Down and Out in Paris and London / George Orwell

Well, what did I expect from a book with such a title? An upbeat tale?

Despite my reluctance to read depressing books, this was fascinating. The description of not having a penny (or a sou) to one's name, to the extent of not eating for three days, is difficult to grasp to anyone who's never been in such a situation. I guess young Eric Arthur Blair subsisted on water (even weak tea is not to be taken for granted) and cigarettes during those days. Cigarettes don't go bad like milk nor stale like bread, say, so you could keep a stock, bought in more "affluent" days (all is relative.)
Anyone who's fasted seriously on Yom Kippur knows how unpleasant it is not to eat a thing for 24 hours. So try to imagine three whole days, which often included walking for miles. On a totally empty stomach.

The description of the squalor in the cheap Paris "hotels", or boarding houses for the destitute, is unsettling: the bug-infested rooms, the dirty sheets, the need to pawn one's spare clothes to be able to afford tea-and-two-slices.

But far worse is the colorful description of what used to go on in the kitchens of Paris hotels and restaurants. Read on, and it might just ruin your appetite for days:

It was amusing to look round the filthy little scullery and think that only a double door was between us and the dining-room. There sat the customers in all their splendour--spotless table-cloths, bowls of flowers, mirrors and gilt cornices and painted cherubim; and here, just a few feet away, we in our disgusting filth. For it really was disgusting filth. There was no time to sweep the floor till evening, and we slithered about in a compound of soapy water, lettuce-leaves, torn paper and trampled food. A dozen waiters with their coats off, showing their sweaty armpits,
sat at the table mixing salads and sticking their thumbs into the cream pots. The room had a dirty, mixed smell of food and sweat. … There were only two sinks, and no washing basin, and it was nothing unusual for a waiter to wash his face in the water in which clean crockery was rinsing. But the customers saw nothing of this. ..  (Chapter 22)

The writing is matter-of-fact, honest and appealing. (Though I did feel like editing it a bit here & there… but rather glad nobody did.) The humor is extremely understated and low key, but it is definitely there, under the surface.

When I was just about to finish the Paris part and move on to the London part, and having gathered that his lot would not be any better, I thought that in England Orwell may feel more "betrayed"; in Paris he was a foreigner; England should, theoretically, be his home, and as such more… caring?

I could barely believe my eyes when I read how the young Blair deteriorated from being a Paris plongeur to a London tramp. The life of a British tramp is explained, as was his Parisian life, very matter-of-factly, yet the descriptions are painfully vivid.

I learnt the terms "spike"  and "casual ward" – the deplorable accommodations designed for vagrants:
At about a quarter to six the Irishman led me to the spike. It was a grim, smoky yellow cube of brick, standing in a corner of the workhouse grounds. With its rows of tiny, barred windows, and a high wall and iron gates separating it from the road, it looked much like a prison. (Chapter 27)
By seven we had wolfed our bread and tea and were in our cells. We slept one in a cell, and there were bedsteads and straw palliasses, so that one ought to have had a good night's sleep. But no spike is perfect, and the peculiar shortcoming at Lower Binfield was the cold. The hot pipes were not working, and the two blankets we had been given were thin cotton things and almost useless. (Chapter 35)

Orwell has a unique talent of describing something both subjectively and objectively, as it were. On the one hand he is part of the tramp scene, shares their squalid existence and some of the ugly aspects of their behavior, while at the same time reporting it in a dispassionate, precise way. I wouldn't say "detached", though. He is thoroughly involved and empathetic.

As sorry as the reader may feel for him, one can still take comfort from the knowledge that Blair/Orwell does extricate himself from this life. Even as he was experiencing, observing and taking notes, and before he knew that he would one day become a well-known (and hopefully financially comfortable, or at least secure) author, he did have a friend to lean on. A friend who twice lent him 2 pounds – quite a fortune, for a tramp – and quite likely saved him from starving or … or I don't know what.

Would anyone who has, say, a half-decent family to fall back on [not that there is any mention of Blair having such a family] let himself go through such degrading and excruciating living, just for the sake of "experience"? And if you do, isn't the whole experience contaminated by the fact that you're there by choice, not because Life has been cruel to you? And even if you don't have a backup system, surely all this suffering is more bearable when you know it's definitely temporary, and all you have to do is grit your teeth and continue breathing, and walking from Casual Ward to Casual Ward, secure in the knowledge that, come next spring, say, your time will be up and you'll rejoin "normal" society?

If this were a novel, I'd be devastated by the protagonist's suffering. Knowing that, while true, it was but temporary for the writer, makes it more bearable, though no less shocking, when one thinks of the writer's fellow tramps, who didn't have a way out.

And just in case you were wondering, what makes a tramp a tramp in the first place, Orwell's explanation is an eye-opener:

Why do tramps exist at  all? It is a curious thing, but very few people know what makes a tramp take to the road.... It is said, for instance, that tramps tramp to avoid work, to beg more easily, to seek opportunities for crime, even -- least probable of reason s--because they like tramping. … And meanwhile the quite obvious cause of vagrancy is staring one in the face….. A tramp tramps, not because he likes it, but for the same reason as a car keeps to the left; because there happens to be a law compelling him to do so. [emphasis mine.] A destitute man, if he is not supported by the parish, can only get relief at the casual wards, and as each casual ward will only admit him for one night, he is automatically kept moving. He is a vagrant because, in the state of the law, it is that or starve.
(Chapter 36)
This has given me an appetite for more of Orwell's non-fiction, plus perhaps those of his novels that are heavily based on his own life and experience. If I do indeed read more (see huge selection on Amazon), I shall report.

Note: I read the Penguin Books edition; copied the quotations from this online version.

Meantime, I've switched to something lighter: Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island.
- to be continued -


Jennifer said...

Thanks, Nina - t'was a good break reading this on my cute little Nokia as my son snores next to me... I'd rather just keep reading more quotations instead of getting up and facing far less enticing texts... :-)

Anonymous said...

interesting thoughts. what if, say, one has people that refer to them as "family" and the same time desperately desire for their disappearance and investing an active effort of making it so, what theas that count as?

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