London in London

Peter Berresford Ellis reviews The People of the Abyss (centenary edition) by Jack London, Pluto Press £10.99 pbk

JACK LONDON (1876-1916), American-born illegitimate son of an Irish father (astrologer William Chaney), was a great writer of adventure stories, including classics such as Call of the Wild, The Seawolf, White Fang.

His works were popular throughout the world. I still have Mac an Mhachtire (a translation into Irish of White Fang) on my shelves. But London was also the author of many social works and a Marxist. A strange sort of Marxist, with some rather odd ideas about race.

He also produced works of social comment, such as John Barleycorn about the dangers of alcoholism and frightening science fiction works such as The Iron Heel about the rise of fascist dictatorship in the USA. In 1905 came his work The War of the Classes, a selection of his essays on socialism.

In 1902 Jack London arrived in London, posing as a stranded American sailor. He lived in a doss house in the East End and wrote of what he found -- the poverty and conditions of a people living in the capital of the world's richest empire. In a city of immense wealth, misery and penury and early death afflicted the masses.

His book The People of the Abyss is a gut-wrenching account of what those economic migrants faced at the heart of empire. It shattered the smug composure of the English establishment and demonstrated Londonís skill as a political and social critic.

This is one of those classic social works that all thinking socialists ought to have on their shelves if for nothing else than the majority of the suffering people in the East End were migrants, many from Ireland.

December 2001/January 2002

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