How cities change at night

 

 

 

 

Before the advent of electricity, London by night was a foetid darkness of backstreets and vagrant-haunted passageways. 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 matchless 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 print. Published in 1851, his London Labour and the London Poor remains a marvel of vivid reportage – the greatest Victorian novel never written. Prostitutes spoke to Mayhew of swift and joyless transactions conducted in the rookeries off Fleet Street and the Strand; in the teeming ant-heap of mid-Victorian London, life was cheap.

 

 

 

Dickens was no stranger either to London’s squalid grandeur after-hours. His fiction exposed a Mayhew-like underworld of pick-pockets and other chancers who scraped a pittance to get by. A compulsive nightwalker, Dickens covered vast distances on foot as a hoped-for tonic to his insomnia. His great 1860 essay ‘Night Walks’ is, among other things, a hosanna to the therapeutic benefits of noctambulation. The bodily and mental labour involved in his restless “noctavigations” enabled Dickens to understand better the plight of the urban underclass. As Mayhew had shown, those who went about the city at night were reckoned to be morally “benighted” if not mentally unhinged. In 1841, three years after Oliver Twist appeared, the rural poet John Clare walked a distance of over 80 miles from his mental asylum in Essex to his Northamptonshire birthplace. Sleeping rough in hedgerows along the way he passed along the north-west edge of London in a trudge that was harebrained and, in the eyes of the law, delinquent.

 

Matthew Beaumont, a Professor of English at University College London, chronicled nocturnal London in his magnificent 2015 history, Nightwalking, which exalted Dickens as the “great heroic and neurotic nightwalker of the nineteenth century.” The Walker: On Finding Yourself in the Modern City, a sequel, explores the relationship between the metropolis and its pedestrian life in broader terms. In a series of socio-philosophical essays Beaumont asks how the nocturnal metropolis differs from the city in daylight, and what it  means to get lost in a crowd. Along the way he considers the figure of the urban walker in 19th and mid-20th century literature from Charles Baudelaire and Ford Maddox Ford to André Breton and Ray Bradbury. Inevitably his writers are mostly men: women seen walking unaccompanied after dark were assumed to be up to no good, says Beaumont, and indeed laws were promulgated relentlessly against them. (“The law is not the same at morning and at night”, wrote the Anglican priest-poet George Herbert.) Consequently the flâneuse or woman urban wanderer is a rarity in the literature of the period, though Lauren Elkin’s 2017 elegant non-fiction Flaneuse (acknowledged by Beaumont) provided a history of women urban walkers down the ages.

 

 

Among Beaumont’s great Romantic nightwalker is the opium-eating essayist Thomas De Quincey, who was well attuned to the magic of benighted London and its power to entrance. Another who divined a mystique of darkness and vagabondage in the metropolitan streetscape was Edgar Allan Poe. In 1817, aged seven, the American author was sent from his home in Virginia to a boarding school in Stoke Newington situated in the village-like boondocks (as they then were) of north London. Poe’s doppelgänger story ‘William Wilson’, published in 1839, evoked an early Victorian London eerie with the ringing of church bells and a dream-like, moony ghostliness. In fin-de-siècle France Poe was hailed as a patron saint of “metropolitan modernity” because, writes Beaumont, his stories of neurasthenia and catalepsy radiated the “delicate nerviness” of the sickbed convalescent; in Poe the city conspires always to overwhelm the super-sensitive narrator with noise and hostile crowds.

 

Poe’s necromantic imagination was catnip to the hashish-smoking Baudelaire, who translated his work into French and hailed Poe as a great “anti-American” (in fact Poe’s fiction hums with allusions to electrotelegraphs and calculating machines: Poe was less anti-American than an heir of Benjamin Franklin.) The heady mix of the grotesque and oddly modern in Poe finds a mirror image in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, published as a shilling shocker in 1886. Like Poe, Stevenson was familiar with the concept of double identity (he was a member of the London Society for Psychic Research) and the London of his novella evokes a dark apprehension. The terrible scene where Hyde tramples on a child’s body in a London street – treading down innocence – has the power to shock still, Beaumont observes.

 

 

Himself a “devout pedestrian”, Beaumont believes that no walk in the city is ever wasted: walking makes him feel “alive”. Increasingly, though, pedestrians are inured to both the pleasures and the hazards of the environment as they check their mobile phone screens and navigate the streets by GPS. So-called “smombies” – smartphone zombies – blunder heedless into on-coming pedestrians and can cause traffic accidents. Beaumont’s is not a moralistic book (far from it) but it does urge us to wander aimlessly in the city without the distraction of hand-held tech devices, in the spirit of those footloose trampers of yesterday: Dickens and company.

 

Like the London psycho-geographer Iain Sinclair, Beaumont is mindful of the “heat traces” left by deceased writers and artists on the built environment. In 1872 the symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud and his dipsomaniac lover Paul Verlaine took up cramped rooms off Tottenham Court Road and set out to explore the viaducts, raised canals, bridges and steam engines of the “monstrous city” in the Camden and Mornington Crescent vicinities. Moving through London one step ahead of Scotland Yard, the tearaway French couple may have felt “observed” by buildings. In a bravura chapter, Beaumont laments the ubiquity in London of what he calls “visored architecture” – buildings that appear to watch us with suspicion. City Hall on the South Bank gives back a disconcerting gaze seemingly at odds with the Greater London Authority’s vaunted ideals of transparency and accountability. (The Thameside construction resembles nothing so much as a giant “astronaut’s helmet”, says Beaumont.) Closed-minded architecture of this sort underscores the point: urban communities everywhere are struggling against the onslaught of development as canals, brownfield sites and car-crusher’s yards are sold off by governments to unthinking property investors.

 

 

In the longed-for aftermath of our national lockdown, walking in the city may take on a strange, elating importance. In his afterword, Beaumont describes a three-mile hike he undertook to the site of Tyburn Tree adjacent to Marble Arch, where London’s infamous gallows stood. The arch itself (a piece of empty bombast designed in the 1820s by Thomas Nash as a triumphal entranceway to Buckingham Palace) contrasts with the near-invisible plaque embedded in the pavement nearby that commemorates the location of the fatal tree. Between 50,000 and 60,000 people are estimated to have been hanged at Tyburn. Among them was the Jesuit poet and martyr Robert Southwell, who had evaded Queen Elizabeth I’s anti-Catholic dragnets for five years until, in 1595, the hangman sped him on to sainthood. (With no hint of fear Southwell addressed the Tyburn crowds: “I am come hither to play out the last moment of this poor life.”) From start to finish a delight to read, Matthew Beaumont’s book is the beginning of wisdom in all things metro-pedestrian.

 


 

This review first appeared in the 3 September 2021 edition of the New Statesman.