« VorigeDoorgaan »
THE PRESS OF THE SEVEN DIALS.
THE region of the Seven Dials, to which we must introduce our friends, is unique in the topography of London. In a central area on what was once Cock and Pye Fields, in the parish of St. Giles, seven narrow streets have their termini. A column formerly stood there, surmounted with sun-dials turning a face towards each street, and hence the name of the place. It was built in the reign of Charles I., and was for some time a place of fashionable repute; but it fell into ill odour more than a century ago: the column with the dials was then removed; and when the Irish, who had long held possession of a part of St. Giles's, extended their Rookery to its immediate neighbourhood, Seven Dials lapsed into the possession of everybody and anybody who chose to tolerate their proximity. From the time of Gay, who describes it in his Trivia, down to the present hour, it does not appear to have much changed in character, though it has become immensely more populous with the increasing population of the capital, and its worst features have intensified in repulsiveness. At the present moment, order is maintained by an extra force of policemen, and the first symptoms of riot are summarily suppressed. The whole region of the seven streets, with the innumerable courts and channels of intercommunication, wears the aspect of a market crammed with merchandise not worth possessing. Monmouth Street, the rag-fair of the metropolis, stretches towards and overflows into it; and the odour of the filthy tatters, the mouldy leather and greasy disjecta, and the
Cockney slang and explosive eloquence of the Jew-dealers, go to make up its smells and sounds. Every third shop is a marine-store or a depôt for rags and grease—each and all of them rivalling the rest in placarded announcements of what they will give for old lead, old brass, old copper, old pewter, old iron, old glass, or old bones. Here a profusion of cracked, smashed, and rickety furniture bursts out upon the pathway, and shuts out half the light from the next door, where two women are grinding away at a crippled mangle, and brawling and squabbling the while, heedless of the roar of a squalling urchin writhing on the floor with a broken head. Here a group of undeniable London thieves, lounging at the entrance of a court, are seen romping lazily with their dusty inamoratas, or more seriously employed in gambling for coppers at pitch-and-toss. Here the brazen-fronted ginshop grins at its fellow over the way; and the votaries of both are swarming at the bar, where, as you peep in, the operations appear to be all conducted in dumb show, so deafening are the clack and the din. Here the trash-shop, with its myriad of ballads, long songs, song-books, and pictured tragedies, attracts a group of idlers, three-fourths of them of the light-fingered juvenile gentry whose professional avocations commence with the gloaming. And here is the half-penny shaving-shop, that luxuriates, besides, in penny-cigars, modicums of pigtail, and screws of tobacco.
In this delectable locality, all unfavourable as it is to the Muses, are the head-quarters not only of the Seven Dials Press, whose productions surpass in number and popularity those of any other press in the kingdom, but, for the most part, also of the aspiring geniuses who furnish it with novelties at the demand of the moment, and distil their brains for the delectation of the mob. The Press, we are bound to say, is in good keeping with its surroundings the rag-shops, the fencing-kens, the crippled mangles, and the gin-shops-seeing that its literature is decidedly tattered,
that three-fourths of its productions are stolen property, that both its verse and prose are crippled and mangled beyond cure, and that its philosophy is principally of the tipsy and staggering sort.
Foremost on the list of its productions stand the songs and ballads. Of these, the Seven Dials printer, who is his own publisher, professes to have, and perhaps really has, above five thousand different samples constantly on hand. On turning over a massive bundle, we find them to embrace lyrical selections from the works of Shakspeare, Herrick, Suckling, Rochester, Burns, Byron, Moore, Dibdin, Russell, Eliza Cook, and a number of other names well known in literature. Such selections, however, form but an exceedingly small proportion of the general stock, and have but a limited sale. They are mostly above the comprehension or the sympathies of the class which buys half-penny ballads; and even when they are not open to this objection, they are too tame and general for the relish of the multitude. The people must have piquancy and novelty; and it would seem to signify very little what is the subject of a song, provided it have these elements in its composition, and be sung or singable to a popular tune. In general, it is no recommendation to the unlettered singer that the grammar of his strain is good and the versification correct-these are excellences which he is not always qualified to appreciate what he can appreciate are strong language and dramatic incident, the more striking and startling the better. The popular ballad, Seven Dials born, treats of all popular subjects—it is political, warlike, amatory—its incidents are now horrible murders and assassinations, now the funniest practical jokes, now ghostly apparitions, and now a stand-up fight: it plunges into questions of morals and religion, of teetotalism, of sabbatarianism, of patriotism and legislation, and is diffuse and humanely indignant on the matter of wife-beating. Songs of this class, of which every
week produces its quota of novelties, are written by men in the pay of the publishers, and not unfrequently by the publishers themselves. Very often the author of a new ballad is the man who first chants it about the streets; but oftener still he is a man whose chanting and pattering days are over, who has lost his voice and worn out his legs in the trade, and is reduced to his last shifts for a living. The established honorarium for a new song is a shilling, though eighteen-pence is sometimes given for something "particular spicy." This miserable payment is defended by the publisher on the ground that, whatever he pays for a song, he cannot make it his own. "If I print a new song," says he, "on Wednesday, my neighbour is selling it on Thursday. How can I afford to pay for property which is at another man's use as much as it is at mine?"
The new song, when first published, appears on a quartersheet of crown-paper, and always in company with another older ditty, which is given into the bargain. In this shape it is sold by the street-chanters, who find out its value by an experiment of a few days on the London public. Hundreds of them in the course of a season are all but still-born, notwithstanding the noise they make in coming into the world, and fall into oblivion either from their own demerit, or from the rise of new subjects of greater interest. If a song stands the public ordeal, and finds favour with purchasers, it is immediately pirated; and the next shape in which it figures is as an item in those streaming fathoms of verse technically known as "long songs," in which as many as a hundred favourite ditties are sold for a penny, by the patterer posted on the kerb, who never troubles himself to sing them, but spends his breath the livelong day in recapitulating their titles. From such long strips the most successful songs are transferred, finally, to the song-books published in the Dials as serials, under no end of titles, and adorned with a supposititious portrait of some popular singer, or perhaps of the
Queen or Prince Albert. Regarding these serials, we may remark that they have one curious characteristic, and that is that the song most in vogue is inserted in every number.
The song-trade is always most flourishing in periods of public excitement, and there is nothing more conducive to its prosperity than a stirring and popular war. The palmy era for the muse of the Seven Dials was the time when Nelson was triumphant at sea-the years that followed, when the Duke overran the Peninsula-and especially the year of the crowning conquest at Waterloo. After the peace, songchanting declined, and thousands of wandering minstrels had to seek another occupation. True, the people had their songs and ballads; but three-fourths of the demand vanished with the war; and the songs upon home-subjects went but tamely off after the excitement of battle and heroic deeds. With the loss of public countenance, the chanter lost his confidence, and the rugged spirit and wit of the song-writer declined. Both were fast falling into contempt—the vagabond minstrel sank into a half-starved tatterdemallion, and became at once an object of commiseration and of comical travestie on the stage, and those supplementary institutions of low comedy, the shades, the coal-holes, and cider-cellars of the metropolis. This saved him from extinction, or from a fate as bad. It would not do to sing upon the stage or the platform of the cider-cellar the rubbish concocted by the Dials publisher, or the superannuated chanter he held in pay. So the dramatic authors of the day had to apply themselves to the task; and if popularity be a proof of success, they certainly succeeded to an extraordinary extent. They imitated the diction, the coarseness, the unsophisticated outspeaking of the Diallians, but they informed their productions with such a vein of wit and humour and ridiculous comicality, as set all the world laughing and applauding. What is not so much to their credit is the fact, that they also blended the most ghastly terrors with flippant jocularity,