slumming and the london literary line
From Jeffrey Meyers’s Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation:
The Paris-born poet and translator Eduoard Roditi, who met Blair through the Adelphi in 1931, described how his gnawing social conscience prevented them from enjoying a decent meal or a walk through town. When Blair adopted his Jeremiah persona, he became a comically lugubrious companion. As they dined together, Roditi recalled, Blair described, “as if to discourage me from eating, the filthy conditions that he had observed in the kitchens and pantries of so many of the restaurants where he had worked.” After lunch they assiduously avoided the parks and wandered for several hours “in some of the most depressing areas of London.”
Obviously, Orwell didn’t invent this posture (pose?) but he does seem to me to be the trunk-line of its transmission from the slummy wanderings of Dickens and the like in the mid-19th century toward a whole genealogy of descendants, from Ballard through Sinclair and on to Petit, Keillor, Self, and the like. Flaneurerie cut with particularly English class pathology, psychogeography determined in its wandering but the subtle sense that the proles are having more and more gamey fun in the alleys behind their low pubs.
In my continuing efforts to understand London, this is one of those small differences from New York in literary-cultural stance that seems to me softly definitive. While of course I’m sure we can all come up with exceptions, it does seem to me to be the case that this pathologically-tinged practice of literary types has no real analogue in New York. New York writers gentrify, yes, in their real estate decisions and affectual preferences. But despite the fact that I was hanging out in New York with types, who if they were over here, would be likely candidates to drag you out for a walk amidst riverfront wastelands and crumbling council estates, it simply never happened in New York.
There are some practical negative reasons for this, first and foremost perhaps the fact that hipsters hanging out in the open spaces of the Red Hook projects with their digital cameras could well risk coming to an unseemly end. (An unfilmed episode of The Wire – a show which allows us to do our slumming in the safety of our living rooms, and which of course was more intensely loved in the UK than the US….) But it’s probably more than just that. Risking a sloppy generalization here, the difference between the two places does seem to reflect the fundamental psycho-ideological divide between the cultural classes of the two places. On the one hand: the persistent invisibility of class, even for those Americans whose vocation it is to render the invisible visible. On the other hand: the absolutely determinative suffusion of class, which goes well beyond a healthy acknowledgement of its efficacy as a social fiction, and on toward something like an unshakeable belief in its terminal and ineluctable reality…. An unshakeable belief and the distortions and misdirections and parapraxes engendered by such a belief….