Fogland Lighthouse – Episode 12: The Ghost of Dean Street
“Id seen it… the mask of humanity fall from capital. It has to take it off to kill everyone — everything you love; all the hope and tenderness in the world. It has to take it off, just for one second. To do the deed. And then you see it. As it strangles and beats your friends to death… the sweetest, most courageous people in the world… You see the fear and power in its eyes. Then you know.”
– From Disco Elysium.
Presented by Jack Dean & Company, a disabled-led, artist-run non-profit telling stories about how things could be.
Content warnings: strong language, mentions of violence, murder, plague, imprisonment & child death.
A list of the content warnings for this episode is included in the liner notes.
This is Fogland Lighthouse. I’m Jack Dean.
There is a spectre haunting London.
Paris has its catacombs, Giza its pyramids, but nowhere does the hand of the dead lay so heavy on the living as the City. Boudicca killed every man, woman and child within its walls, burned every building to the ground, and still the city rose, a revenant borne upwards by the phantom limbs of the market. The Romans knew what they were doing. Where the river is deep enough for shipping, but narrow enough to build a bridge, they awoke a spirit of commerce that cannot be killed. When the foundations were dug for St. Paul’s eighteen feet of human remains were uncovered, layer on layer, century on century, right back to that Roman beginning. The Piccadilly line curves erratically between Knightsbridge and Kensington to avoid the compacted bones of the dead, packed in too tight for even electric drills to cut through. But before that, between the candle and the electric light, in the gas-lamp twilight of the mid-19th Century, is where we lay our scene.
There is a spectre haunting Soho.
Son of a lawyer, grandson of a rabbi. Thrown out of Prussia for editing seditious newspapers, thrown out of France for writing for them, thrown out of Belgium on trumped-up charges of organising a revolt, thrown out of a pub on Tottenham Court Road for antagonising the regulars. An exile, a wanderer, a ghost. His Prussian citizenship renounced, a stateless being, cut off from his homeland, Herr Marx to strangers, Karl to his very, very few friends. London is the only city on the continent that will have him, the thrumming, pulsing heart of International trade cares not who washes up on its shores as long as it can feed on their souls, cares not about your past as long as it can steal your future. He who is tired of London is tired of life. That must be why so many of the walking dead fill its streets. A Prussian spy stalks him, posing as a friend and fellow radical, shadowing the shadow. He gets let into Karl’s apartment on Dean Street one day, looking for evidence of agitation against the state. But all he can see, all he can think about, all he can write to his superiors about, is the wretched conditions he lives in – the finger-thick layer of dirt, the unwashed cups, stacked on tables. Death is scary. Poverty is scarier.
There is a Spectre haunting Primrose Hill, that of a monument that might have been.
As the exiles of foreign wars and domestic farm enclosures flooded the city in the first half of the century, its population boomed beyond imagining, while at the same time the cramped, disease-ridden conditions made their life expectancy plummet. Death is oblivion for the man who experiences it, a tragedy for his family and friends, but a business opportunity for those who would seize it. And so the death industry likewise boomed, buoyed by the black magic of the stock exchange, and the relentless drive to turn public lands into profit-making machinery. Of the many necropolises proposed at this time, one stands out: Thomas Willson’s scheme for a ninety story pyramid of brick and granite, towering over the metropolis at fifteen hundred feet, four times the height of St Paul’s. The financial case was hard to refute: though the initial cost of 2.5 million pounds was no doubt substantial, by renting out spaces at £50 a chamber to the families of forty thousand corpses a year, over a century and a quarter that investment would return over 10 million pounds. Death is scary. Extortionate landlords pursuing you even beyond the veil is scarier. In the end, the business case could not overcome the taste objections of the Victorians, whose deep fixation on mourning could not override their deeper horror of high-rise urban planning. Wilson wouldn’t dwell on his folly. He would move on to join the board of the General Cemetery Company, whose plot of Land at Kensall Green would see so much trade that the first hydraulic coffin lift would be created to help them inter its denizens fast enough.
There is a spectre haunting the left. The spectre of failure. In the spring of 1848 we dared to dream, to seize what was ours, and revolution swept the cities of Europe. Marx had been in Cologne, editing a radical newspaper called the New Rhineland Times, writing the new system to existence page by page. But now, just a few years later, the wave had broken, the dream had turned into nightmare, the forces of reaction and imperialism had come back stronger than ever, the Second French Republic choked out by a new Napoleon, The German Confederation shot down in a hail of bullets, the Chartists cowed into submission by a strongarm parliament and its army of new policemen. Marx fled to London before they could catch him, but they got to his comrades in Cologne, putting 11 on trial and sending 7 to prison. The poltergeists of past failure pester Marx. None of his business or political venture have lasted long or amounted to much. These demons of disaster manifest in a self-critique turned outwards, a truculence and obstreperousness that will compound with age, making him turn on his ideological bedfellows with more vehemence than he ever held for the truly powerful: Schapper is too revolutionary, Proudhon is not revolutionary enough, Bauer is too orthodox, Bakunin is too wild. Some of these feuds are stoked by the Prussian spy, most of them Karl happily initiates and pursues himself, the patron saint of leftist in-fighting. Only his old companion Engels sticks by him, patiently weathering his tempestuous mood swings and bailing him out when his debts become unmanageable. The stress of constant failure could fray any temper, to say nothing of the hidden pressures of the poverty he generally conceals from the world, the creditors nipping at his heels, the lies he has to brief his children to tell to keep them off his trail. London is no place for the living. Three of his children die there in their infancy. Death is scary. Grief is a lot scarier.
There is a spectre haunting England.
An ancient apparition on its third great outing of the century: the Blue Death, Cholera. The plague broke out the same year the revolutions did, and by the end of 1848 had taken 52,000 lives in Britain alone. Before John Snow broke the broad street pump, and with it the ancient ideas of the disease’s transmission, people still thought the disease came from a, quote, “miasma of the air”, and the dead piling up in London’s cemeteries were a feared source of it. In response to this fear, and to the overcrowding of graves that the pandemic was bringing, Parliament ordered that no new burials take place in the heart of the city, and were ready to throw money at any scheme that would get the bodies safely outside of it. Enter the London Necropolis Company. It seized two thousand, two hundred acres of Woking Common to make Brookwood Cemetery, a graveyard big enough to house every corpse in London , and in the bowels of the city, built its own version of the river Styx. Walk around the corner from Waterloo station in the 1850s, and you would find yourself at the end of the line in more ways than one: the eastern terminus of the London Necropolitan Railway. Loaded to the brim with coffins, it would bear its moribund cargo westwards, following the tracks of the Southwestern railway until it peeled off into its own branch, stopping in two different purpose-built stations at Brookwood, one for those who were good Anglican Christians, and one for those who were not. Even in death, passengers were separated into First, Second, and Third Class. The trustees of the London Necropolis Company assured the government that their railway would give them a total monopoly on London’s burials, cornering the market and paying off their enormous costs. Like most things said by rich people gambling with others’ money, this was bullshit, and the company never even got a tenth of the way to its annual target of fifty thousand burials a year, and spluttered through mismanagement and dwindling returns until the asset strippers, those great and terrible vultures of the flesh of dying corporations, tore it asunder.
There is a spectre haunting the mind of Marx.
It possesses this dispossessed man. In the day, it drives him northeast across town to the British Library, where he spends long hours feverishly consuming the great economics authors of his time: Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, alongside pages upon pages of financial statistics and reports. He is building a great picture of the enemy, the behemoth, the dreaded archangel, Capitalism. The faceless creature that robs the great majority of the products of their labour, funnelling it ever upwards into the hands of an ever shrinking, yet ever richer ruling class. Death is scary. Working your whole life so some prick who owns everything can buy a second boat, is scarier. By night, Marx roams the streets in search of booze, adventure, willing creditors and any audience who will hear him out, getting in fights, challenging people to duels, throwing stones at gas lamps and running from police. He comes home to screaming matches with his wife over money, or the shame, another kind of ghost, of the absent son that he bore with their housekeeper and gave up to foster parents. And in the small hours, sleep being a rare and erratic thing, he piles up pages upon pages of his own writing, in a barely legible scrawl. One great book, across three volumes, Das Kapital, a baroque intellectual torpedo, a three-thousand page prophecy of doom, that will lay out in the cold light of reason how this great mammonic edifice will one day come crashing down. But the devils that drive this mind cannot control the illnesses which take the body that houses it. The headaches, eye inflammations, rheumatic pains, the boils erupting over his skin, and the early signs of a hacking cough, becoming a catarrh, becoming the pleurisy that will kill him before Das Kapital’s completion. On a freezing spring day, that body will be laid to rest. Marx was fixated on the machine age, but his family are more traditional. No Necropolitan railway will bear him to Brookwood, nor will an epic brick ziggurat propel him into the sky. Instead, a horse and carriage will rattle the cobbled street to Highgate, to the non-Anglican section screened from the rest of the cemetery by trees. Just 11 people will attend his funeral. But if a man’s prophecy starts to become reality, can we truly say he is dead? Amongst the disorderly piles of paper in his office, amongst the cigar butts and beer bottles, is a short pamphlet, just 23 pages, published in that revolutionary year of 1848, obscure back then, but now, everywhere. Its title is the Communist Manifesto, and its opening words read:
“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre.” But no matter their efforts, no matter how many they kill or imprison, no matter how many false prophets invoke this spectre to mask their campaigns of authoritarian brutality, no matter how hopeless it all gets, the spectre haunts us still, for that spectre is the dream of a better world, ringing in the ears, rattling like the manacles of marley and marley, groaning like the boards of the Flying Dutchman, echoing across the ages like the last words of that same manifesto. “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the World, Unite!”.
Fogland Lighthouse is written, produced and scored by me, Jack Dean. I get project management help from Izzy Fitzgerald. The show is presented by Jack Dean & Company, a disabled-led, artist-owned non-profit telling stories of how things could be. you can find out more about us and our other projects at jackdean.co.uk. We’re on facebook, instagram and twitter, or you can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org. If you get a moment, please leave us a nice review on Apple podcasts or share the podcast with someone you think might like it, those both help an awful lot. I’ll catch you guys soon.