I AM just old enough to remember what were called Penny Readings; at which the working-classes were supposed to have good literature read to them, because they were not then sufficiently educated to read bad journalism for themselves. As a boy, or even a child, I passed one evening in something curiously called the Progressive Hall; as if the very building could not stand still, but must move onwards like an omnibus along the path of progress. There was a little chairman with eyeglasses, who was nervous; and a big stout staring schoolmaster called Ash, who was not at all nervous; and a program of performers if not eminent no doubt excellent. Mr. Ash read `The Charge of the Light Brigade' in resounding tones; and the audience awaited eagerly the change to a violin solo. The chairman explained hastily that Signor Robinsoni was unfortunately unable to perform that evening, but Mr. Ash had kindly consented to read `The May Queen'. The next item on the program was a song, probably called `Sea Whispers', to be sung by Miss Smith accompanied by Miss Brown. But it was not sung by Miss Smith or accompanied by Miss Brown; because, as the chairman somewhat feverishly explained, they were unable to attend; but we were solaced by the announcement that Mr. Ash had kindly consented to read `The Lord of Burleigh'. At about this point a truly extraordinary thing occurred; extraordinary at any time, to any one who knows the patience and politeness of the English poor; still more astonishing in the less sophisticated poor of those distant days. There arose slowly in the middle of the room, like some vast leviathan arising from the ocean, a huge healthy simple-faced man, of the plastering profession, who said in tones as resounding as Mr. Ash's, and far more hearty and human, `Well, I've just 'ad about enough of this. Good evening, Mr. Ash; good evening, ladies and gentlemen.' And with a wave of universal benediction, he shouldered his way out of the Progessive Hall with an unaffected air of complete amiability and profound relief.
From G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography (1936), p. 275-276.
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