For the first Moonshake Books post, I’m covering Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell. This was a vital text for me as I first read it when I was 17 and, emerging from childhood and teenage years reading Brian Jacques’ wonderful Redwall series, it introduced me to an exciting and grown-up literary world.
For me, it was nearly time to enter adulthood. In 2001 I’d watched a BBC documentary about the Road to Wigan Pier – I talked to my father about Orwell and he picked me up a copy of this fabulous book from Chorley library.
It had the most atrocious front cover I’ve ever seen – this strange grey thing which the librarians had probably wrapped around it. I can’t figure out why it had this felt like covering, which was stained with black marks and general overuse, but inside this disgusting looking thing was a joyous and deeply humane read.
It’s basically the British version of Venedikt Yerofeyev’s Moscow Stations, which is a much more drunken account of being on the edge of society.
As a result, today I bring you an in-depth examination of a wonderful book which first graced this planet in 1933. I’ll take a look at its two sections (London and Paris, stupid), along with the writer’s musings on social injustice. Hold onto your butts, it’s going to be one heck of a trip!
Part One: Down and Out in Paris
In the introduction to Penguin’s 2001 edition, Dervla Murphy states the book (which was turned down at first by T.S. Eliot, no less) was eventually published thanks to the efforts of Mabel Fierz. She’d read Orwell’s long discarded manuscript and forwarded it to a literary agent (Leonard Moore) who read it and ensured it was published.
Despite T.S. Eliot’s dismissal of the manuscript, we’ve since seen Down and Out in Paris and London included in Top 100 Books of All Time lists. It highlights some of the snobbery and misguided evaluations which go on in publishing – how many other potential classics have been turned down over the decades?
Regardless, the non-fiction/fiction book deals with Eric Arthur Blair (the writer’s real name) and his time in Paris and London taking on poverty. In Paris, he works through appalling conditions at expensive but seedy hotels and restaurants, battling through massive shifts before socialising with colossal drinking sessions.
Later on in London, he truly enters “the dogs” (being down and out – poverty stricken) as he traipses around England’s capital looking for food and places to sleep.
It’s all brilliantly observed, hugely educational for most readers, and a damning indictment on the nature of capitalism. What ho, let’s get into all of this!
Unquestionably the best part of the book is the Paris section. We find Orwell living in a hotel of considerable squalor on the Rue Du Coq d’Or (close to where Ernest Hemingway had lived earlier in the decade).
Unemployed and broke, he introduces some of the poverty stricken individuals who live with him in the establishment. Largely populated by eccentrics and a no-nonsense landlady (along with the million or so bugs which infest the place), it’s not the type of hotel you aspire to be in, although it’ll potentially remind some readers of downtrodden houses they occupied during, for instance, their university years.
There’s then a misguided second chapter (inexplicably, T.S. Eliot called this the best bit of writing in the book… was this guy drunk or something?), which is unpleasant and superfluous. It tells the tale of the garrulous resident Charlie who beats up a prostitute, with Orwell including it to highlight the “diverse” characters in the neighbourhood.
With this out of the way, our intrepid writer begins his desperate hunt for work. Having descended completely into poverty, he notes his relief upon getting there and finding it merely “squalid and boring”, as opposed to completely unbearable.
With rent to pay, however, it leads him to seek out his Russian friend, apparently a financially stable and highly resourceful individual. Consequently, we’re introduced to one of the book’s most flamboyant characters.
Boris the Charismatic Russian
The extroverted and hugely optimistic former army veteran is in great distress upon the writer’s arrival. We’re informed the man had been good looking, but is now “immensely fat” and stricken with a gammy leg. He’s also living in poverty.
Whether or not Boris existed I don’t think we can determine – it seems he may have been a mishmash of numerous people Orwell knew at the time. He certainly makes for a gloriously extroverted man and the sort whose unflappable spirit you’d enjoy in your company. He provides an upbeat sense of desperation and urgency throughout the reader’s time in Paris.
Apparently, after his wealthy parents died in the Russian Revolution, Boris was drafted in to fight in the war. Afterwards, he became utterly obsessed with his time in the army and worshipped the likes of Napoleon, Kutuzof, Clausewitz, and Foch. Our writer explains:
If he [travelled] by Metro, Boris always got out at Cambronne station instead of Commerce, though Commerce was nearer; he liked the association with General Crambonne, who was called on to surrender at Waterloo, and answered simply, “Merde!”
Apparently, it’s debatable if Crambonne did say this, but it makes for a cool story. Nevertheless, Boris uses such tales as inspiration.
Seemingly undeterred by most difficulties, he immediately views his friend’s arrival as an opportunity to find work and get his life back on track. Consequently, the pair form a pact and head out looking for employment – they soon find this to be exceptionally difficult.
Resorting to pawning clothes and other items to keep them going, they make quite the team. With Boris’ charm and Orwell’s resourcefulness, they’re able to scrape by and fend off starvation.
After much trudging around the city, they’re finally able to secure jobs. This is where the fun really begins, as we’re provided with a unique glimpse into the chaotic world of one of Paris’ many hotels.
One of the most extraordinary sections of Down and Out in Paris and London comes from the tales taken from this hotel (apparently near Place de la Concorde). Orwell worked as a plongeur – this is essentially someone who washes dishes and performs basic hotel duties.
Drafted in and thrown into a world of chaos, he exposes a macabre industry of intense heat, manically overworked staff, and barely controlled shift patterns.
Having worked at a busy bar myself once in Manchester city centre, there is a bizarre dichotomy at play. Behind the scenes it is total chaos, but, for public image and customer service purposes, everyone must pretend all is calm and put on a courteous front.
Whether you’re seething with anger or utterly exhausted, you have to pretend to customers all is well and, of course, you give a damn they don’t want tomatoes with their tomato soup order. Orwell catches this anarchy perfectly in his tales of Hotel X. Prior to it all, he explains:
The thing that would astonish anyone coming for the first time into the service quarters of a hotel would be the fearful noise and disorder during the rush hours. It is something so different from the steady work in a shop or a factory that it looks at first sight like mere bad management.
It isn’t, of course, there’s simply no other way of going about it:
Hotel work is not particularly hard, but by its nature it comes in rushes and cannot be economised. You cannot, for instance, grill a steak two hours before it is wanted; you have to wait till the last moment, by which time a mass of other work has accumulated, and then do it all together, in frantic haste.
He details this ordered chaos quite pedantically, highlighting the stunning working hours plongeurs faced during the 1920s. It wasn’t at all unusual for them to have 15 hours days for six days a week, of course with the most dismal pay imaginable. Despite this:
What keeps a hotel going is the fact that the employees take a genuine pride in their work, beastly though it is. If a man idles, the others soon find him out, and conspire against him to get him sacked. Cooks, waiters and plongeurs differ greatly in outlook, but they are all alike in being proud of their efficiency.
Being a plongeur in 1920s Paris, however, offered dismal prospects in life:
All that is required of them is to be constantly on the run, and to put up with long hours and a stuffy atmosphere. They have no way of escaping from this life, for they cannot save a penny from their wages, and working from sixty to a hundred hours a week leaves them no time to train for anything else.
Full credit to the man, he threw himself into his job. Whilst he soon became proficient, he was dwarfed by talents such as Mario, whom he notes was paid twice as much as everyone else.
Mario clearly made multitasking an art form. With 14 years’ experience, he could simultaneously fry eggs, manage toast, get coffee on the go, brew tea, sing sections of Ravel’s Bolero, and joke about non-stop for 14+ hours a day, every day. That’s one for the “back in my day” school of thought.
Of course, being post-World War I, much of the staff had been in battle. As a result, they approached the work with a sense of honour. This brought with it genuine camaraderie and, simultaneously, bullying and elitism. The chefs and waiters treated plongeurs with utter contempt as they were their subordinates, but only during working hours.
The writer found he would be called “mackerel” (and far worse) for all 15 hours of his shift, but once working hours ended his superiors would be open and honest, offering him free wine whilst boasting about the people they’d killed during the war.
What’s more revealing is the condition of the hotel. The manic nature of the job ensured it was only cleaned where necessary, with extraordinary filth in the kitchens (presumably pre-health inspection days), but spick and span eating areas to put on a front for hotel guests. The tales Orwell regales us with are beyond belief, but they’re seemingly commonplace for the industry.
I’d like to go into really pedantic detail about the Hotel X section, but then this blog post would be around 10,000 words. It is better to simply read the book and discover this strange world for yourself.
Friday Night Piss-Ups
Things take off a notch in Chapter XVII. Arguably the best, and most poignant, few pages in the book, it’s a description of the drunken nights between the budding writer, his fellow hotel guests, and Hotel X colleagues.
With thirty francs a week to spend on drinks I could take part in the social life of the quarter. We had some jolly evenings, on Saturdays, in the little bistro at the foot of the Hotel de Trois Moineaux.
Indeed, incredibly jolly. In a “brick-floored room, fifteen feet square” Orwell packed in with two dozen people in a deafening hubbub of cheap wine and tobacco smoke. It’s the usual drunken mayhem, but we’re eventually introduced to Fureux – “a blond, red-faced workman.” According to the writer:
Fureux was a strange creature. A Limousin stonemason who worked steadily all the week and drank himself into a kind of paroxysm on Saturdays. He had lost his memory and could not remember anything before the war, and he would have gone to pieces through drink if Madame F. had not taken care of him.
So what was so odd about this chap?
The queer thing about Fureux 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 fives litres he was a rampant Chauvinist, denouncing spies, challenging all foreigners to fight, and, if he was not prevented, throwing bottles.
Apparently, around this stage, Fureux would begin a lengthy nationalistic speech addressed to the whole bar. With tears streaming down his face in patriotic glory, he’d deliver this with immense passion before throwing up and passing out. At this point:
Madame F. hoisted him like a sack and carried him up to bed. In the morning he reappeared, quiet and civil, and bought a copy of L’Humanite.
Whilst this is all rather amusing, the tragedy of the situation wasn’t lost on Orwell.
For many men in the quarter, unmarried and with no future to think of, the weekly drinking-bout was the one thing that made life worth living.
It’s during this relatively happy (if furiously busy) time that Boris, in a bout of narcissism, sees himself as the head waiter (a position of immense privilege in France) of a new restaurant called the Auberge. The duo has to wait an age for it to open, with Orwell considering the move from Hotel X pointless and dangerous.
To honour his friend, however, he makes the shift. The brand new restaurant looks the part, but without the experience of the Hotel X staff (who, despite the mayhem, run the establishment extremely well) things soon spiral out of control.
Stuffed into an unbelievably small kitchen, “life settled at once into a routine that made the Hotel X seem like a holiday.” Up at 6am, he would dash to the metro and, after an impossibly busy day, would be back by 1am. If he missed the final metro he slept in the restaurant.
During the day, the overworked staff (crammed into a tiny space) soon suffered from exhaustion and many arguments. Boris and a waiter called Jules came to blows on the second day of the job, whilst Orwell and the cook (an ageing, once creative, woman) clatter against each other in the kitchen.
We quarrelled over things of inconceivable pettiness. The dustbin, for instance, was an unending source of quarrels – whether it should be put where I wanted it, which was in the cook’s way, or where she wanted it, which was between me and the sink.
This reached an ultimatum and the pair clashed:
I lifted the dustbin up and put it 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.
Comfortingly, he confirms “tea is what kept us going”. However, with an option to move to London available, he made haste to get away from the amateurish outfit, whilst also confirming he and Boris were barely on speaking terms.
The remarkable thing about the Parisian section is it’s such a joy to read. The appalling work he endured and the lives these people led were bleak and saddening, yet his stiff upper lip charm and intelligence works wonders and you can only revel in his fortitude.
He got stuck in. Although he had a reasonably well-to-do family to return to in England, he didn’t have a secret stash of money hidden away. He was genuinely down and out – this willingness to get stuck into his interests led him to fight in the Spanish Civil War. For his efforts, he was shot in the neck. This wound would ultimately lead to his death in 1950 aged only 46.
I discussed in my post for the Road to Wigan Pier (on my other site – self-promotion alert!) the writer’s political leanings. He was intensely keen on highlighting social injustices, particularly when it came to wealth (or the lack of it).
A democratic socialist, he was clearly incensed by the poverty he saw around him. Angry with the nature of capitalism, at the end of the Parisian section he states:
Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear. It is based on the idea that there is some mysterious, fundamental difference between the rich and poor, as though they were two different races.
From this ignorance a superstitious fear of the mob results quite naturally. The educated man pictures a horde of submen, wanting only a day’s liberty to loot his house, burn his books, and set him to work minding a machine or sweeping out a lavatory. “Anything,” he thinks, “any injustice, sooner than let that mob loose.” He does not see that since there is no difference between the mass of rich and poor, there is no question of setting the mob loose. The mob is in fact loose now, and – in the shape of rich men – is using its power to set up enormous treadmills of boredom, such as “smart” hotels.
Part Two: Down and Out in London
Much bleaker and missing the sense of ecstatic charm of Paris, the second half of the book is, nonetheless, revealing reading on London life almost 100 years ago.
If anything, it’s a more realistic look at poverty. Whilst the Parisian section is the equivalent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack from Titanic skipping gaily through life, the London one is that bearded bloke who shouted profanity at you one time you didn’t give him any change.
Indeed, Orwell mingled with the poverty stricken in England’s capital. It’s gritty, it’s uncompromising, and you get the general stench and squalid horror of poverty throughout.
Finding work impossible to come by, the writer traversed London looking for spikes where, in 1920s England, a tramp could spend the night. They were only allowed to stay one night however, and, frustratingly, were not allowed to frequent individual spikes on pain of being banned for life.
This meant tramps had to walk vast distances each day to reach new spikes where they could stay, typically turning up late in the day and hoping the owners didn’t recognise them. As a result, tramps led a bizarre life of meticulously planning each night’s stay at different locations. Failure meant a night in the rough, although London’s policemen would boot them out of specific areas.
Making matters worse, these relative safe-havens were typically in atrocious condition (often only offering people a mat to sleep on). They did, at least, offer the homeless an opportunity to bathe and recuperate. The writer describes a particularly horrible scene where groups of these men (for some reason the tramps are all men) got undressed to bathe simultaneously.
Of course, there was only the one tub, so hundreds of tramps (reeking of BO and covered in grime) washed in the thing before it was the intrepid writer’s turn. He decided to stay dirty. But this was the strange world they lived in – a banal yet capricious existence of wandering about hoping for somewhere to stay day after day.
Tea and Two Slices
Whilst doing all this they all survived on a diet of tea and two slices (white bread smeared with butter) and cheap tobacco. They could claim these from the spikes, so it was a priority to find one for the night so they could eat.
They were also able to pick up this food from certain tea shops during they day, whilst the Church also put on free tea and two slices for the tramps. The requirement here was they had to attend an obligatory service after their meal. This led to incidents such as this:
As soon as tea was over, a dozen tramps who had stationed themselves near the door bolted to avoid the service; the rest stayed, less from gratitude than lacking the cheek to go.
The organ let out a few preliminary hoots and the service began. And instantly, as though at a signal, the tramps began to misbehave in the most outrageous way. One would not have thought such scenes possible in a church. All round the gallery men lolled in their pews, laughed, chattered, leaned over and flicked pellets of bread among the congregation; I had to restrain the man next to me, more or less by force, from lighting a cigarette. The tramps treated the service as a purely comic spectacle.
It seems likely Orwell was agnostic or an outright atheist, despite his religious upbringing, but his love of manners would no doubt have made such a scene quite shocking for him.
A ring of dirty, hairy faces grinned down from the gallery, openly jeering. What could a few women and old men do against a hundred hostile tramps? They were afraid of us, and we were frankly bullying them. It was our revenge upon them for having humiliated us by feeding us.
He notes this was unusually belligerent behaviour from the homeless, as he’d found them to normally be mild-mannered and meek in their acceptance of charity. Some of the others he met also displayed incredible artistic flair and intelligence, as you can read with Bozo a bit further below.
However, the above incident does highlight the use of language during the era, which is documented briefly in London (not so for Paris, unfortunately). It’s a decent opportunity for a segue, it seems.
Notes on 1920s London Slang
Due to his keen interest in language, chapter XXXIII is dedicated to London slang and profanity from the late 1920s.
It’s interesting looking back now, almost a century on, to see some of the words which were trendy at the time. The below selection was essentially recorded for posterity. Surprisingly, some of them are still recognisable and others remain in use:
- Mugfaker: A street photographer
- Glimmer: Someone who watches vacant cars (presumably to rob them)
- Gee/Jee: A trade accomplice who attempts to stimulate sales by pretending to buy something
- Flattie: Police officer
- Boozer: A pub
- Kip: Somewhere to sleep
- Smoke: London – the Big Smoke
Swearing is popular in the UK as well (despite the population’s seemingly reserved appearance to parts of the world), with 1920s London seeming quite the foulmouthed placed to be.
Of its very nature swearing is as irrational as magic – indeed, it is a species of magic. But there is also a paradox about it, namely this: Our intention in swearing is to shock and wound, which we do by mentioning something that should be kept secret – usually something to do with the sexual functions. But the strange thing is that when a word is well established as a swear word, it seems to lose its original meaning; that is, it loses the thing that made it into a swear word.
He notes that “fuck” and “bugger” were falling out of use in London, whereas “bastard” was the biggest insult you could hurl at anyone at that time. Interesting, huh?
It is true, however, certain swear words lose their impact over time, although with each passing generation this may become a different matter. It depends on the way society shifts and how each new era of obscenity-loving citizens perceives certain words and phrases.
The Artistic Tramp Bozo
Returning back to the tramps, it isn’t long before we come across the mighty Bozo, whom is introduced towards the end of the book. A screever (pavement artist) with a hideously deformed leg following an unfortunate accident at work, he is the intellectual homeless sort of the book.
Bozo had a stange way of talking, Cockneyfied and yet very lucid and expressive. It was as though he had read good books but had never troubled to correct his grammar.
He takes to hanging out with Bozo after work, during which time the tramp discusses his knowledge of astrology and culture. This is where the most inspiring section of the book kicks in. This poor man (in ways more than lacking wealth) is asked if it’s difficult to follow his interests when down and out.
Bozo pours scorn and ridicule on the other tramps, who he states have been reduced to stupidity as they have given in to their situation. He indicates one doesn’t need to turn into a “bloody rabbit” and the human mind is a gateway to emancipation, no matter the circumstance:
If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, “I’m a free man in here” – he tapped his forehead – “and you’re all right.”
He was clearly an upbeat individual as a result, working long hours for little money and set to a dismal fate of poverty and an early death. Despite this, Bozo’s outlook is what many people should be aspiring to in life, as the writer recounts of one of his final meetings with him:
He had not eaten since the morning, had walked several miles with a twisted leg, his clothes were drenched, and he had a halfpenny between himself and starvation. With all this, he could laugh over the loss of his razor. One could not help admiring him.
Down and Out But Not Forgotten
Down and Out in Paris and London is the book I offer to people when they say they don’t like reading.
It’s brilliant enough to convert most people, but at the very least they’ll give it a go. If they don’t like it, then reading clearly isn’t ever going to be for them. Give up and take on other intellectually stimulating pursuits, such as juggling.
It’s so brilliantly incisive and entertaining, though, whilst being able to clearly lay forth the injustices in the world in a way that won’t bore those who are more interested in acquiring vast sums of wealth.
In other words, it’s a humane piece of writing which is educational and entertaining. It’s a rare achievement. Whilst George Orwell went on to write greater works (somewhat scandalously being ignored by the Nobel Prize brigade along the way), you’ll likely find many people claiming this is their favourite book of his.
It being his first book, the young writer structured it badly (that second chapter is awful) and it’s a bit all over the place with its purpose, but these issues are irrelevant. Down and Out in Paris and London is a joy to read and it paints a fascinating portrait of life 100 years ago. It must be a part of your bookshelf and life.