Confessions of a down and out

From 1933: Poet and long-time tramp W H Davies reviews George Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London".

This is the kind of book I like to read, where I get the truth in chapters of real life. In saying this I should like to warn the public against a great number of Reminiscences that have appeared lately, which have been untruthful and misleading, made pleasant and attractive to escape a charge of libel. In these days a man or woman invents any kind of story as a proof of once meeting a famous character. But if we try to form an estimate of this famous man – as he appears in various books of Reminiscences – what do we find? A blurred picture, and nothing more. When the present reviewer – who has been a great sufferer in this respect – reads some of the stories that have been told about him, he comes to the conclusion that books of Reminiscences are really works of fiction, and should be published as such. For instance, why should we give an impression that a certain poet is very fond of drink, all because he has been seen with a glass of beer in his hand? Let the poet make his own confession that he is not able to write under the influence of drink; and then consider the question that he is still one of the most prolific of living poets, in spite of advancing age. We now see that this poet has some kind of restraint and system; that though he can be fond of drink at certain times, he still has clear intervals of acute vision, when he knows that his shirt has more than once arm, and his trousers more than one leg, and that he is not seeing double.

In reading these extraordinary confessions, it is very curious to see how London and Paris compete in the making of strange scoundrels. In some instances the same characters could be found in either city, with only a difference in their names. The Rougiers, who sold sealed packets on the Boulevard St Michel, to give the impression that they contained pornographic postcards, could be found in London forty-five years ago, trading under other names. These packets could be bought by any frequenter of Petticoat superior to Paris; for these pornographic pictures could be bought in Petticoat Lane on the Sabbath day, which the Rougiers probably kept holy nor laboured on. If Mr Orwell has a greater liking for Paris than London, I am sure he will forgive my pride in claiming this superiority for our own capital.

When the writer of this book says, one the last page, ‘At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty,’ we make haste to assure him that his book is packed with unique and strange information. It is all true to life, from beginning to end. Perhaps a few important slang words could be added, such as ‘scrand’ for food; ‘skimish’ for drink; ‘stretchers’ for laces; ‘sharps’ for needles; ‘pricks’ for pins; ‘feather’ for bed; ‘needy’ for beggar; ‘clobber’ for clothes, and many others. But this is only a small matter, as the list could almost be extended to a full language. Indeed we have heard beggars at the wayside use so many strange words in conversation that it was with the greatest difficulty that we could follow their meaning.

As for the earnings of different beggars, is it not wise to take into consideration which one leads the most interesting and most pleasant life? For instance, who would be a pavement artist, who sits in silence near his pictures, waiting for a stray copper as a poor dog waits for a bone? Who would be an organ grinder, dragging his heavy organ from place to place on a hot summer’s day, without even the pleasure of making his own notes? Who begrudges such a man a pound or two a week for doing such hard work? Perhaps the best man, after all, is the Downrighter, who makes no pretence of selling or singing, and goes in for straightforward begging. This man only makes a shilling or two a day, and his food as extra. But his life is a real joy to him, because he is a student of humanity, and a great artist. He eyes his prospective victims as they come along, as a squirrel selects the sweetest nuts, or a robin chooses the whitest crumbs. He fits his story to the special case, and success comes to him time after time. If he begs from a young man who has only just left boyhood, he keeps on calling him ‘Sir,’ and the boy eventually surrenders his last and only penny.

When this Downrighter sees a woman coming along with a little child he fastens his eyes on the little one; and when he is near enough to be heard he sighs audibly. To the woman this is of deep interest, and a wonderful softness spreads all over her face. It is now that our friend, the Downrighter, apologises for his rudeness in looking at the child, and asks to be forgiven for the sake of his own little one, whom he will never see again. Result, twopence – given the tears and thankfully received.

I once knew another Downrighter, who spent hours in Downing Street, in the hope of begging from the highest official in the land. But this poor fellow’s ambition was never gratified, and he died a disappointed man. His lesson of persuasive oratory, that was to extract silver from the Prime Minister of England, is now lost to the world forever.

18 March 1933

A homeless man sleeps on newspapers in 1930s Paris. Photograph: Getty Images

W H Davies was a Welsh poet who lived on the streets for many years.

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses