The Big City Or The New Mayhew


One hundred years after Henry Mayhew’s 1851 survey, London Labour and the London Poor, Punch magazine (itself co-founded by Mayhew) published a series of fictional contemporary updates to the work, written by Alex Atkinson and illustrated by Ronald Searle. The Big City is a collection of these character sketches.

In the introductory note Atkinson writes “Our purpose has not been entirely serious… We hope you may not think it has been entirely playful either.” Despite very funny passages, the book depicts the city as a dark, impoverished, sad place, and its inhabitants are forlorn figures – struggling, scrimping, just about getting by.

The text is beautifully written in a faux Mayhew style, longwinded, concerned and a little condescending.

On the music he hears in a coffee bar:

“These ‘numbers,’ as they are called, had their origin many years ago among primitive peasant and convicted criminals in the United States of America; recently, however, a claim seems to have been made that they are the ‘folk music’ of Finchley, Walsall, Birkenhead, or East Croydon.”

On An Actress of Advancing Years:

“She was, by her own admission, fifty-five years of age, and my subsequent inquiries showed that in arriving at this figure she had in fact only ignored the last seven years of her life.”

Despite Atkinson’s huge contribution, the reason the book is remembered at all today is because of Ronald Searle, whose darkly comic illustrations top and tail each entry.

Published 6 June 2012

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