Monday, October 19, 2015

Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, by Matthew Beaumont

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Matthew Beaumont's Nightwalking mixes literary appreciation, London history and the enchantments of walking at night to produce a thoughtful volume sure to fire the imagination.

Matthew Beaumont’s history of nightwalking is all that you’d expect and more. Over four hundred densely packed pages this nocturnal history of London examines its subject from many perspectives. Primarily this is a literary history. Beaumont starts with Chaucer, then moves through the centuries with literary appreciations of Shakespeare, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Thomas De Quincey and finally crowning the book with two chapters on Dickens, the king of all nightwalkers. With all these writers (and many more minor poets, playwrights and novelists), Beaumont concentrates on the dark, nocturnal and perambulatory in their work. A rich literary criticism is intertwined with biography, especially in the final chapters dealing with Dickens, who was an energetic, one could say almost mad, nightwalker.

Beaumont writes:

Nightwalking, like writing poetry or taking opium, was one of the means by which Romantics like De Quincey, and post- Romantics like Dickens, fostered a second self - a silent, shadowy, mysterious other. It collapsed the dark recesses of the psyche into the labyrinthine spaces of the city.

While literature and writers are central to Nightwalking, the book also provides a fascinating history of the city at night. Walking at night might not seem controversial to many, but as Beaumont shows, the practice has long been steeped in suspicion and opprobrium. The law has generally treated nightwalkers as vagrants, people up to no good. If you were found wandering the night without good reason you could find yourself in trouble with the night watchman. Attitudes however changed over time, as the city and its economic make up also changed.

The economic analysis of nightwalking is another fascinating aspect of the book. The wealthy could perambulate at whatever time of day or night they liked. They owned the city and pushed for laws that would target the poor. Whereas the indigent and downtrodden were always being harassed on the streets at night. In fact, there was even a language to cover this. “Noctivigants” were vagrant walkers, while “noctambulants” were purposeful walkers.

Matthew Beaumont is obviously a keen nightwalker himself, and his descriptions evoke much that is charming and mysterious about the city at night. He talks of the city being a magic lantern, of the city’s ability to enchant the walker. It’s a place for outsiders, for those seeking to forget themselves or simply evading “the stifling order of the administered city”.

Readers who are enchanted by both the greats of English literature and the magic of the city at night will find much in this subtle, thoughtful volume to fire the imagination.

Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, by Matthew Beaumont. Published by Verso. ISBN: 9781781687956 RRP: $39.99

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