As part of the Orwell Society’s participation in London Bridge Live 2017
we invited responses from travellers. Here is one.
“Some lie to expose”: Orwell, London Bridge and me, 1968
by Richard Gray
At the foot of the bridge, the traffic is gridlocked, the Standard’s headline is about Brexit – again – and refugees beg.
I think back to a morning in 1968 when, at this spot, I said au revoir to a smiley French couple who stopped their 2CV for me on the outskirts of Paris and brought me all the way here. Heading north, they insisted on crossing the river at this point because I mentioned that George Orwell stayed in a Tooley Street dosshouse.
Orwell had dominated our journey to Calais. We started with Down and Out in Paris and London. The couple’s smiles broadened at my experiences in their city. When I said I’d slept under the Pont Neuf in my hero’s honour, they laughed out loud.
By the time we saw signs to “La Manche”, we were onto the 1945 essay about nationalism and patriotism. Over a drink in the ferry bar, we agreed that things had moved on. We deplored all frontiers and toasted ourselves, the youth of Europe, who would abolish our elders’ every absurdity, East and West. One day, I joked, there might be a Channel tunnel.
At Dover, an immigration officer leaned through the window.
“How much money are you bringing into the United Kingdom?”
The couple had less than £20.
“It’s all right, we’re friends”, I said. “They’re staying at my place”.
We were taken to separate interview rooms. Our stories failed to match.
“Who can guarantee funds?” asked a more senior officer.
I told him to phone my parents.
We had another laugh on the way through Kent. The couple were the happiest people I had met all summer, except a group of revellers on a roof in Istanbul, whose stoned mirth did not count.
As I waved them off, I was happy too. My plan of “bumming around Europe” had worked out, not only in time but distance covered. I had stretched Mr Wilson’s £50 foreign travel allowance as far as it would go, and then some.
Yet my hitchhiker’s odyssey had not all been fun. Things had turned serious on a beach in Greece, where I unrolled my sleeping bag next to a boy called Jan. He told me his name as the sun sank into the Aegean, adding that he was a student in Prague. He was not on vacation, but escaping Brezhnev’s tanks. He had witnessed another Jan set fire to himself in Wenceslas Square. In Paris I joined an anti-Soviet march. Many beside me were veterans of “les evênements de Mai” – defeated but defiant in the Jardin des Tuileries.
Now I had less than a shilling. It was time to head for South Devon, to find my family. The A303 was a long walk, via suburbs which, though Orwell had trudged through them for Down and Out, held little other interest. Before setting off, I wandered onto the bridge. Modern incarnations of the commuters described by his contemporary, TS Eliot, passed me. At least, before their undoing, these Prufrocks would have been able to dip their spoons in cups of coffee. Could I afford one? I took out my coins: a sixpence, a threepenny bit and a penny – George V, 1923, my dad’s year of birth. Should I blow them on breakfast or use them to get as far as possible towards somewhere to hang out my thumb?
Uploaded October 31st 2017