Book review: Nightwalking shows the seamy side of nocturnal London
For centuries it was illegal – and dangerous – to be out on the streets of London after dark. Matthew Beaumont’s brilliant book takes a literary look at this forbidden, forbidding territory
by Matthew Beaumont
Richard of Devizes, a cleric and chronicler of the late 12th century, once cautioned people about the dangers of the UK’s capital city. “You will come to London. Behold! I warn you, whatever of evil or of perversity there is in any, whatever in all parts of the world, you will find in that city alone.” There then follows a long list of the kind of places and characters to avoid, such as “effeminate sodomites” and “lewd musical girls” – and among them are people who walk the streets at night.
People who do so, it is often assumed, are up to no good. (It’s one of the reasons I like doing it.) For much of history, you had to have a pretty good reason to be out after dark. Edward II made it illegal to be abroad after eight in the evening; the law, although modified, was not repealed until 1827. In later years it wasn’t really enforced, but it didn’t have to be: until street lighting became common, there was always an element of danger at night, and criminals who broke other laws after dark could be killed on the spot.
Yet the urge to walk the streets at night is irrepressible. You can do it, like Charles Dickens , when you are stuck in composition; or you may be prompted by insomnia, or curiosity, or perversity – or lust. “Love only is awake … love of no heartless order, legal or illegal,” was how Leigh Hunt put it in his Walks Home by Night, which was published in 1828 – the year after nightwalking became officially legal. “It is a playful, if slightly complacent, allusion to the presence of prostitutes in the streets,” Matthew Beaumont notes, and indeed the theme of prostitution continues through the book. Women walking the streets after dark have long been considered either to be prostitutes, or potential victims of rapists; this shameful double standard has fuelled much reflection, whether in the statutes of medieval times or the descriptions of bawds and bawdy houses throughout the years.
In his poem London, William Blake sees indistinctly because he walks the street by night; but he sees enough to make out the “marks of weakness, marks of woe” on everyone’s faces (“crude signatures of an oppressive, rapaciously commercial society,” Beaumont says), and his hearing is acute enough to catch “the youthful Harlot’s curse” blasting the new-born and “the Marriage hearse”.
Nightwalking’s emphasis on London, and the writers who paced its streets, doesn’t mean an apology to other cities is necessary: London can here stand for all cities, which means Beaumont can concentrate – not exclusively, but mostly – on the writers who have been shaped by the city, or shaped our understanding of it. It also gives the book solid ground, so to speak, on which to operate.
And he has plenty of writers to draw from. There are nearly 500 pages, with notes, and the book bursts with learning. In fact, you get the impression that Beaumont has had to leave masses of stuff out, for reasons of space. He stops with Dickens, you feel, from exhaustion, but there is no sense of a history that is over, or dead: this is a book pulsing with life, just as the streets do, despite attempts to cut off that liminal, semi-illicit existence. The foreword and afterword, by Will Self , beautifully bracket the book, reinforcing the idea that the city is layered over time, and that each layer is accessible, and can be made vivid in the imagination. Why Nightwalking has not won a major award is beyond mine.