London, January, 1936
Ralph Wambsganss was the first of our party to settle down, and he did it in a rather curious way. I had advised him that in any European city one can most easily find cheap but adequate hotels and housing in the vicinity of the major railway stations. One of the few exceptions was Waterloo, the station where he would arrive. It was, and still is, in such a dreadful part of south London that it would be useless to put a hotel there. Hence, following my rather detailed instructions, he proceeded, by tube, to Paddington station. The region around Paddington, while hardly elegant, has an atmosphere that I thought might be rather good for Ralph.
The dominating theme was, of course, the Great Western Railway. Pubs had names such as "The Locomotive" and "The Railway Arms." Many of the inhabitants of the district worked on the trains, in the station, or at the locomotive and carriage sheds at Old Oak Common, a short distance down the line. A permanent cloud of smoke from the impressive fleet of coal burning engines seeped everywhere, and grit collected in every corner. The housewives were too used to it to complain.
Many Paddington inhabitants could identify the different classes of locomotives, and would have felt rather lost without their familiar railway. Indeed, when bank holiday excursions did take them outside their home district, many waited impatiently in alien villages and fields for the time of their return. Still, I hadn't sent Ralph there to shovel coal into a locomotive firebox, or to steal one of the frankly unattractive housewives from her lawfully wedded husband. It was something much more subtle.
All over the west of England there are men who speak, not of going to London, but of "going up to Paddington." Similarly, within London, there are many persons, again always male, who speak of visiting Paddington as their wives speak of going shopping in Knightsbridge. Both are places where one entertains and amuses oneself, often without buying anything.
The visitor to Paddington, whether he has come from a fashionable residential street in London, or all the way up from Swindon, goes through a series of, one might say, obeisances. At some point, he will stand, hands in his pockets and feet spread, under the great arched roof of discoloured glass panes as he takes the tempo of the crowds scuttling by. He will then walk down one of the long raised platforms past a string of coaches to join other men, all strangers to one another, in a small ceremony. This consists of watching an express engine back down on to the train it is to pull. When the engine glides slowly backward out of the gloom and slides its tender gently into the buffers of the first coach, the man who has been waiting down at track level will make the connections and scramble up to the platform.
There will then be nods all around. The name of the engine will be taken and duly noted. The visitors may not all have time to watch the engine pull out, but that isn't necessary. If it's the King William or the Caernarvon Castle on the head end, the express is in good hands. The rest can be left to the imagination. At that point, the visitors, with perhaps another nod, will go their separate ways. They may be strangers, but they know and recognize one another.
I should point out that I am not this sort of man myself. The sleaze of Praed Street doesn't attract me simply because it leads to Paddington. Nor do I hang over the stone wall of the overpass on Bishop's Bridge Road to watch those powerful compact engines acccelerate through the maze of trackage with the great hulk of the station in the background. Still less do I take lunches of pork railway pie at the stand next to Platform 1 in order to remain in touch with the railway. But I felt, more strongly than I can express, that these were the sorts of men Ralph should live among.
It worked out partly that way and partly not. When Ralph emerged from the tube, he happened to wander down the side of the station. Unfortunately, the hotels are in the opposite direction. I should have marked them on a map, but happened to have none to give him when he left. Then, when he came to Bishops Bridge Road, he quite naturally turned right, crossing over the main line tracks. Only a tall man can easily see over the stone walls and take in the inspiring scenes that lie beyond and below. Ralph must surely have paused there to watch. Then, within a hundred yards, he came to a related, but distinct, culture.
Before the coming of railways, England, like America, had a system of canals. The difference was that, while American freight trains quickly put canals out of business, the English railway system, with its emphasis on passenger traffic, left the canals a niche. While widely used for recreation and houseboats, there was still a regular freight traffic. Indeed, the portion of the Grand Union Canal Ralph stumbled on was the spur leading to the Paddington Basin, a canal freight terminal located almost beside the railway station. Were it not for a row of warehouses, it would be visible from the station and from Praed St.
As it is, the canals which extend entirely across London are hidden from the eyes, not only of the tourist, but also from those of most ordinary residents. I would certainly have preferred them to remain hidden from Ralph. He was, unfortunately, delighted with his view from Bishops Bridge.
While the railway has always been a strictly male business, the canal was, in an important way, a female one. That was because of the nature of the boats and their mode of use. The boats and barges which carried coal, sand, and other bulk cargoes were long and narrow, made to fit exactly through the locks. They had old weather-beaten black hulls which, when loaded, sank almost to the gunwales. The deck was broken by a continuous series of hatches for ease of loading. About half were unpowered barges. The other half had little engines and rudders with long tillers extending over tiny cockpits. Immediately forward of the cockpit was a little cabin for the owner-operator.
The trade, never operating according to tight schedules, required the operator to be virtually always aboard, ready to shift the boat around and pick up cargoes as they became available. That meant that the boat had to be a home as well as a place of work. Men, on the whole, seem to require a separate place to come home to, ideally presided over by a woman. In England, men of the working class require both a home and a second home. The latter is, of course, the pub, where they spend a majority of their waking non-working hours. This was out of the question for the operator of a long boat. The only people self-sufficient enough for the job turned out to be old women.
They were fearsome creatures. Dressed in black, and with noses and chins resembling the beaks of rooks, the concentrated anger and obscenity of their cries baffled credulity.
I was once a member of a boating party that got in the way of a long boat. As the proprietor screamed at me, she brandished a pike with a sharp steel hook on the end. I hit the deck, believing, reasonably enough, that she meant to sever my head. I was more relieved than I could own when, instead of having at me, she used that vicious hook to pluck an unpowered long boat from its mooring and tow it off.
When I remember that menacing figure, I'm convinced that she and her sisters also used those pikes to fight with. I do know that the men who loaded and unloaded the boats were afraid of those awful old crones. When possible, they kept well away from them. At other times, they treated them like aged princesses and brought them bottles of intoxicants.
Ralph, needless to say, was seduced by the canal right then and there. It wasn't entirely a disaster. The railway and the canal had, atmospherically speaking, a good deal in common. But the latter was much more primitive. It was like sending someone to Greece to see the Parthenon and having him take up with an archaic almost extinct cult which ritually slaughtered rams by the light of the full moon. So far, it wouldn't have been so bad. Not even Ralph would have married one of the hags if, indeed, he had been allowed to approach so closely.
As one would expect, Ralph followed the canal. By chance, he followed it, not into Paddington Basin, but north, where it joined the main channel. At the junction point, there's a circular pond, perhaps two hundred yards in diameter. It's called Little Venice. It bears no resemblence whatever to the Venice of Italy. It may well have been named in irony.
Along the banks of Little Venice there are moored houseboats. A few of them are nicely converted long boats. The holds have been scoured and painted, and skylights reminiscent of greenhouses have been substituted for the hatch covers. The cabins and hulls have been done up with ornamental touches, and plants have been hung strategically from the skylights. One suspects that it's impossible to entirely rid the boats of the smell of coal and crones, but the effect is still quite nice. Both in 1936 and now, such boats are in the small minority. The rest simply constitute cheap housing.
All manner of craft that will float, and some that will not, have been shunted and dragged into position against the bank. One can live on the enclosed deck of a boat even if it's resting on mud and the basement, so to speak, is full of water. Many of the boats have makeshift extensions of scrap wood, canvas and tin, arranged in every conceivable way and painted with whatever colors happened to be left over from something else. The scanty electric lights are run from automobile batteries, and living quarters are heated with coal stoves. Even if the hulls were sound, no sane person would venture on the Thames in such a craft, much less the ocean. Ralph wandered into the middle of this collection of flotsam, and was charmed.
One asks what sorts of people would live there. The answer, again, hasn't changed: students, artists, and riff- raff. It's inevitable. There's a kind of cheap housing which is just picturesque enough to deter the respectable poor.
When Ralph arrived in Little Venice in the January of 1936, there were some genuine students there. Unlike Oxford and Cambridge, the London institutions of higher education didn't automatically house their students. Many were left to scratch for themselves. There were others who had been students at one time, and who occasionally thought of studying something again sometime. In the meantime they were on the dole.
The artists were fairly numerous and fairly productive. Their work was generally striking, more so than the work of more academic artists. There was often good technique, used to produce subtle effects. However, there was something vaguely unlawful about much of the work, and there were sometimes violent undertones. Most people were put off, but I'll always think of it as the characteristic art of Little Venice. It was displayed for sale along the towpaths on fine summer afternoons.
As Ralph wandered along the bank in a westerly, or clockwise, direction, fate intervened. There was, directly in his path, a houseboat for sale with a large red sign proclaiming that fact. The boat behind the sign did actually float, but was in other respects quite un-nautical. It was, in essence, a rectilinear box some twenty five feet long, eight feet wide, and five feet in height. On top of this basic box were other boxes, just high enough to allow a short person to stand. The whole had originally been painted blue, but, evidently with the idea of promoting a quick sale, a coat of black had been applied to the upper works and purple to the hull. The boat hadn't been removed from the water for painting, and there was an uneven strip of faded blue between water and purple. As ill-luck would have it, a young lady emerged from the craft just as Ralph approached.
The price, twenty five pounds, seemed quite little to Ralph. He had it in his pocket, and the sale was consummated before he even stepped on board.
The lady proved to be an artist, as was her boat-mate, another young lady. They were within a day or two of moving out, but, hearing that Ralph had as yet no lodgings, they insisted on arranging accomodation for him.
Ralph's first step on board must have been an alarming one. I can attest from later experience that a box has very little lateral stability in water. If one steps carelessly on a corner, it dips sufficiently to pitch one into the muddy waters of Little Venice. In later days, Ralph solved the problem to some extent. He arranged an arm chair in the deckhouse at the exact center of gravity. He would pull a rope to open a door while still standing on the bank, and then, with a leap to an exact spot, he would fall into the chair while the boat went through fewer gyrations than would otherwise have been the case. I suppose that, on that first occasion, his steps were guided by the girls. Still, one of his size could easily have turned their little world, literally, topsy-turvy with a single step in the wrong place.
Ralph recalls no untoward events. The centerpiece of the home was a little coal stove in the hull, carefully vented with a tall tin stack. They all perched cozily around it, the dim winter light coming through the single skylight. The girls then urged on him the importance of not going too far in the direction they designated as "forward." The boat, they explained, was weighted with stones so that the "stern" was lower. The water that leaked in thus collected there, swishing occasionally from one corner to the other. One pumped it out now and then, and the rest of the boat remained dry. However, if one went too far forward, in Ralph's case not very far at all, the water would run over the whole floor of the craft.
But, still, the forward areas were not useless. One could store light things, like Diana's paintings, there, and retrieve them by lying on one's stomach and reaching forward. Since Ralph was staying the night, they would place him well aft, which would enable Lesley to unroll her mat in the forward part of the hull while Diana slept on the enclosed deck. It would, needless to say, be important to get up in the right order.
Ralph seems to have sat happily in some corkscrewed position, undoubtedly with his usual pleasant smile, while the terms of this absolutely absurd form of life were explained to him. The young ladies were, I dare say, high- spirited and attractive. One knows the type. However, the fact that Ralph is still living there, having made only minimal improvements, speaks volumes.
Diana and Lesley were moving into a studio on dry ground, and there were some delays. In the two weeks that they remained aboard, they showed Ralph how to live cheaply in London. Since these techniques stood him in good stead, and the ladies have remained his friends, it wasn't an unmitigated disaster that he came upon Little Venice.
When Ralph met us at Waterloo, he was already well settled. He was surprised to see me there, but he took it much better than I would have in his place. He was actually quite gracious, and may even have been sincere. It was then that an odd incident took place.
It happened that we travelled up on the same boat train as Cedric and Monica. At breakfast on the ship they had been as always. When Monica asked about tipping a steward, Cedric replied,
"I tipped him for both of us. I told him you'd give him a big kiss."
Monica had giggled, flushed, and looked happy. On the train, Brenda and I discussed whether she had been a virgin before meeting Cedric. I thought so. Brenda thought not. Sometimes during this discussion, we had glanced at her in an attempt to derive new inspiration. Furiously flirty, she seemed always to have a hand on Cedric's arm or leg, but in such a way that one might have taken her for a virgin still. That, as Brenda and I agreed, was extremely unlikely.
We all got off the train more or less at the same time, and it happened that some friends of Cedric came up to greet him, just as we met Ralph. As we all drifted down the platform with the crowd, Monica wound up next to me. I was about to introduce her to Ralph when I heard Cedric, separated by a dozen or so people, shouting for her. I looked at her quickly. Monica had put on a little hat with a veil, and looked much older. She didn't seem about to coo or giggle. For that matter, she didn't even look like a student. The transformation surprised me so much that I didn't take in the significance of the fact that she hadn't turned toward Cedric. He was too loud not to hear, but I spoke, somewhat redundantly,
"I think Cedric is calling you."
Although I was almost touching her, Monica didn't even look at me. She instead walked quickly away through a gap in the crowd. My last view of her was of that little hat bobbing along, her heels drumming the pavement, and the seams of her stockings precisely straight. Cedric rushed up, but couldn't find her. On his way back to the others he and I didn't speak despite my continuing intention to replace his clothing. He was red-faced and humiliated. I could only imagine what he said to his friends, but I was sure that the word, "American" would figure in it.
Cedric was quickly out of earshot, and we explained it all to Ralph, not excluding our discussion on the train. Brenda felt confirmed in her previous view and characterized Monica as a "hard little tart." I wasn't so sure, but, since there were other matters of greater interest, Monica disappeared forever from our concerns.
Ralph, at that time, remained extraordinarily naive. He actually took us to his home for tea and cookies. I had called from Southampton for reservations at the Great Western Hotel at Paddington, and we dropped off our things there. We then walked to Little Venice. I had never been there, but had been doubtful. Brenda had been enthusiastic about the idea of Ralph's living on a houseboat. She undoubtedly imagined something, if not grand, at least picturesque in a comfortable way.
When we saw the contraption in which Ralph proposed to spend the rest of the winter, Brenda laughed harder than I had ever seen her. She was a little girl again, something quite out of character for her. She kissed Ralph more enthusiastically than I might have wished. I, of course, was appalled. When I began to remonstrate, Ralph poked me in the ribs in a singularly undignified fashion and said,
"Now, now, Thomas. You wanted me to be economical. I haven't given away a penny, and I doubt that there are cheaper lodgings in the whole of London."
I was about to say something about going from one extreme to another, but gave it up as a bad job.
Ralph opened a door in the deckhouse, ducked quickly aboard, and reached back a hand for Brenda. The boat was rocking and banging, but she timed a little leap and crossed the gap from bank to deck rather gracefully. I followed a little more clumsily. Inside the cabin, the after part of the deck had been cut away with a ladder leading down into the hull. Ralph disappeared while stoking up the stove and putting on the water for tea. He then climbed up, let a heavy plank down across the opening, and sat on it. Brenda sat in an old chair facing him, and I sat in another, directly behind Brenda, also facing aft. It was an odd conversational grouping. I was, quite literally, speaking to the back of Brenda's head. It was also an odd feeling to be speaking down to Ralph, who was normally well above me. However, one becomes accustomed to almost anything.
Ralph told the story of his acquisition of the boat, and of the girls who had lived on it. Brenda asked,
"Do you still see them?"
"Yes. They're just over in Maida Vale, and we often eat or go somewhere together."
"It can be tricky in those circumstances, if you get interested in one, not to hurt the feelings of the other."
Ralph looked slightly embarrassed as he replied,
"I think Diana and Lesley might be more interested in each other than anyone else. They as much as told me so. That seems to be common here. It's fine with me, though. I don't think I'm in a position to get interested in anyone."
The back of Brenda's head was unresponsive, and I said,
"It sounds like good safe companionship."
"Yes. It turns out to be a good deal more satisfactory than the dates I had back home. I'm also learning about London in a way I wouldn't have just prowling about alone. Although I enjoy that a lot, too."
Ralph was the sort of young man who, left alone, would never have travelled anywhere, but, who, once started, profited greatly from the experience. He would have even without Diana and Lesley. He didn't get lonely, always found ways of amusing himself, and positively enjoyed experimenting with new ways of life. The implicit question floating fore and aft amongst us was not what Ralph would do. He was well started. It was what Brenda would do. She said suddenly,
"I'm going to rebuild the Sanderson fortune."
I almost fell off my chair. Considering the instability of our surroundings, it was a good thing that I didn't. I could, however, have been pardoned. Brenda would have to multiply her capital a thousand times before she could even enter the league in which old Wilhelmina had played. Ralph, on the other hand, responded,
"I suppose what happened was a bit of a debacle. It would be nice if someone put it to rights."
They both talked as if it were a matter of mending a piece of machinery or furniture that was broken. I tried to give them some idea of the hopelessness of Brenda's project. Ralph adopted an attitude of pleasant non-interference. He said he didn't know about such things, but would be happy to lend a hand wherever it might be required. Brenda, corkscrewing her neck to look at me, replied rather spiritedly. The more I said, the more she took it as a challenge. I changed the subject and began talking about the Great Western Railway. I privately thought that, while her aims were hopelessly grandiose, she might well make a million or so.
Brenda: $90,000 + jewelry