Project Canterbury

The Streets and Lanes of the City

By Mary Eleanor Benson

With a brief memoir by her father [E. W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury].

London: Privately printed, 1891.

Transcribed by S. R. Holman, Center for Poverty Studies, 2006

Chapter 7. Social Gifts

What an enormous difference Social Gifts make to life! They bring little enduring happiness when unaccompanied by kindly intentions and sterling qualities; but, on the other hand, they both stimulate and foster the best of the virtues, neighbourliness, spiritedness, happy family life.

And their use is doubled and trebled where sickness and anxiety are daily companions, or at least ready to become so; where it is difficult to be hopeful, and more difficult still to be cheerful; where the wearied spirit needs distraction to keep it from brooding on present and coming woes.

There are, of course, a few happy people who have definite social gifts­who, that is, can sing or recite, or play the harmonium or the concertina. But even where these accomplishments are absent, there often resides the greatest of all social gifts­the gift of narration and description, the capacity of telling a story or describing a scene.

We hardly need remark on the preciousness of such a gift. It is an immense happiness to have friends who, when they come back from a meeting, or a concert, or a sermon, can begin at the beginning and "make yer feel just as if you'd been there yerself." And this gift in others grows the more precious as age comes on and dims the sight, dulls the hearing, and cripples the limbs. There is many an old grandmother, or invalid father or mother, whose home is brightened and whose life is made bearable by a child with a good memory and a ready tongue.

But the word narration covers a wide field of art. It may be done in more styles than one. The flowing style is perhaps the commoner. There is hardly any break in it, and every sentence is joined to every other by "so" or "then," or oftener, "so then." Sometimes it grows a little wearying.

But the dramatic is very fine indeed, especially when accompanied by a speaking countenance. One of the most shining professors of the art I have ever come across was a stout, middle-aged woman, who lived in two rooms half underground, which were always dirty and dark. This was not from poverty, for the family were well off; nor from want of respectability, for they were very respectable indeed. But cleanliness was not the kind of thing they cared about. They liked plenty of talk and a good deal of reading, and a great deal of thoroughly beneficent dealing with their neighbours' affairs, whom they would assist by money and by work with the very best will possible, and whom they were always ready to cheer up by half an hour's chat.

Mrs. Jennings never neglected the art of dramatic conversation. There was nothing she touched that she did not adorn. For example, one would ask lightly, "When did you see Emily Jones last?"

"Why­I see her­" Mrs. Jennings' face began to wear the most appalling expression of concentration­"I see her on­Toosday. No!" She pulled herself up short; turned half round, with one hand on the edge of the table, and gazed fixedly at the chest of drawers as if she could bore a hole through them with her piercing glance. Then she swept round, full face, to me again. "No. Couldn't have been Toosday. Wasn't Toosday." Her voice sank to a stentorian undertone, and she continued weighing each word as if she was on the verge of a long desired discovery. "It­couldn't­have­been­Toosday, because Toosday was the day as I was doing my washing in the backyard, and I didn't go out into the area once. Not once. And it was in the area I was when I see her." She turned her head slowly round in the direction of her daughter, who sat near listening with a beaming face, and said in a subdued tone, "Polly­praps you know. When was it as I see Emily Jones. Ah!" She turned swiftly back again, and exclaimed with a clap of her hand on the table, her eyebrows and lips contorted into an awful grimace, "It was Thursday. Wasn't Toosday. Thursday it was. It was Thursday."
She lent back; her face relaxed, and light of triumph shone there. Then she said, "She come. Along the street. The way you came today. And she'd got a kind of a brown basket, azh you may say, on'er arm." Then with a burst of confidence, "I expect she was going a-shopping. Yerss. That was it. And got the basket to put in it what she bought."

Another fine example of dramatic power of this kind was that of a woman, of an inferior rank, about the same age. She described to me once a fall she had in her backyard:

"I was a-cleaning the window," she said, "standing on a chair. And all of a sudden it slipped. Down it come. And down I come. Right on the back of my head. Lay there insensible I did, close on two hours. When I come to, I didn't know where I was. And the bump on my head was as big as big. There! It was as big as a tea-cup. You'd hardly believe it, would yer­as big as­a­"

Her eye began slowly to roam round the room till it rested on a distant dresser. She got up, crossed the room, and took from it in dead silence a large breakfast cup. She clapped it to the back of her head, and then slowly presented the sight to me. "Then, and since then I've been one skillinton," she said, and then she restored the cup to its place and came back.

Another rhetorical trick of hers was that of appealing to some member of the audience to confirm every statement she made.

She carried this so far that once when she and I were entirely alone in the room, she ended, "Oh, I was bad that day, wasn't I, Arriet?"I wondered how she would continue; when from the ceiling above my head came a muffled tone:

"What, mother?"

"Wasn't I bad the day as I went to the orspital?"

"Ow­yes, mother."

Then we went on.

It is unnecessary to say that I have seen this last woman's family­sons, husband and all sit by listening to her with their mouths open.

The temptation belonging to this gift of narration is to be more picturesque than accurate. There was one old lady whom one never dared to and see, unless one had at least forty minutes to spare. Her stories were amazing.

"I've been to see Mrs. Edwards," she said. "When I got there I didn't know the way to the house, so I asked a man that was standing near. 'Mrs. Edwards!' he says. 'If it's Mrs. Edwards you want, it isn't a lady, it's one as is come from Above.'" It was subsequently ascertained that the gentleman who was supposed to have given utterance to this pious sentiment had never set eyes on Mrs. Edwards.

Another time she said, "Do you know what Mrs. Raikes's parrot said to Er Majesty? 'Be horf.' That's what it said. But Er Majesty replied, 'No, Polly, I won't be horf; I'm agoing upstairs into the drorin-room to see Mrs. Raikes's Harnt."

But to be funny is the apex of social success. It is not difficult to awake laughter, especially among girls, at unsuitable times, as the following letters will show:

"I thought I could tell you better in a letter as I could not tell you on Sunday as I felt to ashamed of myself for your having to speak to me but what made me laugh on Sunday was one of the girls said to me what a thing it is to have a temper and then of course I must laugh but do you known sometimes I laugh and I do not know what I am laughing at I am sure but I was thinking as well what a girl said to me on sunday at my school, but I was sorry to think you had to speak me but hope it won't occur again."

Or, for another instance, it is not quite easy to see why the following joke was so irresistibly funny:

"Me and Jenny Crunn and 2 or 3 others sat together and Jenny told us some funny tales which made us all laugh for she is such a comical girl, for she says it so dryly, and doesn't smile the least bit, so that made all the more amusing One of the things she said was this [Why do you teaze me little flys I would not do thee harm thou used to come by 2's and 3's, but now you come by swarms]. She said it so comical we could not stop laughing."

Again there are jokes of nomenclature, such as calling a child Little Grandma because she wore spectacles. This might seem a joke of a light nature; but it lived through a correspondence of some months and never lost its humour or fell into a mere convention.
There was a very funny milk-boy of 16 whom I knew well. He was so funny that he was always in disgrace for being late on his rounds because he stopped to make jokes to the customers. If one asked for a knife he would hurry to hand it with a dramatic gesture; and I have more than once undergone the humiliation of answering a joke of his seriously, and having it explained to me with a satisfied smile, "I didn't mean it; that was only my fun, miss." There was no impertinence in the boy; he was simply brimful of nonsense and good spirits. He often saved himself from rows at home by being irresistibly funny. For example, he used to like to go on putting sugar into his tea until, as his sister said, it got like soap, whereupon one day his uncle remarked that he wasn't to put in another lump, or he'd know what for. Joe took it submissively, but presently called out, "I say, ain't that kettle a-steaming?" and while his uncle turned his head he reached across and secured another lump. His solid uncle could not resist the humour. "I might a'known what you was after," he said, and said no more.

But after a bit Joe lost so much time in the morning by his fun, that it became necessary to remonstrate. He heard one out with an expanding smile.

"Well you see," he said, "I can't help it. I must have my bit o'fun with em. I just poke my joke at one of em and then another. They wouldn't like it if I didn't, they're so used to it."

"Now what sort of joke?"

"Well, the other day I was at one old lady's and give her a ha'p'orth of milk­what she arsk for. Then I turned to go away, and turned round again all of a sudden. Ello,' I said, 'didn't you harsk for a ha'p'orth?' 'Yes,' she says. 'And I've gone and given you half a pennyworth.' 'Oh, lor,' she says, 'you'd better take some of it back then.' She was took in."

And he roared with laughter at the thought of it.

Now and then one gets a real insight into the nature of domestic jokes, if one knows well the appreciative daughter of a jocular father. Clara was never tired of repeating her father's jokes. "What do you think father said the other day? The bells was all a-ringing and I kept on saying, 'I wonder why they're ringing? Why are they ringing?' and at last father says, 'I'll tell yer, Clara­it's because the men is a-pulling of the ropes.'"

Sarcasm, except of a very direct and brutal order, is rather a rare weapon. Such remarks as the following, for example, occur in the report of a quarrel: "And so then he wanted to know who she thought she was?" and may be taken as a typical specimen of this kind of sarcasm. I once overheard a very sarcastic conversation on a penny steamer pier.

The old pier man, whose duty it seemed to be to scowl at passengers and walk about with a mop, seldom invited conversation; but one morning there arrived an old sailor with a big, red, and cheerful face, holding by the hand a small boy tightly done up in blue serge, with a vast hat and streamers, and great many bright buttons.

The old pier man acknowledged him with a nod and then he went and 'sided' two buckets and disappeared for some minutes into a haunt of his own, about as big as a small cupboard, where he used to eat pork and greens off a plate on his knee every day at one. The sailor sat on, and beamed at the river and at the small boy and everything that came into his vision.

Presently the pier man reappeared with the mop and began dipping it over the side.

"Nice weather for the Jubilee," said the sailor.

The pier man, who had his back to him, slowly twisted his head over his shoulder with the sourest expression I ever saw on the face of a human being, and said with intense bitterness,

"Juberlee! Ah! Yes. You may call it Juberlee. Juberlee indeed!"

Then with a groan he slowly hoisted the mop onto the pier.
The sailor sat silent, almost frightened by the bitterness of his tones. The pier man turned the mop round twice, and then broke out again:

"Juberlee. Ah! Yes!"

Then he leant the mop against the side of a boat, sat on the edge of it and folded his arms, and said,

"It's work, work, morning to night for some on us. That's our Juberlee." He paused and then said louder still, " Ere we suffer grief and pain."

I was very, very thankful for that sailor's sake that his steamer hove in sight and the conversation ended. I never saw a man so crushed.

The young, as a rule, are not sarcastic. They cannot forgive it, and do not practice it. The only attempt at sarcasm I ever received in a letter, was from an excellent and hard-working small girl, who was in a place too difficult for her. For the purposes of sarcasm she set up quotation marks and dashes for the first time in this letter, and used them freely:

"Master is having the house pulled down, 'part of it' [quotation marks], so We are in a dreadful muddle so I must [dashes] stay till it is finished. They have got quite an old Person for a servant now 'only 71' [dashes and quotation marks] so that is not so lively as one 18 or 20. She has come to do 'Cooking' [quotation marks] only, to see to sweeping the Dining Room in the morning, and I have to get all meals 'when we are settled' [quotation marks], and my Wistress [the W was only a mistake, I think, not sarcasm] told the 'cook' that I was to be has housemaid. And the cook [dashes] thinks when we are settled she will be able to see that I do my work. But there she will find a mistake for one mistress is quite enough for me."

But if there is little sarcasm, there is a great deal of very wholesome humour in many of their lives. Small children often both supply and call it out. "Got all that money, have yer?" said a rather rough and dull man to his wife's baby sister who had gained 312d. in coppers in the train by her charms, and was displaying them to him in her podgy hand. "I declare now, and you ain't a-going to treat me with it? Well, I call that shabby."

" Ess, I'll treat you," she said, and she slipped off the chair and took his hand, and wanted to go at once and do it. Another tiny child kept the house alive after the advent of a new baby, by insisting that it was not her mother's at all, but her aunt's, who first showed it her, and imploring the aunt to take it away. Her mother was anxiously ill for weeks, but the dreariness could always be enlivened by teasing and drawing out Nelly on this topic.

The need filled by children in this respect is only another instance of the wonderful nature of that Institution, the Family. Sometimes one sees it in a picturesque form.

I sat once on a penny steamer opposite to a man and his wife, who attracted one's attention. The man had a round hairless face, a felt hat drawn over his brows, and he looked from his dress as if he might be a navvy, or at any rate was used to dirty and heavy work. His face, too, was dirty, and rather fat, his mouth roughly hewn, and his whole look void of any particular indication of intelligence. His wife was dressed in draggled brown, with torn and limp flounces; her face was pasty and plump and lined with dirt. A baby half asleep, with pale bulging cheeks and small red eyes, sat on her knee in a vast blush bonnet, supported by her dirty hand where the wedding ring showed as the one bright spot.

But unattractive as the baby was, it formed a centre of irresistible attraction to its father. He played with it, and talked to it, while the mother sat looking away over its head with a vague smile, glad to be quiet. Now and then looking down at it with intense affection, or at her husband with sympathetic appreciation of the response he was calling out from it in the way of vague movements of hands and toes and gurgling noises. Finally, triumph of fatherhood, when the baby began to dribble and fret from the old trouble of coming teeth, he gave it his large and dirty forefinger to cut its teeth on.

Again, to rise from babies to children, the accounts of one elder and much worried and overworked sister of the two little ones were always humourous.

"They'll be kissing one minute and quarrelling ever so the next," she said. "They was fighting and quarrelling like anything before breakfast and I tried to find out why, but all they'd do was to shout at each other, 'Teacher said you didn't speak the truth' 'She didn't! that was what she said of you.' And then I was called into the shop, and when I come back they was whispering secrets to each other on the sofa. Jinny says that Ethel thinks herself everybody, because she can clean up the front parlour. They do make you larf."
And another time in answer to an inquiry as to whether her brother was getting on all right, and was contented, "Well," she said, "Yesterday this wasn't a place fit for a dog to live in, because he had to work half an hour later. But today he's got off for a ride on uncle's tricycle, and it's ever such a nice place, he don't want nothing altered."

It is difficult to remember the humourous sayings that fall on one's ears not unfrequently.

Sometimes it is a happy phrase that shows the wit below: "We had a very nice tea at the Exhibition, but the rolls was regular Exhibition rolls; but we managed to eat them without breaking any teeth."

Or sometimes one gets real humourous appreciation of a situation. A woman who had received her caller among furniture sided away and swathed in sheets, and carpets in rolls in corners, said at parting:

"Well, I'm sorry you found me in such a muddle. I'd a' been tidier if I'd known you was coming. But that's what I always say, 'You set to a-cleaning, and all your lady friends will set to a-calling.'"

Or again, the anecdote following was related to me by an elderly invalid woman, a great sufferer and a great saint, and excessively cheery withal: "I was sitting propped up in bed with the window open one afternoon," she said, "when a young lady come by in the street, and she looked in and saw my lying there, so she stops. I didn't know her and she didn't know me, but she looked in through the window and smiled, and asked me how I was, and then she said, 'Do you like flowers?' I said I was very fond of them. 'Then I'll bring you a big bunch tomorrow,' she said, and then she said good-bye." The narrator's smile broadened gradually. "That was three months ago," she said, "and I don't suppose she sowed the seed for them flowers yet."

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