George Orwell recalls an interesting anecdote in the “As I Please” column published on this date, December 1, in 1944:
Readers of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) will be familiar with mudlarks: “The[y] collect whatever they happen to find, such as coals, bits of old-iron, rope, bones, and copper nails . . .” Orwell continues:
“I was intrigued and asked what mudlarks were. She explained that in those days professional beggars, known as mudlarks, used to sit under the bridge waiting for people to throw them pennies. The pennies would bury themselves deep in the mud, and the mudlarks would plunge in head first and recover them. It was considered a most amusing spectacle.”
I remembered the scene in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) when Joe Burdett (Claude Akins) throws a coin into a barroom spittoon and waits for Dude (Dean Martin) to fish it out. In the nineteenth century, tourists visited insane asylums to laugh at the inmates. There persists a human impulse to revel in the humiliation of others. Think of it as an exercise in applied Schadenfreude. Visit a playground or locker room and you’ll see it in action. Orwell sounds rather naïve in his conclusion:
“Is there anyone who would degrade himself in that way nowadays? And how many people are there who would get a kick out of watching it?”
Say what you like, things do change superficially, not essentially.