Nuit sans femmes

No posts on this blog since the middle of January—the first weekend of term. Now that term’s over, I have a minute to think (under the dark cloud of marking), and appropriately it’s another essay in the Guardian that’s prompted this post.

Gaz de Strasbourg éclairant la ville de nuit
Gaslight illuminates Strasbourg (click image for source)

Matthew Beaumont’s book Nightwalking: a nocturnal history of London is just out with Verso, and it’s been warmly reviewed in several places. It has a foreword and an afterword by the crown prince of English psychogeographers, Will Self (the king regnant being Iain Sinclair), and there are kind words from Terry Eagleton, James Attlee, and others.* The Guardian essay is a digested version which claims to be about ‘the city’ a bit more broadly, not just about London. That’s why I read it: I’ve been teaching a class this term on Middle Eastern cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I thought it might provide some useful comparative material. I’ve also got Disenchanted night on my to-read list for the Easter break.

It’s quite a good essay, as far as it goes, and it’s got some excellent nocturnal photos of mid-twentieth century London. (Interesting to see an illuminated advert for Bovril dominating Piccadilly Circus in 1960—hard to imagine that now.) But something struck me as I read it, and became increasingly distracting as I read on.

Here’s a list, in order of appearance, of the literary and historical figures, and historians, that the essay quotes or mentions:

Al Alvarez
Ford Madox Ford
Louis Aragon
Joachim Schlör
Edward I
Jonathan Crary
Roberto Bolaño

Yup: all men. The absence of women from the essay becomes even more striking when it does actually address their experience of walking the city at night:

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 as either predators, in the form of prostitutes, or predatees – the potential victims of sexual assault. In both cases, they are denied a right to the city at night.

Fair enough, but they’re also denied a right to give voice to their own experiences here (it’s to a man, Joachim Schlör, that Beaumont turns to interpret women’s experience), let alone make general observations about the city at night. It’s mere cant to wring one’s hands over ‘a long history of discrimination and patriarchal oppression’ against women if you can’t take the time to read a single thing written by a woman about your subject.

It’s not like it would be hard. I haven’t just written a book about walking the London streets by night, so my bookshelves aren’t crammed with relevant readings. Still, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: a history of walking is there: chapters 11–14 are about walking the city, with chapter 14 entitled ‘Walking after midnight: women, sex, and public space’. Some of the people Solnit draws on are men—she even borrows a quote from Schlör—but some of them are women too.

I also found myself thinking of the description of walking in London during the blackout in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human voices—a novel, but Fitzgerald had lived through the second world war in London. I couldn’t find my copy of that, but thinking of it put me in mind of several other books: Sarah Waters’s The night watch, whose characters walk through the city as well as driving ambulances; two stray teenagers trying to get to shelter at Charing Cross underground during an air-raid in Jill Paton Walsh’s Fireweed (a children’s book still in print over forty years after it was first published)—in my memory that extraordinary scene lasted far longer than the four pages it actually occupied, even though it’s only a few months since I reread it; or Nenna’s nighttime walk across early 1960s London in Fitzgerald’s Offshore, when she leaves her purse behind after a disastrous attempt at reconciliation—as funny as it is painful to read—with her estranged husband and has to set off home to Battersea Reach on foot, in shoes that aren’t up to it. When she stops to try and fix a broken strap a creepy man approaches her and asks if she’s fixed up for the night:

Nenna did not answer. She was saddened by the number of times the man must have asked this question. He smelled of loneliness. Well, they always moved off in the end, though they often stayed a while, as this one did, whistling through their teeth, like standup comics about to risk another joke.

He snatched the shoe out of her hand and hurled it violently away from her into the Kingsland Road.

‘What you going to do now?’

She escapes, barefoot, and carries on down the Kingsland Road, past ‘a group at the end of Cremers Street who stood laughing, probably at her… I expect they think I’ve been drinking’. Eventually she’s rescued, feet bleeding, by a taxi driver. Taxi drivers in fiction are threatening more often than not, especially towards women—think of Elizabeth Bowen’s The demon lover—but this one is kind, in a paternal(ist) sort of way, and when Nenna dozes off in the back of his cab ‘he stopped and had a cup of tea himself, and explained to the Covent Garden porters, who wanted to know what he’d got in the back, that it was the Sleeping Beauty’. (Fitzgerald’s descriptions of 1960s Covent Garden by night in At Freddie’s are also drawn from personal knowledge.)

These are all from the twentieth century, you might say, and Beaumont’s book stops in the nineteenth; but then, the essay doesn’t (and nor do the pictures accompanying it). They’re also drawn from a quick scan of one non-specialist’s bookshelves, picking only novels that are about London. If I can do that in five minutes without even going to a library, surely Beaumont (and his editor) could have done better?

Once again, Sara Ahmed: ‘White men cite other white men.’

Woman in Berlin
No room for me here…

*The gender politics of who gets asked to review which books are too depressing to go into here, but it’s striking that only one of the reviews mentioned on the publisher’s website—Suzi Feay’s in the FT—is by a woman.


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