IN MORE PRUDISH times, books setting out to titillate often justify themselves with a solemn preface. This was a stock feature of the sub-Olympia Press soft porn titles of the 1960s: “The Jet Age has seen the rise of a new phenomenon, that of ‘the swinger’, and it is one which society must begin to understand.”
James Greenwood’s The Wilds of London was published in 1874. In the preface Greenwood lays out his book’s noble aims:
A nod’s as good as a wink, and with that Greenwood sets out on an entertaining and occasionally prurient odyssey across the seedy sides of London life which his readers will be very interested in, but perhaps too nervous to visit in person. This follows a London literary tradition with its origins in Ned Ward’s The London Spy published at the close of the 17th century.
The first chapter is titled A Visit to ‘Tiger Bay’, and Greenwood wastes no time explaining how dangerous and exotic this part of Wapping is:
Greenwood dutifully searches for tigresses and soon finds himself within a warren of brothels and drinking dens. First stop is the ‘Globe and Pigeons’, where music and dancing are heard:
He buys a half-ounce of tobacco from a ‘tigress’ dressed as a fairy, then makes his excuses and leaves. Greenwood decides to follow a sailor stumbling towards the ‘Gunboat’:
Next is a description of the Gunboat’s comic singer:
Paddy don’t care seems to have been a popular song performed in different places and times throughout the English-speaking world. There’s a brief reference to it as part of a fundraising drive in New Zealand in 1890, and in 1949 the famous ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax recorded Clayton McMichen playing it on the fiddle.
It’d be interesting to know if there was any similarity between Paddy don’t care, with the raucous inter-verse laughter described by Greenwood, and George W. Johnson’s The Laughing Song from the 1890s, which in turn inspired Charles Jolly to write the music-hall song The Laughing Policeman in 1922. The latter is still quite widely known, and it went through some curious developments. In Denmark it became The Laughing Eskimo, and in Britain coin-operated ‘Laughing Policeman’ and ‘Laughing Sailor’ automata were once a familiar sight at seaside resorts.
There are a lot of good auditory descriptions in The Wilds of London, and I’ll be posting some more soon. I’ve been working from an original Chatto and Windus edition, but Lee Jackson’s fantastic The Victorian Dictionary website has it all online here.