Michael Caines at the Times Literary Supplement:
In 1902, Jack London lost himself in the East End of his urban namesake. This Klondike adventurer’s temporary disappearance from relatively polite society – of oyster pirates and tramps, among others – was the result of a fateful improvisation on his part. Deeply in debt and love with the socialist writer Anna Strunsky, London had been due to undertake a journalistic commission in South Africa. The commission fell through, however, and, as Earle Labor relates in his biography, London negotiated with his publisher for him to write a book instead, about life in what was reputed to be one of the worst slums on earth. This, characteristically, the young author knew he had to see from the inside.
On August 9, 1902, in the guise of an American sailor down on his luck, London walked into Trafalgar Square and joined the crowds celebrating the coronation of Edward VII. Heading east, he quickly found himself immersed in a “human hellhole” – “a vast shambles”, “utterly unnatural”, “a huge killing-machine”. Malnutrition, cramped and unhygienic lodgings (or no lodgings at all), hopeless insobriety, even the thought that the slightly better-off are unlikely to bequeath any security in life to their children: all of this London notes in horror, while counting his own blessings and reminding the reader of the unspeakable affluence to which the city is also home.