The Weekly Machen

Aha! The lamenting may cease… the first part of “The Joy on London” series has revealed itself. Enjoy.

The Joy of London II
The Joy of London III

The Joy of London I
Arthur Machen
January 27, 1914

Piccadilly Circus (1908)

To the imaginative man, I suppose nothing has so great an attraction as that which has some savour of mystery about it. He who is something more than a new automaton, a mechanical performer of certain mechanical tasks, returning day by day, feels instinctively that he is born to voyage in the unknown, to live always in contemplation of a great perhaps. And here, I think we touch on the secret of one of the most powerful of the many attractions of London.

Its people are numbered, its trades are classified, all circles of its vast ‘O’ are mapped and charted, it is divided and sub-divided to a nicety: and yet he who truly knows London will confess that he knows it not, and is most sure that he will never know it. It is mapped and charted, but only for the logical understanding, never for the imagination. London in its essence is an object of faith, not of science.

The sense of all this dawns upon one slowly and by degrees. I do not know how this may be with the born Londoner, or whether such a one receives by right of birth the inspiration and dream of London’s infinitude, of the unplumbed seas of its multitudinous life. But speaking as one of those who have come up from the silent lanes to the sounding streets, I say that the perception of the mystery of London is of slow growth. I saw it first as a place of unimagined gaiety: the Strand and Regent Street and Piccadilly and Bond Street all ablaze with splendid shows and theatres—places of alluring enchantment!—and lines of glittering lamps: this was my London, a glorious but limited city.

It was, as I say, by the experience of years that I came to learn how small a part of the vast territory of London I had charted and explored. I move about from one quarter to another, gradually drawing near to the centre; from Wandsworth I passed to Turnham Green, from Turnham Green to Holland Park, from Holland Park to Bloomsbury, from Bloomsbury to Soho; and so the infinite varieties of London and its life were, little by little, brought home to me, and the lesson was made plain by RL Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights. From that time forth I thought of the great town as a sailor may think of the ocean or an Arab of the desert; as an object always to be studied and explored, but never to be known fully, as a region of perpetual surprises and discoveries and adventures of the spirit.

In the Eastern tales one reads with a curious and deep satisfaction of the man who, passing an accustomed road by a track which he has trodden, perhaps, every day of his life, espies suddenly a door in the wall which he has never noticed before. The man opens, enters in, and is made a partaker of the great sacrament of wonder, a new and unsurmised world is shown to him. Such an adventure, I repeat, we read of with a keen relish, as I maintain, is due to the fact that the door leading to an unknown territory is a symbol of the adventures for which the human spirit is made, as a hot and dry and dusty throat is made for the brook by the way, for the cold water that wells rejoicing from the heart of the rock.

And so, when I think in the more general terms of the pleasures and advantages of London, I think of this Arabian quality that it possesses in such a supereminent degree. There is a door in the wall, the existence of which one had never noticed or suspected; to surprises and discoveries and inventions in London there is no end. I have trodden the pavements of the Strand now for close on thirty-four years; and a week or two ago I set foot for the first time in a street somewhere near the Little Theatre, an ‘old-fashioned’ street of queer little shops, from which one ascends by a steep flight of steps into the main thoroughfare.

I had long known Pentonville as a dreary, dusty hill; but on an autumn day as I climbed it, I saw one of its grey, grim housefronts all glowing purple with rich bunches of ripe grapes, Dionysius crowned and triumphing on that sad mount of Pentonville; the southern Latin vine glad and flourishing in sico; this was aa good and joyful a thing to me as the blaze of the blossoming gorse to the botanist Linnaeus. And yet; I do not know whether it was better than the discovery of the Writing Master. He lives or lived in the same, a little higher, and he had placed his show case on his garden railings. Here behind the glass were specimens of an art that I had thought lost, of flourished and elaborate and conscious penmanship, relics of an age when people wrote well and legibly, because they had been taught first to write beautifully, to take pleasure in writing for writing’s sake. I think the Pentonville writing master’s chief specimen was a swan exquisitely flourished with one stroke of the pen.

There are always surprises. Not so many now as there were thirty years ago; it is difficult in these days to fall suddenly upon the old-fashioned country town or hamlet. Once, one only had to walk from five to ten miles away from the centre to find the grave High Street as quiet and sedate and serious as if London were a hundred miles away; though the advance guard of the new raw villas had already come within a field of the corn-merchant’s shop with the bow-windows and the small square panes.

The villas have mostly come and conquered since those days, and the old inn has been rebuilt and spoilt; still, here and there you can see the dip of a roof that was set up when Charles II was King. The sixteenth-century barge-board has long gone from Brentford, but there are still fascinations in that queer old town, and I agree with Dr. Johnson in preferring it before Glasgow.

Then, the eccentricities of London architecture have their charm and their perpetual wonder. There are still left I think, a few odd specimens of a former delight of the retired London citizen: the summer-house in the garden. I remember gothic ruins made of clinkers in Gunnersbury, but I believe these have vanished. There are still good things left, however; the fanciful iron work of balconies dating from 1830-40, and examples of the Horace Walpole gothic the doorway of the hall of Staple Inn, in Holborn, and if you walk around the streets between King’s Cross and Islington, you will find the mediæval idea struggling, with indifferent success, to express itself in the tracery of the window-panes. Fanlights are a special study.

Staple Inn, Holborn (1886)

And then, besides these odd remnants and oddities, there stretches the vast expanse of the modern suburbs; all red and new, shiny and flimsy, climbing the green hill before your eyes, breaking into the heart of the old wood. And the myriads who live in these new houses; who are they?

City clerks, very likely, for the most part, but there will be a sprinkling of high mystics, and here and there an alchemist who watches for the Engendering of the Crow, and hopes yet to see the glory of the Son Blessed of the Fire.

The Weekly

Previous: Marvels of To-day’s Flower Show

Next: Twentieth-Century Village

Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2023 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “The Joy of London I

  1. Machen is a little too glibly referred to as a “mystic” from time to time. The implied elevation of himself to a place of spiritual authority might amuse or might alarm Machen, but in any event I don’t think he sought that distinction.

    Rather, he might have accepted being called a witness (if he thought the person so calling him had a clue about what he or she was talking about). Machen has noticed some things and tells the reader about them, and the reader may read him for a pleasant diversion, a bit of latter-day quaint style; or may think that Machen meant what he said.

    I hope Machen would approve if I were to tell him that writings such as the present piece seem to me enjoyable journalism and also, just possibly, “preparation for the Gospel,” Εὐαγγελικὴ προπαρασκευή. The perception for which Machen is a witness is a preparation, or might be so. Machen would, I hope, say that that makes sense to him. His vocation is not to preach the Gospel — to which he would refer the inquirer, I hope, to some worthy book(s) and also to the Church.

    In this way Machen’s “vision” of London could be, or become, an exercise of cataphatic theology.

    Dale Nelson


    1. David & Dale: Thanks for these comments. I am thrilled to see the word “cataphatic” used in this space!


  2. I have not yet reread the three in publication order, but am delighted to have this one, too, now – thank you! It makes me wonder how many of this sort of Machen miniatures (so to say – if that be excusable!) Charles Williams may have read, and if his experience of London (as son of St. Albans) ‘simply’ parallels or is consciously informed by and interacting with Machen’s, as he proceeds to the deliberately cataphatic where London is concerned.

    “There are always surprises. Not so many now as there were thirty years ago” – and that, in 1914. Yet, it seemed to me there were surprises in 1970, and 1977, and the 1980s and 1990s – though I somehow dread London, now, or wonder in dread how it might ‘seem’… And, how different Johnson’s London was – and how dreadful in various particulars, to contemporary experience as well as later imaginative reconstruction – yet how he revelled in it.

    I also wonder if Machen knew Mary Vivian (‘Molly’) Hughes’s ‘London’ books, to which I have come fairly recently, and very happily! All five were published during his lifetime. It would be fascinating to read his impressions of them…


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