Grub Street

This is a perfect post for your humble scribe, for the term Grub Street describes the world of impoverished journalists and literary hacks. Originally Grub Street possibly meant a street infested with worms, or more likely named after a man called Grubbe. But since the 17th century is has been used in connection with needy authors and poor journalists. Dr Johnson said it was “much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries and temporary poems”, which seems to sum up CabbieBlog perfectly.

Even though this street was renamed Milton Street in 1830, the world of hack writers is still known as Grub Street. The inhabitants of this now metaphorical place churn out words without any regard for their literary merit. They were often called penny-a-liners. A Grub Street writer is also called a hack writer, which is another London allusion: Hackney in East London was the place where horses suitable for routine riding or driving were raised. The word hack, in related senses, is a short form of hackney, and now, of course, refers to taxis or Hackney Carriages.

As any writer would tell you, publishing is a long and slow journey, but according to London cabbies, it’s only five minutes from Grub Street to Fleet Street. There was much rebuilding in the area following war damage, and since the 1960s the pedestrian seeking to turn into Milton Street from Fore Street is faced with a solid block of buildings. The coffee shops and mean lodgings have long gone, and we will surely not meet Johnson and Savage on their late-night wanderings. No matter: as long as there are writers in the land, Grub Street lives on.

The late Nicholas Tomalin once wrote:

To succeed in journalism, you need three qualities: a rat-like cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability . . . There are still some aspects of the Grub Street trade that can be learnt with a little application.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 16th July 2010

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