Jack London on London’s Poor

The horrors of life for the poor in London are so well documented by Charles Dickens that his surname has become synonymous with them. Together with the exhortations for change by The Times, and the work of social reformers, the Salvation Army and others, I thought things would have improved. I knew that many men were turned down for service in the Great War due to their frailty, and yet somehow I thought things had changed.

But a book by Jack London has just been reprinted, with original photographs and an introduction by Iain Sinclair. It is called The People of the Abyss and was written by London fresh from the rigours of the Yukon.It is reissued now as the gulf between rich and poor is widening, the capital is exploding with expensive flats while housing for the poor evaporates.

This is Iain Sinclair:

Here is a vivid text to demonstrate the fault lines of what we are presently experiencing: empty Babylonian towers of spectacular hubris overshadowing rough sleepers, who must remain invisible under foot or find themselves banished to hobo camps under motorway spurs, treated to one-way-tickets to dying seaside resorts.

The author-as-detective presents his descent into elective poverty as a pre-Orwellian fugue, a sleepwalker’s nightmare journey through reeking underclass sets out of Henry Mayhew, Arthur Morrison, and Blanchard Jerrold (with apocalyptic engravings by Dore): reportage as a form of science fiction. Feisty Jack is a time traveller, a visitor from a newer, clever, go-getting, meat-eating civilisation. He witnesses the pomp and ceremony of the coronation of Edward VII, and is appalled.In every way, he is the wrong kind of temporary immigrant. The one who looks and listen and asks questions. The one with a notebook. It is uncanny how The People of the Abyss anticipates later figures with rucksacks; writers whose reputations were made by waxing lyrical over periods of life among the ‘fellahen’. London summons Jack Kerouac, fifty years before his compatriot’s most famous book is published, by coming in on the term used for vagabondage in the United States: ‘On the Road.’…

Reality is pressured until it becomes fantastic, grotesque. Jack London, trusting to native guides, hardened policemen, fellow socialists, is describing a parallel world. the people he encounters are Morlocks, creatures denied the light. They are as sullen and defeated, like the deformed subterraneans depicted by H.G. Wells. …

Everything Jack London achieves in his season in hell, when he is disguised in borrowed rags, moving with a sailor’s swagger, plays agains the chilling witness of the photographs. And the measure of what he leaves for contemporary leaders is the the integrity of the amount is not diminished by what we are shown: the people muted by the camera’s oblique interrogation, the overcrowded rooms, the Monster Doss House, the shame of the streets. ‘The fear of the crowd smote me. It was like the fear of the sea.’

James Russell Lowell writes of the chief priests and rulers cry:

“O Lord and Master, not ours the guilt,

We build but as our fathers built;

Behold thine images how they stand

Sovereigns and sole though all our land.

“Our task is hard – with sword and flame,

To hold thine earth forever the same,

And with sharp crooks of steel to keep,

Still as thou leftist them, thy sheep”

Then Christ sought out an artisan,

A low-browed, stunted, haggard man,

And a motherless girl whose fingers thin

Crushed from her faintly want and sin.

These seethe in he midst of them,

And as they drew back their garment hem,

For fear of defilement, “Lo.here,” said he,

“The images ye have made of me.”

Indeed.

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