An Interview With John Seed

By Edmund Hardy

John Seed is a poet and historian who was born in 1950 and brought up in the North-East of England. His most recent collection, Pictures From Mayhew, draws every word from Henry Mayhew's writings on London published in the Morning Chronicle from 1849 to 1850 then in editions of Mayhew's own weekly paper London Labour and the London Poor, later collected in four volumes of the same title.

"From the thousands of printed pages of Mayhew's investigations I have selected a few hundred extracts from those passages where he attempted to record the voices of London's working people", writes Seed in his afterword to Pictures From Mayhew. "Brief lives, a moment in time – costermongers, coalheavers, sewermen, seamstresses, soldiers, shopkeepers, domestic servants, old-clothes dealers, rag-and-bone men, petty thieves, prostitutes, street people and casual workers of all kinds, old and young, male and female, thousands of unnamed and unremembered people of mid-nineteenth century London fill Mayhew's pages." Links to online extracts from Pictures From Mayhew and to Mayhew's own writings are at the foot of the page.


Edmund Hardy: In your close listening to the voices in Mayhew, did you sense an ethical responsibility to these people? Could you say something about your conception of form here. Is it an ethics of structuring and restructuring textual evidence?

John Seed: Yes I did feel a kind of ethical responsibility and it did, as you suggest, have implications for the form of the work.

I was uncomfortable. I didn't want to put words into other peoples’ mouths. Mayhew was sometimes accompanied by a shorthand writer who took down interviews. Sometimes he made his own notes of interviews. These were then transformed by him into coherent prose. After all, people don't actually talk in prose – in a single long line broken up into coherent sentences! They talk in highly fragmented, disconnected, hesitant lines of verse! So I suppose my work of reading/writing was partly about undoing Mayhew’s own work of rewriting and perhaps getting closer to his listening and recording.

I didn't add anything. I simply cut punctuation, cut what sounded like padding and undid some degree of grammatical order. I arranged the material into lines. Sometimes I did this in a form which caught the rhythms and pauses of the speaking voice. But I didn't want this to become a habit and many sections work against the sound of the speaking voice. I wanted the form to slow down the reader -- to draw attention to the actual words and the patterns they made. So I played around with the arrangement – three words to a line, or five words to a line or whatever. Or divided up the writing up into verses. I wanted to play with other kind of relations between words, including their visible form on the white paper. I tried not to slip into a single method, section by section. I tried to keep moving, to keep changing, to keep defamiliarising – for myself as much as for any reader.

I avoided titles and subtitles, creating numbered sections which are not easy to navigate around. This was intended to amplify the cacophony of strange voices and thus maximise the work the reader has to do to make sense. A few readers have complained how difficult they have found it to make their way around those 160 or more pages – how hard it is to go back to a remembered section. They complained they felt a bit lost. They wanted titles and subtitles. They also wanted foot-notes and explanations for some of the words and references. I was delighted to be so unhelpful.

I was also aware of an ethics of responsibility in terms of avoiding aestheticising brutal realities and painful experiences. Mayhew certainly doesn't do that – though I'm not sure he entirely escapes the charge of sensationalising his material, especially in some of the later work where he turns his attention to prostitutes. There are also moments of sentimentalising and even, on occasion, moralising. No doubt I've not always been responsive to these limitations – and I may have added others of my own.

E.H: We are always aware that Reznikoff's Testimony takes place before the law – legal dialects and the high proportion of conflicts or accidents – whereas here I get a different sense of "being before" from the two Prefaces, that Mayhew – and we the reader – are spies or, worse, administrators. Could you comment on the possibilities let loose in the book of a group of people held as subjects "before sociology"?

J.S: I hope these people are not 'held' anywhere as subjects, or objects, of somebody else's knowledge. My two short prefaces are there to place the "author" and the reader in an uncomfortable position. "We" are looking at "them". But they are looking right back at us and maybe they don't much like what they see. In a sense Mayhew is indeed a spy for the state. Elsewhere in the text too there are occasional moments of that kind of confrontation between author and reader on the one hand and these people who have a voice and a consciousness on the other. I hope they are subjects in the sense of being an active 'I' in their own sentences, often (but not always) resistant to incorporation into any higher order of meanings, questioning from within the very text which represents them – or mis-represents them. So the text doesn’t try to smooth out these tensions.

I hope Pictures from Mayhew undermines any reader-position as being the bearer of knowledge (whether sociology or anything else) of other people as objects. One of the fascinating things about reading Mayhew is to watch his doubts and uncertainties gathering as the people he talks to challenge his every assumption. He had the capacity to question his most basic presuppositions and try, painfully, to develop new ones. He learned that he really didn't know better. Few other contemporary commentators on working-class life in Victorian London had that kind of negative capability, that courage to persist in uncertainty.

I should say how much I admire Reznikoff's writing. I corresponded with him in the early 70s and still have several lovely letters he wrote to me. But I wonder if Testimony doesn't subscribe to the notion that somehow accurate use of language and close reading of evidence can somehow capture what actually happened, the truth or the reality outside language. I teach and write history but I don't think I can share that position very easily. Anyway, in Pictures from Mayhew representation of some kind of event or object is not, usually, what I'm doing. I’m interested in working with this recorded speech to see what happens inside it, rather than moving out from it to 'the real'. I think a number of different things do happen – which probably make this text more engaging for those interested in poetry than for those interested in nineteenth-century history.

E.H: Why do you think oral history seems closely related to a left-wing politics?

J.S: I'm not sure oral history is always closely related to a left-wing politics, not necessarily so anyway. I suppose in Britain some of its origins were in the 1930s, in the work of the Mass Observation people, which has always fascinated me. And some of them were interested in poetry, (Charles Madge), and in other innovative forms of writing (Humphrey Jennings's Pandaemonium). Another impulse comes from the ideas of 'history from below' in the 1960s and the work of E.P.Thompson, Raphael Samuel and the History Workshop Movement. Raphael Samuel's East End Underworld: Chapters in the Life of Arthur Harding, published in 1981, is an amazing experiment in oral history. At the core of this kind of history writing was the idea that working people themselves should be writing their own history – not university-educated professional historians. Oral history was just one method of trying to elicit some kind of democratic or people's history. Raphael Samuel spent most of his working life at Ruskin College in Oxford. And E.P.Thompson worked in Adult Education for many years while he was writing The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Mayhew was an important source and example for E.P.Thompson of course: he co-edited an important Penguin collection, The Unknown Mayhew, in 1973. His introduction is very helpful.

But there is a great deal of oral history which would refuse any kind of left-wing political affiliation. And even some of the above could be represented as a kind of spying by the authorities. Michel de Certeau, for instance, argued this kind of case against 'left-wing' explorations of the popular in an essay in his Heterologies. Maybe the investigating policeman is a kind of oral historian too? And maybe those who were suspicious of Mayhew and his questions had a point!

E.H: Pictures From Mayhew seems metaphysical in that it brings out from Mayhew an almost timeless milieu – or a re-selection designed for now? – I kept thinking about contemporary mega-cities and the continuing migrations of people who become the urban poor there, pursuing similar livelihoods to the ones described, whereas reading the Mayhew, the extra details keep one’s thoughts on London more firmly.

J.S: I have an almost visceral recoil away from any notice of the timeless, though I note you do say 'almost timeless'. Phew! What you point to are certain historical continuities in the character of national and now international labour markets. Labourers migrate and they often have to scratch a living in inhospitable city streets. Most of Mayhew's people had migrated into London from the rural counties of south-east England, though there were some, notably the Irish, who had come from further afield. Across the planet now migrants travel much further. And I'm sure that today conditions and kinds of work and social relations in many cities across the world – including the cities of the United States -- resemble Mayhew's London in certain respects. Maybe London today is a lot more like Mayhew's London than it was between the 1920s and the 1970s? You'll have noted the final lines of the whole book?

        cold night I feel
        the cold of that night
        in my limbs still
        I thought it never
        would be over

There is no full stop there either. And it isn't over. And if it is never over that isn't because it is "the human condition" or some other metaphysical alibi for the way things are.

But I'm not sure that my reply has quite engaged with what you are saying about the metaphysical here? Can you explain it a little more?

E.H.: Well, I was wondering about the duality of speech which is then written up and presented in a book. The speaker has integrity as an active "I" and yet there are ideological fields overlapping in the wider text which selects and arranges. What you say about confusing the reader, making it difficult to navigate, seems to be about breaking down and pointing up the operation of these fields.

J.S.: Yes I see, yes – that formulates it clearly. I share the reader's confusion too of course. And I'm not consistent. As some of my replies have already indicated, I can move from some kind of post-structuralist notion of the 'I', as an effect of discourse, on the one hand – to an uncompromising humanist's sense of the 'I' as an active creative subject, on the other. I don't know what to say about this – or even if it matters very much. I can see the value of both perspectives.

E.H. The pieces published here at Intercapillary are from a second Mayhew volume?

J.S. Yes, there are another 150 or more pages of this stuff. Some sections have appeared in various magazines in the last 6 months or so. Jeremy Hilton is printing a chunk in the next issue of Fire. I hope they will see the light of day as a whole collection before long. Then I think I'll leave Mayhew alone!

E.H. As well as the Reznikoff, you also single out Ed Dorn’s, Recollections of Gran Apacheria, a book which, I think, confronts the difficulties of violence without losing anger. What was its influence for Pictures from Mayhew?

J.S. Well, when I first read that book – and then heard Dorn read it in Hull in the late 1970s – I was amazed. I'd been reading Dorn since the late 60s. Geography and The North Atlantic Turbine were among my sacred books. But Recollections of Gran Apacheria just seemed such a wonderful set of poems and were reworking historical materials. I'm also interested in his late work, which was I think unfinished, Languedoc Variorum. Nicholas Johnson published some sections in the Etruscan Books selection of Dorn's work, High West Rendezvous (1997). I'm not sure that Dorn influenced Pictures from Mayhew in any direct sense, but his work has always been there for me as a pleasure and an inspiration.

Olson's Maximus Poems, Williams' Paterson, Pound's Cantos are also of course very much concerned with recycling speech and other kinds of historical materials. I did play around with some of the Mayhew material in the way that Williams especially juxtaposed various kinds of sources in Paterson. But it didn't seem to work. I've always been interested in montage and collage. Benjamin's Arcades Project is also floating around in the background here. So is Eisenstein's The Film Sense. Over thirty years ago I wrote a piece on Jeremy Prynne for an Essex University magazine called Prospice which consisted entirely of quotations!

E.H.: Can you say something about the composition of an earlier work, collected in the New and Collected, and that's Transit Depots, a series of little collages for each inter-war year. You seem to delight in throwing the reader into the middle!

J.S: Well, I was unusually instrumental and self-disciplined in that instance. I collected quotations from anything written in a particular year. I used mostly letters, diaries, journals of the period – Kafka, Bennett, Joyce, Pound, Gramsci. But I also used quotations of contemporary sources from some economic and political histories of interwar Europe. Then I played around with juxtaposition. The results I found surprisingly interesting in places. They also made me chuckle. This was in 1987-88. In 1993 I was doing a reading in Durham with Denise Riley. I dug out this text and read it. Robert Sheppard was present and liked it. It converged to work he was doing on his wonderful Empty Diaries/ Twentieth-Century Blues project. And he printed it in 1993! So it was rescued from disappearance by Robert.

For me some of the poems, mostly short, in the New and Collected – perhaps a dozen – are the most difficult and most rewarding things I've written. And sometimes they took months of painful writing and rewriting. Transit Depots was by contrast, easy to write and fun!


Sections of Pictures From Mayhew: London 1850 online:
at Great Works
at Shearsman Magazine
at Pages (February 2005)

Sections of That Barrikins: Pictures From Mayhew II, London 1850
at Argotist
at Signals

Online & fully searchable text of Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (four volumes)

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