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An essay by Robert Lynd

On Feeling Gay

Title:     On Feeling Gay
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

Gaiety has come back at least to parts of London. There never were greater crowds of people eating with bottles at their sides in public places. On the whole, however, there has been little down-heartedness at the restaurants during the past four and a half years Even while the housewife in the red-brick street was wasting her mornings in the patient vigil of the queue, only to find at the end of it that there was no butter, no lard, no tea, no jam, no golden syrup, no prunes, no potatoes, no currants, no olive oil, or whatever it might be she wanted most, the restaurants never shut their doors as the grocers' shops and the confectioners' sometimes did. When rationing came, one could eat the greater part of the week's beef allowance at a single meal in the home, but in a restaurant one could get four excellent meat meals--in some restaurants even eight excellent meals--in return for a week's coupons. There were, no doubt, parts of the country in which the housewife was hardly more restricted than the diner-out in restaurants. Travellers came back from places in Dorsetshire, Gloucestershire, and Scotland, as from Ireland, with gorgeous narratives of areas in which the King's writ did not run so far as coupons were concerned and beef was free if only you paid for it. But in London, and especially in the Home Counties, there was no such reign of liberty. The housewife went shopping, as it were, on ticket-of-leave, and even the sleepiest suburbans began to realise that the arrival of our daily bread is a daily miracle instead of the commonplace it once seemed to be. Had Dr Faustus come back to life a modern lady would have invoked the aid of his magic for some food less romantic than grapes out of season: she would have been content with a tin of golden syrup. As for butter, it is surprising that no one wrote a sonnet to butter during the war. I have seen eyes positively moisten with love at the sight of a small dish of it. Even from the restaurants it seemed to vanish for a time, and some of them are still doing their best to help one to deceive oneself with a curl of what is called butter substitute. The restaurant, however, seem to be better supplied than the home with the three great aids to gaiety--wine, jam and currants. I confess I have never been able to understand why currants should be generally regarded as one of the necessary ingredients of perfect pleasure. But they unquestionably are The child on a holiday will eat a bun with only three currants in it with three times more pleasure than he will eat a frankly plain bun A suet pudding without currants or raisins is prison fare, barren to the eye and cheerless: let but an infrequent currant or raisin peep from the mass and it is a pudding for a birthday. So universal is the passion for currants as an aid to pleasure that during the past three weeks the only matter that rivalled in general interest the question whether the Kaiser was to be hanged was the question whether we should have currants before Christmas. So profound is the disappointment of the public at the non-arrival of the currants that explanations have been put in the papers, calling on us to practise the sublime virtue of self-sacrifice, happy in the knowledge that all the currants are needed for invalid soldiers. But if the currants are needed for soldiers, how comes it that we sometimes find them in the puddings in restaurants? Those who are concerned for the preservation of home life in this country cannot but be perturbed by the way in which in this matter of currants the scales have been weighted in favour of the restaurant and against the home. As for jam, the diner in the restaurant rejoices in jam roll while the child in the home labours its way through tapioca pudding. Is it any wonder if, as the pessimists believe, the English home decays?

Whether as a result of the jam roll or the rare currants in the puddings, it has been unusually difficult to get a table at some of the restaurants since the signing of the Armistice. No doubt the signing of the Armistice itself had something to do with it. Christian men, whenever anything epoch-making happens, must have something to eat. Marriage, the return of a conquering hero, the visit of a great statesman, the birth of Christ--we find in all these things a reason for calling on the cooks to do their damnedest. Even the dyspeptic forgets his doctor's orders in the general excitement and chases oysters down the narrow stairway of his throat with thick soup, follow thick soup with lobster, and lobster with turkey and turkey with a savoury, and the savoury with a _pêche Melba_, and at the end of it will not reject cheese and a banana, all of this accompanied with streams of liquid in the form of wine coffee and brandy. I have often wondered why a man should feel gay doing violence to his entrails in this fashion. I have noticed again and again that he loses a little of his gaiety if the dinner is served slowly enough to give him time to think. The gay meal, like the farce, must be enacted quickly. The very spectacle of waiters hurrying to and fro with an air of peril to the dishes quickens the fancy, and the gastric juices flow to an anapæstic measure. Who does not know what it is to sit through a slow meal and digest in spondees? One is given time between the courses to turn philosopher--to meditate becoming a hermit and dining on a bowl of rice in a cave. Nothing can prevent one from there and then coming to a decision on the matter save a waiter with the eye of a psychoanalyst ready to rush forward at the first sadness of an eyelid and tempt one either with a new dish or with a glass refilled. "Stay me with flagons; comfort me with apples." It is a universal cry. Our desire is for the banqueting-house. Perhaps it is not so much that we feel gay as that we are afraid of feeling gloomy. We have no force within us that will enable us to laugh over a lettuce and become wits on water. There must be an element of riot in our eating and drinking if we are to drive dull care away. That is the defence of cakes and ale. Cakes, no doubt, are not what they used to be, and ale is even less so. But human beings are symbolists, and, if you give them something that looks like cakes and something that looks like beer, it is surprising how content they will be. Our eating and drinking is but a game, and we deceive ourselves at table like children among their toys. Even the vegetarian lies his food into grandeur not its own. There is a vegetarian restaurant in London in which one of the dishes on the bill of fare bears the name "Like chicken." _Splendide mendax!_

One of the most amazing features in the appearance of London at the present time is surely the absence of the signs of widespread mourning. The windows of the shops are full of all the colours of the parrot. The hats are as bright as a scrap-book. The confectioners' shops are making a desperate effort to look as if nothing had happened. The death of a single monarch would have darkened Christmas in Regent Street more effectually than the million mournings of the war. It is as though we were eager to conceal from ourselves the news of this terrible disaster. After all, to judge by the crowds in the streets, most people still remain alive. We have sworn we will never forget those others, but one has only to read some of the election speeches to see that with many of us our own greed and vindictiveness are already ousting the ideals for which hundreds of thousands of men gave up their lives. Can it be that we are feeling gay not only because we have escaped from the disasters of the war but because we are escaping from the ideals of the war? It is as though we had returned from the barren snows of the mountain-tops to the cosy plenty of the valleys. We are glad to exchange the stars as companions for the nearer illuminations of the streets. The familiar world is coming back, and civilian youths have begun once more to sing music-hall choruses on the way home on the tops of buses:--

So I dillied,
And dallied,
And dallied,
And dillied;
But you can't trust a speshul
Like an old-time copper
When you can't find your way home.

Peace had returned without question when nonsense of this venerable kind sped into the air from the roof of a late bus. Well, we have always wanted the world to be "as usual." We were angry with the Germans for plunging us into the unusualness of war, and we feel scarcely more friendly to those who would plunge us into the unusualness of Utopia. We feel at home among neither horrors nor ideals. We are glad at the prospect of having the old world back rather than at having to make a new world. Lord Birkenhead, I observe, declares that it would be an awful thing if the war had left us unchanged, but we look in vain for signs of any deep change even in the speeches of Lord Birkenhead. One noticeable change the war has unquestionably made: more women smoke in the restaurants than formerly. Sanguine people declare that other changes are impending; but other people, equally sanguine, are doing their best to prevent this. The human race is gradually feeling its way back to its traditional division into those who desire a change and those who desire to keep things as they are. The Christmas festival appeals to both equally. It is at once an old custom and the prophecy of a new earth. On such a day one can rejoice even without currants or the League of Nations. The world is a good place. Let us eat, drink, and be merry.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: On Feeling Gay