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  • Writer's pictureBen Thomas

Literature Review: Nightwalking by Matthew Beaumont

Matthew Beaumont, currently a professor at University College London, is the author of Nightwalking. Beaumont's research interests cover numerous aspects of the metropolitan city, but his focus is on night-time within them. Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London is his magnum opus on the topic. In an intense piece of literary investigation, Beaumont talks on poets, novelists and thinkers that dwelled in the city of London after sunset. Figures include Chaucer, Shakespeare, De Quincey, Blake and “supreme nightwalker” – as Beaumont anoints him - Charles Dickens. Dickens has a heavy influence throughout the book - he is clearly Beaumont’s beau ideal throughout. In Night Walks – originally released in the 1800s, Charles Dickens details his time as an insomniac, when he decided to cure himself by walking through London after hours. His night-time rambles take him to Newgate Prison, Covent Garden, Westminster Abbey and other famous locations. Title aside, it is clear to see throughout Nightwalking how Beaumont is shaped by this Dickensian writing.

Nightwalking is an in-depth book that looks at the history of its eponymous subject. The act of nightwalking – illegal for centuries in the United Kingdom – can be dated back to medieval times. Beaumont chronicles the saga of nightwalking and its transformation from despicable crime to literary tinder box. He starts with actions of kings – such as William The Conqueror - that prevented citizens from wandering outside after sunset, and how these were enforced with the emergence of night watchmen. He recounts tales of prejudice against women throughout history - how they have been continuously stereotyped as prostitutes and streetwalkers when outside after dark, yet men have been lesser persecuted for identical acts. He moves from these vital historic foundations to introducing various – all successful – authors who have used nightwalking in fictional and non-fictional manners throughout their writing.

The book – in the same vain that Boom Cities was to modernist architecture – is a fascinating insight into nightlife in cities. Nightwalking especially was phenomenon that I had little knowledge on, but after reading Beaumont’s book – with its vast information to feast on – I feel I have been given an exceptional education on it. Characterisations of noctivagants or noctambulants is one key feature - that I previously was not aware of – which stands out to me. Not only are the laws and regulations that Beaumont writes on historically fascinating, his weaving of literary figures throughout is a sight to behold.

Beaumont’s extensive work is perfectly bookended by an introduction and epilogue by my PhD supervisor Will Self. As well as this, Nick Papadimitriou – long-time collaborator of Self on his undergraduate psychogeography module I attended – is also cited in the acknowledgements. Along with these personal connections – Dickens and De Quincey among others that Beaumont expertly references are writers that have been recurrent throughout my research – and many more mentioned will continue to do so. This makes Nightwalking definitively one of the key texts for my research. These are figures I wish to emulate, so an understanding of what moulded them into nightwalking, flâneur icons is essential.

Aside from the extended title of the book, it is clear throughout that Beaumont concentrates his efforts on describing nightwalking in predominately London. The city is the continuously changing metropolis – and any phenomena involving city nightlife emerges there first. The detailed literary figures have all used London in their texts, and like Beaumont it is because the city is the first to experience true nightwalking. Also, many of the night crimes referenced throughout have taken place in the city – probably due to a higher level of documentation than more rural settlements at the time. Although other settlements are mentioned in the book, including further afield cities such as Boston, it is London where the lungs of men striding after dark truly breath.

Psychogeography has a large amount to thank night walkers for. The influence of “night-time” on cities – and specifically night crime – has historically shaped the way societies travel around cities at night. Writers such as Dickens have influenced the practice through their tales of being nightwalkers around London. Deep rooted psychogeography is the idea of breaking from the norm and the usual “working hours” – Marxism and Situationism inspired. But this breaking from labour is also witnessed in the illegality of nightwalking. Showing thus why, this text is key to my studies. Beaumont’s book was a beautiful, fascinating read and one that anyone planning to walk and write should delve into.

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