It was exactly 30 years ago that George Orwell set the opening of his novel 1984: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Most people know Orwell for this novel, and his satirical tale Animal Farm. Less well known is that he was one of the great empathic adventurers of the twentieth century. In the following short clip from my RSA Animate The Power of Outrospection, I describe how Orwell learned to step into other people’s shoes when he became a tramp on the streets of East London in the late 1920s. Orwell was one of the major inspirations for my new book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution.
Here’s the one minute clip.
Roman Krznaric’s new book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution is out now.
3 thoughts on “Why George Orwell Became A Tramp”
Jack London also became/lived as a tramp on the streets of London and wrote “People of the Abyss”, but he’s not generally identified with empathy…He died in 1916..
Thanks for your comment Jim. Jack London actually gets a brief mention in my book Empathy (though he was pretty rude about some of the inhabitants of the East End in People of the Abyss!). Beatrice Webb is another forgotten figure who went down and out on the streets of East London.
Orwell became a tramp for a number of reasons. He knew he despised the hypocrisy of the class into which he was born and the Empire for whom he worked. He instinctively sided with the oppressed and the disadvantaged but was keenly aware that his upbringing meant he actually knew little or nothing of the people whose cause he sought to advance. He deliberately put himself into difficult situations in order o understand them better. This involved extremes, from getting arrested for being drunk and disorderly to serving with the POUM in the Spanish Civil War and of course, his time as a tramp. He knew that he could not possibly write on these subjects unless he had actually experienced them for himself. He had sufficient insight to know that he would never be ‘of’ the working classes, and he admits to snobbishness at times but he went further than most in researching his subject matter. I have long been an admirer of Orwell’s work, and I too spent some years on the road, street homeless. What I found most shocking was that Orwell’s accounts of the hardships and indignities, of which there are hundreds, little has changed. Indeed, what changes there have been, many have been for the worse. Personally, I always found Orwell the journalist far more compelling than Orwell the novelist. Orwell’s passion and clarity were only possible from actually having lived the life and there is much we as a society could learn from him today. If we so wished.