Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Max Beerbohm > Text of Letter That Was Not Written (1914)

An essay by Max Beerbohm

A Letter That Was Not Written (1914)

Title:     A Letter That Was Not Written (1914)
Author: Max Beerbohm [More Titles by Beerbohm]

One morning lately I saw in my newspaper an announcement that enraged me. It was made in the driest, most casual way, as though nobody would care a rap; and this did but whet the wrath I had in knowing that Adam Street, Adelphi, was to be undone. The Tivoli Music Hall, about to be demolished and built anew, was to have a frontage of thirty feet, if you please, in Adam Street. Why? Because the London County Council, with its fixed idea that the happiness of mankind depends on the widening of the Strand, had decreed that the Tivoli's new frontage thereon should be thirty feet further back, and had granted as consolation to the Tivoli the right to spread itself around the corner and wreck the work of the Brothers Adam. Could not this outrage be averted? There sprang from my lips that fiery formula which has sprung from the lips of so many choleric old gentlemen in the course of the past hundred years and more: `I shall write to The Times.'

If Adam Street were a thing apart I should have been stricken enough, heaven knows, at thought of its beauty going, its dear tradition being lost. But not as an unrelated masterpiece was Adam Street built by the Brothers whose name it bears. An integral part it is in their noble design of the Adelphi. It is the very key to the Adelphi, the well- ordained initiation for us into that small, matchless quarter of London, where peace and dignity do still reign--peace the more beatific, and dignity the finer, by instant contrast with the chaos of hideous sounds and sights hard by. What man so gross that, passing out of the Strand into Adam Street, down the mild slope to the river, he has not cursed the age he was born into--or blessed it because the Adelphi cannot in earlier days have had for any one this fullness of peculiar magic? Adam Street is not so beautiful as the serene Terrace it goes down to, nor so curiously grand as crook-backed John Street. But the Brothers did not mean it to be so. They meant it just as an harmonious `lead' to those inner glories of their scheme. Ruin that approach, and how much else do you ruin of a thing which--done perfectly by masters, and done by them here as nowhere else could they have done it--ought to be guarded by us very jealously! How to raise on this irregular and `barbarous' ground a quarter that should be `polite', congruous in tone with the smooth river beyond it--this was the irresistible problem the Brothers set themselves and slowly, coolly, perfectly solved. So long as the Adelphi remains to us, a microcosm of the eighteenth century is ours. If there is any meaning in the word sacrilege.__

That, I remember, was the beginning of one of the sentences I composed while I paced my room, thinking out my letter to The Times. I rejected that sentence. I rejected scores of others. They were all too vehement. Though my facility for indignation is not (I hope) less than that of my fellows, I never had written to The Times. And now, though I flattered myself I knew how the thing ought to be done, I was unsure that I could do it. Was I beginning too late? Restraint was the prime effect to be aimed at. If you are intemperate, you don't convince. I wanted to convince the readers of The Times that the violation of the Adelphi was a thing to be prevented at all costs. Soberness of statement, a simple, direct, civic style, with only an underthrob of personal emotion, were what I must at all costs achieve. Not too much of mere aesthetics, either, nor of mere sentiment for the past. No more than a brief eulogy of `those admirably proportioned streets so familiar to all students of eighteenth century architecture,' and perhaps a passing reference to `the shades of Dr. Johnson, Garrick, Hannah More, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Topham Beauclerk, and how many others!' The sooner my protest were put in terms of commerce, the better for my cause. The more clearly I were to point out that such antiquities as the Adelphi are as a magnet to the moneyed tourists of America and Europe, the likelier would my readers be to shudder at `a proposal which, if carried into effect, will bring discredit on all concerned and will in some measure justify Napoleon's hitherto- unjustified taunt that we are a nation of shopkeepers.--I am, Sir, your obedient servant'--good! I sat down to a table and wrote out that conclusion, and then I worked backwards, keeping well in view the idea of ` restraint.' But that quality which is little sister to restraint, and is yet far more repulsive to the public mind than vehemence, emerged to misguide my pen. Irony, in fact, played the deuce. I found myself writing that a nation which, in its ardour for beauty and its reverence for great historic associations, has lately disbursed after only a few months' hesitation £250,000 to save the Crystal Palace, where the bank holidays of millions of toilers have been spoilt by the utter gloom and nullity of the place--a nullity and gloom that will, however and of course, be dispelled so soon as the place is devoted to permanent exhibitions of New Zealand pippins, Rhodesian tobacco, Australian mutton, Canadian snow-shoes, and other glories of Empire-- might surely not be asked in vain to'--but I deleted that sentence, and tried another in another vein. My desire to be straightforward did but topple me into excess of statement. My sorrow for the Adelphi came out as sentimentality, my anger against the authorities as vulgar abuse. Only the urgency of my cause upheld me. I would get my letter done somehow and post it. But there flitted through my mind that horrid doubt which has flitted through the minds of so many choleric old gentlemen in the course of the past hundred years and more: `Will The Times put my letter in?'

If The Times wouldn't, what then? At least my conscience would be clear: I should have done what I could to save my beloved quarter. But the process of doing it was hard and tedious, and I was glad of the little respite presented by the thought that I must, before stating my case thoroughly, revisit Adam Street itself, to gauge precisely the extent of the mischief threatened there. On my way to the Strand I met an old friend, one of my links with whom is his love of the Adams' work. He had not read the news, and I am sorry to say that I, in my selfish agitation, did not break it to him gently. Rallying, he accompanied me on my sombre quest.

I had forgotten there was a hosier's shop next to the Tivoli, at the corner of the right-hand side of Adam Street. We turned past it, and were both of us rather surprised that there were other shops down that side. They ought never to have been allowed there; but there they were; and of course, I felt, it was the old facades above them that really counted. We gazed meanwhile at the facades on the left-hand side, feasting our eyes on the proportions of the pilasters, the windows; the old seemly elegance of it all; the greatness of the manner with the sweet smallness of the scale it wrought on.

`Well,' I said, turning abruptly away, `to business! Thirty feet--how much, about, is that? My friend moved to the exact corner of the Strand, and then, steadily, methodically, with his eyes to the pavement, walked thirty toe-to-heal paces down Adam Street.

`This,' he said, `is where the corner of the Tivoli would come'--not `will come,' observe; I thanked him for that. He passed on, measuring out the thirty additional feet. There was in his demeanour something so finely official that I felt I should at least have the Government on my side.

Thus it was with no sense of taking a farewell look, but rather to survey a thing half-saved already, that I crossed over to the other side of the road, and then, lifting my eyes, and looking to and fro, beheld--what?

I blankly indicated the thing to my friend. How long had it been there, that horrible, long, high frontage of grey stone? It must surely have been there before either of us was born. It seemed to be a very perfect specimen of 1860--1870 architecture--perfect in its pretentious and hateful smugness.

And neither of us had ever known it was there.

Neither of us, therefore, could afford to laugh at the other; nor did either of us laugh at himself; we just went blankly away, and parted. I daresay my friend found presently, as I did, balm in the knowledge that the Tivoli's frontage wouldn't, because it couldn't, be so bad as that which we had just, for the first time, seen.

For me there was another, a yet stronger, balm. And I went as though I trod on air, my heart singing within me. For I had not, after all, to resume my task of writing that letter to The Times.

A Letter That Was Not Written (1914), an essay by Max Beerbohm