Today, George Orwell is remembered as one of the most significant authors of the 20th century, mainly due to the literary and political impact of his most famous books, Animal Farm and 1984.
But when Orwell moved to London in the late 1920s to begin writing he decided to intentionally spend time amongst homeless people.
‘He wanted to learn about the living conditions of the poorest of the poor, and his plan was to go among them disguised as a tramp…It was not enough to view such things from a distance…He needed to see the poor at close quarters, talking directly with them about their lives…’ (Orwell: the Authorised Biography by Michael Shelden)
These experiences would later be turned into the most famous book about homelessness ever written, Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. It is a fascinating account of the reality of pre-welfare state poverty.
‘The People of the Abyss’
However, Orwell’s idea was not original. He was influenced by a book written thirty years before in 1902 called The People of the Abyss by the American novelist Jack London. At a time when Britain was the most powerful country in the world, Jack London decided to deliberately ‘submerge himself’ amongst the poor and homeless.
The People of the Abyss conveys an even bleaker picture than Orwell’s book does. Despite the country’s wealth, the conditions for the vast numbers of unemployed and destitute poor people are appalling:
‘The workhouses have no space left in which to pack the starving crowds who are craving every day and night at their doors for food and shelter. All the charitable institutions have exhausted their means…the Salvation Army are nightly besieged by hosts of the unemployed and hungry for whom neither shelter nor the means of sustenance can be provided.’
Both George Orwell and Jack London made deliberate decisions to leave their relative comfort. Neither was truly down and out – they had a way out of the abyss. They did not glorify or romanticise poverty, but sought to articulate the reality they saw and raise awareness about suffering that easily went unnoticed.
That was then…and this is now
Gordon Cruden, who is from Fraserburgh in Scotland and works for the Christian charity, Teen Challenge, has made a similar decision. He has decided to sleep rough for a whole month to highlight the reality of homelessness and also to raise money for the Benaiah Centre. This is an addiction recovery centre for women, which allows their children to stay with them as they complete the programme.
Gordon has spent 5 days in London and is now in Cardiff. From there he will move onto Dublin, Belfast and Edinburgh. He is recording his experiences on facebook and is aiming to raise £500,000. He has already raised over £185,000. From the way that interest is growing, I would not be surprised if he makes it.
I met up with Gordon this week as he ended his time in London and we talked about his experiences. I was struck by his integrity and commitment. He has no money and no cards and is not using any hostels or shelters which could be used by ‘genuine’ homeless people. He would not even let me buy him a coffee. He doesn’t want his growing on-line following to distort the experience.
Honesty and humanity
Also, via Facebook, he is conveying his time on the streets with honesty and humanity. He is neither romanticising homelessness nor being judgemental about those on the streets. He has experienced many acts of kindness and generosity so far but is honest about the violence, threats and the warping effect that addictions have on people that he has met. His stories further reinforced my views about not giving money to people begging.
Similarly to Jack London and George Orwell, Gordon Cruden’s temporary and deliberate experience of homelessness has a higher purpose. He is raising awareness of the terrible reality facing people on the streets but he is also raising funds for vital work to free people from addictions and to keep families together.
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