You have talked so often of going to the dogs—and well, here you are to the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it.
Much of the world works on the principle that everyone should be afraid of poverty. For the middle class, suspended between poor and rich, this fear shapes most of our ideas about success. Poverty is the dark threat always looming, and we learn to envy those who have so distanced themselves from it that they can forget it exists. And so, we go to work. Life becomes a treadmill that could at any moment pitch us backwards into destitution if we fail to keep up, so we must continue running. It’s an odious way to live when you think about it, so in our baser moments we delude ourselves into thinking that those who live in poverty must in some way deserve it. If those people don’t deserve their way of life, how can I say I deserve mine? So the fear of being poor feeds into the stigma and misconception around poverty, leaving mostly ignorance about what it actually is like, by those who may never experience it but will always dread it.
Enter Eric Arthur Blair, a young and promising middle-rung Briton (“upper-lower-middle class,” as he later put it), who could have done everything right. He had been born in India, and back in England attended Eton College, training ground of the ruling class. He declined university and chose instead to continue the family tradition of serving the colonial enterprise as a policeman in Burma. After five years, he came back to England and decided to become—a writer? His parents must have been dumbfounded. Evidently fear of poverty had not struck their son in any meaningful way.
So like many of his generation’s creative set, young Eric set out for Paris, and soon found his modest savings stolen from him by either a mysterious Italian or a prostitute, depending on which story you believe. And Eric became poor. Now, it’s not exactly the perfect setup for a story about being disadvantaged. His élite education and worldly experience had given him resources far beyond those of most beggars and tramps. In many ways our author was going to be slumming it. But it would lead to his first published book, Down and Out in Paris and London, where he tried to show how the poor lived complex and varied lives; something much of society did not bother to see. And for this book he would choose his fateful pseudonym, George Orwell.
At the outset Orwell lives in a Paris slum on the rue du Coq d’Or, his made-up name for the narrow Latin Quarter street that sets the scene:
… a ravine of tall leprous houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes.
Orwell paints the neighbourhood’s eccentric squalor with an eye that is attentive, but not melodramatic or sensational. They are some of the finest passages of the book, and rival anything in Orwell’s fiction. You can sense that Paris is still an exciting place to him, with distinctive customs and attitudes that he is keen to record. Scenes of London, when we get there, are muted in comparison, probably from the numbness of familiarity.
Orwell’s companion in Paris is a Russian refugee named Boris. A waiter out of work after a recent illness, he and Orwell spend the early pages of the book padding around all the quarters of the city looking for work. After a luckless stretch, they are hired at a luxury hotel that Orwell identifies simply as Hotel X; he stresses that it could have been any overpriced hotel in the city. His experience there provides the bulk of the Paris section of the book: what life is like as a plongeur, or dishwasher. He also uses this occasion to expound on the hotel industry more broadly from the point of view of its lowliest servants. When Boris convinces him to quit and take a job at the dismal Auberge de Johan Cottard, Orwell turns his rigorous and often funny observations to the hidden workings of French bistros.
After several months of toiling in kitchens, he gets word that there is a job opening in London to care after “a congenital imbecile” (one of those tactful phrases from our past) in the English country, and sets off expectantly across the channel. The job gets delayed once he arrives, so our narrator spends the remainder of his meagre funds in the men’s lodging houses of London. Thus begins the second half of the book, which focuses on the nature, cause, and lifestyle of the English tramp—an entirely different mode of poverty from the chaos of a Parisian plongeur.
It’s in the observations, rather than in the storytelling, that Down and Out stays with you. Orwell’s journalism is easily as good or better than his fiction, and it’s surprising how much this early work contains the hallmarks that would make his later stuff so great. Although he occasionally does some nervous over-explaining that a good editor might have removed, he is mostly intact as the George Orwell we know. His voice is detached and sober, but never feigns total neutrality, and he seems naturally able to cut through any outer crust of cliché to get to the essence of the thing he is describing. He will hit you with simple images or phrases that upend how you view the subject. Take this, about being hungry:
Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one had been turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and lukewarm water substituted.
Why else would you want to read a memoir of poverty if not for passages like that? It’s a fresh and striking series of images that leave you with some practical memory of a sensation you hope never to experience. Or take the following, on the clothes he receives on arriving in London:
I had worn bad enough things before, but nothing at all like these; they were not merely dirty and shapeless, they had—how is one to express it?—a gracelessness, a patina of antique filth, quite different from mere shabbiness.
How is one to express it? The description here is less tangible than the first example, but the realization that it was possible to get another level shabbier from the rags he already had on is as disheartening as anything in the book. It seems that Orwell always had a gift for the well-wrought phrase, and we find him embodying that writerly virtue he later describes in Why I Write, “the power of facing unpleasant facts.” Down and Out will provide Orwell with a deluge of unpleasant facts, and his facing of them is delightful to read.
But Orwell’s reportage also yields some appealing digressions. In my favourite of these, he ponders the social significance of the plongeur, who represents for Orwell any of the legions of workers doing miserable, underpaying jobs. He makes an argument that had long been a standard of socialist thought, but would be seen as slightly radical today: that work is not, in and of itself, a good and moral force. This idea places Orwell in a line of thinkers that includes other literary leftists like Oscar Wilde and Bertrand Russell. Russell, who wrote In Praise of Idleness only a year before Down and Out was published, exposes the paternalistic impulse behind viewing work as a moralizing influence on the lower classes. The idea, he argues, originated with the aristocracy, who would never for a moment consider working but relied on the toil of the lower castes to maintain their lives of dances and foxhunts. These wealthy landowners were horrified at, among other things, the advent of state holidays for workers. “The idea that the poor should have leisure,” wrote Russell, “has always been shocking to the rich.”
Orwell reached this conclusion, as Russell certainly did not, from being caught in the purposeless cycle of work and exhaustion that had long befallen the working poor. Labourers of this sort, who may be intelligent and skilled but whose status as cheap work must be maintained for the sake of the rich, are kept, by endless work, from being able to agitate too easily, or consider their positions too carefully. They are, writes Orwell, “trapped by a routine that makes thought impossible.” One of the reasons for this, he argues, is crowd control:
I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think.
“Too busy to think” would still, I reckon, describe a large section of the population today. The useless work described by Orwell, menial tasks of dishwashing, making coffee, serving food, has expanded today to encompass an entire industry of administrative and white-collar jobs which, though perhaps better paid, feed the same fetish for long, dull work as a source of good character.
Orwell offers a sole exception to this philosophy of moral drudgery when he observes the treatment of beggars in London, people who are universally reviled even though their livelihood is earned through a tiring, unpleasant, and painful trade. And begging is a trade, he reminds us; a useless trade. “But, then,” he says, “many reputable trades are quite useless.” He goes on:
In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable … [The beggar] has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.
Orwell himself may have done something similar in deciding to become a writer. He was certainly dispossessed of the notion that the worth of an individual was related to how well they could accumulate capital. Though this may not have led him to a very lucrative career, it did allow him the clarity of observation and the capacity for empathy to write tactfully of those who were invisible to the rest of English society. It’s one of the traits that makes him still worth reading today.
The sympathy and humanity with which Orwell approaches his subjects is the lasting impression I got from Down and Out. It’s as fine an attempt as I’ve read to understand the lives of others, in context and without being patronizing, and shows that Orwell is still a potent enemy to our most pernicious misconceptions. From his first book he had already established the great themes of his writing life: that humanity aught to be respected, and that illusions exist to be smashed.
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I found this one at a secondhand shop in Edinburgh, though I can’t remember exactly which one (probably Edinburgh Books). The turquoise spine Penguins are some of my favourites; the cover of this one has a well chosen image of a black-tied waiter sneering at a vagrant in an alleyway. Orwell had some choice words for “smart” waiters.
Today the average price of an apartment on rue du Pot-de-Fer in Paris, the real-life rue du Coq d’Or, is €12,362 per square meter.
Other favourite quotes from Down and Out in Paris and London:
A slave, Marcus Cato said, should be working when he is not sleeping. It does not matter whether his work is needed or not, he must work, because work in itself is good—for slaves at least. This sentiment still survives, and it has piled up mountains of useless drudgery.
It was the first time that I had been into a French pawnshop. One went through grandiose stone portals (marked, of course, ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’—they write that even over the police stations in France)…
He might be ragged and cold, or even starving, but so long as he could read, think and watch for meteors, he was, as he said, free in his own mind.
-Sean “Tea-and-Two-Slices” McB