The Birthday League

Thames Tunnel (from the circular staircase), London published in Dugdale’s England and Wales Delineated, about 1830 [engraving, credit: Antiche Curiosità]

Remembering a piece of advice that a sailor had once given her, [Dido] said to the boy, “When’s your birthday? Mine’s the first of March.”
‘When you talk to a savage or a native,’ Noah Gusset had said, ‘always tell him some secret about yourself — your birthday, your father’s name, your favourite food — tell him your secret and ask him his. That’s a token of trust; soon’s you know each other a bit, then you can be friends.’

We have already begun to look at the personages in Joan Aiken’s alternate history fantasy Dido and Pa and now it’s time to conclude that prosopography. From Petworth in West Sussex and Wapping in the East End of London we now move to Chelsea and other parts of southeast England to examine who we will be meeting in these places. Here is the usual spoiler alert. As if it is needed.

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The world of Dido’s Pa

The illustration is of The Wolf and Fox Hunt (about 1616) by Rubens in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image: public domain)


Another piece in the series of posts of one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles

In Dido and Pa much time is spent in the East End of London, in the docklands area of Wapping. But the narrative ranges more widely than this, and this post looks at the bigger picture. The role of Dido Twite’s father (Abednego/Desmond/Denzil/Boris) in this novel is huge, though his peregrinations in the capital — as we shall see — aren’t as extensive as some of the other characters.

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Wapping stories

Detail from Mogg’s Strangers Guide to London and Westminster (1834) http://www.mapco.net/mogg/mogg23.htm

We’ve now arrived at the next point in our explorations of Joan Aiken’s Dido and Pa, an alternate history fantasy set during the 1830s in a parallel London. A review of the novel appeared here and a discussion of the convoluted chronology was posted here. I’d now like to introduce you to the geography of the locations the author puts into Dido and Pa and how they compare and contrast with what existed in our London then and how it is now.

The East End of London was a rapidly developing area of London between the late 18th and early 19th century. The Ratcliffe Highway (named from red cliffs above the Thames) overlooked the Wapping marshes on the north bank of the river. Here new docks were carved out in a series of basins, with new warehouses to house the goods brought upriver to the capital. The area also attracted shady characters and gained an unsavoury reputation: the famous Ratcliffe Highway murders in 1811 (examined by P D James, co-author of The Maul and the Pear Tree) were, in terms of notoriety, just the tip of the iceberg.

It is here that Joan Aiken chose to set most of the action of Dido and Pa.

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Joining dots

Siobhan Dowd: The London Eye Mystery
Introduction by Robin Stevens
Penguin 2016 (2007)

Here’s a wonderful variation on the locked-room mystery: how can a boy who is seen to enter a pod on the famous London Eye wheel somehow disappear when the pod docks again half an hour later? Salim’s cousins, Ted and Kat, are left baffled, as are his estranged parents and Ted and Kat’s parents, not to mention the police. But by coming up with hypotheses for that disappearance and evaluating them, and by some clever underhand sleuthing, Ted and Kat slowly inch towards a solution; the worry is that, as time goes on, finding Salim will come too late to save him.

On the surface this sounds like a run-of-the-mill adventure story where children prove more than the equals of the police in solving a mystery. But The London Eye Mystery is not your average juvenile crime novel: there is a grounding in reality, in the hopes and fears of family life, in the recklessness that sometimes typifies adolescence, and in aspects of the mental processes someone on the autism spectrum may go through.

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Altered state alter ego

Houses in Moray Place, Edinburgh (“Auld Reekie”), in 2018. Stevenson lived for nearly three decades in Heriot Row, just off Moray Place

Robert Louis Stevenson:
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with other fables
Longmans, Green, and Co. 1918 (1896, 1885)

My memory of reading this as a teenager focuses almost entirely on the one shockingly violent scene in this novella, the one where Edward Hyde viciously attacks a prominent Parliamentarian in a London street. In my immature haste to get to the action I had clearly bypassed all the diversions — the discussions, the dialogues and the descriptions — as irrelevant waffle. For years I laboured under the impression that Hyde continued to roam the back alleys of the capital after story’s end, causing mayhem and fear. I long wondered if I’d confused elements of this tale with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (which was in fact published five years after this, in 1890) or a title by Arthur Machen concerning flâneurs in London (such as The Hill of Dreams, 1907).

In truth, Jekyll and Hyde plays on the meme of a dismal, foggy London in which dark deeds occur in side streets, a meme which every fin de siècle and early 20th-century novel exhibits, from the Sherlock Holmes stories to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and beyond. It is the epitome of Ruskin’s ‘pathetic fallacy’, the notion that nature echoes the human spirit when it is actually the reverse: London’s habitual murky darkness is merely a metaphor for human depravity, if anything the cause not the effect.

My younger self then was not in sympathy with how atmosphere was created and developed in a novel; but I hoped the passage of years would allow me now to enjoy the slow build-up to a dénouement that only a reader reared in complete isolation could be in ignorance of.

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Scorn and pity

Entrance to The Oxford Arms Inn, Warwick Lane demolished in 1878. Image by Society for Photographing Relics of Old London’s record of threatened buildings (Museum of London)

Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent. A Simple Tale
Penguin Modern Classics 1963 (1907)

“… perverse reason has its own logical processes.” — Author’s Note added 1920

Late Victorian London was a hotbed of political activity, especially in the 1880s when the Irish Republican Brotherhood instituted a bombing campaign that lasted a good five years. Few were killed but damage to several buildings — including Tube stations and, in 1884, Old Scotland Yard — ensured that terrorism was never far from the authorities’ concern.

One particular incident though had no clear motive, the apparent attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory in 1894. The bomb went off prematurely killing Frenchman Martial Bourdin, but why he was carrying it and what the proposed target was remains a mystery. It is this incident that Joseph Conrad, a Pole who would assume British citizenship in 1886, chose to fictionalise as the central event of his 1907 novel The Secret Agent, an extraordinary narrative that’s not at all easy (despite its subtitle) to summarise in a few short sentences.

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Regency murders

ratcliffe_poster

P D James and T A Critchley
The Maul and the Pear Tree:
the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811

Faber & Faber 2010

I deliberately began reading The Maul and the Pear Tree exactly two hundred years to the day that the horrific killing spree known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders began, on December 7th 1811. Four innocent people, including a babe in arms, were butchered in London’s East End that first night, stretching the rudimentary resources of the parish, the local magistrates and the Thames police based in Wapping. It inaugurated a period of terror, suspicion and xenophobia in St George’s and the neighbouring parishes and, through the medium of the press, a few weeks of morbid fascination in the public at large. It also led to questions in Parliament on the adequacy of current policing by neighbourhood watchmen, with a scornful analysis by the playwright Sheridan on the floor of the House of Commons.

Panic really set in when, twelve days later, a second attack resulting in three more horrific murders took place, also around the witching hour of midnight.

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