Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933)

Poverty is what I’m writing about, and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum. (p.9)

This is George Orwell’s first published book. It is a book of two halves – a tale of two cities, in fact.

Eric Blair

George Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair. Eric was born in India in 1903 to an Imperial civil servant father. The family returned to England in 1907 and sent young Eric to prep school then to, surprisingly, managed to wangle him a scholarship to Eton. Good at sports (not least because of his gangling six-foot-two height) Eric’s poor academic record made it seem unlikely he’d get into Oxbridge so the decision was made to send him to join the Imperial Police Force in Burma in 1922.

Eric served for five years before quitting and returning to England in 1927, determined to make a career as a writer. (His time in Burma and his growing disillusionment with the empire is described in chapter 9 of The Road to Wigan Pier; a huge amount of background knowledge and observation went into his first novel, Burmese Days.) Eric took odd jobs while scratching together drafts of novels, but found it easier to write essays and factual descriptions.

By the late 1920s Eric was living in London and fascinated by the East End. He made the first of numerous forays into the world of the doss house, the spike or the kip, the very basic lodgings provided for tramps. It fed something in him to turn his back on his genteelly upper-class milieu and confront really grinding poverty. In fact, in Wigan Pier he explains that he returned from Burma feeling guilty at being one of the oppressors; he thought he could only throw off his guilt by really sinking himself into the life of the oppressed. The sights, sounds and people he met provided the material for the second – London – section of Down and Out in Paris and London.

In 1928 Eric went to live in a ragamuffin hotel in a poor quarter of Paris hoping, in the traditional manner, to become a writer. He stayed for nearly two years. The area is named the Coq d’Or quarter in the book, and he claims he lived there for a year and a half (p.14). Eric managed to sell some journalistic pieces to French journals, was ill and hospitalised for a while and, upon his release, had all his money stolen from a lodging house.

The first hundred pages of Down and Out detail the sights and sounds and smells of this shabby area, of the squalid hotel and its impoverished but colourful inhabitants. In the opening chapters, robbed of almost all his cash, Eric is living in complete poverty off what he could pawn, often going completely hungry for days on end. Then he teams up with an ex-waiter, an émigré Russian named Boris and, after many hopes and disappointments, he finally gets a job for a glorious month or so working very long hours but with a regular income, as a plongeur at a swanky hotel-restaurant off the Rue de Rivoli.

Against his better judgement he is persuaded by Boris to quit this job to help at a new venture, the Auberge de Jehan Cottard, which turns out not even to have been properly wired, plumbed or decorated. Eric helps with all this work while, yet again, virtually starving. Finally the auberge opens and he finds himself working even longer hours, in the furnace-like kitchen where the super-harassed staff and cook spend 17-hours a day shouting abuse at each other and preparing awful food.

Eventually, Eric can’t stand the squalor, the stress and the lack of sleep any more and cables a friend in London. The friend (referred to only as B.) sends back a fiver and the promise of a job in England looking after an invalid. Eric quits the auberge, says goodbye to Boris, packs his bags and takes the cross-Channel ferry back to Blighty in chapter 24.

Here Eric is devastated to find the invalid has upped stumps and gone to the continent, so he is once again thrown on his uppers, pawns his suit and changes into the smelliest old clothes and tries his luck at a variety of filthy doss houses. For the last 80 or so pages the narrative switches to London and the towns around it, detailing the squalid conditions in the different sorts of kips in and around London, as well as his encounters with other tramps and the short-lived friendships he makes.

This second part lacks the charge and joie de vivre of the first half. The irrepressible Russian optimism of Boris brings the Paris section to life, and also the hotel is a permanent base whose inhabitants he gets to know very well, drinking and carousing with them (when he is in funds). Also the depiction of the life of a plongeur in a smart hotel is genuinely fascinating, even gripping. You get a strong flavour of Paris with descriptions of trams and night noises and dawn over the city.

By contrast the second section is not really about London at all, since many of the kips are out of town. And because he is constantly on the move (many of the doss houses only let tramps stay for one night), even when he meets other tramps and gets to know them a bit, it is only for fleeting encounters. There are no real friends such as Boris, and none of the warm camaraderie of the Hotel des Trois Moineaux. Instead the dominant theme is of large groups of extremely poor, old and sick men stripping bare in squalid bath rooms, their bodies covered in sores and rashes, all of them forced to ‘wash’ in a couple of filthy metal bath tubs.

Eric Blair becomes George Orwell

The book marks Eric’s first use of the pen-name George Orwell. Apparently he didn’t want to publish it under his own name as he didn’t want his family or friends or literary contacts to know the squalor he’d been living in. He wanted to disassociate himself from his earlier scattered articles. And he had come to consider the surname ‘Blair’ as being ‘too Scottish’.

So he submitted a list of four possible pen-names to his agent and they both agreed on George Orwell, George sounding hearty and patriotic, Orwell from the river in Suffolk not far from Southwold where his parents had by this stage bought a house and where he often stayed. (The other three were P. S. Burton, Kenneth Miles and H. Lewis Allways.)

Anyway, the name has become set in stone and it shows the essentially comical and absurd transmutations of language and culture that a sleepy little river in Suffolk has come to be the adjective educated people around the world now use to describe a dystopian vision of a crushingly totalitarian future – Orwellian.

Aspects of poverty

Taken together these 200 pages provide a vivid picture of the life of poverty in the capital cities of the two main Western democracies in the early 1930s. The book established Orwell as a great writer of social reportage, a genre he was to excel in.

Early on in the Paris section Orwell lists the characteristics of poverty (chapter 3 – the entire text is available online courtesy of the fabulous George Orwell – The Complete Works website – I’ll link off to the relevant sections of the text, as appropriate).

For a start people think poverty must be very simple, but being poor is surprisingly complicated. You have to work out dodges and wheezes both to scrounge money or food, and to avoid the unnecessary commitments you can no longer afford. You have to fib to the laundress why you no longer send her your laundry; to the tobacconist why you no longer buy your baccy from him. You pay for a handful of vegetables but discover one of the coins is Belgian, which they refuse and, since you have no others, have to slink off without paying, covered in humiliation. You find yourself lying to people, and Orwell hated lying. (It is notable that Orwell’s humiliations are not ours e.g. bringing food home to eat in the hotel room is obviously a source of deep shame for him, whereas it’s commonplace today). Shops full of delicious food (this is Paris!) make you realise how starving hungry you are. Your starving mind tells you just to grab a baguette and run, but you are too afraid to even do that. Your self-loathing deepens.

To some extent all of this is compensated for by the one great positive aspect of poverty – it abolishes care for the future, because there is no future. There is only day-to-day survival, to eke out the little money you have, to calculate how to eat, drink and find somewhere to sleep, and then to waste the day working through the thousand and one mean dodges required to stay alive.

Comedy & character

One of the blurbs of an older edition describes it as being ‘a savage portrait of the lower depths’. It’s true that the dwelling on the hunger, squalor and humiliation of utter poverty is grim, but this is to overlook the fact that the book is full of humour. He describes the couple who live in his shabby hotel and make a living by the Seine selling the postcards in bags which usually include pornographic photos – only theirs contain pictures of the chateux of the Loire, which, when they open them, the purchasers are too embarrassed to return and ask for their money back.

The majority of the Paris experience describes his shared tribulations with his friend Boris, a Russian emigre whose bumptious optimism, encyclopedic knowledge of the military campaigns of Napoleon, swanking references to his many old mistresses, and incessant bad luck make him a triumphantly comic character.

When Orwell finally finds a job as a plongeur or kind of washer-up-cum-food-server in the hellish bowels of a swanky Paris hotel, his revelations of how filthy the whole behind-the-scenes operation is may come as a shock to many people (I’ve worked in posh pubs and in the kitchen at Royal Ascot where I quickly overcame my horror at the casual lack of hygiene of food preparation; what people don’t know won’t hurt them – probably).

He gives a particularly gloating description of how the best steak will be pawed and padded and its gravy licked first by the maitre d’, then by the waiter, their unwashed filthy fingers more likely than not drenched in hair oil and nicotine, and only once they’re satisfied will they wipe their fingermarks off the plate with a cloth and sally forth to present it as a work of art to the oblivious customer.

Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it. (p.72)

This isn’t ‘savage’; it is gloating at the way the rich are abused behind their backs. He gleefully claims that all French cooks without exception spit into the soup they’re making. The communist Magyar waiter at his next job tells Orwell that he sometimes wrings a dirty dishcloth into a customer’s soup ‘just to be revenged on a member of the bourgeoisie’ (p.101).

Orwell’s dissection of the hotel’s complex class system which demarcates, the maitre d’, the cooks, the waiters, and the plongeurs like himself is fascinating, wonderful reporting of an unknown world, and full of humorous touches. Take the Italian waiter who, after a big slanging match with a plongeur who has accidentally broken a wine bottle, threatens to cut the offender with a razor, lets forth a last stream of Italian abuse and farts contemptuously as he exits the first of the swing doors out of the fiery kitchen — only to completely transform his demeanour into stylish subservience as he exits the second door into the hotel dining room, gliding like a swan across the swish floor to the customer’s table where he presents the much-pawed dish with balletic grace, and standing attentively to serve. He was, Orwell, comments, a natural aristocrat (p.61). This and almost all of the scenes are wonderfully humorous and human.

Orwell gleefully explains how the food served at the hotel is average to poor – all the ingredients bought at local markets and the prices at least doubled; the wine is common vin ordinaire poured into posh bottles. The waiters live on tips and one of the many dodges among waiters is to get commission from champagne brands for every cork returned to them. The management are therefore at a loss what to do with the faddish American who orders for dinner a glass of hot water and salt. In the end they serve it and charge a ludicrous 25 Francs which the American pays without a murmur.

This comes among a sequence of broad humour at the expense of American guests who, Orwell suggests, deserve to be ripped off for their wealth, their faddishness and their lack of taste, who ‘seemed to know nothing whatever about food’ (p.74). It is an indicator of just how far away Orwell is from us that one of his prime proofs of how swinish Americans are is their habit of eating ‘disgusting American “cereals”‘ (p.74), a habit which had pretty much conquered the western world by the time I was a boy and shows no sign of going away.

An entire chapter, 17, is a wonderful description of the weekly piss-up in the cellar bar of the cheap hotel he lodged in, the Hotel des Trois Moineaux, with thumbnail portraits of the villainous characters who lived there and each got drunk in their own way. The ex-soldier who started the evening as a communist but got progressively more patriotic the more he drank, until he was easily baited into launching into a raucous version of La Marseillais until he is pinned down by two jokers while a third suddenly shouts ‘Vive l’Allemagne’ in his face and the whole room roars with laughter at his helpless rage – all this is deliberately comic and poignant, in fact the chapter is a masterpiece of mood and description.

Or take Charlie’s story about how he nearly got caught out in scam to diddle food from one of Paris’s hospital for pregnant mothers, in chapter 18. This is a straightforward comic anecdote.

Consideration of these two chapters brings out how short all of the chapters are. The Penguin paperback text stretches to 185 pages in total, divided into 38 chapters = an average of 4.8 pages per chapter. It is, then, a book of snapshots and anecdotes.

Typical is the pen portrait of Bozo the screever which makes up chapter 30. Less warm and funny than one of the Paris sections, it is nonetheless eye-opening and poignant on a number of levels.

Comparing Paris and London

All day I loafed in the streets, east as far as Wapping, west as far as Whitechapel. It was queer after Paris; everything was so much cleaner and quieter and drearier. One missed the scream of the trams, and the noisy, festering life of the back streets, and the armed men clattering through the squares. The crowds were better dressed and the faces comelier and milder and more alike, without that fierce individuality and malice of the French. There was less drunkenness, and less dirt, and less
quarrelling, and more idling. Knots of men stood at all the corners, slightly underfed, but kept going by the tea-and-two-slices which the Londoner swallows every two hours. One seemed to breathe a less feverish air than in Paris. It was the land of the tea urn and the Labour Exchange, as Paris is the land of the bistro and the sweatshop. (Chapter 25)

Politics

In chapter 22 Orwell gathers his thoughts on the life of a plongeur, considered as a kind of slave.

He presents two ideas. The weaker one is the idea that the upper classes and the liberal intelligentsia are both terrified of the mob and believe their best way of preventing a revolution in which they’ll be shot, their house burned, their precious library despoiled or end up forced to work in a lavatory, is to keep the terrifying working class in its place by forcing it to work all the hours God sends. This may have been a plausible interpretation in his day, but it’s not clear if there is a working class in that way any more. I read lots about the ‘gig economy’ these days but if people continue to work long hours in catering, retail and – especially – out in the fields picking crops, it is because there is a slander margin on these activities and they continue to be, despite all the crap about robots taking over, very labour intensive.

His second point is more pertinent, for he attacks the whole basis of ‘luxury’ and ‘hotels’. Are they really needed? I agree with him that they’re not, and that the so-called ‘luxury’ they provide is in fact trashy and fake – airport luxury, Dubai luxury. But then I am a Puritan like Orwell, I share his honesty, his hatred of cant and jargon, and his physical revulsion at luxury and comfort.

But having just got back from a holiday in Spain, from reading the daily papers with their ads for luxury products and holidays, and from watching daytime TV at the gym where it is beamed onto half a dozen screens, I can confidently say that we are in a minority. There will continue to be hotels and restaurants and bars and cafes because lots and lots of people like being served. Every day in Starbucks and all the other coffee chains, and food shops, and restaurants etc, people in the rich West like to be served. And from what I’ve seen of Arab countries, of Turkey and Greece, of India and south-east Asia, it is a universal pleasure to take a seat at an outdoors table, order a little coffee or chai, light up a cigarette and watch the world go by.

Luxury, no matter how fake, continues because people want it and enjoy it. It feeds the human spirit to be able to ‘take your ease at your inn’, to quote Falstaff.

London Labour

Orwell is on safer ground when presenting sociological material. Chapter 32 is a brief consideration of London slang and swear words. It starts with the slang for different types of beggars and the tools of their trade. This immediately put me in mind of Henry Mayhew’s epic and classic account of the livelihoods of the London poor in the 1840s, London Labour and the London Poor, a veritable encyclopedia listing and categorising hundreds of types of street worker, along with their stories and trade secrets in five enormous volumes. Orwell’s slender chapter is like a snowdrop next to an iceberg in comparison.


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

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