LONDON IS A PLACE

Leonard Feeney

Chapter IV

LONDON SPRING

A skyful of frustrated fertility known as pollen, floating northwestward from the gardens of Denmark and Holland, and hanging over the fields of England, is what constitutes a London fog. Super-millions of microspores — germs of flowers on their way to becoming seed — are suffused into the moistures of the British air. These form the nuclei of infinitesimally small clouds, which, in turn, cluster together, and envelop hill and horizon with a dismal drapery of gloom. It is hard to know what to call this unwelcome weather, but it has come to be identified by a monosyllable sounding like a horn mournfully blowing in the midst of it.

Fog — is the one subject London poets, while perpetually confronted with it, have kept away from. But in those lovely months of the year, in late April, May and early June, when London’s imported pollen is busy back in its own gardens on the Continent, the fog over London lifts; its skies are clear; the sun shines continually; and everyone rejoices, because it is Spring. And this is the one subject no London poet has ever been able to avoid.

Place and weather are powerful components in the making of human drama; and the Providence of God, which is nothing if not dramatic, lets a city’s climate be a reminder, and sometimes a corrective, of its spiritual ills. London’s fog and London’s lack of faith go together. And were London to regain its faith, the Will of God might find a hundred meteorological and agricultural reasons for sending Danish and Dutch pollen elsewhere to form fog, and might let London’s sunshine alone.

London lost the Faith by loving God without its soul. Paris lost the Faith by loving God without its strength. Berlin lost the Faith by loving God without its mind. And Rome lost the Faith by loving God without its heart. But a nation, to secure salvation, must — and especially in its central city — love God with its whole heart, its whole soul, its whole mind, and its whole strength. And it must love it that other nations do likewise.

Along with the Faith, London lost also its sense of eternal things — happiness and joy. It retained only their temporal and weak equivalents — a continual contentment known as pleasure, an intermittent excitement known as delight.

Pleasure has been London’s favorite feminine feeling ever since the Sixteenth Century, just as delight has been its major masculine mood. “It will be a pleasure!” London ladies are required to say, when some extra kindness is expected of them. “I shall be delighted!” is the routine response of every over-willing London male when some perfunctory courtesy is called for.

Just as fog in London’s sky is the symbol of its loss of Faith, two parodies of London’s empty pleasure and false delight perpetually prowl in its dim-lit streets. They are London’s stray cat, London’s lost dog.

A cat is contentment. A dog is excitement. A cat is pleasure. A dog is delight. A cat is pleasure, contentedly purring and licking its paws. A dog is delight, excitedly barking and wagging its tail. A cat is all eyes in the darkness; a dog all ears in the stillness of London’s interminable night.

Because London did not give up God through its mind, its strength, or its heart, persons still prevail there as the leading symbols of excellence. There is never any London movement to which can be applied some bombastic name like “Kulturkampf”; some ruthless title like “Nazism”; or some weak indication like “Action Franšaise.” Persons may be crowded together in London, and underpaid, and undernourished, and overharassed by hardship; but persons they still remain. Even political London produced, right in our own day, a character as singular as Winston Churchill.

I hold no brief for the sanctity of Winston Churchill. But the preciousness which God put in him by way of making him unique, he has been decent enough to preserve. Sociologists interested in specimens, and psychologists interested in types, never study Churchill. No one can possibly classify him. He is, as the sane old saying goes, “in a class by himself.”

Here is an amusing story told of Churchill. During his term as Prime Minister of England, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury died. The appointment of a successor was being discussed. Churchill blurted out:

“Do you think Hinsley would take it?”

“Hinsley, sir!” cried all his Protestant cohorts, indignantly, and almost with a single voice, “is the Roman Catholic Archbishop over at Westminster Cathedral.”

“Oh, that’s right,” said Churchill, cheerfully; letting the incident drop without a single syllable of apology.

Personality can never be defined. Realization of personality can come only by repeated willingness to acknowledge it. A relish for personality is the fruit of countless experiences, all of which, when added, constitute the unit with which one started. Awareness of personality is an art bestowed by God on anyone willing to accept it. This art the English have been willing to accept.

We now see the hidden secret of London’s deep and abiding loyalty to things. It is the stubborn hold it has always managed to keep on the value of personality, even when its other certitudes began to fail. Every Londoner somehow speaks to you as though there were a hidden majesty in your nature, which he was endeavoring to discover. Let his motive be selfish, if you will; it is still preoccupied with a self. Likewise, every Londoner speaks from a hidden dignity of his own, which no amount of hardship can manage to take from him.

It is this urge for personality that keeps a London king on his throne when his rule has become useless; that makes even the very street and number where a Prime Minister of London dwells, an address to be written and spoken with respect; that lets colleges at London’s universities go on being called “Christ Church,” and “Jesus College,” and “Magdalen,” and “Trinity,” when there is no longer any creed within their walls to support these once hallowed titles.

It is this unrelinquished relish for personality that preserves mystical meaning in outmoded London words. “Zounds!” means “By God’s wounds.”

“Bedlam” is a corruption of Bethlehem. And “hocus pocus” is a syllabic collapse of the sacred and personal words (“Hoc est enim Corpus Meum”) which a Catholic priest speaks at the Consecration of the Mass.

Berlin never retained this hunger for person and personal prerogatives, which still haunts London. Berlin gave up its mind to the study of mentality. Germans are proud. Paris concentrated its strength on the exercise of the weakest of vices. Frenchmen are sensual. Rome alienated its heart to foreign lands for the sake of revenue, and of religious retinue. Italians are greedy. London did none of these things. London’s soul went sour, and its desires went too far abroad for its own happiness at home. Englishmen are gluttons.

But the mind, the strength, and the heart of London have always stayed riveted in royal allegiance to a once sacrosanct value it knew — the preciousness of personality, bequeathed to it in the days when its land was Catholic, its Faith dogmatic, and its heroes well-named and well-remembered saints.

An instinct for personality is requisite for a response to the overtures of Christian Revelation. God’s cry from the depths of Eternity is personal. It comes from three distinct Persons, Who are Divine. They are: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. This is the Everlasting Godhead.

The Second Person of this Most Blessed Trinity has, because of love, become the bridge between two impassibles, the infinite and the finite. He is the motherless Son of a Father in Eternity, and the fatherless Child of a Virgin in time.

Our Lord taught us that there can be no Revelation without apostles, and no sanctity without saints. This Christian concreteness in consecrated things London has never disliked. Saint George, slaying the Dragon, is virtue triumphing over vice, to London’s satisfaction. London’s German cousins from the Continent have endeavored to depreciate St. George of England. They claim to have scholarly statistics to show that he never existed. But London has no use for German hagiologists, nor for Belgian Bollandists. Saint George will continue to slay the Dragon as long as London lasts.

French fussiness is also a trait that has never tainted the London temperament. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, as a call to action, would leave Londoners lying in their beds. London’s late sleepers pay no attention to any summons which has not in it the noise of newsboys shouting in the streets.

London’s strong sense of personality is closely allied to its sense of chivalry. London loves a woman it can call a queen. Failing of that, a duchess, a marchioness, or a countess will somehow do. And a princess will do perfectly.

At every point in English history where circumstances have caused a queen — by way of an interval between kings — to be in command of England, there have been courtesy, consideration, and compliments always waiting to greet her.

London would rather have a queen in fiction than a goddess in mythology. Even a London cat on the loose, and missing for a few nights from its own neighborhood, is regally interrogated upon her return:

Pussy cat! Pussy cat!
   Where have you been?
To this she must answer:
I’ve been to London
   To visit the Queen,
or no one will believe her.

The best recipe for royalty, according to The Second Book of Machabees, Chapter 7, Verse 21, is “the joining of a man’s heart to a woman’s thought.” This is the formula for valiancy in a woman, and for chivalry in a man.

The Norman invasion of England added a French flourish to London’s sense of chivalry. London did not mind the Norman conquest too much because it acquired from it such a bright and new vocabulary. After the coming of William the Conqueror, there were two languages fighting it out in London, impolite Anglo-Saxon, and terribly polite French. The English language immediately adapted itself to this dualism. What was called pig in the pen was called pork on a platter. What in France was the form, was in England the matter. What was sheep in the fold, became mutton served cold. And a cow in the stable, was beef on the table.

Queen Anne, an English queen who spoke only French, and who ruled England affectionately for forty-nine years (1665-1714), had a fondness for little cakes, which she called, in her own language, “petits gateaux.” “Petticoats” was the best the ears of London cooks could make out of “petits gateaux”; and so “Queen Anne’s petticoats” have been London’s favorite little cakes since the early part of the Eighteenth Century.

French courtesy was one thing to take from the Norman Conquest. Græco-Roman culture was quite another. Greek is the culture of the mind. Latin is the culture of the heart. Greek is the illustration of truth. Latin is the symbolization of love. The two in providential, almost miraculous union, have constituted the Græco-Roman culture, the greatest culture civilization has ever known. And it is important to remember that it was by way of a French channel of land, as well as by an English channel of water, that this culture flowed through France into England.

It is also well to remember that as Athens and Rome passed through Paris, they became inextricably confused, one with the other. The Classics did not enter England in clear overture. It was always by way of French complication. A cultivated Frenchman is constantly surprising and disappointing you. He is cold where you thought he would be friendly, affectionate where you expected him to be aloof. He is either a Greek who lives in the Latin Quarter, or a Latin who falls asleep in the Parthenon.

Greece and Rome issued into London by way of a French aqueduct, and the loving London heart, and the resolute London mind, had no power to cope with them according to the French formula. And so Athens and Rome divided again, once they reached London. All the heads went resolutely into the universities, and all the hearts went regretfully into the gutter.

Even among classically educated Englishmen — and there are many such — because they have no heart for the cultivation they have acquired, one is constantly hearing the expression: “I know a little Latin, and less Greek.” And of perhaps no scholars in the world is this statement less generally true.

The British Foreign Policy is the result of most careful mental calculation, assisted by most resolute abandonment to fortune. An empire has been the fruit of this. It has not been the Græco-Roman Empire. It has been the empire of a John Bull and a Johnny-on-the-Spot — the one at a desk in nearby Downing Street, the other on a deck in distant Dakar.

This Empire of Britain, so alertly London-controlled, is unmistakably the empire of a queen. Indeed, there were probably no London rulers who contributed more to its efficient well-being than the London queens, notably Queen Victoria. All the slogans and mottoes phrased to encourage Britain’s Empire, such as “Britannia Rules the Waves,” are those which touch allegiance as to a queen. And this took courage, for in the extension and furtherance of London’s Empire, the greatest obstacles it ever encountered were the queen-hating nations of the world, including India, the land of the culture and the religion of misogyny, as it is practiced by the pure oriental Hindu and the quasi-occidental Mohammedan.

Of Mohammedanism, I know more than I do of Hinduism; though of the two grouped together, I know plenty. Mohammed allowed many wives and no wine, by way of showing his liturgical esteem for the respective value of each. The fruit of Mohammed’s teaching in India has been the having, along with many women, of as much wine as a Mohammedan cares to, provided he pretends there is a doctrine on the subject, and bows his head towards Mecca.

“There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah!” is utterance in cold, religious frenzy, as far away from a London salute to God and queen as the dead deserts of mid-India are from the bright, rippling waters of the Thames.

If London is disliked precisely because of its world prestige, world politics, and world propaganda, then one is still confronted with the problem — if one believes in God — as to why God created it, and gave it such prominence, and populated it so abundantly. Is it that He made eight million mistakes, all in a restricted area?

I think the answer is clear. God does not approve of London. But God, Who loved India, when it was willing to take the message of His Child from Saint Francis Xavier, now despises it. India is, in our day, the most Mary-hating nation in the world. London will receive no eternal reward for muzzling the Moslem and hindering the Hindu. London’s reward is entirely on this Earth. But Mohammedan and Hindu damnation are, thank God, and thanks to London, both in eternity, and in time.

I cannot leave the horrid land of Mahatma Gandhi, that bed-sheeted little Hindu intellectual, without despairing at what he did to the soul of an Indian girl I once admired.

Sarojini Naidu, in the days when she visited London, read its literature and listened to its ladies talk. Whereupon, she concocted for the English an exquisite frailty in a poem. It is called “The Song of the Palanquin Bearers.” A palanquin is a royal stretcher, upon which a queen, or a bride, is carried on the shoulders of men. Here is the soft, haunting song Miss Naidu sang:

Lightly, oh lightly, we bear her along,
   She sways like a flower in the wind of our song;
She skims like a bird on the foam of a stream,
   She floats like the laugh from the lips of a dream.

Gaily, oh gaily, we glide and we sing;
   We bear her along like a pearl on a string.

Softly, oh softly, we bear her along, —
   She hangs like a star in the dew of our song.
She springs like a beam from the brow of a tide,
   She falls like the tear from the eye of a bride.

Gaily, oh gaily, we glide and we sing;
   We bear her along like a pearl on a string.
The British Empire is a collection of disunited lands and nations, dominated by taking swift advantage of every dissension. The overt act by which Henry VIII indicated to the world the pattern of England’s apostasy, was a divorce of his throne from the Chair of Peter, and a divorce of himself from his lawful Queen. With both its spiritual and its secular interests the fruit of unwedded allegiances, it is no wonder there is no unity in what London does. It has lost all sense of the unity of a bridegroom and a bride.

Yet something still stays in England, which I do not know what to call. By way of showing how full of promise and emptiness it is, I call it “London Spring.” It is spring without summer; promise without fulfillment; style without substance; manners without meaning.

Every English sailor salutes the quartermaster’s deck when he passes it, aboard ship. On it there used to be a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. No sailor would pass it without acknowledging it. The Mary images have been removed from English ships. But the empty salutes still go on.

I once heard John Galsworthy lecture in the refectory of one of Oxford’s colleges. He entered, dressed in clerical robe and hat, and stood at one end of the refectory, in the manner of a visiting abbot. He saluted an empty niche in the wall. This again was a place where a statue of the Blessed Virgin used to be kept, and is kept no longer.

The Oxford and Cambridge colors are blue. Oxford has dark blue. Cambridge light blue. This is in honor of the colors in Mary’s mantle. God’s Mother has departed. Nothing remains, but the color of her dress.

And so, on and on we could go, through all the English emptiness, through all the haunted places. A sweet odor lingers everywhere, but a death and a departure have most surely occurred. Maurice Baring, just before he died, put on paper the sad summary of it all. It was his beautiful study of The Lonely Lady of Dulwich.

The Lonely Lady of Dulwich is the English girl, still trying to hold out to her husband and to her household, the dowry which was once hers, when she was the assured image of the Mother of God. Indoors has become too stuffy for her, so she has gone out for good into the garden. She is constantly tending flowers. The lily is her favorite; and, also, the rose.

Her coat-of-arms is a little English heart, with three French words written across it: “Saignant et brûlant,” which means, “bleeding and burning.” This is the heart of the London girl since the Lady of Walsingham went away.


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