Matthew Beaumont - A captivating literary portrait of the writers who explore the city at night, and the people they met. Part literary criticism, part social history, part polemic, this is a haunting addition to the canon of psychogeography
Matthew Beaumont, Night Walking, Verso, 2015.
“Cities, like cats, will reveal themselves at night,” wrote the poet Rupert Brooke. Before the age of electricity, the nighttime city was a very different place to the one we know today – home to the lost, the vagrant and the noctambulant. Matthew Beaumont recounts an alternative history of London by focusing on those of its denizens who surface on the streets when the sun’s down. If nightwalking is a matter of “going astray” in the streets of the metropolis after dark, then nightwalkers represent some of the most suggestive and revealing guides to the neglected and forgotten aspects of the city.
“Nothing less than a grand unifying theory of the counter-enlightenment.”– Will Self
Throughout its history, London has been two places: the daytime city of business and work the nighttime palace of dark desires, crime, and vagrancy. This place has attracted writers, lawyers, poets, and politicians who have all attempted to chart and control the nocturnal flows of the capital. In the medieval city, nightwalking was a punishable crime; by the Victorian era, Charles Dickens was forced to wander the streets by night in order to becalm his disturbed mind. Why has the city shrouded in darkness been such a compelling subject over the centuries? Before the age of the gas lamp, the city at night was a different place, home to the lost, the licentious, and the insomniac. In this brilliant work of literary investigation, Matthew Beaumont shines a light on the dark perambulations of poets, novelists, and thinkers from Shakespeare, to the ecstatic strolls of William Blake, the feverish urges of opium addict De Quincey, as well as the master nightwalker, Charles Dickens.
In the dead of night, in spite of the electric lights, London seems an alien city, especially if you are walking through it alone.
In the more sequestered streets – once the pubs are closed, and at a distance from the 24-hour convenience stores – the sodium gleam of the street lamps, or the flickering striplight from a sleepy minicab stand, offers little consolation. There are alleys and street corners and shop entrances where the darkness appears to collect in a solid mass. There are secluded squares where, to take a haunting line from a poem by Shelley, night makes “a weird sound of its own stillness”. There are buildings, monuments and statues that, at a distance, and in the absence of people, pulsate mysteriously in the sepulchral light. There are foxes that slope and trot across the road as you interrupt their attempts to pillage scraps from upended bins.
And, from time to time, there are the faintly sinister silhouettes of other solitary individuals – as threatened by your presence, no doubt, as you are by theirs. “However efficiently artificial light annihilates the difference between night and day,” Al Alvarez has remarked, “it never wholly eliminates the primitive suspicion that night people are up to no good.”
It is easy to feel disoriented in the city at the dead of night, especially if you are tired from roaming its distances, dreamily or desperately somnambulant. For in the darkness, above all perhaps in familiar or routine places, everything acquires a subtly different form or volume.
Ford Madox Ford, in The Soul of London, lamented a century ago that, “little by little, the Londoner comes to forget that his London is built upon real earth: he forgets that under the pavements there are hills, forgotten water courses, springs, and marshlands”. It is not quite the same at night. At 2am, in the empty streets, no longer fighting against the traffic of cars and commuters, the solitary pedestrian’s feet begin to recall the “real earth”. In the abstracted, monochromatic conditions of the nighttime, it becomes more apparent that a sloping road curves over the sleeping form of a hill and tracks the course of an underground stream. The city is at its most earthly and unearthly at night.
A prehistoric landscape comes to seem more palpable beneath the pavements of the city. And in this half-familiar environment it is difficult to eliminate entirely the archaic conviction that, as for our ancestors, the night itself remains ominous, threatening. Residues of a primal fear of the dark begin to trouble you.
Who walks alone in the streets at night? The sad, the mad, the bad. The lost, the lonely. The sleepless, the homeless. All the city’s internal exiles. The night has always been the time for daylight’s dispossessed – the dissident, the different. Walking alone at night in the city by both men and women has, since time immemorial, been interpreted as a sign of moral, social or spiritual dereliction.
Solitary women, because of a long history of discrimination and patriarchal oppression, have been especially susceptible to this sort of suspicion. If women appear on the streets of the city at night alone they are commonly portrayed as either predators, in the form of prostitutes, or predatees – the potential victims of sexual assault. In both cases, they are denied a right to the city at night.
The historian Joachim Schlör has pointed out that, in terms of the freedom to inhabit the nocturnal city, “women’s needs and wishes are not fundamentally different from men’s”, since for both it is a case of entering it and circulating inside it freely and independently – “through the whole city, during the whole night, and not just in certain spatial and temporal reserves”. But he has rightly insisted that, historically, “men’s freedom of movement has [had] a real restrictive effect on that of women”.
If solitary men on the streets at night have exercised a right to the city denied to solitary women, then they too have often been identified or represented as pariahs. People who walk about at night with no obvious reason to do so, whether male or female, have attracted suspicion, opprobrium and legal recrimination from patriarchs, politicians, priests and others in authority, including the police, for thousands of years. In 1285, Edward I introduced a specific “nightwalker statute” in order to police the movement of plebeian people – especially migrants, vagrants and prostitutes – after the 9pm curfew. But long after this statute became impossible to implement, because of the rise of “nightlife”, the authorities continued to construe nightwalking as deviant.
Today, more than ever, solitary walking at night in the streets of the city does not necessarily mean deviant movement. It may well be perfectly legitimate, purposeful. Contemporary capitalist society requires what Jonathan Crary has identified as the despoliation of sleep in the interests of maximising the individual’s potential – both as a producer and a consumer – for generating profit. The political economy of the night, in this dispensation, means that plenty of people have to commute after dark, sometimes on foot, sometimes across considerable distances.
This is the daily, or nightly, reality of post-circadian capitalism, as it might be called. For the city’s army of nocturnal workers, many of whom are recent immigrants forced to perform the least popular forms of labour, travelling at night is in effect travailing at night. Sex workers and the police (or its precursors) have, for their part, always had to patrol pavements at night for professional reasons. So have street-cleaners and others employed to collect and dispose of the city’s waste.
Not all walking at night, then, is nightwalking. But most forms of solitary walking at night are nonetheless tainted, sometimes faintly with dubious moral or social associations. Indeed, even apparently purposeful walking in the city at night is not exempt from the assumption that it is suspicious. To be alone in the streets, even if one walks rapidly, determinedly, is to invite the impression that one is on the run, either from oneself or from another.
The late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño alludes to these conditions of being in the night – those of the haunted and the hunted – in a reference to the life, or half-life, of the city “at an hour when the only people out walking [are] two opposite types: those running out of time and those with time to burn”. In fact, these types are not really opposite: many people who are running out of time or resources, paradoxically, have time to burn. This contradictory state, of idling and hastening at once, is a comparatively common experience. It is even more potent on the streets at night.
To use a Dickensian phrase, nightwalking is a matter of “going astray” in the streets of the city after dark. Dickens is the great heroic and neurotic nightwalker of the 19th century. In 1860, in the guise of the Uncommercial Traveller, he made a crucial distinction between two kinds of walking: one that is “straight on end to a definite goal at a round pace”; another that is “objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond”. If the point of the first kind of walking is to travel from one point to another, the point of the second is that there is no point at all. Its purpose is its purposelessness. Nightwalking, according to this logic, is pointless. It is uncommercial.
In an economy in which time, including nighttime, is money, wandering the streets after dark – when most people are sleeping in order to prepare themselves for the next day’s labour – is in symbolic terms subversive. In the aberrant and deviant form celebrated by Dickens in the 19th century, and surreptitiously practised by innumerable others before and since, nightwalking is quintessentially objectless, loitering and vagabond. - Matthew Beaumont
London at night is another place entirely to its daytime incarnation, with different rules and different inhabitants. If this remains true of today's 24-hour, 21st-century metropolis, in which commuters setting out for work rub shoulders on the Tube platform with clubbers coming home, how much more so was it of the past versions of the city that lie buried beneath its streets?
In this magisterial, perambulatory survey Matthew Beaumont excavates strata upon strata of literary sources to help us find the answer. In the process he both explores the night side of some of English literature's greatest writers and resurrects many unjustly forgotten voices, who in their turn give flickering life to the denizens of London's darkness: the vagrant, the fallen, the alienated and the dispossessed. Above all, he releases an ancient, urban miasma that rises from the page, untroubled by electric illumination, allowing us to inhale what Shakespeare's contemporary Thomas Dekker called "that thick tobacco-breath which the rheumaticke night throws abroad".
At dead of night London can radiate an air of forlornness, if not forsakenness. A fox slopes across a street but all human vitality has gone. Anyone seen walking alone between 2am and 4am — the darkest and most silent hours — is reckoned to be up to no good.
Since the dawn of time nightwalking has been synonymous with crime, Matthew Beaumont argues in this magnificent history of nocturnal London. Those who noctambulate in the city were thought to be morally “benighted” or mentally unhinged. In 1841 the rural poet John Clare walked over 80 miles from an asylum in Essex to his Northamptonshire birthplace. Sleeping rough, he passed along the north-west edge of London in a trudge that was at once harebrained and, in the eyes of the law, delinquent.
Beaumont, a lecturer at University College London, chronicles night-time in the city from William the Conqueror’s day to the 19th century, and does so with a lively scholarship. Until modern times, Beaumont says, laws were promulgated relentlessly against footloose trampers, card-sharps, bone-grubbers and other “noctavigants” who scraped a pittance after-hours to get by.
The Victorian upper classes remained ignorant of London’s nocturnal streets until they read about them in Charles Dickens, that matchless chronicler of the capital’s underclass and, says Beamont, the “great heroic and neurotic nightwalker of the nineteenth century”. In three fascinating chapters, Beaumont considers how walking served as a tonic for Dickens’s insomnia; his great 1860 essay Night Walks is, among other things, a hosanna to the therapeutic travail of noctambulation.
The bodily and mental labour involved in traversing the city by night enabled Dickens to understand better the lives of chimney-sweeps, mendicants, strolling actors and, dreadfully, child prostitutes. In Beaumont’s view, the novelist’s empathy for the urban underclass mitigated against Victorian laws designed to exert political and social control over them.
Along the way, Beaumont dilates entertainingly on Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher and other Elizabethan dramatists who conjured the London night in all its abomination and glory. Life was cheap (as well as, often, alcoholic) for Dekker’s low-lifers: nightwatchmen treated them harshly. “The law is not the same at morning and at night,” wrote the Anglican priest-poet George Herbert.
Before the advent of electricity, London was a “pitchy darkness” of backstreets and prostitute-haunted passageways. The opium-eating essayist Thomas De Quincey and the poets William Blake and John Keats (the “cockney” son of a Moorfields horse stableman) were all attuned to the magic of benighted London and its edge of danger. Edgar Allan Poe was another who divined a mystique of darkness and vagabondage in the city. In 1817, aged seven, he was sent from America to a boarding school in Stoke Newington; his doppelgänger story William Wilson evoked a north London eerie with church bells and a dream-like, moony ghostliness.
Overall, Beaumont’s is a wonderful book, that has many fascinating things to say about the night-time life of our capital down the ages. Rarely has a book on the subject of darkness been so illuminating; all insomniacs should read it. - Ian Thomson
“In the dead of night, in spite of the electric lights and the remnants of nightlife, London is an alien city, especially if you are strolling through its lanes and thoroughfares alone,” writes Matthew Beaumont in the introduction to his Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, out now from Verso Books. Well, do you know your city at night? And, if not: do you know it at all?
Chaucer and Shakespeare, Johnson and Blake, Wordsworth, De Quincey, and Dickens — all were nighttwalkers. And the joy of Beaumont’s book is the way it illuminates both literature and urban politics through the splendors and panics of their nighttime journeys. It’s a story that paradoxically meanders with a purpose, like a walk to nowhere in particular, from “the Middle Ages to the height of the gaslight era in the mid-nineteenth century.”
In the below excerpt, we learn about Charles Dickens’ maniacal nighttwalks through London and Paris, and the effect it likely had on his novels.
In his delightful and profoundly insightful monograph on Dickens, [G.K.] Chesterton argued that the novelist’s originality and genius resided in the fact that he possessed, ‘in the most sacred and serious sense of the term, the key of the street’:
Few of us understand the street. Even when we step into it, as into a house or a room of strangers. Few of us see through the shining riddle of the street, the strange folk that belong to the street only — the street-walker or the street-Arab, the nomads who, generation after generation, have kept their ancient secrets in the full blaze of the sun. Of the street at night many of us know even less. The street at night is a great house locked up. But Dickens had, if ever man had, the key of the street; his stars were the lamps of the street; his hero was the man in the street. He could open the inmost door of his house – the door that leads into that secret passage which is lined with houses and roofed with stars.
Chesterton’s emphasis on the importance to Dickens of the street at night was perceptive. Dickens was quite as interested in the nomads that occupied the nocturnal city – the streetwalkers and the nightwalkers – as in those who occupied the diurnal one. He wanted to understand those who kept their ancient secrets beneath the cold light of the moon as well as the full blaze of the sun. Indeed, he was himself – in an ‘amateur way’, to use a characteristic formulation – one of these nomadic people. It was in the streets at night, and among its strange folk, that he sought the solution not only to the riddle of the modern city but to his own inscrutable, often secretive, existence.
It was probably in the late 1830s and early 1840s that Dickens first regularly walked at night in London. These were the years, so the historian Joachim Schlör claims, when night in the European metropolis first came to represent a distinctive challenge both for those who policed it and for the bourgeois imagination itself. From roughly 1840, faced with fears that emerged as a result of the rise of the so-called dangerous classes, ‘the complete city-dweller [had] to learn to master the night’. Schlör’s claim that, after this time, ‘night is more than simply a darker version of the day’, seems exaggerated.23 In the city, night had for centuries been socially, psychologically and even ontologically different to the day, as the career of the common nightwalker and his or her descendants indicated. But he is nonetheless right to emphasize a shift at this time, on the grounds that the night became a pressing social problem in the increasingly conflicted and contradictory centres of industrial capitalism.
As a young man, Dickens regularly strolled in the streets at night for purely companionable or sociable purposes. In his biography of Dickens, Fred Kaplan observes that in the late 1830s Dickens often socialized with Forster and their friend Daniel Maclise, and that together they frequently amused themselves with ‘dinners and drinks in city and county inns, rapid overnight trips to Kent, late-night walks through London streets, cigars, brandy, and conversation’. In this guise, exchanging ‘elaborate badinage, jokes about women, about eccentricities, about escapades’, they are not unlike Tom, Jerry and Logic in Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821) This is Dickens the genial roisterer, who inhabited the populous, glittering streets of central London – illuminated in the hours after dusk by the innumerable gaslights that flared from shop windows – as if they were a comfortable, albeit brilliant, interior.
But Dickens was also beginning to roam at night with a darker, more solipsistic sense of purpose at this point – or, with a compulsive sense of purposelessness. It appears likely, for example, that at the start of the 1840s he first returned at night to the site of Warren’s, the blacking factory where he had laboured as a twelve-year-old child, labelling bottles, while his father served his prison sentence for debt. In the autobiographical fragment that Dickens wrote for Forster in 1847, he confirmed that, ‘in my walks at night I have walked there often, since then, and by degrees I have come to write this’. As in his subsequent recollections of loitering outside Maria Winter’s house, the activities of nightwalking and reconstructing decisive or even traumatic events from his past were curiously, elaborately intertwined (in this respect, as in others, he was like De Quincey). ‘I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man’, Dickens wrote of the inexorable pull of the blacking factory, ‘and wander desolately back to that time of my life’. Both dreaming and nightwalking involved ‘wandering desolately back’ into the past.
Increasingly, too, nightwalking seems to have become instrumental to the business of writing, itself a compulsive activity for Dickens. It provided release – sometimes instantaneous, sometimes not – from the uncontainable sense of excitement or frustration he often felt during the composition of his fiction, the serial production of which exerted peculiarly intense demands on his psyche. On 2 January 1844, for example, Dickens wrote to his friend Cornelius Felton, Professor of Greek at Harvard University, informing him that he had sent a package to him by steamship containing a copy of A Christmas Carol (1843): ‘Over which Christmas Carol’, the novelist writes in the third person, ‘Charles Dickens wept and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner, in the composition; and thinking whereof, he walked about the black streets of London, fifteen and twenty miles, many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed.’ It is as if, but for the freedom to roam through the ‘black streets of London’, the back streets of the city at night, he might have burst – like the boiler of the steamship that throbbed across the Atlantic with the book he had sent to Felton.
On the occasions when for one reason or another, during the composition of a book, Dickens could not pace freely about the metropolis at night, the absence of the ‘black streets’ crippled him. ‘Put me down on Waterloo-bridge at eight o’clock in the evening, with leave to roam about as long as I like, and I would come home, as you know, panting to go on’, he wrote to his confidant Forster from Genoa in 1844, when he was labouring on The Chimes (1844); ‘I am sadly strange as it is, and can’t settle.’ ‘He so missed his long night-walks before beginning anything’, commented Forster, ‘that he seemed, as he said, dumbfounded without them.’
Two years later, on the continent once again, Dickens’s ‘craving for streets’ became even more acute. At the end of August 1846, living with his family in Lausanne, where he was writing Dombey and Son (1848), he complained to Forster of ‘the absence of streets and numbers of figures’:
I can’t express how much I want these. It seems as if they supplied something to my brain, which it cannot bear, when busy, to lose. For a week or a fortnight I can write prodigiously in a retired place (as at Broadstairs), and a day in London sets me up again and starts me. But the toil and labour of writing, day after day, without that magic lantern, is IMMENSE!! … I only mention it as a curious fact, which I have never had an opportunity of finding out before. My figures seem disposed to stagnate without crowds about them. I wrote very little in Genoa (only the Chimes), and fancied myself conscious of some such influence there – but Lord! I had two miles of streets at least, lighted at night, to walk about in; and a great theatre to repair to, every night.
No one in the nineteenth century can have needed London quite as much as Dickens did. It was an addiction.
Dickens sickened when he did not have access to the phantasmagoric effects of the city – especially at night, when it was most like a magic lantern. In October 1846 he informed Forster of his delight at moving from Lausanne to Geneva, though he admitted that in the latter too he suffered from ‘occasional giddiness and headache’, which he confidently attributed ‘to the absence of streets’. Dickens subsisted on the lifeblood of the metropolitan city like a vampire, thriving on its streets and ‘figures’ as their energies ebbed after nightfall. Even in substantial, sociable urban centres such as Geneva and Genoa, which were extensively lighted at night, he felt claustrophobic because he did not have the same freedom to roam across considerable distances.
Paris, like London, offered Dickens relief from this sense of inhibition that seemed to paralyse both him and his characters. In another slightly desperate letter sent to Forster from Lausanne, this time in September 1846, at a time when he was deeply, painfully embroiled in the composition of Dombey and Son, he consoled himself with thoughts of the Parisian streets at night:
The absence of any accessible streets continues to worry me, now that I have so much to do, in a most singular manner. It is quite a little mental phenomenon. I should not walk in them in the day time, if they were here, I dare say: but at night I want them beyond description. I don’t seem to be able to get rid of my spectres unless I can lose them in crowds. However, as you say, there are streets in Paris, and good suggestive streets too; and trips to London will be nothing then.
On the night of his arrival in Paris, shortly after he sent this letter, Dickens escaped from the rest of the family, which had decamped to a small house in the Rue de Courcelles. As Forster reports, invoking Dickens’s adjective, he proceeded to take a ‘“colossal” walk about the city, of which the brilliancy and brightness almost frightened him’. Nightwalking was a territorial habit, one that enabled Dickens to orientate himself in the city, to realign the relationship between the metropolis and mental life. But it also offered a release from uncontainable emotions. In January 1847, he ‘slaughtered’ Paul Dombey, to use his term. ‘Then he walked through the streets of Paris until dawn’, as Peter Ackroyd reports. Thus he attempted to rid himself of one of his spectres. No doubt his nightwalk conjured up other ghosts — in the form of memories or fantasies — which he could not so easily escape or suppress. - Jonathon Sturgeon
If you are a certain type of person, Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London will strike you as exactly the book you’ve been waiting for. (If not, you’ll enjoy it anyway.) Nightwalking ticks a number of intriguing boxes: its main subjects are pedestrianism and London after dark; it is filled with amusing anecdotes drawn from English history and literature across several centuries; it drops in a lot of sexy Marxist theory; it is bookended with a foreword and afterword by renowned walker and talker Will Self; and it has a nice heft and an attractive cover. It appears to be the culmination – or at least the latest example – of a recent revival of walking as a spiritual and political act, particularly in London. Thanks to inspiring leading lights like Self, Iain Sinclair, and several authors published by Verso (including Beaumont in London, Rebecca Solnit in San Francisco, and Frédéric Gros in Paris), post-Situationist psychogeography and street-level social history are experiencing a boom. Beaumont is not a newcomer to this field, either: a Senior Lecturer at University College London and co-director of UCL’s Urban Lab, Beaumont co-edited the Restless Cities collection (Verso, 2010) among other urban walking related projects, and is himself a habitual nightwalker.
So how does Nightwalking live up to this wealth of promise? I was at first disappointed to find that the book ends where my own familiarity with urban walking more or less begins – the Victorian era. I was looking forward to reading about aesthetes walking their jewel-encrusted tortoises down Picadilly, Situationists drifting their way through the upheaval of the sixties, and on up to Sebald, Solnit, Sinclair, and the psychogeographers of the present day. Obviously the author skips a lot of rich material by ending at Dickens. But I soon realized that this was a way for Beaumont – who admits he originally intended to write the more predictable history from Dickens to the present – to strike out across new terrain.
Narrated in something analogous to the pleasant murmur of Jarvis Cocker’s Wireless Nights, Nightwalking is a meticulously researched yet eminently readable and entertaining guide to London at night and on foot – with a radical heart. It is also a sweeping history of London, from the Middle Ages to the late-Victorian period, with Self’s commentaries bringing us through the twentieth century and up to the present. Along the way it tells the story of the rise of modern capitalism and consumer society, gentrification, and the twin obsessions of security and surveillance. In other words, it packs a lot into one sturdily bound, beautifully printed edition (I’ve been walking all over town with it under my arm these past two weeks and it shows hardly any sign of wear).
“Who walks alone in the streets at night?” Beaumont asks in the introduction. “The sad, the mad, the bad. The lost, the lonely. The hypomanic, the catatonic. The sleepless, the homeless. All the city’s internal exiles.” Nightwalking is about these people: the act of nightwalking itself has long been regarded as “deviant.” Those who walked at night tended to be “beggars, prostitutes, and foreigners.” As Beaumont explains in the opening section covering the Middle Ages to the Elizabethans, nightwalking was once considered an actual crime, with curfews strictly enforced to protect property and regulate labour. It was also dangerous, not least for women: Beaumont reminds us early on that women have always been, and continue to be, “denied a right to the city at night.” Men’s freedom to roam the city at night has often impinged on women’s freedom to safely enjoy the same basic right.
There were, in fact, many good reasons to stay in at night during the Middle Ages and the early-modern period aside from strict curfew laws. One problem was the “stinking mud”; another was the supposed presence of “noxious vapours” in the harmful night air. Then there were the marauding gangs of drunken aristos: “brutal, over-bred upper-class oafs” who were “the seventeenth century equivalent of members of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club.” As if that wasn’t enough, there were also working-class apprentice gangs to worry about, who especially targeted foreigners, prostitutes, and servants they considered too servile to their masters. The night watchmen were yet another danger, even for law-abiding citizens, as they were grossly underpaid and often corrupt. Surveillance London, Beaumont makes clear, began centuries ago, with nightwalkers carefully monitored and closely policed – but without street lighting or reliable night watchmen, you took your chances.
One of the many pleasures afforded by the book is the author’s contagious enthusiasm for archaisms, etymologies, and colourful language of all kinds. There are “noctivagants” and “noctambulants,” for example, as well as “noctivagation,” and the “houseless” are carefully distinguished from the “homeless,” as they should be. I learned that the opposite of illuminating is “obnubilating,” and that Samuel Johnson himself described a diary of “what passes at night” as a “noctuary.” There are wonderful examples of slang through the ages, and several pages echo with the scatological insults of Billingsgate fishwives.
With Beaumont as your guide you stroll through Elizabethan London, stopping to examine Macbeth and texts like John Fletcher’s The Night-Walker, before passing on into the Enlightenment. In each section the reader is treated to a social, intellectual, and cultural history of London through the figure of the nightwalker. The Enlightenment saw a huge change – literal enlightenment – as streets were lit across Europe. (London was illumined from 1684 onwards as part of a general renovation plan, including pavements and shop fronts, following the Great Fire of 1666.) Despite this illumination, the night continued to represent unreason and chaos against the rational and well-ordered daytime. Night was filled with gin and debauchery, as the idea of “nightlife” developed around this time.
But at the same time there was the “gentrification of the night,” which took place as streets were lit and the bourgeoisie ventured out to theatres and other kinds of evening entertainment, including shopping. Promenading became customary, and with it the rise of respectable idleness – strolling at night, consuming for pleasure. The new art of the promenade actually required a code of conduct: “staring too directly at other people was rude; peering closely through the windows of private houses was unacceptable,” and so on. In this way, the city itself became a kind of theatre, a giant spectacle. The night was made safe, domesticated, commodified – and sold to an emerging consumer class.
For many workers, meanwhile, this “bright new world” simply meant more work, as the nightshift became first possible and then commonplace. Many poorer areas of London remained in the dark until well into the nineteenth century. The plight of the city’s prostitutes, recognized by Samuel Johnson and others, was as desperate as ever. “Like enlightenment, illumination was the privilege of the middle and upper classes,” Beaumont tells us. The literature of the period was filled with meandering, raucous tales of midnight rambling and “low life.” These stories usually tried to have it both ways, tacking a moral on at the end for form’s sake, but the moral was in most cases “gloriously irrelevant.” Each sub-chapter in the Enlightenment section takes the reader through another of the author’s favourite texts, such as the anonymous nocturnal picaresque Low-Life; or, One Half of the World, Knows Not How the Other Half Live (1749).
One theme that comes up repeatedly in Nightwalking is walking as a political act. The Grub Street authors, for example, like the Romantics who came after them, “asserted the subversive political potential of pedestrianism” – identifying “with the poor, the itinerant, the vagrant.” But then again these authors, including Samuel Johnson and his notorious mentor Richard Savage, often experienced poverty and destitution first hand. “Like the prostitutes to whom they were often compared, albeit with misogynistic insensitivity,” Beaumont states, “these drudges of the pen manufactured and sold their products piecemeal, and led lives of quiet desperation.”
Some things never change. Or perhaps they do: Beaumont claims the Grub Street authors felt “a deep sense of injustice and resentment against those with power and wealth” – especially “booksellers and publishers.” It is hard to imagine a bookseller or publisher these days with either power or wealth. And at the time a lucky few could apparently strike it rich selling their poems: the example is given of Charles Churchill, a “priest and schoolmaster,” who “was forced to become a professional poet” to pay off his debts. The money he earned from his popular satirical poem The Rosciad (1761), in fact, not only covered his debts but also “enabled him to lead a decadent and dandified life in London.” Those were the days. Unless of course you ended up in a garret, freezing your extremities off with the other hacks.
Another theme, which Beaumont finds expressed in the writings of the Irish author and Grub Street denizen Oliver Goldsmith, is that night reveals the truth about a city. Night is when the “repressed content of its inhabitants’ abject and miserable lives irrupts” – and you see the city as it really is, in all its desperation. The “degraded, feral people who are invisible during the day” come out to haunt the city at night. At the time, poets were joining the ranks of the marginalized in solidarity. One of my favourite anecdotes in Nightwalking is the description of Goldsmith, a “militant pedestrian,” doing a version of the Grand Tour on foot, paying his way “by tutoring, gambling and playing the flute.” Where he went, the Romantics would soon follow.
In the aftermath of the French Revolution, pedestrianism and faux vagrancy rose thoroughly into fashion. Beaumont quotes Solnit, who characterizes the shift as “away from art and aristocracy toward nature and democracy.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau was now the master, and he inspired disciples like William Wordsworth to feats of extreme pedestrianism, wandering lonely as a cloud up hill and down dale while penning verses. Occasionally the book strays from nightwalking in particular to pedestrianism in general, but this deviation is harmless enough, and before long we are back on the main path.
Beaumont identifies particular turning points in the history of walking. For example, there is “the improvement in national transport links, and the extension of the Enclosure Acts” in the mid-eighteenth century, which gave a boost to the Romantic revolution in nature walking. The Enclosure Acts radically cut down the number of public footpaths, but they had the positive effect of encouraging people to use and thus “unenclose” public paths – because use itself creates right of way under English common law. Then as now, the rule is: use it or lose it.
It is impossible to talk here about all aspects of this wide-ranging book. Blake features importantly, for example, as another “compulsive walker,” and his Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion receives an insightful reading. Blake’s principal memory of childhood was of walking – how many of the present generation of English or North American children will be able to say the same? De Quincey’s hallucinatory night walks, spurred on by the “mania and insomnia of his addiction” to laudanum, appear in these pages. A letter from Charles Lamb to Wordsworth containing an “ecstatic hymn to urban night” is beautifully apt: “The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about [London’s] crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much Life.” Also present are the layers of London’s history that contemporary psychogeography loves to uncover – that Cromwell’s bones might “still lie beneath Marble Arch,” where the famous gallows known as Tyburn Tree once stood, although no memorial to Cromwell exists in that spot.
In the 1820s the “occult magic” of gaslighting reached London, and shortly thereafter Dickens – “the great heroic and neurotic nightwalker of the nineteenth century” – arrived on the scene. Why make Dickens the culmination of this book? He was by all accounts a maniacal walker, by night and otherwise: proudly averaging four miles an hour over long distances, and getting up in the middle of the night to walk from his Bloomsbury residence to his country house in Kent. His walking seems to have been propelled by demons: especially from the 1850s onward, after the death of his father and as his marriage to Catherine deteriorated, Beaumont argues that Dickens “wanted to tire himself out.” Night walks also gave the celebrity novelist the anonymity he craved. All this fervid activity despite having what Beaumont suspects was gout – and no air-cushioned trainers, either.
That’s the biographical aspect – then there is Dickens’s fiction itself, “which is soaked in the semiotics of walking.” Beaumont takes us through the highlights of pedestrianism in Dickens’s novels, before returning in the end to the main reason for nightwalking – the “extinction of the city and the self”: “freed from his connections to a functioning civilization, Dickens’s encounter with the non-being of the night entails the liberation of the self as well as its obliteration.” What is left, Beaumont tells us with a nod to Hegel, is “pure Self.”
The figure of the flâneur makes an appearance at the end of the book, accompanied by an attentive reading of Poe’s short story “The Man of the Crowd”. The story, which is a focus of Walter Benjamin’s essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1940), depicts an even more exaggerated form of Dickens’s “irresistible compulsion” for walking, as well as the cat-and-mouse interplay between “nightwalker and nightstalker.” (It’s a brilliant story – I recommend reading or re-reading it even before you tackle Beaumont’s book.) But the reason Beaumont ends with Poe’s story in his conclusion is that it restates the central social message of the book: it is “an allegory of the criminalization of those who inhabit the nocturnal city.” Poe’s “Man of the Crowd” is, at last, “simply the repository of popular suspicions about solitary individuals who occupy the metropolitan streets at night” – individuals whose plight Beaumont, himself a nightwalker, seems to want above all to illuminate. - Julian Hanna
An aural education to London after dark
Matthew Beaumont, Utopia, Ltd.: Ideologies of Social Dreaming in England 1870-1900, Historical Materialism, 2009.
This book uncovers the historical preconditions for the explosive revival of utopian literature at the nineteenth-century fin de siècle, and excavates its ideological content. It marks a contribution not only to the literary and cultural history of the late-Victorian period, and to the expanding field of utopian studies, but to the development of a Marxist critique of utopianism. The book is particularly concerned with three kinds of political utopia or anti-utopia, those of 'state socialism', feminism, and anti-communism (the characteristic expression of this last example being the cacotopia). After an extensive contextual account of the politics of utopia in late-nineteenth century England, it devotes a chapter to each of these topics before developing an original reinterpretation of William Morris's seminal Marxist utopia, News from Nowhere.
Utopia Ltd. is remarkable for its detailed historical grasp of the late-nineteenth century. Beaumont operates at a high conceptual level, demonstrating a sophisitcated understanding of Marxist cultural theory, which is most effectively put to use as an explanatory framework. There is much impressvely original work here, both in terms of ideas and in the bringing to light of hitherto little-discussed texts. There is also a good balance between original research on the one hand, and, on the other, a fresh approach to more canonical works such as Morris's News from Nowhere. The book is full of illuminating insights, lucidly and coherently argued.' - Terry Eagleton
'This is a very convincing, often original, and lucidly written reading of late-nineteenth century utopian literature that makes a fine contribution to the ever-growing field of fin-de-siècle studies.' -
'Utopia Ltd. presents us with a new constellation of the field under inquiry, or — as one of Beaumont's masters of thought, Benjamin, would say — with a dialectical image which on the one hand makes some common features of late-nineteenth century utopian literature stand out, and on the other does not neglect the single stars. I recommend it warmly.' - Darko Suvin
'What I find particularly valuable about this book is the way in which it provides a new framework for understanding well-known texts such as Bellamy's Looking Backward, and especially Morris's News from Nowhere, by situating them in relation to the large output of utopian and "cacatopian" literature produced in the late nineteenth century. This phenomenon is an ideological episode worthy of attention in its own right, as a symptom of the widely-perceived crisis of bourgeois culture around the fin de siècle, and Beaumont does a convincing job of explaining it, thereby making it interesting to the reader. But I suspect that many on the left will be drawn to this study by the way it helps us towards a fuller understanding of Morris's News from Nowhere and issues around Marxist utopianism.' - Andrew Hemingway
Matthew Beaumont and Gregory Dart, eds., Restless Cities, Verso Books, 2010.
The metropolis is a site of endless making and unmaking. From the attempt to imagine a ‘city-symphony’ to the cinematic tradition that runs from Walter Ruttmann to Terence Davies, Restless Cities traces the idiosyncratic character of the metropolitan city from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first-century megalopolis. With explorations of phenomena including nightwalking, urbicide, property, commuting and recycling, this wide-ranging new book identifies and traces the patterns that have defined everyday life in the modern city and its effect on us as individuals. Bringing together some of the most significant cultural writers of our time, Restless Cities is an illuminating, revelatory journey to the heart of our metropolitan world.