William Morris

Ugly London

Ouida's article on the ugliness of London does, as you suggest, call for remarks from those who care at all for the real pleasure of life for themselves and others. But the subject is so wide that to begin with I had better limit it; for, as has been often said, London is not a town, but a country covered with houses. Now, the London which presents itself to Ouida is not the London of the matchmakers and dock-labourers in the East, or of the brickmakers and gas-workers of the west; she is not thinking of the slums beyond Bethnal-green, or those of Fulham and Latimer-road, but of the shops and dwellings of the bourgeoisie, middle and upper (for England has no aristocracy). Of this well-to-do London, therefore, I will say a few words.

And first that her criticism of it is quite undeniable. I admit that it is not fair to compare bourgeois London with Venice, which is still a medieval city; or with Florence, which, though for years past now completely modernized, contains so many glorious monuments of the times of art. The proper city to compare London with is Paris, which is now entirely modern, and like London is not a mere makeshift accessory to a set of workshops, an encampment of capitalists and their machines, as are Manchester, Glasgow, and Birmingham, but a centre, political, social and intellectual, of a great system. Well, there are, I should think, few Londoners who do not feel exhilarated and happy with the change from London to Paris, who are not forced to admit that they have left something which is not pleasant and come to something which is. And yet please to note that, except for a few monuments of art, the buildings in Paris are quite without beauty, and are generally actively ugly. Paris is no longer a beautiful city, but it is delightful compared with London. You can stroll with pleasure in Paris; in London you cannot, unless you are a philosopher or a fool; you can only go from one piece of business to another.

There is, indeed, as Ouida says, something soul-deadening and discouraging in the ugliness of London; other ugly cities may be rougher and more savage in their brutality, but none are so desperately shabby, so irredeemably vulgar as London. It is difficult to express in words the feeling with which this "cockney nightmare" burdens me; "discouraging" is still the best word I can find. Or may I call in an analogy drawn from another sense than that of sight? There are certainly smells which are more depressing and deadly to pleasure than those which are frankly the nastiest: the refuse of gasworks, the brickfields in the calm summer evening, the faint, sweet smell of a suspicious drain, the London wood pavement at two o'clock on a hot, close summer morning - these kinds of smells are more lowering than the kind of stench that drives one to write furiously to the district surveyor. And the quality of London ugliness is just of this heart-sickening kind.

Well, I find that I can do little more than endorse Ouida's criticism on bourgeois London. As to the remedies for this shabby misery I will suggest two or three things which might be done, but which I cannot venture to call "remedies." First a negative step. In case it should be possible to improve London streets architecturally, it would be well to abolish the Metropolitan Building Act which, passed at a time when we had reached bottom in architectural degradation allows all sorts of shabby abortions to be set up, while it forces architects to forego many pieces of inventiveness and picturesqueness, or to attempt "squaring" the surveyor. For the rest, by all means as many trees in the streets as we can get; and, by the way, they should not be pruned like pear-trees in an orchard house, as thecustom now is. They are almost all American planes, and whatever beauty can be got out of that tree is to be had by allowing it to grow freely; besides, the more they spread, the more they will hide the houses.

Again, bourgeois London would be made much pleasanter by taking away all the railings of the square gardens and throwing them open to the public. What grass was left in them should not be walked upon, but basketed or coped in, as is done in Paris. This would be no loss, as London trodden grass is a very depressing growth, and fine trees rising out of the pavement have a decidedly noble look.

You see these are feeble palliatives - attempts, that is, to make Hell happy, instead of a resolution to get rid of it; and yet the last of them is clearly impossible under the present state of things. In truth, the only point in which I seem to differ from Ouida is that whereas she says it would be easy to make bourgeois London joyous, I say it would not only be not easy, but impossible. It is unreasonable to expect it to be otherwise. Rich London is the creature of slum-London, of poor London; and though I do not say that the London slums are worse than those of other big cities, yet they together with the rich quarters make up the monstrosity we call London, which is at once the centre and the token of the slavery of commercialism which has taken the place of the slaveries of the past; and it is fitting that those who profit (?) by this slavery should have its results brought home to them most obviously in its headquarters. The sickening hideousness of London, the metropolis of the nation, which has worked out the sum of commercialism most completely, seems to me a mark of disgrace branded on our wire-drawn refinement to show that it is based on the worst kind of theft - legal stealing from the poor.

Pall Mall Gazette, 4 September 1888, pp. 1-2.