A History of Lost Sensations 2

A History of Lost Sensations 2

In the last blog I offered soundscapes from the present, from fifty years ago and from 1533. What about a hundred and fifty years ago?

We think of the modern world as a noisy place and, if you live under the Heathrow flight path, no doubt it is, but I think we’d be surprised by how noisy life in Victorian cities really was. Thomas Carlyle lined the study of his house in Cheyne Row with cork to stop himself from being driven mad by street noises. Here are some of the ones he might have heard:

Steel-rimmed wheels on cobbles, horses’ hooves on hard surfaces, horse noises generally (snorting, whinnying, jingle of harness, whipcracks, etc), mice under the floorboards, barrel organs in the street (Carlyle’s pet hate), singing from pubs, hammers on anvils, street vendors’ cries, newsboys shouting the headlines, scrape of hobnail boots, train whistles, wheel tappers on the railway, tap of walking canes on pavements, church bells, striking clocks, ring of coin on counter, hiss of gas jets, parlour harmoniums, bands in bandstands, grunting of pigs (which many people kept in their back gardens), rattle of stick on railings (a favourite pastime of small boys), creak of stiff leather shoes …

It is lost sensations of this kind that I tried to work into Mr Blackwood’s Fabularium in an attempt to bring to life the everyday world of ordinary Victorians. This is the scene that awaits the Canterbury excursionists when they reach London Bridge Station:

What can compare with the hurly burly of a London station? Such tumult of voices, such shrilling of whistles! What a scramble for departing trains! What a shoal of top hats and bonnets, caps and derbies bobbing on the tides that flow through the barriers and swirl round the coaches. And what a tide! Here are newspaper vendors weaving in and out of the crowds, porters bent double under trunks, cabmen discharging last-minute passengers, oilmen greasing axles, scourers searching beneath seats for forgotten umbrellas. Over there a porter drags a leash of pointers towards a guard’s van; close by a country gentleman watches anxiously as a parcel of saplings is strapped to a carriage roof; from the Dover train a Frenchman and his wife, conspicuous in Parisian finery, alight in an avalanche of luggage; in the cab rank a mother of two haggles over a fare. Every train whistle makes someone’s heart beat faster – the felon fleeing from justice, the debtor absconding from his debts, the soldier about to join his regiment, the schoolboy returning to school. In that vast crowd all are surely there – all those and many more, more than imagination can compass or eye discern.

In my next blog I shall try to re-create some Victorian smellscapes.

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