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1 September 2021updated 14 Dec 2022 2:44pm

How cities change at night

Matthew Beaumont’s The Walker asks how the nocturnal metropolis differs from the city in daylight.

By Ian Thomson

Before the advent of electricity, London by night was a fetid 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 anthill 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 netherworld of pickpockets and chancers. 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 poor. 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 80-plus miles from his mental asylum in Essex to his Northamptonshire birthplace. Sleeping rough on the way, he passed along the north-west edge of London in a trudge that was, in the eyes of the law, delinquent.

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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 19th century”. The Walker, a sequel, explores the relationship between the metropolis and its pedestrian life in broader terms. In a series of 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 Madox 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. Consequently, the flâneuse is a rarity in the literature of the period, though Lauren Elkin’s elegant non-fiction work Flâneuse (2016), acknowledged by Beaumont, provided a history of women urban wanderers down the ages.

Among Beaumont’s great romantic nightwalkers is the opium-eating essayist Thomas De Quincey, who was well attuned to the enthralling magic of nocturnal London. 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 ghostliness. In his stories the city conspires always to overwhelm the super-sensitive narrator with noise and hostile crowds.

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In fin-de-siècle France, Poe was hailed as a patron saint of “metropolitan modernity”; his necromantic imagination was catnip to the hashish-smoking Baudelaire, who translated his work into French. 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. The London of his novella evokes a dark apprehension, and 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.

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 Like the London psychogeographer 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 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 area. 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. 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-crushers’ yards are sold off by governments to unthinking property investors.

In his afterword, Beaumont describes a three-mile hike 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 John Nash as a triumphal entrance-way to Buckingham Palace) contrasts with the near-invisible plaque embedded in the pavement nearby that commemorates the location of the fatal tree, from which between 50,000 and 60,000 people are estimated to have been hanged. 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.

Himself a “devout pedestrian”, Beaumont believes that no stroll through a 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 phones and navigate the streets by GPS. Beaumont’s book is not moralistic but it does urge us to wander aimlessly in cities without the distraction of handheld devices, in the spirit of those footloose trampers of yesterday. From start to finish a delight to read, The Walker is the beginning of wisdom in all things metro-pedestrian.

The Walker: On Finding and Losing Yourself in the Modern City 
Matthew Beaumont
Verso, 320pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future