nightwalking with dickens

‎‘Some years ago, a temporary inability to sleep, referable to a distressing impression, caused me to walk about the streets all night, for a series of several nights.’ So begins Charles Dickens essay ‘Night Walks’, an essay written for his column as ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’ in the early 1860s. I start my walk – following his route – in the converse state to his description of sleeplessness, at the end of a long day and evening’s work, in the last hour or so before sleep. The day’s work done, the evening passed: I’ve been waiting for the pubs to close to start my walk. Only then does London change, when most of the people with homes and people waiting for them have all vacated. The city is taken over with the homeless and the diaspora of transient inhabitants. When the real cold comes in – on a November night like this – and something close to silence begins. As close to silence as London ever gets.

At this time of night the streets are beyond surreal. I see what Matthew Beaumont means now when he says ‘The nighttime is another city’. Not enough has been said about Dickens the Surrealist: the creator of ghostly palimpsest Paul Dombey, puppeteer of the ultra-industrial backdrop of the city, the man who made one of his characters spontaneously combust. Dickens made his nightwalk in March, I’m here nine months – and over 150 years – later. The hands of the clock are the same: half-past twelve. Dickens invented a word for those still out at this time: ‘houseless’. This is a kind of temporary homelessness of a body outside the confines – and safety – of four walls. Despite the end-of-the-day tiredness, all my senses – the rods and cones at the back of my eyes – are fox-sharp. My nerves hooked to the movement of each shadow.

I remind myself what a new phenomenon this is: to be able to walk at night without suspicion of arrest. ‘Who walks alone in the streets at night? The sad, the mad, the bad. The lost, the lonely. The hypomanic, the catatonic. The sleepless, the homeless. All the city’s internal exiles.’ This is Matthew Beaumont again. His book tells us that in the late Middle Ages nightwalkers were knows as ‘noctavigators’. Wanderers without purpose: stragglers. In Elizabethan England there was a curfew on being outside the confines of the City after 9pm in summer and at dusk during winter. But this is historical. These days one in eight of people in the UK work nights – we’ve become used to the flux of human traffic after dark. Though it always feels different to be out in it yourself, alone. The old social unconscious is hard to shake off. ‎

Dickens made the distinction between walking ‘straight on end to a definite goal at a round pace’ and that which is ‘objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond’. I realise that – if stopped for questioning – I would form the latter. To say ‘I'm writing a book’ is a very different – and less plausible – reason, than saying: ‘I’m heading to my shift at St Thomas’s hospital’. Though I wouldn’t be the first writer for whom the act of writing has landed them in casualty.

In his essay ‘Poor Mercantile Jack’ Dickens takes us on a journey through the docklands of Liverpool – also at night – and despite being accompanied by police officers but it’s not the city’s poor inhabitants that receives his satire, but the law. The four officers he walks with are lampooned as ‘Mr Superintendent’, ‘Trampfoot’, ‘Quickest’ and ‘Sharpeye’. Despite the police officers eagerness to show up the black residents Dickens sees through this and paints then with affection. Trampfoot is keen to show Dickens ‘Dark Jack’:

But we had not yet looked, Mr Superintendent – said Trampfoot, receiving us in the street with military salute – for Dark Jack. True, Trampfoot. Ring the wonderful stick, rub the wonderful lantern, and cause the spirits of the stick and lantern to convey us to darkness. 

There’s a scathing spittle of satire against Trampfoot’s attempt to conjure a genie here‎. And what Dickens concludes – after being taken to a dance and drinking several lemonades there – is that ‘If I were Light Jack, I should be very slow to interfere oppressively with Dark Jack, for, whenever I have had to do with him I have found him a simple and a gentle fellow.’

These are the ‘midnight streets’ where Blake heard ‘the youthful harlots curse.’ I see what Dickens means about London – and he referenced Borough and Old Kent Road on the south side as specific examples of this – when he said that it ‘has expiring fits and starts of restlessness’. The intoxicated magnetize, he suggested: ‘when one drunk staggers into the shutters of a shop another will soon be along to fight with it’.

I have arrived, like Dickens, at Waterloo Bridge. He describes looking at the bridge’s tollkeeper, wrapped in shawls against the cold‎, resistant to the dawn. The only contented person to be seen. ‘The bridge was dreary’ Dickens says: it still is. He wrote of the water dripping from all around him: ‘Drip, drip, drip, from ledge and coping, splash from pipes and water-spouts.’ When Dickens looked out across the river he saw ‘the buildings on the banks were muffled in black shrouds’. Tonight there’s neon as far‎ as the eye can see: the deep blues of the Pizza Express logo on Belvedere Road, the seventies’ orange of Brasserie Blanc. There’s no drip drip tonight but there is a fierce hurtling wind coming in off the river. Waterloo Bridge has been rebuilt since Dickens walked here and there are now numerous ways to access it from the South Bank – each of them impossible to find at night. A red staircase spirals up between the BFI and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Beyond the BFI – which is advertising a season of 'films to fall in love with or break your heart’ – I look for the solid base, a staircase worthy of the tollkeeper Dickens described. People are parting around a revving cab, a young woman among them shouts: ‘I love you all!’. A man is walking more slowly than I am – hooded against the wind, wearing shorts. Earphones beneath his hood. There is a new kind of nightwalker, one that isn’t homeless – and not even houseless – but simply here. Transient. Passing between rented beds.

It’s only a week after the Paris bombings and the only thing to cut the silence is tension. The occasional person I pass would have ignored me a week ago – now we are quickly glancing, checking. Creating a narrative as to why the other person is out at night. I walk up the imperious steps to the bridge. When my eight year old son heard the news about the attacks in Paris he asked ‘when will the war be over, is it finished?’ The London I’m writing about now – like any London writer – is mostly unknown. Things change before text goes to print. Could Dickens have imagined the future zeppelins over the foggy streets he loved? The blitz of shrapnel? Bombings at Russell Square? The words go down as mere impressions – trapped in time – waiting for the city to flex, or fracture or morph – into a new incarnation. To see Dickens as really here you have to think of the modernity of the Victorians, the man who could write that: ‘each century [is] more amazed by the century following it than by all the centuries going before.’ A man passes in a black beanie – listening to his headphones – heading north towards the Strand. To the ghosts Dickens said that he saw in the windows of the closed theatres.

What has not changed is the aloneness of the transient houseless. This has exacerbated. Dickens described an incident at St Martin’s Church in which a beetle-like, ghostly man in his‎ twenties seemed to disappear before Dickens’s eyes: leaving the rags he was wearing in his hands. Occasionally, in the day, people walk across the South Bank and stop to ask for directions. This rarely happens after midnight. People walk because there is safety in walking. If someone was to make contact unexpectedly we’d all turn to rags and disappear. A few weeks back I was on the night bus and the driver – stopping the bus – came up the stairs to ask a child aged about eight who they were with? Faces in phones, sleeping, drunk: no one had noticed the child. Then a young man – getting some downtime with his iPod at the back of the bus – appeared to claim back responsibility for his younger brother.

Dickens walked northwards to the theatres, watching ghostly shadows appear in the upper windows. He then went on to Newgate Prison – along the north bank to Billingsgate – before crossing back on London Bridge to the ‘surrey shore’. Then to King’s Bench prison, and with good reason: Dickens – agitated in mind and unable to sleep – was haunted by his childhood experience of visiting his father in the debtor’s prison at Marshalsea. The experience changed the way he looked ‎at the poor throughout his life. He then walked to Bethlehem Hospital – the current Imperial War Museum – and into the parameters of this book: ‘partly, because it lay on my road round to Westminster’. He also had an idea that had occurred to his overactive, sleepless mind: ‘Are not the same and insane equal at night as the sane lie a dreaming?’

On Blackfriars Bridge Road the new bus stop is planted in the freshly laid concrete. The mulch of root and bone has been replaced. A man stands next to the pillar, as some do, bobbing on his toes with a Metro in his hands. A cyclist goes past with an orange Sainsbury’s bag swinging from the handlebars. Two men walk together, laughing at the behaviour of someone else they’ve just been in a bar with. It’s nearly one o’clock in the morning now and still the people continue to surface: Orpheus figures led by the underworld of their phones. Apologies sent to sleeping lovers. No one stands still – even while standing.

A bus passes: the number 4, making its way to Waterloo. A blast of hot air streams from its reignited exhaust. Two men pass me, talking in Spanish, smiling. In the dark, after midnight, the passing shadows of others can be whatever we want them to be. Dickens saw no cyclists at night. There were no candles for the nightcyclist. And the cars, now, never end – on the bridge there is a constant stream of full-beams heading towards me. The next language floating on the wind is German as a young man – like a thin Rainer Werner Fassbinder – walks past, expounding emphatically. Then the white noise of the never-silence comes again. It is these torrents of people and movement that define our night London from that of Dickens. South Bank speed. The city sleeps – like fish – with its eyes open. On the other side of the glass are‎ those who bother to watch. The 188 bus stops and opens its doors, though there’s no one to embark or alight. Commuter ghosts.

I walk back to Waterloo Road. A man in a suit – his tails like cut flippers – marches against the backdrop of another Sainsbury’s window, with an umbrella and a batch of newspapers. Three students stumble into the shop. There’s no need for an end goal – another drink or a home – it’s perfectly possible to just be in today’s night London. This new breed of the transient know that it’s possible to simply be here, out under the stars – night is the same as day, working and dreaming are the same thing – being away from something is as good as being present elsewhere. These are not the houseless but the consenting revenants. I jump the bus. It follows a cyclist without a light towards the Elephant & Castle. A tree branch thumps the window as we approach St George’s Circus. This is the night bus: the known route cloned for after hours. The night bus is a kind of living hearse for the drunk – the aggressive and the lost – but tonight the experience offers some level of serenity. It is emptier than usual – as if the recent bombings took place in this city – and I watch the reflections from the front mirror reflecting those behind me: a woman, with a ribbon in her hair, reading the Metro. The rest are texting. Quiet last words: it feels like we’re all writing them now.

Leaving a data trace of where we are.

Touching text.


Meaning it.

'Nightwalking with Dickens' is an extract from Real South Bank which will be published by Seren in June 2016.


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