The George Orwell Challenge – Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)

Down and out in Paris and LondonOrwell had used his experiences living in deliberate poverty in Paris and London to create material for essays that had already been published, including Hop Picking and Common Lodging Houses. In 1930 he wrote an account of all his Paris experiences, including working as a plongeur (washer-up and general dogsbody) in restaurants, but it was rejected by publishers Jonathan Cape. The following year he added his London memoir to the first part, but this larger version was still rejected, this time by Faber and Faber. Editorial director T S Eliot wrote “We did find it of very great interest, but I regret to say that it does not appear to me possible as a publishing venture.” He left the manuscript with Mabel Fierz, an older woman with whom Orwell had a relationship and who was keen to help young authors, and she sent it to an agent who thought it would be a perfect fit for the new publishing house Victor Gollancz. And, subject to a few changes, it was! Initial sales were low, but it was taken up by Penguin seven years later, when Orwell was a much more established writer, and reprinted, to greater success.

The book is simple in structure; thirty-eight short chapters in two clearly separate parts, the first twenty-three describing his time in Paris and the rest of the book covering his return to London. It opens with an epigraph: O scathful harm, condition of poverte! from the Man of Law’s Prologue in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Living in poverty is the miserable, evil, and unifying thread that runs throughout the book, so it’s a good choice for an epigraph. Down and Out in Paris and London is narrated in the first person, as a memoir; you sense that every word he says is true and this encourages you to keep reading, to share at first hand in his (largely poverty-stricken and grimy) experiences. Orwell indicated in his introduction to the French edition of the book that everything he writes about is more or less true, just with some flexibility on the characters he meets, the order in which things happen, and natural writers’ exaggeration.

This blog post isn’t an attempt by me to write a “proper” piece of literary criticism, it’s just my own reflections on the book and some of its aspects that particularly jumped out at me as I was reading it. I first read the book when I was eighteen and it had a strong effect on me. But I could remember few of the details, apart from Orwell’s advice that you should always take a flyer from someone in the street if it is offered (or even if it isn’t): “When you see a man distributing handbills you can do him a good turn by taking one, for he goes off duty when he has distributed all his bills.” I’ve always put that into practice, even if I’m not remotely interested in what the flyer has to say. It’s the reason that I always come back with dozens of them whenever I’m walking about during the Edinburgh Fringe!

If there’s one message that comes out from this book more than any other for me it’s Orwell’s ability to make the best of a bad situation and how he offers the reader advice so that you can do the same. One of the eminently practical things about Orwell’s writing is that he doesn’t just describe a bad situation and then bemoan the lot of anyone who has to endure it. By making the best of every situation, and also describing how others do the same, he has created a remarkably uplifting book, considering the poverty and degradation strewn on its pages. For example, his first description of life in the Rue Coq d’Or includes the story of the Bulgarian student who makes intricate and elegant shoes all morning before attending lectures at the Sorbonne. He’s someone who is obviously on his way up and out of trouble, much to Orwell’s admiration. An example of Orwell offering advice on how to cope with a bad situation is when he tells how, if you burn sulphur, you can drive the bugs marching around the floor of your room into the next door room – very helpful advice when you’re besieged by them. Also he tells us: “you can live on a shilling a day in Paris if you know how. But it is a complicated business.” He has advice on how not to look destitute even when you are, describing how Boris the Russian soldier “managed to keep a fairly smart appearance. He shaved without soap and with a razor-blade two months old, tied his tie so that the holes did not show, and carefully stuffed the soles of his shoes with newspaper. Finally, when he was dressed, he produced an ink-bottle and inked the skin of his ankles where it showed through his socks. You would never have thought, when it was finished, that he had recently been sleeping under the Seine bridges.”

Spike cell roomsHe also offers solutions for society to escape from bad situations. He has a range of ideas for stopping the continuous problem of tramps in England – specifically in London – roaming the streets pointlessly and dejectedly. They could, for example, be given work on farms to grow their own food. Or they could put an end to the rule that a tramp could not stay at the same casual ward within a thirty day period, which therefore requires him to stay on the road rather than attempt to set down roots.

Hammer and SickleOne tends to think of Orwell as a political writer, but in this book there is no sense of identifying with any one political party. What does come across is that Orwell is strongly on the side of the working man, but not the shirking man. He has little time for the Communist waiter Jules, who stands on the side-lines and watches whilst everyone else breaks their backs trying to get the Auberge de Jehan Cottard ready for opening: “Boris and I did all the work. Jules was skulking…” Orwell doesn’t pass comment on how Jules puts his communism into practice – but he doesn’t have to. “Did any man alive ever see me working when I could avoid it? No, And not only I don’t wear myself out working, like you other fools, but I steal, just to show my independence. Once I was in a restaurant where the patron thought he could treat me like a dog. Well, in revenge I found out a way to steal milk from the milk-cans and seal them up again so that no one should know. I tell you I just swilled that milk down night and morning […] it wasn’t that I wanted milk, you understand because I hate the stuff; it was principle, just principle.”

Orwell describes Jules has having a “curious, malignant spirit”. He goes on: “he told me, as a matter of pride, that he had sometimes wrung a dirty dishcloth into a customer’s soup before taking it in, just to be revenged upon a member of the bourgeoisie.” Jules is an angry and hostile man; a man driven by vengeance and selfishness. He’s one of Orwell’s most vividly drawn characters in this book – of which there are plenty – and one wonders if he was perhaps the first true communist that Orwell ever met, which might inform his opinions about communism that we will characterise future works. He’s also very different from the other waiters that Orwell gets to know in Paris, who approach their work from a completely opposite direction. “Never be sorry for a waiter” he stresses. “Sometimes when you sit in a restaurant, still stuffing yourself half an hour after closing time, you feel that the tired waiter at your side must surely be despising you. But he is not […] he is thinking, “one day, when I have saved enough money, I shall be able to imitate that man”. He is ministering to a kind of pleasure he thoroughly understands and admires. And that is why waiters are seldom Socialists, have no effective trade union, and will work twelve hours a day […] they are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.”

This observation, about the nature of waiters, is typical of Orwell’s writing style, in that it is a clever mix of pure journalism and social commentary, part factual, part gossip, part truth, part inference. With great lightness of touch, he can express a complex issue in a simple sentence – so that you feel you’ve absolutely grasped what he’s trying to convey. He devotes a considerable amount of time in the book discussing the life of tramps, and what can be done to ameliorate their position, and how the rest of society regards them; but he sums it up beautifully in the phrase “a tramp is only an Englishman out of work, forced by law to live as a vagabond”. His friend Boris tells a story of a Russian duke who swindles restaurants and waiters by getting them to pay for his meals, playing on his status as being a guarantee of his integrity (wrongly). Orwell infers that the duke made quite a lot of money that way, and that probably the waiters did not mind being swindled. His summing up: “A duke is a duke, even in exile” expresses the rationale perfectly.

He’s delightfully matter-of-fact in dealing with some of the desperate aspects of the poverty-stricken life. One night, whilst he is working long hours as a plongeur, a murder takes place right outside his lodgings. Everyone in the house is awoken by the noise and disruption; they get up and see what’s happened for themselves. But that is all. “We just made sure that the man was done for, and went straight back to bed. We were working people, and where was the sense of wasting sleep over a murder?” There’s another passage where Orwell encapsulates the reality of employing plongeurs, who are a vital element of the restaurant trade but simply not to be trusted: “the food we were given was no more than eatable, but the patron was not mean about drink; he allowed us two litres of wine a day each, knowing that if a plongeur is not given two litres he will steal three.”

Other lines and descriptions just shout out from the pages, capturing the reader’s imagination and understanding. He describes the moment when you realise that thousands of people in Paris work long hours with no hope of ever doing anything else, as “a good cure for self-pity”. Tramps gathering outside a church in the hope of a free tea are “like kites round a dead buffalo.” In a Paris restaurant, the fewer the waiters involved in the preparation of your meal, the greater the chance it will be clean: “roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it.”

Orwell does seem to have caught some of the French scorn for the well-to-do foreign clients staying at the Hotel X; they “seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American “cereals”, and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet à la reine at a hundred Francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce. One customer, from Pittsburg (sic) dined every night in his bedroom on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.” He recognised that waiters are snobs, and he has become snobbish himself.

Men outside a Common Lodging HouseOne thing that did strike me about the book is how relevant much of it is today. Whilst we no longer have common lodging houses, we do have Houses of Multiple Occupation, which, like in the 30s, need to be licensed and have to meet certain standards. Similarly there are no casual wards today, but there are shelters for the homeless. The meal ticket swindle, where vouchers worth sixpence were given to the tramps but were redeemed at an eating-house for only fourpence worth of food – thus having the proprietor effectively stealing twopence from each tramp – is strongly reminiscent of the recent scandal where school meal vouchers were exchanged for hampers containing food worth less than half the value of the voucher; basically, there’s always someone there to make money from the disadvantaged. Orwell could see there was no end to this type of swindle: “this kind of victimization is a regular part of a tramp’s life, and it will go on as long as people continue to give meal tickets instead of money.” And Paddy, Orwell’s Irish tramp companion, saw “all foreigners” as “dem bloody dagoes” – for, according to his theory, foreigners were responsible for unemployment.” Rightly or wrongly, that was one of the reasons people voted for Brexit. Things don’t change as much as we think they do.

The Orwell of this book enjoys his own company; he’s perfectly happy being solitary, taking rooms on his own, writing his essays, observing others. When poverty kicks in, necessity requires him to work alongside other people. But whether he’s on his own or with others, it’s the characters that flit in and out of his life – especially in Paris – that give his memoir extra colour and depth, elements of horror, humour and simple incredulity. We’ve already mentioned the Bulgarian student, working on his shoes before his daily visits to the Sorbonne. There’s the Russian mother and son – she darning socks for sixteen hours a day whilst he loafs in the Montparnasse cafés – it’s not difficult to see with whom Orwell’s sympathies lie there. Orwell points out that poverty breeds eccentricity; “people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work” – another of Orwell’s pearls of wisdom.

He then talks about the true eccentrics he has met in Paris. The Rougiers, for example, who sold postcards on the Boulevard St Michel, packaged as if they were pornographic, but in fact they were merely of Loire chateaux. They spent their lives half-starved and half-drunk and  “the filth of their room was such that one could smell it on the floor below.” Henri, the melancholy and silent sewer worker, whose ability to talk about anything other than work had been dashed out of him by a bad love affair. There’s Charlie, the young innocent-looking lad, who tells a tale so shocking of his experience with an unwilling prostitute that is really a brutal rape; Orwell describes him as a “curious specimen”, and an example of the “diverse characters” to be found in the Coq d’Or quarter. Orwell’s relating of Charlie’s story is so appalling and cruel that Gollancz nearly didn’t publish the book because of it.

There is Boris, whom Orwell liked, the brash and booming Russian soldier, now on hard times trying to scrape a living as a waiter; Boris was Orwell’s chief companion in Paris. There is Valenti, a waiter at the Hotel X, whose life is a novel in itself: “crossing the Italian frontier without a passport and selling chestnuts from a barrow on the northern boulevards, and being given fifty days’ imprisonment in London for working without a permit, and being made love to by a rich old woman in a hotel who gave him a diamond ring and afterwards accused him of stealing it, were among his experiences.” There’s Furex, the Limousin stonemason, who worked hard all week so that he could spend Saturday interminably drunk: “the queer thing about Furex was that, though he was a Communist when sober, he turned violently patriotic when drunk. He started the evening with good Communist principles, but after four or five litres he was a rampant Chauvinist denouncing spies, challenging all foreigners to fight and, if he was not prevented, throwing bottles.“ And of course there’s Jules, the lazy, vengeful and proud Magyar waiter.  Time for another Orwell bon mot: “Proud and lazy men do not make good waiters. It was Jules’s dearest boast that once when a customer in a restaurant had insulted him, he had poured a plate of hot soup down the customer’s neck, and then walked straight out without even waiting to be sacked.”

Pavement artistOrwell goes into less detail regarding the characters he meets in London; the main two are Paddy, the Irish tramp, and Bozo the screever, or pavement artist. Paddy was unusually smart and didn’t resort to crime in order to eat; he took Orwell under his wing and showed him how to survive as a tramp. Bozo was an artist through and through, intelligent and thoughtful, creative and inspirational. Lame, following what we would now call an industrial accident, Bozo tried to get work, selling books like his father, then toys, then finally resorting to screeving. He had travelled; spoke French, knew Shakespeare, had watched a corpse burn in India. Orwell clearly finds him a very impressive character. The London folk are less eccentric, and more like friends on whom Orwell relied; whereas the Paris characters are quirkier and more peripheral; for the most part Orwell did not need to rely on others in Paris in order to survive.

Whether it’s despite or because of the poverty and the wretchedness – and I’m tempted to think it’s both – there’s a lot of humour hidden away in the darker recesses of this book. As we’ve already seen, Orwell has a wicked turn of phrase, that can convey multitudes in a few syllables. This applies just as well to the humour lurking behind the sorrow. His account of pawning his clothes in Paris, having to take a number and waiting to be called, being swindled out of a decent price for his property, watching the old man pick his woollen pants off the floor, and so on, is delivered as though he were giving a witty and urbane after dinner speech à la Oscar Wilde. Throwaway observations like: “afterwards, when it was too late, I learned that it was wiser to go to a pawnshop in the afternoon. The clerks are French, and, like most French people, are in a bad temper till they have eaten their lunch” are very funny whilst conveying a grain of absolute truth.

Another example of Orwell’s wry sense of humour comes when he is describing how he and Boris applied to work as hands at a circus. “You had to shift benches and clean up litter and, during the performance, stand on two tubs and let a lion jump through your legs. When we got to the place, an hour before the time named, we found a queue of fifty men already waiting. There is some attraction in lions, evidently.” There was also the time when Orwell became involved in a secret society of Communists looking for journalists; anyone arriving at their location brought a bag of washing, to make it look respectable. But it was a con, because you had to pay twenty francs to be allowed in the society. They promised him 150 francs an article, but they swiftly disappeared; however, his sense of humour allows him to respect their inventiveness. “They were clever fellows, and played their part admirably. Their office looked exactly as a secret Communist office should look, and as for that touch about bringing a parcel of washing, it was genius.”

On another occasion, Orwell recounts how he was offered a permanent job as a plongeur at a restaurant, where they spend the entire time swearing and cursing at each other, but treat each other as equals when work is finished for the day. “The head waiter says he would enjoy calling an Englishman names. Will you sign on for a month?” I could go on – but you can see how Orwell’s use of humour, even in the depths of despair, played a major part in seeing him through – as indeed it did all the people whose lives he crossed whilst down and out.

There are plenty of serious observations to be made, however. The hoops that have to be gone through, and humiliation that has to be endured in order to get a Salvation Army bed for the night, mean that, whatever spirit of generosity might be there in the intent, Orwell will resent the Salvation Army for the rest of his life. Churches, generally, come in for a lot of criticism – there’s another oddly hilarious scene where a number of tramps are made to sit through a service, and they behave so riotously badly in revenge against the people offering charity. “The scene had interested me. It was so different from the ordinary demeanour of tramps – from the abject worm-like gratitude with which they normally accept charity. The explanation, of course, was that we outnumbered the congregation and so were not afraid of them. A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor – it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it.”

Here are some more of Orwell’s observations and deductions from his couple of years living down and out. The fact that clothes are powerful things; when Orwell is finally able to wear anything other than rags and patches, “my new clothes had put me instantly into a new world. Everyone’s demeanour seemed to have changed abruptly […] dressed in a tramp’s clothes it is very difficult, at any rate for the first day, not to feel that you are genuinely degraded.” The fact that begging is loathed by society is because it’s impossible to grow rich from begging. “In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable […] Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised […] A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman […] he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.”

The fact that fatigue has a bad effect on one’s manners. The overworked, under slept, underpaid, underwashed hotel workers in Paris treat each other abominably, not only with foul language, but physical and mental cruelty in a manner that no other professional would ever dream of behaving or accepting. Take the argument between Orwell and the cook: “Once she nagged and nagged until at last, out of pure spite, I lifted the dustbin up and put it out in the middle of the floor, where she was bound to trip over it. “Now, you cow, “ I said, “move it yourself.” Poor old woman, it was too heavy for her to lift and she sat down, put her head on the table and burst out crying. And I jeered at her. This is the kind of effect that fatigue has upon one’s manners.” Orwell knows he behaved despicably; but he tells us the tale with honesty as an illustration of those desperate times.

Maitre dThe fact that there is a caste system in a French hotel, with the manager at the top of the tree, the maitre d’hotel next, who “did not serve at table, unless to a lord or someone of that kind”; he would be followed by the head cook, who dined in the kitchen but at a separate table; then came the chef du personnel, the other cooks, then the waiters, who would only receive a retaining fee and their tips, then the laundresses, the apprentice waiters, then the plongeurs (like Orwell), then the chambermaids and finally the cafetiers. The relationship rules were unwritten but fully understood; but only while they were at work. Outside of work, a spirit of liberté, egalité, fraternité took over.

The fact that there is a similar hierarchy of status of begging in London; “there is a sharp social line between those who merely cadge and those who attempt to give some value for money […] The most prosperous beggars are street acrobats and street photographers. On a good pitch – a theatre queue for instance – a street acrobat can often earn five pounds a week […] Organ-grinders, like acrobats, are considered artists rather than beggars […] Screevers can sometimes be called artists, sometimes not […] Below screevers come the people who sing hymns, or sell matches, or bootlaces, or envelopes containing a few grains of lavender – called, euphemistically, perfume […] there is not a singer or match-seller in London who can be sure of £50 a year – a poor return for standing eighty-four hours a week on the kerb, with the cars grazing your backside.” This is just a small selection of the revelations and insights that Orwell offers us throughout the book.

George OrwellIt’s been suggested that Orwell expresses a lot of antisemitic sentiment in the book, particularly in the Parisian section. Is this evidence that Orwell was antisemitic, or is it simply the product of the age? I don’t know enough to comment, but I would point out that he also writes intolerantly of homosexuality; not so much in this book, but in the earlier essays he rather despises the tramps who turn to other men for sex – an almost inevitable consequence to the fact that their daily life completely prevents them from ever meeting women. I’m tempted to think that this is due to the times in which he lived, rather than betraying a truly antisemitic or homophobic characteristic; maybe this will become clearer with his later books. I will keep a watch out!

One other point – if your copy of the book, like mine, was printed many years ago, you may find that chapter 32, where Orwell writes journalistically about everyday London slang and swearing, contains a number of words that have been replaced by a euphemistic dash; this is because Gollancz couldn’t consider the book for publication if those foul words were included – much to Orwell’s fury. It’s only been in very recent publications that the dashes have been replaced by the actual words that Orwell originally used. And, to fulfil your curiosity as to which words they are, I can reveal that they are our good old friends f*ck and f*cking! This is a genuinely fascinating chapter, because a number of the slang words used, which Orwell foresaw would quickly go out of style, either never did, or have since come back into use. You don’t need a glossary to understand what is meant by mooching, dideki, boozer, kip, or knocking-off.

Burmese DaysThere is so much more to be got out of this book – I can only recommend that you read it for yourself, if you haven’t already! And if you’ve read it too, I’d be fascinated to know your thoughts, please add them in the comments below! Orwell’s next published writing were a few poems, but, for brevity’s sake, I’m not going to include them in my George Orwell Challenge, After that comes his first novel, Burmese Days. Hopefully I’ll read it over the next few weeks then get my thoughts down on paper soon after! Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the book.

The George Orwell Challenge – Common Lodging Houses (1932)

George OrwellBy 1932, Orwell was teaching at a boys’ school in West London but was also writing articles for submission to magazines and journals. With this article, Common Lodging Houses, published in the New Statesman on 3rd September 1932, and signed Eric Blair, Orwell recalls his regular experiences over the previous couple of years when he chose to live as a tramp, to find out what it was like to endure the hardships of life with no money, job, or home, as a form of journalistic research.  Common Lodging Houses is a factual account of what it’s like to rely on such places, “night-shelters specially licensed by the LCC” – that was the old London County Council.

In 1931 his essay The Spike had been published, which told his experience of staying in a casual ward of a workhouse, the slang term for which was a spike. That essay is a grim depiction of filth and squalor, and the indignities suffered by those who slept there. However, in Common Lodging Houses, Orwell finds they’re not much better than spikes, and in some respects, considerably worse, noting “considering that they house so many people and that most of them are in an extraordinarily bad state common lodging houses do not get the attention they deserve.”

Spike cell roomsTo be specific: “the dormitories are horrible fetid dens, packing with anything up to a hundred men, and furnished with beds a good deal inferior to those in a London casual ward.” He points out that the beds are small and hard, with thin, dirty bedclothes, and with access to neither baths nor privacy; but Orwell goes on to emphasise the horror of the filth. “As often as not the beds are verminous, and the kitchens invariably swarm with cockroaches or black beetles.” Casual wards, or spikes were free; in fact, it was a condition of entry that you were forbidden to bring any money in with you. But Orwell reveals that the charges for a night in a common lodging house vary between 7d and 1s 1d per night; and because so many people use them, “the average common lodging house brings in something like £40 net profit a week to its owner.” That’s the equivalent of around £2000 per week today.

This is Orwell’s main source of despair in this essay. By licensing these lodgings, proprietors could profiteer from the men who stay there, whilst offering a service that is in many ways worse than the (unlicensed) spikes. In addition, Orwell describes the rules and regulations for staying in a house as “exceedingly tyrannical”; “gambling, drunkenness, or even the introduction of liquor, swearing, spitting on the floor, keeping tame animals, fighting – in short, the shole social life of these places – are all forbidden.”

Men outside a Common Lodging HouseHe gives an example of how the legislation effectively works against the lodgers, rather than in their favour. When lodging house owners were required to comply with an LCC regulation that the beds in a dormitory had to be at least 3ft apart, thereby reducing the numbers of beds, and therefore the number of paying customers, they simply increased the prices, without providing any further upgrade to the living conditions. With lodging there was no scope for men and women to be in the same house; nor was there any remedy for the lodgers to prevent the constant appearance of slumming parties – 1930s style slum tourism, people “who march into the kitchen uninvited and hold lengthy religious services”. Orwell criticises the reasoning behind what he calls the “interference-legislation” that governs the common lodging houses: “their emphasis is on hygiene and morals, and the question of comfort is left to the lodging house proprietor”.

The essay is not written simply to alert the reader to what life in a lodging house is like, nor is it simply to bemoan the fate of the unfortunate people who have no choice but to live there. He also offers constructive suggestions to improve the houses. “The LCC would be doing an immense service if they compelled lodging house keepers to divide their dormitories into cubicles and, above all, to provide comfortable beds”; even the casual wards had their cells. “The houses should be licensed for both sexes alike […] and the lodgers should be protected by law against various swindles which the proprietors and managers are now able to practice on them.” Orwell also displays a resentment towards this kind of exploitation in his essay on Hop Picking. He asks the question: “Can anyone imagine such things being tolerated in a hotel? And yet a common lodging house is only a hotel at which one pays 8d a night instead of 10s 6d. This kind of petty tyranny can, in fact, only be defended on the theory that a man poor enough to live in a common lodging house thereby forfeits some of his rights as a citizen.” Highlighting this social injustice is the core of this essay.

Rowton HouseThere is an alternative to the lodging house, which Orwell briefly touches on; the hostels provided by the Salvation Army and the Rowton Houses – a chain of hostels built by the philanthropist Lord Rowton, who had been Disraeli’s private secretary. According to Orwell, these are “clean and decent. Unfortunately, all of these places set off their advantages by a discipline so rigid and tiresome that to stay in them is rather like being in jail.” Orwell calls not only for decent conditions for poor people, but also respect for them to live their own lives, and not to have to comply with lifestyles imposed on them by their “betters”. His final summing up in the article reveals that harsh alternative on offer. “Tens of thousands of unemployed and partially employed men have literally no other place in which they can live. It is absurd that they should be compelled to choose, as they are at present, between an easy-going pigsty and a hygienic prison.”

Down and out in Paris and LondonLike his essay on hop picking, this is a fact-filled piece of journalistic reporting, also serving as an opinion piece on how low cost lodging could be improved. Orwell’s deep understanding and despising of the horrors that these men must endure is clear in every sentence. He rarely needs to spell it out for the reader to know his precise feelings. Describing the dormitories as “horrible fetid dens” and the kitchens as “murky, troglodytic caves” is enough for us to get an insight into the conditions for ourselves; and his inevitable hatred of those who seek to make money out of the misery of others is obvious throughout. If the reader has any sense of socialism in their soul, this is bound to bring it out! I’m expecting much more of these insights and observations in his next published work, the full-length non-fiction Down and Out in Paris and London, which would appear a few months later, and which I’m looking forward to reading for the first time since I was a teenager.

The George Orwell Challenge – Hop Picking (1931)

George Orwell typingDespite his middle class background and apparent financial security (or maybe because of it?) Orwell spent several periods of his life deliberately homeless, to find out for himself what it actually felt like to be destitute – and so he could write about it afterwards. His equivalent today would be one of those undercover journalists who hide a microphone somewhere discreet about their person and then infiltrate an organisation under an alias to reveal the truth about what they get up to. His diaries show that for three weeks in September 1931 he journeyed down to Kent to work in the hop fields, getting to know the type of people involved in this activity, and in particular befriending a chap called Ginger. Orwell describes him in his diary as “a strong, athletic youth of twenty six, almost illiterate and quite brainless, but daring enough for anything. Except when in prison, he has probably broken the law every day for the last five years.”

Accompanied by other characters populating his diaries, he and Ginger travel, work, sleep and generally survive side by side throughout the whole exhausting adventure. Never averse to using pseudonyms, Orwell (Blair) adopted the name P S Burton when roaming around the country, assuming a cockney accent, and seemingly fitting in very well with his new-found companions, although he never shies away from judging these people – he often weighs them in the balance and finds them wanting.

Hop pickersFollowing these experiences he wrote up the essay Hop Picking which was published in the New Statesman & Nation on 17th October 1931, under his real name of Eric Blair. For the most part, it’s a piece of factual reporting, explaining what the work entails, how much people earn from it, what kind of people work there, and the reality of their day to day existence/survival. But Orwell never attempts to conceal his natural concern for and disgust at the conditions and exploitation faced by the working man (and woman, and child).

Just as in his diaries, he’s quick to cast judgment where he feels it’s appropriate. The essay starts with quotes from two experienced hop-pickers, “a holiday with pay” and “keep yourself all the time you’re down there, pay your fares both ways and come back five quid in pocket” – and instantly Blair remarks that these experienced workers “ought to have known better”. He then sets out his basic tenet about hop picking: “hop-picking is far from being a holiday, and, as far as wages go, no worse employment exists.”

HopsHe explains that the work entails long hours, but is basically a simple process. He accepts that it’s “healthy, outdoor work” but quickly points out how painful the inevitable cuts to your hands are, as a result of the plant’s spiny stems, and the revulsion you feel as plant-lice crawl down your neck. He also explains the system of payment; piece-work, with the usual rate being six bushels of picked hops for a shilling – in other words 2d per bushel. At today’s rate, that shilling is now the equivalent of about £2.40, so a bushel would have earned you 40p. But it’s not that straightforward; depending on who was accepting and measuring the bushels, it was perfectly easy for the hops to be crushed down low into the bushel, so that what one man might measure as a bushel another would measure as only half a bushel – so if you were unlucky – or victimised, or exploited – you could end up having to work twice as hard for the same income. Blair estimates that he and Ginger earned about nine shillings a week each (£21.60). Even the best pickers in their gang earned only an average of 13/4 each – today’s equivalent being £32. The manipulation of the language used to describe the payment system is not lost on Blair: “six bushels a shilling sounds much more than “fifteen shillings a week””.

bushel of hopsAs well as being tricked into working twice as hard, there were other ways in which the employers’ rules could reduce the hop-picker “practically to a slave. One rule, for instance, empowers a farmer to sack his employees on any pretext whatever, and in doing so to confiscate a quarter of their earnings; and the picker’s earnings are also docked if he resigns his job.” Then there were the sleeping conditions: “My friend and I, with two others, slept in a tin hut ten feet across, with two unglazed windows and half a dozen other apertures to let in the wind and rain, and no furniture save a heap of straw; the latrine was two hundred yards away, and the water tap the same distance. Some of these huts had to be shared by eight men – but that, at any rate, mitigated the cold.”

But Blair being Orwell – or vice versa – this is no turgid piece of dry journalism. Using that same appreciation for the sensuousness of language that he used in A Hanging, he is able to transport the reader into experiencing the same hardships – or indeed pleasures – with his words. With the phrase “the spiny stems cut the palms of one’s hands to pieces” you can feel the sharp stem digging into you, just as you can feel the uncomfortable irritation of “the plant-lice which […] crawl down one’s neck”. You can sense the slow dull progress of “trying to coax a fire out of wet sticks”. But you can also smell the scene and sense the welcome cool with the sentence “on hot days there is no pleasanter place than the shady lane of hops, with their bitter scent – an unutterably refreshing scent, like a wind blowing from oceans of cool beer”. Who couldn’t resist breathing deeply to enjoy the wind from oceans of cool beer!

With good journalistic balance, he notes that hop pickers come back year after year, so despite the hardship they have to endure, “the Cockneys rather enjoy the trip to the country” and it still “figures in the pickers’ mind as a holiday.” Part of his conclusion is that “whatever the cause, there is no difficulty in getting people to do the work, so perhaps one ought not to complain too loudly about the conditions in the hop fields”.

new hop picking machineryFrom my own experience, I know that in the late 20s and early 30s my mother and her brother worked on the hop fields with their parents, and I don’t recall her saying how terrible an experience it was. This is a fascinating, personal piece of journalism, written directly from the writer’s current experience, balancing the rigours and hardship of the activity with its unexpected popularity and the cheerfulness with which it was endured. It’s also a description of a now historical activity that has thankfully been taken over by machinery. Orwell got it right when he says “hop-picking is in the category of things that are great fun when they are over.”

The George Orwell Challenge – A Hanging (1931)

George OrwellSo here I go with my first blog-dip into the world of George Orwell, and we start with an essay entitled A Hanging, first published in The Adelphi magazine, and also in the 1950 volume Shooting an Elephant. I have it as one of the essays in the Penguin 1975 collection, Decline of the English Murder and other Essays.

Orwell at EtonI think, to appreciate his work better, a little background information would be useful. Eric Blair (for that was his real name, he used George Orwell as a nom de plume, but never actually changed his name as such) was born in India in 1903 into what he described as a “lower-upper-middle class family.” His mother wanted him to have a public school education, but they could not afford the fees. So he went to St Cyprian’s, a prep school in Eastbourne, on a scholarship. He was never told that he was there on reduced fees, but he soon realised that he was from a poorer background from most of his cohort. He gained a scholarship to Wellington School, which he hated, and whilst there gained a King’s Scholarship to Eton, which he enjoyed, remaining there until 1921.

He didn’t show great academic promise at Eton, so bypassed the prospect of university and joined the Imperial Police, the forerunner of the Indian Police service. He was stationed in Burma, where his maternal grandmother lived, and he worked in the police service there for five years from 1922. After returning to England on leave, he resigned from the Indian Police to become a full-time writer. Orwell drew on his experiences in Burma to write not only A Hanging, but also the essay Shooting an Elephant and the novel Burmese Days.

Orwell Burma PassportIt’s not known whether the event described in A Hanging was real, fictional, or a combination of the two. It is known that attending hangings was considered a rite of passage for young police officers – and indeed it was a legal requirement that there should be a police presence for every such event. It appears that Orwell didn’t care to talk about this essay in future years, which may suggest that it had a truly shocking affect on the young man.

It’s a short, calm, unemotional and reserved description of the hanging of an unnamed man for an unnamed crime. The language is measured but descriptive, occasionally sensuous, as with the description of the warders crowding around the prisoner, “their hands always on him in a careful caressing grip […] it was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water.” And when he describes how, just before the moment of death, “everyone had changed colour. The Indians had gone grey like bad coffee” – that’s a great simile that you can both see and smell in your mind’s eye.

Although he’s going through the motions of what his job requires, the young Blair cannot contain his feeling for both the “unspeakable wrongness” of taking a life, and for the unintentional ludicrous humour that can arise from it. He is moved by the natural act of the prisoner to avoid a puddle whilst being marched to the gallows – it’s this automatic reaction that reveals the humanity of the condemned man, the fact that his brain and body functions are completely normal, that shocks the writer into recognising the awful truth, that “we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone.”

Orwell relies on the evidence of his eyes and ears to relay the situation to us. He takes everything in, and mentally processes it, without hysteria or endorsement, purely as a witness to what is clearly a routine event. He observes that the prisoner is “a puny wisp of a man”, with “a thick sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body”. He “watched the bare brown back of the prisoner […] he walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees”. The prisoner never reacts or resists, and only when the noose is around his neck does he cry out to his god. “It was a high, reiterated cry of Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!, not urgent and fearful like a prayer or cry for help, but steady, rhythmical, almost like the tolling of a bell.” Through his writing, we can hear that slow, mantra-like cry to God for ourselves, as Orwell’s simple words become a conduit from the prisoner to the reader.

Juxtaposed with the ritual solemnity of the procedure, are two humorous events. The first involves a stray dog, unexpectedly breaking into the procession and barking gleefully, even jumping up at the prisoner and licking his face, much to the fury of the superintendent in charge. It reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s poem 465, where just as the narrator is laid out on a bed ready to die, “and then it was there interposed a fly….” and all attention is diverted away from the sombre “main event” by a trivial irritant.

The second comes after the body has been hanged, and the hangman starts regaling the officers with a story about a condemned prisoner who wouldn’t let go of the cage bars when they went to take him out. ““It took six warders to dislodge him, three pulling at each leg. We all reasoned with him, “my dear fellow,” we said, “think of all the pain and trouble you are causing to us! But no, he would not listen! Ach, he was very troublesome!” I found that I was laughing quite loudly. Everyone was laughing. Even the superintendent grinned in a tolerant way.” As the piece ends, the Burmese magistrate starts laughing again at the thought of “pulling at his legs”. The final sentences are: ”We all had a drink together, native and European alike, quite amicably. The dead man was a hundred yards away.”

It’s this mix of the mundane and the extraordinary, as well as the extinct and the living, that gives this piece tremendous power. From the intensity of the death, we go straight to the chattiness of the breakfast. I also admire how we get a strong impression of the characters involved in the process, even though they say and do little. We know the superintendent is an impatient, authoritative man, but with the supportive kindness to share out his whisky, and to allow the prisoner to say his prayer. We know that Francis is a garrulous type, who wins favour by spinning a few stories to break the tension. The Eurasian boy is only there to try to impress Blair with his generosity with cigarettes and his “classy European style” silver cigarette case, probably to gain some preferment. We learn that Blair himself, whilst trying to hold in all his emotions and reactions to the event, can’t resist bursting into laughter like everyone else as a nervous reaction to what he’s endured. Even the dog backs away from the gallows, “sobered and conscious of having misbehaved itself”. And we never forget that the prisoner is a human being too, side-stepping puddles and spontaneously urinating through fear at the news that his appeal had been dismissed.

So many thoughts packed into six short pages, without the writer ever having to over-emphasise or sensationalise. It’s a challenge for the reader to wish to read an account of a hanging for pleasure, but its power and insight is very enjoyable to read. A very impressive short piece.

After A Hanging, he wrote two more essays, Hop-Picking in October 1931 and Common Lodging Houses in September 1932. I’ll take the first of those two next, hopefully in the next couple of weeks.

The George Orwell Challenge

George OrwellYou know me. I enjoy a challenge as much as the next man. But is this a challenge too far? After all, I still have many of Agatha Christies and Paul Bernas to read, and James Bond films to watch, let alone keeping up with old travel and theatre memories. And George Orwell? Really? Is this wise?

Animal FarmI had no idea this was going to happen until a few weeks ago when a friend said he had ordered Animal Farm and 1984 from Audible and was looking forward, finally, to getting to know these famous stories. My instant reaction was to feel oh you lucky thing, getting your first taste of Orwell’s best known and probably best-loved books. I also wondered if they were his best-written books; then it occurred to me that it had been ages since I read them myself, let alone Wigan Pier, Catalonia, Down and Out and so on. In fact, there are plenty of his works I’ve never read. I’ve not read Burmese Days or A Clergyman’s Daughter; and I have no memories of Coming Up for Air or Keep the Aspidistra Flying, even if I have read them. I’m convinced that I was too young and certainly too green and immature to appreciate much of what he was trying to say, so I think the time is right to revisit them. However, a quick glimpse at his bibliography on Wikipedia reveals a mass of essays, reviews, articles, pamphlets and so on. There’s no way I can read all those. I’ll be doing it when I’m 100.

1984But I am very tempted by the prospect of taking Orwell in chronological order, reading his works and then putting virtual pen to paper to record my thoughts. This will be a very different kind of challenge from the others, because there are already reams of learned and insightful critical appreciations of his books written by people far more academic and brighter than I could ever dare to be. So there’s no point in my adding unoriginal and slight insights into a well-established canon of critiques. I also don’t have to provide synopses, like I do with Berna (because no one else has done that) or thrill assessments and marks out of ten like I do with Christie (because it just wouldn’t be appropriate). So instead I will just read, absorb and record my emotional responses and personal reflections on what Orwell is telling me. It could be as dull as ditchwater – in which case, I’ll stop.

Decline of the English MurderOrwell wrote six novels, three non-fiction books and endless other essays and articles. I’m going to read all the books, and a good number of the essays. Taking them in chronological order, he wrote a few essays in French for Le Progrès Civique publication, but I’m not going to tackle those because a) I’m too lazy to translate them and b) I feel reading someone else’s translation would create a barrier between me and him. His first published essay in English appears to be The Spike, but this is later reworked into Down and Out in Paris and London, so I’m also going to ignore that. Instead, the first piece I will read will be A Hanging, an essay written in 1931, published in The Adelphi magazine, and also in the 1950 volume Shooting an Elephant. I have it as one of the essays in the Penguin 1975 collection, Decline of the English Murder. I’ll let you know how I get on! Wish me luck!