1829-51 cholera pandemic, 18th Century, Algerian War, Ashenden, Charles Dickens, Christopher Hibbert, Cold War, Compton Mackenzie, East End of London, Ebenezer Landells, Edmond Taylor, First Indochina War, Graham Greene, Italian city-states, Jacob's Island, James Bond, Jeffersonian democracy, John Constable, John Dunthone, Korean War, London Labour and the London Poor, Niccolò Machiavelli, Office of Strategic Services, Oliver Twist, podestà, republics, Ronald Blythe, Royal Academy, Secret agent, Secret Intelligence Service, social science, Somerset Maugham, Spy, The Hay Wain, The Seasons (Thomson), Vietnam War, Walter Karp, William J. Donovan, World War I, World War II
Though they were far from meek and hapless, there is genuine pathos in the populares’ fidelity to law and in their faith in legalistic contrivances. When the internecine warfare among the nobles had all but destroyed the consulate, the people created a new municipal officer, the podestà – a sort of city manager chosen from another city for a fixed term of office in the hope that a paid official from a neutral quarter would administer municipal affairs in a professional manner and thereby overawe the nobility. But the ruling families were too strong and too contemptuous of law for such a feeble constitutional makeshift to have much of an effect.
Is there a lesson in the story? One political observer thought so. The lesson for him was that it is the men of privilege and influence who are likely to harm, and the people who are surest to defend, republican institutions. ‘The demands of a free people,’ he noted, ‘are rarely pernicious to liberty.’ That is not the maxim of a sentimental American Jeffersonian. It is the somber conclusion of Niccolò Machiavelli as he looked back, in the bitterness of blighted republican hopes, on the ‘wasted world,’ as he called it, of vanquished republican Italy.
In ‘The Cult of the Secret Agent’, Edmond Taylor writes about the spy’s threat to the open society:
In all secret service literature, fiction and nonfiction alike, there is an ambiguous and extremely complex relationship between myth and reality. Such a relationship exists, indeed, within the covert organizations themselves. Somerset Maugham, who served in the British Secret Intelligence Service during World War I, was probably the first modern writer to be struck by the tendency of the secret service to imitate art – the art of the popular thriller. This phenomenon, which might be termed the Ashenden Effect after the eponymous hero of Maugham’s semiautobiographical espionage tales, has since been confirmed by a number of other writers of secret service fiction – most notably Graham Greene and Compton Mackenzie – who have themselves had actual secret service experience. (I noticed the same tendency myself – and at moments in myself – during my five years’ service in General William J. Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services in World War II.)
It was the Second World War that gave the secret agent one of his most significant new traits…the James Bond look, the look of violence. He became not merely a spy but a saboteur, a killer, an organizer of resistance networks, a ruthless guerrilla chief. The savage colonial or semi-colonial wars, declared or undeclared, that have marked the history of the last thirty years – Indochina, Korea, Algeria, the Near East, and Indochina again – have further accentuated the element of violence, both in the secret agent’s real professional activity and in his public image. All these conflicts have been more or less closely linked with the global power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union (though most of them had autogenous roots), and the direct confrontations between their rival secret services have sometimes been equally savage – especially in the vital Central European sector. Before World War II the professionals occasionally assassinated one another’s human pawns in the Great Game – ‘natives’, foreign agents, low-level sub-agents – but almost never their opposite numbers. At the height of the Cold War, however, such fratricidal attacks became one of the secret service officer’s recognized – if still relatively minor – occupational hazards, something akin to a secret service vendetta developed at times, and casualties among the pawns attained unprecedented levels all over the world.
His long and bitter struggle to be accepted as an artist by everyone, from the inhabitants of Suffolk to the members of the Royal Academy, was a wish to be an accepted part of the civilized world he so strongly believed in. His difficulties – and ultimate triumph – stemmed from his refusal to give the public what it wanted as the price for easy entry into that world.
‘Painting’, he said, ‘is a science, and should be pursued as an enquiry into the laws of nature.’ But the public did not want painting to be a science; they wanted painting to be a kind of magic. They did not want straightforward descriptions of the countryside they knew so well; they wanted stories and mystery in paint. They wanted to look into a picture as they could look into Virgil or into one of their favorite poems, The Seasons, and see an idealized existence. Constable bewildered – and annoyed – them by leaving out these literary and emotional references and painting instead the natural realities of a certain place at a certain moment. This now seems a reasonable thing to do, but when Constable, at the very beginning of his career, confessed to his friend John Dunthorne that he intended to be a ‘natural painter,’ one of those rare peaks of total originality in art came into view.
Mayhew paid a visit to Jacob’s Island in 1849 when the cholera epidemic was at its height. What he saw, and later described, makes Dickens’ account [in Oliver Twist] seem almost discreet. Mayhew wrote of the disgusting graveyard smell of the place, the heavy bubbles rising in the slimy, green-black water choked with rotting weeds and fish heads, the swollen carcasses of dead animals ready to burst with the gasses of putrefaction, and the red effluent from leather dressers. He described what Dickens, with his concern for the susceptibilities of the public, would never have dared describe: the open, doorless privies, the dark streaks of filth running down the walls where the house drains emptied into the ditch.
Mayhew’s description of the London prostitutes, and of the bawds, pimps, panders, and bullies who lived on their earnings, are contained in the first part of the fourth volume of his book, which is otherwise devoted entirely to those tens of thousands of Londoners who lived wholly or partly by crime or begging.
Here, as elsewhere, Mayhew exposes but he does not preach; he reveals but he never condemns. And this is his great strength as a social enquirer. He shares with Dickens (strangely, there is no record of the two ever meeting) a regard for the existing moral code and a belief that those who transgressed it must surely end in misery. But he was far ahead of his time in insisting that any steps toward social reform must be firmly based on detailed, dispassionate investigation of a sort that had never been done before but would be commonplace later. He was, in fact, one of the great pioneers of social science and criminal ecology. His volumes are the prototype of later surveys, but they are written with such understanding, such fascination, so refreshing a lack of either condescension or humbug, such vivid immediacy that they are unique: the very colors and smells of the East End come rising out of their pages.
The wonderfully evocative effect that Mayhew succeeds in creating is due, not so much to his skill as a journalist, novelist, and playwright, as to the warmth and attractiveness of his coaxing personality, his ability to get his subjects to talk frankly and naturally. The engraver Ebenezer Landells recorded that he once saw Mayhew at work talking to a costermonger, drawing his story out of him, leaving Augustus and his brother-in-law, William Jerrold, to put in a word or comment so that it seemed more like a conversation than an interview, and meanwhile relying on another brother, Horace, to take down everything that was said.