My dad read me Jack London’s The Call of the Wild when I was nine. I graduated from high school in a city that makes a big deal of its Jack London Square. Still, my ignorance is such that I didn’t know until last week that London once chose to live among England’s poor, document the experience, and write a first chapter about how the trickiest place to be a Global Pedestrian is sometimes just on the other side of town.
London was in London. This coincidence is a menace to clarity, a nuisance to blogger and blog-reader alike. The only way I see around it is to get specific. Let’s forget London, the city, and note that London, the writer, wanted to immerse himself in a swath of England’s capital city known as the East End — a place, the writer is warned in 1902, “where a man’s life isn’t worth tu’pence.”
London writes that nobody knew how he might manage the epic voyage across town. So he visited a renowned travel agency:
But O Cook, O Thomas Cook & Son, pathfinders and trail-clearers, living sign-posts to all the world and bestowers of first aid to bewildered travellers — unhesitatingly and instantly, with ease and celerity, could you send me to Darkest Africa or Innermost Thibet [sic], but to the East End of London, barely a stone’s throw distant from Ludgate Circus, you know not the way!
“You can’t do it, you know,” said the human emporium of routes and fares at Cook’s Cheapside branch. “It is so — ahem — so unusual.’
“Consult the police,” he concluded authoritatively, when I persisted. “We are not accustomed to taking travellers to the East End; we receive no call to take them there, and we know nothing whatsoever about the place at all.”
London perseveres, makes it to the East End, swaps his own clothes for wrecked rags, and suddenly feels he’s seeing the world as it is:
My frayed and out-at-elbows jacket was the badge and advertisement of my class, which was their class. It made me of like kind, and in place of the fawning and too-respectful attention I had hitherto received, I now shared with them a comradeship. The man in corduroy and dirty neckerchief no longer addressed me as “sir” or “governor.” It was “mate,” now — and a fine and hearty word, with a tingle to it, and a warmth and gladness, which the other term does not possess. Governor! It smacks of mastery, and power, and high authority — the tribute of the man who is under to the man on top, delivered in the hope that he will let up a bit and ease his weight.
This dynamic may be familiar to you if you’ve ever flown to the other side of the globe, craved the truth of an unfamiliar place, and experienced — in place of the truth — a series of inauthentic, deferential encounters with merchants, bellhops, beggars.
Consider, too, London’s experience with the travel agent. Think of your own city. Would it be easier to book flights to Calcutta than a guided tour of your town’s version of the East End? Would you rather fly to Calcutta than drive those few miles across town? If so, that’s worth knowing about yourself. It’s not that you need to follow London’s example and dress in rags among the destitute. Rather, remembering that parts of even your own city are foreign and incomprehensible to you might inoculate you against all kinds of misplaced certainty — like, say, if you’re a U.S. president and a handful of Iraqi exiles assure you that typical Iraqis will greet American troops as liberators.
I see something of Jack London’s East End experience in a post the blogger “Londonstani” wrote last week about living the harassed life of a typical Pakistani immigrant as part of a documentary about Southmead.
Londonstani called the post “Preventing Terrorism at Home” and wrote, “I often thought of British Pakistani and Somali boys growing up thinking their experiences were an accurate portrayal of what Britain was about. I imagined growing up with such a view of Britain would make the idea of fighting UK forces in Muslim lands seem righteous.”
Despite the high stakes, according to Londonstani, “people in Britain’s more affluent areas are unaware of what happens in neighbourhoods literally on their doorsteps.”