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From the NS archive: Confessions of a Down and Out

18 March 1933: a former homeless man, WH Davies, reviews George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

William Henry Davies was a Welsh poet and writer best known for his memoir “The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp”, published in 1908, which related his experiences as a homeless man in America. After losing a leg while jumping onto a moving train, he returned to England where he became a popular poet, friend of Edward Thomas, and a man lionised by many of the leading literary figures of the day. In reviewing Orwell’s account of cross-Channel destitution, Davies knew what he was talking about.

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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; 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 one 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 45 years ago, trading under other names. These packets could be bought by any frequenter of Petticoat Lane.

London, in this instance at least, appears to have been superior to Paris; for these pornographic pictures could be bought in Petticoat Lane on the Sabbath day, which the Rougiers probably kept holy and did not labour 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, on 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; “skirmish”' 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; 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 with 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.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

William Henry Davies was a Welsh poet and writer best known for his memoir The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, published in 1908.