How cities change at night
Before the advent of electricity, London at night was a foul darkness of lanes and passageways haunted by vagabonds. The Victorian upper classes remained largely ignorant of life in the nocturnal underworld until they read about it in Charles Dickens or Henry Mayhew, those incomparable chroniclers of the capital’s underclass. Mayhew was among the first campaigning journalists in England to elevate the lives of chimney sweeps and child prostitutes to the dignity of the print media. Published in 1851, his London’s Work and the London Poor remains a living reporting marvel – the greatest Victorian novel ever written. The prostitutes told Mayhew about quick and joyless transactions in the rookeries of Fleet Street and The Strand; in the bustling anthill of mid-Victorian London, life was cheap.
Dickens was no stranger to the sordid grandeur of London after hours, either. His fiction exposed a Mayhew-type hell of pickpockets and chancers. A compulsive night walker, Dickens walked vast distances as a hoped-for tonic to his insomnia. His great 1860 essay “Night-time walks” is, among other things, a hosanna with the therapeutic benefits of night-owl. The physical and mental labor involved in his hectic “noctavigations” gave Dickens a better understanding of the plight of the urban poor. As Mayhew had shown, those who roamed the city at night were seen as morally “blind,” if not mentally out of whack. In 1841, three years later Oliver twist appeared, rural poet John Clare walked a distance of over 80 miles from his mental asylum in Essex to his birthplace in Northamptonshire. Sleeping in the street on the way, he walked along the north-west edge of London in a vain that was, in the eyes of the law, delinquent.
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Matthew Beaumont, professor of English at University College London, chronicled nocturnal London in his Magnificent 2015 Story, Night market, who extolled Dickens as the “great heroic and neurotic night owl of the nineteenth century”. The walker, a sequel, explores the relationship between the metropolis and its pedestrian life in broader terms. In a series of essays, Beaumont wonders how the nocturnal metropolis differs from the city in daylight and what it means to get lost in a crowd. Along the way, he tackles the figure of the urban walker in 19th and mid-20th century literature, from Charles Baudelaire and Ford Madox Ford to André Breton and Ray Bradbury. Inevitably, its writers are mostly men: Women seen walking unaccompanied after dark were supposed to do no good, says Beaumont, and indeed laws have been relentlessly enacted against them. As a result, the loafer is a rarity in the literature of the time, although Lauren Elkin’s elegant non-fiction work Loafer (2016), recognized by Beaumont, provided a history of urban wanderers through the ages.
Among Beaumont’s great romantic night owls is opium-eating essayist Thomas De Quincey, who was well tuned in to the captivating magic of nighttime London. Another who guessed a mystique of darkness and vagrancy in the metropolitan cityscape was Edgar Allan Poe. In 1817, at the age of seven, the American author was sent from his home in Virginia to a boarding school in Stoke Newington, located in the boondocks (as it was then) resembling a village in North London. . Poe’s Doppelgänger story “William Wilson”, published in 1839, evoked a strange Victorian-era London with the sound of church bells and a dreamlike ghostly. In its stories, the city always conspires to overwhelm the hypersensitive narrator with noise and hostile crowds.
In end of century France, Poe has been hailed as the patron saint of “metropolitan modernity”; his necromantic imagination was catnip for the hashish smoker Baudelaire, who translated his work into French. Poe’s intoxicating mixture of the grotesque and the oddly modern finds a mirror image in the work of Robert Louis Stevenson. The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, published as a shilling shocker in 1886. The London of his short story evokes grim apprehension, and the terrible scene where Hyde tramples the body of a child in a London street – trampling on innocence – still has the power to shock, observes Beaumont.
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Like London psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, Beaumont is aware of the “heat marks” left by deceased writers and artists on the built environment. In 1872, the Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud and his dipsomaniac lover Paul Verlaine took cramped rooms from Tottenham Court Road and set out to explore the viaducts, raised canals, bridges and steam engines of the “monstrous city” in the Camden area. While crossing London with a head start on Scotland Yard, the torn French couple may have felt “observed” by the buildings. In a chapter of bravery, Beaumont bemoans the ubiquity in London of what he calls “visor architecture” – buildings that seem to regard us with suspicion. City Hall on the South Bank sends back a bewildering look seemingly at odds with the Greater London Authority’s vaunted ideals of transparency and accountability. Closed-minded architecture like this underscores the point: urban communities everywhere struggle against the onslaught of development as canals, brownfields and car crushing sites are sold by governments to thoughtless real estate investors. .
In his afterword, Beaumont describes a three-mile trek to the Tyburn Tree site adjacent to Marble Arch, where London’s infamous gallows stood. The arch itself (an empty hottie piece designed in the 1820s by John Nash as a triumphal entrance to Buckingham Palace) contrasts with the almost invisible plaque recessed into the nearby sidewalk that commemorates the location of the tree fatal, from which between 50,000 and 60,000 people were reportedly hanged. Among them was the Jesuit poet and martyr Robert Southwell, who had escaped the anti-Catholic nets of Queen Elizabeth I for five years until in 1595 the executioner propelled him to holiness.
Himself a “fervent pedestrian”, Beaumont believes that no walk in a city is never lost: walking makes him feel “alive”. Increasingly, however, pedestrians are accustomed to both the pleasures and dangers of the environment when checking their cell phones and navigating the streets by GPS. Beaumont’s book is not moralizing, but it invites us to wander aimlessly in cities without the distraction of portable devices, in the minds of these vagabonds of yesterday. From start to finish a pleasure to read, The walker is the beginning of wisdom in all that is subway-pedestrian.
The walker: find yourself and get lost in the modern city
Reverse side, 320pp, £ 18.99