Running shoes have become quite de rigeur on the streets of London.

And I can quite see why. When my father was ill in a London hospital, I would travel with running shoes on feet. The moment I stepped out of the tube station onto the London pavements I would begin to run.

It was a revelation, like pressing the fast forward button or finding some obscure cheat in Sonic The Hedgehog. I was not, like the poor cyclists, forced to pavane with the London taxis, but flew along the flagstones, weaving in and out of the commuters. Huge fun.

The crowds parted and one was elevated to a graceful, high-speed London. The gaps between station and destination, usually trudged with sore stillettos, seemed to shrink and become pleasurable. The effect, in short, was quite out of balance with the small act of putting on a pair of running shoes.

Everyone’s doing it. I wonder if this is the beginning of a shift to an even faster pace of London Street life. Will they develop advertising techniques which employ the same velocity as this new breed of street traveller? Will tardy walkers be forced to run through the sheer surge of masses choosing to run to and from their day’s labour?

It never used to be like this on London streets. Quite the reverse: London could be somewhere to stand and stare, even for those who lived there.

Only once have I ever laughed out loud in a city art exhibition. It is hard to keep one’s composure when one is looking at a London street scene, and the occupants of the frame are gawping gormlessly back.

William Heath, that clever, barbed satirist, called his cartoon “Looking at an ass”. It’s dated between 1827-29. The residents of his picture are staring with incredulity and bawdy amusement at the artist.

The last laugh, I fear, is on them.

There stands the Thames waterman in red livery, a spindly-legged simpleton; the fishwife carrying her fish from Billingsgate market, huge-bellied and only just contained by her loud polka-dot top.

There, pointing and jeering, is a little butcher’s boy complete with his bulldog, several bricks short of a load as we say here in Britain. And there stands the pinnacle of common sense, Brit John Bull in his striped waistcoat, looking as if he has just enough common sense to baste the tip of a fine needle.

All stand on a London pavement, staring.

Having inspired such very similar looks of vacuous incomprehension for most of my life, I count Heath a fellow man.

The capital’s streets have always inspired fascination: and none benefitted more by documenting those who tread the pavements of gold than a journalist with a strange life: a certain Henry Mayhew.

His was an erratic history. But he carried out what might be termed a comprehensive survey of the London of the mid-nineteenth century.

He had a chequered career, editing first Figaro in London, then Punch; producing plays and facing bankrupcy.

MH Spielman quotes one friend on Mayhew: he was “lovable, jolly, charming, bright, coaxing and unprincipled.

“He rarely wrote himself, but would dictate, as he walked to and fro, to his wife, whom he would also leave to confront his creditors.”

In 1851-2, he published the work for which we all remember him: ‘London Labour and the London Poor.’

Starting with a series of articles for the Morning Chronicle, the project to chart London life grew to four stout volumes. It is widely acknowledged to be the fullest document of street life in the capital during that part of the nineteenth century.

It is captivating in its detail. Every page holds something new, and it paints a picture of a London teeming with life and colour: and poverty. As the project became grander, rustic Londoners would be brought to the offices of the Chronicle to tell their tales.

Open the page at one point and you will find classifications of street-costermongers; at another, and you can read an account of how a gentleman’s footman diversified and became a Punch and Judy man; at a third, and there’s a description of the mud-larks of the Thames.

The latter would wade up to their middle through the tidal mud on the banks of the Thames. He writes: These poor creatures…may be seen of all ages…crawling among the barges at the various wharfs along the river; their bodies are grimed with the foul soil of the river, and their torn garments stiffened up like boards with dirt of every possible description.”

But Mr Punch: what an interview. “To the sentimental folk I am obliged to perform werry steady and werry slow, and leave out all comic words and business. They won’t have no ghost, no coffin, and no devil; and that’s what I call spiling the the performance entirely. It’s the march of hintellect wot’s doing all this – it is, Sir,”

All human life was there. Is it still?

The City has new highs, and new lows, and all at breakneck speed: it’s all going so fast we have to run to keep up.

I blame the march of hintellect.


20 thoughts on “Throng

  1. Who is more significant, Heath or Samuel Pepys? Or are they in such different realms and non comparable? Did the work of Heath stimulate social reform with regard to political directions and poverty?

    1. Chalk and cheese, I’d say, Carl. No-one knows much about Heath – he is largely unknown where Pepys was a monolith of commentary on his society.

      I love Heath for the same reason I love your stuff : his wicked sense of humour…

      1. You won’t find much, I’m afraid, Cindy: even the engraving historians have left him out of their histories because there is so little trace of him. The best entry is in the online Oxford National Dictionary of Biography, but that’s pricey. I’ll put together a biog using the ONDB and post it sometime. Basic details are in the last post in which I mentioned him, his name is a link to that one.

  2. and today, how many of the citie’s inhabitants were born elsewhere? what do they do when ou run poast, stop and stare back like the folk in the picture, or ignore yet one more crazy person?

    thanks kate, another one to read and re-read tomorrow

    1. They take it all in their stride, Sidey. Everyone’s doing it now!

      A commentary on London now would show it has changed out of all recognition….very metropolitan, as you say.

  3. Well done, Kate. As I read this (part of it out loud) it reminds me of my own busy streets and the streets of downtown Chicago. Though always a busy place, it seems to also be moving at breakneck speed.

    1. Cities have that about them, don’t they? A sense of purpose and, more to the point, deadline?
      Always nice to take the train back home. I can only keep that pace up for so long πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks for coming over, Sana! Lovely to hear from you! As for cussing, do you mean ‘werry’? That’s how Mayhew translated the London accent’s version of ‘very’. The rustic accents were spelt out in his books – spiling stands for ‘spoiling’, and so on.

  4. It’s fun sometimes to just stand and stare, watching the throngs rush by to the very busy activities in their very busy lives. What if everyone just stopped to stand and stare for even just one minute. Would it give us perspective on what it is we’re running after?

    Happy Easter, Kate.

    1. I think some of our London labourers might explode if they stopped to think!! It’s sadly contrary to the way things are done in the capital!

      Have a great Easter Sunday, Zoe. Lovely post of yours, that one today, with a little bit of homework too!

  5. *looks over shoulder* Can’t see the donkey!
    London is definitely ahead. I tend to get stared at when I find a walk too sedate a speed for progressing along city streets. People tend to look for the hue and cry behind me.
    There is so much to look at in that picture. The knobbly knees far right gave me particular amusement.

    1. It’s wonderful, isn’t it, Col? Oh, to be that ass! If I pass a sedate walker on my dashes through the city I shan’t miss a beat. I shall just yell “hello, Col! “

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