Notes from West London

What Gladstone did

William Ewart Gladstone, British Prime Minister in the 19th century: what do you know about him? Well, “you gotta phone incha?”, so you could look him up, but before you do here’s what I know. Having studied 19th century British history I can dredge up a few facts about his career (initially Tory, then became a Liberal, was Prime Minister three, or maybe four, times, his plans for Home Rule for Ireland never became law, which was a great disappointment to him). But these days there are only two facts that readily come to mind.

First is his concern for the “fallen women” (prostitutes) on the streets of Victorian London. He, reportedly, walked the streets himself attempting to rescue them from the lives they were living. It caused lots of comment at the time.

The other fact that has stuck with me is his behaviour as soon as he felt a cold coming on. He would take to his bed immediately (I picture a fireplace with a blazing fire to keep the room warm – no central heating in those days), surround himself with books and papers, and cancel all engagements so that he could recover as quickly as possible.

I mention this because a cold that has afflicted me since last Wednesday night has not gone away. I was out late on Thursday night, and up late on Friday and Saturday, and thought that the worst of it was past. (I have not been keeping Anthony Trollope hours.) But since Sunday a most unsightly cold-sore has developed on my upper lip. I feel like the Elephant Man, or the Phantom of the Opera, in need of something to cover up that part of my face. I didn’t want to cancel Thursday night’s entertainment – it was my last opportunity for a while to see an old school friend before he heads back to his home on the other side of the world for the rest of the year. As we walked towards Piccadilly Circus station I said, “If I hadn’t gone to the gig tonight I’d have done what Gladstone did”, and then explained the two things that are summarized above, clarifying that I would have taken to my bed and tried to kill off the cold that had forced me to blow my nose about 50 times that evening. But instead of saying that Gladstone used to walk the streets of London rescuing prostitutes, I said that he used to walk the streets of London rescuing Protestants. I blame the beer, the cold, and that old joke about the Irish mother and her three daughters.

[In case you haven’t heard that joke, here it is. An Irish mother asks her three daughters what they want to be when they grow up. “A nurse,” says the first. The mother expresses approval. “A teacher,” says the second. The mother again expresses approval, and asks her third daughter what she wants to be. “A prostitute,” she says. The mother screams, “What did you say?” “I said I want to be a prostitute.” “Oh, what a relief. Thank God for that,” says her mother, “I thought you said you wanted to be a Protestant.”]


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