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.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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