:: Article

exiled from daylight

By Julian Hanna.


Matthew Beaumont, Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London (Verso, 2015)

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 is Assistant Professor at Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute. He writes mainly on modernism, manifestos, and futurisms past and present, and files random thoughts at @julianisland.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 27th, 2015.