Down and Out…

A pet hate of mine are those opinion/lifestyle columns that you find in the broadsheet weekend magazines, complete with a photo of the journalist responsible wearing a regulation smug and-yet apologetic expression.

The subject matter is nearly almost always ‘I’; and ‘I’ is horribly insecure about the idea of offending anyone, but desperate to show, in a strictly self-deprecating way, its intelligence. It doesn’t leave much room for good writing. Of course, it’s easy to attack this sort of writing, but I just wonder why it is so popular, so prevalent?

In much journalism that isn’t strictly news reporting, the wish to either gloss-over and sentimentalise seems the order of the  day. For example the word ‘humble’ seems very popular at the moment. People seem to be humble about everything; I would suggest it’s a very rare emotion. Or that type of interview with a star, supposedly to bring us closer to them and the opening paragraph contains something like this: ‘In real life she is astonishingly petite, almost doll-like, and her face takes on an angelic quality as she takes tiny sips of her mineral water’. Ad nauseum.

Very few of these ‘commentators’ seem at all interested in other people – I mean in an observant way. Perhaps the way novelists look at people, with the air of devouring their prey: keenly observant, possibly for selfish reasons, but able to look and see clearly all the same. Political correctness and badly concealed status anxiety  cut out sympathy and interest in others which is why this style of writing is so creepy and annoying.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is that I have been reading a lot of Orwell non-fiction recently and enjoying its obvious quality. I know Orwell is an exceptional writer and is far from unbiased in his views, but his journalism/non-fiction writing is so clear, and it very much wants to be clear – that is its raison d’être. It does not sentimentalise in any way though he can’t help but make a good story out of what he sees, most of the time – except when he goes off on Socialist rants, which can get dull. (Having said this, someone just told me that The Road to Wigan Pier is really sentimental … I’ve never read it – is this so?)

In Down and Out in Paris and London (1933),in which Orwell records his time spent as a Paris plongeur at ‘Hotel X’ and then as a tramp in England, hanging out with screevers and staying in spikes, Orwell describes people as clearly as he is able: eccentric, foolish, greedy, stupid, idiotic, funny, kind, essentially good, stoic in their bizarre and minor struggles. He also puts their lives into some context.

This passage is taken from the introduction:

‘The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people – people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent […] Some of the lodgers in our hotel lived lives that were curious beyond words.’ […] ‘Poverty is what I am writing about […] The slum, with its dirt and its queer lives, was first an object-lesson in poverty, and then the background of my own experiences. It is for this reason that I try to give some idea of what life was like there.’

As a review of the book in The New Yorker aptly put it: ‘The harshness of this book is an expression of its basic sympathy’.  You cannot truly sympathise, observe and comment unless you try as best you can to tell the truth– in this case to look at the sometimes ugly mundanity of poverty and record it.

Whereas some current writing reminds me of one of Orwell’s old tramps: afraid to loiter on any subject too deeply in case it gets moved on or feels compelled to expose itself. Like Paddy, Orwell’s tramping companion for whom ‘two years of bread and margarine had lowered his standards hopelessly’, who has forgotten what good food tastes like.

In the meantime, though, read Orwell. Penguin are doing a really appealing little volumes of his essays and non-fiction works at the moment.

Of course, Orwell could leave these situations at any time, he was an observer, but he really tried to understand poverty and the less privileged parts of society, and to examine the ideals behind the society he found himself in. Essays like ‘How the Poor Die’, ‘A Hanging’ and ‘The Prevention of Literature’ are all as serious as they sound, though always there is dry wit. And there are more satirical pieces also. In ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’ (Orwell at one time reviewed large numbers of books for English publications) he describes a man sitting in a dishevelled state in a chaotic room full of waste paper, unopened packages of books, and final demand bills: ‘He has lost his address book, and the thought of looking for it, or indeed looking for anything, afflicts him with acute suicidal impulses.’

And ‘Bookshops Memories’ – ‘[B]ooks give off more and nastier dust than any other class of objects yet invented and the top of a book is the place where every bluebottle prefers to die.’

Well that’s true enough…

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One response to “Down and Out…

  1. I agree with the the comments above on opinion/lifestyle columns. They’re a bore. Stylistic concerns aside, I think the problem may lie more fundamentally with dullness and triviality of the experiences or viewpoints being related. While not universal it is more often the middle class, the celebrity or the semi-celebrity voice that gets heard through a weekend supplement. By contrast, the lives Orwell portrays and the experiences he lived require little embellishment to fascinate, especially as a snapshot of an era now long gone.

    The power of these books is, like all good journalism, the neat telling of the bald facts and observations, the ‘I’ whose writing it being barely audible. Still even the obsessively self-promotional journalist could benefit from giving us some slightly more broad snapshots of our modern world than the insights of yet another celebrity or much worse their own experiences from the week before!

    The only lifestyle column I ever enjoyed without exception was Tracey Emin’s in the Independent. Maybe this because like Orwell her subject matter was often deprivation in all its gory fascination (this is only half true. She was long past her messiest days by this point). Maybe its because while the subject matter always was ‘I’ it was never a false voice. – Never an aspired to ‘I’ – always the real Tracey.

    The power and honesty of the voice is synonymous with the authenticity of the experience and it is perhaps this that makes ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ a disappointing sequel. Whether or not Orwell could leave these situations at any time (certainly true of the tramping) he clearly lived the experiences in down and out where as he was but a a visitor to poverty in the second book. When, as far as I’m aware he declared his purpose and stayed with poor people for a few nights to make his observations. From this more detached point of view he perhaps sees them at their best and there is certainly some extolling of the dignity of working class families struggling in their cramped dwellings which I guess could be branded sentimental. Much worse is the socialist ranting which totally dominates the second half of the book and is really trite. He was no political theorist. I should say I still found it worth reading ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, at least the first half. It too delivers a powerful snapshot of pre-war poverty with lengthy details on household budgets and even rents to square footage. There’s some good solid survey work in amongst the political message.

    A final point. Readers may be interested to know that the radio 4 show ‘Word of Mouth’ will be discussing Orwell’s lasting impact on journalism next Tuesday (15th December 2009) at 4pm!

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