Orwell and Paddy set out for a spike that is sixteen miles away. Having spent the last several nights in London casual wards, they can’t risk staying in another city ward for a while—to do so could mean jail time—so they walk all the way to Cromley. The spike being closed, they walk a little further to a farm where they rest, along with a number of other tramps.
Hiking is a way of life for the London tramp mostly because of regulations that force them onto the streets day after day. The majority of tramps are not criminals and walk great distances to avoid the long arm of the law.
The tramps begin to tell stories. The first tale is about a tramp who committed suicide in the Cromley spike. Anyone who stays in his room will die within the year. Two sailors follow that story up with a grisly yarn of their own about a man who got himself stowed away in a packing crate bound for Chile. The man ended up in the bottom of the hold and suffocated to death. A third story concerns Gilderoy, the 17th century Scottish outlaw who, in reality, was put to death for his crimes, but, according to Orwell’s fellow tramps, escaped unharmed to America. The latter story is representative of a typical tramp tale, Orwell argues: like the legend of Robin Hood, altered to give the storytellers and their audience a shred of hope.
The mythology of the tramp is a bi-polar one. On one side of the spectrum, the stories deal with suicides, curses, and violent death. On the other are stories of rebels who, by living successfully on the fringes of society, have achieved not only freedom and fame but heroism. However, the reality of a tramp’s life is very much at the tedious midpoint of these two extremes. Instead of committing suicide in a cell or swashbuckling halfway across the world, he sits in a muddy meadow telling stories, waiting for his tea and two slices. Poverty is neither heroic nor morally corrupt.
The spike opens, and Orwell hears, courtesy of William and Fred, the same song a dozen times in the next two days. The song is “Unhappy Bella,” which tells the story of a young woman named Bella who is impregnated by a “wicked, cruel, heartless deceiver.” One night, while tramping through the snows, Bella freezes to death. William and Fred find the song hilarious. They are, Orwell says, total scallywags—the kind of crooked men who give other tramps a bad name.
Orwell basically ignores the plight of poor women, arguing that the bulk of London tramps are men. This oversight makes the story of unhappy Bella all the more intriguing. Whether her sad fate is shared by a great number of British women, Orwell doesn’t say, but the fact that William and Fred find her death funny does suggest that a virulent form of sexism runs through the London tramp population.
Orwell and Paddy set out for another spike. Again, they arrive before it opens, so Paddy begs at back doors, making enough money to afford a cup of tea. The young woman who serves it to them obviously does so reluctantly while dumb with fear. Paddy suggests that they sew their remaining money into their clothes to hide it from the warden of the spike. It’s against the law to enter a casual ward with money on hand, so anyone who enters in possession of cash is taking a big risk.
Not only do tramps have to walk long distances between spikes, they also have to take care to be penniless—or at least hide what money they have from the powers that be. Such laws are nonsensical and seem engineered to ensure that poor men remain impoverished.
Orwell relates a story about a working man who finds himself in a remote village without a room for the night. The man consults a tramp who suggests the local casual ward. The man then takes the tramp’s advice, sewing his 30 pounds into his coat. He pays the price for such deception, though, because the tramp that told him about the casual ward leaves the spike with the man’s coat and money, while the working man is sent to jail for thirty days for entering a spike under false pretenses.
Working men might think themselves clever and above the poor man, but Orwell has shown time and time again that the impoverished are forced by circumstance to rely on their cunning to survive. For once anyway, the poor man comes out on top. Also, the working man gets his just desserts for taking a bed from a poor man.