Perverse pride of underclass carries echoes of Orwell: Sixty years ago, George Orwell's book Down and Out in Paris and London was published. David Lister met some of today's homeless to see how things have changed

David Lister
Thursday 24 September 2015 08:47

The Embankment, London, seven in the morning. The first hand-out of the day. If it's a good day there could be another five. 'The basic difference between now and years ago,' said John, on the streets for nearly 30 years, 'is the food supply. There's a hell of a lot more now.'

Sixty years after George Orwell lived among beggars and tramps in London and Paris, the extra food is not the only difference.

Kingsway, Holborn, 9am; and Lee is on the pavement begging. If it's a good day he will take pounds 25 in 90 minutes, enough to buy him a quarter of hash which he will consume in an all-night cinema. 'Lee's really got it sussed,' said an admiring colleague. 'He looks so incredibly unhealthy.'

The sellers of The Big Issue (the magazine about the homeless whose sellers keep 30p of every 50p taken) are making their speeches on the street corners and, though illegal, in Underground carriages. Pete was a particularly good salesman. He made pounds 5,000.

It's not just the food supply. There's more money around now. And there's another difference.

Orwell wrote of his down-and- out friends that, with men on the streets outnumbering women by 10 to 1, 'the result, for a tramp, is that he is condemned to perpetual celibacy. For of course it goes without saying that if a tramp finds no women at his own level, those above - even a very little above - are as far out of reach as the moon.'

No longer. Ivor, 56, who has been on the streets for 15 years, recalls: 'It was very different years ago. There were very few women sleeping out. But it's easy to get your leg over here. (He sleeps in Lincoln's Inn Fields) The women coming here don't have any scruples.'

Orwell spent months living, working and tramping with the down-and-outs of Paris and London. I spent just a few days talking with people sleeping rough in London, though street poverty is still a part of Parisian life where the estimated 20,000-plus people sleeping rough is 10 times the London estimate.

But even in those few days I was struck by the variety of characters, the perverse pride of some of the homeless (refusing to collect their weekly giros), and, it must be said, their preference, whatever any government does, for sleeping rough.

In 1933, Orwell pondered at length the question: 'Why are beggars despised? - for they are despised universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it should be profitable.'

A sterile debate in 1993. No one in England would admit to despising beggars; and few people probably do. (The Embankment hand-out comes from a philanthropic London solicitor.)

Margaret is 49 and sleeps under Blackfriars Bridge. 'I had to get away from Lincoln's Inn Fields,' she said. 'I couldn't stand the rats.'

She has a musical Irish brogue with a very refined manner of speech. There's a rumour, which she denies, that she was once a nun, but she does become visibly angry when she talks about some of her comrades stretching out and snoring in the pews of St Martin-in-the-Fields. She sits instead in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall 'where nobody bothers you'; then moves to a library to read the papers.

When asked why she doesn't sleep indoors in a hostel for the homeless she replies: 'You are confined with people you can keep a discreet distance from on the streets.'

Carol is now 40, but has slept rough since coming down from Burnley, Lancashire, when she was 16. (I cannot recall meeting one homeless person who was actually from London).

She said there were rapes on the street in the shop doorways. Sometimes the younger girls take up with a much older man to ensure protection, often in father- daughter relationships. She chose her spot in Tottenham Court Road strategically next to a club so that the bouncers would keep an eye on her.

At present she is in a 'bash' (sleeping shelter of plywood and plastic) in Lincoln's Inn Fields, where there is a 50-strong community of homeless people in the park overlooked by the Queen's solicitors and the Royal College of Surgeons.

Her neighbour, Ivor, looks swish in his trilby, suede jacket and leather shoes (all from the daily hand-outs), but in Orwell's day might well have been called a tramp, though it is a term he and all the other homeless vehemently reject, saying the tramps have virtually all died out.

'All the people sleeping out could sleep in hostels,' he admits, but adds with perfect resonances of Orwell that he and his friends 'can't abide the rules, the no drinking, the being told when to go to bed and when to get up'.

'I spend my days in the betting shop looking for the elusive big win so I can go back to Cornwall where I grew up, and I've got three grown-up children.'

Last March, he recalls with strains of Alfred Doolittle's marital problems in Pygmalion: 'I won over pounds 800 and the woman I was living with wanted me to get a place so we could settle down. But she was an alcoholic and as the money went lower and lower she realised she could get more from someone else and went.'

Just as in Orwell's day, there is a strong sense of pecking order among the homeless. 'I may be a gambler,' said Ivor, 'but I am not a beggar. A man would lose his self-respect, his whole pride.'

In fact, Ivor could realise his ambition of going back to Cornwall. His daughter has begged him to live with her. 'But I want my own place,' he said, veering between anger, keenness to get away and an overwhelming need to stay.

'The Government can't look after its own people. They look after refugees all right. That Mr Douglas Hurd and Mr George Young came here the other night and how long did they stay? One minute. But I have lots of friends here. It's a free life. There are no bills.'

Perhaps the Government should be more concerned at the increasing numbers of mentally ill in Lincoln's Inn Fields. One man slept for a while in a tree and now sleeps in a dustbin. And a 30-year-old frail woman called Disney is fiercely protected by the clan in the fields though she virtually never speaks, either hides under the blankets or runs round the shelter in the middle of the park. John, 53, came down from Perth, Scotland, in 1965 and has lived on the streets since, 'marrying a lassie in a street wedding at Waterloo', a traditional ceremony in which they tied their hands with rope and cut their wrists. It is not the only tradition or street law. 'In Waterloo if you do something serious, like hurting a woman, all your stuff is put in the middle of the bull ring and burnt.'

In a neighbouring bash Joe, a former cloth cutter from Sheffield, and Ellie, a 17-year-old from Cornwall, have hitched up together. They met, as some of Orwell's comrades did, fruit picking in Kent. He says he makes pounds 120 a week from selling The Big Issue. Ellie says she was bored in Cornwall and likes London. She admits that they never go out, and like most of the homeless I met live a life of stultifying boredom. Many do not move from Lincoln's Inn Fields all day.

A number are there because their marriages broke down. Some are employed and dress in smart clothes in the morning and walk off with the office workers into Holborn. Some, as nicknames like Steve the Teach imply, had good jobs. Others are little more than teenagers enjoying themselves, living a student-like existence without the need for qualifications. One bash with heavy metal music, bottles of beer and bags of glue resembles a downmarket student bedroom.

Outside it's midnight and the last hand-out of the day is the Salvation Army with pizzas and coffee. A few small fires burn in the fields as Carol and about 20 others chat animatedly. One bedraggled, filthy and muttering vagrant approaches me. He is perhaps the only one who fits the stereotype of what many believe a tramp to be. 'I don't like you,' he screams. The others turn on him. 'That's ignorant, how dare you,' and he skulks away.

The park has its own social etiquette. The chat continues well into the night. Carol talks about leaving soon to move into a flat, but my hunch is she will be back. For her and others like her the streets and the parks offer a chance of community which may not be found elsewhere.

(Photograph omitted)

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