May is National Walking Month in the UK. To mark the month, Pod Academy’s Jo Barratt went on a nightwalk with Dr Matthew Beaumont, senior lecturer at University College London and co-director of the Urban Laboratory who is writing a book, Nightwalking – A History for Verso, to find out something about the history of cities and walking after the sun has gone down. Gabriel Stebbing of band, Night Works also joined them.
Night time in the city is an enticing, beguiling and sometimes a frightening place; a liminal artificial world between true night and the daytime in which most of us spend the majority of our time. It is more often than not the case that we experience this world on foot, which is something that has been extensively romanticised from Baudelaire’s flaneur, the driftng urban explorer, to the pop music written about walking home from nightclubs.
The very concept of a populated nocturnal realm is reliant on one invention that we all probably take for granted…..
Matthew Beaumont: Public street lighting didn’t come in until the 1680s in London. London was slightly later than most other European cities, Paris was the first. So up until the late 17th century there was very little light at night except in the early evening when householders were obliged to hang candles and lanterns outside their homes or shops. But they were extinguished soon after the curfew. So the city was only illuminated so far as it was moonlit, and if one were to leave one’s house or accommodation and go out into the city in the middle of the night, say between the two phases of sleep – the two phases that seem to have defined ‘sleep’ in the period up until the term ‘nightlife’ began to be used ie between midnight and 2am, the first phase (the ‘dead’ time of night as it was called) and the second phase of sleep (before the dawn) – one would be plunged into darkness.
This would be deeply disorienting by modern standards, though at the time people were much more used to darkness. Interiors were far darker, people’s bodies were much better adjusted to darkness than we are today. Electric lighting is so much part of our physiology, it has so defined the patterns of our lives, that it can be hard to imagine what a body adjusted to a much more tenebrous dark light would be like. One might step out into the street to walk immensely slowly at night, though no doubt in the daytime light people living in cities would be used to those rapid negotiations with space that one makes the entire time. Traffic would have been different, of course. It would have been carts and horses, not cars, but the basic rhythms would not have been too dissimilar – slower but not dissimilar. City dwellers then, as now, would have had almost a computer programme in their heads, enabling them to shift about to move in such a way as to retain their private space, avoid collision, all the things we too do, and which would have been extremely sensitive to social hierarchy, for example, to a sense of danger, physical or social.
At night, the city would have been almost empty. As I have said, it would have meant moving very slowly to avoid in pitch darkness colliding with objects, or people, concealed in the darkness. One would also have to be extremely surreptitious at night in the medieval and early modern periods because of the danger of being apprehended by the night watchman – on the spot – as a nightwalker, and being put away until the morning when you’d be brought before the court and quite possibly be incarcerated.
So there were plenty of dangers at night. These were dangers that go back to the ancient city – Juvenal writes about the danger of walking about the city at night and how people would chuck out pots full of piss, or throw out broken crockery at night, no doubt because you’re not meant to.
So moving about at night requires real alertness. I think one wold have to move about very carefully not least because of all the hidden spaces. One must not think about streets in any linear sense. Even in a city designed like a grid there were all sorts of deviations. Certainly in the medieval/early modern period streets would have been extremely inconsistent, jerry-built – with the exception of the wide open public spaces like Cheapside where processions took place and there was a massive market. Streets concealed all sorts of folds in space, which would have been difficult to negotiate in the dark. One particular hazard were the bulks, the shopfronts where people laid out their goods in the daytime. In the night they provided a space to sleep if you were homeless or a vagrant. And then there were cellars which were not clearly marked off from the street – they would represent a real danger, you could easily fall into a cavity beneath a house – and they also provided a space for the homeless of the city, and there were many of them to conceal themselves to sleep.
Roads were extremely uneven, and no doubt you’d be more aware of that at night. There was an enormous amount of mud (that froze over in the winter). There were rank smells because of the maret in the day and the stuff that got left over from the market. All these things created a really difficult place to negotiate, so nightwalkig in the medieval/early modern period was largely not a leisure activity! It was done out of necessity by vagrants and migrants who were inately homeless and automatically criminalised and picked up by the nightwatchman unless they could afford to pay a bribe – which of course they could not.
It is not really until the 18th Century that nightwalking becomes a bohemian or proto- bohemian activity, a way of experiencing the city at night in new exiting, dangerous ways – ‘slumming’ the city.
Jo Barratt: You talked about the advent of street lighting in about 1680, and then about ‘night life’. It is almost like an artificial dawn that happens with street lighting. Can we look at that transition time, the early street lighting, the night ‘opening up’ to people?
MB: Before there is proper street lighting in European cities, the primitive technology of light is developed in the royal courst, particularly in the form of Masques – plays, dramas, spectacles of one kind or another. That was where a lighting technology was developed, before public street lighting was introduced by civic authorities. It then gets transferred to the public domain in the 1680s and after.
And it is largely in the commercial centres that it starts. It is particularly associated with shops. In London that means the City of London but perhaps even more, the west end (the commercial district, the district of consumption increasingly) which is London as it spreads westwards, between the City and Westminster, where the court was.
Some of the earliest descriptions of public street lighting and ‘night life’ (if we can call it that) in the 17th Century were all about shops on Oxford Street. Visitors, especially those from abroad, come and are absolutely dazzled by the lights in Oxford Street.That has a contemporary ring about it, but it sounds much more spectacular than the rather tawdry Christmas lights on Oxford Street today. Foreign visitors were amazed at the light and also excited by the retail opportunities that this lighting presented. It meant that they could not just shop in the evening in this sociable context, where lots of affluent people in carriages, and on foot, ambled about, but they could also window shop.
So the emergence of night life in London is bound up not just with lighting but with a culture of window shopping and the emergence of a social layer of people, a social class, for whom consumption is important, for whom shopping becomes a leisure activity.
JB: So, from the start, it is not simply an extension of day time culture – it’s different?
MB: Historians have written about the colonisation of the night by light, which implies it is an extension of the day. But actually the qualitative differences between the day and an illuminated night very quickly emerged and it was felt that this was a completely different culture. Perhaps we should find some third term between day and the old medieval night, the really dark night.
Of course, given the social geography of places like London and Paris, the areas where there was public illumination at night were limited. All sorts of districts remained plunged in darkness – indeed the majority of London as it grew and as the suburbs were built out were dark. And they continued to be very dark until the 19th Century and the introduction of gas light (and then electricity).
Public illumination at night was the privilege of the commercial centres and the rich. Poor people, to the extent that they benefited at all, did so because they were parasitic on the consuming classes, the rich. When they returned home from their labour or from trying to pickpocket (or whatever), they returned to slum conditions in which there was no lighting at all. There was no difference between a medieval and an Enlightenment poor district at night.
JB: But does the awareness of the light create a dangerous dark world in poor districts, in a different way than had existed before?
MB: I think it probably did. The more the city wascolonised by light, the more the contrast with those areas that remained unenlightened (in the double sense of ‘not lit’ and also uncivilised). Obviously it became that there were no-go areas at night. No doubt there had always been no-go areas, but now they became particularly obvious.
Gabriel Stebbing: The early romantic night walkers are aware of this contradiction, of these new types of night, and the possibility of cutting across.
MB: The Romantic story re-appropriating the night, the bohemian story, begins earlier than the Romantic period proper, earlier in the 18th Century and the key figures are Samuel Johnson and Richard Savage.
Samuel Johnson we think of as this monumental man of English letters. But as a young man he was impoverished, penniless, had walked from Birmingham to London in search of piecemeal literary work in order to make a literary career for himself. He had no money. He was married but didn’t have a very satisfactory relationship with his wife and he fell in with Richard Savage, an older poet, a roue, dissolute pseudo aristocrat who had a relatively good reputation as a poet but a poor reputation as a man. he was regarded as utterly unreliable if not dangerous, he was so ragged and outrageous. The two of them formed this unlikely friendship and one of the ways they related to one another was by walking about London at night. The two of them would rail against the government, I think in their case it was a political gesture. They didn’t walk much but legend has it that they slept sometimes where the poor and vagrants were forced to sleep and they went to the glass houses where bottles were made, which remained warm at night because if the factory was allowed to cool down, it stopped the whole production process. There were walls and cavities in the glass factories dotted around London which remained warm at night and which emanated heat – and they slept there for the warmth. But sometimes they would walk around in Westminster or areas like St James’s Square near the Court – they were sticking up two fingers at the government and the Court, walking in enemy territory. They’d march around complaining about the government, its imperial adventures and class society.
It is not that others didn’t walk at night. There were various other poets in the early 18th Century who, partly by choice and partly by necessity, were forced to sleep on benches in St James’s Park at night. But it was Savage and Johnson who really defined walking at night as a counter cultural experience, one that involved a refusal of the commerce of the City in the day, and involved a political rejection of the whole culture of contemporary society.