Orwell’s surviving diaries begin in the early 1930s, when he was tramping around England, sleeping rough and picking hops and going down mines and generally chronicling the life of the poor. One night, he writes, “it came out that of about fifteen people round the fire, everyone except myself had been in prison.”
While staying in working-class Wigan, Orwell happens upon a woman, “youngish but very pale and with the usual draggled exhausted look, kneeling by the gutter outside a house and poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe, which was blocked. . . . At that moment she looked up and caught my eye, and her expression was as desolate as I have ever seen.” As Davison reminds us, Orwell expanded this entry into a noted passage of “The Road to Wigan Pier,” but diminished something of its emotional sharpness.
All this is, obviously, terrific material, and compulsively readable. So, too, are entries such as this early one, for Aug. 27, 1931: “At about eight in the morning we all had a shave in the Trafalgar Square fountains, and I spent most of the day reading
.” This last is a short French novel by Balzac, and Orwell the hobo adds that it “was the only book I had brought with me.” (It seems an odd choice for a man trying to pass as a Cockney.) Orwell goes on:
“The sight of a French book produced the usual remarks — ‘Ah, French? That’ll be something pretty warm, eh?’ etc. Evidently most English people have no idea that there are French books which are not pornographic. Down and out people seem to read exclusively books of the Buffalo Bill type. Every tramp carries one of these, and they have a kind of circulating library, all swapping books when they get to the spike [i.e. workhouse].”
In such a passage, one detects the first sign of Orwell’s fascination with popular culture, a fascination that led to the groundbreaking essays on seaside post cards (“The Art of Donald McGill”), pulpy crime fiction (“Raffles and Miss Blandish”), the adventure stories of childhood (“Boy’s Weeklies”) and the genius of Rudyard Kipling and P.G. Wodehouse. Unfortunately, this is virtually the only time that Orwell even mentions a work of literature. You would never know from the subsequent diaries that he read anything except seed catalogues and newspapers.