The Spike by George Orwell

Ennui – noun. A feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.

The Spike is an essay Orwell wrote back in 1931 when he was living out a nomadic lifestyle out and about in London. This was all part of a social experiment he was doing, and according to Wikipedia (what, you think I just know these things?), this adventure became the subject of his first book. I haven’t read it myself, but it’s called Down and Out in Paris and London. “The Spike” is a colloquial term for an English workhouse, a place where people down on their luck could find room and board and opportunities for employment. This essay is about a weekend Orwell had spent in the Spike.

Um, wow. Not really sure what to say. After reading about the abject conditions Orwell had to endure with his fellow tramps, I almost feel filthy myself. There’s no way to truly know an experience without having gone through it oneself. With language, a writer can bridge that gap in understanding, but never all the way, I think. With The Spike, Orwell gets as close as one can get. The next time someone complains about mess, I’m going to direct them to this essay. Here is what I consider to be the most disgusting paragraph I might have ever read:

It was a disgusting sight, that bathroom. All the indecent secrets of our underwear were exposed; the grime, the rents and patches, the bits of string doing duty for buttons, the layers upon layers of fragmentary garments, some of them mere collections of holes, held together by dirt. The room became a press of steaming nudity, the sweaty odours of the tramps competing with the sickly, sub-faecal stench native to the spike. Some of the men refused the bath, and washed only their ‘toe-rags’, the horrid, greasy little clouts which tramps bind round their feet. Each of us had three minutes in which to bathe himself. Six greasy, slippery roller towels had to serve for the lot of us.

Jesus, George! I don’t know what I’m more impressed with, his dedication to his nomadic experiment or his ability to evoke pure revulsion in his readers.

Our late companions were scattering north, south, cast and west, like bugs into a mattress.

Here’s another notable quote. Throughout the essay, Orwell is incredibly persistent in maintaining this filthy imagery. Yet it doesn’t come off as heavy handed. I’ll have to think on this some more, but I suspect this has to do with how the substance of the essay is well matched with the description of it. In other words, he’s not just describing things in a disgusting way. With concrete details, he’s able to establish that this is all part of the reality of the experience. The repulsiveness in his figurative language therefore seems justified.

The essay is a powerful and intimate look into the lives of the homeless in 1930’s England. It’s fascinating in an absolutely horrible way. While I don’t believe I could ever understand homelessness without experiencing it myself, I come out of this piece with more of an appreciation for how difficult it was and still is. The most striking aspect in this piece is Orwell’s description of how people tend to dehumanize the homeless, to treat them as if they had done something irredeemably wrong in simply being in the circumstance they’re in. It’s so strange to me that even to this day, we act like the homeless are somehow less deserving of the basic things the average person gets to enjoy.

This is an essay that remains relevant today. Orwell makes some very interesting observations not just about homelessness, but about people in general. Scroll up to the top and you’ll find a link to the essay, kindly provided by Project Gutenberg. Read it. But just be warned, this is not something you’ll want to read between bites of supper. If you’re hoping to keep that supper down, that is.

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