Orwell takes the bench

Nearly a century after George Orwell wrote about how the authorities sought to persecute the homeless, what would the great author would have made about modern attitudes?

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George Orwell began his research for what would eventually become Down and Out in Paris and London in the winter of 1927-28, disguising himself as a tramp and mixing with the homeless and dispossessed in London. At a hostel in the East End he came across a destitute man who has tried to maintain something of his lower middle-class past by continuing to wear a collar and tie, carrying some of Scott’s novels in his frayed bag and “keeping himself aloof from his fellow tramps”.

Orwell’s “pew renters” are alive and well and even more contemptuous of their inferiors

He tells Orwell that hostels should not offer decent meals because “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 what wrong with them… They’re scum.”

Orwell writes: “I saw that I had awakened the pew-renter who sleeps in every English workman.” Fast-forward eight decades to Channel 4’s Benefits Street, which focuses on a road in Birmingham where more than 90 percent of the residents exist by virtue of welfare state provisions. They’re not homeless but without benefits they would be. Some online commentators accused Channel 4 of “poverty porn” but at least five times more echoed the condemnations of Orwell’s “pew renter”.

“Scum” appeared in numerous messages but far more threatened violence, even death, on the named residents. A debate in the House of Commons was held and Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative work and pensions secretary, claimed that the programme fully justified the 2012 Welfare Reform Act, which makes it extremely difficult for individuals to claim benefits. As Orwell’s nasty friend put it: “These tramps are too lazy to work, that’s what wrong with them.”

In Hired (2018) James Bloodworth writes of Gary in Blackpool who has been forced to abandon his “normal” job and life for sleeping rough on cardboard in a town where, since Orwell’s days and before, the northern working classes have spent their summer holidays. Regularly he is assaulted or urinated on by drunks, while others generous enough to throw him some coins also feel it their duty to order him not to spend them on drink. Orwell’s “pew renters” are alive and well and even more contemptuous of their inferiors. As recently as November last year two local men were jailed for stamping on the head of a rough sleeper in a Blackpool shop doorway.

In February 1928 Orwell saw the worst of what happened to men who avoided the hostels, or “spikes”, and went rough. Many chose the Thames Embankment as a means of exempting themselves from the so-called wake-up law of the rest of the city. The 1824 Vagrancy Act had made sleeping outdoors a criminal offence but on the Embankment there were benches with ropes attached and “lodgers” there would sit close together, cling to the ropes and somehow manage to sleep. For no obvious reason the experience was known as the Twopenny Hangover and it worked because police found it difficult to prove that upright sleepers were not simply choosing to rest on the bench with their eyes closed.

Close by, a minor entrepreneur had made use of waste ground to offer down-and-outs use of wooden boxes covered in tarpaulin, aka coffins, for fourpence a night. The entombed could claim to police that they were not asleep outdoors. These days desperation and ingenuity seem to have passed from those who want somewhere to sleep to those determined to prevent anyone from doing so. In 2019 Stuart Semple made a programme for BBC Radio 4 called Hostile Designs in which he described how his local authority in Bournemouth had installed metal staves that divided up benches into individual seats, and therefore made users feel more privately secure. He revealed that the true policy was to make it impossible for the homeless to lie on the benches when the sun went down.

Similarly, we have the co-called Camden Bench: rounded, aesthetically pleasing structures that enable people to admire the design as they relax.
In actuality, the angle of the seats makes it uncomfortable even to sit on them for long and meticulous design rules out lying down. Last year Westminster Council fenced off sections of pavement closest to buildings with notices stating that anyone trespassing on council property faced prosecution. An almost equal amount of space was left open on the kerbside for those who wished to progress across this same “property” without fear of arrest: in short, keep moving and we won’t come after you.

Homelessness is still in some respects a criminal offence. Just as bad, it appears to have become the objective of a cabal of designers and local politicians to make it seem to have disappeared. In December 2018 the Guardian disclosed that since 2015 almost 7,000 travel tickets – including for trains, aeroplanes and buses – had been bought by 83 councils in England and Wales to “encourage” rough sleepers in their boroughs to go somewhere else. Famously, the leader of Windsor Council expressed his wish that the town should sweep itself clean of the homeless in preparation for the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018.

In 1936 Orwell went north to absorb himself into the lifestyles of working men and their families in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The result would be The Road to Wigan Pier, and it was on the outskirts of Wigan that he came upon what he called “caravan colonies”. They were occupied by those who had lost their jobs and had effectively become tramps, along with wives and families. Most of the caravans were rusting single-decker buses, minus their wheels and propped on planks of wood. Others were railway wagons with canvas roofs precariously supported by any pieces of timber that could be scavenged from surrounding waste ground.

The only heat came from “kitcheners”, often disused barrels or dustbins, and water was shared by all caravaners – 1,000 at Orwell’s estimation – from a single hydrant. Each family built a hut that served as their lavatory and every few days dug a hole nearby to bury their buckets of faeces.

The local council could have found clauses in the Vagrancy Act to enable them to close down the colonies but they chose not to because there was nowhere else for these people to go. Today local authorities across Britain are involved in purges of encampments, usually made up of tents but sometimes involving sheds. The most assiduous purgers are Peterborough, Bristol, Milton Keynes, Cardiff, Manchester, Leeds and, of course, London. These modern versions of Orwell’s caravan colonies are usually set up on wasteland or church property to avoid the attention of police who patrol urban pavements – the Church of England being generally more indulgent than local government. Nonetheless local authorities tend to opt for a literal interpretation of the Vagrancy Act, which includes prosecution for “lodging… in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon”. In Brighton the council seizes the tents of encampment rough sleepers on a regular basis, charging them £25 for the return of the tent in each instance. In East Dorset the fee is £50. Despite the filth in which they lived, Orwell’s caravaners did not need to fear that they would need to buy back their cart or wagon after it was seized by the local authorities.

It is close to a century since Orwell observed how government and society treated the homeless with contempt, by punishing them for their condition or pretending that they did not exist. Shortly after returning from the north he joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP), a more radical version of mainstream Labour. Among its manifesto policies was a commitment to a substantial increase in unemployment allowance sufficient to ensure that the unemployed would never be reduced to rough sleeping, which appealed to Orwell who had recently witnessed the effects of homelessness. By the time he joined the ILP it had disaffiliated from Labour on the grounds that the latter had let down the working classes, especially the dispossessed and unemployed, by not committing money to the fundamental objective of keeping people off the streets.

The working classes seem now to have lost any trust in Labour for different reasons. The ILP last held seats in Parliament – three – in 1945. It was dissolved in 1975, but the homeless have not gone away.

Orwell: A Man of Our Time by Richard Bradford is published by Bloomsbury (hardback £20, ebook £16.80)

Photo: January 1932 – Homeless men huddle on a bench on the Embankment, London. Getty

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