Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Down and Out in Paris and London

 Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell

This slightly fictionalized memoir is also Orwell's first published book.  It chronicles events in the late 1920's, after Orwell had left service in Burma; he did some tramping around England to collect material for an essay he was writing.  Later, he lived in Paris for a while and spent some time in destitution and working as a dishwasher.  These experiences, somewhat edited, evolved from essays into a complete book, published in 1933.

The first half is the Paris story and starts with Orwell losing his money and the work he had been doing.  For some weeks, he and a Russian friend look for restaurant work, finally finding jobs in a large hotel and then in a smaller restaurant.  The inexperienced Orwell works as a dishwasher, lowest of the low, while Boris has already been a waiter and thus gets a better job, but has to hide his disqualifying limp.

Once this palls enough, Orwell wangles a job from a friend in England and gets passage home, only to find that the job won't start for over a month.  Reluctant to ask for money, he becomes a tramp and lives on the circuit of "spikes," homeless shelters run by parish workhouses, until the job starts.

It's a fascinating memoir that everybody ought to read...but don't read it over lunch.  It's also quite disgusting.  Orwell is chronicling a kind of poverty that few in the developed world can experience any more, and he's doing it with a lot of attention to horrible detail in order to drive his message home.  His Paris room, just like most lower-class rooms, is infested with millions of bugs.  (He doesn't say what they are; bedbugs maybe?  Cockroaches appear elsewhere and are specifically named.  Maybe he just means several species at once.)  There is no running water or electricity, so washing requires extra money and they go weeks or months without it; at one point he mentions that he brushes his teeth for the first time in two weeks.   He goes without food for days when he can't afford any, and lives on bread and wine most of the time.

Reading about the hotel and restaurant work would put you off eating out for life if it weren't for modern health codes.  Orwell is a dishwasher, which is the worst job of the lot.  I've been a dishwasher myself, in a college dorm food hall, and I've never been more grateful for hot sprayers and those rubber mats in my life.  It's not much fun to scrape plates at any time, but it's a million times easier and cleaner now.

England is a different brand of poverty, as Orwell is homeless, whereas in Paris he had a room.  In those days, homeless men went from one spike to another on a sort of circuit; they couldn't visit the same place frequently, so they had to move daily.  They live entirely on tea and bread with margarine, the standard basic diet of the poor, and they pick up discarded cigarette ends from the streets to smoke.  Begging doesn't seem to be legal, but Orwell does meet people from the next level up, especially a screever (pavement artist -- like Bert in Mary Poppins, if somewhat less cheery).  It's also interesting to see him describe a vanished London.

It's a great book, though almost entirely horrible.  Read it sometime.



1 comment:

Joy said...

I didn't know about this one.