Despite the brash, bright intrusions of modern life on nocturnal London, one is usually able to amble in the small hours from Piccadilly, say, through the darker, less populous tributaries of the traffic-clogged thoroughfares, to Regent’s Park in the north, St James’s Park in the south, Hyde Park to the west or St Paul’s Cathedral to the east, encountering with varying degrees of pleasure “roisterers and rogues”, “opprobrious women” and other fellow nightwalkers along the way.
And yet dipping back into Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London (Verso, $40) by Matthew Beaumont, a lecturer, critic and author who “lives and walks in London”, one cannot help but think the golden age of nightwalking has passed. Indeed, depending on where you live, this is never more true than now.
Still, as Beaumont writes in his introduction: “In the more sequestered streets, once the pubs are closed, and at a distance from the 24-hour convenience stores, the sodium gleam of the street lamps, or the flickering strip-light from a soporific minicab stand, offers little consolation.” One has indeed entered the surreal world of the “nocturnal picaresque”.
Bookended by an afterword and foreword by fellow author and nightwalker Will Self, Beaumont’s “alternative history of London” is literary criticism at its most surreal and entertaining, drawing the reader into dreamscapes and cityscapes alike through the works and perambulations of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake (“a compulsive walker who endlessly traversed London in his own company”), Wordsworth, De Quincy, Johnson and that “supreme nightwalker” Charles Dickens, as well as a multitude of other authors who have at various times dipped their toes in that “nursery of a Naughty and Lewd People”.
Beaumont charts the shifting attitudes to nightwalking — which are intimately connected with increasing levels of street illumination — from medieval times when nightwalking without good reason carried high penalties through to the Victorian era, when “prostitutes, beggars and vagabonds” still “resided in a different kind of nocturnal city to the brilliant one relished by aristocrats and aspirant bourgeois”.
Yet he is also surely right to say there is still “something purgatorial . . . about almost all forms of walking at night. Nightwalking is caught between a state of freedom and one of confinement”.
The the truth of this can be tested any night of the week even by traversing the purgatorial regions of some of Perth’s inner-city suburbs with only the moon for company, the lurid graffiti defacing the laneways’ gates and fences assuming a greyish pallor, while the charming domestic architecture of a bygone era takes on a more sinister aspect.
Which nocturnal wanderings also put me in mind of similar expeditions through, for example, Melbourne’s alleys and laneways, whose own graffiti and street art at night take on the aspect of candlelit medieval frescoes. Even successive layers of billposters in various stages of decay, make palimpsests of the dirty walls.
Is such urban nightwalking underrated? A lot depends on where you are in the world, and on safety and accessibility issues. But from my own experience, it really does afford one a different perspective not just on a particular location but on travel in general. Sometimes the truth really does lie in the shadows.
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