Railings, from Another Part of the Forest, by G. B. Stern (1941)

London park railings being dismantled for scrap metal, around 1941
London park railings being dismantled for scrap metal, around 1941

A paragraph in a local paper told me a few weeks ago that orders had been given to “prune the railings” at Brighton, and use them for battleships.

A short time ago I had to drive up from Berkshire through Western London. Wherever I looked I became aware of railings, still in their rusty iron slumber, but dangerously potential; a delirium of railings planted in a frenzy most often where they could not possibly have been needed; as stoutly reinforcing a stout wall; as guarding sturdy little posts that would obviously rather have remained self-reliant; as shielding triangles of trodden grass that once were plague-pits (but this is no time to be out of date); as lining up in front of well-shuttered shops and barricading blind alleys; railings defensive and offensive; and railings content to stand in pure decoration (sic); an abundance, an orgy, an ecstasy of superfluous railings, which at a certain period in our history of architecture must have rushed down upon the city and conquered it with the same enthusiasm that great Birnam Wood once came to Dunsinane.

I have little doubt but that driving north, south or east, now that my attention was awake to railings, I should have seen them four times multiplied, striping our parks and our streets and our squares with bad-tempered vigilance. For the soul of railings is essentially rigid and narrow-minded, not to compare with benevolent cheerful wooden fencing which swirls into friendly knots and peepholes; but with the vicious snarl of barbed wire, the cruel jagged repartee of broken glass stuck upright on top of a wall.

Had we ever paused, down the peaceful years, to reflect upon the solemnity of a life guarded by railings, it might have seemed a little bit foolish. What did they fear, these nineteenth century folk, that they retired behind such preposterous regiments of iron? For though it is difficult to trace the very first man who cried “Eureka!” and leapt to his feet, inspired to design the very first railing, and triumphantly planted it, and having accomplished his life’s work, went satisfied to bed, yet most volumes of authority agree in yielding up the date 1812 for the beginning of railings in their multitudes; why this should coincide with the burning of Moscow is a matter that gives play to the most charming conjecture (or perhaps it was merely accident). What did they fear? They could not, even they, have thought that now and for ever they were adequately protected from the foe (their songs and ballads show us that enemies were always “foemen” in a Victorian world).

A proper valediction to railings could be illustrated with the picture of a disconsolate ghost in flowing whiskers and Albert watch-chain, weeping over a symbolical railing offered up to serve its country in time of war. For now, in time of war, the whole matter quite simply reverts to sanity: Is this not the very thing we are fighting for, that bars should be translated into battleships, and battleships into freedom? A London child of the past, probably also a Brighton child or a Birmingham child, always accepted railings as a matter of course, created as part of a seven-day universe; plenty of juvenile uses for railings; but chiefly for that urchin impulse to run along drawing a hoopstick across them, making sweet music. Friendly errand-boys leant their bicycles against the area railings outside your house, and then clattered with their baskets down the deep Victorian steps to deep basements copied from the Italians.

Just beyond the railings at the entrance of Kensington Gardens stood the woman with the balloons and the man with the toy windmills. Once inside, the railings did not bother you at all: you soon discovered, though they stood upright in sentinel rows along two sides of a grass enclosure, along the third they irrationally dipped to a low rail running horizontally only a foot high from the path, so that all you had to do, you and your dog, was to skip across the low boundary and go capering back to forbidden territory with perfect ease and a clear conscience. Yes, nice familiar things, railings, that made your gloves dirty, and who cared except Nannie?

Usually, in spring, when the awnings went up and the window-boxes blossomed, the railings became a freshly painted menace, vivid and sticky and very, very beautiful. “Don’t touch, child, they’re wet!” You smiled seraphically; you had already touched, and proved it for yourself.

I keep meaning to put together a post about G. B. Stern’s … well, autobiographies, to use the label that was put on them, although “commonplace book-channeled through stream-of-consciousness” is probably a more accurate one. They are both irresistible and unreadable. Irresistible because you can open them up at just about any page and alight upon a wonderful little improvisation on a topic like railings or walking sticks or taxi-cabs. Unreadable because there is really no shape or structure to these books, and at a certain point, that becomes unbearable. I’ve never managed to get through one from start to finish: I inevitably toss it aside in frustration.

At such moments, wandering along with G. B. Stern on a random walk through her memories reminds me of something John Waters once wrote of Edith Massey, one of his early amateur Baltimorean stars:

Edie and I used to do this kind of date together, but we’d drive by car, and she would drive me crazy because she would say out loud every single thing she saw. We’d be driving along and she’d say, “Car, house, lawn, pretty lady, red car, telephone pole, lawn, lawn, lawn…” I said, “Edith!!” It was just… internalization was a concept she was very unfamiliar with.

But then, a month or two later, having finished some other book, I reach for Monogram (1936), Trumpet Voluntary (1944), or Benefits Forgot and begin to think, “Maybe I should go on a drive with Edie again.” Fortunately, if you have a mind to do the same, you can start for free with Another Part of the Forest (1941), which is available on the Internet Archive.

One thought on “Railings, from Another Part of the Forest, by G. B. Stern (1941)

  1. The war on railings was a wheeze of Lord Beaverbrook’s and doubtlessly added to the feeling that something was being done. I haven’t researched the sources but I gather that it was mostly wasted effort because of the highly variable quality of the iron recovered. Armaments demand high precision steels which demand highly consistent
    raw materials. Similarly people were persuaded to give up their aluminium cooking pots to be melted down and made into Spitfires – a similarly doubtful proposition. Yet it still made people feel that they were involved and making a contribution – even if the practical effect was a diversion of manpower and resources from potentially more effective activities

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