Gentlemen of the Road

Published by: mike on 11th Feb 2018 | View all blogs by mike


     ‘King Lear’ had it all.   Abandoned by a dysfunctional extended nuclear family, he was beset by homelessness, madness and inclement weather.  

     This blog is really to pass on a short extract from George Orwell. (Re: stories from Home) Orwell describes a night shelter. 

     I know the area where this doss house had been - off Waterloo Road in South London.  The streets around Waterloo Station have been regenerated to such an extent that even if a building still remains, it is unlikely to have the same function.    ‘

     Down and Out’ was written around 1932 and it is possible Orwell might still recognise some of the streets off Waterloo Road but he could now book a room at Travelodge who have a branch there. There is still plenty of social housing in the area but how much is now in private hands?  

    I went to Waterloo Road yesterday morning and was asked for money by three people - in the distance between Waterloo Station and the Old Vic - a walk of a few minutes.   

   I returned in the evening for the play and was again solicited for cash. 

   ( The play has not been popular and I got a stall seat for £10.  The theatre was thus full!   People talk about loneliness and, although I went on my own, I was among a crowd of people with a similar interest.  From this point of view, the £10 was well spent - though the cost of seats is often more than this.  I use the pedestrian version of ‘last minute!

    Somebody mentioned the children’s book ‘A Monster Calls.’  I saw an excellent film of the book and the ‘Old Vic’ will be producing a stage version later in the year.

   George Orwell would certainly have passed the ‘Old Vic’ which is at the junction of Waterloo Road and what is known locally as ‘The Cut‘    The ‘Cut’ has been transformed.  There is even a bookshop started by John Calder - Beckett’s publisher and there is tiny theatre in the rear of the shop.  The ‘Young Vic’ is on the other side of the road and an underground station on the Jubilee line links the area to the south London Docklands. The administration centre of the local college is there too. From the visual point of view, the surrounding streets are dominated by the railway arcades, passageways, bridges and railway lines to the station.

      But, sadly, these night shelters are still with us and we can only hope they have had a makeover.  St Mungos is represented in the local area but the branch is further downriver in Bermondsey.


  ...... ‘’It was a tall, battered-looking house, with dim lights in all the windows, some of which were patched with brown paper. I entered a stone passage-way, and a little etiolated boy with sleepy eyes appeared from a door leading to a cellar. Murmurous sounds came from the cellar, and a wave of hot air and cheese. The boy yawned and held out his hand.

         ‘Want a kip? That’ll be a ’og, guv’nor.’

         I paid the shilling, and the boy led me up a rickety unlighted staircase to a bedroom. It had a sweetish reek of paregoric and foul linen; the windows seemed to be tight shut, and the air was almost suffocating at first. There was a candle burning, and I saw that the room measured fifteen feet square by eight high, and had eight beds in it. Already six lodgers were in bed, queer lumpy shapes with all their own clothes, even their boots, piled on top of them. Someone was coughing in a loathsome manner in one corner....”


       It is remembered that Orwell recorded his vagabond experiences while seated in the local reference library and it was in such a library that I encountered ‘dossers’  who spent their afternoons reading the newspapers, or snoozing in a quiet corner as their ‘night shelter’ was shut during the day.    This was during the 1980’s.

     The docks have long gone - as has the reference library.   I wonder if the doss houses and boarding rooms had come into the existence because of itinerant work required for the working river,

     ‘A girl from the North Country’ - the play constructed around the songs of Bob Dylan - is the only recent play that I can think of which deals with the itinerant and dispossessed in a sympathetic manner. Perhaps this is why Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature?

     I can just about remember cranes along the Pool of London but I would have been a tiny tot.  A school that I might have attended is now a hotel behind ‘Potter’s Field’.  This is a small green space by Tower Bridge.  Behind Potter’s Field, are new luxury apartments. The school that was ‘St Olives’ is now the Lalit hotel and a very expensive hotel it is too!   This hotel might well cater for rich dignitaries going to the new London town hall which is a few minutes away.   I started a project a few years ago which would have been based along the south of the Thames where buildings contain ghosts of themselves but it was too difficult.

     Around the 1980’s  I discovered a grandfather who had been loitering among the bookshelves of my parents’ home.  His profession was that street busker on an international scale and wrote about his experiences.  A heroine of a novel is called ‘Zetta Grogetta’  The name has its origin in the grog shanties which were the missions for seafarers that were dotted along the sea routes of the British Empire.   The need for the missions has gone - along with the Empire.   Orwell’s doss house is closer to these doss houses of 1893 - Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee - than today.    


Last Wednesday I saw an opera by Phillip Glass.  Has anybody come across a connection between Glass and what is now termed ‘mindfulness?   I tried to write a comic take on the opera but it does not work.


1 Comment

  • mike
    by mike 6 months ago
    I hope recent news on charities will not put people off buying ‘Stories for Homes’ as the money does go to a named charity. In my opinion this is preferable to giving money when solicited by someone in the street. I do not mean sellers of ‘Big Issue’ or someone who has a sleeping bag and other evidence that he is homeless.
    There are so many demands from charities now.It is non stop. I did give coins to a charity soliciting after a recent performance of an Oscar Wilde play, But it was the cast who made the plea and was for a named charity and I enjoyed the evening out.
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