Childhood memories of the London Embankment
By JOHN RAYNOR
WHEN I was a small boy, and lived in London, I used to clamour to be taken along the Embankment by my nurse for the afternoon walk.
This was not because I particularly loved the river with its slow-moving traffic of unkempt barges, its white throngs of wheeling seagulls, its grimy wharves; or because there, where no traffic could drive, it was quiet, and little boys were in no great danger of sudden annihilation; or even because of the old man at the corner of Westminster Bridge who for a penny would let you peer through his glittering, brass-mounted telescope at the hands of Big Ben, and give you a dog-eared postcard of the great clock with a profound description of its works into the bargain.
No, it was for none of these reasons that I loved the Embankment; nor would I ever have revealed the real reason to any grown-up so impertinent and tactless as to inquire. Like all children I loved secrets, and the more harmless the secret, the more determined I was that it should never be dragged into the cold light of adult criticism.
By a cynicism born of long experience I knew that the revelation of any secret would be followed inevitably by prohibition, and so I was careful never to reveal the excitement that filled me, as, trotting demurely beside nurse (or on nurse’s afternoon out, mother), I espied far down the long stone path the man who drew such lovely pictures on the pavement.
As we approached him my heart would beat faster; I could feel the tell-tale excitement colouring my cheeks, and could only hope that if observed it would be put down to the breathless heat of summer or the cold winds of winter, according to the season.
London Embankment pavement artist (1950)
He sat, the old man, with his squat legs crossed; in front of him a battered tin cup; to his right a greasy cap filled with stubs of coloured chalk, and farther to his right a row of some four or five pictures of a gaiety and brilliance that had little connexion with the dull world of everyday materialism. I used to marvel at the old man’s energy in drawing them anew every day; weep mental tears of pity and sympathy at the thought of the cold-hearted rain that had the power to make a muddy puddle of his labours in five minutes. Most of all I used to wonder where he got his chalks, and why they always seemed to be worn down to their last quarter inch; the chalks I bought at the little toy shop in Marsham Street were always white, (” there ain’t no call for colours,” the proprietor would gloomily remark) and so long that though I broke them in half, ground them into the blackboard on the nursery wall, stamped on them even, it was weeks before I could legitimately go and buy more.
London Embankment pavement artist 1935
And the pictures themselves! I could find no words worthy of describing them. They lay there, each in its tortuous yellow frame a small miracle. There was “Eventide,” an elaborate confection of distant, sheep dotted fields; a blue river that rippled like a snake round the foot of the much pinnacled and spired church (a perfect example of rococo); and a shepherd with dog and crook; the whole lit by the glow of a sunset that is scarcely touched upon by the adjective lurid. For artistic reasons, this was my favourite.
There followed “His Majesty the King, God Bless Him”—a highly imaginative portrait—and others which I am ashamed to admit that I have forgotten. But the last of the row remains minutely detailed in my mind, because here my budding emotions were stirred to violent activity. It depicted a figure-of-eight loaf and a piece of ruddily-blushing salmon, each on a plate white as snow. It was titled “Easy to Draw but Hard to Get” I could never look at it for long because, tears welling to my eyes, it blurred, righted itself, blurred again, and I was in terror lest this moving piece should prove the downfall of my jealously-guarded secret.
“‘Ard to get ‘Im!”—nurse would toss her head- “‘c makes a good enough living, I’ll be bound. And ‘oo wants a loaf like that, let alone the butter?” With which cryptic, remark she would urge me onwards.
There came an afternoon when nurse met a friend and gossiping forgot me. Round the corner, I knew, sat the artist. I looked at nurse’s earnest face, and edged unobtrusively, along the high wall. When I reached the old man’s pictures I stared long and satisfyingly at them, till they had soaked into my existence and formed part of it.
Lady pavement artist: Thames Embankment 1930
Breathless with admiration, I moved on a few steps to stare in turn at their creator. He sat hunched up as usual, unmoving, a red scarf supporting his bristly grey beard; a leather boot on his left foot; his right thrust into a velvet slipper. I felt in my pocket. There was a penny in it. I would give it to him. A warm glow of satisfaction flooded me as I dropped the coin into the ringing tin cup. The grey lips parted, moved. “Thankee, kind sir.”
Reluctantly I turned away. I had much to think of. I had been called “sir” by the man I most admired…..
Why could not I wear one leather boot and one velvet slipper? Why could not I sit all day, in sight of the passers-by, in sound of the seagulls, and chalk beautiful pictures on the paving stones? I could and I would— when I was grown up. The words were magic in my head. “When I am grown up! When I am grown up!”—they circled like rings of coloured light around me; they rang in my ears like the tune of an old song.
London Embankment Screever: Postcard 1915
Back to nurse I edged my cautious steps. “She’s ‘ad one too many already come to that; I don’t know ‘ow she’ll manage with another on the way,” she was saying. I saw by the expression on her face that I was unobserved. My secret was safe.
Safe till today, that is. For, turning the pages of a contemporary magazine, I saw, some pictures that put me in mind of the old man’s. Suddenly I realised that it had fallen to me to make a great discovery. Proudly I sat down to record this reminiscence of the first Surrealist, and his greatest admirer.
Published in the Spectator Magazine: 1st JANUARY 1937
Researched by Philip Battle
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