THE MAN WHO had spoken to him was clearly a Cockney, with the clean lines and weakly pretty, almost effeminate, face of the man who has absorbed the sound of Bow Bells with his mother’s milk . . . “An’ ’ow yer feelin’ now, sir?” he asked, with the subservient smirk which comes only of generations of tip-seeking ancestors . . . I never heard a voice I hated so. Positively, he was the most disgusting and loathsome person I have ever met.
So the American writer Jack London described the ship’s cook in The Sea Wolf, published in 1904 and later made into a good film starring Edward G. Robinson.
London had taken a more sympathetic view of Cockneys the year before in The People of the Abyss, his social investigation of life and poverty in the East End. Like J.B.S. Haldane, London was an adventure-seeking alpha male who sided with the underdog. Unlike Haldane, London came from a poor working-class background, selling newspapers in the street at the age of ten before graduating to poaching oysters in San Francisco Bay.
The book is still lively and readable today, ageing much better than contemporary socialist tracts like Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England. London is an outsider in the East End, but more for reasons of nationality than class. He dons shabby clothes to stay in hostels and lodging-houses, and in one passage renders the sounds of a fight in such detail that you know he was fascinated by it:
As I write this, and for an hour past, the air has been made hideous by a free-for-all, rough-and-tumble fight going on in the yard that is back to back with my yard. When the first sounds reached me I took it for the barking and snarling of dogs, and some minutes were required to convince me that human beings, and women at that, could produce such a fearful clamour.
Drunken women fighting! It is not nice to think of; it is far worse to listen to. Something like this it runs –
Incoherent babble, shrieked at the top of the lungs of several women; a lull, in which is heard a child crying and a young girl’s voice pleading tearfully; a woman’s voice rises, harsh and grating, “You ’it me! Jest you ’it me!” then, swat! challenge accepted and fight rages afresh.
The back windows of the houses commanding the scene are lined with enthusiastic spectators, and the sound of blows, and of oaths that make one’s blood run cold, are borne to my ears. Happily, I cannot see the combatants.
A lull; “You let that child alone!” child, evidently of few years, screaming in downright terror. “Awright,” repeated insistently and at top pitch twenty times straight running; “you’ll git this rock on the ’ead!” and then rock evidently on the head from the shriek that goes up.
A lull; apparently one combatant temporarily disabled and being resuscitated; child’s voice audible again, but now sunk to a lower note of terror and growing exhaustion.
Voices begin to go up the scale, something like this:–
Sufficient affirmation on both sides, conflict again precipitated. One combatant gets overwhelming advantage, and follows it up from the way the other combatant screams bloody murder. Bloody murder gurgles and dies out, undoubtedly throttled by a strangle hold.
Entrance of new voices; a flank attack; strangle hold suddenly broken from the way bloody murder goes up half an octave higher than before; general hullaballoo, everybody fighting.
Lull; new voice, young girl’s, “I’m goin’ ter tyke my mother’s part;” dialogue, repeated about five times, “I’ll do as I like, blankety, blank, blank!” “I’d like ter see yer, blankety, blank, blank!” renewed conflict, mothers, daughters, everybody, during which my landlady calls her young daughter in from the back steps, while I wonder what will be the effect of all that she has heard upon her moral fibre.
Many of the people London met assumed he was a seaman down on his luck. He seems able to befriend others quickly and easily, and here some workmen take him to visit their sweatshop:
In the adjoining room lived a woman and six children. In another vile hole lived a widow, with an only son of sixteen who was dying of consumption. The woman hawked sweetmeats on the street, I was told, and more often failed than not to supply her son with the three quarts of milk he daily required. Further, this son, weak and dying, did not taste meat oftener than once a week; and the kind and quality of this meat cannot possibly be imagined by people who have never watched human swine eat.
“The w’y ’e coughs is somethin’ terrible,” volunteered my sweated friend, referring to the dying boy. “We ’ear ’im ’ere, w’ile we’re workin’, an’ it’s terrible, I say, terrible!”
Tuberculosis is a disease of overcrowding, and in recent years it’s begun to reappear in parts of Tower Hamlets. But in the early 1900s the sound of coughing was surely much more common, not only because of disease, but also the terrible air quality, dusty conditions in the workplace, and the popularity of smoking.
As Orwell was to do thirty years later in Down and Out in Paris and London, so London describes the noises of a night in a men’s hostel:
At the coronation of Edward VII, London witnesses ‘another race of men from those of the shops and slums, a totally different race of men’, strong and well-fed and with overpowering force at their command. Compared to them the people of the abyss are runts, made so by a mismanaged civilisation.
But hark! There is cheering down Whitehall; the crowd sways, the double walls of soldiers come to attention, and into view swing the King’s watermen, in fantastic mediaeval garbs of red, for all the world like the van of a circus parade. [. . .] And now the Horse Guards, a glimpse of beautiful cream ponies, and a golden panoply, a hurricane of cheers, the crashing of bands – “The King! the King! God save the King!” Everybody has gone mad. The contagion is sweeping me off my feet – I, too, want to shout, “The King! God save the King!” Ragged men about me, tears in their eyes, are tossing up their hats and crying ecstatically, “Bless ’em! Bless ’em! Bless ’em!” See, there he is, in that wondrous golden coach, the great crown flashing on his head, the woman in white beside him likewise crowned. [. . .]
Princes and princelings, dukes, duchesses, and all manner of coroneted folk of the royal train are flashing past; more warriors, and lackeys, and conquered peoples, and the pagent is over. I drift with the crowd out of the square into a tangle of narrow streets, where the public-houses are a-roar with drunkenness, men, women, and children mixed together in colossal debauch. And on every side is rising the favourite song of the Coronation:–
“Oh! on Coronation Day, on Coronation Day,
We’ll have a spree, a jubilee, and shout, Hip, hip, hooray,
For we’ll all be marry, drinking whisky, wine, and sherry,
We’ll all be merry on Coronation Day.”
The rain is pouring down. Up the street come troops of the auxiliaries, black Africans and yellow Asiatics, beturbaned and befezed, and coolies swinging along with machine guns and mountain batteries on their heads, and the bare feet of all, in quick rhythm, going slish, slish, slish through the pavement mud. The public-houses empty by magic, and the swarthy allegiants are cheered by their British brothers, who return at once to the carouse.