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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Great Merry-Go-Round

Title:     The Great Merry-Go-Round
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

In an age curious of new pleasures, the merry-go-round seems still to maintain its ancient popularity. I was the other day the delighted, indeed the fascinated, spectator of one in full swing in an old Thames-side town. It was a very superior example, with a central musical engine of extraordinary splendour, and horses that actually curveted, as they swirled maddeningly round to the strains of 'The Man that Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.' How I longed to join the wild riders! But though I am a brave man, I confess that to ride a merry-go-round in front of a laughter-loving Cockney public is more than I can dare. I had to content myself with watching the faces of the riders. I noticed particularly one bright-eyed little girl, whose whole passionate young soul seemed to be on fire with ecstasy, and for whom it was not difficult to prophesy trouble when time should bring her within reach of more dangerous excitements. Then there was a stolid little boy, dull and unmoved in expression, as though he were in church. Life, one felt sure, would be safe enough, and stupid enough, for him; the world would have no music to stir or draw him. The fifes would go down the street with a sweet sound of marching feet, and the eyes of other men would brighten and their blood be all glancing spears and streaming banners, but he would remain behind his counter; from the strange hill beyond the town the dear, unholy music, so lovely in the ears of other men and maids, would call to him in vain, and morning and evening the stars would sing above his draper's shop, but he never hear a word.

What particularly struck me was the number of quite grown-up, even elderly, people who came and had their pennyworth of horse-exercise. Now it was a grave young workman quietly smoking his pipe as he revolved; now it was a stout middle-aged woman returning from marketing, on whom the Zulu music and the whirling horses laid their irresistible spells. Unless ye become as little children!

Is the Kingdom of Heaven really at hand? For, indeed, men and women, and perhaps particularly literary men and women, are once more becoming as little children in their pleasures.

Seriously, one of the most curious and significant of recent literary phenomena is the sudden return of the literary man to physical, and so-called 'Philistine,' pleasures and modes of recreation. Perhaps Stevenson set the fashion with his canoe and his donkey. But at the moment that he was valiantly daring any one to tell him whether there was anything better worth doing 'than fooling among boats,' Edward Fitzgerald, all unconscious and careless of literary fashions, was giving still more practical expression to the physical faith that was in him, by going shares in a Lowestoft herring-lugger, and throwing his heart as well as his money into the fortunes of its noble skipper 'Posh.' A literary man _par excellence_, Mr. Lang reproaches his sires for his present way of life--

'Why lay your gipsy freedom down
And doom your child to pen and ink?'

and by steady and persistent golfing, and writing about angling and cricket, comes as near to the noble savage as is possible to so incorrigibly civilised a man. Mr. Henley--that Berserker of the pen--sings the sword with a vigour that makes one curious to see him using it, and we all know Mr. Kipling's views on the matter. Then Mr. Bernard Shaw rides a bicycle!

Those men of letters whose inclinations or opportunities do not lead them to these out-of-door, and more or less ferocious, pleasures seek to forget themselves at the music-hall, the Aquarium, or the numerous Earl's Court exhibitions. They become amateurs of foreign dancing, connoisseurs of the trapeze, or they leave their great minds at home and go up the Great Wheel. Earl's Court, particularly, is becoming quite a modern Vauxhall--Tan-ta-ra-ra! Earl's Court! Earl's Court!--and Mr. Imre Kiralfy, with his conceptions and designs, is to our generation what Albert Smith was to the age of Dickens and Edmund Yates.

It takes some experience of life to realise how right this is; to realise that, after all our fine philosophies and cocksure sciences, there is no better answer to the riddle of things than a good game of cricket or an exciting spin on one's 'bike.' The real inner significance of Earl's Court--Mr. Kiralfy will no doubt be prepared to hear--is the failure of science as an answer to life. We give up the riddle, and enjoy ourselves with our wiser children. Simple pleasures, no doubt, for the profound! But what is simple, and what is profound?

The simple joy we get from 'fooling among boats' on a summer day, the thrill of a well-hit ball, the rapture of a skilful dive, are no more easy to explain than the more complicated pleasures of literature, or art, or religion. And why is it--to come closer to our theme--that the round or the whirling have such attraction for us? What is the secret of the fascination of the circle? Why is it that the turning of anything, be it but a barrel-organ or a phrase, holds one as with an hypnotic power? I confess that I can never genuinely pity a knife-grinder, however needy. Think of the pleasure of driving that wheel all day, the merry chirp of the knife on the stone, and the crisp, bright spray of the flying sparks! Why, he does 'what some men dream of all their lives'! Wheels of all kinds have the same strange charm; mill-wheels, colliery-wheels, spinning-wheels, water-wheels, and wheeling waters: there may--who knows?--have been a certain pleasure in being broken on the wheel, and, at all events, that hideous punishment is another curious example of the fascination of the circle. It would take a whole volume to illustrate the prevalence of the circle in external nature, in history, and, even more significant, in language. We all know, or think we know, that the world is round--

'This orb--this round
Of sight and sound,'

as Mr. Quiller Couch sings--though I remember a porter at school who was sure that it was flat, and who used to say that Hamlet's

'How weary, stale, _flat_, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this _world_!'

was a cryptic reference to Shakespeare's secret belief in his theory. Many of the things we love most are round. Is not money, according to the proverb, made round that it may go round, and are not the men most in demand described as 'all-round men'? Nor are all-round women without their admirers. Events, we know, move in a circle, as time moves in cycles--though, alas! not on them. The ballet and the bicycle are popular forms of the circle, and it is the charm of the essay to be 'roundabout.'

Again, how is it that that which on a small scale does not impress us at all, when on a large scale impresses us so much? What is the secret of the impressiveness of size, bulk, height, depth, speed, and mileage? Philosophically, a mountain is no more wonderful than a molehill, yet no man is knighted for climbing a molehill. One little drop of water and one little grain of sand are essentially as wonderful as 'the mighty ocean' or 'the beauteous land' to which they contribute. A balloon is no more wonderful than an air-bubble, and were you to build an Atlantic liner as big as the Isle of Wight it would really be no more remarkable than an average steam-launch. Nobody marvels at the speed of a snail, yet, given a snail's pace to start with, an express train follows as a matter of course. Movement, not the rate of movement, is the mystery. Precisely the same materials, the same forces, the same methods, are employed in the little as in the big of these examples. Why should mere accumulation, reiteration, and magnification make the difference? We may ask why? But it does, for all that. If we answer that these mammoth multiplications impress us because they are so much bigger, taller, fatter, faster, etc., than we are, the question arises--How many times bigger than a man must a mountain be before it impresses us? Perhaps the problem has already been tackled by the schoolman who pondered how many angels could dance on the point of a needle.

However, these and similar first principles, it will readily be seen, are far from being irrelevant for the visitor at the Earl's Court Exhibition. No doubt they are continually discussed by the thousands who daily and nightly throng that very charming dream-world which Mr. Kiralfy has built 'midmost the beating' of our 'steely sea.'

To an age that is over-read and over-fed Mr. Kiralfy brings the message: 'Leave your great minds at home, and go up the Great Wheel!' and I heard his voice and obeyed. The sensation is, I should say, something between going up in a balloon and being upon shipboard--a sensation compounded, maybe, of the creaking of the circular rigging, the pleasure of rising in the air, the freshening of the air as you ascend, the strange feeling of the earth receding and spreading out beneath you, the curious diminution of the people below--to their proper size. You will hear original minds all about you comparing them to ants, and it is curious to notice the involuntary feeling of contempt that possesses you as you watch them. I believe one has a half-defined illusion that we are growing greater as they are growing smaller. Ants and flies! ants and flies! with here and there a fiery centipede in the shape of a District train dashing in and out amongst them. We lose the power of understanding their motions, and their throngs and movements do indeed seem as purposeless at this height as the hurry-scurrying about an anthill. At this height, indeed, one seems to understand how small a matter a bank smash may seem to the Almighty; though, as a lady said to me--as we clung tightly together in terror 'a-top of the topmost bough'--it must be gratifying to see so many churches.

Those who would keep their illusions about the beauty of London had better stay below, at least in the daytime, for it makes one's heart sink to look on those miles and miles of sordid grey roofs huddled in meaningless rows and crescents, just for all the world like a huge child's box of wooden bricks waiting to be arranged into some intelligible pattern. Of course, this is not London proper. Were the Great Wheel set up in Trafalgar Square, one is fain to hope that the view from it would be less disheartening--though it might be better not to try.

By night, except for the bright oases of the Indian Exhibition, the view is little more than a black blank, a great inky plain with faint sparks and rows of light here and there, as though the world had been made of saltpetre paper, and had lately been set fire to. Were you a traveller from Mars you would say that the world was very badly lighted. But, for all that, night is the time for the Great Wheel, for the conflagration of pleasure at our feet makes us forget the void dark beyond. Then the Wheel seems like a great revolving spider's web, with fireflies entangled in it at every turn, and the little engine-house at the centre, with its two electric lights, seems like the great lord spider, with monstrous pearls for his eyes. And, as in the daytime the height robs the depth of its significance, strips poor humanity of any semblance of impressive or attractive meaning, at night the effect is just the reverse. What a fairy-world is this opening out beneath our feet, with its golden glowing squares and circles and palaces, with its lamplit gardens and pagodas! and who are these gay and beautiful beings flitting hither and thither, and passing from one bright garden to another on the stream of pleasure? If this many-coloured, passionate dream be really human life, let us hasten to be down amongst it once more! And, after all, is not this flattering night aspect of the world more true than that disheartening countenance of it in the daylight? Those golden squares and glowing gardens and flashing waters are, of course, an illusion of the magician Kiralfy's, yet what power could the illusion have upon us without the realities of beauty and love and pleasure it attracts there?

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Great Merry-Go-Round