Fiction Reviews

Down and Out in Paris and London

(1933 /2020) George Orwell, Harvill Secker, £12.99 / Can$27.99, hrdbk, xiv + 224pp, ISBN 978-1-787-30253-2


.A welcome reprint edition of Orwell’s first full length book, following on from themes set out in his early essay, The Spike (1929) about homelessness in London (a theme revisited in greater depth in the second half of this book).

Orwell was inspired by a study by his favourite author Jack London, in 1903’s The People Of The Abyss in which London immersed himself in the homeless communities in London’s East End.

Orwell would have known that there was a great literati movement in Paris at the time of his study. Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and others were riding the waves of the golden Jazz Age there, but Orwell was focussed on the ordinary, impoverished people living in desperate poverty.

While Orwell had a supply of money stashed aside for emergencies in Paris, it was quickly stolen by an Italian compositor, plunging Orwell into a genuine financial crisis. He was obliged to sell and pawn clothing to survive. The arrangements for pawning goods were shared with his best friend in the French capital, Boris, a colourful and highly likeable larger than life Russian emigrant. The men often found themselves under-paid for the goods they offered by unscrupulous pawnbrokers, but there is a lovely sequence where Orwell surprises Boris with a large sum of money after getting an unusually generous deal for coats sold in one pawn shop.

Orwell and Boris were so desperate for work, that they tried to sign up for a dangerous circus act. The vacancy ad requested men willing to stand with their legs apart while lions ran between their thighs. Arriving for the interview the duo found a line of hopeful unemployed men queuing round the block. Orwell comments on the sheer desperation that drives so many to risk being mauled by lions for a meagre wage.

The men found it easier to get into hotel catering, mostly because the industry amounted to total servitude if not outright slavery. The posh Parisian hotels needed managers, chefs, cooks, waiters, and at the bottom of the strictly controlled caste system pyramid, the Plongeurs (kitchen porters and, dish-washers). It was into this class that Orwell found himself absorbed.

The Plongeurs barely had time or inclination to think beyond their job. As Orwell notes, the only way they could get a holiday was to get the sack. They often sleep in the kitchens of the hotels when not on their brutal seventeen and a half hour duty shifts. The Plongeurs are in many ways the inspiration for the Proles (Proletarian class) in Orwell’s best-known novel, 1984 (1949).

Orwell presents the hotels as a living hell. While the wealthy customers see a world of luxurious decadence, the kitchens were filthy, caked in dirt, dust and full of cockroaches. As staff were charged if food was irrecoverably spilt, anything that fell on the floor was simply wiped down and plonked back on the plate. Orwell describes one waiter accidentally dropping a cooked chicken down an open lift shaft and climbing down the shaft to salvage it from the detritus accumulated down there to serve it to an oblivious customer.

There is much speculation on whether Orwell was genuinely homeless or slumming it when he could free himself from the poverty trap any time, and how much he exaggerated his descriptions of the various characters he met. The answer lies somewhere between the two.

His Parisian adventure ended with an invite to work in London for a friend as a private tutor and carer for a disabled man described to Orwell in extreme political incorrectness as a ‘congenial imbecile’.

Alas, Orwell arrived in London to find that his friend had gone on an extended touring trip abroad taking the man Orwell was expected to tend to with him. Orwell was plunged into homelessness on the streets of London until his friend’s return.

The London half of the book is in many ways quite independent of the Paris events. Orwell draws no reference to the contrasts and similarities of his plight in each city.

London’s main homeless shelters, the spikes, which offered food and overnight accommodation were mostly run by The Salvation Army and other Christian charities. You could only stay in the same spike for a few days before moving out to another, and not returning to one for at least eight weeks. You risked imprisonment if you tried getting in a spike before eight weeks had passed since your last stay. This meant it was impossible for the nomadic homeless people to set up a fixed base for job searching and establishing social contacts.

Much was shared in the spikes including bath water so if you were not near the top of the bath -rota the water would be filthy when you used it.

The spikes provided meal vouchers that could be exchanged for food only in specific cafes and restaurants who often ripped off their clients by giving them less food than they claimed they were serving.

Orwell had some experience of the spikes from writing his 1929 essay, but he still found the experience soul destroying. He ends the book with very jaded comments about never dining in swank hotels or contributing donations to the Salvation Army ever again.

The most important aspect of the book, as Kerry Hudson plainly states in her introduction, is how little has changed for the homeless today. Orwell would continue his study of homelessness in 1937’s The Road To Wigan Pier.

Arthur Chappell


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