The Weekly Machen

We end the first year of The Weekly Machen with the following dispatch, which at its beginning is another interesting “home-front” article, but by its ending, we are treated to a wistful and moving meditation on change. Always in love with the cosmos of London, Machen finds himself a stranger in an old favorite neighborhood. On Boxing Day 1916, it is not the Ghost of Christmas Past that haunts Machen, but the understanding that he is a ghost of the long-departed 1880s of his youth.

How Many Things Have Changed!
Arthur Machen
December 27, 1916


Bloomsbury from the times of Dickens

Here,” I said to myself “is the proper scenery and apparatus of Christmas mirth.” The foolish say that we feast at Christmas because we know that the worst of the winter is over and that the spring is coming; the wise are aware that, so far as the seasons have anything to do with our mirth, we make merry because we feel that we are in the thick of the bad weather, and defy it.

Getting out of the Tube station late in the afternoon of Boxing Day, I descended into a Holborn that was not a bit like any Holborn I had ever seen. A ringing, jingling, luminous, and busy street it used to be, now it was a dark avenue, a place of gloom, of shapeless shadows, of dim scattered lights, barely visible. Hardly anyone was abroad in it, one man’s feet echoed as they hammered on the solitary pavement; a hansom came looming out of the gathering fog like a ghost. I turned up into the deeper darkness of the ways that lead to the British Museum, and came into regions that had changed utterly since the days when I knew Bloomsbury.

They have pulled streets down, they have made passages into avenues, alleys into broad streets; there are wide spaces of waste lands where I once knew the old, solemn Bloomsbury habitations. And in the midst of these waste lands I found what I wanted—the Shakespeare Hut of the Y. M. C. A. There was a faint glimmer of a ghost of light flickering here and there from behind its curtained windows, and I went in and found the cosiest assemblage in the world.

In the principal hall of the hut—for, odd as it may seem the hut is comprised of halls—they have made a great hearth of bricks, and in it there blazed a great fire. Round this fire were the armchairs, snug to sit in and restful to the back, and here sat the soldiers in their dozens and in their hundreds. They were most of them New Zealanders, their leader, Mr. W. H. Hislop, told me, but they were all other sorts of soldiers, too. And I saw strings of {illegible} men come filing in, and there were sailors also; and everybody seemed perfectly at home, and utterly at ease. They were having tea, lots of them, enjoying what a waitress in a Yorkshire hotel once called “a nice plenty.” Billiards were going on at three tables in an adjoining room, but the main business of the men was to sit at ease in those round and roomy armchairs and read illustrated papers. They were not talking to each other much; they were behaving exactly like the odd gentlemen in the very best clubs; each in his armchair, each with his illustrated paper.

I sat down in one of those comfortable armchairs and observed these good fighting men. Near me was a soldier with a gramophone, and two piles of records beside it. He took a record, affixed it, turned the handle, and listened to the resultant melodies. Having heard all the song, he placed the used record on one pile, and took a new one from the other pile. But nobody else seemed to listen; there was a man at his elbow who was reading an illustrated paper without giving the faintest sign of attention to the marches, solos, choruses, orchestral pieces that were pouring out into his very ear. Another soldier sat himself down at the grand piano in the corner and began to play. The piano and the gramophone were in some disagreement, but nobody minded and nobody laughed. They read their illustrated papers. And I really do not know why they shouldn’t.

220px-Victoria_de_GalesThe fact was, as Mr. Hislop told me, they were having a quiet day. There had been tremendous doings on Christmas Day. The New Zealand Y. M. C. A. and the lady workers of the hut—there are 350 of these—gave a dinner to 350 men; and at five o’clock there were 400 free teas, and then 500 presents from the Tree. Princess Victoria looked in to see how they were all getting on, Lady Forbes Robertson recited to them, a Quartette from Westminster Cathedral sang Christmas Carols to them, Mr. Alexander Watson gave them Dickens’s “Christmas Carol,” there was the old Puppet Show by Mr. Clun Lewis, and interludes by Mr. Patrick Kirwan; to say nothing of their own games; racing in sacks, blindfold boxing, pillow fights, wrestling on “horseback,” and all matter of merriment. No wonder that one of the New Zealanders said that he had never has such a jolly Christmas, either at home or anywhere else.

I caught up Mr. Hislop when he told me about the singers from Westminster Cathedral coming to help in the merry-making.

That shows,” I said, “how the Y. M. C. A. has changed in recently years. It used to be distinctly Protestant and Evangelical.”

We are still Evangelical,” he replied, “but I don’t think we are Protestant.”

This is a change, and and I went out through the big hall—where the men were still reading the illustrated papers—and saw a long file of warrant officers of the Navy come streaming in, and then went out into a Bloomsbury that was now a mere cavern of fog. I thought how many things had changed. I got entangled in the new roads, I looked in vain for old landmarks that have long been sifted into dust, shattered into formless heaps of bricks, and wondered where I was and what had come to this serious old corner of London that I once knew so well. Here, perhaps, as my feet faltered and stumbled on the pavements edge, I was treading on the place where J.’s rooms had been, where we met and projected splendid books (never to be written) thirty years ago. Or here I had wandered hungry, walking round the square, but still uplifted a little at the thought of a new literary design. Truly old Bloomsbury was now with Nineveh and Tyre.

And now, in the very heart of it, once so solitary, so solemn and retired with its ancient trees and grave streets and squares, stood the Y. M. C. A. Hut, and all the ends of the earth were gathering together there. They passed me as I stood in the hollow cavern of the winter night, the shaded lamps making, as it were, tents of light and fog in the midst of the darkness; they passed me, the men from the isles of the South Seas, from the bitter billows of the North Sea, and the men who adventure in the void of the air beneath the stars, the men from Canada, the men from Australia; all drawn to the fire of that friendly and glowing hearth. And this in that Bloomsbury that the night once found so deserted: I do not know that anything has taught me so well that my world has passed away for ever.

The Weekly

Previous: The Way Out

Next: A Wonder of Childhood

Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “How Many Things Have Changed!

  1. How moving – and fascinating! Vaughan Williams said the second movement of his ‘London’ Symphony was meant to evoke “Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon” – little did I know when I first enjoyed it that it had undergone various revisions since its first performance in 1914 – and how much less did I know till now, how Bloomsbury Square, which simply seemed serenely ‘old’ to me, had changed. (I see that one of the buildings that seemed old to me was built between 1926-32: Victoria House!) Nor had I heard of the Shakespeare Hut or of their being a New Zealand YMCA in London. Happily there seems to be a fair bit more about it online, including photos!


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