Old vs New: City Living
Illustration by Bobby Griggs Many writers have explored the nature of life in the city, from the hedonism of Easton-Ellis to the pickpocketing and corruption of the London seen by Dickens. Between the wars Orwell recorded his own experiences of living in the poverty stricken underworlds of London and Paris, lifting the lid on the grimy seams of the cities rarely seen in literature. More than half a century later Michael Smithcreated a poetic series of vignettes and illustra... (continued)
Illustration by Bobby Griggs Many writers have explored the nature of life in the city, from the hedonism of Easton-Ellis to the pickpocketing and corruption of the London seen by Dickens. Between the wars Orwell recorded his own experiences of living in the poverty stricken underworlds of London and Paris, lifting the lid on the grimy seams of the cities rarely seen in literature. More than half a century later Michael Smithcreated a poetic series of vignettes and illustrations, as he too records his times drifting in and out of city life, from the dream like intensity of the Brighton sea front, to the crazed party scene of mid nineties Shoreditch. In a new feature by The 405, Sian Norris explores old vs new, within a single genre. 'City Living' is the order of day here. Down and Out in Paris and London Orwellâs years of living in poverty are described in this short autobiographical novel in exacting and sensual detail. From the sweat and steam of the plongeurs (dishwashers in Paris) to the heavy tramp of feet crossing the English countryside, Orwell takes us on a journey of poverty in two of Europeâs greatest cities in the founding years of modernism. The novel starts in Paris, a city buzzing with the bohemian life, where Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway dined with Gertrude Stein, where the remnants of Imperial Russia gathered in tea houses and cafes to mourn their lost land, where, under the seams of polite society and elegant bohemianism, there lived an underworld of poverty, sexual permissiveness, violence, communist politics and the unremitting life of the worker. If Orwellâs contemporary in Paris Jean Rhys explores the life of the women forgotten in Parisian and London poverty, then Orwellâs world is that of men and the male realm. Orwellâs writing instantly evokes the dirt, stench and rat bitten underbelly of Paris, painting a portrait of the double world of the city that sticks in the brain and clings to your senses. In what are often tragic-comic turns, we see his descent into poverty, from his savings being stolen to the endless cycle of pawning and reclaiming and pawning and reclaiming his clothes. The joy of this book and the genius in Orwellâs writing comes from his intense descriptions which, as I say, place you right in the centre of the dirty hustle and bustle of impoverished city life. The descriptions are sensual, attacking the readerâs eyes nose and tastebuds. The scenes and the feelings of the novel grab you and stay with you, never letting up and never letting go, until you to feel the steam thrashing against your face and the sweat dripping down your back as you join the plongeurs in their endless journey into the night shifts. The second recognition of genius is the colourful and memorable cast of characters (mostly expat Russians in Paris) that Orwell encounters as he drifts from one poverty stricken situation to another. From Boris, the irrepressible Russian who takes him from restaurant to restaurant enthusing about the next job, the next opportunity, the Russian communists who cheat you out of your subscription money, the ex army general who owns Restaurant X and never pays a wage. This blurring cast of individuals paints a picture of Paris rarely recognised on the literary scene, taking us away from the cafÃ© culture portrayals to the depths of the hidden workerâs world, a Paris hardly seen. Giving up on Paris and with the promise of a job waiting for him in London, arranged by a friend only known as âBâ, Orwell ups sticks to London where his job falls through and he finds himself once more falling through the cracks of the city. Now a vagrant, the law forced Orwell to keep on the move, moving across the city and the surrounding countryside in the slow march of tramps, picking cigarette butts off the street to smoke the faggy ends and keeping your shoelaces tied tight. Although the Parisian sections are shocking in the desperate descriptions of poverty, there is something more buoyant in the Parisian section, perhaps due to the effervescent energy of Boris and his Russian companions. The descriptions of tramp life in London however, are often dark and desperate. We see the horror of hostel living, the desperation of being forced to move from hostel to hovel and shelter, all the while being painfully aware of your place in society and the constant need to keep moving. The law at that time meant that vagrants werenât permitted to stay in the same place more than once a month, necessitating the constant struggle to keep pushing forwards, never stoppingâ¦ Some of the most interesting moments in this section of the novel is the reaction of the tramps to the unwelcome Christian charity, the patronage of those who came to help hopelessly linked with the charity workerâs fear of the vagrants, perfectly summed up in the line: âThey were afraid of us and we were frankly bullying them. It was our revenge upon them for having humiliated us by feeding us.â But just as in Paris we had Boris, in London the pages are kept alive by the presence of the good but ignorant Paddy and the artist astronomer Bozo, these personalities that leap out of the streets and out of the page, guiding Orwell through the dirty streets of London, opening up a new vista that we rarely see behind the perceived streets of gold and West End avenues. Eventually Orwell gave up and wrote home for money, and this is the one aspect of the book that doesnât ring true, doesnât sit quite comfortably, the sense that all through the novel you are uncannily aware that, just like Pulpâs female protagonist in âCommon Peopleâ, Orwell can indeed âcall his daddy to stop it allâ. Eton educated and from a wealthy background, Orwell is almost a poverty tourist, and his own perspective would never really allow him to see the desperation and dogged determination experienced by his fellow friends in poverty. But for all that, he does live in and experience the effects and feelings of poverty, his voice is authentic and, perhaps more importantly, his characters and the voice he allows them are authentic, the experiences and world he so intricately and sensually portrays is real, and solid, despite the ever present shadow of Orwellâs privileged background looming in the distance. I love this book, the depth of description, the lively characters, the fact that you will never refuse a leaflet from someone handing them out on the street againâ¦but Iâll let Orwell sum it up: âAt present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.â The Giro Playboy The Giro Playboy is Michael Smithâs collection of vignettes of his own down and out years, moving from Hartlepool to Brighton to London. The book is put together with Smithâs own simple pencil illustrations, making the book feel more like a collection of memories and impressions rather than a stable or cohesive narrative. And this is essentially what the book is, a journey through cities but also an anthology of impressions and sensations of city life, memories interspersed with a sometimes horrifying present, glimpses of a London moment that is already fading to just a memory. I first came across Michael Smith when he came and read sections of the book at my university (of which he was an alumni) and his soft drawling Northern voice is the one I hear when reading the work. The book is very dream like, and he often refers throughout the novel to how the experiences to him seem like a dream or a movie. From the ethereal and dream like nature of the whole of his unnamed âseaside townâ living (Brighton) to the magic moment of movie like unreality when he witness the reflection of a trapeze artist on a passing train window. Smith moved to London in the mid nineties and set up camp in a hovel in Shoreditch, at the cultural moment when Shoreditch became a hub of artistic counter culture, the moment that has since spawned a thousand Nathan Barleyâs and yuppie flats trying to cash in on the history of the area, but that was once a place where you could go to a warehouse party and see a trapeze artist reflected in a train window. Living on the edge of poverty, Smith finds work in a pub where he and the customers are constantly drunk. His characterisation of the pub clientele is as deftly described and brought to life as Orwellâs Down and Out characters, lovingly and carefully crafted, as he plays the observer, the recorder of the events folding in front of him. There is almost a sense of restrained hysteria in the London party scenes, a mix of drug fuelled and whisky fuelled hedonism that leapt Smith from place to place and party to party, almost painful to witness. But despite the wry pain of experience and observation, Smith keeps up a dry and ironic sense of humour at the hilarity of these hedonistic situations. The moment when a bleary eyed and drug addled Smith thinks he has encountered a monster, only to realise it is Halloween and the monster is merely a costume wearing child is painfully funny, as are his loving descriptions of his Hartlepool childhood and youth, funny but tinged with the pain of nostalgia. From the pub Smith ends up on the dole and perfectly sums up the (again) Orwellian horror of the dole office. As someone who has spent my time queuing for dole hand outs, the horror he describes sits well with me, the form filling, the never getting anywhere, the endless questions â all told in this wry, drawling northern voice. What is so striking about Smithâs work is the timbre of the voice, the lilting, dream like tone his tales take on. With the telling of impressions, the vignette style catching of moments and the regressions into memory the reader is taken through the mind of the author just as he is taken through the streets of the city. We see London and we see living on Londonâs edge through Smithâs eyes. We see his dreams and his home made movies, his wandering thoughts and we follow his wandering step. The book feels magical, a capturing of a moment and a detailed, dream and nightmare like journey through being down and out and high and drunk in Londonâs buzzing nineties moment. There is a nostalgia to the stories he tells, personal memories from sharing childhood recollections and the regressions into memories of being in love, and the cultural memories of walking past a yuppie block of flats in Shoreditch built over the spot of one of the magical tinged warehouse parties.
Old Vs NewGeorge OrwellBooksMichael Smith