Monday, October 30, 2023

Something New

We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books. 

“MEET YOU AT THE MAIN DIVIDE” by Justine Ross [with Geoff Ross] (Harper-Collins, hardback $NZ40)

Subtitled “A Family’s Story of Life on Lake Hawea Station”, Meet You at the Main Divide is in many ways an admirable book. Its author (or authors) is/are deeply concerned with climate change, carbon emissions, ways to mitigate these problems, and finding methods of conserving land and restoring the environment while at the same time balancing this with the reality of working in a competitive market. Nowhere does Justine Ross advocate veganism or vegetarianism, given that she and her husband Geoff stock merino sheep and agree to have a lessee who raises cattle on their land. At the same time, Justine Ross’s enthusiastic prose does sometimes stumble into self-praise – but not enough to mar the detailed narrative.

As she tells us in her opening chapters, Justine was raised south of Auckland with a father who built up his own garden by filching indigenous plants from the bush. He was halfway towards being a man of the land. Geoff Ross came from a farming family, and his parents raised deer. Justine and Geoff met in high-school. She admired farming boys, the couple soon bonded and have stayed that way ever since. Geoff’s family expected him to take up farming, but he defied their expectations and went into business. Both Justine and Geoff spent a number of years working in advertising agencies in central Auckland.  They made a big splash (and big bickies) by inventing the vodka they called “45 Below”. They were able to market it internationally, ultimately sold it to a European company, and were able to buy properties, including the mansion called Wairangi.

And then their thoughts turned to conservation. They searched the South Island and decided that the Lake Hawea Station, all 6500 hectares of it, in the Main Divide near the great mountains, was what they wanted. Here they could practise what they preached about conservation and regenerating the flora. After much bargaining, and having to pay great sums (partly raised by selling their mansion Wairangi) they acquired the Lake Hawea Station in 2017, and settled there with their two growing sons Finn and Gabe (Gabriel). They did not give up all their Auckland investments – they still had interest on some Auckland restaurants. They researched the history of the station and the work of previous farmers there. They understood that merino sheep had long been important there. They began their plan to reafforest the station by planting kowhai – hoping eventually to plant 10,000 of them. They put fences between the lake and the cattle that were run by the lessee, knowing that bovine excrement was a problem polluting New Zealand’s waterways and lakes. At first they had major problems with the old, decaying house that was in place, but they were able to smarten it up before their new house was built on site. There were also problems with pipes that had to be fixed (for water as well as for sewage). And as in many rural areas, there was the matter of how much they could allow access to their property. With an eye to welcoming tourists, Justine Ross remarks: “Access is a word with enormous currency in tourism, entertainment, hospitality and recreation across the planet. Backcountry access is now as sought after as backstage access. This is heartening – people no longer wish to be insulated from remote experiences… From the comfort of a four-wheel-drive or ATV, you can behold terrain usually the exclusive domain of choppers, trampers or hunters.” p.48 (Chapter 5) There were some problems with poachers working illegally on the property.

To begin with, in settling in, the Ross family got great help from the Department of Conservation. But Justine Ross writes: “As a hiking and hunting family, we all respect DOC and its mandate enormously. The tracks, wardens and huts matter to us. Geoff has even worked on some tracks. As DOC are our neighbour on three sides, we set about meeting the local team and accessing their wealth of knowledge. We wanted to hear about their regional objectives and see what we could collaborate on. They were superb, and the first two years were wonderfully collaborative, constructive and mutually beneficial. Then, like a river run dry, the willingness to collaborate on anything ended and our hearts broke a little for our patch on the Main Divide.”  pp.81-82 (Chapter 8)

One struggle came when the Rosses had to work out who had water rights to the streams around Lake Hawea. There was a problem when the lessee’s Hereford cattle came down with tuberculosis and the lessee had to “extinguish his herd”. Often there were problems with farmers who had different views on how farms should be run, and saw the Rosses as interlopers. The Rosses were opposed to the dropping of “1080” on their station, the poison designed to wipe out pests like rabbits. With their concerns about carbon emissions and biodiversity, they engaged a mentor to give them advice, Professor David Norton.

Merino sheep, however, became their greatest care. Relatively early in Meet You at the Main Divide, Justine Ross describes vividly the nature of the woolshed they had: “It’s the smell that people comment on first when they enter our woolshed. Ancient floorboards, lanolin, ammonia, shit and decay. It is a whiff of nostalgia. Over a hundred years old, the shed is the subject of artist impressions and paintings, its exterior steps leading up to big doors on one side with a wobbly chain as a barrier.  Here trucks dock and 200-kilogram bales are loaded from the shed to begin their journey from us, the source, out into the world.”                 p. 62 (Chapter 6). Later though, in Chapters 11 and 12, the two most informative chapters in the book, she gives a full account of how they handled the merinos. They cleaned, updated and partly rebuilt the old decaying woolshed. They learned to understand how valuers worked when they assessed the worth of fleece. Valuers were sometimes tricky in their negotiations. They discovered that their flock was infested with lice and some were tormented by foot-rot. It took them three years to reduce foot-rot to only 10% of the flock. After many interviews, they hired a shepherd and a farm manager. Drawing on her understanding of advertising, Justine Ross insisted that their flock be marketed under its own special logo, which is LHS, often accompanied with a statement such as “Merino”. Later (Chapter 18) she speaks of taking a more humane way of handling sheep – such as rewarding shearers not for their speed in shearing a flock, but for their care in not cutting or otherwise injuring sheep.

Elsewhere (Chapter 13) there is an odd passage in which  she says she doesn’t like the inhumane ways of dealing with cattle when they are about to be slaughtered. Indeed she visits a slaughter-house and is appalled by what she sees. But then she adds “Once, Geoff asked me what, if anything, I liked about farming. ‘I don’t like farming,’ I said. ‘I like eating’. Farmers are farming food – meat and crops. I believe all farming families should follow their stock to the slaughter. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s honest. In taking responsibility for food and fibre production beyond the gate, a farmer is respecting his or her own work.  p.170 (Chapter 13)

Justine and Geoff go to England and Europe, marketing their brand of wool with great success. They also embrace tourism, welcoming guests to the station. By 2023, Conde Nast lists the Lake Hawea Station as the only great retreat in New Zealand. Even more important to them, though, is to be registered as “carbon positive” – that is, to produce as little carbon output as possible and to nurture as many carbon-suppressing plants and trees as possible. They adopt the “regen” (regenerative) system to revive pastures by the use of a diversity of seeds. They regenerate forests by planting 21,000 indigenous trees.  In due course, Lake Hawea Station becomes the first certified “carbon positive” farm in either Australia or New Zealand. Justine is so wedded to this status, that she gets annoyed when her husband is about to do some chemical spraying (of glyphosate) on one of their fields. She acquiesces only when she is assured that the spray is a watered-down version.

In telling their story this way, I have not mentioned the many detailed anecdotes about her family that Justine Ross relates, especially those concerning her two sons Finn and Gabe. Both have followed their parents’ example and become conservationists and ecologically-aware activists in the matter of climate change. Nor have I logged the illustrious people who have visited, or been met by, Justine and Geoff. I do note that the Rosses are wealthy (in New Zealand terms), but I do not see this as a negative. Justine herself does suggest that some nearby farmers were envious and regarded the Rosses as rich and easy-living townies. As Justine tells it, their five-or-six years has been a struggle, but also a triumph. And this, I dare to say, is where some of the self-praise creeps in. As told by her, she and her husband were always on the right side of any dispute.

Then there is the matter of (as she writes it) unpleasant neighbours. She speaks disparagingly about what she calls “heritage” farmers who still try to farm in old-fashioned ways. There is hostility and suspicion from the locals when the Rosses try to engage with them in the local hall “The four of us arrived and immediately felt like the defendants in a landbank robbery. The curious, the well-wishers and the protagonists shuffled about, but not many people fronted up, so we spoke briefly about our family and our hopes for the property… It was a funny vibe and possibly a waste of time. ‘The gathering wasn’t very useful, but we tried,’ Geoff says. ‘Not many people turned up’…  There were also the people who wanted to keep shooting rabbits on [their newly acquired property]. And there was no representation from any of the community groups (many of whom are self-appointed) that have subsequently asked us for money every year, without once paying us a visit or offering support. Gossips will gossip and no matter how many trees we plant or what improvement we make, no matter how much access we provide or how many charities we support, it will never ever be enough for some who are just anti-change, bad-mannered or both.”   pp. 89-90 (Chapter 8)

Sweepingly she states :“There were proper tribes here once – Waitaha, Kati Mamoe, Ngai Tahu – and they fought, of course. These days there are other local ‘tribes’, too, and it took us a while to figure them all out. There were the retirees who were very good at joining committees, blocking progress and minding other people’s business.  There were the hippy commune dwellers sifting on he outskirts who seemed super chill… unless they were trolling on Facebook. The hippies, like the landowners, seemed to have intergenerational connections, I suspect, because the area is just too cool to ever leave. Actual do-gooders were around too, and we were in awe of their dedication to bettering the region… By the time we were five years deep, it was clear civil discourse, petty disputes and even spiteful quarrelling were and always had been prevalent – more so than we had ever encountered in the city.”  p.103 (Chapter 9)

Most outrageous in when television’s “Country Calendar” does a favourable account of the Rosses’ enterprise… and on Facebook there comes a tidal-wave of abuse from [largely anonymous] locals insulting them. “Country Calendar” is deeply apologetic for this.

Meet You at the Main Divide is interesting in many levels, but it is not without contention.

Pedantic Footnote: Here I am annoying everybody with my pedantry, but I am calling out the misuse of one of Shakespeare’s most misquoted and most misunderstood phrases. On p.91 (Chapter 8) of Meet You at the Main Divide, Justine Ross writes “In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare wrote, ‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin’, but that certainly wasn’t the case for us.” She clearly thinks that this phrase means we all gather together harmoniously if only we follow nature. We’ll all be buddies and friends. This is not at all what the phrase means. In Troilus and Cressida, in Act Three, Ulysses says

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin:
That all with one consent praise new-born gauds
Though they are made and moulded of things past,
And give to dust that is a little gilt
More laud than gilt o’er-dusted.

“Nature” here means “flawed human nature” So the meaning of “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin” is that one small characteristic is common to everyone in the world: they like flashy novelties and disdain worthy antiquities, although the former are often merely reworkings of the latter. Ulysses means that we are not bonded in fellowly love. Quite the contrary.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER” by George Orwell (first published 1937)

Continuing with my examination of George Orwell’s non-fiction books (see the posting for Downand Out in Paris and London) I now turn to The Road to Wigan Pier, researched and written in 1936 and first published in 1937. Like Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier falls awkwardly into two separate parts which do not quite fit each other, and not for the first (or last) time Orwell ran into trouble with his publisher Victor Gollancz. The copy of The Road to Wigan Pier I have on my shelf was printed in the 1960s and is prefaced by a very long, and somewhat pompous, introduction by the (now deceased) sociologist and literary critic Richard Hoggart. Hoggart notes, truthfully, that nearly all commentators have regarded The Road to Wigan Pier as Orwell’s “most disappointing performance”. Much of the criticism of The Road to Wigan Pier is based on political views. As Hoggart says, Orwell was essentially concerned with social class and was trying, as an “upper-lower-middle-class” man, to understand the working class from his own class perspective, which led to an internal struggle. In many ways he admired working-class people more than he admired upper-class people, but he still clung to sturdy middle-class values such as duty and decency.

The background to the genesis of The Road to Wigan Pier (and here I am once again leaning on the biographies of Orwell written by Bernard Crick and D. J. Taylor) goes like this: in January 1936, Victor Gollancz commissioned Orwell to write a book about the condition of the unemployed in the North of England, mainly Yorkshire and Lancashire. Orwell went north and spent two months observing and researching. But when he presented Gollancz with his finished manuscript, Gollancz was appalled. The first half he liked, which gave a very vivid account of conditions in the North. But the second half he found intolerable, as in the very polemical second half Orwell gave his mixed opinions on Socialism (he always spelt Socialism with a capital letter) and also included some autobiography. Not only was this not what Gollancz had commissioned, but it annoyed the (mainly Communist) people who chose which books should be published by Gollancz’s Left Book Club. So Gollancz decided to publish the full text of Orwell’s book only in a very limited edition; but for the Left Book Club he would publish only the first half of The Road to Wigan Pier in a much greater print-run and at a lower price. Thus it was first presented to the world.

Considering the full text, and not Gollancz’s abridged version, The Road to Wigan begins with Orwell waking up to the sound of girls’ clogs as they walk to work. He is in a filthy cheap lodging house run by a couple called the Brookers. His description of the place is very like his descriptions of disgusting lodgings in Down and Out in Paris and London - unsanitary food, bed-sheets hardly ever cleaned, sick people coughing and stingy hosts. He remarks: “I have noticed that people who let lodgings nearly always hate their lodgers. They want their money but they look on them as intruders and have a curiously watchful, jealous attitude which at bottom is a determination not to let the lodger make himself too much at home. It is an inevitable result of the bad system by which the lodger has to live in somebody else’s house without being one of the family.” (Chapter 1) Orwell bolts and finds somewhere else to live.

He then sets out to see how proletarian men work in the North, and (in Chapters 2 and 3) he examines coal-mining. These two chapters are frankly the high point of the book – a brilliant and vivid piece of reportage, among the best things Orwell ever wrote. Very helpful miners guide him through a coal-mine far beneath the surface. There are the “fillers” who have to kneel to shovel coal over their shoulders onto the conveyor belt. Miners have to walk miles underground before they reach the coalface. The ceiling is so low that they have to crouch much of the way (a great problem and pain for Orwell as he was very tall). Orwell notes the incredible hardiness of the miners and their physical strength as they do their daily work amid stifling coal dust. He is upset to find that coal-miners are paid only for the hours that they are literally  extracting coal. They are not paid for the time (sometimes hours) that they have to crouch-walk underground to and from the coalface. Orwell speaks of the blue scars so many miners have on their necks and arms, the result of coal dust invading wounds and scars. He notes that very few collieries have pit-head baths for miners, meaning miners have to go home, covered in filth, where they attempt to wash. Wages are often stingy, and miners are often “laid off”, with no wages in spring and summer when less coal is required. Every year one coal-miner out of nine-hundred dies in a mining accident, but every one-in-nine will be injured, some permanently lame. There are often cave-ins and gas explosions. Many miners end up with nystagmus, going blind by working in the dark and having coal-dust constantly invading their eyeballs.

All of this is conveyed more viscerally, more immediately, than I have reported it here. And all the time, Orwell chastises his more complacent readers (mainly middle-class readers) by insisting, as was true in the 1930s, that the whole civilization they enjoy is run on coal – coal fuels factories, railways, steamships, power stations giving electricity  etc. and all the comforts thoughtless people take for granted.

Having said all this – and note he is not yet talking about the unemployed – Orwell turns to the slum nature of housing in the economically depressed areas of the North, often referencing not only Wigan, but Leeds, Sheffield, Barnsley and Manchester.

He says that, with very few exceptions, he was greeted courteously by working-class people when he asked to enter and examine their homes. He describes the unliveable one-up-one-down cramped houses which are meant to accommodate whole families; the communal lavatories which are often inaccessible; and houses that should have been demolished and replaced years earlier. He notes: “In a town like Wigan… there are over two thousand houses standing that have been condemned for years, and whole sections of the town would be condemned en bloc if there was any hope of other houses being built to replace them.”  (Chapter 4) And because of subsidence of land due to mining “In Wigan you pass whole rows of houses which have slid to startling angles, their windows being ten or twenty degrees out of the horizontal.” (Chapter 4) Yet what is often called “slum clearance” creates its own problems. “Slum clearance” tends to be advocated by people of higher class who live far from the slums, and working-class people who are moved into better Corporation houses often find that they have to pay higher rent and rates. Often, too, working-class people who are relocated into better housing find they are no longer part of the community they are used to. 

We then come (Chapter 5) to the question of unemployment in the North, and the manoeuvres of the P. A. C. (Public Assistance Committee) and the Means Test that confront the unemployed before that can claim the dole. Orwell says there are far more people unemployed in England than the government’s official number given as two million. He notes that many workers who are “laid off” for months (without wages) are not regarded as unemployed. Yet he says he sees fewer beggars and totally destitute people in the North than he has seen in London. On the domestic front he notes that unemployed men stay at home and leave all the housework to their wives, on the assumption that doing “women’s work” will lessen their manliness and social status. On the whole, he says, communities have not disintegrated and despite poverty, people have got used to their condition. No revolution is brewing. Prophetically, as it turned out, Orwell remarks: “We may as well face the fact that several million men in England will – unless another war breaks out – never have a real job this side of the grave.”  (Chapter 5)

Chapters 6 and 7 deal with the matter of food and with how Southerners regard Northerners and vice versa. Families, employed or unemployed, rely on very limited budgets and as a result they have to eat cheap and generally unhealthy food. In the North fuel (meaning coal) is abundant and cheaper than it is in other parts of England, so most families are warm. Even so, many of the unemployed have to pick the scrapings of coal out of slag heaps to get fuel. The debate between Northern and Southern attitudes towards each other is the most redundant chapter in the whole first half of The Road to Wigan Pier. And Orwell has often been criticised for idealising the working-class household in this paragraph: “ In a working-class home – I am not thinking at the moment of the unemployed, but of comparatively prosperous homes – you breathe a warm, decent, deeply human atmosphere which it is not easy to find elsewhere. I should say that a manual worker, if he is in steady works and drawing wages – an ‘if’ which gets bigger and bigger – has a better chance of being happy than a  ‘educated’ man. His home life seems to fall naturally into a sane and comely shape. I have often been struck by the peculiar easy completeness, the perfect symmetry as it were, of a working-class interior at its best. Especially on winter evenings after tea, when the fire glows in the open range and dances mirrored in the steel fender, when Father, in shirt-sleeves, sits in the rocking chair at one side of the fire reading the racing finals, and Mother sits on the other with her sewing, and the children are happy with a pennorth of mint humbugs, and the dog lolls roasting himself on the rag mat – it is a good place to be in, provided that you can not only be in it but sufficiently of it to be taken for granted.”   (Chapter 7) [Not only is it idealised, but 90 years since it was written, Orwell is now condemned for applauding the “patriarchal” concept of a happy family.]

And so we come to the quite separate second part of the book. Orwell begins (Chapter 8) with autobiography about his being of the “lower-upper-middle-class”. He gives a very muddled and ambiguous account of the nature of different social classes in England and the enduring gulf between the middle-class and the working-class. He makes the statement that it is smell that mainly separates the working-class from the middle-class. He speaks of his own childhood when he was was trained to think in this way. But he also notes that in Britain the Socialists and Communists are mainly middle-class and have middle-class habits. He (in Chapter 9) says that after the war [now known as the First World War], there was the sense that prosperity would reign, and for a very short time this was so. But even by the early 1920s, unemployment began to rise. As a schoolboy at Eton, says Orwell, he hated those of the upper classes who looked down on him, but he himself shared all the bourgeois prejudices and habits. His experience as a policeman in Burma gradually taught him the evils of colonialism, and he returned to England hating the British Empire. He tried to understand the condition of the working-class of which he was not a part by exploring the world of the impoverished by going tramping and taking up menial work (as in Down and Out in Paris and London). He says (Chapter 10) on class attitudes, that middle-class people tend to believe they are not snobs and do not look down upon the working-class, but they give themselves away by the way they speak (i.e. their accents and vocabulary) and by their habits and assumptions. And among the proletariat, many act as if those of the middle-class are their superiors. Of his exploration on the North, he says he got on with the working-class people he met, but: “Even with miners who called themselves Communists I found that it took tactful manoeuvrings to prevent them from calling me ‘sir’; and all of them, except in moments of great animation, soften their northern accents for my benefit. I like them and hope they liked me; but I went among them as a foreigner, and both of us were aware of it. Whichever way you turn, this curse of class-difference confronts you like a wall of stone. (Chapter 10)

He then turns (Chapters 11, 12 and 13) to the matter of Socialism. On the whole he favours Socialism, but he takes the peculiar path of explaining in detail why so many in England are repelled by it. Thus (Chapter 11) he notes that Socialism is attracting fewer people because most Socialists tend themselves to be middle-class and often have “cranky” ideas that alienate the working-class. Most members of the left-wing I. L. P. (the – now long gone - Independent Labour Party) and the Communists have unreal agendas and “the underlying motive of many Socialists… is simply a hypertrophied sense of order.” In detail he explains (Chapter 12) that Socialism is tied to the age of the machine; and the machine is made to ease toil and therefore make toil less onerous. But this merely assumes that this is an improvement of human life when it actually makes for human weakness. The socialist, as he now is, is generally in favour of “progress”, which actually means mechanisation, rationalisation and modernisation. As Orwell sees it, Socialism is necessary in the sense of raising welfare, making good housing for all, ensuring work, taking essential industries out of the private sector, and yet still allowing for freedom of thought and expression. But, he says, the Socialists have not made their case clearly, have been sidelined by contentious polemics, and are in danger of being overwhelmed by Fascism which, repellent though it is, has some valid points to make and is growing in England [remember this was written in 1936]. Finally (Chapter 13) he argues that socialists too often damn the bourgeoisie while ignoring the fact that a large part of the middle-classes are as impoverished as the working-class. And of course, as a writer who was deeply concerned about the nature of language itself and its misuse, he takes pot-shots at the much of the alienating jargon the socialists use, including “proletariat”, “bourgeoisie”, “deviationist” etc. etc. etc.

From my own summary here, I hope you can see what a muddle and hotch-potch the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier is. Victor Gollancz was boorish in the way he published Orwell’s work, but even so, the second half of the book does not match the vivid reporting of the first half. From Chapter 9 onwards, Orwell’s prose become nebulous, lacking the precise language he mainly used from Chapter 1 to Chapter 8. His points of reference are vague, he generalises and asserts things without any documenting, and resembles somebody trying to put across theories without organising them. To put it crudely, he often descents into rant. And of course, despite his beliefs, he never does make a persuasive argument for Socialism.

There is also the problem of Orwell’s ingrained prejudices, which are found in both parts of The Road to Wigan Pier. Take it for granted that he hated Catholics, a common English prejudice. But note whom he damns when he is talking of the importance of coal: “In order that Hitler may goosestep, that the pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lord’s, that the Nancy poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming.” And on the following page he ridicules “You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the Nancy poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants   (Chapter 2) “Nancy poets?” Gosh. Then much later there’s this rant: “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-manic, Quaker, ‘Nature cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England.” (Chapter 11) So pacifists can be equated with sex-maniacs? And what’s so perverse about drinking fruit-juice? And what worries him about feminists? Once again… Gosh.

When I consider the better half of The Road to Wigan Pier, I get the strong sense that I am visiting the dead past. Orwell says the world and all industry runs on coal and in effect determines our whole civilization… but that was then, not now. Orwell’s reportage is robust, forthright and compassionate, but it is very topical in the sense of addressing the era he was living in. We are now more concerned with coal only in the sense that burning coal sends carbon into the stratosphere and hastens climate collapse. We favour “clean” means of producing energy. In effect, I read The Road to Wigan Pier as if it were an old black-and-white newsreel-with-commentary as made in the 1930s by some British pioneer of documentary film such as John Grierson… and then I wake up and remember the Pike River disaster and understand that in many parts of the world, men are still dying in the extraction of coal. At least some of Orwell’s reportage is relevant to today.

Footnotes: The most iconic and most often quoted paragraph in the book comes very early in The Road to Wigan Pier. It is near the end of Chapter 1, where Orwell, passing in a train, sees a working-class woman desperately trying to un-block a blocked drain on an awful winter morning. The passage is too long for me to quote in full, but Orwell draws the moral that the woman’s suffering would be as intense and conscious as it would be for any member of any class. He refutes the smug idea that many middle- or upper-class people hold, that the working class are used to such things and don’t suffer by such unpleasantness. 

Also, severe critics have ridiculed Orwell for flinching when, crawling through a coal mine, his hand falls on something greasy and disgusting. It turns out to be a gob of chewed tobacco which a miner had spat out. So, say Orwell's fastidious critics, this shows what a timid and fussy bourgeois man Orwell must have been, unused to proletarian ways. But, dear reader, are you so sure that you wouldn't flinch if, in the dark, your hand fell on something that felt disgusting? And after all, if you are reading this at all, you're probably bourgeois yourself comrade.


Something Thoughtful

 Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


I know you have become used to my making mature and thoughtful commentary in the “Something Thoughtful” section of each posting, with incisive remarks about politics, culture and other weighty matters.  But the hard fact is that I am not always in the mood to be serious. Sometimes I simply want to cut myself loose from seriousness and descend into inconsequential trivialities. So here I go with some things that are true but that are of no importance whatsoever.

Item One: When I was a teenager, aged 14, I read Erich Maria Remarque’s famous war novel All Quiet on the Western Front. I still have the paperback edition that I read then, and when I take it off my shelf I can find, in my immature handwriting, the comments I wrote on certain pages pointing out the most impressive bits. But after I’d first read it, somebody told me that the author’s name was really Kramer, not Remarque – and after all, you could almost see Remarque was the reverse spelling of Kramer. “Very interesting”, I thought. But only years later did I discover that the author really was called Remarque. The canard that he was named Kramer was invented by Josef Goebbels’ propaganda machine in the early 1930s when the Nazis – not yet in power – were protesting and rioting about the release in Germany of the American film version of All Quiet on the Western Front. “Kramer” was, in Germany, often a Jewish name and Goebbels invented the false name of the author to suggest that he was not only a “Bolshevik pacifist”, but also a Jew. The race enemy. To the best of my knowledge, the person who misinformed me was not a Nazi or racist, but had said what he said in good faith. Which goes to show how easily false information can be taken as fact even by well-meaning people. Disinformation is not new.

Item Two: A very similar story. You probably have never heard of Yma Sumac, who was a phenomenon in the 1950s. She was a Peruvian singer who was famed for singing in five octaves and so could sing from deep down to way up high. She mainly sang (or dolefully chanted) hymn-like indigenous songs to show off her versatility. Even when I was a tot, I could hear her on the radio and – years after it was first released – I saw at the local flea-house a (boring and slow-moving) adventure film, starring Charlton Heston, called The Secret of the Inca in which Yma Sumac, dressed in traditional Peruvian costume, chanted and moaned at length. And once again somebody informed me that actually Yma Sumac was really a made-up name, and that her real name was Amy Camus who had simply reversed  her names to seem exotic; and that she wasn’t Peruvian at all but came from a New York suburb. Again I thought “Very interesting”. Except that a few years later I discovered that the story was in fact a joke made up by an American comedian and never meant to be taken seriously. “Yma Sumac” was the Peruvian’s stage name [apparently it means something like “how beautiful”]. Her full name [I’ve looked this up, folks] was Zoila Emperatriz Chavarri Casrillo. She was Peruvian, born and raised in Peru. But once again, the false story was believed by many people. The power of disinformation.

Item Three: If you like, this is the piece de resistance, though maybe you might want to resist it as it’s mainly about schoolboy smut. Not too many years ago, one of my sons told me that the [technically rather primitive] English children’s cartoon series Captain Pugwash, about a rollicking pirate, was in fact filled with characters with disgusting names. Among Captain Pugwash’s pirate crew there was reportedly Master Bates (geddit? geddit?),  Seaman Staines (geddit? geddit? geddit?) and the cabin boy Roger who always introduced himself as “Roger, me, the cabin boy” (“Roger me”, geddit? geddit? geddit? geddit?... though maybe Americans won’t). Also, it was claimed that  “pugwash” was a form of intense gay sexual intercourse. For a while, all of this was widely believed to be true. In fact the English newspaper The Guardian printed a column on the filthy names hiding in a children’s show. Except that one week later The Guardian retracted their statement and apologised because the makers of Captain Pugwash had threatened to sue. None of the quoted names had ever appeared in Captain Pugwash and for the record the cabin boy was called Tom. So where had the false rumours about the names come from? Maybe it began as schoolboy smut, but it first appeared in print in a students’ satirical magazine, intended to be funny if you enjoy that variety of humour. Again, many people were eager to believe fiction. Incidentally, earlier there had been a kerfuffle about another children’s TV programme. This was The Magic Roundabout. It was a harmless French children’s programme which had been dubbed into English, but the dialogue in the English version bore no relation to the dialogue in the original French version. One of the main (animal) characters was, in the dubbed English version, a kind of laid-back hippie type of character, and in no time the series became a “cult” hit, because some English viewers believed it was filled with druggie argot. So, apparently, The Magic Roundabout was all about drugs. Nobody has definitively debunked this rumour, but it appears to be specious. As it happens, the man who voiced the characters in the English language version was the father of the actress Emma Thompson. For what it’s worth, she refutes the idea that her father was a druggie or mouthing druggie sentiments in a kiddies’ show. It all seems to have been wishful thinking on the part of the druggies who watched.

There now. I have fed you three or four cases of misinformation which were not exactly earth-shattering or important but were inconsequential trivialities. Misinformation still wows some people. For slightly more weighty examples, look up the column I called Faggots, Fakeryand Up Yours .            


Monday, October 16, 2023

Something New


We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books. 

“LIGHT KEEPING” by Adrienne Jansen (Quentin-Wilson Publishing $NZ37.50); “GANGSTER’S PARADISE” by Jared Savage (Harper-Collins, $NZ38)



A married couple die in a car crash, leaving behind two children, Robert (aged 10) and Jess or Jessie (aged 8). Their paternal grandparents, Bill and Annie, adopt them and take them into their home, which is next to the lighthouse of which old Bill is the keeper. So Robert and Jessie grow up in an unusual place on the coast of New Zealand. They do not do their learning through correspondence school. They are able to go to the local school, although it is clear that grandfather Bill and grandmother Annie teach them much more about life than school can.

Of course things are not always happy. Robert and Jessie are traumatised by the sudden death of their parents. Even the best grandparents are no substitute for mum and dad. At first Jessie cries at night and Robert becomes positively surly, pushing away even the most charitable and loving things his grandparents offer him. In fact Robert’s surly-ness spills over into his behaviour at school. When a pleasant Scottish boy, Jamie, a new arrival at school, is invited to Robert’s birthday, Robert is sneering and hostile towards him. It takes a long, long time for Robert to settle down and begin to appreciate the majesty of the lighthouse, old Bill’s skill as a keeper and the tales Bill tells of shipwrecks and rescues of people near to drowning. The coast is a wild place with its battering winds, hidden reefs and treacherous rocky cliffs. But as Jessie matures, warms to Annie and thirsts for learning, Robert himself becomes creative making models of houses, lighthouses and other things. Could this be his salvation?

But there is a problem hanging over this lighthouse and its nearby domicile. The time is the late 1970s, and the government is considering “de-manning” lighthouses and ”electrifying” or automating them. This means Bill will be out of work and he and Annie will be evicted from the home they rent. Bill has earnest conversations with other lighthouse keepers about the menace hanging over them.

All this is only the premise of Light Keeping. Adrienne Jansen – in her 6th novel – applies three techniques that are now much-used in shaping a novel. First, she writes throughout in the present tense. Second, she makes every chapter brief. And third, she splits her narrative into separate time periods. Jessie’s and Robert’s childhood takes place mostly in 1977 with some skipping forward to the 1980s. But other chapters are set in 2019, when Jessie and Robert are in their forties, she running a clock-repair shop after her marriage has broken up; and he having had some run-ins with the law as a petty-criminal. He’s now a bit of a layabout with his sister having to help him out when he gets in trouble. What was it that made things go so wrong for them? And how can they mend things and live more fruitful lives?

Adrienne Jansen has clearly undertaken much research to make the lighthouse keeper’s life credible and interesting. She has a very vivid sense of place and as a narrator she is at her very best when [in Chapter 17] she has young Robert help old Bill rescue two men in peril in a small boat, during a storm. Naturally this connects with the idea that some things could only be done by old-time lighthouse keepers, and not by automated lighthouses. On the debit side, there are some moments when the novel goes a little didactic, especially when [in Chapter 21] old Bill lectures Jessie and Robert about his own childhood and what the First World War was like.

I have often referred on this blog to my “don’t be a swine” code. Don’t give away the outcome of a new novel. But, having taken us through traumatised childhood and one suicide, I think the novel’s outcome is a little pat. That said, I enjoyed Light Keeping as a thoughtful novel making best use of time and place and a strong sense of the dynamics of families.


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In his introduction to Gangster’s Paradise, New Zealand Herald journalist Jared Savage gives us a similar warning to the one he gave in his earlier book Gangland. He writes: “ In my view, the escalation of organized crime in New Zealand – more drugs, more shooting, more corruption – has been driven by the arrival of gangs as ‘501’ deportees from Australia. The likes of the Mongols and the Comancheros, in particular, have brought a more professional edge to the gang scene. They have better connections with international drug syndicates, better criminal tradecraft and encrypted communications, and are more willing to use firearms to enforce their will.” (p.5) So crime, and often lethal crime, has ballooned in the last decade. Prior to these imports from Australia, the most dominant home-grown New Zealand gang was the Mongrel Mob, which has approximately 2500 members nationwide, twice the size of its rival Black Power.

Once again, as he did in his Gangland, Jared Savage illustrates these facts with stories he has covered in the last three years, including the work of the National Organized Crime Group, which had to be set up once the rate of serious crime grew.

He begins with the Chinese ring who attempted to import methamphetamine (“meth”) hidden in umbrella stands underneath gypsum. They were arrested and sentence in New Zealand after a long investigation. But as Savage notes, the problem here is that the real “kingpins” – those who give the orders to their gangs and carriers – live outside New Zealand, mainly in Asia, and can barely be touched. Besides, as Australian police soon discovered, as soon as a billionaire drug baron is toppled by the law, another simply takes his place.

Savage considers next the invasion of the Comancheros, deported from Oz, who set up in New Zealand a big network involving many Samoans and Fijians. They took over many properties with the huge bankrolls they had from their drug-dealing, then proceeded to destroy the Head Hunters gang and were able to dominate the crime scene in Auckland. The police reined them in with their Operation Nova but managed to have only some jailed. Later, the Comancheros attempted to get their meth sold through the local Rebels gang in Christchurch, but they were thwarted by the careful surveillance by the police. In Tauranga the Mongol Nation – another import from Oz – brought in tons of meth and broke up the local gang the Greazy Dogs in a “war” involving shootings and arson.

One of Savage’s saddest stories is the plight of Kawerau. Once it had been a prosperous timber town with full employment, but hard times came, many people in the town were now unemployed, and the meth-dealers moved in. Their technique was, of course, to first supply the drug at a low price, then once the users were hooked to rack up the price and turn their clients into couriers and distributers to pay off their debts. In effect, they made drug-users their slaves. Eventually the mayor of Kawerau complained that the police were only concerned with crimes in the big cities and not in the smaller towns, and begged the National Organized Crime Group to deal with the situation. The police did just that. They invaded the town in what they called Operation Notus, explored every known peddler and user of meth and took down the town’s boss of the local mob Frank Milosevic. They also set up agencies to help people get over their addiction. For a while the town – in which it had been “easier to get meth than milk” – order and peace flourished….. BUT within a matter of months the drug-dealers were back again and the trade went on in its grim way.

The trade of crime was enhanced by corruption, as in the story Savage tells of the corrupt employee on the wharf who allowed the gates to be unlocked at night to allow parcels of Class A drugs to be passed through. Later Savage deals with a clique of corrupt baggage-handlers at Mangere Airport who also attempted to pass through Class A drugs, but in this case they were all arrested by the police as soon as the drugs came in. Again astute surveillance worked.

Another major problem was and is the growing importation of firearms. The general public became more aware of this with the daylight murder of Constable Matthew Hunt.  There was great looseness and loopholes in New Zealand’s laws pertaining to firearms. The first major attempt to limit the use of firearms came after the Aramoana massacre and later the even worse Mosque massacres in Christchurch. There was a major campaign to have firearms handed to the police, with compensation for those who handed them in. But the obvious problem was that, while honest people handed in many of their rifles and guns, the criminals did not. Police were aware of “straw buyers” who handed in firearms on behalf of unnamed persons – usually gangsters sacrificing a very small portion of their arsenals to pretend they were following the law. There still remain a huge number of firearms in criminal hands.

As he noted in his earlier book, one major Maori-dominated gang, the Mongrel Mob, has attempted to use PR to make itself seem respectable. The gang’s national head invited people into his fort to hear him say that the Mongrel Mob was actually involved in caring for people, mending the poverty created by colonialism, teaching young people Maori traditions and getting youngsters into work programs. How nice. Unfortunately three major members of the Mongel Mob were still cooking and distributing meth, were caught and prosecuted. When challenged about this, the Mob’s boss claimed that he didn’t control individuals’ actions… even though one of the three convicted was his deputy and right-hand man. The Mongrel Mob is still a criminal organization.

Interestingly, Savage closes with the story of a pakeha guy who went badly off the rails after having a privileged youth. Henry Whitehead (who later adopted a number of pseudonyms) was educated at Auckland Grammar School, a prestige school in an expensive suburb. Beginning as a tagger and general nuisance, he moved into dealing small-time in drugs. From this he graduated to importing meth and other drugs from Asia, Australia and America. He built up his own distribution “empire” and often operated outside New Zealand, mainly in Europe. It took the NZ police many years to have him extradited, but finally they won the battle and Whitehead is still serving a life sentence. In his epilogue, Savage tells us that there is an even bigger drug-dealer operating from overseas and attempts to extradite will be even trickier that extraditing Whitehead was.

Crime continues. It has not abated, for all the diligent work of the police, and the gangs and dealers are still at work.

There is no doubt that Jared Savage is a very capable journalist, telling his stories clearly and in well-researched detail. But there are some inevitable shortcomings.

First shortcoming: Savage often enough tells us that criminal gangs attract people living in poverty and/or coming from dysfunctional families. But then these impoverished people most often prey on other impoverished people – selling them Class A drugs, hooking them on such drugs and then using them as their peddlers, couriers and in effect their  slaves. In New Zealand the most impoverished tend to be Maori and Pasifika, and most of the crims mentioned in this book have Maori or Pasifika names. But while he does accurately note all this, he only rarely refers to the damage done by gangs (violence, threats and intimidation) to innocent bystanders, people who were shot or maimed or had their houses invaded by gangs. This requires as much attention as the acts of the gangsters.

Second shortcoming:  This inevitable shortcoming is no fault of Savage. It is simply the fact that [nearly] all Savage’s stories end with the police successfully routing gangsters or having them prosecuted and incarcerated. Obviously Savage has to rely partly on news stories, but mainly on police records and other information only after an investigation is completed and the accused are in the dock. Investigations still in progress are not made public by the police. Why should the police broadcast to the nation’s gangsters about the surveillance systems they are using, the informants they have interrogated, their knowledge of where illegal shipments are being hidden etc. So we, as readers, know only what has already happened. We do not know what major crimes are currently in the making. My guess is that in two or three years Jared Savage will produce yet another book telling us about crimes that are already in the making now.


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            Just for the record I append below in full my [necessarily brief] review of Jared Savage’s earlier chronicle of crime Gangland, published late in 2020. The review appeared in the NZ Listener 6 February 2021



Is New Zealand really Gangland - a country awash with violent crime? Perhaps it isn’t by international standards. But as Herald journalist Jared Savage tells it, organized crime has grown exponentially in the last twenty years, fueled by the importation and manufacture of meth and other Class A drugs, the resulting turf wars between gangs, sophisticated enterprises in money-laundering, crims being more crafty in their counter-surveillance of police and the greater use of firearms.

Added to this have been the return of violent New Zealand-born gangster deportees from Australia, the involvement of large Asian criminal syndicates, and the interest of some Mexican cartels in New Zealand as a fresh market for cocaine.

Savage describes this book as “a collection of twelve of the most intriguing cases I’ve covered as a reporter”. There’s the Breaking Bad-scenario of the respectable chemist who set up NZ’s first meth lab. The networking of powerful gangs is documented, along with the savvy PR of some gang-leaders who have presented themselves as benefactors to society. We get the big bust related to a meth-laden inflatable that landed on 90 Mile Beach in 2016; and the even bigger bust when a huge haul of cocaine was intercepted in Tauranga.

Most, but not all, of Savage’s stories end with the police cracking the case and courts imposing heavy sentences. Police are prominent among Savage’s informants and their techniques take up almost as much space as the stories of gangsters and their bosses.

Savage’s style is largely solid factual reportage, only slightly sensationalised. The profusion of names can be confusing, when partners of, associates of, bosses of and rivals of criminals have to be mentioned in any given case. It’s informative, but in the end it’s also a dismal and depressing work. Real crime is sordid stuff, not like the version shown in the movies.



Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON” by George Orwell (first published 1933)

As I promised, after having considered on this blog all the works of fiction George Orwell wrote in the 1930s (Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up For Air) and making glancing comments on his two well-known later fictions (Animal Farm and 1984), I am now going to look carefully at Orwell’s three works of non-fiction, again all written in the 1930s.

Down and Out in Paris and London was Orwell’s first book to be published, in 1933, one year before his first novel Burmese Days, on which he had been working. Down and Out in Paris and London is Orwell’s account of the condition of poverty. A little more than half the book is taken up with Orwell’s experience in Paris, first living in a sort of penniless bohemianism, cadging food and cigarettes as best he could; then toiling as a plongeur [scullion] for very low wages in a couple of restaurants. He says: “Poverty is what I am writing about, and I had my first contact with poverty in this [Parisian] slum. 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 that reason that I try to give some idea of what life was like there.” (Chapter 1) Then, slightly shorter, the second section of the book has him suddenly leaving Paris, going back to England and adopting the life of a tramp, seeing how impoverished and deracinated men existed there.

But, even for the reader who hasn’t done much background research, there are immediately some oddities about this non-fiction. Why are we never told how Orwell came to be in a situation of destitution? We can’t help wondering why an Eton-educated, former imperial police officer should have no resources or contacts to draw upon if he was hard up. And why does he suddenly skip back to England? The book gives a rather feeble explanation for this sudden move (he says that out of the blue he was offered a job looking after a mentally-challenged child). We also can’t help noticing that the two halves of the book don’t quite fit together.

            As it turns out, there are reasons for these anomalies [and in this I am drawing on two biographies, Bernard Crick’s George Orwell, A Life and D. J. Taylor’s Orwell, the Life]. Orwell in fact had examined and already written articles about the life of British tramps before he went to Paris. When he went to Paris, he stayed there for a year-and-a-half, spending his time writing, trying to kick off a literary career and earning some money from essays and commentaries that were published in magazines. He wrote two novels which were never published and which he destroyed, and he began writing Burmese Days. His whole examination and experience of Parisian poverty took up just ten weeks of his year-and-a-half time in Paris – and it has been noted that in those ten weeks, he did live in one of the poorer quarters of Paris, but it was relatively respectable and far from the most impoverished. Not completely penniless, he was sometimes sent money by his eccentric aunt Nellie Limouzin. [In her attempted take-down of Orwell, Wifedom, Anna Funder mentions this as a new discovery, but it was already widely known]. However, there were times when he genuinely was without money.

When Orwell first presented his non-fiction to publishers, they all said it was too short to be published. It dealt only with his experience of poverty in Paris. Orwell was going to call it A Scullion’s Diary. So he did some more weeks as a tramp in England (supported by his parents) and expanded his book to include the section on English vagrants. Again two publishers rejected it, and it was finally picked up by Victor Gollancz. It was named Down and Out in Paris and London by Gollancz as a compromise after Orwell had mooted a number of possible titles. Eric Blair wanted to write under a pseudonym, and he suggested four or five names to Gollancz. It was Gollancz who picked “George Orwell” as the appropriate pseudonym and George Orwell he remained. Down and Out in Paris and London reads as one sequential narrative, beginning in Paris and ending among down-and-outers in London. In fact that was not the order which Orwell experienced in reality.

And, in his “documentary” book, there a moments that could be possibly be fiction or close to fiction. In Chapter 3, for example, he tells us that he had his money stolen by a fiendish Italian who knew how to pick locks, and this is what left him in poverty. In fact, as he admitted later in private letters, he was really robbed by a prostitute whom he had bedded. What more often concerns me is that Orwell frequently inserts long tales purportedly told to him by people he met. Thus (Chapter 2) the long tale told to him by a young man called Charlie who boasts about his sexual conquests. Or (Chapter 4) the Russian called Boris, formerly a tsarist army officer who tells his whole life story. Or (Chapter 15) the kitchen-hand Valenti, who tells in detail a story about getting money when he was starving. My problem here is that these tales are presented as if they are verbatim, in the speakers’ very own words, when it’s highly unlikely that Orwell heard them or preserved them that way… even assuming the tales were told at all.

            Are we then to see Down and Out in Paris and London as fiction or fraud? Oddly enough, the answer is an emphatic “No!” There is in this book much acute observation of reality in the best journalistic tradition. Let it be made clear that nearly every writer of travel books, reportage or expose, no matter how truthful, will rearrange the order of events to make a clearer narrative and will embroider or rewrite conversations and speeches heard but not preserved word for word. Orwell is simply following the same tradition. As for the title Down and Out in Paris and London, we can charitably suggest that it does not mean that Orwell himself was “down and out”, but that he was reporting on social classes who were “down and out”. Orwell was influenced by writers like Jack London with his The People of the Abyss [reviewed on this blog], published exactly 30 years before Down and Out in Paris and London and reporting on the slums of London. And in his passages about English tramps, he was fully aware of W. H. Davies’ TheAutobiography of a Super Tramp [reviewed on this blog]. In effect, Orwell  - except for a few weeks – was an observer and examiner of poverty, but really part of poverty for only a limited time.

            The first nine chapters are largely about a workless and therefore poor existence in an unsanitary, dirty room in a cheap, bug-infested hotel. Orwell shares with the Russian Boris various desperate means to raise a tiny amount of money, such as selling or pawning clothes. Boris is typical of the many Russian refugees from the Bolshevik Revolution who crowded into Paris in the 1920s. Orwell occasionally finds coins on the pavements, but they’re always just a few centimes. At one point he thinks he has secured a job writing for a Communist newspaper, but it turns out to be a fraud. Orwell, perhaps for the first time in his life,  experiences the pain of hunger: “Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one has been turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one’s blood has been pumped out and lukewarm water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger; that, and being obliged to spit very frequently… I do not know the reason for this, but everyone who has gone hungry several days has notice it.” (Chapter 7)

            So far, so relatively inconsequential. But the interest of Down and Out in Paris and London steps up from Chapter 10 to Chapter 23. Orwell gets a position as a plongeur in a large and fashionable hotel which is designated as Hotel X [the real name of the hotel was suppressed by Orwell and Gollancz for fear of facing a libel case]. Later he shifts to a smaller restaurant called the Auberge de Jahan Cottard. A plongeur can legitimately be called a scullion, but it means much more than one who does the dishes and scours the pots. Orwell counts most of the things he and his fellow plongeurs had to do: “ I don’t remember all our duties, but they included making tea, coffee and chocolate, fetching meals from the kitchen, wines from the cellar, and fruit and so forth from the dining-room, slicing bread, making toast, rolling pats of butter, measuring jam, opening milk-cans, counting lumps of sugar, boiling eggs, cooking porridge, pounding ice, grinding coffee – all this from a hundred to two hundred customers.”  (Chapter 11) Plongeurs are the lowest class in the hierarchy of the hotel. The cooks and the waiters are the most highly paid and the most prestigious people. Regarded by the community at large, “a plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world… His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive… [yet]. . . He earns his bread in the sweat of his brow, but it does not follow that he is doing anything useful; he may be only supplying a luxury which, very often, is not a luxury.” (Chapter 22)

            Shifts run from early morning to late at night, plongeurs have to work in poorly ventilated kitchens where food is cooked either in or over fires. The heat is overwhelming, everybody sweats profusely and sweat falls into meals about to be served. If food is dropped on the floor it is simply picked up and shoved on a plate to be served. The kitchens are filthy with dirt and grime… yet the customers believe they are getting clean and carefully prepared food, thanks to the smooth way the well-dressed waiters present the food .The work is exhausting. “It was amusing to look around the filthy little scullery and think that only a double door stood between us and the dining-room. There sat the customers in all their splendour – spotless table-cloths, bowls of flowers, mirrors and gilt cornices and painted cherubim; and here, just a few feet away, we in our disgusting filth. For it really was disgusting filth. There was no time to sweep the floor till evening, and we slithered about in a compound of soapy water, lettuce leaves, torn papers and trampled food.”   (Chapter 12)

            The plongeurs are not only underpaid but have very little time off… yet curiously, there is a sort of camaraderie among the plongeurs, and on Saturday they can always drink [too much] and sing in a shabby bistro. What Orwell sees is exploitation and wages barely enough to sustain a decent life. In spite of which some plongeurs are proud of their work.

            When it comes to the English section of the book, Orwell is not so concerned with lowly-paid toil as with outright vagrancy. He suggests that in England there must be approximately ten-thousand tramps. He presents himself as a tramp in London, selling his clothes for cheaper ones so that he can fit in more easily with other tramps. On the whole he finds London streets cleaner and better policed than in Paris. But there are strict laws that forbid vagrants to sleep in the open at night [this is mentioned in Jack London’s The People of the Abyss too]. So in London destitute men have to sleep in “spikes”, doss-houses, lodging-houses and other rather primitive forms of shelter. The worse shelters – meaning most of them – are small, cramped and unsanitary, with tramps virtually sleeping on each other in a miasma of disgusting smells made by the unwashed or never-washed.

            In his travels with the tramps, Orwell finds that most of them are wary of both charity and religion. In one shelter (Chapter 26), tramps are offered a free bun and a very good cup of tea, but it is run by evangelicals so the tramps have to listen to hymns and a sermon. The tramps – including Orwell – mock this. He is sure that the charity “was given in a good spirit, without any intention of humiliating us; so in fairness we ought to have been grateful – still, we weren’t.” Later (Chapter 29) Orwell has complained about how dirty so many shelters are, so he has to admit that Salvation Army shelters are scrupulously clean. But he writes: “To my eye these Salvation Army shelters, though clean, are far drearier that the worst of the common lodging-houses. There is such a hopelessness about some of the people there – decent, broken-down types who have pawned their collars but are still trying for office jobs. Coming to a Salvation Army shelter, where it is at least clean, is their last clutch at respectability….”(Chapter 29). Later (Chapter 33) tramps react to a religious ceremony which they watch from a balcony as their price for getting fed. Says Orwell: “It was a queer, rather disgusting scene. Below were the handful of simple, well-meaning people, trying hard to worship; and above were the hundred men who they had fed, deliberately making worship impossible… A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor – it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it.” (Chapter 33 )

            Orwell stoutly refutes the idea that all tramps are thieves or layabouts, insisting that they have been pushed into poverty by lack of work. He defends the beggary many of them have to practice. He says: “if one looks closely one sees that there is no essential difference between a beggar’s livelihood and that of numberless respectable people. Beggars do not work, it is said but then what is work? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A Beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course – but then many respirable trades are quite useless.”  (Chapter 31) [Come to think of it, it’s not much of a defence.]

            One important “character” in this book is an old Irish tramp called (inevitably) Paddy whom Orwell befriends. He walks the roads with Orwell and is always filled with optimistic chatter, though Orwell is amazed that Paddy (who is probably illiterate) knows so little about the state of the world. Even more interesting is Paddy’s friend Bozo, a “screever” (pavement artist) who draws his chalk images on the Embankment and other parts of London, except when the rain is falling. He is clearly not an idle man, but a professional, even if his work is a sort of begging. Bozo turns out to have his own philosophy, and surprises Orwell by having a great knowledge of astronomy.

            There are some chapters that appear gratuitous or “filler”, such as Chapter 32, where Orwell proceeds to tell us the meanings of words used by tramps and cockneys. He is also wary of talking about the homosocial (or homosexual) culture of tramps. He refers in passing to  nancy boys” and suggests older pederasts prey on them. (Chapter 29) But of course it would be hard to elaborate about this in a book published in 1933.

Apart from its disjointedness, Down and Out in Paris and London has some moments which would now offend many readers. There are some places where antisemitism is suggested. In Chapter 3, after an altercation with a Jewish buyer of second-hand clothes, Orwell says “It would have been a pleasure to flatten the Jew’s nose…” . Boris the Russian gives a full-blast anti-Jewish rant in Chapter 6. How antisemitic was Orwell?   D. J. Taylor devotes a chapter to this in his biography of Orwell and comes to the conclusion that Orwell was not antisemitic but sometimes spoke crudely as other Englishmen did when they were looking to insult people… and after the Second World War broke out, Orwell never said anything even mildly negative about Jews. Orwell did, however, have prejudices, and was often ready to belittle American tourists. Speaking of American tourists’ behaviour in French restaurants, he wrote: “They would stuff themselves with disgusting American ‘cereals’, and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet a la reine at a hundred francs, and then souse it in Worcester sauce.” (Chapter 14) “Disgusting American ‘cereals’” ??? Presumably Orwell assumed that English porridge was the only decent breakfast there was. Little did the poor chap know that just a few decades after he was writing, cornflakes and other “disgusting” cereals would become the mainstay of British breakfasts. As for the misuse of marmalade, vermouth and poulet a la reine … Oh my! Bring me my smelling salts!

In spite of all this, Down and Out in Paris and London remains an interesting survey of some levels of poverty over 90 years ago. It is still very readable and much of it is still relevant to social conditions.