ORWELL, WEEK 2: THE SPIKE

January 14th, 2018

Orwell’s earliest essay is The Spike, published on 1 April 1931. The essay formed the basis for Orwell’s later book: Down And Out In Paris And London and is as fine an example of experiential journalism ever written.

Orwell begins his 3,374-word essay:

It was late-afternoon. Forty-nine of us, forty-eight men and one woman, lay on the green waiting for the spike to open. We were too tired to talk much. We just sprawled about exhaustedly, with home-made cigarettes sticking out of our scrubby faces. Overhead the chestnut branches were covered with blossom. and beyond that great woolly clouds floated almost motionless in a clear sky. Littered on the grass, we seemed dingy, urban riff-raff. We defiled the scene, like sardine-tins and paper bags on the seashore.

Riff-raff? Orwell, writing about the next day explains:

At three I left the workhouse kitchen and went back to the spike. The, boredom in that crowded, comfortless room was now unbearable. Even smoking had ceased, for a tramp’s only tobacco is picked-up cigarette ends, and, like a browsing beast, he starves if he is long away from the pavement-pasture. To occupy the time I talked with a rather superior tramp, a young carpenter who wore a collar and tie, and was on the road, he said. for lack of a set of tools. He kept a little aloof from the other tramps, and held himself more like a free man than a casual. He had literary tastes, too, and carried one of Scott’s novels on all his wanderings. He told me he never entered a spike unless driven there by hunger, sleeping under hedges and behind ricks in preference. Along the south coast he had begged by day and slept in bathing-machines for weeks at a time.

We talked of life on the road. He criticized the system which makes a tramp spend fourteen hours a day in the spike, and the other ten in walking and dodging the police. He spoke of his own case—six months at the public charge for want of three pounds’ worth of tools. It was idiotic, he said.

Then I told him about the wastage of food in the workhouse kitchen, and what I thought of it. And at that he changed his tune immediately. I saw that I had awakened the pew-renter who sleeps in every English workman. Though he had been famished. along with the rest, he at once saw reasons why the food should have been thrown away rather than given to the tramps. He admonished me quite severely.

‘They have to do it,’ he said. ‘If they made these places too pleasant you’d have all the scum of the country flocking into them. It’s only the bad food as keeps all that scum away. These tramps are too lazy to work, that’s all that’s wrong with them. You don’t want to go encouraging of them. They’re scum.’

I produced arguments to prove him wrong, but he would not listen. He kept repeating:

‘You don’t want to have any pity on these tramps—scum, they are. You don’t want to judge them by the same standards as men like you and me. They’re scum, just scum.’

It was interesting to see how subtly he disassociated himself from his fellow tramps. He has been on the road six months. but in the sight of God, he seemed to imply, he was not a tramp. His body might be in the spike, but his spirit soared far away, in the pure aether of the middle classes.

Orwell closes his essay with an anecdote in sharp contrast to the above:

Nobby and I set out for Croydon. It was a quiet road, there were no cars passing, the blossom covered the chestnut trees like great wax candles. Everything was so quiet and smelt so clean, it was hard to realize that only a few minutes ago we had been packed with that band of prisoners in a stench of drains and soft soap. The others had all disappeared; we two seemed to be the only tramps on the road.

Then I heard a hurried step behind me, and felt a tap on my arm. It was little Scotty, who had run panting after us. He pulled a rusty tin box from his pocket. He wore a friendly smile, like a man who is repaying an obligation.

‘Here y’are, mate,’ he said cordially. ‘I owe you some fag ends. You stood me a smoke yesterday. The Tramp Major give me back my box of fag ends when we come out this morning. One good turn deserves another—here y’are.’

And he put four sodden, debauched. loathly cigarette ends into my hand.

Who would you rather spend a day with?

Coming next week: A Hanging…

One Response to “ORWELL, WEEK 2: THE SPIKE…”

  1. […] The New York Times brought a piece on poverty written nearly a century ago: George Orwell’s The Spike where living on eight pence a day in 1931 might be compared to $1.90 a day, or better, in the […]

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