This book inhabits a grubby and squalid world, truffling out details that are vivid, colourful and sometimes downright nauseous. It’s a veritable feast of filth and foulness, and I loved every minute of it.
The chapter titles tell you immediately what to expect: ‘Itchy’, ‘Mouldy’, ‘Noisy’, ‘Grotty’, ‘Dirty’. They sound like a South West Trains service. It’s not the benighted line to Yeovil Junction you’re on, however, but a journey back into the past: specifically, the past of an England where people still drank ale instead of tea for breakfast, defecated in the streets as if it were the right of every freeborn Englishman to do so, and hadn’t yet dreamt of Methodism, Temperance, or the Lord’s Day Observance Society. In other words, the emphatically pre-Victorian England of ‘Beef and Liberty’ in all its grimy, rumbustious, unapologetic vigour.
Emily Cockayne does not restrict herself to London, also taking us to Stuart and Hanoverian Oxford and Bath, as well as an overgrown village of some 2,000 inhabitants near the River Irwell, comprising no more than a dozen streets surrounded by meadows and orchards, called Manchester. Her study also delves