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

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."

Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?