The Indian Express – Mar 17, 1941
Oases Of Nature In Urban Wilderness
SOLITUDE OF THE ENGLISH VILLA
Everybody except myself seems in the last few months to have developed a furious hatred of railings. “Pull them down of up,” they say, not merely because they may prove useful material for war industries, but because in themselves they are hideous things, whether around houses, parks or public squares—things which you will never find in the more civilised cities of the Continent of Europe.
A few architects have protested that there are some railings that are beautiful and that ought to be spared in the general scrapping; but even they condemn the ordinary railings as ugly and uncivilised. My own view is that, if the removal of railings will help to win the war, railings must go, but that we should part with them reluctantly and should realise while doing so that whether ugly or not, railings have been the protectors of some of the most beautiful things in the world—privacy, peace and isolation.
Some years ago, I remember, Mr. Lansbury proposed to pull down the railings round Hyde Park, and the proposal was accompanied by the sinister suggestion that it would be wise to build new roads through the Park in order to relieve the traffic congestion of London. It seemed to me to go, Hyde Park as we know it would also disappear. It would have become a mass of streets with patches of green here and there.
No longer could a weary Londoner have entered its gates in the hope of escaping from the din and the crowdedness of London. It is true that there has always been a certain amount of traffic—even continuous traffic—in the outer lanes of Hyde Park; but the gates and the railings stood as a warning that it was a private place, a green precinct of withdrawal from the clamour of the streets, a plot for ever to be preserved from the encroachments of the great ween London.
I am strongly in favour of such warnings on democratic grounds. London, as we have seen in recent years, is a monster, eating up every green thing that stands in the way of building. Look at the Great West Road and the Kingston By-pass, and you will see what London does when she is given a free hand to do what she likes with grass. I wish some one in power years ago had railed off half the exits from London and put up boards at each of them announcing “Trespassers will be prosecuted.” This would have given the speculative builders pause and compelled them to recognise that they could enter the grassy places only on condition that they did not lacerate the face of the country.
There were unfortunately few prohibitory railings in the country. It would have been easy at the time, by railing the houses off at a distance of from two to three hundred yards from the arterial roads, to keep these roads a perpetual countryside as lovely as the park round the Falls of Niagara. But England has always been a Rabelaisian country. She offered herself to the speculative builder as an Abbey of Thelema. “Do what you will,” she said and the speculative builder did so.
Luckily, at an earlier period, there were a number of rich men of taste who built themselves charming houses round squares of green and enclosed the squares with railings. To me, when I came to London first, there and the parks and the Thames and the traffic of horse-blues and the hansom-cabs, were the loveliest sight of a strange and foreign city. The squares on a spring day, with their greenery of tree and bush and grass, were oases of nature in an urban wilderness. In recent years many people have said: “Let them become playgrounds for the children,” and others have gone further and said: “Pull down the railways.” I agree that the squares should be made playgrounds for children, but only on condition that their greenness should, so far as is impossible be preserved.
I once lived in a city in which, with the best possible intentions, a green plot was thrown open as a playground for children without restrictions. Within a month or two, the places had been trampled into a piece of the Sahara with not a blade of grass visible. I hope when the squares of London are thrown open, as they ought to be, some means will be found of enabling the beauty of childhood and the beauty of green things to exist together. And I should like the railings—if not needed for the war—to continue as a reminder that a square is meant to be, not a place of as soon as possible destruction, but a place of perpetual delight.
As for railings round houses, what a boon they are, however ugly they are! When one passes behind them, what an escape it is from the prison of the outside world! Privacy is obviously one of the great needs of urbanised man, and what better symbol of privacy can he have than railings with perhaps, a holly bush, a few laurels and rhododendrons and a cypress to protect himself against the tides of urbanisation? It it an old saying that an Englishman’s home is his castle, and one of the characteristic features of a castle was a moat. The suburban villa-dweller’s railings are his moat—his English Channel against invasion. They may have lost their value from a utilitarian point of view, but they still retain their poetic significance.
To say this may seem to convict one of unsociability. But who is there who could endure life without being unsociable for at least a part of it? Who could welcome strangers from morning to night, saying “Come in, come in” with unflagging enthusiasm? Who could invite the children of his neighbourhood to use his garden at all hours of the day and to make as much noise as they cared to make? Even in one’s own house one has to escape now and then into solitude. This is not a mark of hostility to the family but to the human necessity to be sometimes alone.
CURSE OF POVERTY
One of the curses of extreme poverty must be the inhability to creep away at time into a quiet corner. I remember many years ago seeing a play about an eighteenth-century dramatist in Grub Street—called Giblets, I think—who had to write his plays in a garret, surrounded by a wife and squalling children and I doubt whether Shakespeare himself could have written “As You Like It” in such environment. Company is good, but there are times when lack of company is better. To rail oneself off is at such times to be next door to Paradise. The happy family is built on a combined foundation of isolation and collective security.
One of the chief difficulties that arose in connection with billeting during wartime evacuations was, I am sure, this passion for privacy. People who had achieved it in times of peace thought with horror of having strangers, however agreeable, thrust upon them and occupying their sitting-rooms and dining-rooms for an unforeseeable number of years. The possibility that the strangers might not be agreeable—and some of them were not—made the prospect seem worse.
Even in time of peace and unwelcome guest may be an intolerable burden. I have felt near swooning-point when one of them, sent round by a friend who thought that we were both interested in the Balkans and therefore ought to know each other, merely dropped in to tea. I love company, but I like to choose my company, and I should much prefer to be railed off from the other people.
There have been excellent men who have thought that in a spirit of Christianity and love of human equality, we should be ready to welcome any human being at all at our table. Many years ago, an American clergyman wrote a book called “In His Steps, or What Would Jesus Do-” in which, if I remember right, the Christian Socialist hero felt in duty bound to invite the maidservant to sit down at meals with the family.
SYMBOL OF EQUALITY
This, I admit, was a noble symbol of equality, but it was as much a violation of the natural desire for privacy as if he had invited a neighbouring millionaire who shared none of his interests to become a permanent guest at his table. Duke’s son, cook’s son, son of a belted Earl—each of them is an invader, a destroyer of intimacy, of privacy, unless he happens to be a friend. I have no prejudice either against sons of Dukes of against sons of cooks, but, unless I feel an affection for them, how much rather I would be alone!
I fancy that some of the gloomy reminiscences of public schools that appear nowadays are due to the fact that the writers were not allowed to be alone sufficiently in boyhood. The day-boy, like myself, does not suffer from this compulsory gregariousness. We can choose solitude of company as soon as the three o’clock bell has rung. We can either retire behind the railings of our home, or escape through the gate of our home into the company we love.
To me this has always seemed to be an inestimate benefit. The school railings may be a symbol of servitude; but the home railings are the symbol of freedom—both the freedom of privacy and the freedom of company. There are probably many things to be said in favour of boarding school, but nothing to equal this.
Hence, let us do justice to privacy and to all the railings, palings and badges that secure it to us. I like even the spikes that you sometimes see in Ireland on ground-floor windowsills in the streets to prevent talkative passers-by from sitting on them and so violation the privacy of the home. Every house, it seems to me, should be as a precious gem set in the silver sea, with none but friends admitted. Railings have for long helped symbolically to achieve this happy condition. They are now, I fear, on their last legs but before they vanish into the ultimate melting-pot, I for one should like to bid them an affectionate farewell.