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London Labour and the London Poor

By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

It was an ordinary enough London winter’s evening: chilly, damp, and churning with crowds. I’d arranged to meet a friend at the Curzon Mayfair cinema, and after my packed tube had been held up between stations – ten sweaty minutes during which my fellow passengers had fumed silently, tutted audibly, and in one or two cases struck up tentative conversations with the person whose shopping was digging into their shins – I was late. Coming out of the entrance to the station, I nimbly side-stepped a beggar with a cardboard sign – sorry, bit of a rush, direct debit to Shelter, can’t stop – and hurried on my way to the cinema.

The film was Slumdog Millionaire: a nerve-shredding if ultimately cheering investigation into the hidden lives of the Indian slums. Coming out of the cinema, though, it was impossible to avoid the realiszation that equally vivid stories lay much closer to home. I retraced my steps to the tube station, and this time instead of brushing the beggar off I listened to what he had to say. It was a sadly familiar account of alcohol, a broken marriage, and homelessness, but as he told it the events took on a vividly personal colouring that was new and strange. He made me look again at what I thought I already knew.

The idea that what takes place under our noses can be hard to see clearly is hardly an original one; indeed, anyone who lives in a city soon learns to recognize the sensation of life being jolted out of its familiar routines, and assumptions being rearranged by new experiences. However, this idea took on a new resonance a few weeks later, when I was asked to edit a new selection of London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew’s mammoth set of interviews with the street-sellers, beggars, entertainers, prostitutes, thieves, and all the rest of the human flotsam and jetsam that had washed up in the capital during the 1840s and 1850s.

Ask most readers – and not a few critics – who Henry Mayhew was, and the result is likely to be at best a puzzled stare. Though his voice pops up occasionally in recent work, from Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Deceptions’ to novels such as Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, for the most part he has become the Invisible Man of Victorian culture. And like H. G. Wells’s hero, usually he is detectable only by the movements of his surroundings, from Charles Kingsley’s jeremiad against the exploitation of cheap tailors in Alton Locke, to the strange echoes of his interview subjects in characters like Jo in Dickens’s Bleak House.

In some ways these literary aftershocks and offshoots of London Labour and the London Poor accurately reflect the work’s own generic hybridity. Opening Mayhew’s pages, it is hard to escape the feeling that you are encountering a writer who has one foot in the world of fact, one foot in the world of fiction, and hops between them with a curious mixture of uncertainty and glee. Sober tables of research are interrupted by facts of the strange-but-true variety: ‘Total quantity of rain falling yearly in the metropolis, 10,686,132,230,400 cubic inches’, or ‘The drainage of London is about equal in length to the diameter of the earth itself’. Even cigar-ends don’t escape his myth-making tendencies. Not content with calculating the number thrown away each week (30,000) and guessing at the proportion picked up by the cigar-end finders (a sixth), he continues by explaining how this ‘refuse tobacco’ is made into new cigars; ‘or, in other words, they are worked up again to be again cast away, and again collected by the finders, and so on perhaps, till the millennium comes’. It is a good example of what a contemporary reviewer meant by Mayhew’s ‘wonderful series of revelations suddenly disclosed in our own country, existing as it were, under our very feet’.

Together these sudden gear-changes of approach and style suggest that perhaps London Labour and the London Poor should be seen as a collaborative project, not just between Mayhew and the assistants who sought out his interview subjects and helped him compile his staggering tables of data, but between Mayhew and himself. It is a work in which the dispassionate investigative reporter met the bohemian artist about town, and the result was a piece of journalism that was sympathetic but wary, curious but respectful, sharply attentive to local details such as a walnut-seller’s brown-stained fingers, but also capable of explaining the social context that kept her in her place like a fly caught in a web.

In many ways she is still there. The longer I worked on this edition, the more I started to realize that Mayhew’s figures continue to live among us. For instance, his account of the cheap goods sold on street corners that carry ‘gaudy labels bearing sometimes the name of a well-known firm, but altered in spelling or otherwise’ will be familiar to anyone who has been tempted to buy a ‘Louis Viton’ handbag or ‘Guchi’ watch, just as the swindler who poses as a ‘Decayed Gentleman’ and sends out begging-letters will strike a chord with anyone stung by email spam.

From time to time, when I was choosing the passages that would make it into this new selection, Ralph McTell’s famous song would come into my head:

Have you seen the old man
In the closed-down market
Taking out the papers,
With his worn out shoes?
In his eyes you see no pride
Hands held loosely by his side
Yesterday’s paper telling yesterday’s news

So how can you tell me that you’re lonely,
Say for you that the sun don’t shine, and
Let me take you by the hand, lead you through the streets of London,
I’ll show you something to make you change your mind.

Mayhew made me see this old man, just as he made me see many of the other figures we may see more of once the recent UK spending review cuts start to bite. To pick up his book is to be taken by the hand and led through the streets of Victorian London. It is also to be introduced to the other London that so often seems unfamiliar to us: our own.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. He writes regularly for the Daily Telegraph and the Times Literary Supplement, and has previously edited Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books and Great Expectations for Oxford World’s Classics. He is the author of Victorian Afterlives: the Shaping of Influence in Nineteenth-Century Literature. You can watch him talk about his latest project, London Labour and the London Poor, here.

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