[The decorated initial appears in the original text of this essay, which appeared in More. George P. Landow scanned and formatted the text, adding links to material on this site.]
Beerbohm's narrator here combines two of his favorite poses or stances: those of the naive, jejeune young man and the inhumane Decadent, who considers the aesthetic effect of things and events independent of their human cost. Here he to some extent follows Oscar Wilde's “On Murder Considered as a Fine Art” and, perhaps more distantly, A. C. Swinburne's poetry, which frequently uses “flame” and “fire.” Both the naivité and the aesthetes pose work especially well here, since firemen (as we see from one of Millais's paintings) had become a new kind of hero suited to a modern, urban existence.
OT many nights ago, as I was hastening through the frost, I saw a strange clamour in the "Is it Tithonus, I wondered, "shamed forth, at length, by his Lady's taunts?" The glamour grew. I thought Aurora had followed her Lord, and was beseeching him to return. But a cabman, whom I consulted, told me it was not Tithonus, nor Aurora, but only some wharf burning by the river. I let him drive me there. Through a rattle of dark alleys sped we, through brawls and squalor. Under the red glory of flames that were reduplicated in sky and water, we rested. Than the roaring of those great flames had I yet heard, than their red glory seen, nothing lovelier.
Yet, under my very eyes, there was an organised attempt to spoil this fair thing. Persons in absurd helmets ran about pouring cascades of cold water on the flames. These, my cabman told me, were firemen. I jumped out and, catching one of them by the arm, bade him sharply desist from his vandalism. I told him that I had driven miles to see this fire, that great crowds of Londoners, poor people with few joys, were there to see it also, and I asked him who was he that he should dare to disappoint us. Without answering my arguments, he warned me that I must not interfere with him "in the discharge of his duty." The silly crowd would not uphold me, and I fell back, surreptitiously slitting his water-hose with a penknife. But what could I avail? The cascades around me were ceaseless, innumerable. Every moment dashed up fresh firemen, imprecant on cars, behind wild horses. In less than an hour, all was over. The flames had been surrounded, driven back and stricken, at length, as they lay, cowering and desperate, in their last embers. But, as they died, there leapt from my hearts core a great residuary flame of indignation. It is still burning.
For my friends assure me that beautiful fires are constantly springing up and are never spared. This fire brigade, as it is called, is a regular organisation, winked at, if not openly encouraged, by the municipal authorities. It has its ramifications in all parts of London. It can produce, at five minutes9 notice, its hundreds of hired ruffians, such as I saw that night by the river, none hindering them at their work. I know that vandalism is recurrent in all history. In the days of civil strife, our fairest monuments were marred by the fanatics of Cromwell. Athens wept over the Hermacopeia. The cultured Roman saw, as we see, helmeted Goths charging with hoarse threats through the city. But not secretly nor with fear of retribution, not in hostility to us nor in spiritual fervour, are planned the nightly outrages of "Commander" Wells and his merrymen. Ah! we make a poor community. Americans, as yet inferior to us in the appreciation of most fair things, are far more spirited than we are about fires. Many years ago, when all Chicago was afire, the Mayor, watching it from the Lake-Side exclaimed in a loud voice, "Who will say now that ours is not the finest city in all the world?" I remember, too, that some years ago, on the eve of my departure from Chicago, a certain citizen, who was entertaining me at supper, expressed his great regret that they had not been able to show me one of their fires. And indeed it must be splendid to see those twenty-three story buildings come crashing down in less time than was required to build them up. In Chicago, extinction is not attempted. Little value is set on bricks and mortar. A fire is enjoyed; then the building is reproduced and burnt down again at leisure. But we, who pull down, year by year, old inns and almshouses, because they are obsolete in usage, despite their prettiness and their tradition, we, in London, suffer to be saved any wharf or warehouse, however beautiful its encircling flames, however hideous it.
And here is a strange anomaly! Whilst there are Companies, which honour with gifts of gold and silver, any one whose silly tenement Vesta has deigned to visit, the Law still loads with chains any one who may be found to have planned the happy occasion. I am far from exalting arson to the level of a fine art. Nothing is easier than to be an incendiary. All you want is a box of matches and a sense of beauty. I know, too, that fires have often been made for unworthy ends, for the gratification of revenge or, even, personal vanity. Nero set light to Rome that he might divert the ears of the musical critics from his indifferent fiddling, and fires, I am told, are mysteriously frequent in the little Duchy of Saxe-Coburg Gotha. But it is absurd that no distinction is made between motives of self-interest and the desire for a pretty scene. Perpend! I stay for a few days in the country. I see some hay-ricks in a field. After dark, I set light to them. Am I to be punished for doing so? Probably, I admit, the rural police would not dream of suspecting me, and would forthwith arrest the last farm-labourer who had been discharged from the place. But that does not alter the principle of the thing. I should be sorry that another should suffer for me, but, having done no wrong, I certainly should not give myself up.
Vain, though, to cavil at the follies of the law, as exemplified here and there, until the public has been thoroughly aroused on the general question of its right to the unspoilt enjoyment of fires! The sentimentalist may prattle of life-saving, but we must think, rather, of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. And, as a matter of fact, the strongest objection to the fire-brigade may be raised on behalf of those very persons whom it professes to benefit. Perpend, reader, once more! You are a householder. You are sleeping in the dead of night. The insidious savour of smoke awakens you. You rush out on to the landing, only to find the staircase enveloped in smoke, whose dense volumes are flame-cloven. Escape is impossible! You rush back and rouse your wife and children. In half conscious terror, they cling to your knees. It is the most tragic moment of your life. You feel that the Ministers of Fate have compassed you about, that Death is grinning at you from their ranks and will soon beckon. Already the smoke is curling round you, already. . . . The sash of the window is thrown up. In jumps a perfect stranger and in fancy dress and proceeds to play snapdragon with you and your wife and children. An anticlimax! The whole scene ruined! You are bundled down. a ladder, protesting that an Englishman's house is his castle. Some scores of licensed practical-jokers are below with their squirts, and you are drenched to the skin, as likely as not. Finally, you are put to bed in some neighbour's house. So ends your tragedy, dear reader.
Not forgetting that before the next dawn breaks your house may be wet ashes and you its unwilling survivor, try now, reader, to take an altruist view. For the fire-brigade is most hateful, not because it invades the sanctity of our home-life, but because it takes constantly from so many citizens their enjoyment of fair things. I know that the firebrigade is strong. It will die hard. Years hence, it may still be flourishing. But, meanwhile, one should not be idle. I am forming an Artists Corps whose aim will be to harass the members of the fire-brigade on all occasions. I am maturing an elaborate system of false alarms, and I shall train my recruits to waylay the enemy in their onrush, seize the bridles of their horses, cut their reins. We, too, shall hold ourselves in readiness to start off at five minutes' notice, but there will be no furious driving, no terrorising of harmless traffic. We shall go about our work in a quite, gentlemanly manner: servants, not tyrants, of the public. Though at first, necessarily, our organisation will be small, we shall extend it gradually, I hope. We shall, in time, despise mere guerilla warfare and take our stand upon the very field of battle. Each one of us will trail a sinuous hose. It will not be filled with water. It will be filled with oil.
Beerbohm, Max. “An Infamous Brigade.” More (1899). New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1922. 69-76.
Last modified 5 December 2011