I'm reading George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris in London at the moment, having rather a lot of time to myself and little else to do.
There aren't many similarities between my current situation and Orwell's experience - for a start, I'm not in abject poverty and Orwell's celebrated memoir described some very tough times in the 1930s.
But I have now joined the ranks of the down-and-outs in south-west London. OK, so being unemployed in Balham is not quite the same as being forced to pawn your only overcoat, or having to work eighteen-hour days as a plongeur in a filthy Paris hotel. But, like Orwell in Down and Out, it does expose you to meeting people who don't do the traditional nine 'til five day, and the sorts of characters you will never meet stuck in the office. A person without a job and who lacks structure in their life gets stuck in a very strange, basic sort of existence, as Orwell finds even more so in the second part of the book.
In the relative affluence of Abbeville Road, where I went for a mid-morning latte today after visiting my GP, there are plenty of people inhabit the coffee shops in daytime because they've either got kids, are retired or they're not working for some other reason. A much stereotyped 'yummy mummy' gossips about a friend who's doing Versace's advertising and an argument rages in an Italian cafe across the street. In Starbucks, a well-dressed, Wildesque figure with a long-flowing mane greets from the terrace:
"Good-day to you sir, would you fetch my drink from inside?". He pointed to his cane, and a cigarette in his other hand, thus rendering it impossible for him to safely convey his iced hot chocolate from the counter.
I brought the drink out and took a seat next to him, hoping to make the most of the sunshine. James David Cameron (no relation to the film director or the Tory leader) wore a crisp linen jacket and had a colonial air about him. He seemed relieved that I was reading the Guardian, a 'friend of mine' and acknowledged everyone who passed through for their morning coffee. Some ignored him, others had a cheerful greeting for him. He complained loudly to the staff about the lack of whipped cream on his drink and the wobbly tables. He even managed to give graphic accounts of his sex life with his girlfriend. A Bulgarian woman was gently teased about her poor spoken English. Cameron excitedly told anyone who'd listen about his upcoming role as an extra in a film with Russell Crowe - and "did I want to be in it too, £3,000 for a fortnight's work?" He insisted on taking my number, just in case.
It seemed appropriate to meet James after watching an outdoor screening of Withnail and I last night, for unlike Richard E. Grant's character he made unemployment seem so civilized. But , who desperately tries to appear superior and aloof despite his alcohol and drugs binges, there was nothing incapable about James apart from having suffered from MS since he was 17. The self-styled "Lord of Abbeville Road" was engaging and entertaining, and pleased to have company.
So, here's to being a 'bum', and as my friend Greg and I have recently discovered, you can 'rest' in style, and have a lot of fun at other people's expense whilst you're doing it!