The People of the Abyss by Jack London

The People of the Abyss

subjects: Literature: History & Criticism

Description

A profound and moving piece of investigative journalism, Jack London’s study of the London underworld remains, a century after it was written, a timely tale of poverty and injustice. In 1902, Jack London purchased some second-hand clothes, rented a room in the East End, and set out to discover how the London poor lived. His research makes shocking reading. Moving through the slums as one of the poor; eating, drinking and socialising with the underclass; queuing to get into a doss-house, London was scandalised and brutalised by the experience of living rough in Britain’s capital. His clear-eyed reflections on the iniquities of class are a shaming testament to the persistence of social inequality in modern Britain.

Excerpt

“But you can’t do it, you know,” friends said, to whom I applied for assistance in the matter of sinking myself down into the East End of London. “You had better see the police for a guide,” they added, on second thought, painfully endeavouring to adjust themselves to the psychological processes of a madman who had come to them with better credentials than brains.

“But I don’t want to see the police,” I protested. “What I wish to do is to go down into the East End and see things for myself. I wish to know how those people are living there, and why they are living there, and what they are living for. In short, I am going to live there myself.”

“You don’t want to live down there!” everybody said, with disapprobation writ large upon their faces. “Why, it is said there are places where a man’s life isn’t worth tu’pence.”

“The very places I wish to see,” I broke in.

“But you can’t, you know,” was the unfailing rejoinder.

“Which is not what I came to see you about,” I answered brusquely, somewhat nettled by their incomprehension. “I am a stranger here, and I want you to tell me what you know of the East End, in order that I may have something to start on.”

“But we know nothing of the East End. It is over there, somewhere.” And they waved their hands vaguely in the direction where the sun on rare occasions may be seen to rise.

“Then I shall go to Cook’s,” I announced.

“Oh yes,” they said, with relief. “Cook’s will be sure to know.”

But O Cook, O Thomas Cook & Son, path-finders and trail-clearers, living sign-posts to all the world, and bestowers of first aid to bewildered travellers–unhesitatingly and instantly, with ease and celerity, could you send me to Darkest Africa or Innermost Thibet, but to the East End of London, barely a stone’s throw distant from Ludgate Circus, you know not the way!

“You can’t do it, you know,” said the human emporium of routes and fares at Cook’s Cheapside branch. “It is so–hem–so unusual.”

“Consult the police,” he concluded authoritatively, when I had persisted. “We are not accustomed to taking travellers to the East End; we receive no call to take them there, and we know nothing whatsoever about the place at all.”

“Never mind that,” I interposed, to save myself from being swept out of the office by his flood of negations. “Here’s something you can do for me. I wish you to understand in advance what I intend doing, so that in case of trouble you may be able to identify me.”

“Ah, I see! should you be murdered, we would be in position to identify the corpse.”

He said it so cheerfully and cold-bloodedly that on the instant I saw my stark and mutilated cadaver stretched upon a slab where cool waters trickle ceaselessly, and him I saw bending over and sadly and patiently identifying it as the body of the insane American who would see the East End.

“No, no,” I answered; “merely to identify me in case I get into a scrape with the ‘bobbies.’” This last I said with a thrill; truly, I was gripping hold of the vernacular.

“That,” he said, “is a matter for the consideration of the Chief Office.”

“It is so unprecedented, you know,” he added apologetically.

The man at the Chief Office hemmed and hawed. “We make it a rule,” he explained, “to give no information concerning our clients.”

“But in this case,” I urged, “it is the client who requests you to give the information concerning himself.”

Again he hemmed and hawed.

“Of course,” I hastily anticipated, “I know it is unprecedented, but–”

“As I was about to remark,” he went on steadily, “it is unprecedented, and I don’t think we can do anything for you.”

However, I departed with the address of a detective who lived in the East End, and took my way to the American consul-general. And here, at last, I found a man with whom I could “do business.” There was no hemming and hawing, no lifted brows, open incredulity, or blank amazement. In one minute I explained myself and my project, which he accepted as a matter of course. In the second minute he asked my age, height, and weight, and looked me over. And in the third minute, as we shook hands at parting, he said: “All right, Jack. I’ll remember you and keep track.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. Having burnt my ships behind me, I was now free to plunge into that human wilderness of which nobody seemed to know anything. But at once I encountered a new difficulty in the shape of my cabby, a grey-whiskered and eminently decorous personage who had imperturbably driven me for several hours about the “City.”

“Drive me down to the East End,” I ordered, taking my seat.

“Where, sir?” he demanded with frank surprise.

“To the East End, anywhere. Go on.”

The hansom pursued an aimless way for several minutes, then came to a puzzled stop. The aperture above my head was uncovered, and the cabman peered down perplexedly at me.

“I say,” he said, “wot plyce yer wanter go?”