The People of the Abyss

The People of the Abyss (1903) is n account of the life conditions of the poor in the East End of London collected during his first hand experience staying in workhouses and sleeping in the street as part of his personal exploration of the under-world. He carried out his experiment at a time of affluence, in 1902, but during which 500,000 people were estimated to live in the described conditions: “The starvation and lack of shelter encountered constituted a chronic condition of misery, which is never wiped out, even in periods of great prosperity”, he asserted. In January 1903, there was no space left in the workhouses and the means were exhausted.

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He visits Johnny Upright’s home in order to have a place where he could receive his mail and, work on his notes, and get a cold treatment as he does so in his shabby clothes, until he speaks to Mrs. Upright. He then starts looking for a room, and learns that even the largest families in this stratum of society took just a room and even took lodgers in. He´s offered a room with two other lodgers and exchanges impressions with a lower class youth: “From the moment of his birth , all the forces of his environment had tended to harden him, and he viewed his wretched, inevitable future with a callousness and unconcern I could not shake”, and learn about the aged poor, a 71% of the population of London, through a newspaper article, how they age alone and die of self-neglect, 450,000 a day. “The Abyss seems to exude a stupefying atmosphere of torpor, which wraps about them and deadens them (…) the full belly and the evening pipe is all they demand, or dream of demanding, from existence”. The environmental conditions they live submerged in are poisonous, as pollution forms solid deposits on every surface.

Jack London decides to see things for himself and not merely to be informed by other people´s theoretical work on the subject of poverty, such as Engels’ or Jacob Riis’s, so that he could see the human factor: “how they live, why are they living, what for”. He finds that there was a slum at a five minute walk from any point in London, but the cabbies refused to drive to the East End, which was a neverending slum packed with a “crowd of shabby white people” belonging to a new different race of “short, beer-sodden, wretched” individuals. He stops by an old-clothes shop and the shop owner thought he was a high-class American criminal. He arrays himself in the shabby clothes and sews one gold sovereign in the armpit just in case he encounters difficulties. He then experiences the different in status effected by his clothes and notices that “all servility – towards him- vanished from the demeanour” and he was called ‘mate’ instead of ‘sir’ or ‘guv`nor’, escaping “the pestilence of tipping and encountered mean on a basis of equality (…) I had to be more lively in avoiding vehicles. Life had cheapened in direct ratio to my clothes”. Lower classes “talked as natural men should without the least idea of getting anything out of me”. The fear of the mob vanished completely as London became –in appearance- one of them.

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He gets immersed in the life of the poor and dejected population of the East End were men in one room working for 15 hours a day encaged in a tiny room, with their teeth worn down by the friction of the metallic brads used in their trade –shoe-making -. He witnesses the life of those dying of consumption, those who can only afford to have rotten meat once a week, and who can only wait patiently for death; cramped rooms full of undernourished infants. And he lives with those who can not even afford lodging and try to sleep in the Spitalfields Garden, a surface with patches of grass here and there and a sharp-spiked iron fencing to deter them from entering its enclosed space. Others, in search of a roof, sleep in the benches within Christ´s Church; people covered in rags and filth, open sores and bruises, women who would sell themselves for a loaf of bread. He experiences life in the casual ward and the workhouses. “The Abyss is a huge man-killing machine”.

 

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Down and out in Paris and London, by George Orwell.

Your clothes get dirty and you can’t afford having them washed. You run out of soap and razor-blades. You start avoiding prosperous friends in the street. You discover hunger. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge wasteful piles. You start thinking: in a day or two I’ll be starving”; this is Orwell’s description of the process of slipping into poverty. Down and Out in Paris and London” starts in a Paris slum where Orwell lived in 1929, in a lousy hotel in the rue du Coq d’Or among the yells of Mme. Monce, loud prostitutes and children in the street. It’s a narrow street crammed with derelict buildings packed with immigrants of every conceivable nationality, most of them eastern Europeans.

This fantastic book describes the writer’s personal experiences among the inhabitants of an often ignored social stratum, the underworld present in every society and every nation in the globe. “People in this sort of background had given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty freed them from ordinary standards of behaviour he states. Our protagonist, Orwell himself, spent a year and a half in the Coq d’Or until he ran out of money and started his descent to deprivation where boredom is also a fellow traveller, as there’s nothing to do and being underfed, nothing interests you”– he says. However, according to him there’s also a feeling of relief, “as your worst fear is just in front of you and you discover that you can stand it.”

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After leaving the Coq d’Or, and going to a pawnshop where he had to accept whatever they gave him, finding a job became imperative. He went to see a Russian friend, Boris, an unemployed waiter who thought that being English was a great asset in the pursue of a job as a waiter. However, as Boris was lame and Orwell didn’t have any experience, took weeks before they could find a job. In the meantime, while now and then Boris collapsed in bed weeping desperately as money oozed away, Orwell tried fishing in the Seine river so that they could eat, but found that fish had become cunning after the seige of Paris. Appealing to the solidarity of his fellow country men, Boris suggested that they could get in touch with a Russian secret society in Paris; apparently they were looking for articles on English politics, which could make things easier for Orwell too. So, they went to the secret hideaway, where the Russian revolutionaries demanded 20 Francs from them as an entrance fee. The revolutionaries asked Orwell about British politics and seemed satisfied. However, when Boris and Orwell went to the hideaway again, the Russian revolutionaries had vanished into thin air with the entrance fee money.

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They start looking for jobs and they find two possibilities; there was work in the Auberge de Jehan Cottard, but not until some time had passed, so in the meantime they had to start working at the Hotel X. Orwell describe the caste system in there: the manager was at the top of the pyramid, followed by the maître d’hotel, then the head cook, the chef du personnel, the cooks, the waiters, the laundresses and sewing women, the apprentice waiters, the plongeurs (dishwashers) and the chambermaids. Orwell worked as a plongeur, the lower job a man could do, and he describes it as follows:

not enough sleep, continuous toil, one felt neurastenic and with fatigue; there were discarded scrapes of meat on the floor, rats and filth – even so, his workmates stated that they had known worse dirtier places-. “A plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world, no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art.” Among the responsibilities of a plongeur, is washing up, keeping the kitchen clean, preparing the vegetables, making tea, coffee and sandwiches, doing the simple cooking and runnning errands. It also implied tacitally no free day and no fixed working hours, although it was an average of 15 hours per day. They pay was just enough to keep the worker alive, the only holiday was the sack, a plongeur didn’t have time to marry. At that moment there were “men with university degrees scrubbing dishes in Paris for 10-15 hours a day, trapped in a routine that made thought impossible.”

After 5-6 weeks of working in the Hotel X, Boris disappeared, as the Auberge was about to open. Orwell left the Hotel X, but as they arrived they saw that it would take weeks for the Auberge to be ready. They employed them in the necessary works without pay. As soon as Orwell left, he went to the Auberge clean, shaved and in a new suit to feel the “curious sensation of being a customer where you have been a slave’s slave.”

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He contacted a British connection -he hadn’t lost touch with the other world completely- so that he could get a job and then he got ready to leave France. But he travelled to England only to learn that his employers had gone abroad and that the prospect of a job had vanished; again, he exchanged his clothes for older ones and money. “Clothes are powerful things”, he claims as he noticed the change in people’s attitude toward him once he changes his suit for shabby clothes. Then, he starts experiencing and describing an even lower stratum of society populated by tramps. Firstly, he looked for the cheapest place to sleep, a battered looking house (know as a kip) in East London, which was full of oriental immigrants. There, he slept with several men in the same room. As he ran out of money -even more-, he changed his lodgings, as he only had a half penny left, and decided to go Romton, one of the London spikes (casual wards). There he met Paddy, an Irish man who had been a tramp for the last 15 years, who explained how the spikes worked. After queuing for a while at the entrance, a lady with a crucifix welcomed them inside, and gave them tea while she talked about religious subjects, and once the tea time was over, the lady insisted on their kneeling down and pray as part of the deal. “Ah, you don’t get much for nothing. They can’t even give you a twopenny cup of tea without you go down on your knees for it”, says Paddy.

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Once in the spike, the authorities only allowed each tramp to keep eightpence and they had to hand any sum to them at the entrance, but most tramps would rather smuggle their own money by tying it in a piece of cloth so that it didn’t chink. Once registered in the office, an officer who treated them like cattle lead them inside. They were searched before bathing and there were 50 stark-naked men packed in a room 20 feet square, with only two bathtubs and two slimy roller towels for all. They bathed in used water. There were no beds, they slept on the floor. After midnight, a man began making homosexual attempts upon Orwell, after which it was impossible to go back to sleep. At 8 in the morning they were out. The meal tickets they had been given lead them to a coffee shop where they were reluctantly served tea and four slices of bread. Paddy wanted to go to the Edbury spike and he explained that the Edbury spike was similar to Romton but tobacco was confiscated at the entrance. Under the Vagrancy Act, tramps can be prosecuted for smoking in the spike.

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After Edbury, they went to a Salvation Army shelter, of semi-military discipline, and then they went looking for a friend of Paddy’s, Bozo. Bozo was a screever (pavement artist). He made his drawings on the pavement with artist’s chalks. He mainly painted cartoons, but had to avoid pro-socialist content due to the police and avoided religious charities, as he said it stuck in his throat to sing hymns for buns. He considered himself in a class above ordinary beggars, but the enemy of society all the same. In Bozo’s lodging house Orwell meets blacks, whites and Indians from all kinds of backgrounds, including a former doctor. Bozo explained to Orwell the different types of tramps that populated the streets: Organ-grinders and acrobats, who were considered as artists more than beggars and screevers who were somewhere in between, as they were only sometimes considered as artists. He introduced Orwell to a real artist who had studied art in Paris and copied Old Masters on the pavement. “It’s shabby sort of blokes you get most off and foreigners. The English are mean”. Sometimes he talked like an art critic about the colours in nature. I go out at night and watch for meteors. The stars are a free show. It don’t cost anything to use your eyes”. “If you got an education, it don’t matter to you if you’re on the road for the rest of your life. If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself ‘I’m a free man in here – and he tapped his forehead – and you’re all right”. Bozo had managed to keep his brain intact and alert, and so nothing could make him succumb to poverty. Bozo represents an optimistic outlook quite different to the common assumptions on life on the road and poverty, an exceptional character and a remarkable man. As long as he could read, think and watch for meteors, he considered himself free in his own mind.

“Down and out in Paris and London” is an often humorous yet realistic narration which invites to reflection about class issues and reveals the lives of the inhabitants of the lower strata of society, full of ignored poverty-stricken people, rich with stories and experiences utterly alien to the official average citizen.

TONY HARRISON, a working class poet.

Born into Leeds in 1937. Son of a baker, and a proud member of the working class.

“…the baker’s man that no one will see rise

and England made to feel like some dull oaf

is smoke, enough to sting one person’s eyes

and ash (not unlike flour) for one small loaf”.

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He was granted a scholarship for the Leeds Grammar School at 11 and as a result he was dislocated from his background and family. The alienation from his social class and community, and from his loving and rooted upbringing had an effect on him. He went through a process of loss which implied letting go of his Leeds working class vernacular, which he experienced as class colonisation. As he explained it later, he had to confront the internal colonialism of British education, with its marginalisation of the working class by the dominant middle-class culture, a fact which elicited his anger. Harrison is very much concerned with the social, economic, and political implications of the suppression of working-class language by the educated classes. He recounts how his teachers coached him on how to speak “proper” English:

“All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see
‘s been dubbed by [us] into RP,
Received Pronunciation, please believe (us)
your speech is in the hands of the Receivers.’

We say ‘(us) not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.
I doffed my flat a’s (as in ‘Flat cap’)
my mouth all stuffed with glottals, great
lumps to hawk up and spit out … E-nun-ci-ate!”

(Them and [uz])

He borrowed from classical poetry but used his own dialect, themes and characters, all belonging to his working class backgroud. He never allowed middle-class education to engulf him and has always been proud of who he is. Thus, he is regarded as a writer with integrity whose edge hasn’t been dulled by age, and who speaks openly about a wide range of subjects.

In his poetry, controlled metre and rhyme contrast with his use of colloquial language and obscenities:

“Which makes them lose their sense of self-esteem

and taking a short cut home through these graves here

they reassert the glory of their team

This graveyard stands above a worked-out pit.

Subsidence makes the obelisks all list.

One leaning left’s marked FUCK, one right’s marked SHIT

sprayed by some peeved supporter who was pissed.”

(V)

Upon Ted Hughes’ death, he was considered as the next poet laureate. Anxious to share his contempt for the position, the wrote “Laureate’s block”:

“…

I’d sooner be a free man with no butts,

free not to have to puff some prince’s wedding,

free to say up yours to Tony Blair,

to write an ode to Charles I’s beheading

and regret the restoration of his heir.

…”

Among so many people who try to climb up the social ladder, sweeping thier origins under the carpet, it is not that easy to find writers who stand tall and announce their proud as Harrison does.

JACK LONDON, an awesome person; MARTIN EDEN, an awesome book.

John Griffith Chaney, born in San Francisco on January 12th 1876, was the son of a traveling astrologer and a spiritualist. He worked while he was finishing his pre-university level studies and,among other jobs, he worked as a sea man, a fisherman and a smuggler.

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He was a man of action, not an intellectual, and it is said that his ideas derived from reading Kipling, Spencer, Darwin, Stevenson, Malthus, Marx, Poe and Nietzsche, lack consistency and precision: he accepted Darwinism and racism, prevalent during his time, but at the same time he was troubled that the “inevitable white man” would destroy the rich cultures of various native groups he had encountered (in the South Seas). He was a supporter of women’s suffrage and married a New Woman (second wife, Charmian Kittredge) but was patriarchal toward his 2 wifes and daughters. He was a socialist but an individualist at heart, with a drive toward capitalist success. It is said that his self-taught and uninformed reading made of him a fervent socialist and a naïve fascist (because of his belief in the übermensch), but personally I disagree and think that it is quite a biased, oversimplistic and hyperbolic view, which partly prepare the ground for some of his works (for instance the one I present below). Besides, many “informed” writers, with a more extensive scholar background, have reached similar conclusions to those of Jack London.

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Jack London lived to the full and went to Alaska to try his luck during the gold rush in 1897-8, an experience which proved a failure as a means of becoming rich, but which was fertile in literary terms, as the experience provided him with material for a collection of short stories and a background for his novels related to the “Homo homini Lupus” concept. It was during his convalescence, as he came back ill, when he started massively reading and writing. His writings deal with human survival, nature and socialist topics.

He died on November 22nd 1916, at 40 in his Glen Ellen estate, and there’s a romantic legend concerning his death. It’s said that he committed suicide because he was suffering due to his kidney condition, although it hasn’t been proved. You may get contradictory information about this fact, depending on the source. Other sources state that he died of renal failure with gastrointestinal uremic poisoning.

Martin Eden

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Martin Eden is a sturdy working class mate who has spared a young high-class woman, Ruth, from having a rough time by defending her and getting into a fist fight for her sake. She is so impressed with him, as he “saves” her, and she finds him so different to the kind of men she’s used to, that she invites him over to her house to thank him. There he meets her family and has a look at her surroundings, her upbringing and her library, above all a volume of poems by Swimburne.

He has his own intellectual curiosities and concerns even though he’s automatically regarded as an unambitious working class fellow who is not able to see beyond his limits. But as he puts it: “insularity of mind that makes human creatures believe that their color, creed and politics are best and right and that other human creatures scattered over the world are less fortunately placed than they”, which is of course wrong.

The young couple keep in touch and have long conversations, as couples do, and she seems to strive to change him. In the meantime, due to his monumental strong will, he manages to surpass his own limitations by working and studying at the same time, until he is finally able to publish (“He hated the oblivion of sleep. There was too much to do, too much of life to live”). In the process, when he’s not known and he has to support himself by his physical work, the woman dismisses his works, but then her opinion changes as he manages to publish and gain a certain renown (“Martin had faith in himself, but he was alone in his faith”).

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Then, he seems to be someone new for her, someone she can feel in awe of without feeling embarrassed; but this whole process had made him conscious of several painful truths: “Make me like those other men, doing the work they do, breathing the air they breathe, developing the point of view they have developed and you have destroyed the difference, destroyed me, destroyed the thing you love” and “He knew now that he hadn’t really loved her. It was an idealized Ruth he had loved, and ethereal creature” and that ethereal creature belong to another world, to the “bourgeois swine” who despised him.

In his journey he meets Brissenden, who also belongs to the upper-class but has somehow rebelled against it in his own way, as an individual against the masses, just like Eden has. He’s a physically weak person who lacks Eden’s will and knows it, and he strives for new thrills in life through drugs rather than through action. He’s a good friend for Eden though and they both manage to understand each other. Eden seem to be in the process of stepping into the nowhere’s land: slowly he discovers that those who once were his mates -working class people- are not so close to him now and fail to understand him, but he doesn’t belong with the bourgeoisie either.

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As an individual standing against the masses (“Herd-creatures, flocking together and patterning their lives by one another’s opinions, failing of being individuals”), even having achieved his goal, discovers that he is alone. His estrangement from Ruth, Brissenden’s death and his growing apart from his former mates, makes him become increasingly disappointed and disenchanted with life: (“I care for nothing. Something has gone out of me. I am empty of any desire for anything.”)

All this foreshadows the end:

“For too much love of living

From hope and fear set free,

We thank with brief thanksgiving

Whatever gods may be

That no life lives forever,

That dead men rise up never;

That even the weariest river

Winds somewhere safe to sea.”