Sunday, January 16, 2005


Another Shite Night In Sucketh City

The Daily Telegraph (registration required) favorably reviews Tim Hitchcock's Down and Out in Eighteenth Century London, pointing out that the author brings an unusual perspective to the subject:

Hitchcock spent 10 years as a young man travelling and sleeping rough - meeting by turns with the "small kindnesses" and indifference of strangers.

Had the author tried his luck on the streets of Georgian London, he would have encountered a similar mixture of reactions. Eighteenth-century citizens were renowned for their spontaneous, compassionate generosity. So much so, in fact, that Henry Fielding made the complaint (familiar to modern ears) that "the giver… is encouraging a nuisance". The poor could expect donations on Sundays, public holidays and "play days", at weddings and funerals. On the other hand, they were subject, then as now, to the threats of robbery, violence, starvation and hypothermia....

Hitchcock's characters are the sock-vendors, milk-maids, chimney-sweeps, cinder-sifters, mackerel-touts and cabbage-sellers that made up the 18th-century metropolitan poor. Haphazard, laborious professions, undertaken alongside occasional begging, amounted to an "economy of makeshift".

One can only hope that Hitchcock might bring his empathetic perspective to write a sequel set in the 19th century; with the onset of punitive Poor Laws and enclosure acts that drove rural poor into cities, Dickens' London would make for a telling contrast. In the interim, one can always scavenge for the 1985 reprint of John Hollingshead's eyewitness account Ragged London in 1861.

Hollingshead's old book might be easier to find in the US than Hitchcock's new one: I don't see any US publisher listed for Down and Out. Really now, this is not an unsaleable or arcane subject. Will someone please do Mr. Hitchcock the honors?

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