British or Brixton

British or Brixton

In Brief

J. J. O'Molloy, musing on empires, remarks "gently" that the phrase imperium romanum "sounds nobler than British or Brixton." He is echoing George Moore's contemptuous observation that the British empire exported suburban values around the world.

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Brixton is a residential district in south London. Mostly rural before 1800, the area saw rapid development in the 19th century as new bridges across the Thames gave southern areas rapid access to the central city and middle-class homes replaced country lanes and market gardens. Gifford observes that Brixton was "regarded at the turn of the century as the prototype of the drab machine-made life of the urban-industrial world. George Moore remarked, on England and her language: 'To begirdle the world with Brixton seems to be her ultimate destiny. And we, sitting on the last verge, see into the universal suburb, in which a lean man with glasses on his nose and a black bag in his hand is always running after his bus' (quoted in Edward Gwynn, Edward Martyn and the Irish Revival [London, 1930], pp. 242-43)."

In a page on James Joyce Online Notes, Harald Beck traces this report back to two primary sources. In “The Irish Literary Renaissance and the Irish Language,” a talk delivered to founders of the Irish Literary Theatre in April 1900 and published in The New Ireland Review in the same month, Moore declares that "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" (70). The vision of a "universal suburb" populated by bus-chasing commuters follows on the next page.

Beck quotes also from a 1901 interview that Moore gave for The Critic. The interviewer, William Archer, asked him why he was leaving London, and Moore replied, "I must escape from the Brixton empire." "British empire, you mean," said Archer. Moore: "I call it the Brixton Empire... an 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." Moore moved from London to Dublin in the spring of 1901, a development that caused a lot of buzz in Dublin. The interview, Beck concludes, suggests that the great writer's move was motivated in large measure by his growing suburbophobia, and he speculates that "this interview would have made the rounds at the time."

It seems that O'Molloy may know of both the interview (he identifies a Brixton empire) and the essay (he contrasts it with the more glorious one of Roman antiquity). But Joyce does not give Moore the last word on comparing empires. Professor MacHugh responds to O'Molloy's regard for the "Imperium romanum" by urging that "We mustn't be led away by words, by sounds of words. We think of Rome, imperial, imperious, imperative," but that civilization, while "Vast," was "vile." Slandering it as an empire of sewer-builders, he suggests, via an allusion to H. G. Wells, that English suburb-builders are cut from the same cloth. Both powers subdued the planet only to advance bourgeois values.

John Hunt 2023
1905 portrait of George Moore by an unknown artist, held in the National Gallery of Ireland. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
An early motorbus beside a horse-drawn bus in London ca. 1900.
Commuters, ca.1929 oil on board painting by George Lambourn.