Over on Radio Four they’re reading Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London this week. After I’d written the fourth chapter of Anyone’s Game it was an echo of Orwell’s title, ‘Down and Out in London and Scotland’ came to mind. There was a kinship that made me read the Orwell again.
I’m not sure Orwell comes well out of his 1933 memoir. He seems like the Old Etonian whom poverty took by surprise and for whom there existed an easy way out, courtesy of his education and social class. Women at the time had it harder. Sophie Asmus as I imagined her was poor in London around the year 1923 because she was a no longer married mother and a foreigner. She was down-and-out in a way that actually reminded me more of the women flaneurs of European literature, from Baudelaire on: always in danger of being regarded as prostitutes, vulnerable to sexual abuse, even when offered the temporary shelter of middle-class life. Orwell couldn’t have grasped any of that.
Orwell’s sympathy for the underdog was a classic English response to the plight of the unemployed man. In England the roads he hit in deteriorating boots rewarded him with long conversations and a fresh view of the countryside. His time as a tramp, spending the night at a bedless ‘spike’ before being forced back on to the road next morning, reinforced his sense of individual dignity and stocked his mind with a few new characters for his thin and wooden fiction, and a lot of new slang. He was a terrific journalist but he’s not a great novelist. In ‘down-and-out’ terms interwar think, for instance, of Alfred Döblin’s great novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (and Fassbinder’s wonderful film version).
I cherish my copy of Down and Out in Paris and London mostly because of the 1966 Penguin Classics cover by the painter William Roberts.
Roberts shared Orwell’s fascination with ordinary life on display in parks and streets and dingy interiors. Bank Holidays and race meetings and picnics excited the Robertsian muse. A leading Vorticist, he devised a style that hinted at newspaper reportage. His elongated stylised figures owed much to Cubism’s reflection of life in the city. The fragments of newsprint and the trappings of the café–bar in a Picasso or a Braque found their equivalent in Roberts’s blowsy barmaids, greyhounds and men in shabby suits reading the sports results.
The Penguin cover shows a section of Bank Holiday in the Park which Roberts painted ten years before the Orwell’s Down and Out appeared. It features a careless lad with a ball, threatening to disrupt everyone else’s idea of a nice afternoon. He’s a bony-kneed brute, but no worse than all these conservative folk concerned only to mind their own business. Roberts was probably getting at the same tidy-minded complacency Orwell was targeting.
Once accused of narrowness, Roberts replied, if War, Rural Life, Modern Town Life, Greek Mythology and Christian Mythology are narrow, I wonder what is broad. His subject was some compelling portraits, but mostly studies of people in groups, a series over five decades into which the great religious themes of the New Testament kept breaking in. He painted intellectuals, bohemians, cinema-goers and race-goers, rich and poor, the jolly and the glum, exposing their secrets and the foibles one and all. From coarse merrymaking to overcrowded stoicism, he got the English just right.
I quite like all that. I’m glad Vorticism happened. I only feel the trouble with both Roberts and Orwell is that their social and political moderation and their loyal Englishness interfered with their underpowered art. In Roberts’s painting vectors pushing out in all directions look like the beginning of a Modernist language. The William Roberts Society has a fine display of his work, if you click here. But that language never really makes you feel it’s there because modern life can’t be understood without it (unlike, say, the work of the Berliner Käthe Kollwitz in the same decade.)
With my fondness for European art, and especially German art and literature in the twentieth century, I could take something a bit stronger.