Letter from London

Daily Alta California/October 26, 1872

Once upon a time a small steamer passing under London Bridge lost overboard one of her passengers. There was a cry overhead, and looking up, the other passengers beheld something which might have been “Lucifer, son of the morning, falling like lighting from heaven,” or Vulcan coming down upon the Lemnian coast, though it wasn’t likely. In sober truth, it was “a party by the name of Johnson,” taking a “header” off the bridge, to rescue the drowning voyager—which he did. For sometimes thereafter Mr. Johnson was a hero of no common fame. The newspapers were full of him, and one of them, the Daily Telegraph, anointed the Johnsonian head with a box of costly editorial ointment, from the shop of Mr. George Augustus Sala. So touching a leader has never appeared in any other journal, and even Mr. Johnson, hardy waterman that he was, is known to have shed tears at this masterly disclosure of his own heroism. It soon transpired that, by a remarkable coincidence, the rescued man also was named Johnson; and still later, the romantic interest of the subject was profoundly deepened by the discovery that the two were brothers. The immediately subsequent disclosure that the whole transaction was “a put up job” rather increased than diminished the succoring Johnson’s notoriety.

More Johnson

London has recently been reminded of this cheerful drama by the principal actor in it—who is the champion swimmer of England—engaging to swim across the Strait to Calais, in France—a distance, reckoning the deflection of the current, of forty miles. Mr. Johnson intended making it, by taking advantage of the tide, in a trifle less than ten hours. Thousands went down to Dover to see him off—for which they paid a small sum per head. A steamboat with representatives of the press accompanied the expedition; and the expedition was to have a bottle of hot wine from time to time as he might require it. He left the pier at a tremendous pace and after going seven miles was picked up half paralyzed. He had been in the water an hour and five minutes.

It now appears from the highest medical authority that to live in water of the temperature of the seas in this part of the world more than two or three hours in physically impossible; the constant drain upon one’s internal heat will in that time leave him as cold— and as dead—as a corpse. It is nevertheless true that, in the year 1840, one “Brock, the Swimmer,” was upset in a yawl off Yarmouth, and after swimming seven hours in a tempestuous October night, hailed a brig and was rescued. Moreover, he is living yet. As a rule, however, men prefer ships and steamers when business calls them across the sea; and the recent failure of Mr. Johnson will do more to confirm their preference that the former success of Mr. Brock did to remove it.

A Last Word

Speaking of ships, there is a world of melancholy in a little message recently received at Saltburn-by-the-Sea. It was enclosed in a water-tight box and was picked up on the beach. It read thus: “The Arrow. We are sinking fast; all hope is gone.” The Arrow, it appears, was a brigantine, bound from Sherbro to Liverpool. She touched at Sierra Leone one year ago to-day, and—that is all; the reader must supply such reflections as will satisfy his moral needs. The bare, unadorned fact that I was not a passenger by the Arrow is quite sufficient for me.

The Boucicaultian Drama.

Mr. Planche is septuagenarian. He wrote plays ever so long ago and has lately done a book full of interesting reminiscences of the British Stage. Mr. Boucicault—well, Mr. Boucicault wrote “Arrah na Pogue;” everybody knows who Boucicault is. The two together have just produced a “drama” called “Babil and Bijou,” which Mr. Boucicault has brought out at his theatre, the Covent Garden. It is a “spectacular” affair, and you know each of these is said to excel all the preceding ones in gorgeousness. Nevertheless, making all allowance, I think “Babil and Bijou” is the finest thing of this kind ever produced in England. It is dazzling, bewildering, overwhelming. Withal it is as sorry a bit of bosh as ever Mr. Boucicault had a hand in. By the way, he is going to America in a few days, and it is probable that “Babil and Bijou” will hold the boards till he returns. You are sure to have it over in ’Frisco, some day; though, of course, in a mitigated form. It cost twenty thousand pounds before the curtain was pulled up here. I don’t think John McCullough has that amount of money to risk, but perhaps he might stand two thousand. A little incident will serve to illustrate the character of the play, as well as that of one of its authors. A gentleman who shall be nameless asked Mr. Boucicault the other evening how he expected to “get his money back” on the piece. He replied very gravely that he did not expect to.

“My object,” said he, “in producing this play, is partly a moral one. For years the naked drama has held the British stage, to the exclusion of real merit and the corruption of the public taste. In ‘Babil and Bijou’ I mean to give the public sufficient nakedness and general immodesty, to make it very sick of those qualities. Then, perhaps, I and Mr. Shakespeare will obtain the recognition which is our due.”

I am sorry to say that Mr. Boucicault cast a shadow of suspicion upon his motive by accompanying this statement with a wink of the most inscrutable meaning.

A Firebrand.

A journal called La Federation has appeared. It is printed mainly in French, is devoted to the British faction of the International Society (for this Order is divided against itself), and is edited by a notorious Communist, whose name I do not remember at this moment. The first number charges wickedly at Dr. Karl Marx, the head of the Society, and is aggressive generally. By the way, it seems to me I had the pleasure some time before leaving America of reading in the newspapers some excellent obituary notices of this Dr. Marx. Anyhow, I came here labouring under the delusion that he was dead. I don’t mean to say that I might not have come had I known he was living; but life in London would be more agreeable if he were dead. The same is true of life in New York, San Francisco, Melbourne, Pekin, Constantinople and Dutch Flat.

Stanley’s Snuff Box

Of course you have heard about Mr. Stanley’s letter and present from Her Majesty the Queen, in recognition of his services in discovering Dr. Livingstone. If anything were wanting—and something was wanting—to convince all England that Mr. Stanley did discover Livingstone, that want is now supplied. I don’t think the scepticism of the British head is of that quality to stand one moment against the loyalty of the British heart. Mr. Stanley may feel secure of his laurels; in eliciting that letter and that snuff-box he has made out his case.

The “Nation’s” Little Joke

Doubtless you all of you had your laugh over the following, perpetrated, I believe, by the New York Nation, some time before I had mine:

“Mr. Stanley writes to the Herald that when he told Dr. Livingstone of Mr. Greeley’s candidature for the Presidency the Doctor said: “Hold on! You have told me stupendous things, and with a confiding simplicity I was swallowing them peacefully down; but there is a limit to all things. I am a simple, guileless, Christian man, and unacquainted with intemperate language; but when you tell me that Horace Greeley is become a Democratic candidate I cast the traditions of my education to the winds, and say, I’ll be—to all eternity if I believe it. [After a pause.] My trunk is packed to go home, but I shall remain in Africa, for these things may be true, after all; if they are, I desire to stay here and unlearn my civilization.”

But, perhaps, you do not know that a part of the British press obstinately refuse to believe this; that another part merely professes inability to understand how Stanley could know in November of Mr. Greeley’s nomination in the May following; while the remaining journals have been at some pains to point out that this singular statement must have been intended as a joke! For example, the Spectator sneered at it as obviously untrue, but did not deign to openly refute it. The Globe (I believe it was) pointed out the little anachronism. The Observer proved the jocular character of the paragraph from its context in the Nation. The Pall Mall Gazette sums up all the evidence, and gravely confirms that view. The writer of this matchless witticism may congratulate himself upon having played a prank upon the British mind that is simply divine! I shall see that the British mind is not suffered to forget it.

Mr. Swinburne

I have met a multitude of notables over here, whom I am dying to describe to your readers. As soon as I shall get fairly out of the country I shall begin to unbosom. I may as well do up Algernon Charles Swinburne now; he isn’t big enough to hurt me.

The man is extremely small—no, that doesn’t give proper idea; he is very little. His face is not without a certain refinement; but it is the refinement of weakness. A large aquiline nose, the mouth of a sucking babe; thin, straggling, blonde beard; eyes—well, Mr. Swinburne never looks you in the face; his eyes may be liver-and-white. There is said to be man in London who can make him stand still. I should suppose not, and I don’t see that it is desirable he should stand still; it can’t make much difference. He is set upon spiral springs, I think. In talking to him one feels like taking him up between the thumb and finger of the left hand and pulling the string which works his arms and legs. I caught myself looking for this string as Mr. Swinburne danced across the room. I thought he must be dragging it behind him, and by stepping on it I could produce an astonishing gyration.

Mr. Swinburne has brains, or he could not write the verse he does; he is insane, or he would not.

Al Fresco

By invitation of Mr. Tom Hood—a son upon whom the immortal author of the same name must look down with pride—I attended, yesterday, a thoroughly characteristic English gathering. It was a mere trifle of its kind—a fruit and flower show at Penge, a little village just outside London, directly in front of the Crystal Palace. The exhibition—not a very imposing one—took place in the open air, upon a lawn, and was merely an annual “getting together” of the neighbourhood fold—hard working artisans, small shop-keepers, and the like, with their wives and children—to compete for modest prizes and cultivate the humble amenities of their class. The ex-Emperor Napoleon had promised to be present and distribute the prizes, but he missed his opportunity by remaining away. So that duty devolved upon Mr. Hood, who made a jest at all the men who came up for their reward, complimented all the women, and kissed all the babies. Then there was music, and the lads and lassies footed it upon the green until dark. These good people seemed to regard Mr. Hood as a sort of young father to them, and with good reason too.

There is something inexpressibly touching in the delicate mingling of respect and affection in the better lower classes of England for their social superiors, the gentry and nobility. It has nothing of the dumb obedience of the sheep before her shearers, but is a trustful sense of dependence upon those who have been made “rulers over many things.” This feeling, I need hardly say, is well deserved, otherwise it would not exist; for in a country where are such fearful differences of station there could be only bad blood between the high and the low, were not the hard lot of the latter softened by the kindly offices of the former. If we had lords in America how many of them would go and preside at a meeting of hackmen, and subscribe to their fund for mutual improvement? How many of our excellent gentlemen take an interest in social clubs for workingmen? It is doubtless true that the labouring classes in our country are very well able to manage their own affairs; and it is very well for them that they are, for it is precious little assistance they would get if they were not.

Pagans on the Warpath

In a speech at Carlisle, the other day, His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury made some unfortunate remarks concerning the strangers within our gates—the interesting heathen. The pious prelate pointed to their increasing numbers as a source of danger to the Christian faith, and rather broadly hinted that if they would not submit to conversion they ought to go away. He made special mention of the Burmese Embassy, and the Hindoo law students in the Inns of Court. Now, the heathen in his blindness, though he bows down to wood and stone, is not the fool that he looks; and the press was soon readable with all manner of replies to the head Christian. The clever pagans assailed him at all points, and gave it him hot. I am bound to say that for his narrow and uncharitable spirit, the Primate of All England got a thoroughly good roasting.

The only other notable example of roasting, this week, is that of the Californians who have gone into diamonds and other precious stones. It does one’s heart good to pick up a newspaper and see the familiar names of Harpending, Roberts et al. covered with the familiar abuse. Most of the papers ungraciously allude to the “Lincoln Gold Company;” as if that unfortunate enterprise had anything to do with the value of Arizona Diamonds!

(Source: California Digital Newspaper Collection, http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgibin/cdnc?a=d&d=DAC18721026.2.21&e=——-en–20-DAC-1–txt-txIN-Daily+Alta+California—– –1)