|Steve Beard is the author of the ambient novel Digital
Leatherette (Codex, 1999). A selection of his essays and
journalism is available as Logic Bomb (Serpent's Tail,
On-line resources relating to Steve Beard's work can be found at www.codexbooks.co.uk and bookworks.org.uk
A new collaborative project by Steve Beard and Jeff Noon will be published in April at mappalujo.com
On December 22 1859 at the height of his fame Charles Dickens gave
a rousing speech to supporters of the Commercial Travellers' Schools
at the London Tavern. He was attracted to the idea of the travelling
salesman or "bagman" as a commonplace figure of the poetic wanderer,
the flaneur, the C18th century bachelor essayist. At the same time, he
was a fierce political opponent of the Manchester school of free trade
liberalism as symbolised by the notorious Commercial Treaty of January
1860. The ambivalent persona of the "Uncommercial Traveller" was duly
invented in January 1860 as a vehicle for Dickens to combine his twin
passions of walking and writing and employed over the next nine years
to produce 36 separate pieces of journalism.
Dickens had already invented the persona "Boz" for himself in the 1830s when he used his journalistic skills to produce bourgeois-bohemian "sketches" of everyday street life with their picturesque scenes and characters. His "noctambuliste" habits of wandering London and its environs at night is vividly captured in the "Boz" sketches "The Streets - Morning" and "The Streets - Night" while as "The Uncommercial Traveller" he wrote "Shy Neighbourhoods" ("my walking is... objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond"), "Tramps" ("a tramp... has no object whatever in going anywhere"), "Night Walks" ("us houseless people... [have] a tendency to lurk and lounge; to be at street-corners without intelligible reason; to be going anywhere when met; to be about many places rather than at any; to do nothing tangible").
It is my intention to use the techniques of poetic remixology recommended by the 2000 Anthropofferjism Manifesto [i] to extract a post-colonial Anglocentrifugalist narrative from various text samples of "The Uncommercial Traveller". Here is the diagram of my procedure:
INPUT: "Wapping Workhouse" (1860) by "The Uncommercial Traveller"
(a.k.a Charles Dickens)
RUN: Anthropofferjism technique Allegorization: the transformation of a situation into a symbolic narrative
RUN: Anthropofferjism technique Abjectification: the promotion of symbolically degraded material as a foundation for counter-hegemonic cultural construction
INPUT: stanza from ballad "Wapping Old Stairs" [ii]
RUN: Anthropofferjism technique Transculturation: The transference of cultural percepts between the centre and margin of an institution
INPUT: First 34 paragraphs of "Poor Mercantile Jack" (1860) by "The Uncommercial Traveller" (a.k.a Charles Dickens)
RUN: Anthropofferjism technique Anti-exoticization: the removal of projected connotations of otherness from foreign markers of cultural filiation
RUN: Anthropofferjism technique Vagrant Cartographization: the construction of counter-hegemonic maps of common ground according to psychogeographical principles
INPUT: information on the 1831/2 anti-colonial Baptist War in Jamaica [iii]
RUN: Anthropofferjism technique Oralization: the restoration of phonetic spelling to marginal variants of English combined with the overthrow of the repressive apparatus of diacritical marks
RUN: Anthropofferjism technique Abrogation: the rejection of the universal claims of normative English and corresponding promotion of its marginal variants
OUTPUT: "Wapping Ghost Ship" by the "Mass Transit Lounger" (a.k.a Steve Beard)
Her night's business beckoning her to the East End of London, Molly
had turned her face to that point of the urban compass on leaving her
common lodging house in Flower & Dean Street and had got past the
Turk's Head (with an ignominious rash of fly-posters disfiguring his
dark countenance), and had strolled up the empty yard of his ancient
neighbour the Blue Boar, who departed this life she didn't know when,
and whose coaches are all gone she didn't know where; and Molly had
come out again into the age of railways, and had got past Whitechapel
Church, and was - rather usually for a street-walker - in the
Picking her way through the abundant mud of that thoroughfare, and greatly defeated by the huge piles of building belonging to the sugar refiners, the little masts and vanes in small back gardens in back streets, the neighbouring canals and docks, the West India vans lumbering along their stone tramway, and the pawnbrokers' shops where hard-up merchant seamen had pawned so many sextants and quadrants, that she should have bought a few cheap if she had the least notion how to afford them, Molly at last began to file off to the right, towards Wapping.
Now, Molly was going to Wapping, because an Atlantic story-teller had whispered, through the previous night's pub haze, that there was a ghost-ship at the Wapping quayside and that it was a curse and a blessing, and divers other mixed signs, and because she wished to see how the fact really stood. For, that the story-tellers are not always the most foolish men of the Atlantic, may be inferred from their course of procedure respecting the Baptist War in Jamaica: which had been, to discuss the matter at issue, in a state of mind betokening the weakest drunkenness, with all parties concerned and unconcerned, and, for a final expedient, to consult the rebel as to what he thought ought to be done with the plantation owner, and never take the plantation owner's opinion as to what he would recommend to be done with the rebel.
The Atlantic story-teller had knocked at the gate of Big Daddy Sharpe's Baptist church in St James' parish and had found it to be an establishment highly creditable to those parts, and thoroughly well administered by a most intelligent minister. He remarked in his hanging, an instance of the collateral harm that obstinate cruelty and injustice can do.
Long before Molly reached Wapping, she gave herself up as having lost her way, and, abandoning herself to the narrow streets in an Irish frame of mind, relied on her pixy to bring her somehow or other to the place she wanted if she were ever to get there.
It made her heart ache to experience all the miserable trifling she did in the streets of a district where every passing sailor seemed to call to her, as she walked along, 'Turn this way, woman, and see what needs to be fucked!'
There were merchant seamen girded to ships' masts and funnels of steamers, like foresters to great oaks, scraping and painting. There was a seaman lying out on yards, furling sails that tried to beat him off; a seaman was dimly discernible up in a world of giant cobwebs, reefing and splicing; a seaman was faintly audible down in holds, stowing and unshipping cargo; a seaman was winding round and round at capstans melodious, monotonous, and drunk; a seaman was black with coaling for Australasia; a seaman was washing decks barefoot, with the breast of his red shirt open to the blast, though it was sharper than the knife in his leathern girdle; a seaman was looking over bulwarks, all eyes and hair; a seaman was standing by at the shoot of a little steamer, off to-morrow, as the stocks in trade of several butchers, poulterers, and fishmongers, poured down into the ice-house. There were seamen coming aboard other vessels, each with their kit in a tarpaulin bag.
There were seamen everywhere! So Molly's pixy decoyed her into another train of thought to ease her heart. But, Molly didn't know that she did it, for she had been so full of various sailors, that it was, after all, only a change to a single seaman, who took possession of her remembrance instead of a thousand.
As she walked the dock-quays at Wapping, keeping watch on turmoil, she began looking for her sea-going lover Tom. There was a rattling of wheels, a clattering of hoofs, a clashing of iron, a jolting of cotton and hides and casks and timber, an incessant deafening disturbance on the quays, that was the very madness of sound.
When Molly had ceased for an hour or so to take any trouble about the matter, she found herself on some old stairs looking into some dirty water (baited with a scum that was like the soapy rinsing of sooty chimneys). Over against her, stood a creature remotely in the likeness of her young man, with a puffed sallow face, and a figure all dirty and shiny and slimy, who may have been the youngest son of his filthy old father, Thames, or the hanged man about whom there was a placard on the granite post like a large thimble, that stood between them.
Molly asked the apparition what he called the place? Unto which, he replied, with a ghastly grin and a sound like gurgling water in his throat: 'Wapping Old Stairs.'
As it is a point of great sensitiveness with her on such occasions to be equal to the intellectual pressure of the conversation, Molly deeply considered the meaning of this speech, while she eyed the apparition - then engaged in hugging and sucking the post at the top of the stairs. Experience indicated to her that there was a Marine Police Force in that neighbourhood.
'A common place for homicide,' said Molly, looking down at the water.
'Homi?' returned the ghost, with a stare. 'Yes! And Rai. Likewise Sam. And Edogo. And Obika;' he sucked the post between each name; 'and all the other river pirates. Ketches off their caps or neckerchiefs, takes a swing, and headers down here, they doos. Always a headerin down here, they is. Like one a clock.'
'And at about that hour of the afternoon, I suppose?'
'Ah!' said the apparition. 'THEY aint partickler. Two ull do for THEM. Three. All times a day. Onie mind you!' Here the apparition rested his profile on the post, and gurgled in a sarcastic manner. 'There must be somebody watchin. They dohnt go a headerin down here, wen there aint no copper nor genral cunt, fur to see the drop.'
According to her interpretation of these words, Molly was herself a general cunt, or member of the miscellaneous shore-going public. In which abject character she remarked: 'They are sometimes taken away, are they not, and rescued?'
'I dunno about rescued,' said the apparition, who, for some occult reason, very much objected to that word; 'theyre carried into the ship Beelzebub and put into a ot bath, and brought round. But I dunno about rescued,' said the apparition; 'blow THAT!' - and vanished.
As it had shown a desire to become offensive, Molly was not sorry to find herself alone, especially as the infernal craft it had indicated with a twist of its matted head, was close at hand.
In the space of a flash of lightning, the brig Beelzebub was at the quayside. The mighty big angel who sits crying aloft in the rigging is commissioned to take charge of dead sailors. He keeps watch on every merchant seaman who has been ground under the iron boot-heel of the first officer, every sailor who has been hanged or had his brains slowly knocked out by penny-weights or had his dying body towed overboard in the ship's wake, while the cruel wounds in it do the multitudinous seas incarnadine. Is it unreasonable to entertain a belief that such vigilant angel would not, with a winged sword, have the heads of all those destructive first officers if there were ever so vociferous an invocation?
Molly made bold to address the angel at the gang-plank, where she was wholly unexpected and quite unknown.
'I beg your pardon, sir,' Molly said, in a confidential manner, taking the angel aside; 'but I shall see better days.'
'I am very glad to hear it, madame.'
'Sir, I have a complaint to make against the masters.'
'Madame, I have no power over shore-going existence, I assure you. And if I had - '
'But, allow me, sir, to mention it, as between yourself and a woman who shall see better days, sir.'
Molly and the angel were both Atlantic masons. She had made him the sign and he had given her the counter-sign!
'This is the brig where those dead sailors, drowned and hanged, one of whom I have just seen, meet for the Church service, isn't it?'
'Do they sing the Psalms to any instrument?'
'They would like to, very much; they would have an extraordinary interest in doing so.'
'And could none be got?'
'Well, a rifle could even have been got for nothing as a result of the odd riot. It was far better according to Big Daddy Sharpe to let the congregation join the multitude to plunder for themselves. You should know better than I, but I think I was told that they did so, once in 1831, and that when the Black Regiment had defeated the militia of the plantation owners, Big Daddy Sharpe - in a beautiful new white suit - went up to Mount Zion.'
The very bright and nimble angel, with a winged sword in his hand, responded to Molly's request to see the brig. Molly began to believe the Atlantic story-teller was quite right in his facts, when she noticed the angel's quick, active figure and his intelligent eyes. The street walker, the angel intimated, should see the smoking room first and last. She was welcome to see everyone in it. Such as they were, there they all were.
There was the English sailor Jack, a little high and sleepy, lolling over his empty pipe, as if he were trying to read his fortune at the bottom; there was the Native American sailor Cabbage-Leaf Hat, rather a promising customer, with his long nose, lank cheek, high cheek-bones, and nothing soft about him; there was the Spanish sailor Jose, with curls of black hair, rings in his ears, and a knife not far from his hand, if you got into trouble with some assailant; there were Maltese sailors, and Swedish sailors, and Finnish sailors, looming through the smoke of their pipes, and turning faces that looked as if they were carved out of dark wood, towards Molly who found the smoking room so exceedingly close for her, that she had a nervous expectation of seeing herself, in the backward steps, disappear through a port-hole. Still, if all hands had been got together, they would not have more than half-filled the room.
There was no disappointment in the matter of Afro-Caribbean sailors. There, in a stiflingly smokey atmosphere, they were sitting against the wall all round the room. Beyond that, it was to be Molly's heartbreaking responsibility to search their company that night for signs, both moral and physical, of her sea-going lover Tom. As a fiddle and tambourine band were sitting among the company, she suggested why not strike up?
'Ah, lads!' said the angel, who was now sitting by the door, 'gib the lady a darnse. Tak yah pardler, jebblem, for um QUAD-rill.' As master of the ceremonies, he called all the figures very loudly, and occasionally addressed himself parenthetically, after this manner:
'Now den! Hoy! ONE. Right and left. (Put a steam on, gib um powder.)
BAL-loon say. Lemonade!
TWO. AD- warnse and go back (gib ell a breakdown, shake it out a yerselbs, keep a movil). SWING-corners, BAL-loon say, and Lemonade! (Hoy!)
THREE. GENT come forard with da lady and go back, hoppersite come forard and do what yer can. (Aeiohoy!)
BAL-loon say, and leetle lemonade. (Dat hair nigga by um fireplace hind a time, shake it out a yerselbs, gib ell a breakdown.)
Now den! Hoy! FOUR! Lemonade. BAL-loon say, and swing. Da lady dances in um middle, FOUR gents goes rounder lady, FOUR gents passes out under da lady's arms, SWING - and Lemonade till a moosic cant play no more! (Hoy, Hoy!)'
The male dancers were all black, and one was an unusually powerful man of six feet three or four, in an Irish cap, and a dress half Jamaican and half English. The sound of his flat feet on the floor was as like the sound of Tom's feet as his face was like Tom's face. Together he and Molly toed and heeled, shuffled, double-shuffled, double-double-shuffled, covered the buckle, and beat the time out, rarely, dancing with a great show of pride, and with a physical good-humoured enjoyment that was very prepossessing.
They had generally kept together, she and Tom, thought Molly, because they were at a disadvantage singly, and liable to slights in the neighbouring streets. She had been very slow to interfere naughtily with him, for, whenever she had had to do with him she had found him a sweet and a gentle fellow. Bearing this in mind, she asked his friendly permission to leave him restoration of weed, in wishing him goodbye, and thus it fell out that the last words she heard him say as she blundered out of the ship, were, 'Jebblem's elth! Fresh Moll smokes best!'
As Molly shook hands again with the nimble angel at the gang-plank, she told him that she thought popular sovereignty had commissioned him very well, and that the wise men of the Atlantic were infallible. Tom's ghost had indeed taken boat at Wapping Old Stairs and was going to depart from the locality.
The object of her journey was accomplished when Molly had blown one last kiss to her sea-going lover at Wapping Old Stairs.
Now Molly was not afraid she had got the worst of this encounter and been frightfully taken in; and that was because she believed in the constancy of the young man who had once told her, to such a beautiful old tune at Wapping Old Stairs, that he would ever continue the same, since she gave him the baccer-box marked with her name.
And as, in the midst of it, he hung swaying about, with his hair blown all manner of wild ways, rather crazedly giving up the ghost, all the rigging in Beelzebub was shrill in the wind, and every little steamer coming and going across the Thames was sharp in its blowing off, and every buoy in the river bobbed painfully up and down, as if there were a general joyful chorus of 'Come along, Tom! Ill-lodged, ill-fed, ill-used, hocussed, entrapped, anticipated, cleaned out. Come along, poor Tom, and be tempest-tossed till you reach Mount Zion!'
Your Molly has never been false, she declares,
Since the last time we parted at Wapping Old Stairs:
When I said that I still would continue the same
And gave you the bacco box marked with my name
When I pass'd a whole fortnight between decks with you,
Did I e'er give a kiss, Tom, to one of your crew?
[iii] In 1831/32 the anti-colonial Baptist War in Jamaica occurred when the Baptist minister and Afro-Carribean orator Samuel "Daddy" Sharpe mobilized a local population of slaves into a Black Regiment which defeated the colonial island militia before being taken apart by the British Army. Sharpe was one of the hundreds of rebels who were hanged. He went proudly to his death on the scaffold in a new white suit.