Tea and sympathy in Orwell’s world

My younger daughter, elder god-daughter, and their friends are out tonight sleeping in boxes in solidarity with the people of our region who sleep that way regularly, and not by choice. Needless to say, I am proud of them. It also seems as good a time as any to add a reflection which has been building in my mind over the past several weeks and months:


In the months since I was ordained, conversations with other clergy and church folks has often turned to how we help the people who come to the church in times of material need. At some point, it is usually said that we are in dereliction of our duty if we do not use these requests – which are often quite straightforward in their presentation (I need $X for a housing deposit; I need food for X number of people until Tuesday; I need bus fare from A to B for a job interview/family funeral/ride home from jail) – as opportunities for evangelism.

At which point, the argument is usually made that offering help where we can, or dignified refusal, referrals, and inquiries about other ways we might help where we can’t fulfill the request as presented, is in itself evangelistic. We act out the gospel by loving the one who comes to our door in the best way that we can, doing them the courtesy of answering the question they ask, rather than the one we think they should be asking.

Which is unsatisfying in many ways, because so little is changed by the encounter. A little short-term relief is offered. A vaguely quantifiable amount of good feeling about the church/religious people may be engendered in the one helped; equally, resentment towards the charitable giver might be solidified (no one likes to be dependent upon strangers).

And we ourselves are not Jesus: however much we read into or out of the scriptures about his encounters with those who came to him for help, and let them shape our own responses, as well we should; however the wise words of St Theresa of Avila, “Christ has no body now but yours,”* challenge us, and challenge us they do; still, we ourselves are not God incarnate, but mere images, just like those who see themselves mirrored in our eyes.

So if we do push further into someone’s life than we are invited, are we doing it for their sake, for God’s sake, or to feel as though we have done better? And if we stand back, is it for the sake of their dignity, or because of our own guilt, helplessness, and the shame it engenders in us?

You can tell that I am far from having this sorted out. I continue to pray through it, and to pray for those whom I encounter in times of need, whether I pray with them or not. As I do, I am aware that the ideas that we absorb growing up shape with heavy hands the ideas that we express as adults, since I remember with absolute clarity the passages from George Orwell’s accounts of adventure in the land of poverty relating to religious charity that I read as a young teenager, and they are cautionary tales told to my developing vocation. I offer them as food for thought:

 “At about five the Irishman said, ‘Could you do wid a cup o’ tay? De spike don’t open till six.’

‘I should think I could.’

‘Well, dere’s a place here where dey gives you a free cup o’ tay and a bun. Good tay it is, Dey makes you say a lot o’ bloody prayers after; but hell! It all passes de time away. You come wid me.’

He led the way to a small tin-roofed shed in a side-street, rather like a village cricket pavilion. About twenty-five other tramps were waiting. A few of them were dirty old habitual vagabonds, the majority decent-looking lads from the north, probably miners or cotton operatives out of work. Presently the door opened and a lady in a blue silk dress, wearing gold spectacles and a crucifix, welcomed us in. Inside were thirty or forty hard chairs, a harmonium, and a very gory lithograph of the Crucifixion.

Uncomfortably we took off our caps and sat down. The lady handed out the tea, and while we ate and drank she moved to and fro, talking benignly. She talked upon religious subjects – about Jesus Christ always having a soft spot for poor rough men like us, and about how quickly the time passed when you were in church, and what a difference it made to a man on the road if he said his prayers regularly. We hated it. We sat against the wall fingering our caps (a tramp feels indecently exposed with his cap off), and turning pink and trying to mumble something when the lady addressed us, There was no doubt that she meant it all kindly. As she came up to one of the north country lads with the plate of buns, she said to him:

‘And you, my boy, how long is it since you knelt down and spoke with your Father in Heaven?’

Poor lad, not a word could he utter; but his belly answered for him, with a disgraceful rumbling which it set up at sight of the food. Thereafter he was so overcome with shame that he could scarcely swallow his bun. Only one man managed to answer the lady in her own style, and he was a spry, red-nosed fellow looking like a corporal who had lost his stripe for drunkenness. He could pronounce the words ‘the dear Lord Jesus’ with less shame than anyone I ever saw. No doubt he had learned the knack in prison.

Tea ended, and I saw the tramps looking furtively at one another. An unspoken thought was running from man to man – could we possibly make off before the prayers started? Someone stirred in his chair – not getting up actually, but with just a glance at the door, as though half suggesting the idea of departure. The lady quelled him with one look. She said in a more benign tone than ever:

‘I don’t think you need go quite yet. The casual ward doesn’t open till six, and we have time to kneel down and say a few words to our Father first. I think we should all feel better after that, shouldn’t we?’

… Bareheaded, we knelt down among the dirty teacups and began to mumble that we had left undone those things that we ought to have done, and done those things that we ought not to have done, and there was no health is us. The lady prayed very fervently, but her eyes roved over us all the time, making sure that we were attending. When she was not looking we grinned and winked at one another, and whispered bawdy jokes, just to show that we did not care; but it stuck in our throats a little. No one except the red-nosed man was self-possessed enough tot speak the responses above a whisper. …

The prayers lasted half an hour, and then, after a handshake at the door, we made off. ‘Well,’ said somebody as soon as we were out of hearing, ‘the trouble’s over. I thought them ___ prayers were never goin’ to end.’

‘You ‘ad your bun,’ said another; ‘you got to pay for it,’

‘Pray for it, you mean. Ah, you don’t get much for nothing. They can’t even give you a twopenny cup of tea without you go down on you ___ knees for it.’

There were murmurs of agreement. Evidently the tramps were not grateful for their tea. And yet it was excellent tea … I am sure too that it was given in a good spirit, without any intention of humiliating us; so in fairness we ought to have been grateful – still, we were not.” (Down and Out in Paris and London, chapter 26 extracts)


“At half-past eight, Paddy took me to the Embankment, where a clergyman was known to distribute meal tickets once a week. UnderCharing CrossBridgefifty men were waiting, mirrored in the shivering puddles. Some of them were truly appalling specimens – they were Embankment sleepers, and the Embankment dredges up worse types than the spike. …

Presently the clergyman appeared and the men ranged themselves in a queue in the order in which they had arrived. The clergyman was a nice, chubby, youngish man, and, curiously enough, very like Charlie, my friend in Paris. He was shy and embarrassed, and did not speak except for a brief good evening; he simply hurried down the line of men, thrusting a ticket upon each, and not waiting to be thanked. The consequence was that, for once, there was genuine gratitude, and everyone said that the clergyman was a ___ good feller. Someone (in his hearing, I believe) called out: ‘Well, he’ll never be a ___ bishop!’ – this, of course, intended as a warm compliment.” Down and Out in Paris and London, chapter 33 extracts)

Extracts copied from George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, Kindle Edition

*Christ has no body but yours, No hand, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world, Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now but yours.  – Theresa of Avila

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2 Responses to Tea and sympathy in Orwell’s world

  1. Beth Billings says:

    Sometimes I think that it is a very small thing- an unstinting response to a straightforward request that makes all the difference in the world. I know the argument against it leans heavily on the evils of creating dependence. It just seems to me that in giving what is asked we are answering a prayer and that alone may be enough to change the course of a life. That attitude costs, though, because it makes the giver painfully aware that you can’t fill the bottomless pit of need in the world, can you? Can you?

    • I think that’s the appeal of the Embankment clergyman; he has the humility to know that he is doing only the very little that he can, and he is suitably embarrassed and even ashamed that such a situation exists for these men. I hope that he uses some of the rest of his time agitating for social reform …

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