The aspect of London, as the man who knows it grows older, begins to take on characters of permanence and characters of change, both of which are comparable to those of a human life. It is perceived that certain qualities in the great soul of the place are permanent, and that the memories of many common details merge after the passage of years into a general picture which is steadfast and gives unity to the whole.
This is especially true of the London skies, and more true, I think, of the London skies in autumn than at any other season of the year. Men go home from the City or from the Courts westward at an hour which is that of sunset, when the river catches more light than at any other time: the mixture of mist and smoke and of those shapes in our clouds, beyond the reek of the town, which are determined by the south-west wind blowing up the line of the valley, make together an impression which is the most lasting of the landscapes in which we live. These it was which inspired Turner when he drew them from the deserted room in the tower of Battersea Church, or from that corner house over the River, whence he could watch evening after evening the heavy but transparent colours which enter into the things he painted. Many foreigners, caught by the glamour of that artist, have missed the source whence his mellow and declining sunlight was inspired; its source was in these evening and autumn skies of London. There is a permanence also in the type of home which London built for more than two centuries, and which was laid down after the Great Fire, and there is a permanence in the older stonework. It is difficult or impossible to define what there is in common between the brown stock brick of London, which is the stuff of all its background, whether of large houses or mean, and the black-and-white weathering of Portland stone. Perhaps the unity which seems to bind them is wholly in the mind, and depends merely on association, but it is very strong upon anyone who has grown up from childhood into middle age surrounded by the vision of this town; and it would seem as though London was only London because of those rough surfaces of soft stonework, streaked with white wedges, scaling off the grime of St Martin's, or St Clement Dane's, or the fine front of the Admiralty, and standing out clear against the general brown mass of the streets. The quite new things have no character at all. One wonders what cosmopolitan need can have produced them. London never produced them, with their stone that so often is plaster, and their alien suggestion of whatever is least national in Paris or New York. London never produced them.
The noise of the streets in spite of every change remains the same, it is the same comforting and distant roar, like the roar of large waters among hills, which every visitor has noticed, with its sharp contrast to the rattle and cries of other great capitals. Why it should be so no one, I think, has discovered, though many have described it, but it remains an unmistakable thing, and if a London man, who had travelled and was far away, should be set down by a spirit in London, not knowing where he was, when he heard through a window high above the street this distant and continuous roar, he would know that he had come home. It should surely in theory have disappeared, this chief physical characteristic of the great place, yet neither the new electricity and the hissing of the wires, nor the new paving, nor even the new petrol seem to change it. It is still a confused and powerful and subdued voice, like a multitude undecided. The silence also does not change. The way in which in countless spots you pass through an unobserved low passage, or through an inconspicuous narrow turning, and find yourself in a deserted place, from which the whole life of London seems blanketed out, has been to every traveller and to every native part of the charm and surprise of London. Dickens knew it very well, and makes of it again and again a dramatic something in his work which stamps it everywhere with the soul of London. In every decade men growing older deplore the disappearance of this or that sanctuary of isolation and silence, but in the aggregate they never disappear; something in the very character of the people reproduces them continually, and if any man will borrow the leisure — even a man who knows his London well — to peer about and to explore for one Saturday afternoon in one square mile of older London, how many such unknown corners will he not find! The populace also upon whom all this is founded remain the same.
What changes in London are the things that also change in the life of a man, and nothing more than the relationship of particular spots and particular houses to our own lives. There is perhaps no city in the world where, under the permanence of the general type, there is so perpetual a flow and disturbance of association. It has even become normal to the life of the citizens, and the conception of a fixed home has left them. Here and there — but more and more rarely with every year — you may point out a great house which some wealthy family has chosen to inhabit for some few generations; but fixity of tenure, tradition, family tradition at least, and sacred hereditary things, either these were never proper to London or they have gone; it is this which overspreads a continued knowledge of London with an increasing loneliness and with memories that find no satisfaction or expression, but re-enter the heart of a man and do a hurt to him there.
There are so many strange doors that should be familiar doors. Turning sometimes into some street where one has turned for years to find at a very well-known number windows of a certain aspect and little details in the drab exterior of the house, every one of which was as familiar as a smile, one is (by the mere association of years and of a gesture repeated a thousand times) in the act of coming to the steps and of seeking an entry. The whole place is as much one's friend and as much indicative of one's friend as would be his clothes or his voice or any other external thing. He is not there, and the house is worse than empty. London grows full of such houses as a man grows older. Most of us have other losses sharper still, which men of other cities know less well, for most of us pass and repass the house where we were born, or where as children we gathered all the strongest impressions of life. It is impossible to believe that other souls are inheriting the effect of those familiar rooms. It is worse than a death; it is a kind of treason.
I know a house in Wimpole Street of which every part is as familiar quite as the torn leaves of the old books of childhood, but I have passed it and repassed it for how many years, forbidden an entrance, and finding that ancient and fixed friend in league, so to speak, with strangers. Or, in another manner, which of us does not know a house like any other house, amid the thousand unmarked houses in the better streets of the town, but to us quite individual because there met within it once so many who were for us the history of our time? It was in that room (where are the three windows) that she received her guests, retaining on into the last generations of a worse and degraded time the traditions of a better society. Here came men who could discuss and reveal things that are now distorted legends, and whose revelations were real because they came as witnesses: soldiers of the Crimea, of India, of Italy, and of Algiers, or men who remembered great actions within the State: actions that were significant through conviction, before we became what we are. Here was breeding; here were the just limits of tone and emphasis and change, and here was that type of intercourse which was surely as great and as good a thing as Europe or England has known. Who sees that room today? What taste has replaced her taste? What choice of stuff or colour mars the decoration on the walls?
What trash or alien thing takes the place of that careful, elaborate, womanly work in which her travels throughout the world were recorded, and in which the excellent modesty of an art sufficient for her purpose reproduced in line and in colour the ironic nobility of her mind and the wide expanse of her learning? We do not know and we cannot know. The house is neither ours nor hers. To whomever it has passed, it has turned traitor to us who knew.
It is better, I think, for those who have such memories when the material things that enshrine them wholly disappear, for then there is no jar, no agony of contrast between that society which once was and this which now is, with its quality of wealth and of the uses to which wealth is put today. If we must suffer the intolerable and clumsy presence of accidental power — power got suddenly, got anyhow, got by chance, untrained and unworthy — at least may we suffer such things in their own surroundings, in huge conservatories, with loud music, with an impression of partial drunkenness all around, and a certainty all around of intellectual incompetence and of sprawling bodies and souls. It is better to suffer these new things in such surroundings as may easily let one believe that one is not in London at all, but on the Riviera; and let the heat be excessive, and let there be a complete ignorance of all wine except champagne, and let it be a place where champagne is supposed to be one wine. Then the frame will suit the picture, and there will at least be no desecration of material things by human beings unworthy of the bricks and mortar. I say it is much better when the old houses disappear, at least the old houses in which we knew and loved the better people of a better time: and yet the youth or childhood in which so many of us saw the last of it is not thirty years, is barely twenty years dead!
(From Selected Essays, edited by J.B.Morton, Penguin Books, 1958)