Jack London's People of the Abyss, Radio 4, Monday Wireless Nights, Radio 4, Thursday

Out of the abyss of poverty and into the dark night of the soul

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The Independent Culture

There's been a bit around lately about the contemporary relevance of George Orwell's The Road To Wigan Pier. He was directly inspired by an earlier exploration of poverty in Britain, and in Jack London's People of the Abyss the historian Dan Cruickshank, East End resident for 35 years, retraced London's steps – and examined the veracity of his gripping account, published in 1903, of the lower orders.

When I began to read a few bits of The People of the Abyss online, my first thought was that he was making it up – too florid, too vivid. It seems I was being cynical – after all, he was there – but only slightly so. The story was always the thing for Jack London, whether he was turning out fiction or non-fiction, and he had his sources, especially the 1890 book How the Other Half Lives. The whiff of plagiarism hung around him throughout his life, but then as another historian, Alex Kershaw, told Cruickshank, he rather admires London's disdain for literary convention: "He was all about trying to shock people and stir people up. He was a firebrand – he didn't care where he got his words from."

London also had unpleasant, right-wing, eugenicist views, and though Cruickshank made a heartfelt plea that his concern for the poor was genuine, I'm not so sure. Take the following sentence, describing a scene in Frying Pan Alley: "A spawn of children cluttered the slimy pavement, for all the world like tadpoles just turned to frogs on the bottom of a dry pond." That sounds less like compassion and dangerously like contempt. But it was a cracking programme, and, as was pointed out, the "abyss" of poverty hasn't gone away.

When Jarvis Cocker was living in poverty, on the dole in Sheffield, he inhabited a disused factory. He would sleep during the day and walk back in the dark after spending most of the night in clubs. "The night seemed much more alive to me," he murmured lugubriously in his fascinating series Wireless Nights, in which he explores "the night around us and the night within us".

He visited an all-night poker club, and talked to Al Alvarez, poet and nocturnophile, who wrote of "The light of the moon and the dark night of the soul". But the star of the show was Mark Daniels, an art teacher at a school for excluded pupils in Sussex. Night-time for him means visits to his allotment on the edge of Hastings, and Cocker went with him looking for the badgers that sometimes pay a visit. For all the mood music and the philosophising in the rest of the programme (not to mention the colourful characters at the poker club), this was the highlight, as Mark and Cocker sat together sipping from a hip flask.

Mark talked about his father, "who was cruel at the best of times" but could never kill a mole – "though he did have some very human enemies". He would trap moles on his plot, and Mark reminisced fondly about accompanying him on torchlit trips to his enemies' allotments, where he would set the moles free. As they listened to two owls, the central theme of the series came to mind. "What do we hope to find at night?" Cocker asked. "Why, ourselves of course."