Mr Gay’s London Is Back In ‘The Fatal Tree’
Jake Arnott’s ‘The Fatal Tree’ is a ripping new 18th century yarn of London lowlife on the make and take, trying to stay one step ahead of the Fatal Tree itself (the gallows of Tyburn). It uses the story of Jack Sheppard and more importantly the lesser-known Edgworth Bess, his woman, who led a ‘wicked and debauched life’ to take a gloriously filthy trawl through the muck and smoke of the city with the buttocks (female prostitutes), stallions (pimps) and natty-lads (young thieves) of Old London. The narrative is peppered with slang that reminds you how this punky underbelly of London has always been with us, up to the new rhyming slang of present day crews. The language requires concentration, but there’s a glossary of terms at the back which fits everything together.
The past should always feel like another country, and so it is in ‘The Fatal Tree’, colourful and pungent in a way few historical fictions are. Arnott catches the unsentimental bluntness of lives lived fast and short, and the tale is as knotted, rambunctious and teeming with life as a Hogarth print.
It has always been suggested that the thief and gaol-breaker Jack Sheppard was the inspiration for John Gay’s Macheath. Despite managing to stay alive for just 22 years he was seen as a heroic figure for centuries, for his energetic attempts to escape from prison as much as his crimes. Thinking about him sent me back to the wonderful (and out of print) ‘Mr Gay’s London’ by AP Herbert, which contains extracts from London court proceedings.
One of the reasons why thieves so feared the rope was because there was such a high likelihood of it awaiting them; if you committed burglary it was said that you put people ‘in Fear of the Highway’, so the value of what you stole was not taken into account and no jury could save you.
Ebenezer Dun was hanged for breaking and entering the house of one Sarah Loyzada and stealing ‘4 Pewter-dishes, a Stew-pan, a Sauce Pan and a Coffee Pot’. Joseph Fretwell was hanged for stealing threepence. Two further thieves were hanged for taking rice, prunes and two ounces of Stone Blue (which I presume to be tobacco).
At the end of typical court sessions there was a list; 87 prisoners tried, 6 hanged, 2 burnt in the hand, 40 transported, 2 imprisoned and 1 in the pillory plus 7 years transportation – just for perjury.
Both books are worth seeking out for anyone interested in flash London, in fact and fiction.
Trivia note: Jack Sheppard was played by Tommy Steele in the film version ‘Where’s Jack?’ and Kenneth Williams turns up with Laurence Olivier in the film version of Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’.