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Friday, 2 September 2011

“Men’s Success in the World Depend in a Great Degree, and in Various Ways, Upon the Manner in Which they Pass their Youth”: Or: Messages from the Past for England’s recent Rioters:

Just like everyone else, I was saddened and angered by the recent riots that swept, first London, and then other parts of England. The worlds media both condemned the action and spoke words of encouragement for the towns and cities affected, but, as is ever the case, the best words of condemnation and defiance came from the past.

As is one of my habits, I was browsing a couple of publications from the past, and stumbled upon two articles which, in my mind, I immediately applied to the recent unrest.

These are barely worthy of blogging, being only short pieces each, and I have deliberated for a couple of weeks whether it is worth posting them. Having decided that I best make up my mind fast as the riots are slipping from the news, I thought I might as well post them before it’s too late.

First of all, a brisk talking to for the youth who decided to take part from a gentleman of Victorian England, who urges the youth to think of the consequences of their actions, and how they may affect their future. I like to imagine the writer looks like Gladstone:

Gladstone: Stern

Thought for the Young
We see a great deal of misery in the world, but much of it men bring upon themselves by their own behaviour, which they might have forseen and avoided. The circumstances of these natural punishments, particularly deserving our attention, are such as these: that oftentimes they follow, or are inflicted in consequence of actions which procure many present advantages, and are accompanied with much present pleasure; for instance, sickness or untimely death is the consequence of intemperance, though, accompanied with the highest mirth and jollity: that these punishments are much greater than the advantages of pleasures obtained by the actions of which they are the punishments or consequences: that they are often delayed a great while, sometimes even till long after the actions occasioning them are forgot; so that the constitution of nature is such, that delay of punishment is no sort nor degree of presumption of final impunity: that, after such delay, these natural punishments or miseries often come, not by degrees, but suddenly with violence, and at once.

Though youth may be alleged as an excuse for rashness and folly, as being naturally thoughtless, and not clearly foreseeing all the consequences of being untractable and profligate; this does not hinder but that these consequences follow, and are grievously felt throughout the whole course of mature life. Habits contracted even in that age are often utter ruin; and men’s success in the world, not only in the common sense of worldly success, but their real happiness and misery, depend in a great degree, and in various ways, upon the manner in which they pass their youth; which consequences they, for the most part, neglect to consider, and perhaps seldom can properly be said to believe beforehand.

It requires also to be mentioned that, in numberless cases, the natural course of things, affords us opportunities for procuring advantages to ourselves at certain times, which we cannot procure when we will; nor ever recall the opportunities if we have neglected them. Indeed, the general course of nature is an example of this. If, during the opportunities of youth, persons are indocile and self-willed, they inevitably suffer in their future life, for want of those acquirements which they neglected the natural season of attaining. If the husbandman lets his seed-time pass without sowing, the whole year is lost to him without recovery.
- Butler’s Analogy.
- Featured in Leisure Hour, Thursday, April 12, 1855

I must confess, that whilst I support the slightly superfluous sentiments of the gentleman, I tend to agree with current commentators who claim ‘they don’t care about the consequences.’

The second piece, which is a statement of mild defiance on behalf of London, sums up in one paragraph many of the sentiments I saw on Twitter during the riots. These words are from the preface of Thomas Burke’s ‘The Streets of London’ from 1940:

“As the proofs of this book are being passed for press, the streets of London are under bombardment. I write this note to the accompaniment of bumps and bangs from the enemy, and the reverberation of our A.A guns. There are noises of shattered glass. From my window I see a building on fire. The Air Battle of London is on; a battle of which Tennyson might truly ask: “God of Battles, was ever a battle like this in the world before?

But so far, the streets of London, which have known so many threats and have come through so many actual visitations of plague and fire and riot, are still here. And however deep the bumps and bangs become, and whatever damage they cause, I have faith, as strong and as unreasonable as most faiths, that they will come through even this, wounded but alive. Great cities of the past have fallen, and are buried under sand. London may join them. But it will fall as they fell, and not by the hand of man or man’s engines. The visitor from afar may yet sit upon the deserted ruins of London, and muse on the city that was; but those ruins will be the work of the process of the ages. What London is and was cannot be obliterated in a year’s bombardment.”

Thomas Burke's words were also featured in an earlier post of mine; “A London of Horse Trams with Halfpenny Fares, and of Hansom Cabs; of Crystalline Bells and Spattering Hoofs” Or: The Victiorian Era Remembered by Those Who Were There" which you can look at: here, if you wish.

Thomas was born in Clapham in 1886, is perhaps most famous for his 1916 book ‘Limehouse Nights’, a book of London stories set in that particular area of the city. It caused some controversy when it was released, containing, as it does, much general immorality, and, perhaps worse, interracial relationships between Chinese men and English women. When it was released, lending libraries refused to stock it, such was its notoriety.

Being a Londoner through and through, most of Burke’s work, both fiction and non-fiction, are based in and on London everyday, working class life. His non-fiction work is similar to the journalistic work of James Greenwood, in that it delves into the day-to-day life of the streets of London and the people – usually poor or working class – who live in them.

Limehouse Nights has appeared on stage a few times, and, I think, as a film. The most recent stage adaptation was in London last year, which received indifferent reviews.

Thomas Burke died five years after writing the above introduction, in 1945, at the young age of fifty nine.


  1. I'm glad you went ahead and posted these; they're still quite timely. I particularly liked Burke's rather beautiful words: "The visitor from afar may yet sit upon the deserted ruins of London, and muse on the city that was; but those ruins will be the work of the process of the ages. What London is and was cannot be obliterated in a year’s bombardment.”

    Lines that could apply to any memorable spot on earth, I suppose.

  2. Burke was a great writer, he had a knack - as a lot of old, and particularly Victorian - writers did, of finding the exact right words and sentences.
    All those hours spent reading must have given them the instinct for it, I suppose.

    I like that sentence you picked out, too. Everything I saw in the papers, on television and on the internet during the riots seemed to be reaching for these sentiments in vain, not quite able to pull the right words from their minds.

    Thanks for the comment.

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