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Being the Life and Opinions of
a Young and Impertinent Criminal
Recounted by Himself
and Set Forth by Clarence Rook
[text from the 1979 OUP edition, ed.]
Introduction to the 1899 edition
This is neither a novel, nor in any sense a work of imagination. Whatever value or interest the following chapters possess must come from the fact that their hero has a real existence. I have tried to set forth, as far as possible in his own words, certain scenes from the life of a young criminal with whom I chanced to make acquaintance, a boy who has grown up in the midst of those who gain their living on the crooked, who takes life and its belongings as he finds them, and is not in the least ashamed of himself.
My introduction to young Alf came about in this wise: Mr Grant Richards,
the publisher, one day showed me some sheets of manuscript which he said might
interest me. They did. They contained certain confessions and revelations of a
boy who professed to be a leader of Hooligans. But what interested me most was
the engaging personality behind these confessions, and I asked Mr Richards to
bring us together. A meeting was arranged, and I was not disappointed. This led
to other meetings, during which I became so interested in young A if that it
occurred to me to place him on record, thinking that you would not be unwilling
to have a photograph of the young man who walks to and fro in your midst, ready
to pick your pocket, rifle your house, and even bash you in a dark corner if it
is made worth his while. For young Alf is not unique. His views are the views of
a section of Londoners that would suffice to people - say Canterbury.
They live in certain more or less well-defined areas, but their business quarter
is the metropolis with its suburbs, and the warfare that they wage is constant
I do not know that there is any particular moral to be drawn from this book, and in any case I shall leave you to draw it for yourself. But please do not accuse it of being immoral. When the Daily Chronicle published portions of the history of young Alf early in the year the editor received numerous complaints from well-meaning people who protested that I had painted the life of a criminal in alluring colours. They forgot, I presume, that young A lf was a study in reality, and that in real life the villain does not invariably come to grief before he has come of age. Poetic justice demands that young A lf should be very unhappy; as a matter of fact, he is nothing of the sort. And when you come to think of it, he has had a livelier time than the average clerk on a limited number of shillings a week. He does not know what it is to be bored. Every day has its interests, and every day has its possibility of the unexpected, which is just what the steady honest worker misses. He need not consider appearances, being indeed more concerned for his disappearances, he has ample leisure, and each job he undertakes has the excitement of novelty and the promise of immediate and usually generous reward. It would, I think, be very difficult to persuade young Alf that honesty is the best policy. I am not responsible for the constitution of the universe; and if under the present conditions of life a Lambeth boy can get more fun by going sideways than by going straight, I cannot help it. I do not commend the ways of my young friend, or even apologize for them. I simply set him before you as a fact that must be dealt with. Young A lf has interested me hugely, and I trust he will not bore you.
On this particular occasion we met by appointment at the Elephant and Castle.
He had a kip in the vicinity; that is, there was a bed, which was little better
than a board, in one of those places where your welcome extends from sunset to
sunrise; and to this he had recurred for some five nights in succession. For
some reason or other he was unwilling to conduct me to his precise address for
the current week. So we met, by appointment, where the omnibuses converge and
separate to their destinations in all parts of South London, on the kerbstone at
I was in a sense a pilgrim. Good Americans, when they come to London, may be seen peering in Bolt Court and eating their dinner at the Cheshire Cheese. I was bound on an expedition to the haunts of a more recent celebrity than Dr Johnson. My destination was Irish Court and the Lamb and Flag. For in the former Patrick Hooligan lived a portion of his ill-spent life, and gave laws and a name to his followers; in the latter, the same Patrick was to be met night by night, until a higher law than his own put a period to his rule.
Moreover, my companion was one on whom a portion at least of Patrick Hooligan's mantle had fallen; a young man - he was scarcely more than seventeen - who held by the Hooligan tradition, and controlled a gang of boys who made their living by their wits, and were ready for any devilry if you assured them of even an inadequate reward.
Young Alf - this is not the name by which the constable on point duty at the Elephant mentions him to his colleague who comes along from St George's Road - young Alf was first at the meeting-place. He had, he explained, an evening to spare, and there were lots of worse places than the Elephant.
Young Alf beckoned; and while I hovered on the kerb, watching the charging buses, the gliding trains, and the cabs that twinkled their danger signals, he had plunged into the traffic and slithered through, dodging buses and skirting cabs without a turn of the head. He went through the traffic with a quiet, confident twist of the body, as a fish whisks its way through scattered rocks, touching nothing, but always within a hair's-breadth of collision. On the other side he awaited me, careless, and indeed a little contemptuous; and together we made our way towards Bethlehem Hospital, and thence in the direction of Lambeth Walk.
As we swung round a corner I noticed a man in the doorway of a shop - a bald-headed man with spectacles, and in his shirt-sleeves, though the night was chilly.
'Ain't caught yer yet?' was the remark that young Alf flung at him, without turning his head half a point.
'You take a lot o' catchin', you do,' retorted the man.
Young Alf looked round at me. I expected to hear him laugh, or chuckle, or at the least seem amused. And it came upon me with something of a shock that I had never, so far as I could remember, seen him laugh. His face was grave, tense, eager, as always.
'That's a fence,' he said. 'I lived there when I was a nipper, wiv my muvver - and a accerabat.'
'Was that when-' I began.
'Don't talk,' he muttered, for we had emerged upon Lambeth Walk. The Walk, as they term it to whom Lambeth Walk is Bond Street, the promenade, the place to shop, to lounge, to listen to music and singing, to steal, if opportunity occur, to make love, and not infrequently to fight.
The moon was up, and struggling intermittently through clouds; this was probably one of the reasons why young Alf allowed himself an evening of leisure. But Lambeth Walk had no need of a moon: it was Saturday night, and the Walk was aflare with gas and naphtha, which lighted up the street from end to end, and emphasized the gloom of the narrow openings which gave entrance to the network of courts between the Walk and the railway arches behind it.
The whole social life of a district was concentrated in the two hundred yards of roadway, which was made even narrower by the double line of barrows which flanked it. There was not a well-dressed person to be seen, scarcely a passably clean one. But there was none of the hopeless poverty one might have seen at the same hour in Piccadilly; and no one looked in the least bored. Business and pleasure jostled one another. Every corner had its sideshow to which you must turn your attention for a moment in the intervals of haggling over your Sunday's dinner. Here at this corner is a piano-organ, with small children dancing wildly for the mere fun of the thing. There is no dancing for coppers in the Walk. At the next corner is a miniature shooting gallery; the leather-lunged proprietor shouts with well-assumed joy when a crack shot makes the bell ring for the third time, and bears off the cocoa- nut.
'Got 'im again!' he bawls delightedly, as though he lived only to give cocoa-nuts away to deserving people.
Hard by the bland owner of a hand-cart is recommending an 'unfallible cure for toothache' to a perverse and unbelieving audience. As we pass we hear him saying,
'I've travelled 'underds of miles in my time, ladies and gentlemen - all the world over; but this I will say - and let him deny it that can, and I maintain he can't - and that is this, that never in the 'ole course of my experience have I met so sceptical a lot of people as you Londoners. You ain't to be took in. You know-'
But young Alf was making his way through the crowd, and I hurried after him.
Literature, too, by the barrowful; paper covers with pictures that hit you between the eyes and made you blink. And music! 'Words and music. Four a penny, and all different.'
You may buy anything and everything in the Walk - caps, canaries, centre-bits, oranges, toffee, saucepans, to say nothing of fried fish, butchers' meat, and green stuff; everything, in fact, that you could require to make you happy. And a pervading cheerfulness is the note of the Walk.
On that Saturday evening there were probably more people in Lambeth Walk who made their living on the crooked than in any other street of the same length in London. Yet the way of transgressors seemed a cheerful one. Everybody was good-humoured, and nobody was more than reasonably drunk.
Lower down we came to the meat stalls, over which the butchers were shouting the praises of prime joints. As we passed, a red-faced man with sandy whiskers suddenly dropped his voice to the level of ordinary conversation.
'You ain't selling no meat to-night, ain't you?' He said, cocking a knowing eye at my companion.
Young Alf glanced quickly at the butcher, and then round at me.
'I'll tell you about that presently,' he said, in answer to my look of inquiry.
''Ere we are,' said young Alf, a few moments later, as we turned suddenly from the glaring, shouting, seething Walk, redolent of gas, naphtha, second-hand shoe-leather, and fried fish, into a dark entrance. Dimly I could see that the en trance broadened a few yards down into a court of about a dozen feet in width. No light shone from any of the windows, no gas-lamp relieved the gloom. The court ran from the glare of the street into darkness and mystery.
Young Alf hesitated a moment or two in the shadow. Then he said:
'Look 'ere, you walk froo' - straight on; it ain't far, and I'll be at the uvver end to meet you.'
'Why don't you come with me?' I asked. I could see that he was looking me up and down critically.
'Not down there,' he said; they'd think I was narkin'. You look a dam sight too much like a split to-night.' Then I remembered that he had been keeping a little ahead of me ever since we had met at the Elephant and Castle. I had unthinkingly neglected to adapt my dress in any way to the occasion, and in consequence was subjecting my friend to uneasiness and possible annoyance.
I expressed my regret, and, buttoning my coat, started down the court as young Alf melted into the crowd in Lambeth Walk. It was not a pretty court. The houses were low, with narrow doorways and windows that showed no glimmer of light. Heaps of garbage assailed the feet and the nose. Not a living soul was to be seen until I had nearly reached the other end, and could just discern the form of young Alf leaning against one of the posts at the exit of the court. Then suddenly two women in white aprons sprang into view from nowhere, gave a cry, and stood watching me from a doorway.
'They took you for a split,' said young Alf, as we met at the end of the court. 'I know'd they would. 'Ello, Alice!'
A girl stood in the deep shadow of the corner house. Her head was covered by a shawl, and I could not see her face, but her figure showed youth and a certain grace.
"Ello!' she said, without moving.
'When you goin' to get merried?' asked young Alf.
'When it comes,' replied the girl softly.
The voice that falls like velvet on your ear and lingers in your memory is rare. Wendell Holmes says somewhere that he had heard but two perfect speaking voices, and one of them belonged to a German chambermaid. The softest and most thrilling voice I ever heard I encountered at the corner of one of the lowest slums in London.
Young Alf was apparently unaffected by it, for, having thus accorded the courtesy due to an acquaintance, whipped round swiftly to me and said;
'Where them women's standing is where Pat Hooligan lived, 'fore he was pinched.'
It stood no higher than the houses that elbowed it, and had nothing to distinguish it from its less notable neighbours. But if a Hooligan boy prayed at all, he would pray with his face toward that house half-way down Irish Court.
'And next door - this side,' continued young Alf, 'that's where me and my muvver kipped when I was a nipper.'
The tone of pride was unmistakable, for the dwelling- place of Patrick Hooligan enshrines the ideal towards which the Ishmaelites of Lambeth are working; and, as I afterwards learned, young All's supremacy over his comrades was sealed by his association with the memory of the Prophet.
'This way,' said young Alf.
The girl stood, still motionless, in the shadow, with one hand clasping the shawl that enveloped her head. Here was stark solitude and dead silence, with a background of shouting, laughter, rifle-shots, and the tramp of myriad feet from the Walk thirty yards away. I hesitated, in the hope of hearing her voice again. But I was not to hear it a second time for many days; and she remained silent and motionless as we plunged again into obscurity.
Under the railway arches it was as black as pitch. "Sh!' said young Alf warningly, as I stumbled. It was too dark to see the lithe, sinewy hand that he placed on my own for my guidance.
In a few seconds we had turned - as my nose gave evidence - into a stable-yard. Upon one corner the moon shone, bringing a decrepit van into absurd prominence.
"Ere's where me and my pal was - up to last week,' said young Alf in a whisper.
He slipped across to a dark corner, and I followed. A stable dog barked, and then, as we stood still, lapsed into silence.
;Got a match?' said young Alf.
I handed him a box of matches, and he struck one, shading it with his hands so skilfully that no glimmer fell anywhere but on the latch of a door.
'Awright,' he muttered, as the door swung back noiselessly. Then he turned and put his face close to mine. 'If anybody wants to know anyfink, you swank as you want to take the room. See?'
The stairs were steep and in bad repair, for they creaked horribly under my feet. But young Alf as he ascended in front of me was inaudible, and I thought I had lost him and myself, until I ran into him at the top.
From utter blackness we turned into a room flooded by moonlight, a room in no way remarkable to the sight, but such a room as you may see when you are house-hunting in the suburbs, ascend to the top floor of a desirable residence, and are told that this is a servant's bedroom. The walls were papered; it had a single window through which the moonlight was streaming, and it was quite empty, save for something lying in the corner of the window - apparently a horse-cloth.
'This is where we was, me and 'im,' said young Alf. There's anuvver room across the landing.'
'Who was him?' I asked.
Young Alf walked over to the window, looked down into the yard below, and made no reply. There were things here and there that he would not tell me.
'Why did you leave?' I resumed. 'It seems a convenient sort of place to live in. Quiet enough, wasn't it?'
'Well, it was like this,' he said. 'Me and 'im was making snide coin; least 'e was making it, and I was planting it - 'ere, there, and everywhere. See?'
'Made it in this room? How did he make it?'
'E'd never show me the way. But it didn't take him long. Well, we got planting it a bit too thick, 'cos there was more'n one on the same fake, and the cops come smellin' about. So we did a scoot. Time enough it was.'
'Smelling,' I said; 'I should think they did. It's enough to knock you down.'
'I fought I noticed somefink,' he said sharply, and in an instant he had pounced upon the object in the corner, and from underneath the horse-cloth drew a joint of meat, which at once proclaimed itself as the origin of the awful stench.
'Wonder how that got left 'ere?' said young Alf, as he opened the window gently and heaved the joint into the yard below.
'Better leave the window open,' I said as he was about to close it.
'Didn't I never tell you,' he said, 'how we waxed things up for that butcher as come down to the Walk? Battersea he come from.'
I had not heard the story, and said so.
'It was that what give the show away,' he said. 'You 'eard what that butcher said jest now?'
He leaned against the window sill, and, with one eye on the stable-yard, told me the story.
'It was Friday night last week,' he began, 'and me and two uvvers was coming along the Walk, down where the butchers are. There was one butcher there that I tumbled was a stranger soon as I ketch sight of 'is dial. He wasn't selling 'is meat over-quick, 'cos all the time he was necking four-ale in the pub cross the way. He'd got 'is joints laid out beautiful on a sort of barrer. Well, we 'ung about, watchin' 'im go cross the road and come back again, and presently I says to the uvvers, 'That bloke don't seem to be doin' no trade worf mentionin'. Let's 'elp 'im.' Well, the uvver boys didn't want asking more'n once to do a poor bloke a good turn, so we just scatters and waits a bit till the butcher went cross the way again for 'is wet; nor we didn't 'ave to wait long neither. Soon as he goes into the pub we nips round and shifts his old barrer, and 'fore you could say knife we had it froo the arches and in the stable-yard here. We got the meat upstairs, and then we run the empty barrer outside, and left it standin' in Paradise Street, where it couldn't do no one any 'arm.'
'But didn't anyone see you shift the barrow?' I asked.
''Ow was they to know we wasn't in the employment of the butcher?' he retorted. 'Besides, the uvver butchers wasn't likely to make a fuss. They didn't want no strangers comin' and interferin' wiv their pitch.'
'And did you see any more of the butcher?' I inquired.
'What do you fink?' he said. 'Presently we went back again to the Walk, and it wasn't all a minute before we saw the butcher tearin' up and down lookin' for his barrer. Of course nobody 'adn't seen anyfink of it. Then he started on the pubs, and went into every pub in the Walk askin' after his barrer. He had a lot of wet, but he didn't find his barrer, nor no meat neither. We went into one or two of the pubs after 'im, and gave 'im a lot of symperfy, jest abart as much as he could do wiv. One of the boys says: 'Sims to me your legs 'ave taken to walkin' again, guv'nor.' And the butcher couldn't 'ardly keep 'is 'air on. Then anuvver of the boys says he never was so sorry for anyfink in all his life. Come all the way from the Angel up at Islington, 'e 'ad, purpose to get a prime joint at the new butcher's in the Walk. That butcher's joints was the fair talk round Upper Street way, he says. What 'e'd say to the missus when 'e come home empty-'anded he didn't know, he says.
Then I chipped in.
'"Well, guv'nor," I says, "they tell me you've beat all them uvver butchers to-night. You've cleared out all your stock fore anyone else, aven't you? And you ain't given none of it away, neither."
'Wiv that he fair got 'is monkey up, and he went off down the Walk ragin' and roarin'; and me and the uvver boys went back to where we'd planted the meat. There was meat goin' cheap that night down our way - less than cawst-price, wiv no error. And some of them butchers wasn't quite so pleased as they fort they was, when they found legs of mutton sellin' at frippence a pound.'
'And what became of the unfortunate butcher?' I asked.
Last thing I see of him he'd had more'n enough already. And then he got into a 'ouse - not what you might call a resky 'ome - and there they put him to sleep, and went froo his pockets, and pitched him out in the mornin', skinned - feer skinned 'e was. The cops found 'is barrer next mornin', and wheeled it off. But the butcher never showed 'is dial again in the Walk. Bit too 'ot.'
'Rather rough on the butcher, wasn't it?' I suggested. 'But you probably didn't think of that.'
His eyes glanced quickly from mine to the yard below, and back to mine again, and for a moment - perhaps it was the moonlight that caught his face and gave it a weird twist - but for the moment he looked like a rat.
'I got meself to fink abart,' he said; and if I went finkin' abart uvver people I shouldn't be no good at this game. I wonder which of them silly young blokes it was forgot that leg of mutton I chucked outer winder.'
He peered over the sill, and the dog began barking again. But the step in the lane outside passed on. And young Alf turned again to me and expounded his philosophy of life.
'Look 'ere,' he said, if you see a fing you want, you just go and take it wivout any 'anging abart. If you 'ang abart you draw suspicion, and you get lagged for loiterin' wiv intent to commit a felony or some dam nonsense like that. Go for it, strite. P'r'aps it's a 'awse and cart you see as'll do you fine. Jump up and drive away as 'ard as you can, and ten to one nobody'll say anyfink. They'll think it's your own prop'ty. But 'ang around, and you mit jest as well walk into the next cop you see, and arst 'im to 'and you your stretch. See? You got to look after yourself; and it ain't your graft to look after anyone else, nor it ain't likely that anybody else'd look after you - only the cops. See?'
A cloud came over the moon, and threw the room and the yard outside into darkness. Young Alf became a dim shadow against the window.
'Time we was off,' he said.
He shut down the window softly, and, by the shaded light of a match with which I supplied him, led me to the door and down the stairs. The dog was awake and alert, and barked noisily, though young Alf's step would not have broken an egg or caused a hare to turn in its sleep. He protested in a whisper against my inability to tread a stair without bringing the house about my ears. But the yard outside was empty, and no one but the dog seemed aware of our presence. Young Alf was bound, he said, for the neighbourhood of Westminster Bridge, but he walked with me down to Vauxhall Station through a network of dim and silent streets.
I inquired of his plans for the night, and he explained that there was a bit of a street-fight in prospect. The Drury Lane boys were coming across the bridge, and had engaged to meet the boys from Lambeth Walk at a coffee-stall on the other side. Then one of the Lambeth boys would make to one of the Drury Lane boys a remark which cannot be printed, but never fails to send the monkey of a Drury Lane boy a considerable way up the pole. Whereafter the Drury Lane boys would fall upon the Lambeth boys, and the Lambeth boys would give them what for.
As we came under the gas-lamps of Upper Kennington Lane, young Alf opened his coat. He was prepared for conflict. Round his throat he wore the blue neckerchief, spotted with white, with which my memory will always associate him; beneath that a light jersey. His trousers were supported by a strong leathern belt with a savage-looking buckle.
Diving into his breast pocket, and glancing cautiously round, he drew out a handy-looking chopper which he poised for a moment, as though assuring himself of its balance.
'That's awright, eh?' he said, putting the chopper in my hand.
'Are you going to fight with that?' I asked, handing it back to him.
He passed his hand carefully across the blade.
'That oughter mean forty winks for one or two of 'em. Don't you fink so?' he said.
His eyes glittered in the light of the gas-lamp as he thrust the chopper back into his pocket and buttoned up his coat, having first carefully smoothed down the ends of his spotted neckerchief.
'Then you'll have a late night, I suppose?' I said as we passed along up the lane.
''Bout two o'clock I shall be back at my kip,' he replied.
We parted for the night at Vauxhall Cross, where a small crowd of people waited for their trains. We did not shake hands. The ceremony always seems unfamiliar and embarrassing to him. With a curt nod he turned and slid through the crowd, a lithe, well-knit figure. shoulders slightly hunched, turning his head neither to this side nor to that, hands close to his trouser pockets, sneaking his way like a fish through the scattered peril of rocks.