"Cities, like cats, will reveal themselves at night" - an extract from Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London


Extract from Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont

In the dead of night, in spite of the electric lights and the remnants of nightlife, London is an alien city, especially if you are strolling through its lanes and thoroughfares alone.

In the more sequestered streets, once the pubs are closed, and at a distance from the twenty-four-hour convenience stores, the sodium gleam of the street lamps, or the flickering strip-light from a soporific minicab stand, offers little consolation. There are alleys and street corners and shop entrances where the darkness appears to collect in a solid, faintly palpitating mass. There are secluded squares where, to appropriate a haunting line from a poem by Shelley, night makes ‘a weird sound of its own stillness’. There are buildings, monuments and statues that, at a distance, and in the absence of people, pulsate mysteriously in the sepulchral light. There are foxes that slope and trot across the road, in a single motion, as you interrupt their half-shameful, half-defiant attempts to pillage scraps from upended bins. And, from time to time, there are the faintly sinister silhouettes of other solitary, perhaps homeless, individuals – as threatened by your presence, no doubt, as you are by theirs. ‘However efficiently artificial light annihilates the difference between night and day’, Al Alvarez has commented, ‘it never wholly eliminates the primitive suspicion that night people are up to no good.’

It is easy to feel disorientated in the city at the dead of night, especially if you are tired from roaming its at times unremitting distances, dreamily or desperately somnambulant. For in the darkness, above all perhaps in familiar or routine places, everything acquires a subtly different form or volume. Even the ground beneath one’s feet feels slightly different. Ford Madox Ford lamented in The Soul of London (1905) that, ‘little by little, the Londoner comes to forget that his London is built upon real earth: he forgets that under the pavements there are hills, forgotten water courses, springs, and marshlands’. It is not the same in the dead of night. At 2 a.m., in the empty streets, no longer fighting against the traffic of cars and commuters, the solitary pedestrian’s feet begin to recall the ‘real earth’. In the abstracted, monochromatic conditions of the nighttime,  which partially obliterate the teeming, multicoloured visual details that characterize everyday life, it momentarily becomes apparent that a sloping road, for example, secretly curves over the sleeping form of a hill and tracks the course of an underground stream. The city is at its most earthly and unearthly at night.

A prehistoric landscape, then, comes to seem palpable beneath the pavements of the city at night. And in this half-familiar environment it is difficult to eliminate entirely the archaic conviction that, as for our ancestors, the night itself remains in some innate sense ominous, threatening. Residues of a primal fear of the dark almost imperceptibly interrupt your bloodstream as you move through the streets at night. They infiltrate more comprehensible anxieties relating to the sense of threat provoked by the presence of other people in the streets or the sudden flickering movement of a rat limping into a dirty pool of darkness glimpsed from the corner of your eye. In the dead of night, in London, some of the comforting assumptions that make everyday life in the metropolitan city seem predictable or even viable are undone. Walking at night involves displacements both of the city and of consciousness – like the ones Guy Debord alluded to when, in Paris in the mid-1950s, he celebrated a relationship to the spaces of the metropolis that undermines or upsets habitual influences and is ‘insubordinate to usual attractions’.

The nighttime city is another city. Rhapsodizing about the public parks of the French metropolis in Paris Peasant (1926), the Surrealist Louis Aragon commented that ‘night gives these absurd places a sense of not knowing their own identity’. It is a point that applies to all aspects of the city’s architecture or terrain. The nighttime self, moreover, is another self. In ‘Street Haunting’ (1930), Virginia Woolf quietly celebrated ‘the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow’. ‘We are no longer quite ourselves’, she observed.  If ‘to haunt’ a place, a verb derived from the French, originally meant to visit a place habitually, perhaps obsessively, then those who walk at night inhabit the city both in this older sense and in the more persistent, colloquial sense of disturbing it like a spectre.

Wandering Steps

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.

‘The night has always been the time for daylight’s dispossessed’, writes Bryan Palmer, ‘– the deviant, the dissident, the different.’ Solitary strolling at night in the city by both men and women has, from time immemorial, been interpreted as a sign of moral, social or spiritual dereliction.

Solitary women, because of a long history of discrimination and patriarchal oppression, have been especially susceptible to this sort of suspicion. If women appear on the streets of the city at night alone they are commonly portrayed in terms of two roles, both defined in relation to men: they are either predators, in the form of prostitutes; or the predated, the potential victims of sexual assault. In both cases, they are denied a right to the city at night. The historian Joachim Schlör has pointed out that, in terms of the freedom to inhabit the nocturnal city, ‘women’s needs and wishes are not fundamentally different from men’s’, since for both it is a case of entering it and circulating inside it freely and independently – ‘through the whole city, during the whole night, and not just in certain spatial and temporal reserves’. But he has rightly insisted that, historically, ‘men’s freedom of movement has [had] a real restrictive effect on that of women’.

If solitary men on the streets at night have exercised a right to the city denied to solitary women, however, then they too have often been identified or represented as pariahs. People who walk about at night and have no ready or implicitly respectable reason for doing so, both male and female, have attracted suspicion, opprobrium and legal recrimination from patriarchs, politicians, priests and others in authority, including the police, for thousands of years. In St John’s Gospel, Jesus observes that ‘if any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world’. It is different after dark: ‘[I]f a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him’ (John 11: 9–10).

The relationship between cause and effect in the second of these verses is far from simple. The man who walks in the night stumbles because there is no light in him … This makes sense. The man falls in the night because, in Christian terms, he is fallen. But does he also walk in the night, in the first place, because there is no light in him? Or, instead, does he have no light in him because he walks at night? Both, perhaps. A man who walks in the night might stumblebecause there is no light in him; but, conversely, or so it has often been assumed by the authorities, he has no light in him because he stumbles about in the night. A late sixteenth-century edition of the early fifteenth-century Chester Mystery Plays preserves this ambiguity in its reference to walking at night. For there Jesus declares that ‘whosoever walketh abowte in night, / hee tresspasseth all agaynst the right, / and light in him is non’. Nightwalking has for thousands of years been seen as both the consequence and cause of a benighted spiritual condition.

Nightwalking is, in both the physical and the moral meanings of the term, deviant. At night, in other words, the idea of wandering cannot be dissociated from the idea of erring – wanderring. This elision or semantic slurring is present in the final lines of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), where the poet offers a glimpse, for perpetuity, of Adam and Eve, after their expulsion from Paradise, entering the post-lapsarian world on foot: ‘They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way.’ Wandering steps. In a double sense, Adam and Eve are errant: at once itinerant and aberrant. They are condemned to a life of ceaseless, restless sinfulness.

This is prefigured earlier in the poem. In Book IX, when the serpent tempts her, Eve is implicitly compared to an ‘amazed nightwanderer’. In Book V, she describes a dream, insinuated into her consciousness by Satan, in which she has a premonition of the Fall. Eve tells Adam that, as she slept, a ‘gentle voice’ close to her ear seduced her into taking a walk beneath the ‘full-orbed’ moon and led her on to ‘the tree / Of interdicted knowledge’. Eve, according to Milton’s epic narrative, rehearses the Fall with a nightwalk.

Heroes of the Big City

In stalking the nocturnal city, when the streets acquire a dreamlike character, nightwalkers consciously or unconsciously reject its diurnal logic – the ceaseless movement of its commuters and its commodities.

To walk at night is to exercise what the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot – in the course of a discussion of vagrancy and the ‘rigorous portioning of space’ associated with the surveillance culture of the Enlightenment – called ‘the right to disappear, which is still denied us today’. So if the nightwalker is a fugitive from the ordinary, everyday life of the city, his half-illicit activity obscurely reclaims, redeems or transfigures it.

The nightwalk is indeed a kind of fugue, a flight at once psychological and physical. Nightwalkers experience urban life as a form of phantasmagoria, one that they are at the same time utterly immersed in and oddly detached from. The nightwalker thus dramatizes the dialectic of alienation and disalienation, oppression and emancipation, the prosaic and the poetic, at the core of metropolitan modernity. In this respect, he is a characteristic modern antihero, shaped in response to the condition of ‘transcendental homelessness’ identified by Georg Lukács.

‘Do the dregs of society supply the heroes of the big city?’ Walter Benjamin once ruminated. ‘Or is the hero the poet who fashions his work from such material?’ Is the common or the uncommon nightwalker, it might be asked, the hero of the city at nighttime? ‘The theory of the modern admits both’, Benjamin responded. So too does the history of nightwalking. Its heroes are the city’s antiheroes: the vagrants who have survived for centuries in the big city; and the poets and writers who, in their attempts to understand the disorienting, exhilarating or simply dreary and alienating conditions of metropolitan modernity, have identified with them.

In the ‘midnight streets’ of the city, in William Blake’s haunting phrase, nightwalkers bring to light the hidden contradictions both of the class society in which they are condemned to live and their own divided psyches.

Nightwalking Strumpets

Prostitutes were increasingly charged with being nightwalkers  during the seventeenth century (and in certain contexts the words ‘walk’ and ‘wander’ were themselves no more than slang for strolling about with the intent of soliciting sexual custom). A court record from 1629 states that one Sara Powell’s ‘night walking and day walking got her noe good name and [that] she was accompted noe better than she should be’. By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as the Proceedings of the Old Bailey indicate, the term ‘common nightwalker’ was in legal discourse associated exclusively with female prostitutes. But, partly perhaps because of the rising obsession with crimes against property, in an increasingly capitalistic society, even female prostitutes were rarely convicted as common nightwalkers after the Restoration.

Instead, women convicted of minor crimes against property might be identified as nightwalkers only incidentally. In 1697, for instance, a prostitute called Christian Callow was convicted not for soliciting but for pick-pocketing – the legal record simply notes in passing that she was ‘known to be a Common Nightwalker’. And in 1722 the phrase cropped up in a case of highway robbery, where the Proceedings record in evocative prose that, during the trial, Jonathan Wild, the ‘Thief-Taker General’, who was later exposed as a masterful criminal, took the common nightwalker Mary Floyd by the arm, and, ‘looking wishfully in her Face; said, he had an Information against her, for picking a Gentlemans Pocket of a Watch’. The term ‘common nightwalker’ had by this time largely lost its legal signification, though it no doubt retained a social referent.

It had gradually boiled down into a term of abuse. In his Letters from the Dead to the Living (1702), the satirist Thomas Browne refers almost proverbially to the fright given by ‘the Bridewell Flog-Master to a Night-walking Strumpet’.26 In this colloquial sense, as in the legal sense that preceded it, the term ‘nightwalker’ tended to be applied to common prostitutes, whose lives – in contrast to those of courtesans – were shaped by itinerancy and transiency. The Wandring Whore and The Wandring Whore Continued, which were published in rapid succession in 1660, contain for the reader’s titillation and convenience a ‘List of the names of the Crafty Bauds, Common Whores, Wanderers, Pickpockets, Night-walkers, Decoys, Hectors, Pimps and Trapanners, in and about the City, and Suburbs of London’. Among the 180 or so names on this list, which include ‘Toothless Betty’, ‘Butter and Eggs’, ‘Mrs Love’ and ‘Cock Birch’, a woman known as ‘Sugar-C’ is the only one singled out as ‘a constant wanderer & night-walker’. But, as its title indicates, this is a guidebook to a population that was inherently mobile and unsettled – one that lived according to the mantra that ‘mony and Cunny are good Commodities’. Prostitutes classified in these terms rarely had regular relationships with clients; and they earned their wages, as John McMullan has put it, ‘on a mass production basis’.

A luridly detailed image of the prostitutes that peopled the city streets at night in the mid seventeenth century emerges in two poems by the Protestant reformer and constable Humphrey Mill – A Night’s Search: Discovering the Nature and Condition of all sorts of Night-walkers (1640) and The Second Part of the Night’s Search (1646). Mill, who embroiders these volumes’ authority with innumerable dedicatory and congratulatory verses, provides a pious but at the same time almost pornographic compendium of the nocturnal crimes he comes across while perambulating the city after dusk. Rambling in a double sense, the poems comprise sketches or case histories, in heroic couplets, of the vicious denizens of the London night, including ‘penniless letchers’, pimps and common prostitutes. Mill is at his most moralistic when condemning the latter, whom he holds responsible for corrupting both ‘country clownes’ and susceptible gentlemen (though as a good Puritan he also loathes ‘the degenerate Nobility and new found Gentry’).

In the first Night’s Search in particular, Mill provides misogynistic and racist descriptions of the prostitutes whose presence he allegedly monitors and polices. The forty-eighth section, for instance, is a portrait of ‘a black impudent Slut that wore a dressing of faire hayre on her head’. ‘But couldst thou change thy skin’, he mocks in malicious tones, ‘then thou might’st passe / For current ware, though thou art nasty trash.’ Most of these depraved women, he is gratified to report, end up incarcerated in Bridewell. This volume concludes with verses by other hands that pay handsome tribute to the moral achievements of Mill’s enterprise. The author of one of these congratulates him ‘on his exact description of the Night-walkers of our time’, and boasts that he himself ‘lately walk’d your round, took full survey / Of all’.30 Mill’s itinerary thus provides the template for a guided tour of the sins of the metropolis.

Noctambulants of this prurient sort, who appointed themselves the guardians of the nocturnal city’s morals, in spite of dubious motives for doing so, reappear in especially large numbers in the eighteenth century, as London becomes an increasingly rampant capital of the culture of consumption.

- extract from Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont. Now available in paperback and 30% off our website. See more books in the Verso Guide to Political Walking