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Drawn to the abyss: literature’s fascination with homelessness | Books | The Guardian

In the shoes of the destitute ... a homeless man sleeps on the street.

In the shoes of the destitute … a homeless man sleeps on the street. Photograph: Alamy

theguardian.com – Drawn to the abyss: literature’s fascination with homelessness From Jack London to George Orwell and Iain Sinclair, there is a long tradition of writers who fuel their portrayals of destitution with first hand experience

Why would a writer seek to be homeless? For George Orwell, it was “a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.” Authors and poets have long traded the comforts of home for the hardships of the road and produced great work as a result. Among them are some of literature’s more complicated and daring figures: the likes of Orwell, Thomas De Quincey, Jack London and John Clare.

English ‘nature’ poet John Clare (1793-1864), who spent much of his life destitute, and died in Northampton General Asylum.

English ‘nature’ poet John Clare (1793-1864), who spent much of his life destitute, and died in Northampton General Asylum. Photograph: Edward Gooch/Getty Images-

Clare is remembered as the Northampton “peasant poet”, a prolific walker who wrote more than 3,500 poems over the course of a tumultuous life. Born in Helpston in 1793 and raised on the land, he was deeply frustrated by the enclosures of common land gathering momentum during his time, which disrupted his freedom to roam the countryside that defined his youth and informed much of his work. By 1841, the poet had spent five years at Dr Matthew Allen’s private asylum in Epping Forest. On 20 July, he walked out of the trees and tramped home to Northborough – more than 80 miles in four days – looking for his deceased childhood sweetheart, Mary Joyce.

Immediately after his gruelling expedition, Clare wrote the extraordinary Recollections of Journey from Essex, a fevered prose account of the trek, which, he explains, involved sleeping on the stone floor of a porch and eating handfuls of grass – which tasted “something like bread” – from the roadside. His biographer Jonathan Bate has said the piece “brings us closer than anything else to his immediate experience”, while Iain Sinclair rehearsed the terrible journey for his 2005 book Edge of the Orison – and more recently for his friend and collaborator Andrew Kötting’s haunting documentary By Our Selves.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Clare’s experience of poverty was, for the most part, authentic. Unlike, for example, William Wordsworth, who – as Matthew Beaumont explains in his excellent book Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London observed vagrancy with detached fascination and sympathy along the country road, Clare was born into hardship.

Thomas De Quincey, however, falls somewhere in between the vagrant and the observer. In his celebrated essay Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, he describes a “most painful affection of the stomach”, which he attributes to the extreme bouts of hunger he experienced as a youth traversing north Wales.

He goes on to relay the additional agony of his largely self-inflicted indigence in London, which he spent roaming the streets with a “noble minded” prostitute called Ann; and later his opium-fuelled Saturday nights, walking “without much regarding the direction or the distance, to all the markets, and other parts of London, to which the poor resort”. But De Quincey’s attitudes towards the poor were complex; reportedly a lifelong conservative, his depictions were sometimes compassionate, occasionally contemptuous, and more generally inconsistent – surprising, considering his own often precarious circumstances.

At the turn of the 20th century, American novelist Jack London, as a kind of precursor to Orwell, came to the English capital and immersed himself in the degradations of the East End, from which experience he penned his unflinching portrayal of The People of the Abyss. He describes, in passionate journalistic prose, the dire conditions in which the poor clung to life, kipping in “the spike” (the workhouse), sipping “skilly” (a foul concoction comprised of “three quarts of oatmeal stirred into three-buckets-and-a-half of hot water”) and dining on rank hospital leftovers.

He also reflects on the absurd role of the police, who would forcibly prevent the homeless from sleeping at night, and goes some way to anatomising an appalling system: “Here then we have the construction of the Abyss. Throughout the whole industrial fabric a constant elimination is going on. The inefficient are weeded out and flung downward.”

George Orwell, writer, 1940s Photo By CSU Archv/Everett / Rex Features

George Orwell: ‘The stars are a free show; it don’t cost anything to use your eyes.’ Photograph: CSU Archv/Everett / Rex Feature

Then in 1933, Victor Gollancz brought to print George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, perhaps the most famous text of its kind. This is a very well known story, but there is also his Hop-Picking Diary, an account of a journey to Kent. Here, as in London, he spent time with itinerant companions working the fields, earning just enough to scrape by. It’s a frank account that begins with the writer meaning to sleep at St Martin’s church and ends with a glossary of new words picked up along the way: “scrump” (to steal), “toby” (on the tramp), “didecai” (a gypsy) and “sprowsie” (sixpence).

Since Orwell’s seminal work with the poor and destitute, many more writers have sought out similar experiences. Take Charlie Carroll’s 2013 book No Fixed Abode as a fine example. The out-of-work teacher decided – with no small nod to his predecessors – to up and leave his home in Cornwall and tramp all the way to London, meeting an array of singular characters on the road. Recently in print for the first time, blogger Craig Stone’s bizarrely titled debut, The Squirrel That Dreamt of Madness, was written while he lived in a north London park. He’d quit his job in the City and, unable to pay the rent on his flat, was determined to make something worthwhile of his newfound dereliction.

So what is the attraction of being down and out? For some, the prospect of real, hard-hitting subject matter has proved irresistible, while for others the route to the streets has been paved with anguish. Historically, those who have deliberately flung themselves downwards, as London might have put it, have tended to come from middle-class backgrounds and been almost exclusively male – a privileged position from which to explore the abyss, before rising again into comfort and security.

For me, writers who have felt compelled to draw attention to the poor’s lot have produced the best work. Many more will no doubt follow suit; there’s something essential, vital, about understanding a little of what it is to be without a roof.

Sorgente: Drawn to the abyss: literature’s fascination with homelessness | Books | The Guardian

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