by Cassie Metcalf-Slovo
In this essay George Orwell submits to a weekend in a “Spike”; a workhouse or, as we say today, shelter for homeless people. A Spike is where the desperate and destitute, or ‘tramps’ as Orwell calls them, could get a place to sleep, a roof over their heads and a few paltry meals for the weekend. Published in 1931, and although entirely set within one weekend at a Spike, Orwell’s essay shows us what being down and out in 1930s Britain meant, and through this we see a snapshot of society at large.
At first it is hard to understand what is going on; what is a Spike And what is Orwell doing there?, is it a journalistic experiment or is he desperate? Orwell doesn’t answer, but it gradually becomes clear what kind of a place this Spike is.
Even though it provided food and shelter for the desperate, Spikes were not benign places. Headed by a petty tyrant, who Orwell names the “Tramp Major”, the Spike of this essay is a cruel place with an arbitrary set of rules. Taking money in is illegal, cigarettes similarly forbidden. Answering the Tramp Major back could mean being kicked out, but despite all this there is an unspoken agreement that the Tramp Major will not search the tramps below the knees, so Orwell smuggles in cigarettes in his toes, and buries his money before his weekend there.
In the Spike all the needs of these men are seemingly met – they have food, shelter, and water to wash. Yet all of these things, while being provided for, are at the same time deficient. The food is stale bread and watered down tea, the small amount of water the men share for washing is covered in black slime. Days are spent all locked in a room, with no books and no distractions from the endless boredom, and the nights spent freezing in blanket-less cells.
Apartness and otherness that being a member of an underclass entails is the overwhelming feeling of The Spike. Physically the men are apart from society; when made to strip down to wash Orwell writes about “the indecent secrets of our underwear” being exposed. Their physical state, the toll of being homeless, is something Orwell is acutely aware of, and, more importantly, embarrassed about. When they have their medical examination he writes, “No one can imagine…what pot-bellied, degenerate curs we looked.” It is shame, shame in being one of these men whom he pities, shame in his physical condition, and the failure it symbolizes, shame in the way that they are treated, which epitomizes this passage.
The doctor’s visit is instructive in the manner in which these men’s physical state and position on the outside of society meant they were reduced to infected bodies, potential carriers of diseases, and not much else. The doctor simply checks that they are not carrying smallpox, and then they are herded into a cramped room where they have to remain for the rest of the day. The shame and “social disgrace” that the tramps’ bodies both cause them and symbolize is not alleviated or addressed by being in the Spike – it is intensified. Just as they are fed -nutritious stale bread only, just enough to sustain them, no attention is paid to their wellbeing except for diseases that could infect others.
When not in the Spike the tramps spend the week dodging the police, their bodies are places of shame that must be hidden and there is nowhere safe and legitimate for them to be. The Spike is not a place where they can be cared for, it is a place of punishment. The fact that for these men their choice was to either be inside a Spike, in pens like animals, or free outside evading the police, unsure of when the next meal would be, shows just how hostile the state is to those who do not, or cannot, fit in society.
It is not only the otherness from society that this essay deals with; it is also deals with alienation from other tramps. Orwell is like the other men at the Spike; he is desperate, hungry and isolated, and yet he is also markedly different from them. As a gentleman Orwell is a member of a different class, and the Tramp Major recognizes him as such. This means he is not only isolated and alienated from society, but also from the other tramps.
He is singled out and given the task of helping in the workhouse kitchen – a coveted job as there was a place to sit and a hot stove for warmth and food. While there, Orwell sees an excess of food: meat, potatoes and vegetables, all thrown away rather than given to those in the Spike. Again here we see that it is not just that the state lacked compassion, it actively wanted to punish these men.
When Orwell tells what he has seen to another tramp, a man who “held himself more like a free man than his fellow destitute creatures”, Orwell pities and disdains him, to which the man responds:
“It’s only the bad food that keeps all that scum away. These tramps are too lazy to work, that’s all that’s wrong with them. You don’t want to go encouraging any of them. They’re scum.”
Through this man and his dissociation from the other tramps – even though he is in the same position as them – we see how pervasive and toxic shame can be. To counter the feelings of what it means to be one of them – these tramps, these destitute men, treated as animals, held in pens and fed stale bread- one copes by distancing yourself from them. Society tells you that you are other, that your presence, odor and body is a danger and so you must hide yourself, and to keep a semblance of your sense of self intact you also dissociate from those classed the same as you. Like many tyrannically states, the Tramp Major participates in separating those who otherwise might feel solidarity with each other by treating and favoring some men based on their class.
“The Spike” gives us a segue into a world otherwise invisible or ignored and the piece is powerful because Orwell actually enters the Spike and experiences it as one of the men, rather than reporting it from the outside. Orwell is educated and literate, and yet in this essay he is also one of them, desperate, hungry, bored and full of shame. The tone of contempt and pity that Orwell takes when talking about the other men is startling. Just as society has denied these men their humanity, in this essay Orwell does too.
More surprising is Orwell’s lack of vanity, which means he does not disguise his disgust when talking about the tramps. I think that this exposes both Orwell and society. Because Orwell is of a higher class and simultaneously one of them; he holds a mirror up to the way we see these men, and the way they see themselves. In ourselves we recognize the discomfort in really seeing these men the way in which society demands that they hide themselves so we do not have to face their plight. In them we see a double bind; that as members of the underclass there is no physical space they can be, and that the way in which society denies their humanity and fosters shame means there is no space mentally to see common humanity with those around them.
Do you want to say a few words about homelessness in Britain and Europe today? It could make Orwell come alive again.
Tags: Articles, george orwell, literature review, slovo, The Spike