The Weekly Machen

This week, we present another beautiful hymn to the mystery of London. The Great City was a major preoccupation for our Welsh writer, who never tired of its many wonders and charms. In his fiction, London figured as one of two axes – with rural Wales being the other – where a character may find dissolution or salvation. In terms of nonfiction, we find the voice of a wanderer in an enchanted land. Though The London Adventure (1924) would be Machen’s masterwork on this subject, there is much to be admired in miniature pieces such as the following article.

Unfortunately, I have not yet located the text of the first part of this series. However, the format is episodic, so we can still enjoy this second installment without confusion.

The Joy of London – II
Arthur Machen
February 14, 1914

A few years ago when I was still, theoretically, on the stage, but practically already off it, a fallacious old person said he had taken the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton and steadfastly purposed to revive the golden days of Mrs. Sarah Lane and her stock company. He enlisted me in his band, after ascertaining, by tape measurement, that I was not too short nor too broad for parts of moderate and tempered heroism, and the rehearsals began. And they soon ended without the play coming to the judgment of the Hoxton and Shoreditch amateurs of the drama; but in the meanwhile I had a very agreeable experience.

I was walking up from the trams to the Britannia and looking into the shop windows when I saw in one of them certain objects that swept me back some thirty-five or forty years. Somewhat old, somewhat battered, somewhat weary, somewhat doubtful of the famous stock company that was to be, I suddenly became a boy again and saw scenes that had once been very dear, and enchanting and familiar.

I was staring into the window of the original toy-theatre shop; and there before me were the very scenes and the very characters of my own toy-theatre which I had not beheld, since 1875 or thereabouts. To tell the truth, it was so long ago and so many things had happened since those days, so many and such deep waves had gone over me—my fellow countrymen will remember the phrase “plant yr tonau” and understand—that the foolish, dear toy-theatre had passed quite out of my consciousness. It was only when I stared into that sacred shop window in Hoxton that I perceived that it had never been forgotten.


A Vivid Revival

With what a rush it all came back! The gallant figures, blue and yellow and green and red, that one cut out with one’s mother’s scissors and set marching and in action in slender frames of tin; here they all were, gay on their sheets. They were of an old type when I first knew them; 1840, I suppose, was stamped on their ingenuous countenances but empires had gone down and they were still unchanged. And the proscenium of the theatre itself was unaltered; the same whiskered conductor raised a baton that had never fallen through all these heavy years; the same ladies find gentlemen in evening habits of yellow and blue gazed in perpetual delight from the private boxes on either side. Here were tike sets for “Masaniello” and “Timour the Tartar”; what Neapolitan richness in the one, what craziness of Oriental architecture in the other. There are scenes in “Timour” which are like nothing on earth—saving the Brighton Pavilion and a house that used to stand, and may stand still, for all that I know, between Torquay and Paignton.

I had found the toy theatre again, and it was the true theatre. The rehearsal of our new play at the Britannia appeared the phantasm; and indeed it was so from all practical points of view.

Under the Clock

And all this is an example of the manner in which dreams are realised in London, and, as it were, made concrete. The toy theatre of my boyhood had come to me out of the vague; now, after all these weary years I had found its place of origin, of its source and its begetting. It is, as I have said before in The Evening News, in the country that one reads of Sappho, and imagines wondrous things of Sappho: it is in London that one goes into a solid shop in the solid Strand—alas! since then both solidities have vanished like cloudwrack at sunset—and buys for earthly shillings Sappho in the original Greek and in blue paper covers.

Sometimes, of course, the town does not realise the country dream. I remember how I used to walk four or five miles to a certain railway station where the London papers were to be obtained. {Ed.- According to Machen in Far Off Things, this would be Pontypool station.} I read them eagerly, even to the advertisements, and especially the theatrical advertisements. They were announcing “The Shaughraun,” “Les Cloches de Corneville,” and “Madame Favart” in those departed days, and at the end of each advertisement one read, “For Cast, see Under the Clock.” The reference was really to the lists of the actors and actresses set forth under the picture of a clock in another column of the paper; but quite in good faith, I chose to make for myself the image of a vast architectural clock somewhere in the heart and centre of London, at the base of which the various casts were displayed.

A Bronte Touch

This I found not to be so, “far from it,” as Mr. Pecksniff said of his youthful speculations concealing pickled onions and elephants and castles. But as a general rule it is nevertheless true that, in small things and great, London confirms the fancy of the country; it shows to the eyes that which the imagination had conceived.

Think what brave words the country boy reads in books! Mrs. Gaskell tells us how that one brave word “London” itself had so impressed itself on the imagination of the poor, distracted Patrick Brontë that he had studied the great town as if it were a science, and, was able to set Londoners right concerning short cuts and obscure passages as he talked to them in the Haworth Inn. Patrick Brontë never realised his dream of the immense city; and one is sorry for him, but many of us who have come from places as obscure as Haworth or much more obscure, have known what it is to dwell on these words and at last to realise their force in concrete fact and experience. And London provides and marks the term of many of these journeys of the spirit.

Fair Provence

And, though I urge a point which is somewhat opposed to my own philosophy of things in general, I cannot but confess that in many instances the actual thing equals and even surpasses the thing imagined. I must say that I found Provence seen even more beautiful than Provence imagined; and I will not believe that any thinking person can honestly say that London has “disappointed” him. It is greater, more wonderful than the images that we hate made of it in our minds. For once, the actual giant within the tent is vaster than the pictured giant without.

But the words, as I say, that one reads, and dreams of, one sees at last realised in one or other of the myriad streets. The boy reads of swords, and perhaps has a toy sword as a plaything, a “sword” becomes to him almost a symbol and a sacrament, something; splendid and terrific and vague like “Bagdad” and “Rome” and “martyr.” He comes up to London and sees the Guards at Whitewall; awful figures, all shining and scarlet, with actual drawn swords in their hands, glittering, and terrible, and eloquent of sudden death. And faith is realised, and more than realised.

The Weekly

Previous: Our Lost Paradise

Next: The Pitiful Army

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

7 thoughts on “The Joy of London II

  1. This is delightful! Fine that you found a photograph of the very sort of theatre (“the same whiskered conductor raised a baton that had never fallen through all these heavy years”)! Sadly, I’m too far from my Welsh roots and too shallow in my Welsh-learning to know the idiomatic sense of “plant yr tonau”, though ‘plant’ is child and ‘tonau’ are tones, tunes, or accents. (The words of one of the English versions of ‘The Ash Grove’ spring to mind – appropriately, or not?: “The friends of my childhood again are before me”.) Something else that springs to mind is that the evocative second (‘London’) symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams (partially of Welsh descent) was first performed some six weeks after this article appeared.


    1. Alas, I am probably more distant from my Welsh roots than you! I had to look up “tonau,” but I recognized “plant” as children. The phrase reminded me of “plant y pwll” – Children of the Pool. A great story! Machen also mourned his poor grasp of the poetic language of his homeland.


  2. I’m not sure that the Ordnance Survey will continue to produce paper topographic maps, but if someone wants one map with sound Machen references, he or she could get Explorer Map 152 Newport & Pontypool. Pretty much I’m an armchair traveller myself. I keep this map with Machen items. I have a set of four facsimile maps of London circa 1860, nice for Dickensian reference but also with suggestions of the London Machen first knew.


  3. A book that might interest some Machen readers is George Borrow’s Wild Wales (first published 1862). Borrow is the once-famous author of two books of gypsy life in Britain, Lavengro and The Romany Rye. Frankly, I found those two books more captivating than the Wales book has been, and yet the latter may certainly be recommended as a travelogue of the whole country at the time of Machen’s birth.

    The edition I have is the one I recommend, the Collins hardcover edition of 1955, with an introduction by Cecil Price, because it’s a nice little book loaded with black and white photographic plates and has an index of place-names. Collins seems to have reprinted Wild Wales in 1978, but I haven’t seen that one and don’t know if the photos were retained.

    I’m sure glimpses of “Arthur Machen’s Wales” are still possible! But let’s balance that hope with a dose of dire Dalrymplian observation:


    1. Dale Nelson adds:

      I have yet another comment that’s not about London but about Wales. I’m finishing George Borrow’s Wild Wales (1862).

      An online source says it’s 35.5 miles from Merthyr Tydvil to Caerleon (I think that’s by road, not as the crow flies). Borrow describes a fiery mountain — he has walked into an industrial region. Surely there’s something about such scenes somewhere in Machen.

      This haunting folk-rock song

      refers to the bells of Merthyr. Borrow says “Merthyr” is the Welsh word for Martyr — that Tyvil was a Welsh Christian princess martyred by the Saxons.

      I’m guessing that Machen was acquainted with the area. It would be interesting to have good specifics about his knowledge of Wales, especially in terms of places where he walked in his early years.


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