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A Basher's Night (hoxton) Post by :maetta Category :Essays Author :Thomas Burke Date :November 2011 Read :3606

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A Basher's Night (hoxton)

LONDON JUNE


Rank odours ride on every breeze;
Skyward a hundred towers loom;
And factories throb and workshops wheeze,
And children pine in secret gloom.
To squabbling birds the roofs declaim
Their little tale of misery;
And, smiling over murk and shame,
A wild rose blows by Bermondsey.

Where every traffic-thridden street
Is ribboned o'er with shade and shine,
And webbed with wire and choked with heat;
Where smokes with fouler smokes entwine;
And where, at evening, darkling lanes
Fume with a sickly ribaldry--
Above the squalors and the pains,
A wild rose blows by Bermondsey.

Somewhere beneath a nest of tiles
My little garret window squats,
Staring across the cruel miles,
And wondering of kindlier spots.
An organ, just across the way,
Sobs out its ragtime melody;
But in my heart it seems to play:
A wild rose blows by Bermondsey!

And dreams of happy morning hills
And woodlands laced with greenest boughs
Are mine to-day amid the ills
Of Tooley Street and wharfside sloughs,
Though Cherry Gardens reek and roar,
And engines gasp their horrid glee;
I mark their ugliness no more:
A wild rose blows by Bermondsey.

Hoxton is not merely virile; it is virulent. Life here hammers in the blood with something of the insistence of ragtime. The people--men, women, and children--are alive, spitefully alive. You feel that they are ready to do you damage, with or without reason. Here are antagonism and desire, stripped for battle. Little children, of three years old, have the spirit in them; for they lean from tenement landings that jut over the street, and, with becoming seriousness, spit upon the passing pedestrians, every hit scoring two to the marksman.

The colour of Hoxton Street is a tremendous purple. It springs upon you, as you turn from Old Street, and envelops you. There are high, black tenement houses. There are low cottages and fumbling passages. There are mellow fried-fish shops at every few yards. There are dirty beer-houses and a few public-houses. There are numerous cast-off clothing salons. And there are screeching Cockney women, raw and raffish, brutalized children, and men who would survive in the fiercest jungle. Also there is the Britannia Theatre and Hotel. The old Brit.! It stands, with Sadler's Wells and the Surrey, as one of the oldest homes of fustian drama. Sadler's Wells is now a picture palace, and the Surrey is a two-house Variety show. The old Brit. held out longest, but even that is going now. Its annual pantomime was one of the events of the London Season for the good Bohemian. Then all the Gallery First Nighters boys and girls would go down on the last night, which was Benefit Night for Mrs. Sara Lane, the proprietress. Not only were bouquets handed up, but the audience showered upon her tributes in more homely and substantial form. Here was a fine outlet for the originality of the crowd, and among the things that were passed over the orchestra-rails or lowered from boxes and circles were chests of drawers, pairs of corsets, stockings, pillow-cases, washhand jugs and basins, hip-baths, old boots, mince-pies, Christmas puddings, bottles of beer, and various items of lumber and rubbish which aroused healthy and Homeric laughter at the moment, but which, set down in print at a time when Falstaffian humour has departed from us, may arouse nothing but a curled lip and a rebuke. But it really was funny to see the stage littered with these tributes, which, as I say, included objects which are never exhibited in the light of day to a mixed company.

But the cream of Hoxton is its yobs. It is the toughest street in London. I don't mean that it is dangerous. But if you want danger, you have only to ask for it, and it is yours. It will not be offered you anywhere in London, but if you do ask for it, Hoxton is the one place where there is "no waiting," as the barbers say. The old Shoreditch Nile is near at hand, and you know what that was in the old days. Well, Hoxton to-day does its best to maintain the tradition of "The Nile."

Now once upon a time there was a baby-journalist named Simple Simon. He went down to Hoxton one evening, after dinner. It had been the good old English dinner of Simpson's, preceded by two vermuths, accompanied by a pint of claret, and covered in the retreat by four maraschinos. It was a picturesque night. A clammy fog blanketed the whole world. It swirled and swirled. Hoxton Street was a glorious dream, as enticingly indefinite as an opium-sleep. Simple Simon had an appointment here. The boys were to be out that night. Jimmie Flanagan, their leader, had passed the word to Simon that something would be doing, something worth being in. For that night was to witness the complete and enthusiastic bashing of Henry Wiggin, the copper's nark, the most loathed and spurned of all creeping things that creep upon the earth.

Simon walked like a lamb into the arms of trouble. He strolled along the main street, peering every yard of his way through the writhing gloom. Nobody was about. He reached Bell Yard, and turned into it. Then he heard something. Something that brought him to a sharp halt. Before he saw or heard anything more definite, he felt that he was surrounded. To place direction of sound was impossible. He heard, from every side, like the whisper of a load of dead leaves, the rush of rubber shoes. With some agility he leaped to what he thought was the clear side, only to take a tight arm like a rope across his chest and another about his knees.

"There's one fer yew, 'Enry!" cried a spirited voice as a spirited palm smote him on the nose.

"Hi! Hi! Easy!" Simon appealed. "I ain't 'Enry, dammit! You're bashing me--me--Simon!" He swore rather finely; but the fog, the general confusion, and, above all, the enthusiasm of bashing rendered identification by voice impracticable. Indeed, if any heard it, it had no effect; for, so they had some one to bash, they would bash. It didn't matter to them, just so it was a bash. Flanagan heard it quite clearly, but he knew the madness of attempting to stop eleven burly Hoxton yobs once they were well in....

"I'm not 'Enry. I ain't the nark!" But he was turned face downward, and his mouth was over a gully-hole, so that his protests scared only the rats in the sewer. He set his teeth, and writhed and jerked and swung, and for some seconds no bashing could proceed, for he was of the stuff of which swordsmen are made--small, lithe, and light: useless in a stand-up fight with fists, but good for anything in a scrum. When, however, as at present, eleven happy lads were seeking each a grip on his person, it became difficult to defeat their purpose. But at last, as he was about to make a final wrench at the expense of his coat, the metal tips on his boots undid him. He dug his heels backward to get a purchase, he struck the slippery surface of the kerb instead of the yielding wood of the roadway, and in a moment he was down beyond all struggle. A foot landed feelingly against his ribs, another took him on the face; and for all that they were rubbered they stung horribly. Then, with two pairs of feet on his stomach, and two on his legs, he heard that wild whisper that may unnerve the stoutest--

"Orf wi' yer belts, boys!"

The bashing of the nark was about to begin. There was a quick jingle as many leather belts were loosed, followed by a whistle, and--zpt! he received the accolade of narkhood. Again and again they came, and they stung and bit, and he could not move. They spat all about him. He swore crudely but sincerely, and if oaths have any potency his tormentors should have withered where they stood. Two and three at a time they came, for there were eleven of them--Flanagan having discreetly retired--and all were anxious to christen their nice new belts on the body of the hated nark; and they did so zealously, while Simon could only lie still and swear and pray for a happy moment that should free one of his hands....

He knew it was a mistake, and he kept his temper so far as possible. But human nature came out with the weals and bruises. He didn't want to do the dirty on them, he didn't want to take extreme steps, but dammit, this was the frozen limit. He knew that when their mistake was pointed out they would offer lavish apologies and pots of four-'arf, but the flesh is only the flesh.

"Turn the blanker over!"

In that moment, as he was lifted round, his left hand was freed. In a flash it fumbled at his breast. Twisting his head aside, he got something between his teeth, and through the fetid fog went the shiver and whine of the Metropolitan Police Call. Three times he blew, with the correct inflection.

At the first call he was dropped like a hot coal. From other worlds came an answering call. He blew again. Then, like thin jets of water, whistles spurted from every direction. He heard the sound of scuttering feet as his enemies withdrew. He heard the sound of scuttering feet as they closed in again. But he was not waiting for trouble. He pulled his burning self together, and ran for the lights that stammered through the gloom at the Britannia. He whistled as he ran. Curses followed him.

At the Britannia he collided with a slow constable. He flung a story at him. The constable inspected him, and took notes. The lurking passages began to brighten with life, and where, a moment ago, was sick torpidity was now movement, clamour. Distant whistles still cried. The place tingled with nervous life.

Some cried "Whassup?" and some cried "Stanback, cancher!" They stared, bobbed, inquired, conjectured. The women were voluble. The men spat. A forest of faces grew up about Simple Simon. A hurricane of hands broke about his head. The constable took notes and whistled. A humorist appeared.

"'Ullo, 'ullo, 'ullo! Back water there, some of yer. Stop yer shoving. Ain't nobody bin asking for me? Stop the fight. I forbid the bangs!"

But he was not popular. They jostled him.

"'Ere," cried some one, "let some one else have a see, Fatty! Other people wanter have a see, don't they?"

"Stanback--stanback! Why cancher stanback!"

Fatty inquired if Someone wanted a smash over the snitch. Because, if so....

A woman held that Simple Simon had a rummy hat on. There were pauses, while the crowd waited and shuffled its feet, as between the acts.

Fatty asked why some one didn't do something. Alwis the way, though--them police. Stanback--git back on your mat, Toby.

And then ... and then the swelling, clamorous, complaining crowd swooped in on itself with a sudden undeniable movement. Its centre flattened, wavered, broke, and the impelling force was brought face to face with Simple Simon and the constable. It was Flanagan and the boys.

Three pairs of arms collared the constable low. Simple Simon felt a jerk on his arm that nearly pulled it from its socket, and a crackling like sandpaper at his ear. "Bolt for it!"

And he would have done so, but at that moment the answering whistles leaped to a sharper volume, and through the distorting fog came antic shapes of blue, helmeted. The lights of the Britannia rose up. Panic smote the crowd, and for a moment there was a fury of feet.

Women screamed. Others cried for help. Some one cried, "Hot stuff, boys--let 'em 'ave it where it 'urts most!"

Fatty cried: "Git orf my foot! If I find the blank blank blank what trod on my blank 'and, I'll----!"

"Look out, boys! Truncheons are out!"

They ran, slipped, fell, rolled. A cold voice from a remote window, remarked, above the din, that whatever he'd done he'd got a rummy hat on. A young girl was pinioned against the wall by a struggling mass for whom there was no way. There was in the air an imminence of incident, acid and barbed. The girl screamed. She implored. Then, with a frantic movement, her free hand flew to her hat. She withdrew something horrid, and brought it down, horridly, three times. Three shrieks flitted from her corner like sparks from a funnel. But her passage was cleared.

Then some important fool pulled the fire-alarm.

"Stanback, Stinkpot, cancher? Gawd, if I cop that young 'un wi' the bashed 'elmet, I'll learn him hell!"

"If I cop 'old of the blanker what trod on my 'and, I'll----!"

"No, but--'e 'ad a rummy 'at on. 'E 'ad."

Away distant, one heard the brazen voice of the fire-engine, clanging danger through the yellow maze of Hoxton streets. There was the jangle of harness and bells; the clop-clop of hoofs, rising to a clatter. There was the scamper of a thousand feet as the engine swung into the street with the lordliest flourish and address. Close behind it a long, lean red thing swayed to and fro, like some ancient dragon seeking its supper.

"Whichway, whichway, whichway?" it roared.

"Ever bin had?" cried the humorist. "There ain't no pleading fire! This is a picnic, this is. 'Ave a banana?"

"WhichWAY?" screamed the engine. "Don't no one know which way?"

The humorist answered them by a gesture known in polite circles as a "raspberry." Then a constable, with fierce face, battered helmet, and torn tunic, and with an arm-lock on a perfectly innocent non-combatant, flung commands in rapid gusts--

"This way, Fire. King's name. Out hoses!"

The fog rolled and rolled. The Britannia gleamed on the scene with almost tragic solemnity. Agonized shapes rushed hither and thither. Women screamed. Then a rich Irish voice sang loud above all: "Weeny, boys!"

As the firemen leaped from their perches on the engine to out hoses, so, mysteriously, did the combat cease. Constables found themselves, in a moment, wrestling with thick fog and nothing more. The boys were gone. Only women screamed.

Some one said: "If I cop a hold of the blankety blank blanker what trod on my blanking 'and, I'll just about----!"

On the word "Weeny" Simple Simon was once again jerked by the arm, and hustled furiously down passages, round corners, and through alleyways, finally to be flung into the misty radiance of Shoreditch High Street, with the terse farewell: "Now run--for the love of glory, run!"

But he didn't. He stood still against a friendly wall, and suffered. He straightened his dress. He touched sore places with a tender solicitude. His head was racking. All his limbs ached and burned. He desired nothing but the cold sheets of his bed and a bottle of embrocation. He swore at the fog, with a fine relish for the colour of sounds. He swore at things that were in no way responsible for his misfortune. Somewhere, he conjectured, in warmth and safety, Henry Wiggin, the copper's nark, was perfectly enjoying his supper of fried fish and 'taters and stout.

And then, over the sad, yellow night, faint and sweet and far away, as the memory of childhood, came a still small voice--

"No, but 'e 'ad a rummy 'at on, eh?"


(The end)
Thomas Burke's essay: Basher's Night (Hoxton)

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