Amelia Gentleman has
written a powerful article about London’s new homeless in today’s Guardian. (“London
is So Strange and Sad”). The full piece is here. I was
struck by its similarity to George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris
and London. They were written 87 years apart, but sadly they share dystopias. Orwell wrote about
destitute hotel and restaurant workers. Amelia has returned to the same people.
Here is a condensed version from the Guardian interspersed with short quotes from Orwell. I hope Ms Gentleman will forgive my interference with her work!
“The mass of
the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing
else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher
dressed in a new suit.” George Orwell
All the normal
sounds and smells are absent – the salty, greasy smells from fast
food restaurants, the wafts of coffee from snack bars, stale beer
odours rising up from sticky pavements, the stench of rotting food
seeping out from kitchen dustbins, even the trails of diesel fumes,
have all gone.
There is no noise of
people laughing or shouting, no sounds of plates clattering at
pavement cafes. Bins are not overflowing with coffee cups and
discarded newspapers. Even the pigeons seem hungrier, rushing to peck
at food scraps.
You can hear the
wind rushing through the streets. It feels so eerie, like waking up
in a post-apocalypse movie.
Trafalgar Square is silent. Clusters of homeless people wait on the steps of
the National Gallery for food to be distributed. Central London is
seeing a surge of newly unemployed restaurant and pub workers forced
to sleep on the streets because they can no longer afford to pay
“You have thought
so much about poverty—it is the thing you have feared all your
life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it
is all so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be
quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would
be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring." George Orwell
recently-sacked chef is finding life increasingly
difficult and dangerous. “London has become so strange and sad. The
only people who are out look like they are looking for drugs. There
are a lot of crazy people with knives.”
“It is fatal to
look hungry. It makes people want to kick you.” George Orwell
In the capital,
there are hundreds of tents and cardboard box encampments and
conditions are getting much harsher.
The city’s day
centres have been closed leaving the homeless with no place to shower
or wash their clothes, no toilets and nowhere to access regular food
No one is offering
money to the destitute, at a time when most soup kitchens and food
banks are not operating, and when the closure of cafes has meant the
homeless no longer receive unsold sandwiches at the end of the day.
Martin worked his
way up through London’s kitchens, starting as a porter to his most
recent job as chef de partie at a fashionable restaurant. He has been
sleeping on a bit of pavement near Charing Cross station for six
Brian, a volunteer comments, “One of the really distressing
things is the hospitality homeless. We’re seeing so many people who
were working in kitchens, hotels and pubs until a few weeks ago.
They’re so obviously ill-equipped to be out there. The long-term
rough sleepers know how it works, but for them it’s very new. They
recently-sacked waitress was preparing to sleep again in the doorway
of a cocktail bar. “She wants to be helped. I don’t understand
why she hasn’t been picked up,” says Brian.
A welder sleeping in
the park behind the Savoy, wanted information about where he could
wash; he said he had been unable to have a shower for the past five
weeks since arriving in London to look for work.
“Dirt is a
great respecter of persons; it lets you alone when you are well
dressed, but as soon as your collar is gone, it flies towards you
from all directions.” George Orwell
Alexander, who worked as a cleaner and caretaker at a pizza
chain until he says he was sacked was experienced at sleeping rough
since he was already unable to afford to rent a room on his minimum
wage earnings even when he was in work, and has been living on the
streets near Leicester Square for 18 months.
But finding enough
cardboard to build himself a sheltered space to sleep in has become
much more problematic since all the businesses closed down and
stopped throwing away packaging.
Adrian was working
as a night cleaner for a bank and found himself unable to continue
paying for his room. He was finding his first exposure to
homelessness very difficult. “It’s a really tough time. I don’t
There are now large
parts of central London where the only people you see are homeless
people, drug dealers and police. There is a growing sense of
Some look close to death. About 10 people are sheltering
beneath a shop front near Charing Cross station, where the
underpasses that used to shelter dozens of homeless have been closed
"Hunger is so constant for a poverty-stricken man that it actually robs him of his humanity, for he can think of nothing but his empty stomach. Hunger, therefore, dehumanises the poor. The pitiful handouts of bread and margarine do not assuage, or alleviate hunger and so keep him in a painful and dehumanised state." George Orwell