I must have bought The Big City soon after it was published in 1962, when Penguin was branching out from its then standard paperback format into slightly larger books with pictures, often cartoons. It cost me 4 shillings, and it is still on our shelves next to the bathroom, reserved for ‘rather special’ titles, to be revisited every few years with wonderment and nostalgia for a now-vanished post-war Britain.
Ronald Searle’s illustrations were, of course, the initial attraction. Here they are partly St Trinian’s and Molesworth, and partly extraordinary portraits reminiscent of his sketches of fellow inmates in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. They have something of Daumier about them too. They were originally done in the 1950s, to accompany the wrenchingly poignant pieces by Alex Atkinson, which first appeared in Punch.
The Big City, or the New Mayhew belongs to an era just before the advent of a new wave of popular sociology, which broke in the early 1960s with the magazine New Society and the newspaper colour supplements. The Atkinson-Searle venture was inspired by one of the original founders of Punch, Henry Mayhew, whose still-famous London Labour and the London Poor was first issued as a periodical in 1850–2. The title page of the hardbound collected edition in four volumes, published ten years later, sums up Mayhew’s considerable and original ambition: ‘A Cyclopaedia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work and those that will not work’.
With two collaborators, Mayhew set down general observations about the sorts and conditions of men and women they found in London’s streets, interspersed with their stories, told in their own
words and condensed into an often bleak and narrow narrative. Although ostensibly humorous, Alex Atkinson’s reportage has a similar tone of voice to that of Mayhew. Atkinson was a novelist, but th
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