times seven are forty-two, or that King George III. used to reside occasionally at Weymouth.
He will smile blandly at you over a vast expanse of white waistcoat, and impart to the glass of sherry which he is sipping the force of a syllogism. You are lost in the opinion of the company, and retire into yourself with what our French neighbours would call “a yellow smile,” when you are instantly set down as an ill-conditioned fellow, deaf to the voice of reason.
Let every one who can contrive it be fat and be forty. So will he surely sit under his own vine and his own fig-tree, and be glad. London is the paradise of men of sixteen stone. The rule, however, is not quite absolute. I have known a few thin men to succeed; but the laurel crown is scarcely ever awarded to them in a hearty and genial way. They get on as vampires and ghouls get on, by sucking the blood of innumerable victims. Their fellow-creatures are to this class of adventurers just so many oysters. They swallow them, but they do not fatten upon them. Neither did the late Mr. Dando. If any scheme be afoot for farming mankind for the profit of a few, of course a fat man will be the chairman, but a thin man will undertake the general management of the business.
I will only venture to add another preliminary remark or two. Next to corpulence I would place the faculty of “self-assertion,” as the second qualification of getting on in London, or indeed in any quarter of the globe of which I have had any experience. In sunny days, long since past, I remember to have visited in company with some friends, the beautiful Glen of Amalfi in the Salernian Gulf.
We engaged there a boat with four rowers and a steersman. The father steered, and his four sons laboured at the oars. Scarcely had we got out to sea when the unassuming mariner addressed us in these words: “Signori miei — la mia barca e buona e bella — i miei figliuoli sono buoni e belli — io anche sono buono e bello! ” The fellow’s boat wasn’t a bit better than a dozen others which were lying there on the shore, his sons did not keep very good time, and subsequently when we hoisted a sail, the paternal helsmsman was continually sending his marvellous craft up into the wind. But the thing “paid;” by sheer force of bragging the man got more custom than his fellows.
It is by no means impolitic in London to follow a similar system to that of my worthy friend, the Amalfiote boatman. My pill will cure all your ailments; my Eureka shirt will fit you to a nicety; remark the tone, the colour, the design, the what-d’ye-call-it in my picture; my play — Oh, injured Gallia! — is the only purely original thing of the season, alone I did it: do you bruise your oats in my way? If you cannot set any little performance of your own upon its legs, then boldly establish yourself as a censor or critic. Put the world to rights.
Although you could not decorate a public-house door with a Cat and Fiddle, or a half-length of Sir Charles Napier in a creditable way, go in boldly, and regret that Mr. Millais has not an eye for colour, that Mr. Watts’ portraits are deficient in depth, and that Mr. Hook has such a poor idea of water.
The divine art of music also offers a large harvest to any gentleman who may be quite unable to whistle three bars of “Rule Britannia,” as they were written. It is not even necessary to say much if you are desirous of founding a reputation as a critic — or oracle. Think of the great statesman in Sheridan’s play, who gained his honours by shaking his head in an emphatic manner.
Douglas Jerrold in one of those marvellous epigrammatic sketches of his — he was not one of your critical, shake-head men! — drew a gentleman who passed through life universally respected and feared upon the strength of this short speech — “Ah! I could say something, but I won’t.” The thunderbolt was always kept in reserve. He walked amongst a crowd with a loaded pistol in his hand which he never discharged. At length when the doctor had taken his last fee, and the patient his last bolus, the mourning friends who surrounded the death-bed of this illustrious man intreated him not to go out of the world without informing them of the true nature of the withering sarcasm which had been kept in store for so many years. The poor fellow tried to shake his head for the last time, and while the pallor of death was stealing over his countenance murmured in a feeble way, “Ah! I could say it, but I won’t;” and then the oracle was for ever dumb. This also is a good system.
I protest that when I consider the magnitude of the task I have undertaken, I shudder at my own rashness. Put yourself on the top of an omnibus, and drive through London from north to south, and from west to east through the interminable rows of palaces, villas, houses, cottages, and ask yourself the question how it is that the inhabitants contrive to pay for their subsistence?
Whence comes the money with which they are fed, clothed, and lodged? I suppose it requires something about 125,000 l. simply to feed London for one day, estimating the sum spent on food at one shilling a head. This value is absolutely consumed and made away with, unless some of these wonderful projects for ruining the guano birds should take effect. There is something approaching to 50,000,000 l. per annum gone at once. If the I. s. estimate be thought too high, on account of the babies and beggars, set it at what you will the result will be astounding.
Then there is the clothing, and the lodging, and the physic, and the consumption of horse-life for the purposes of conveyance; and the luxuries and superfluities. Walk along the public streets on any fine Sunday morning, and see the swarming crowds of reasonably well-attired people. The very servant wenches have upon their heads and backs better bonnets, shawls, and gowns than the grandmothers of their mistresses ever dreamed of. Is it an outside calculation to say, that at noon on any given summer Sunday the apparel then actually worn by every inhabitant of London, including dukes and costermongers, duchesses and beggar-women, might be set at 1 I. per head as an average term? Why then you have the sum of 2,500,000 l. sterling, walking about and airing itself in the streets; lounging in fashionable chapels, or waiting about to fetch the baked shoulders of mutton and potatoes, nicely browned, from the various bakers, as soon as service is over.
If 2,500,000 /. is actually worn, surely another equal value is in reserve in cupboards, drawers, wardrobes, and what not. Then you have 5,000,000 /. worth of clothes at once; and this stock is in course of constant renewal. I wish I knew how to set about making an approximative guess at the money value of London as it stands; but the task is beyond my powers of calculation. No doubt some of those wonderful men who practise as actuaries, and who assist Mr. Mann in his ingenious inquiries, could give us an idea upon this subject.
There then is the golden pippin — but how do men get a bite at it? There are the various trades and professions; there is speculation; there is the marriage-market. Of course it is but fair to notice, in a cursory way, the fact that innumerable fortunes which are made elsewhere are spent in London. River frontages at Melbourne drive about Hyde Park, drawn by pairs of well-stepping bays.
The money which pays for calomel in London was earned at Calcutta. All this, however, is beside the purpose of our present inquiry. When we have exhausted all the categories of what may be called, though merely for distinction’s sake, the legitimate trades and professions, there remain countless other fashions of getting on in an irregular way. The gleaners sometimes do better on their own account than the harvest-men.
Then we have amongst us a numerous class of Bedouins and Mohicans who live comfortably enough, as long as the career lasts, by plundering the community. There are the begging-letter writers, a most ingenious class, admirable for their industry: the regular beggars, who spend the proceeds of their day’s whining upon gin, and ham, and eggs: the people who live by loan-offices: the people who live by burning their houses down, and cheating the insurance office: the bill swindlers: the horse chaunters: and so forth. All these people get on somehow; though, happily, it is a well-established rule, that London rogues give themselves the greatest amount of trouble, and produce the smallest results. Lazy men should take to honesty as to an easy-chair.
It may, I think, be safely asserted, that the first and most difficult step for any young adventurer who seriously wants to get on in London, is to pass from the class of servants to that of free-agents. The term “service” must be understood in a wide sense, and applies equally to an upper clerk in the Foreign Office.
I hope that is a genteel calling — as to the servant who sits beside the coachman on the box of his wife’s brougham. So long as any other man, or set of men, have a right to discount your labour, to circumscribe your field of action, to monopolise what you would call the sweat of your brow, if you were a ploughman — but which, as you are a Londoner, I will rather speak of as the sweat of your brain — you are not a free-agent, but a servant.
If you are a man of moderate wishes and aspirations, you may stand still under these conditions quietly and comfortably enough, and be at sixty years of age cashier in the bank which you entered as junior clerk when you were a boy. If what is termed as appointment was procured for you to Somerset House or the Admiralty, you may ultimately rise to a magnificent income of 700 /. or 800 /. a year, live in a nice little semi-detached villa residence at Stamford Hill, and procure admission for one of your children to the Blue Coat School.
You may become an admirable specimen of the British Pater-familias, which is a very respectable position — but I scarcely think you could be said to have “got on” in London. I say that the man who really gets on, is either he who forces his way to distinction by a coup — as a fortunate marriage, or a lucky speculation, — or the man who seriously says to himself, from childhood upwards, “if I can induce every Londoner — man, woman, and child — to give me one penny sterling, I shall realise considerably more than 10,000 /., and with that sum of 10,000 /., I may become a Rothschild or an Overstone: or if I prefer quiet, I can invest it safely in 4 1/2 per cent, securities, and sit upon a swing-gate and whistle for the remainder of my earthly pilgrimage.”
That is your style of man to get on. Of course a man does not precisely say this to himself in terms. The more usual calculation is to bring the battering engine to bear upon a particular section of the community, and to extract from each of that section a larger sum; or to become a candle-maker, or tailor, or a brewer, or distiller, or to deal in a wholesale way in bricks or timber, or in some article of general demand, and divide the spoil with a numerous band of competitors or fellow laborers.