Orwell--writing as Eric Blair--recounts here an experience in a "spike," which is a place where tramps are fed and bathed and given shelter for the night. Orwell at the time chose to live as tramp to experience first-hand how they were treated and how they operated. Clearly he wasn't just an activist witnessing and documenting the oppression of the lower class, but a student absorbing the tramp culture. He readily engaged the actual tramps, only to find that they weren't just victims beaten down by those in power.
On page 11 he wrote, "There was nothing to talk [with them] about except the petty gossip of the road, the good and bad spikes, the charitable and uncharitable counties, the iniquities of the politics and the Salvation Army. Tramps hardly ever get away from these subjects; they talk, as it were, nothing but shop. They have nothing worthy to be called conversation, because emptiness of the belly leaves no speculation in their souls. The world is too much with them. Their next meal is never quite secure, and so they cannot think of anything except the next meal."(11)
His irony is impressive, even by today's standards, where irony in humor is fashionable. Pointing out how tramps "talk nothing but shop" shows us how their only job is to converse about not having a job. Are tramps much different in this respect than the rest of us, though? Do financial and terrestrial security prevent us from revisiting negative thoughts? If we can't make our next mortgage or rent or car payment, does it not occupy us? We may have more entailments and luxuries than the tramp, but Orwell is bringing the looking glass up to a piece of human nature.
The spikes throughout England were designed more like prisons than soups kitchen, at least what we popularly know of them. (I don't wonder why they were called "spikes" instead of "cots.") In order to be fed, bathed, and receive shelter, they had to agree to be locked in for twelve hours at a time. I don't know about you, but eating, bathing and sleeping don't take up half a day. This was clearly a way of the English government levying a sort of "sentence" for being a tramp, and Orwell found the government's motivation for doing such, peculiar. On page 12 he says, "It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel. Only an educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure confinement." Confinement didn't drive Orwell crazy, and he's clear that not all tramps are typical "scum," just most. Those with an active mind took the confinement well because their mental environment was active and therapeutic, rather than those who were mentally slothful, who experienced the sentencing within the spike truly as a sentencing, rather than as a respite from the elements and batons.
Strip us of our phones, clothes, cars, fancy diets, and confine us. How would we deal?
Click the RSS FEED button below to receive notification of new Orwell 365 posts.