George Moore and the Brixton Empire
U 7.478-9: – Imperium romanum, J.J. O’Molloy said gently. It sounds nobler than British or Brixton.
Gifford is correct in linking the surprising alliterative juxtaposition of “British” and “Brixton” to the Irish writer George Moore, but does not offer more than a secondary 1930s source to show that Moore regarded Brixton as a representative example of the “universal suburb” due to girdle the world of the future.1 The quotation was in fact taken from an article with the title “The Irish Literary Renaissance and the Irish Language” in The New Ireland Review of April 1900,2 which consists of George Moore’s address delivered at a meeting of the promoters of the Irish Literary Theatre in April 1900. Moore refers to Brixton twice in it:
The beautiful world, which was antiquity, and which the Renaissance revived, and of which some traces linger down to the present day, is passing away. And the flag that the new barbarism will follow is more dreadful than that of Attila or Tamerlane: a flag which Mr. Rhodes has declared to be "the most valuable commercial asset in the world". I accept his words as oracular. To girdle the world with Brixton is England's ultimate destiny. (p. 70)
Will it be said that it is necessary that the world should be girdled with Brixton, so that centuries hence the world may awaken again April eyed? However this may be, the commercial platitude which has risen up in England, which is extending over the whole world, is horrible to contemplate: And sitting on the last verge we look into an ugly suburb in which a lean man with glasses on his nose and a black bag in his hand, is always running after his 'bus. (p. 71)
George Moore was interviewed by Scottish critic and writer William Archer for The Critic, in 1901, by which time Moore has evolved the evocative expression “the Brixton Empire”. The interview provides the background necessary to savour J.J. O’Molloy’s allusion:3
W.A. […] I want to hear more of your reason for shaking the dust of London off your feet.
Mr. Moore. I must escape from the Brixton Empire.
W.A. British Empire, you mean.
Mr. Moore. I call it the Brixton Empire.
[…] This empire of vulgarity, and greed, and materialism, and hypocrisy that is crawling round the whole world, throttling other races and nationalities – all for their own good, of course! – and reducing everything to one machine-made Brixton pattern.
A.W. So you expect to find in Ireland a green oasis in a wilderness of khaki?
"Real Conversations" in The Critic (1901), July vol. 29 p. 48
Further along in the interview Moore links “the Brixton Empire” to cultural decay:
Mr. Moore. Yes, you dream that civilization will suppress the barbarian; whereas, on the contrary, it begets him. […] There will be plenty of barbarians in the Brixton empire: the journalists will take the place of the Gauls and the Iberians, the Goths and the Huns: and they will prove greater destroyers of language.
"Real Conversations", p. 53
When Archer brings up a theatrical performance, Moore tells him:
The theatre is the most barbarous corner of the whole Brixton Empire.
"Real Conversations", p. 55
Moore's disdain for the (Brixton) theatre would have included the conspicuous palaces of the Music Halls. It is tempting to think that his term Brixton empire was actually inspired and deduced from popular local haunts like the Brixton Empress or Hackney Empire.
Era (1898) 17 December
The interview ends with Archer humorously suggesting:
I suppose when I go […] you will put your head over the banisters and shout after me as Carlyle did with Trollope, "Let me tell you, sir, that you're gangin' straight to hell, and gangin' the vulgarest way, too!"
Mr. Moore. That is what I say of the Brixton Empire.
“Real Conversations”, p. 56
Moore’s interview clearly suggests to its readers that the famous Irishman fled London for Dublin mainly to escape from the barbarian Brixton Empire (and, of course, to help the cause of the Gaelic revival). As Moore’s return to Ireland in the spring of 1901 received much attention in Dublin, this interview would have made the rounds at the time.
A 1911 article on Censorship by Moore’s German translator, Max Meyerfeld, shows that Moore, who was not averse to self-citation, obviously kept propagating his new-found empire at least in conversation. In a passage that deals with British censorship of Maeterlincks’s play Monna Vanna of 1902, Meyerfeld says:
The Referee, of course, with its usual British or Brixton prudery, as my friend George Moore calls it, would have girded at the ungentlemanly behaviour of the condottiere.
Max Meyerfeld, "The Censor – and Other Tales" in The Nineteenth Century (1911), vol. 69, p. 462
Surprisingly, however, there is not the slightest trace of the Brixton Empire in Hail and Farewell, Moore’s memoir of his flight to and stay in Ireland, the three parts were published in 1911, 1912 and 1914 respectively. In an interview with William Wallace Whitelock for the New York Times (24 August 1901) he had announced:
My next book, about which I have already begun to think […] will deal with this whole subject – the Boer War and the English Empire and my own views on the question. I will call it either 'The Brixton Empire' or 'The Way Back'. It will not be a novel, but will be autobiographical in nature.
Back in London again in 1911, did he fear that his return to the Brixton Empire could be regarded as a concession of defeat?
1 Gifford’s form “begirdle“ is a transcription error. See second quotation to follow.
2 The New Ireland Review, pp. 65-72. I am grateful to Vincent Deane for consulting a copy of the publication in Trinity College Library.
3 The interview was published by Heinemann in Archer’s collection of interviews, Real Conversations, in 1904.
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