I received a George Orwell book for Christmas, a slim volume entitled Why I Write (1946) and I read it in a day. I was intrigued by this social -middle class- democrat Orwell who was genuinely interested in and improving the life chances of the poor working class. I’d read Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949) before I was fifteen or sixteen, and perhaps briefly joined the socialist party on the back of that, but I’d not read any of his other works. I immediately down loaded a gratis copy of Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) from the George-Orwell.org website and was blown away even from page one in chapter one by his novel-esque approach to autoethnography.
Even today the average reader can relate to a book like Down and Out in Paris and London with its depictions of the struggles of working people. The ‘Paris’ part of the ‘novel’ details the nameless narrator’s struggles to find work and then his time as a ‘plongeur’ or dish- washer in an up-market Parisian hotel.
I was moved by his research dedication and how he lived the life of his study group, the poor and the down and outs of Paris and London. And how he brought it front and centre to the attention of his middle class and intellectual readership. Inevitably it did start me reminiscing about my own upbringing and I felt the pain of a life without hope again as I did as a child.
Those dark days of poverty are never too far from my thoughts anyway, and as a parent I’m grateful that before he was killed. we gave Dominic everything we lacked in our childhoods, we even spoiled him in some people’s eyes. He didn’t care about money and possessions, even so, he never had to think about when he would eat next or where the money to pay the rent was coming from. It might be grasping at straws to think that he had a happy life because he never had to suffer poverty. Nonetheless, I think about the hope that we had for Dom and the hope that we nurtured in him, that I know in his early years he felt.
How do I connect myself with the down and outs in the doss houses of Paris and the flotsam in London? I should start with the jetsam of Liverpool.
From the age of seven I slept in the same bedroom as my mother, step father - who had moved in when I was seven - a younger brother and sister. The three children slept in a second double bed. Over the next couple of years, a half-brother was born who slept in the top draw of the bedroom cupboard. Within two years a half-sister appeared who took his place in the draw as he was put in the second double bed a month earlier. Eventually, my sister was moved out and slept in grandmother’s bedroom whose house it was. For a while though, seven of us slept in the same bedroom until my mother was offered a three-bed house on a sink estate fifteen miles away when I was eleven.
At grandma’s house, there was another single bedroom that we kids had shared prior to step father moving In, but there was more water and black-mould on the walls than wall paper, and you couldn’t get an A4 piece of paper between the beds, or between the beds and the walls.
The kitchen was even worse. It had the feeling of a very damp stone shed but with the luxury of a layer of Lino on top of the concrete floor. It was actually quite a big room but impossible to sit in. Its furniture included a push bike, a single dining chair against a wall, and a sky-blue pantry cupboard. A solitary light bulb without a shade sat in the centre of the ceiling on a discoloured greasy rose.
There was a coal fire place but it was never lit. I don’t know why, but in hindsight I can only assume that coal was at a premium. A four-ring gas oven was on the opposite wall and the only source of heat, but luckily it was burning every day. On the left-hand ring there was always a tall dull grey steel bucket on the boil, a pair of wooden handled tongs balanced on the top. This was a permanent feature even before the half siblings came along.
The only beauty and hope in the house, was when my mother drained and rung out the contents of the bucket and took me outside. She would proudly peg up a dozen white fluffy nappies on the backyard clothes line. It was always sunny during this activity, and I admired my mother for knowing what the weather was going to do.
I really liked being in the backyard, it was less cluttered than the house and the air felt clean. The best bit though was that the toilet was outside in its own little shed, like a guard’s pillbox but with a door. It was a haven from the cramped, cashless and mildewed interior, and was somewhere to sit down and read. Even in the winter, with a jacket on it was a place of solitude. Despite the cut-up newspaper on a string, a four-inch gap at the bottom of the door, it was comfortable and the 'toilet paper' always provided something else to read.
On the front right-hand ring of the cooker, sat a permanent pan of Irish stew that never seem to be empty. I remember thinking that my mother must have been given a wish by a Genie, and she had wished for a never-ending pan of stew. Occasionally, my mother would boil some cabbage, and she would drain off the cooking water into a cup, toss in some ground white pepper and give it to me as a treat. A lesser treat was when she boiled potato peelings to make soup.
Until I was eleven, I thought that I wet the bed. Every morning I would wake up and my pyjamas were soaked through, including the top. It was made worse by the plastic sheet that mother had to put under the nylon sheet, the liquid had nowhere to go. There was three of us in the bed and I was mortified that my brothers were sleeping in my pee.
It came to a head when the school organised a funded school trip for the summer. We were destined for Greenodd, a small village in the South Lakes of England. There was fell walking, football and lots of other activities planned. This was the biggest event in my life, I’d never heard of walking boots which was on the list of things to 'bring with,' but I didn’t care and took my second-hand trainers. I was so excited that despite being in bunk beds and in a dormitory, I was going to be in a bed on my own for the first time that I could remember. But, what if I was given the top bunk? What if the pee soaked through the mattress and dripped on to the boy in the bottom bunk? I would kill myself. I asked my mother what to do, and she told me 'not to drink anything after 6pm, go to the toilet before bed, and try to wake up if I felt my bladder was full'.
I remember that first night at the camp. I was shaking when I put my pyjamas on, and thought, I wonder if I can stay awake all night? Mother never suggested that, but it might work. I slipped into the crisp clean sheets and initially took a foetal position, trying to make myself as small as possible. I wasn’t sure if I did this through muscle memory, or in the false hope that if I did wet the bed no one would see me. The lights went out, no one could see me now anyway.
I don’t know how long I lay there, although I remember it was long enough for my eyes to get accustomed to the dark and if I raised my head I could pick out the shapes of many of the other bunk beds. Then nothing.
The banging in my head got louder and turned into a pillow fight as I woke. I remembered where I was and panicked but then felt that my pants were dry. I patted the bed in front and behind me without moving my body and that too was dry. I was still folded into the bed like a baby and with no wet patches I slowly begin to stretch. Firstly, I slowly pushed my legs towards the bottom of the bed like a young fold standing for the first time. I rolled on to my back, and my arms reached out to either side of the bed. Looking up at the ceiling which was the corrugated steel roof, I can’t remember ever being so happy.
I couldn’t stop smiling as I brushed my teeth and walked over to the dining hut with the other kids, and for the first time in primary school, not smelling of pee. That afternoon, that smug smile was wiped off my face after pushing Alan Pool in the stinging nettles when I couldn't catch up with him on the football pitch, and no one spoke to me for the rest of the school trip.
When I got home at the end of the week, my pyjamas were still dry but all my socks were wet because of the holes in my trainers. Mother wasn’t surprised about my pyjamas and told me, after the younger ones had gone to sleep, that the bed was still wet every night whilst I was away and it was my brother. I felt sorry for him, but she’d already taken him to the doctors to see what could be done.
The doctor felt it might be the divorce that triggered it, but probably the cramped conditions made it worse. I made some promises to myself that night.