Poor Show

Share this

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 tho

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

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 though the stories are probably fiction, they have a ring of truth about them, which is one reason why the book lingers so fixedly in the mind.

There are only twenty-four pieces in The Big City compared with Mayhew’s hundreds. Their titles give a sense of the modern book: ‘An Income Tax Man’, ‘A Nobleman in Reduced Circumstances’, ‘A Rocking Boy’, ‘An Actress of Advancing Years’, ‘In a Night Haunt’ and (particularly poignant) ‘The Incumbent Who Lacked a Piano’. Atkinson’s descriptions preserve the cadences of Mayhew’s original detached but sympathetic prose, but the first-person testimonies are 1950s in voice and expression. Even so, these people are still as trapped in their circumstances as were the Victorian poor, still deferential to the attentive interviewer.

Henry Mayhew fleshed out in a quite remarkable documentary way the fictional lives that throng the novels of Charles Dickens. Alex Atkinson, ostensibly a funny writer for a paper whose primary purpose had always been amusement, had an extraordinary ability to evoke a fleeting period of London life when the rigidities of the interwar years were still in place but about to be radically transformed by increasing prosperity, television, relaxed attitudes to sex, and cheap travel abroad.

Chapter Ten, ‘A London Eating House’, is an example. The poor crowding the streets need to eat somewhere but have little money. For them, commodious eating houses have been erected ‘where they might seek refuge in an atmosphere of second-hand voluptuousness’ – a delicious (and typical) Atkinsonian evocation of a Lyons Corner House.

On the second floor of one such establishment, at a time of day when people might not normally be expected to be concentrating on food, the writer witnesses ‘upwards of four hundred eaters, close-packed at tables so crowded that a man might easily cut a slice from his neighbour’s veal-and-ham pie and stand but the smallest chance of detection’.

This London, with its street boys and coffee-house inhabitants, its street-walking Soho girls and grimy on-the-makeness, is the city actually feared, I think, by my dyed-in-the-wool provincial parents in far-off Lincolnshire. How vividly it is conjured up by Atkinson and Searle. They write and draw as if their subjects were real, and maybe they were.

Alex Atkinson has a particular talent for final lines, some worthy of the New Yorker master of the payoff A. J. Liebling. The Big City railway worker, born in Antigua, shipped into Plymouth Windrush-fashion, is treated as an awkward child or an amusing pet by his fellow (white) workers. After two bleak pages comes the ending: ‘He was more proud to be British than anyone I ever met.’

The impoverished vicar who lacked a piano says: ‘As to money, I confess I sometimes wish I could contribute to charity more freely than I do; apart from that, we manage well enough, I daresay.’ That ‘daresay’ is almost as good as the savage modesty of the philosopher in the last lines of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal: ‘I have no children, by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.’

The future of the (of course impoverished) Literary Man in The Big City is similarly bleak:

He told me that he would soon be forced to leave his present address, for the few guineas he earned per week did not really permit him to live (as he put it) in ‘surroundings of quite such grandeur’. A friend had promised to let him have a caravan in a remote part of Kent. Here, rent-free, in a glade adjoining an orchard, with a five-minute walk to running water, he was preparing to end his days: without pride, without hope, without even the doubtful solace of bitterness.

Fittingly, the comic side of Ronald Searle is absent from most of the pictures, which dwell on the essence of Atkinson’s lonely people, so that one wonders whether the picture or the text came first; the one adds to the other with ever-deepening gloom; both are indelible.

Alex Atkinson was born in Liverpool in 1916, and seems to have led an improvised life, first as an actor, then as journalist, playwright and novelist. He also collaborated with Ronald Searle on USA for Beginners: ‘Too many books about the United States are written by men who have spent only a few weeks in the country. This one is different; it is by a man who has never been there in his life.’

But in 1960 Alex Atkinson left Britain to work in the USA as a staffer on the celebrated Holiday magazine in Philadelphia. He lived there at 308 South Quince Street, and there he died, suddenly, in 1962, months before my 4-shilling edition of The Big City was published in paperback.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 68 © Peter Day 2020


About the contributor

Peter Day reported on business for BBC Radio for more than forty years. He now has time to browse the shelves of books accumulated over a lifetime.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Distraction-free
reading mode