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An essay by Israel Zangwill


Title:     Antwerp
Author: Israel Zangwill [More Titles by Zangwill]

This is the era of Exhibitions. An epidemic of Exhibitions traverses the world, breaking out now at Paris, now at Chicago, now at Antwerp. To visit them is our modern Pilgrimage; they force us to make the Grand Tour, as our little wars teach us geography. They are supposed to give a fillip to the prosperity of their town, and to nourish the pride and pocket of the citizens. What other function they fulfil is dubious. Time was when "the long laborious miles" of the Crystal Palace were acclaimed as the dawn of the Golden Age, when swords should be turned into the most improved substitute for pruning-hooks, and each man

find his own in all men's good,
And all men work in noble brotherhood.

Unhappily, that millennial vision is still far away,--

Far, how far, no tongue can say,

as the canny Tennyson did not forget, even in his rapt prophetic strain. And we have grown chiller. We no longer raise the song of praise because manufacturers of all nations send specimens of their work to a common centre in quest of medals. The world is already federated by the chains of commerce; international barter is an inseparable part of the movement of life, and infinite intertangled threads of union stretch across the seas from shipping office to shipping office. Wherefore the millennium is as likely to arrive _via_ Bayreuth or Lourdes, or any other centre of Pilgrimage, as by way of an International Exhibition. No, we must take our Exhibitions more humbly: they are amusing and instructive; they earn dividends or lose capital; they stimulate orders for the goods on view, and they end in a shower of medals. In France, according to Mark Twain, few men escape the Legion of Honor. Is there any artificial product that has escaped a medal at some Exhibition or the other? I cannot recall eating or drinking anything undecorated. They grow on every bush, those medals, copious as the Queen's Arms over the shop-windows of the High Street. No store, however lowly, but the Queen deals there; no article, however poor, but has earned golden opinions, or at least silver and bronze. For the industrial or Gradgrind mind an Exhibition is doubtless a riot, an orgy; for the exhibitors it is a sensational battle-field; for the average spectator it is as exciting as a walk through Whiteley's, or a stroll down Oxford Street. From the Antwerp Exhibition proper I bear away nothing but an impression of a wonderful paper-making machine, at one end of which the paper enters as liquid pulp, to issue at the other as a solid sheet. A pity the process was not carried one step farther, to the printed newspaper stage--so that what went in as rags should come out as mendacity. Such success as the Antwerp Exhibition has won is a success of side-shows; a panorama of camels and dancing-girls defiles before my eyes, my ears are yet ringing with the barbarous music and incantations of the Orient. Old Antwerp rises picturesque, with its burghers and warriors; the glorious picture galleries stretch away, overladen with artistic treasure; the mimic elephant mounts, mammoth-like, to the skies; the grounds and the facades of the buildings gleam fairy-like in the soft night air, with a million illuminations; and lo! there in the German restaurant the beautiful daughters of the Fatherland smile, in coifs and tuckers and short skirts, Katti and Luisa and Nina, dulciferous names that trip off the tongue as the gentle creatures trip from table to table with flasks of Rhenish wine; the mellifluous voice of Sarah cries cigarettes at her booth in the Rue du Caire--Sarah, the Egyptian Jewess, whose ancestors went back to the land of Pharaoh in defiance of Rabbinic decree--Sarah, with the charm of her eighteen summers and her graceful virginal figure and her sweet unconscious coquetry, as different from the barmaid's as Rosalind's from Audrey's; and Sarah's brother, briskest of business boys, resurges with his polyglot solicitations to buy nougat: a mannish swashbuckler without, a cherubic infant within: I see the Congo negroes, mere frauds from the States, in your opinion, daintiest of American friends, who came all the way from Paris to meet me. But soft! what has all this to do with the Industrial Exhibition?

_Rien, absolument rien._ Give us these things anywhere, give us lights and gardens and music, give us dances and damsels, give us Congo encampments and "_ballons dirigeables_," and thither will we troop to make us merry. Ah! but the incurable conscientiousness of the human race insists on pills with its jam. Or is it that it has never yet dawned upon humanity that jam may be taken without pills? There was a time--it lasted seventy thousand ages according to the Chinese manuscript which Elia saw--when mankind ate their meat raw. Then, one day, as every schoolboy knows, Bo-bo carelessly set his father's cottage on fire, and, burning the litter of new-farrowed pigs it held, accidentally invented _crackling_. So delicious was burnt pig discovered to be that everybody fell to setting his house on fire to obtain it. "Thus this custom of firing houses continued, till in process of time a sage arose, like our Locke, who made a discovery that the flesh of swine, or indeed of any other animal, might be cooked (_burnt_, as they called it) without the necessity of consuming a whole house to dress it.... By such slow degrees do the most useful and seemingly the most obvious arts make their way among mankind." For seventy thousand ages mankind did without _al fresco_ entertainments. Then some one invented Exhibitions, and mankind found it delicious to promenade the grounds amid twinkling lights and joyous music. But no Locke has yet discovered that musical promenades may be had without elevating a whole Exhibition in the background. At Earl's Court they still keep up a pretence of Industrial Exhibition, though we have long since lost interest in the pretext, and no longer inquire whether the painted scenery that walls in the grounds is called the Alps or the Apennines or the Champs-Elysees. And yet methinks mankind did discover the open-air entertainment, as perchance roast pig was known and forgotten again long centuries before Bo-bo. For what was Ranelagh, what Vauxhall? Were not the gardens of Vauxhall "made illustrious by a thousand lights finely disposed," or, as Thackeray puts it, by a "hundred thousand _extra_ lamps, which were always lighted"? Were not "concerts of musick" given nightly by fiddlers in cocked hats, ensconced in a "gilded cockleshell," and was not the price of admission a shilling? "Vauxhall must ever be an estate to its proprietor," wrote Boswell, "as it is peculiarly adapted to the taste of the English nation; there being a mixture of curious show--gay exhibition--music, vocal and instrumental, not too refined for the general ear; and, though last not least, good eating and drinking for those who choose to purchase that regale." But Boswell prophesied ill. Public gardens were always distasteful to English Puritanism, because they lent themselves to rendezvous; and though Boswell, in protesting against the rise of price to two shillings, certifies to the elegance and innocence of the entertainment, and though Mr. Osborne and Miss Amelia walked unharmed in its groves and glades, and it was not Rebecca Sharp's fault that Jos. Sedley got drunk on the bowl of rack punch, still Vauxhall, like Ranelagh and Cremorne, has come down to us with tainted reputation. It died in the odour of brimstone, and only in the magical ink-pool of literature can we still behold the heralded gallants in the boxes junketing with low-bodiced ladies of quality whose patches show piquantly on their damask cheeks. Rosherville remains in ignoble respectability, the place to spend an h-less day, our one uninstructive institution, for even "Constantinople" and "Venice" have a specious background of geographical and even of industrial information: Rosherville, which only once flowered into poetry, and then under another name,--when Mr. Anstey's barber wedded the Tinted Venus with a ring.

And in the magical ink-pool I see you and me still sitting, O Transatlantic Parisienne, as we sat that sunny afternoon--three hundred years ago--in ancient Antwerp, in _oud Antwerpen_, niched in the windowseat of that quaint hostelry which gives on the great market-place, and watching the festive procession. Do you remember the gorgeous costumes of our fellow-burghers, and the trappings of their prancing chargers in those days when life was not plain, but coloured, and existence was one vast fancy-dress ball? How glad we were to welcome the Archduke Martinias of Austria, our sovereign elect, or was it Francois Sonnius, our first Bishop, coming to be installed in our glorious Cathedral, amid the joyous carillons of its bells! Can you not still see the Angels hovering over the Virgin, and the Golden Calf, flower-wreathed, and the Flight into Egypt, on that naive donkey, and "the Flying Dutchman," tugged by a horse, and the gilded galley rowed in make-believe by little children in their Sunday clothes, catching crabs in air, and the incongruous camels bestridden by Arab sheikhs with African pages, and the Persians on ponies, and the Crusaders in their fine foolish coats-of-mail, and the gay courtiers, with clanking swords, and the halberdiers, and the particoloured arquebusiers, and the archers in green and red, and the spearsmen in sugarloaf hats, and the cherubs riding on dolphins? Can you not hear the beating of the drum, and the Ave Maria of the white-robed chorus-boys, and the irrelevant strains of the Danish national anthem, and the japes of the jester with his cap and bells? What happy times for butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers when, instead of working, they could go in processions, bearing aloft the insignia of their guilds, and when middle-class girls, ignorant of the New Womanhood, could loll on triumphal cars with roses in their hair! Do you remember how the topmost divinity smiled to me from her perilous perch, too high to rouse your jealousy, and how the little cherub that sat up aloft besprinkled us mischievously with eau de cologne? Ah, shall we ever again be as happy as we were three hundred years ago? will the wine be ever as red, the potato salad as appetising, or the cheese (did they really enjoy Gorgonzola and Camembert in the sixteenth century?) as delicious as in that ancient Flemish hostelry with its Lutheran motto:

Wie nikt mint Wijn, Wijf en Sangh,
Blijft een Geck sijn Leven langh!

Was it from its inscribed beams that Shelley borrowed his famous lyric "Love's Philosophy"? for did we not read:

Den Hemel drinckt, en d'Aerde drinckt:
Waerom souden wij niet drinckt?

("Heaven drinks, and earth drinks: why shouldn't we drink?") At any rate it pleased us to recall the delectable lines:

And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea;
What are all these kissings worth
If thou kiss not me?

But what does it matter what one did three hundred years ago?

Or, what does it matter what one did that dim Arabian night when we set out with the cavalcade of camels in the marriage procession, and the bride cowered veiled in her corner of the coach, and the plump mother smiled archly at us, and the brother and the bridegroom, mounted on Arab steeds, smacked each other's faces in ceremonial solemnity, exactly like "the two Macs" in the music-hall? Was it then, or in the nineteenth century, that we rode the camel together, I on the hindmost peak? "Oh, the oont, oh, the oont, oh, the gawdforsaken oont!" as the poet of the barrack-room sings. He seems to double up like a garden-chair to receive one; then his knees unfold and the rider shoots up; then the camel rises to his full height, and one ducks instinctively for fear of striking the stars. "_Salaam Aleikhoom_," I cried to the drivers, airing my Arabic, which I make by mispronouncing Hebrew; and they answered effusively, "Yankee Doodle! Chicago!" Alas for the glamour of the Orient! They had all come from the greater fair, perhaps spent their lives in traveling from fair to fair, mercenaries of some latter-day Barnum.

There was a fine stalwart Egyptian, who stood beating a gong to summon the faithful to improper dances. I gave him a cup of coffee, and he held it on high, and with gratitude effusing from every pore of his dusky face, cried, "Columbus!" Then he mounted a flight of stairs and shouted beamingly, "1492!"

He took a sip, and then his wife called him chidingly, and he fled to her. But he returned to drain the cup in my presence, crying between each sip "Columbus" or "1492." Never before have I bought so much gratitude for ten centimes. Henceforward I found "Columbus" a watchword, and "1492" a magic talisman, causing dusky eyes to kindle and turbaned heads to nod beamingly.

The town-barber of _Alt Antwerpen_, who was wont to shave me in the sixteenth century, had a beautiful motto:--

I am Hair-dresser, Barber, and Surgeon,
I shave with, soap and much delight,
Although there are barbers who do it
As though they were in a fright.

But it is surpassed by a hundred delightful things in "The Visitor's Handybook," which the touts in New Antwerp, ignorant of its treasures, press upon the traveller gratis. It opens auspiciously: "The opening pages of our little guide we have devoted to a short review of the city of Antwerp, the streets of which still contain elegant specimens of those quaint and handsome edifices of the Netherlands are truly famous, and which in Antwerp, perhaps more than in any other city, seem to abound." Here are some more gems: "Visitors will be naturally anxious to secure a comfortable apartment, in selecting which the following list will be found of service:--see advertisements, all of which can be strongly recommended." "Facing you is the King's Palace; not a very attractive one; however, as a rule, not open to the public, but admission may sometimes be obtained although at great trouble during the absence of the King." "It was formally inaugurated by the presence of the Queen, Princess Beatrice, and a numerous compagny representing the European Benches and Pairs." "A wonderfully painted ceiling, in which the attendant can point out some marvellous effects." "The Visitor's Handybook" is in its thirteenth free edition, and is worth double the price. Antwerp is very strong linguistically. The _quatre langues_--Flemish, French, English, and German--make a universal confusion of tongues, and the whole town is nothing but a huge open Flemish--French dictionary, every shop-sign or street-name being translated. A few sturdy burghers stick to the old tongue, and sometimes English rules the roast. "The Welsh Harp" (which is Antwerp way) is a sailor's cabaret near the quay. There is even a trace of Irish influence in the etymology of Antwerp as given in the official handbook; for Antigon, the giant who used to cut off the hand of any shipman that refused him tribute, and whose throwing it (_Handwerpen_) into the river gave the name to the city, is stated beforehand to have lived in the castle of Antwerp. They are not destitute of wit, the Belgians, if I may judge by some specimens I heard. It is a local joke to refer to the famous "_dirigeable_" balloon, which burst in the latter days of the Exhibition, as the "_dechirable_" balloon. "They pooh-pooh the past nowadays," said a tram-conductor to me, "but when I look at the Cathedral and Rubens' 'Descent from the Cross' I think our forefathers were _assez malins_." A seedy vendor of lottery-tickets declared that every one of them would draw a prize. "Wherefore, then, my friend," quoth I, "do you not keep them?" "_Je ne suis pas egoiste_," he said, with a shrug. To defend myself against his masterful solicitousness, I stated solemnly that lotteries were illegal in England, and that if I returned thither with a lottery-ticket the British Government would throw me into prison. But he was not daunted: "_Appuyez-vous sur moi_," he replied reassuringly.

[The end]
Israel Zangwill's essay: Antwerp