Poor Boy: Jack London’s LondonMark Gullick
The People of the Abyss
New York: Macmillan, 1903
Some phrases stay with you for life, and one such for me has been attributed to Carl Jung, but seems rather to be a Latin motto favored by the European alchemists of the 15th century: Liber librum aperit, or, “one book opens another.”
So it was that while re-reading George Orwell’s account of his time in a northern English coal-mining town, The Road to Wigan Pier, a book which also goes on to address socialism in general, I came across a reference to a book by Jack London, The People of the Abyss.
I was vaguely aware of London via his collection The Road, as well as dim but pleasurable memories of having to read White Fang at school in the 1970s. I was surprised at first to see him remembered at Counter-Currents as I had assumed him to be a writer of the Left, but good writing is good writing, a maxim that the Right understands where the Left never would or could.
The People of the Abyss is an account of London’s visit to, well, London at the beginning of last century and, as an account of poverty in the city of my birth, stands with Orwell’s own Down and Out in Paris and London and Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew’s wonderful book, London Labour and the London Poor.
London’s book is grueling reading made all the more poignant for me by the fact that I know so many of the streets and areas he mentions, having myself lived at all the compass points of London. I wonder what London the writer would have made of the east end today — “the City of Dreadful Monotony” as London claims was its nickname — in his time, a stronghold of Jewish trade and usury, now increasingly an Islamic micro-caliphate.
Before we turn to London’s book, a word on poverty. This is not intended to be my version of the Monty Python sketch known as “Four Yorkshiremen” in which a quartet of successful northern Englishmen attempt to outdo one another as to who had the poorest childhood, but I have been poor. I consider that if you have ever had to glue the soles of your shoes back onto the uppers, pick up cigarette butts in the street for a smoke, and make night-time raids on the great metal bins outside supermarkets in search of sealed packages of food past their expiry dates, you at least know whereof you speak. All these I have done. But what is poverty?
My biblical namesake Mark, at 14:7 of his famous gospel, tells us that “the poor you will always have with you,” and, although modern social engineers are doing their best to expunge the Bible from the Western tradition, the World Health Organization has made this statement irrefutably true.
The difference between absolute poverty and relative poverty is uncomplicated but reveals an ideological schism. The former, as defined by the World Bank among others, states that anyone living below $1.90 a day is in poverty wherever they are. The latter — and this is where the WHO comes in — defines the poverty line as living on less than 60% of the median income of whichever country you happen to be in. The catch is obvious. Put simplistically and crassly, in a country where 90% of the population are billionaires and the rest mere millionaires, that 10% would be defined as living in poverty. No en suite bathroom in Austria? You are poor. You only have to look at Muslim migrants arriving on rubber dinghies off the Dover coast of England, resplendent in good-quality (albeit vulgar) clothes and training shoes and jabbing at iPhones to see the fault line in the definition. Using relative poverty as an indicator, the poor you will always have with you because that is what mathematical logic dictates if those with less money are index-linked to those with more. But, with genuine poverty, you know it when you see it, and Jack London unquestionably saw it.
“In the summer of 1902,” writes London, “I went down into the underworld of London with an attitude of mind which I may best liken to that of the explorer.” And what a journey to the heart of darkness was waiting for him there. World-famous travel agents Thomas Cook were baffled that someone would even want to go to the east end of London, the agent being more concerned about the possibility of having to identify London’s corpse than he would have been if the writer had visited Africa. Tibet, yes, but Whitechapel? London’s cabbie was equally uncomprehending, but reluctantly drove the writer around to his first epiphany:
Nowhere in the streets of London may one escape the sight of abject poverty, while five minutes’ walk from any point will bring one to a slum; but the region my hansom [a horse-drawn cab] was now penetrating was one unending slum.
Buying old clothes so as to be effectively undercover, London proceeds on his journalistic odyssey. There is no question of any “relative poverty” in what follows. The constant scrabbling of under-nourished folk to gain the few miserable pence necessary to keep themselves and their family alive for another day and just fit enough to work punishing hours in a crippling workplace makes Dante’s journey through hell with Virgil look like a day at Disneyland because it is unquestionably real.
London does not refer to hell, but rather christens the existential wasteland through which he voyages “the Abyss,” and it is not long before he has formed a firm and eugenic opinion of the fate of the creatures who dwell in that demi-monde:
And day by day I became convinced that not only is it unwise, but it is criminal for the people of the Abyss to marry. They are the stones the builder rejected.
As London travels among these discarded stones, he builds up a gradual picture of despair, his prose more elegant than Orwell’s and less inclined to the statistical than Mayhew’s. London the city is desperation made real, and London the writer notes that “the Abyss seems to exude a stupefying atmosphere of torpor.” A combination of hunger, smoke (London’s visit was over half a century before the city’s 1956 Clean Air Act at least stopped people dying simply for breathing), and a crippling workload for those fortunate enough to be in work, has genetic as well as moral effects, meaning inevitably that “the children grow up into rotten adults, without virility or stamina, a weak-kneed, narrow-chested, listless breed.”
As for dwelling standards, again, London is writing some 30 years before the first real attempts by city councils to clear the slums that dominated London, and even these were cut short by the onset of World War 2. London’s journalistic eye gives a hideous vision of the dwellings of the people of the Abyss:
I looked out of the window, which should have commanded the back yards of the neighbouring buildings. But there were no back yards, or, rather, they were covered with one-storey hovels, cowsheds, in which people lived. The roofs of these hovels were covered with deposits of filth, in some places a couple of feet deep — the contributions from the back windows of the second and third storeys. I could make out fish and meat bones, garbage, pestilential rags, old boots, broken earthenware, and all the general refuse of a human sty.
Jack London is respectfully aware of the fact that he does not wish to be seen as some sort of voyeur of the grinding poverty he observes, making acquaintances but never questioning too much as “it is not quite in keeping to take notes at the poorhouse.” His respect for the poor devils he sees is surprisingly moving, as are the tales told by the various Londoners with whom he spends time in conversation.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of London’s observations is the way in which the poor will still cheer and weep at the pomp and pageantry of those partly responsible for their plight. London’s visit to his namesake city coincided with the coronation, on August 9, 1902, of King Edward VII, and London viewed the procession of the new monarch and his Queen, Alexandra. The chapter is one of the most powerful in the book, and shows both London’s skills as a journalist, and the fathomless sadness of celebration among those Abyss-dwellers who require something to celebrate, as they have nothing else:
And now the Horse Guards, a glimpse of beautiful cream ponies, and a golden panoply, a hurricane of cheers, the crashing of bands — “The King! The King! God save the King!” Everybody has gone mad. The contagion is sweeping me off my feet — I too want to shout, “The King! God save the King!” Ragged men about me, tears in their eyes, are tossing up their hats and crying ecstatically, “Bless ‘em! Bless ‘em! Bless ‘em!”
And, as a coda to his journey through hell, London apportions blame, and it is an accusation which echoes down 120 years to the Western world today. London poses a simplistic question to which he has an equally plain answer:
If civilisation has increased the producing power of the average man, why has it not bettered the lot of the average man?
There can be only one answer — MISMANAGEMENT.
Of course, we are now seeing the results of the mismanagement London wrote of, as our modern elites, worthless poseurs such as Trudeau and Johnson and Macron, swan around in their finery, from attending soccer matches the rest of us can’t go to, to leaving tonnes of food uneaten at their last G7 shindig. And we may well now be in the endgame, with enemy tanks (or scimitars) in the street while our dear leaders are still trying to decide whether Ionian or Doric columns would look better on the new stadium. London saw, 120 years ago, that “a vast empire is foundering on the hands of this incapable management.” But then, in The People of the Abyss, London saw much.
London the city and London the writer. The Mile End Road, The East India Dock Road, Commercial Road; arterial thoroughfares of the east end of London which I cycled and walked many times 20 years ago when my canal boat was moored in Bow and I worked in Blackfriars, and it is always moving to read in literature of familiar places. I once sat in The Market Tavern pub in London’s famous Borough Market, right by Southwark Cathedral and just round the corner from Shakespeare’s (admittedly relocated) Globe Theatre. I was reading Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers, and had reached a point at which Mr. Pickwick, Sam Weller, and the rest of the crew reached Borough Market on some hectic quest and entered. . . The Market Tavern. At that moment the pub door opened, and I actually looked up, fearful of seeing an incoming gang in Victorian dress. I would, of course, have expired on the spot.
The London of today, like the rest of the West, suffers from a different type of poverty, a moral paucity, a lack of vision, a malnutrition of the soul rather than the body, and a soft totalitarianism gradually hardening in the forge of globalism. And management is still to blame, something Jack London saw with the same eyes with which he witnessed the tragic dignity of those too weak to ever be strong.
* * *
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Am I foolish to find it surprising that a love of nicotine would outweigh natural disgust at picking up a piece of saliva-soiled street litter and sticking it in your mouth?
Not at all. You have just never been poor.
“This is not intended to be my version of the Monty Python sketch known as “Four Yorkshiremen” in which a quartet of successful northern Englishmen attempt to outdo one another as to who had the poorest childhood…”
Mate, I think you need the comics section or The Huffington Post or something. Is that your best shot? What is your real name? Or are you worried that your undoubtedly worthless job might be at risk? I don’t lie. All those things happened to me. What has happened to you? Little or nothing, I suspect. Write something yourself, unless you are a Leftist troll. Either that, or fuck off and let the adults talk.
I’ve touched a raw nerve, haven’t I? I’m so sorry.
You’ve ‘touched a nerve’? Mate, I know Leftist chicks like you. ‘Ooooooh! Triggered!’ I am always triggered. This is supposed to be a symposium, not some pride parade for people like you who are bored. Again, real name please. My nerves are always touched, usually by people like you. What was the last book you read? Write about it. You are a Leftist troll, it is so obvious. Real name please, fag!
Look, I actually think it’s a good article, and I second the comments below. I enjoyed reading it, as I did ‘Caught Out’. Don’t get so cross. It’s undignified. And under no circumstances challenge someone to give their real name. I should not have to explain why. Tatty bye for now.
Speaking for myself, nicotine withdrawal has never been so severe that I would’ve been tempted to do that.
*Drums fingers, waits for intelligent comment on piece*
Mismanagement: ‘twas ever thus. I like the historical parallel drawn between the start of the last century and now. We ignore the past at our peril. I’m increasingly of the opinion posited by your good self that we are entering an era not too dissimilar to the Soviet experiment but with better shops and Sky TV. It seems the left has won in that the general population wants big daddy state to do everything for them in return we get ‘panem et circenses.’
I very much enjoyed this beautifully written and insightful piece.
Assuming you are not being ironic, thank you. I recommend the book.
I have read various vivid accounts of the London slums, albeit primarily in fiction books. I still remember my horror when, as a teenage babysitter, I discovered a book on American photographer Jacob Riis, who documented America’s immigrant city slums in the late 19th century. Photo after photo of squalor and filth and destitute people. Barefoot ‘street Arabs.’ I imagine the London that London saw would have been quite similar.
And yet, as London notes, those poor beggars cheered for their king and, if questioned, would probably have considered themselves infinitely more fortunate than the residents of Bombay slums. As the Kinks sang in “Victoria,” “Though I’m poor, I am free. When I grow, I shall fight. For this land, I shall die. Let her sun never set.” Their material poverty didn’t seem to cause, in all or even most of them, an equal poverty of spirit. Despite the crime and the prostitution and the abandonment, they rose to the occasion (and died by the thousands) whenever called upon to do their ‘duty.’ They still retained a sense of being part of a people – a neglected, forgotten part, yet they clung to that pride of patrimony. Why? Were they merely misled, or did they know something we all do not?
What sort of human talent withered on streets so bleak? And yet, what sort of human capital did it take for England to achieve all it did, while so many of its people still lived in abject poverty? Thinking of those people and times reminds me that today’s waning prosperity is but a blip in history, a brief moment when, in the world’s White countries, the majority of the population has access to plentiful (if highly over-manufactured) food, potable water, and the knowledge of centuries at their fingertips. And yet despite all that bounty, here we are – the White race is diminished and all but conquered.
Coincidentally, a friend smuggled this piece onto Facebook – who will not link to CC because racism etc. – and a mutual friend mentioned Riis, who I had not heard of. I will investigate.
pick up cigarette butts in the street for a smoke
Been there; done that. I used the contents to roll-up a “new” cigarette. I can also remember corner shops where you could buy just a few fags extracted from a packet.
Kids today don’t know they’re born.
The Hill of Dreams, a semi-autobiographical novel by Welsh writer Arthur Machen, has the protagonist trying to make a living as a poverty-stricken author in London. Published in 1907, his portrait of life in west London is his best work. As you say about Jack London’s book (1903!), I know well many of the streets and areas he mentions. I’ve no doubt the work would resonate with you.
Yeah. Kids today. Dirt cheap houses and the ability to support a family on a single wage. Yet still the spoilt brats won’t breed!
Thank you, I will look for the book you mention. Yes, I neglected to add that I used the tobacco in the dog-ends to roll a ‘new’ cig. I seem to be on a bit of a poverty streal in literary terms at the moment, and after I have finished re-reading Orwell’s Down and Out, I have Tressell’s Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists and Zola’s L’Assomoir lined up. Well, you have to cheer yourself up a bit.
I’ve have several of the books in the artical but wanted to push Tressell’s Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, as a great read. It’s from a year’s collection of notes detailing the life of low skilled trademen working and struggling to survive. I knew it would change for the worst as WWI was about to begin.
“… in his time, a stronghold of Jewish trade and usury, now increasingly an Islamic micro-caliphate.”
And yet I would still rather live in poverty with my own people than deal with the above parasites in any time or space.
Great read. I’m curious, did this book “open another” for you, like Wigan Pier did this one?
Not precisely, but it has made me determined to seek out more by Jack London.
Thank you for reviewing this book.
Jack London understood too much about the true nature of men, race and life to be of any use to the Left, then or now.
Yes, the definition of poverty should always a function of the local economy. What a unit of money buys here or there varies widely, and those on the Left who keep reciting that absurd “$1.90” definition expose their stupidity.
Poverty happens when the quantity of human labor exceeds demand for that labor. When labor supply and demand are brought into balance, full employment happens and poverty is replaced by full employment at a living wage. Not by “more jobs”, but rather by fewer people, better people. Globally applied eugenics achieves both.
Powerful and truly progressive remedies for real global problems. The Right could win hearts and minds all over the world by advocating them, and defeat the Left thereby.
If global poverty were to be replaced by full employment at a living wage, 99% of Man’s miseries also disappear, including mass-migration, fanatical religions, decadent, wasteful, mindless consumerism and affluence, and economic debt-coercion.
Oh, agreed. The idea that there is some global ‘peg’ for an amount of money denoting a poverty line is absurd. My monthly electricity bill here in Costa Rica – about $10US – would buy a couple of pints of beer in London.
I have several issues with the points raised in this article, one being that the descriptions of the prevalence of slums and the danger of Whitechapel are slightly hyperbolic. However, I believe there are two major factors left out of the discussion.
Firstly, while the industrial revolution did increase the producing power of workers it also provided for a huge population boom which both increased unemployment and decreased the value of labour, thereby greatly exacerbating the state of poverty in the city.
Secondly, and most importantly to understand, genetic variability is the foundation of the success of England as a civilisation. English society has always been very stratified with an especially numerous unintelligent underclass supporting a relatively very large number of geniuses and otherwise intelligent people. A society can only produce the maximum number of geniuses by increasing the range of the bell-curve in both directions. This class stratification is made stable by allowing a relatively high level of social liberty, so that the low class people are free to live largely as they please, be that to their own detriment, the middle class people are free to prosper or fail, and the upper class people are free to invent eccentric and genius ideas. One could even say that this model is indigenous to Germanic peoples as Tacitus describes how the warrior elite of the tribes would spend almost the entire year in idleness, no doubt as a sort of compensation for them being expected to sacrifice themselves in battle in order to preserve the freedom of their race.
Finally, this accusation of “mismanagement” is the sort of conclusion I would expect a communist to draw, believing that reason trumps human nature, and it is an accusation levelled at the most intelligent society to have ever existed. The poor man’s love of the King is not the result of delusion and propaganda, it came from the knowledge that he lived in a free and great nation. He may have been poor but he was free to be poor, the state did not require that he be “made useful”, nor did it offer aid. It simply offered freedom. What we are living through is not the result of mismanagement, it is the inevitable end of the cycle, the period of turmoil before the birth of a new order. Our goal must be to shape that new order to our own interests.
I also recommend this Thames TV clip in which East-End Cockneys, whom Jack London may well have seen as children, describe how they were happier in those days when they were so much poorer, one very elderly woman even says of the younger generations “I just wish I could take them back with me”:
Well, thank you very much. I don’t think that belongs in the coments section, but should be a feature in its own right.
Ah, the bad old days. It often strikes me that Jack London’s era, despite feeling like it’s one of great distance removed, was not all that long ago. I’m in the middle of writing an essay about nineteenth-century epidemics/cholera, and “mismanagement” is an understatement. A thoughtful piece — thank you for the inspiration!
London was a great writer, no doubt. Also a raging alcoholic. Two parts of his book about his drinking, John Barleycorn, really stand out. 1. On a crowded train in the San Francisco area, he was totally drunk and suddenly felt he was suffocating. He jostled people out of his way to get to a window and threw it open so violently it broke, or smashed it, and then hanged half in and half out of the car just to breath to stay alive until the train reached the terminal. 2. He went night swimming in San Francisco Bay while drunk. He felt at one with all things and the universe, while drifting all the while on serious man-killing currents that would take him far out to sea or into a ship’s propellers in that busy port in no time. Somehow he got out of that scrape alive.
John Barleycorn is a great, memorable book.
Thank you. I will line that one up.
A moving reflection on a book that’s been on my list of must reads for 40 years.
I’ll get to it.
Theodore Dalrymple takes a look at today’s urban poor in Life at the Bottom
and discusses the underclass with Jordan Peterson here:
Both worth the time, the podcast’s advantage being that it can be consumed while driving.
I lived in Deptford for some years, all my sympathy.
Once again, I’m reminded that listening to tales of poverty from a position of wealth is the world’s most perverse sadomasochistic experience.
Architect and TV personality Dan Cruikshank (also a resident of nearby Spitalfields) believes Jack London exaggerated the poverty he encountered. I haven’t read his exact criticism, which I presume is in a book of his, but I did find it seemed a little bit as though it was written in a rush. Dr Barnardo found appalling poverty in East London, so London may have been spot on.
A powerful book.
Have a Google search of “Spitalfields Nippers” to see some tragic pictures.
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