Tuesday, 28 April 2020

London is Strange & Sad

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 rent.

“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

Martin, a 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 supplies.

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 weeks.

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 look shell-shocked."

Katarina, a 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 feel safe.”

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 desperation.

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 off.  


"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


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