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An essay by Max Beerbohm

In Homes Unblest (1919)

Title:     In Homes Unblest (1919)
Author: Max Beerbohm [More Titles by Beerbohm]

Nothing is more pleasant than to see suddenly endowed with motion a thing stagnant by nature. The hat that on the head of the man in the street is nothing to us, how much it is if it be animated by a gust of wind! There is no churl that does not rejoice with it in its strength, and in the swiftness and cunning that baffle its pursuer, who, he too, when the chase is over, bears it no ill will at all for its escapade. I know families that have sat for hours, for hours after bedtime, mute, in a dim light, pressing a table with their finger-tips, and ever bringing to bear the full force of their minds on it, in the unconquerable hope that it would move. Conversely, nothing is more dismal than to see set in permanent rigidness a thing whose aspect is linked for us with the idea of great mobility. Even the blithest of us and least easily depressed would make a long detour to avoid a stuffed squirrel or a case of pinned butterflies. And you can well imagine with what a sinking of the heart I beheld, this morning, on a road near the coast of Norfolk, a railway-car without wheels.

Without wheels though it was, it had motion--of a kind; of a kind worse than actual stagnation. Mounted on a very long steam-lorry that groaned and panted, it very slowly passed me. I noted that two of its compartments were marked FIRST, the rest THIRD. And in some of them, I noted, you might smoke. But of this opportunity you were not availing yourself. All the compartments, the cheap and the dear alike, were vacant. They were transporting air only--and this (I conceived) abominable. The sun slanted fiercely down on the old iron roof, the old wooden walls, the dingy shut windows. The fume and grime of a thousand familiar tunnels, of year after year of journeys by night, journeys by day, from time immemorial, seemed to have invested the whole structure with a character that shrank from the sun's scrutiny and from the nearness of sea and fields. Fuliginous, monstrous, slowly, shamefully, the thing went by--to what final goal?--in the lovely weather.

There attended it, besides the driver of the lorry, a straggling retinue of half-a-dozen men on foot--handy-looking mechanics, very dusty. I should have liked to question one or another of these as to their mission. But I was afraid to do so. There is an art of talking acceptably to people who do not regard themselves as members of one's own class; and I have never acquired it. I suppose the first step is to forget that any art is needed-to forget that one must not be so wildly cordial for fear of seeming to `condescend,' nor be more than a trifle saturnine, either, for the same motive. Or am I wrong? The whole thing is a mystery to me. All I know is that if I had asked those mechanics what they were doing with that railway car they would have seemed to suspect me of meaning that it was my property and that they had stolen it. Or perhaps they would have seemed merely to resent my idle curiosity. If so, why not? When I walk abroad with a sheaf of manuscript in my hand, mechanics do not stop me to ask `What's that? What's it about? Who's going to publish it?' Nor is this because, times having changed so, they are afraid of seeming to condescend. They always did mind their own business. And now that their own business is so much more lucrative than mine they still follow that golden rule.

I stood gazing back at the procession till it disappeared round a bend of the road. Its bequest of dust and smoke was quickly spent by a prodigal young breeze. Landscape and seascape were reindued with their full amenities. Ruskin would have been pleased. So indeed was I; but that railway-car (in which, it romantically struck me, I myself might once, might frequently, have travelled) was still upmost in my brooding mind. To what manner of wretched end was it destined? No end would have seemed bad enough for it to Ruskin. But I was born late enough to acquiesce in railways and in all that pertains to them. And now, since the success of motor-cars (those far greater, because unrestricted, bores), railways have taken on for me some such charm as the memory of the posting coaches had for the greybeards of my boyhood, some such charm as aeroplanes may in the fulness of time foist down for us on motor-cars. `But I rove,' like Sir Thomas More. And I seem to think that a cheap literary allusion will make you excuse that vice. To resume my breathless narrative I decided that I would slowly follow the tracks of the lorry.

I supposed that these were leading me to some great scrapping-place filled with the remains of other railway-cars foully scrapped for some fell industrial purpose. But this was a bad guess. The tracks led me at last through a lane and thence into sight of a little bay, on whose waters were perceptible the deck heads of sundry human beings, and on its sands the full-lengths of sundry other human beings in bath-robes, reading novels or merely basking. There was nowhere any sign of industrialism. More than ever was I intrigued as to the fate of the old railway-car that I had been stalking. It and its lorry had halted on the flat grassy land that fringed the sands. This land was dominated by a crescent of queer little garish tenements, the like of which I had never seen, nor would wish to see again. They did not stand on the ground, but on stakes of wood and shafts of brick, six feet or so above the ground's level, and were led up to by flights of wooden steps that tried not to look like ladders. They displeased me much. They had little railed platforms round them, and things hanging out to dry on the railings; and their walls vied unneighbourly with one another in lawless colour-schemes. One tenement was salmon-pink with wide bands of scarlet, another sky-blue with a key-pattern in orange, and so on around the whole little horrid array. And I deduced, from certain upstanding stakes and shafts at the nearer end of the crescent, that the horror was not complete yet. A suspicion dawned in me, and became, while I gazed again at the crescent's facades, a glaring certainty; in the light of which I saw that I had been wrong about the old railway-car. Defunct, it was not to die. It was to have a new function.

I had once heard that disused railway-cars were convertible into sea- side cottages. But the news had not fired my imagination nor protruded in my memory. To-day, as an eye-witness of the accomplished fact, I was impressed, sharply enough, and I went nearer to the crescent, drawn by a sort of dreadful fascination. I found that the cottages all had names. One cottage was Mermaid's Rock; another (which had fluttering window-curtains of Stuart tartan), Spray o' the Sea; another, The Nest; another, Brinynook; and yet another had been named, with less fitness, but in an ampler and to me more interesting spirit, Petworth. I looked from them to the not-yet-converted railway-car. It had a wonderful dignity. In its austere and monumental way, it was very beautiful. It was a noble work of man, and Nature smiled on it. I wondered with what colours it was to be bejezebelled, and what name-- Bolton Abbey?--Glad Eye?--Gay Wee Gehenna?--it would have to bear, and what manner of man or woman was going to rent it.

It was on this last point that I mused especially. The housing problem is hard, doubtless; but nobody, my mind protested as I surveyed the crescent, nobody is driven to so desperate a solution of it as this! There are tents, there are caves, there are hollow trees...and there are people who prefer--this! Yes, `this' is a positive taste, not a necessity at all. I swept the bay with a searching eye; but heads on the surface of water tell nothing to the sociologist, and in bath- robes even full-lengths on the sand give him no clue. Three or four of the full-lengths had risen and strolled up to the lorry, around which the mechanics were engaged in some dispute of a technical nature. I hoped the full-lengths would have something to say too. But they said nothing. This I set down to sheer perversity. I was more than three miles from the place where I am sojourning, and the hour for luncheon was nearly due. I left the bay without having been able to determine the character, the kind, of its denizens.

I take it there is a strong tincture of Bohemianism in them. Mr. Desmond MacCarthy, of whose judgment I am always trustful, has said that the hallmark of Bohemianism is a tendency to use things for purposes to which they are not adapted. You are a Bohemian, says Mr. MacCarthy, if you would gladly use a razor for buttering your toast at breakfast, and you aren't if you wouldn't. I think he would agree that the choice of a home is a surer index than any fleeting action, however strange, and that really the best-certified Bohemians are they who choose to reside in railway-cars on stilts. But--why particularly railway-cars? That is a difficult question. A possible answer is that the Bohemian, as tending always to nomady, feels that the least uncongenial way of settling down is to stow himself into a thing fashioned for darting hither and thither. Yet no, this answer won't do. It is ruled out by the law I laid down in my first paragraph. There's nothing sadder to eye or heart than a very mobile thing made immovable.

No house, especially if you are by way of being nomadic, can be so ill to live in as one that in its heyday went gadding all over the place. And, on the other hand, what house more eligible than one that can gad? I myself am not restless, and am fond of comfort: I should not care to live in a caravan. But I have always liked the idea of a caravan. And if you, alas, O reader, are a dweller in a railway-car, I commend the idea to you. Take it, with my apologies for any words of mine that may have nettled you. Put it into practice. Think of the white road and the shifting hedgerows, and the counties that you will soon lose count of. And think what a blessing it will be for you to know that your house is not the one in which the Merstham Tunnel murder was committed.

Max Beerbohm's essay: In Homes Unblest (1919)