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Book Review: London A Pilgrimage

M@
By M@ Last edited 135 months ago
Book Review: London A Pilgrimage
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Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Doré

London has been home to more double-acts than Great Yarmouth pier. Just off the top of the head, there’s Johnson & Boswell, the Adam Brothers, Holmes and Watson, the Krays, and recent North-London comedy duo Henry and Pires. Add to the mix the little-known Victorian pairing of Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Doré, whose minor classic ‘London A Pilgrimage’ has just been re-released by Anthem Press.

Londonist has wanted to get our paws on this volume for years, after seeing it prominently featured in many a London bibliography. Indeed, the authors are name-checked in Peter Ackroyd’s seminal ‘London The Biography’ more often than Jack the Ripper and Henry VIII combined.

‘A Pilgrimage’ is a contemporary words and pictures travelogue through 1870s London, taking in the toffs and the tatters in equal measure. Our intrepid pilgrims, AKA Jerrold and Doré, seek not to explain, justify or put into context what they see, only to chronicle it. In Jerrold’s words, ‘We are wanderers; not, I repeat, historians.’ It’s sort of like what Iain Sinclair and Marc Atkins do in ‘Lights Out’, only with more hats and steam, and fewer obscure poets.

Jerrold’s prose is fluid and fast, but irritates the casual reader with its frequent dependence on forgotten buzz words and personalities of the day. A boon for historians, but a tricky read for anyone else.

The star of the show is Doré. The Frenchman’s detailed etchings really do paint a thousand words, which is fortunate given the narrator's persistant flare for not getting the message across. The volume contains 180 of Doré's brooding illustrations, which show a dirty, impoverished and overcrowded London that makes today’s city look like a pristine Antarctic ice field.

We see interesting parallels with the details of our own times. ‘Their luncheon is in a sandwich box,’ says Jerrold of the scuttling middle class workers, ‘so that Nature’s cravings may not rob them of an hour in the best part of the precious working time’. And a couple of pages on, Doré presents a remarkable drawing of a busy thoroughfare, with thousands travelling in all directions on all forms of transport, with advertising on every available surface. This could be modern day Piccadilly, or Brixton. Apart from the hats.

But we’re also reminded how different the Victorian city was, both in terms of technology and society. Jerrold marvels that only a few years previously, ‘men had not dreamed that they would ever pass under London…nor that a merchant from his counting house would be able to talk with New York and Calcutta’. Later, he comments on the East/West divide that has still to fully erode. ‘A fop of St James Street would fare badly if he should attempt a solitary pilgrimage to Shadwell. His air of wealth would be regarded as aggressive and impertinent in these regions, upon which the mark of poverty is set, in lively colours’.

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As is routine for all recent books on London, the publishers have persuaded Ackroyd to provide an Introduction. No one is better qualified to place the book in its historical context. Though given the cover price of a tenner for a 200-page paperback, we might have expected something a little more detailed and incisive than the three pages we get.

Grumbles aside, London A Pilgrimage is worth the price for its illustrations alone. And despite Jerrold’s difficult narrative, some of the quotations are outstanding snapshots of mid-Victorian London. We can’t end without the following wonderful observation from a street dealer, which shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

These are curious times gentleman; and we must keep to them or go to the wall. People want so many more things than when I was a lad. You see…cheap luxuries and dear necessities are the cause of all the mischief. I see the mistake plain enough, when the crowds in rags are collecting round the new-fangled ginger-beer and penny-ice men.

Last Updated 15 November 2005