Thursday, March 22, 2012

On the street, with George Orwell


My on-going enthusiasm for walkers/writers got its latest fix as I recently read George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Orwell's book, however, provides a dystopian view of the Walker -- very unlike the Jack Kerouac or the Bruce Chatwin genres. Orwell's narrator and his colleagues (in the London section, the generation of homeless "tramps" of post WWI and Depression Era UK) are on a never-ending, pointless, enforced walk (they cannot afford any kind of transport, if they stay put in any one place, they can be criminalized for vagrancy or worse). Humiliated, un-homed, un-manned -- walking and the camaraderie of other tramps is their lives. Yet for all that, Orwell, the social reformer, remains a kind of optimist. He finds resourcefulness and fundamental dignity. And he recommends social policy actions which, he believed, could be good both for society and for the tramps.

Where Orwell's tramps are like Chatwin's walker and Kerouac's drivers (and Pilgrim and Ulysses and Huckleberry Finn) is in that the simple fact of the ability to keep moving redeems from despair. Not happily ever after, but to keep moving defies the internal demons and the external exigencies.