LONDON DOES NOT care, London does not threaten. London does not comfort. It does not speak, it does not wake. It does not dream. It does not know, it does not fear. It does not love, it does not hate. It does not encourage any of these qualities.
Michael Moorcock used those words for the opening of his novel The Black Corridor, only with ‘space’ instead of ‘London’. The acceptance of London’s neutrality and indifference perhaps comes more easily to those who arrive here from elsewhere, as in the 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners by the Trinidadian writer Sam Selvon.
Many others prefer the consoling thought of London having a hidden spirit which influences its inhabitants while outliving them. Even James Thomson’s gloomy poem The City of Dreadful Night gives London a purpose of sorts. This post presents some fine descriptions of urban sounds from Nights in London by Thomas Burke, written in 1915. He too wanted London to have a soul, so that he and the city could love each other.
Nights in London is a collection of journalistic essays describing different aspects of the city’s life and Burke’s night-time forays. This is a familiar template for metropolitan books which goes back at least as far as Ned Ward’s The London Spy at the close of the 17th century. But Burke is unusual in the intensity with which he tries to immerse himself completely in the city, describing it as his mistress. He was also a sensual man, alert to the sounds of London. In the first chapter, sound brings about a childhood epiphany:
It was a great night, because I was celebrating my seventh birthday, and I was proud and everything seemed to be sharing in my pride. Then, as I strutted, an organ, lost in strange lands about five streets away, broke into music. I had heard organs many times, and I loved them. But I had never heard an organ play “Suwanee River,” in the dusk of an October night, with a fried-fish shop ministering to my nose and flinging clouds of golden glory about me, and myself seven years old. Momentarily, it struck me silly – so silly that some big boy pointed a derisive finger. It somehow . . . I don’t know . . . It . . .
Well, as the organ choked and gurgled through the outrageous sentimentality of that song, I awoke. Something had happened to me. Through the silver evening a host of little dreams and desires came tripping down the street, beckoning and bobbing in rhythm to the old tune; and as the last of the luscious phrases trickled over the roofs I found myself half-laughing, half-crying, thrilled and tickled as never before. It made me want to die for some one. I think it was for London I wanted to die . . .
In the chapter titled ‘A Chinese Night’, Burke describes a visit to Limehouse:
But we were out for amusement, so, after the table hospitality, Sam took us into the Causeway. Out of the coloured darkness of Pennyfields came the muffled wail of reed instruments, the heart-cry of the Orient; noise of traffic; bits of honeyed talk. On every side were following feet: the firm, clear step of the sailor; the loud, bullying boots of the tough; the joyful steps that trickle from “The Green Man”; and, through all this chorus, most insistently, the stealthy, stuttering steps of the satyr . . .
Every window, as always, was closely shuttered, but between the joints shot jets of slim light, and sometimes you could catch the chanting of a little sweet song last sung in Rangoon or Swatow. One of these songs was once translated for me. I should take great delight in printing it here, but, alas! this, too, comes from a land where purity crusades are unknown. I dare not conjecture what Bayswater would do to me if I reproduced it.
We passed through Pennyfields, through clusters of gladly coloured men. Vaguely we remembered leaving Henrietta Street, London, and dining in Old Compton Street, Paris, a few hours ago. And now – was this Paris or London or Tuan-tsen or Taiping? Pin-points of light pricked the mist in every direction. A tom-tom moaned somewhere in the far-away.
In Burke’s day many of London’s street markets stayed open late, lit by gas and naphtha lamps. Here he describes the sounds and voices of a night-time market in the Isle of Dogs:
As the stalls clear out the stock so grows the vociferousness of their proprietors, and soon the ear becomes deadened by the striving rush of sound. Every stall and shop has its wide-mouthed laureate, singing its present glories and adding lustre to its latest triumphs.
“I’ll take any price yeh like, price yeh like! Comerlong, comerlong, Ma! This is the shop that does the biz. Buy-buy-buy-uy!”
“Walk up, ladies, don’t be shy. Look at these legs. Look at ‘em. Don’t keep looking at ‘em, though. Buy ‘em. Buy ‘em. Sooner you buy ‘em sooner I can get ‘ome and ‘ave my little bath. Come along, ladies; it’s a dirty night, but thank God I got good lodgings, and I hope you got the same. Buy-buy-buy!”
“‘Ere’s yer lovely bernanas. Fourer penny. Pick ‘em out where yeh like!”
In one ear a butcher yells a madrigal concerning his little shoulders. In the other a fruit merchant demands to know whether, in all your nacheral, you ever see anything like his melons. Then a yard or so behind you an organ and cornet take up their stand and add “Tipperary” to the swelling symphony.
Voices like that haven’t been completely wiped out by retail parks and supermarkets. This was recorded in Romford market in 2008:
Yet elsewhere Burke admits to feelings of bitterness in his youth. According to his Wikipedia entry, Burke’s father died when he an infant, and he went to live with an uncle in Poplar. Then, for reasons not given, he was sent at the age of ten to live in a home for middle-class boys from distressed families. While working as an office boy in his teens he rented a room on the busy Kingsland Road in Hackney:
My first night was the same as every other. My window looked out on a church tower which still further preyed on the wan light of the street, and, as I lay in bed, its swart height, pierced by the lit clock face, gloated stiffly over me. From back of beyond a furry voice came dolefully—
Goo bay to sum-mer, goo bay, goo baaaaay!
That song has thrilled and chilled me ever since. Next door an Easy Payments piano was being tortured by wicked fingers that sought after the wild grace of Weber’s “Invitation to the Valse.” From the street the usual London night sounds floated up until well after midnight. There was the dull, pessimistic tramp of the constable, and the long rumble of the Southwark-bound omnibus. Sometimes a stray motor-car would hoot and jangle in the distance, swelling to a clatter as it passed, and falling away in a pathetic diminuendo. A traction-engine grumbled its way along, shaking foundations and setting bed and ornaments a-trembling. Then came the blustering excitement of chucking-out at the “Galloping Horses.” Half a dozen wanted to fight; half a dozen others wanted to kiss; everybody wanted to live in amity and be jollyolpal. A woman’s voice cried for her husband, and abused a certain Long Charlie; and Long Charlie demanded with piteous reiteration: “Why don’t I wanter fight? Eh? Tell me that. Why don’t I wanter fight? Did you ‘ear what he called me? Did you ‘ear? He called me a—a—what was it he called me?”
Then came police, disbandment, and dark peace, as the strayed revellers melted into the night. Sometimes there would sound the faint tinkle of a belated hansom, chiming solitarily, as though weary of frivolity. And then a final stillness of which the constable’s step seemed but a part.
With no family to speak of, Christmas was a lonely time:
Burke overcomes being shut out of the bright circle of family life by identifiying with London, trying to dissolve himself within it and so be in all its places at once. A man who grew up with no secure home of his own now inhabits through imagination every home in London:
Belonging to no-one in particular, he wants to belong to everyone, like the neighbourhood cat. He treats encounters with strangers as marking new friendships. But many of these can only have been one-off meetings. During one trip to Whitechapel he misunderstands the etiquette in a Jewish restaurant and accepts being corrected by the waiter:
His almost indiscriminate regard for others doesn’t mean he worships an abstract idea of London and its people or what they should become. He has little time for the religious and political evangelists who descend on the poorer neighbourhoods wanting to improve others: “all those unhappy creatures who can find no congenial society in their own circles.”
Burke, on the other hand, wants to find congenial company everywhere and thinks most Londoners are just fine the way they are. This, and his powers of observation and description, makes Nights in London a good account of the Edwardian city.