Harkive: ‘A London Letter’

Toynbee Hall, Whitechapel (c. 1902)

When Harkness returned from Australia to the United Kingdom for a short period between 1904 and 1905, she contributed a regular column to the West Australian under the title ‘A London Letter.’ The column was a continuation of her news and character feature, ‘The Passing Hour’, which was published between 1903 and 1904 in the West Australian, however the ‘London Letter’ placed Harkness in the role of London correspondent and focused on events, activities and personalities in that city.

In this London Letter from the autumn of 1904, Harkess reports on literary and cultural events but also engages with the political themes that characterise her London novels of the previous decades: poverty and the government’s responsibility for the welfare of its citizens; the usefulness of philanthropic organisations; and the role of politicians and statesmen.

Source: ‘A London Letter’, West Australian, 23 November 1904, p 8. Available via Trove.




(By John Law.)

London, October 14.

Several London papers have announced that Mr. Walter James, K.C., is on his way to London in the India, and that he will arrive here about November 10. Whether he will be able to do much for Western Australia in London remains to be proved, but the fact that he will have his teeth in something hard must be very good for him.

The Oncoming of Winter.

Winter is here, “hard, grey weather,” and not a trace of sunshine. Sir William Harcourt’s death, Lady Curzon’s prolonged illness, and the speeches of Messrs. Balfour and Chamberlain, are the subjects most talked about. The winter season has just commenced, but it is impossible, as yet, to obtain tickets for the principal plays and concerts, such is the rush to hear Kubelik and to see “The Orchid” at the Gaiety. In spite of a pea-soup fog, flower girls offer in the streets choice roses at a penny each. Their baskets are filled with violets and carnations, lilies of the valley, and other delicate flowers. Sixpence will deck a room. Fruit is plentiful and cheap, especially enormous bananas, that are hawked at three for 2d. There is a loud outcry concerning the poverty that will be felt in London during the coming winter, and the unemployed are much to the front. A petition is to be sent to the King from one poor neighbourhood, and the guardians of the various boards have been invited by the Government to hold a conference, but the Rev. E. M. Collick, who was many years on the Eastern, goldfields, declares that the poverty of London is on the decrease. Children without shoes or boots have disappeared. “I believe I know every man and woman sleeping on the Embankment,” he says, “and I think very few of these people would sleep indoors.” There appears to be a class of nomads in London resembling the men in Australia who wander about with a “hilly” and a blanket, and never settle anywhere. The latest municipal scheme for the out-of-works is farming, and farms are being established very like the places in Germany, to which men out of work are sent. As the unemployed difficulty is already felt in the Golden West, an account of such a municipal farm might be of interest. It looks as if the responsibility of the various London boards has been increased. and instead of having a huge cesspool of poverty that is nobody’s business, each Board of Guardians had developed a separate conscience.

The Western Australian Agency.

The Agent-General’s office will no doubt depress Mr. James at first, for it has a forlorn and unvisited appearance. Stray copies of the “West Australian” lie about, but no file seems to he kept. The young man in attendance has never been in Western Australia, and knows very little concerning the State. On a table are various guides to Scotland and other parts of the world, but no photographs of Western Australia, mining reports nor gold exhibits. The Agent General, faultlessly addressed and ever courteous, is there at stated times, but the place is pervaded by an air of the Karrakatta Cemetery. Of course, it is very difficult in a mighty place like London to rouse interest in such a far-off spot as Western Australia, but exhibitions on a small scale do not cost much, and a free exhibition might perhaps attract people and bring the gold mines of Western Australia to the front. The Indian Exhibition, organised by Toynbee Hall, costs only £1,000, and thousands of people pass through it daily, while at night the attendance at the lectures given in connection with it is very encouraging. The general feeling here towards Australians is certainly warm and genuine. To test it, a visitor went last week to the Law Courts, and inquired for an Australian lawyer who has not yet been called to the Bar. Policemen, officials, lawyers, all were eager to help an Australian in London, although the search was very like looking for a needle in a haystack. Australians who visit the Colonial Institutes say that they are anxiously questioned concerning things Australian.

Current Literature.

In conversation a leading light of the literary world said a few days ago that very few books on Australia have so far gripped the English public; Rolf Boldrewood still holds sway; Ethel Turner’s first two books were favourably noticed, but Australian works are seldom up to London’s literary high-water mark. “Smiler” Hales has made no mark outside his war correspondence. Meredith and Hardy represent contemporary English romance. Hall Caine is looked upon as a bit of a charlatan, and he commands high prices. The same may also be said of Miss Marie Corelli, Kipling is Kipling. Many young men are booming, but none of them show real genius. George Meredith has ceased to write: his position is that of the master who has won all the laurels to be had here and waits for the hereafter.

Mrs. Annie Besant Redivivus.

One of the most striking features of London to-day is Mrs. Annie Besant. She conducted a service last Sunday at South-place Chapel, and it was difficult to obtain standing room. The audience consisted largely of young men, and to these she addressed herself to a great extent, bidding them win their own laurels in the realms of thought, and not rest contented with what is known as “free thinking.” She illustrated her remarks by some words of the late Colonel Ingersoll, who once said that a surgeon is not expected to put anything in the place of a cancer, only to see that the flesh heals soundly. “But,” said Mrs. Besant, “a surgeon does not stand with the cancer in his hand after an operation and admire it.” Mrs. Besant thinks that the next great mental conflict will be between some who look on man as a highly cultivated animal, and others who believe that he can come in touch with worlds unknown. She mentioned Sir Oliver Lodge as the most promising light in the latter camp, and people who have followed him carefully in Australia will not be surprised to find that he – the Principal of the Birmingham University – is gripping the English public to-day. “Do your duty here and then go to rule a planet,” he said on one occasion; and other Emersonian phrases are constantly on his lips, while the daily papers carefully report his ideas on religion, social betterment, and modern science. Mrs. Besant dwelt on the great changes that have taken place in science, and begged the young men of to-day to keep abreast of the new developments. Hers is an intellect that can never lie down. Dressed in some creamy garment, very like the gown of a clergyman, with mystic symbols hanging from her neck, white hair cut short and parted in the centre, and a face like an inspired apostle, she kept her audience spellbound. Her face has lost all marks of sex: she might be a man or a woman, judging by it. Her eloquence and earnestness reminded one of nothing earthly, while she led her audience into the realms of mysticism, tracing it from the day when a man feels a calm he cannot understand while gazing at a sunset, a range of mountains, the mighty deep, or a pastoral scene, on to the vision of a Cromwell, a Joan of Arc, or a Thomas a Kempis.

The Preacher of the City Temple.

Another leader of modern thought, Dr. Campbell, of the City Temple, has made himself unpleasantly notorious by preaching on the laziness of the British workman. Last Sunday morning thousands of angry men gathered to hiss and hoot when he left his church and police men wore in attendance. It was impossible to get near the City Temple, but he could be seen smiling and raising his hat while the angry mob tried to close in upon him. Mr. Chamberlain had just before assured the British workman that the decision on the fiscal problem rests with the working classes, and that the popular preacher in London should dare to call the British working man “lazy” excited the mob and the gutter-Press beyond endurance.

Preferential Trade.

If people her are much interested in the fiscal question there is little to show in the way of enthusiasm. The “Daily News” is selling penny pamphlets on “Mr. Chamberlain’s Political Career, by Himself,” and “The Story of Mr. Chamberlain’s War, from Official Records” and the opponents of Mr. Chamberlain declare that his one desire is to make people forget the part he bore in the South African campaign. At any rate, he seems to be feverishly anxious to form some sort of Imperial fiscal union and to regard the same as the coping-stone of his political career. “It is the day of small things in English politics,” remarked a man last week, “and of small politicians.” But one may ask, “What becomes of the great statesmen?” A small grey slab. bearing the names of W. G. and C. Gladstone, lies in Westminster Abbey, and over it pass thousands every day, heedless of the dust beneath their feet. Already the slab is worn and the letters are indistinct.




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