Orwell 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.”
He 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.
One 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.
One 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.”
Orwell 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.
The 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.
It’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.
There 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.