Monday, October 26, 2015

Dark River Melody: Voices from Old London Town, an essay by M.D. Murphy

Today M. D. Murphy is here with an essay about the inspiration for his atmospheric debut novel, Dark River Melody, which takes place amid the political and social struggles of Georgian London.


Dark River Melody: Voices from Old London Town
M. D. Murphy

The germ of Dark River Melody probably started at the British Library while researching for my PhD. I was writing a thesis on the radicalism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 1790s, a turbulent period in England’s political history. Working my way through a mountain of old newspapers, pamphlets and various publications, I found myself being drawn into a world that was both captivating and abhorrent. I recall being struck by the brutality and oppressive mechanisms of the state against those who dared to speak out against the Church, Monarchy and Government. I was also stunned by the brutal way that the urban poor were punished for petty crimes.

I was supposed to be concentrating on my thesis but was constantly distracted by the moving human stories I encountered. I found myself frequently sidetracked to read a newspaper report or trial proceedings about a hanged thief, a transported prostitute, a drunk in the pillory. None of this was getting my PhD finished, but it was compulsive and impossible to ignore. Unconsciously, I had started to write Dark River Melody without putting ink to paper.

Some years after finishing my PhD, I began to write my novel. I chose Georgian London because I was passionate about the period and location. Much of the research for the novel was established from my previous studies, and I was born and lived in London for the first 38 years of my life. London in the 1790s, then, seemed the obvious place to start. Moreover, my research had left an indelible mark on my psyche – it uncovered a cityscape awash with opium dens, cellar brothels, public floggings and squalid street life – all of which I felt compelled to communicate.

And what a city London is for capturing the imagination. Its grand buildings, cobbled streets, secluded courtyards and dark alleyways are a gift to any writer. Dividing the metropolis is the greatest gift of all – the river. The Thames has a bewitching presence in the capital, one that cannot be ignored. Writers from all periods have been drawn to it – Wordsworth was enthralled by the view from Westminster Bridge; T. S. Eliot saw the river as a focal point for human dejection; Ray Davies juxtaposed the “dirty old river” with the paradise of a “Waterloo Sunset”. I thought the river would bring atmosphere to the novel, a mixture of power, beauty and menace; it is the unconscious backbone of the tale.

In Dark River Melody I wanted to tell the story of those early radicals whose struggle played a role in the liberties that we share today: the right to vote, the building of the trade unions, women’s rights, the welfare state and so on. However, the early drafts of the novel were not overtly political and had more to do with encapsulating the social conditions of the period. I wanted to bring the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Georgian London to the page. I wanted the reader to get a palpable sense of the capital in all its terrible glory, its poetic squalor.

As I went through the drafting process, I came to see there was an important historical narrative here that needed to be told: that of the pamphlet wars of the 1790s. The French Revolution had an immeasurable impact on social change in England. This sparked a debate between the renouncers and supporters of the Revolution, which was played out in the form of battling pamphlets. The Revolution gave impetus to the English reform movement who now had a paradigm for social change at home. As the decade progressed, at war with France and in fear of invasion, the authorities clamped down on reforming activity and insurrection, driving it underground. England had become a dangerous place for radicals who were often hounded by the law or hunted by Church and King mobs.

While the subject of the pamphlet wars had been extensively covered by academics, it hadn’t reached the popular imagination. Fiction then, seemed a more accessible vehicle to bring the story to the public consciousness. To authenticate the fiction I brought in historical figures, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Joseph Johnson, Mary Wollstonecraft and John Thelwall. They help to locate the novel within the precise period, and add historical credibility to my story and characters. Their inclusion is also a fun way of celebrating those radical figures that I so admire – for their bravery in the face of danger, for their commitment to free speech and equal rights.

While I can account for some aspects of why and how I began the novel, there is also a creative element that cannot be rationalized. Looking back and saying it was this or that, is only part of the picture, a need to find expression for something that is ultimately beyond me, and can never be known. But there is one thing I do remember … on a rainy day, seated at my desk in a dimly lit attic, three magic words came to me. From where they came I shall never know – Dark River Melody – they whispered, as if a spirit had spoken from old London town.


M. D. Murphy comes from the London-Irish community. He has a PhD in English Literature from Lancaster University. His academic essays have been published in The Coleridge Bulletin and Romanticism. His poetry has appeared in many publications, including Staple and Poetry Ireland Review. Dark River Melody (Cutting Edge Press, 2015) is his first novel.


  1. What a lovely and fascinating essay! This novel sounds interesting!

    1. Thank you, much obliged!