Jack London in London

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Today, 12 January, marks the birthday of Jack London who was born Jack Chaney in San Francisco, 1876. Three of his works have had a profound influence on me. White Fang, first serialised in 1906, and Call of the Wild, 1903, were the most significant works of fiction that inspired my PhD about wolves in folklore. Also in 1903, London released People of the Abyss, a non-fiction account of his time amongst the London poor in the previous year.

His first call was to Johnny Upright, alias Sergeant Thick, who was involved in the Jack the Ripper case and, like many others, was accused of being the Ripper. Other Ripper suspects mentioned in the book include Thomas Barnardo the child catcher, William Wynn Westcott and Algernon Swinburne. Fourteen years after the Ripper murders highlighted the poverty in Whitechapel, little had changed. London’s authentic account of the people he met is a tragic piece of history but it also offers some pointers for today.

This week has seen controversial comments about the homeless in London. Two quotes from Jack London are relevant and I quote them in memory of one of the few writers to successfully write both fiction and non-fiction.

After witnessing an argument about immigration he comments,” Sweating, starvation wages, armies of unemployed, and great numbers of the homeless and shelterless are inevitable when there are more men to do work than there is work for men to do.”

Then, after witnessing the Police harassing the homeless at night, “And so, dear soft peoples, should you ever visit London Town and see those men asleep on the benches and in the grass, please do not think they are lazy creatures, preferring sleep to work. Know that the powers that be have kept them walking all the night long, and that in the day they have nowhere else to sleep.”

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