Let Me Take You by the Hand by Jennifer Kavanagh review – true tales from London’s streets

More than 150 years after Henry Mayhew’s revelatory survey of the capital’s poor, this collection of stories shows that too little has changed

In 1861 the journalist Henry Mayhew completed London Labour and the London Poor, a sprawling, four-volume account of life on the streets and on the skids. Here, for the first time, was first-person testimony from the kind of people who were usually nothing more than a silent smudge on Victorian England’s field of vision: street-sweepers and shit-collectors; sellers of wilted fruit, rotten fish and children’s bodies; beggars and beadles. Reviewing it, William Makepeace Thackeray called Mayhew’s revelatory masterpiece “a terror of tale and wonder”. Charles Dickens, famously, used Mayhew’s database of voices and experiences as a source book for peopling the odd, dark corners of his novels.

At the end of 2018 Jennifer Kavanagh set out to do a Mayhew for our own broken times. With notebook and recorder in hand, she has tramped her native city, talking to the men and women who live and work on its streets. What is at once striking is how little has changed in the intervening 160 years. There are still street sweepers, fruit sellers and even beadles (private security guards by another name). Many people are dependent on an economy of salvaging and repurposing. At night, as lucky Londoners head for their beds, thousands of others make do with the pavement. Food is still the kind that you can hold in your fingers and eat with minimal cutlery, but instead of trotters and hot potatoes it’s more likely to be a late-in-the-day sandwich. There are as many soup kitchens and flop houses as ever.

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