By Joachim Schlör

Reaktion Books. 352 pages. £16.95. ISBN 978-1-78023-586-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

When I was a young man, and went out at night with my friends, I think it was always in the hope that something might happen. Day times were usually predictable. You got up, went to work, came home. If you didn’t go out again you read a book or played a game or somehow passed the time. But when dark came and it was a night when you met friends, or perhaps just went out alone into the centre, it was always with the possibility that there could be a significant event. It was likely, of course, that the event, if it occurred, might not be benign. Instead of meeting a friendly girl you could get into a fight. But that was a chance you took and it was part of the thrill of urban night life. Hope and apprehension make for a heady mixture.

I was reminded of my long-ago feelings when I was reading Nights in the Big City, and I came across references to “the nocturnal city as a celebration” and “the nocturnal city as the place of terror, of threatening danger.” The latter description perhaps seems a little extreme, but whenever I’ve been in a city at night, and I’ve been in quite a few in various countries, I’ve known that there were certain areas where it wasn’t safe to wander around if I wanted to be sure of surviving to an age where I can sit at home and read books about the joys and perils of nights in big cities.

There are frequent references in Nights in the Big City to the threat of danger that might have been experienced in the streets in the period the book covers. There had, of course, always been violent  city streets. London in the 18th century, for example, wasn’t exactly a peaceful place, especially at night. Neither was Paris. If we go back far enough there were ordinances that banned people being on the streets between certain times. If someone had to be abroad after dark they needed a pass to prove to the watch that they had a legitimate reason for being there. Fear of the dark “was stirred up and used by the authorities as an instrument of discipline.” It wasn’t just the police who were concerned about night life, and “bourgeois social reformers” were of the opinion that “the night presents a particularly good opportunity for the development of strategies of control and of regulation of entertainment needs.”

The reasoning was that no-one, if they were respectable, would want to be outside their home at night unless they were up to some mischief or desired to indulge in improper sexual practices. Once organised police forces were established in cities they saw it as their role to, in effect, control the night. To want to wander the streets in the dark, as some people might like to do simply for pleasure, and not with nefarious activities in mind, was almost a challenge to police authority. I was reminded of a wonderful Ray Bradbury story where a man out walking is confronted by police who simply can’t understand why he should want to walk without a set purpose in mind, and especially at night. Bradbury’s story was, at the time it was written, futuristic in its setting, but it shows how the principle of suspicion about activities after dark continues through the ages.

In many ways life on the streets at night increased with the introduction of street lighting, though it initially tended to be limited to city centres, and even there only the main streets and squares. The newly-lit areas attracted crowds and this raised questions for the guardians of public morality. Prostitution was largely a night-time activity, and it combined with the expansion of taverns, coffee-houses, theatres, music halls and other places of entertainment, to provoke the attention and condemnation of those who perhaps viewed any departure from a strict, laid-down procedure for public behaviour as likely to lead to wholesale moral decline. It was inevitable that disputes would arise between those who wanted to extend street life at night and those who sought to restrict it.

London and Paris already had extensive nocturnal street life, at least in their central districts, by the early nineteenth century, but Berlin developed as a major city only some time later. Obviously, local circumstances determined certain aspects of night life, but certain factors, such as closing times for pubs (fast expanding in towns and cities in Britain early in the nineteenth century), and other venues, seemed to have been applicable in all the cities involved. They probably still are, and for the same reasons. Complaints about noise, police concerns about maintaining order in city centres and limiting crime, problems of morality, especially when young people are seen to be on the streets late at night. And the dangers for women. It’s noted that a woman alone could often be treated, both by men looking for sex and by the police, as a prostitute.

During the period when I was reading Nights in the Big City, I happened to be browsing in a second-hand bookshop and came across an old issue of the art magazine, Apollo. It caught my attention because the front cover was an 1892 painting by the Polish artist, Aleksander Gierymski, of The Louvre at Night. It’s noticeable that there are two women in the painting, one particularly evident in the foreground, There are also a couple of men, and a man and woman together who might be thoroughly respectable. The single women are moving quite confidently. But there is also another figure in the painting who, from the cape he is wearing and what appears to be a helmet, is probably a policeman.

Is there a degree of ambiguity in this painting or is it a picture of a fairly ordinary and innocent scene? One of the women is carrying what looks like a basket, which might imply domesticity. She may be a housewife or a servant on her way home. The caption with the illustration refers to “the perilous glamour of Paris,” which invites speculation. Another Gierymski painting in the magazine, The Paris Opera at Night, dating from 1891, contains numerous figures, all of them apparently proceeding quite quickly to wherever they’re going. Both paintings use the impact of street lighting to heighten the way in which the dark is broken up, but sometimes with the effect of emphasising the mysteries that night can bring. We can often safely assume that people in the daytime are going about their legitimate business of working, shopping, visiting others, and so on. But at night we may never be quite as sure.

“The representation of the nocturnal city has been, with very few exceptions, the business of men, as it still is today; women do appear in texts, but as a rule as objects, elements of an ensemble perceived and described by men” This passage refers to “texts,” but could also apply to paintings, as my comments on the Gierymski canvases suggest. And I have in mind another painter of striking nocturnal scenes, the wonderful British artist, Atkinson Grimshaw, whose pictures of the urban landscapes of London, Liverpool and Leeds at night can arouse all kinds of responses in terms of what might be happening on those shining (from street lighting and shop windows) and shadowy streets. But were there any women artists who painted night scenes? Perhaps not, for obvious reasons of not wanting to be out on the streets after dark, or if there were they’ve been forgotten. And if they did exist, did they portray the city at night in different ways than their male counterparts? After all, “is it perhaps only the records, the state of the sources, that are an expression of male dominance?” The question is asked with regard to written sources, but might just as easily be applied to visual ones.

It’s interesting that many of the aspects of big city night life were (still are?) viewed as “foreign” in London: “The nocturnal view of the city is more strongly separated into two worlds – pleasure and light on the one hand, danger and darkness on the other.” The theatre and music halls are seen as representing the “bright side,” and perhaps even the pubs can be also be included (all are “controlled” in some ways by set closing times), but “if one wanders up the narrow Soho lane just after the theatres empty, to the corner where the clock of the Red Lion public house shows the witching hour of night, one is in the midst of foreign Bohemian life.”  The quoted passages are from an 1857 book, The Night Side of London, which we’re told also deals with the “white slave trade,” and does it “in an extraordinarily and unpleasant anti-Semitic way.” A much later report, from the 1920s, said that, “London by night has become much more Parisian since the war. And under cover of this gaiety there has been an increase in vice.” But any deviation from a narrow British norm was likely to be looked on as due to insidious “foreign” influences, not least from Paris. Just consider the attacks launched on English writers said to be under the spell of French poets and novelists in the aftermath of Oscar Wilde’s downfall. One British newspaper suggested that Hubert Crackanthorpe’s decline into suicide in Paris was due to having worshipped French idols.

The question of control of nocturnal cities crops up quite a few times in Nights in the Big City, and there’s an intriguing undated illustration which refers to “the police ideal,” a street of glass houses into which the police patrol can peer and ensure that everyone is in bed and supposedly asleep. It’s satirical, of course, but it’s possible to deduce from it that people were aware of how the authorities looked on night as a period when certain citizens needed to be watched closely, lest they got up to something dangerous. It’s unlikely that the rich and influential would allow themselves to be open to surveillance in the same manner that the poor were, or at least might be if the powerful had their way. But the working classes needed to be controlled at night as an adjunct to how they were often controlled during the day by the factory system.

I’m reminded of the times, sixty or so years ago, when I was stopped and questioned by the police as I walked back late at night to the working-class district I lived in, whereas the better-off in their cars or in taxis would proceed on their journeys without interruption. It struck me that I was more likely to be stopped when I cut through a well-lit, respectable district rather than in the dimly-lit streets where I was born and brought up. But, as a policeman once told me, when he wanted to know where I lived, being from those streets was enough to arouse suspicion in his mind if I was seen elsewhere, especially at night. What was I doing out of my “place?” Knowing and accepting one’s “place,” at night as well as in the day, was considered important by many people, not only the police.

Nights in the Big City is a fascinating book, packed with intriguing details and provocative ideas. Its range of references is wide, and it’s not a complaint when I point to the fact that, as referred to in my brief asides about painters like Atkinson Grimshaw and Aleksander Gierymski, there is a visual aspect of The City at Night (the title of Elizabeth Clegg’s article in Apollo, December, 1989) that could usefully be explored alongside it. There are apt illustrations in Nights in the Big City, though mostly of what might be called the documentary kind. There are also extensive notes and a lengthy bibliography, much of it indicating the German origins of the book. It is particularly strong on information about Berlin, though not to the extent that Paris and London are in any way neglected.

A final note. The introduction for this new edition of Nights in the Big City (it was originally published in German in 1991, and in English in 1998) was written by Matthew Beaumont, whose Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London, Chaucer to Dickens (Verso, 2015) is similarly entertaining and informative on the subject of night in the city. Both publications deserve a place on the bookshelves of anyone interested in the history of city life.