Thursday, March 17, 2005

London After Dark


· Photography: Alan Delaney
· Commentary: Robert Cowan
· Hardcover
· Publisher: Phaidon Press (November 1, 1993)
· ISBN: 071482870X
· Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 9.8 x 11.2 inches

When I was twelve, I was bored at school. I made up any excuse to avoid it. In fact, I had learnt years before that if I faked an earache, my deception was virtually imperceptible. It was around this time that I became fascinated with England. I began to compile my own encyclopedia of the country: hand-drawn, coloured maps of the counties and major commercial centres, annotated with demographic information that I had gathered from several sources (including the bookshelves of my maternal grandmother, a retired secondary school teacher.) I could force myself to attend school by reminding myself that I could work on “my project” once I got home.

Seven years later, my affair with London began. I packed a suitcase and announced to my family that I was going to England by myself. A few years later, I returned to London for a couple of months.

(In retrospect, I think Henry Miller was right: All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without the benefit of experience.)

Subsequently, I developed an obsession with the London that I had been unable to experience: the London that existed while everyone slept, the fog-enshrouded, trance-inducing beauty of the architecture illuminated by the city itself. (At the time, London was considered one of the safest cities in the world for a lone travelling woman but I still would not venture out past midnight.) Of course, I am well aware that no one could observe this London: it is precisely the unobserved that intrigues me; however, senses of it may be captured in snapshots.

I love photography, especially black-and-white and the combination of this and London is always irresistible to me. While in the university bookstore back in the early 90s, I bought a coffee-table book entitled, London After Dark (Phaidon, 1993). It featured the work of Alan Delaney and commentary by Robert Cowan. There, page after page, was my favourite city, a city eerily captured through the sense of the subterranean that I'd always loved.

There is something about a self-sufficient city, a place that doesn’t rely upon daytime inhabitants or even nightlife human activity to assert itself. A strong recollection of mine: I am standing in Endsleigh Gardens, near Euston Station, people are speedily walking past, eyes averted, and there is nothing of the leisurely to be noted. At that moment, I feel as if the city is merely tolerating me and the other people, as if it is waiting for some time on its own.

The pulse of the city, then, is certainly -- but not exclusively -- measured in activity. Nightlife simply has to be experienced to be believed: Piccadilly and Soho are especially interesting. Once the sky has become a velvety dark blue, turning into Soho with one’s head bowed results in a time-shift. One could be walking into 19th Century London with only the dim glow of a gaslight. Of course, to lift one’s head means instant restoration to the present as women stand, smiling, in doorways and pounding, modern music is heard briefly as doors swing open or shut.

This being as it is there are, in the subterranean, in the darkened city, stories to be told of the darker areas of human behaviour and existence.

In the silence of the night the city speaks for itself. No one listened more attentively than Charles Dickens, who as much as anyone has shaped Londoners’ response to the dark side of their city. The lowest point of Dickens’s early experience of London was as a 12-year-old working in a blacking factory, his father imprisoned for debt.

The London that I yearned to experience, however, exists afterward, after the pulsating vehicular and pedestrian traffic has flowed to the suburbs or to urban neighbourhoods with closet-like flats. The stories of individual lives have already unfolded. The pizza stands and newsagents have shut down. This is the London found in London After Dark. London is a city that continues to breathe after everyone leaves.

As noted within this photographic essay, Ford Madox Ford observed:

To enter London with the market wagons in the darkness before dawn was to be not awed by the immense humanity but disturbed by entering what seems some realm of the half supernatural…All the vacant blinds, the sinister, the jocular, the lugubriously inquiring, or the lamentable expressions that windows give to houses asleep, all the unsmoking chimneys, the pale skies, and the thought of all these countless thousands lying invisible, with their souls, in sleep, parted from their bodies – all these things give an effect, in its silence, immense, stealthy, and overpowering.

It doesn’t appear that London After Dark is still in print. A search of the Phaidon site fails to turn up the title. It, however, does seem to be available through big chain bookstores.

Just this past week, I was in a tiny port town and visited a tiny store that was jam-packed with books and miscellanea. One treasure that I unearthed in the charming chaos was a hardcover (with dust jacket) called The Nights of London, companion to The Heart of London and The Spell of London. The series bears "unconventional essays on London after dark." (I have the 15th edition from 1948 and the book was first published in 1926.)

Admittedly, this volume often addresses the machinations of the city at night, the springs and coils that keep the city working by day:

You may not realize that when the tubes cease work the current is switched off in sections. As each section becomes ‘juiceless’, gangs of men waiting at the stations set out to examine every yard of the one hundred and seventy-one miles of track on the Tube and District systems. It is probably the most important four hours’ work during the London night.

(Ed. Note: I am here reminded of Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis (1927), which is, in fact, pretty much contemporaneous with Morton’s written series on London after dark.)

But Mr. Morton entices the reader:

I promise not to drag you through that inevitable night on the Thames Embankment, or the equally ancient night in a doss house. I will try to take you as little as I must in the well-worn footsteps of other night-errants.

The reader is drawn, instead, into a habit of lurking around corners (“Through the door burst a number of pretty young girls chattering of last trams and trains.”) and peering—perhaps surreptitiously -- into darkened windows:

When you pass a London hospital at night think of this…The wards are darkened. The nurse goes tiptoe over the polished floor between the two white shrouded ranks. It is very quiet…

Finding H.V. Morton's tome has thrilled me. What a treat to read about London through the lens of the 1920s!

Just about equally as thrilling is the generosity that the bookseller demonstrated: as my eyes widened and I tried to contain my enthusiasm (as befitting a mature woman), the gentleman reduced the price by 90 per cent. I bought the book for a dollar! I gladly would have paid his asking price, too.

Read about H.V. Morton

Phaidon has an excellent, easily navigable website. Search through its book gallery and discover some great volumes.

This is a great site for night photography of London (and New York City).

I’m glad that I’m not the only one who appreciates London at night. Those who appreciate “night photography” as a genre might also do well to visit this site: History of Night Photography.

For more information about Mr. Morton, there is the H.V. Morton Society.

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