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

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

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.

What made Mayhew’s work so viscerally thrilling was the way he let his subjects tell their stories in their own words. Rather than cutting and pasting a few choice phrases to give colour and punch to his research and statistics, he simply let them say their piece, complete with pauses, stumbles, repetitions and non sequiturs. The effect was vivid and immediate and has since become the standard way that oral historians present their work. Those two great modern 20th-century masters of the art, Studs Terkel and Tony Parker, showed what extraordinary things could happen when you got out of the way and let drowned-out voices speak up.

Given the way that Kavanagh emphasises how her text is in constant conversation with Mayhew’s, you might imagine that she models her methodology on his, sidling up to street cleaners and sex workers and handing them the metaphorical microphone. But, of course, Mayhew’s methodology – if you can call it something so fancy – would be deemed deeply unethical today. Before Kavanagh can interview Robert, the homeless painter and decorator from Hungary, or Aisha, who sells mattresses in Whitechapel, she has to get them to sign a consent form, a cumbersome document that requires them to give their name and address. No wonder so many of the people she approaches seize up at this point, or just scarper, such as the Albanian peanut seller in front of the British Library who, she finds out later, hasn’t got the requisite licence. Even if they have an address, people are unlikely to divulge it to the chatty middle-class woman with the bright smile who might easily be an undercover spy from Immigration or Benefits. The £10 payment she offers for their time smells like bait.

Notwithstanding the fact that Kavanagh is bound to work within a modern ethical framework, she manages to access some compelling stories. There is Caval, who works as a living statue during the day and for Amazon by night. He is trying to make enough money so that he can go back to Romania and take up his architectural studies. What is even more troubling is the number of people with steady office jobs who are nonetheless obliged to wait tables or busk in order to pay their basic living costs. There are homeless people who run market stalls, professional drivers who do car boot sales, graphic artists who draw caricatures for the tourist market. No one in this obsessively productive landscape is allowed to be anything other than on the go, all the time.

Kavanagh’s own writing is no match either for Henry Mayhew or for the scores of interviewees who furnish her with their vivid self-portraits. At times her prose is leaden, and you find yourself longing for the next hotel doorman or drug-rehabilitation worker to start telling their story. Even so, there’s no doubting the skill that Kavanagh has deployed in getting people to talk candidly to her. Her lack of condescension or patronage must be down to her long experience of working with the homeless and other marginalised groups. What shines through this wonderfully engaging book is the author’s genuine assumption that every life matters and, if we care to listen, has important things to tell us about our own.

Let Me Take You by the Hand: True Tales from London’s Streets is published by Little, Brown (£8.99). To support The Guardian, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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