Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

20 December 2011

James Greenwood's 'The Wilds of London' from 1874

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:

It is only by perseveringly and persistently proclaiming the existence of evils that one may hope to rouse those who hold the power to apply proper remedies, and it is not without hope of assisting this desirable end that the papers herein collected under the title of the “Wilds of London,” are now added to the somewhat numerous list of kindred volumes I have from time to time been encouraged to set before an indulgent public.

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:

Everybody addicted to the perusal of police reports, as faithfully chronicled by the daily press, has read of Tiger Bay, and of the horrors perpetrated there – of unwary mariners betrayed to that craggy and hideous shore by means of false beacons, and mercilessly wrecked and stripped and plundered – of the sanguinary fights of white men and plug-lipped Malays and ear-ringed Africans, with the tigresses who swarm in the ‘Bay’, giving it a name.

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:

I spied a passage, and across the end of it hanging curtains of dirty chintz, through the chinks of which shone the glare of gas beyond; likewise was to be heard the scraping of feet against the floor, and the twanging of a harp, and the shrill piping of a cornocopean. No one hindering me or requiring to know where I was going, I approached the calico barrier to the realms of bliss, raised it, and entered.

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’:

I may as well mention that the amusements provided at this establishment differed materially from that offered at the Globe and Pigeons. Besides dancing, at the Gunboat there was clog-hornpiping and comic singing [. . .] “Master Whatyercallem will oblige with a clog dance,” cried the landlord (who was likewise M.C. and evidently on the best terms with the tigresses), and at once the young gentleman, whose name I couldn’t catch, shuffled to the platform end of the room and commenced wearily footing it to the soul-stirring music emitted from the piano. “Chuck it out, Bill! chuck it out,” the M.C. called in a sharp reproving tone, and Bill “chucked it out” spitefully, as though it was his malicious design to split his clogs and put his proprietor to the expensive of buying him a new pair. However, he made a tremendous clatter and appeared to give general satisfaction.

Next is a description of the Gunboat’s comic singer:

His song was an Irish song entitled “Paddy don’t care,” and its success with the audience seemed to depend entirely on the singer’s ability to deliver himself of a roaring devil-may-care laugh and dealing a terrific whack to the floor boards at the close of each verse.

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.