Nocturnal London

Nocturnal London

Event: Nocturnal London – An Evening with Matthew Beaumont 

Venue: Waterstones Piccadilly 

Report by Eleanor Baggley

London at night has a life and energy of its own, which is unlike that of London in the daytime. Matthew Beaumont’s book, Night Walking, shines some light on this alternative city and this became the subject of a captivating talk at Waterstones Piccadilly.

Leo Hollis, a historian and the book’s editor, stepped in as host at the last minute for Will Self. Although this may have disappointed any fans of Self, personally I felt Hollis was an excellent host for the evening. His knowledge of the subject at hand allowed for an engaging conversation and his questions bore to the heart of the subject with fascinating results.

Beaumont first noticed the differences of London at night in his late teens and early twenties. He was attracted to the freedom of the night and was conscious of the city’s rhythms which bombard the senses during the day, but at night are much more individual and recognisable.

Criminal pursuit

Night Walking

Beaumont was attracted to the freedom of the night

Night Walking has a colourful history. In the Middle Ages it was a criminal pursuit and the only people exempt from punishment were the rich. Beaumont gave us a whistlestop tour of the nighttime city throughout history. We learnt about the ‘cult of the night’, which took off in the Eighteenth Century thanks to the introduction of public lighting. The Nineteenth Century then saw a shift in the culture of the night, and by the mid-Nineteenth Century the night had become its own city.

Throughout this history however there have been a number of constants: the spaces occupied by the homeless, the threat to women, and rich young men using the night as a playground. These elements are recognisable to us today, but have also been relevant throughout history. Women particularly have continued to suffer from the criminalisation of night walking and a woman’s access to the night is still unequal today – it’s either a place of danger or her presence is suggestive of a dark sexuality.


I found myself hooked on every word and something that became apparent as the evening’s conversation progressed was Beaumont’s love for language. He frequently linked words, such as noctivagant and noctambulant, to their roots. For me this added an extra layer of interest to an already fascinating talk.

Unusually the audience’s closing questions complemented the talk nicely. Beaumont was quizzed on class, misfits and nocturnal animals and his responses were enlightening.

Beaumont’s talk, with prompts from Hollis, wandered through history and literature, much as Dickens’ wandered the streets of the city in the Nineteenth

Century. Both Dickens then and Beaumont now appear to be looking for something in London’s nocturnal streets. If this talk is anything to go by, then I would argue that what Beaumont has found is the life and soul of London at night.

Report by Eleanor Baggley

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