Night-time London has long been a joy of writers. To wander its streets at night, sobre, is to discover a tranquility and beauty that the capital cannot afford during the day, as well as a different variety of ugliness – the stench of urine and fried food is stronger. In the nineteenth century Charles Dickens, workaholic insomniac that he was, drew on his nocturnal exploration of the city in his essay ‘Nightwalks,’ a piece of writing that also explores what he terms “houselessness.”
Homelessness, as we’d probably call it today, also exerts strong influence over English literary culture. George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris in London is a particularly prominent example of the interest writers take in deprivation. And W.H. Davies, the self-styled “super tramp” of the early twentieth century, was also a writer who drew heavily on his experiences of being without a home, even if he is not especially remembered today.
There might seem something distasteful, however, in selling homelessness as an experience, even if it is combined with another literary trope – something that Cardboard Citizens, a company that creates theatre with and for homeless people, is currently doing. Termed the Big Tramp, their walking tour of London this Saturday night will allow participants to see Dickens’ night-time haunts, places mentioned by Orwell in Down and Out, and the dosshouses where Davies stayed.
Will the Big Tramp come across as homelessness tourism? “There’s definitely a danger of that,” Henry Eliot, who is leading the walk, tells the New Statesman. “But we’re not going to be pointing fingers and observing the homeless in their natural habit, as if we were in a zoo – that would be crass.”
“The point is to raise awareness of homelessness,” he adds. “Most of those coming will be people who want to learn about homelessness and who are in a position to donate – everyone has to try to raise £500 in sponsorship.” The money will be going towards supporting Cardboard Citizens’ 2015 forum theatre tour to hostels, prisons, and day centres in London.
Eliot regularly leads walks like these. He has twice taken a group from Salisbury Cathedral to Stonehenge to see the dawn of the summer solstice, and has led a tour of London themed around T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland. The lucky guests on the latter tour got to see a slurry processing plant not normally open to the public.
“The theme of the Big Tramp was always going to be homelessness,” Eliot says, making reference to the activities of Carboard Citizens. “George Orwell is one of the most famous down-and-outs of London. Dickens was famously an insomniac, and his essay ‘Nightwalks’ was very important to me. The rest grew from that.”
Part of the walk will be a performance of the opening scene of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion by St Paul’s, Covent Garden, where the play is set. The cast will be comprised of actors from Cardboard Citizens. “People mingle and chat on night-time walks, so I imagine the same will happen with this one,” Eliot says. “Hopefully people will learn something about homelessness from talking to members of Carboard Citizens.”
At nine miles the walk is not much of a test, in length, for most people. The challenge will lie in staying awake all through the night. Raising £500 might not be all that easy, either.