Books — 15 May 2012

by 

Julia Hones

 

If history repeats itself reading ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ can help you understand the effects of the current world financial crisis. This essay is a historical document about the lives of homeless men in the early thirties during the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street crash. What makes it so compelling and real is that George Orwell does not write about poverty from a distance or as a result of some kind of research; his writing is based on his own personal experience as he himself suffered the consequences of starvation and social ostracism.

The book begins with some interesting real sketches of scenes in the slums of Paris. Orwell’s troubles start when he discovers that he only has 450 francs left and beyond this nothing but thirty-six francs a week which he earns by giving English lessons. He uses 200 to pay his month’s rent in advance, and so he plans to use the remaining 250 francs to live for a month and find a job during that period. His plans, however, are shattered when somebody steals all the money he left in his room except for forty-seven francs that he kept in his pocket. To make matters worse, his students desert him and so do the thirty-six francs a week he was counting on. This is the beginning of his hardship.


“You discover what it is like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles, whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyere cheese like grindstones. A sniveling self-pity comes over you at the sight of so much food. You plan to grab a loaf and run, swallowing it before they catch you; and you refrain from pure funk.

You discover the boredom which is inseparable from poverty; the times when you have nothing to do and, being underfed, can interest yourself in nothing.”

During these desperate times the narrator remembers an old friend of his, a Russian refugee called Boris. Hoping that Boris can help him find a job he contacts him. To his dismay, he finds that Boris’s misery is even greater than his: he had lost his job after being in hospital, spent all his money and pawned all his clothes. He is now living on two francs a day and sleeps on the floor- two francs a day are just enough to buy a bowl of coffee and six rolls.


Together, the two men try to find a job that will rescue them from their hopeless situation. They undergo different challenging experiences but they find nothing except swindles that take away the little money they have. The way they support each other through this terrible period of suffering and starvation is touching.

Eventually Boris finds jobs for both in the Hotel X. They start working as ‘plongeurs’. ‘Plongeurs’ have to work in the restaurant by washing, cleaning and assisting the waiters to serve the food. They have the lowest position, work under intense pressure, and are insulted on a regular basis. In spite of working long hours, their wages are extremely low and they cannot save anything. Orwell states that they are like slaves.

The Hotel X was one of the dozen most expensive hotels in Paris and the customers paid startling prices. If a customer had a title, or was reputed to be a millionaire, all his charges went up automatically. However, this ‘luxury’ was a sham if we consider the filthy handling of the food and the dirtiness of the place where they worked.

“The dirt in the Hotel X, as soon as one penetrated into the service quarters, was revolting. Our cafeteria had year-old filth in all the dark corners, and the bread-bin was infested with cockcroaches. Once I suggested killing these beasts to Mario. ‘Why kill the poor animals?’ he said reproachfully. The others laughed when I wanted to wash my hands before touching the butter. Yet we were clean where we recognized cleanliness as part of the boulot. We scrubbed the tables and polished the brasswork regularly, because we had orders to do that; but we had no orders to be genuinely clean, and in any case we had no time for it. We were simply carrying out our duties; and as our first duty was punctuality, we saved time by being dirty.”

Paradoxically, Orwell points out that the more you pay for the food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it. He explains with striking details how they handle the food in Hotel X: “In the kitchen the dirt was worse. It is not a figure of speech, it is a mere statement of fact to say that a French cook will spit in the soup- that is if he is not going to drink it himself. He is an artist, but his art is not cleanliness. To a certain extent he is even dirty because he is an artist, for food, to look smart, needs dirty treatment. When a steak, for instance, is brought up for the head cook’s inspection, he does not handle it with a fork. He picks it up in his fingers and slaps it down, runs his thumb round the dish and licks it to taste the gravy, runs it round and licks again, then steps back and contemplates the piece of meat like an artist judging a picture, then presses it lovingly into place with his flat, pink fingers, every one of which he has licked a hundred times that morning. When he is satisfied, he takes a cloth and wipes his fingerprints from the dish, and hands it to the waiter. And the waiter, of course, dips his fingers into the gravy-his nasty, greasy fingers which he is for ever running through his brilliantined hair.” This nasty manipulation of the food does not happen in cheap restaurants.

After six weeks of making a living as ‘plongeurs’ in Hotel X, Boris and the narrator start working for a Russian restaurant. Their jobs here turn out to be much worse than those in Hotel X, so Orwell manages to find a post in London but by the time he gets there the employer has changed his mind and he is poor and homeless again.
Being homeless in London is more challenging than in Paris where you can sit on the pavement freely; in London it costs money to sit down and you could end up in prison for doing so. Hence, the narrator is forced to wander around, helplessly, while he lives on a few slices of bread and margarine provided by charity. We also learn about the dreadful conditions in which they sleep and what the potential chances of finding accommodation are. Life is an endless depressing struggle to survive- even a couple of slices of bread and margarine can become the trigger for a fight between two men.

Interestingly, Orwell tries to give some constructive suggestions on what to do about the homeless whom he calls ‘tramps’. ‘Tramps’, he says, are cut off from marriage and home life and are a dead loss to the community. He proposes that they should run small farms to produce their own food. “For the question is, ‘what to do with men who are underfed and idle’ and the answer –to make them grow their own food – imposes itself automatically”. He debunks the prejudice that ‘tramps’ are lazy people not just through interesting reflections but also by delving deeply into the intimate fabric of their lives. “Tramps” are unfortunate human beings, victims of unexpected circumstances, who’d rather not be in that terrible situation. George Orwell’s style, uncluttered and straightforward, captivates the reader.
The flaw of this book is in some comments Orwell made against certain ethnic groups. “The doorkeeper played similar tricks on any employee who was fool enough to be taken in. He called himself a Greek, but in reality he was an Armenian. After knowing him I saw the force of the proverb ‘Trust a snake before a Jew and a Jew before a Greek, but don’t trust an Armenian’.”  I find this statement very disturbing and unfair.

All in all, this is a book that dredges up, with raw honesty, what the homeless had to go through in the early thirties in Paris and London, and it reveals the dynamics of societies plagued by swindles and shams, so you will find it of great relevance in today’s world.

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