Down and Out in Paris and London
© 1933 George Orwell
In 1933, young George Orwell took a room in the warrens of Paris and was promptly rendered penniless when someone broke into his room and stole his savings. Struggling to find work teaching English, Orwell drifted into poverty, until he found himself back in England, living as a tramp. Or…did he? Down and Out in Paris and London describes itself (in my edition) as a novel; elsewhere, it is described as a memoir of Orwell’s, one that took real events and made a proper story out of them. Regardless, Down and Out delivers a convincing picture of life in the dregs, both employed and not.
The story begins in Paris, where a struggling narrator links up with a Russian friend of his as they both try to avoid being thrown out of their penny flats. They try everything from the circus to writing Communist propaganda, but most of these opportunities melt away as soon as they get close. (Orwell concludes that the communists are swindlers; brother, you ain’t see nothin’ yet.) At last they find work — and plenty of it — in the kitchens of a classy hotel, which is far from classy behind the servants’ doors. There the scene is chaos, insults, heat, and staff wading their way around one another through floors wet with discarded lettuce leaves and oil. Seventeen hours a day — broken by a mid-afternoon break to relax in the bistros — is not unusual. This provides a secure existence until the two friends break away to help launch a Russian restaurant. It never ignites, and eventually Orwell drifts to England where he takes up tramping and tries various boarding houses and so on.
Most of this is strictly memoir, but Orwell pauses to reflect on what he is seeing from time to time. He notes, for instance, that the high class meals are an utter farce: if the gentlemen outside were to witness their food being prepared, they would hesitate to feed the result to their dogs — what between the steaks being rescued from dustbins and the hair grease-tainted soup. The work was badly organized, Orwell wrote, highly inefficient, and he suspected motive at work. Keep the lower classes running hither and yon, and they wouldn’t have time to get in trouble. Similarly inefficient is the waste of human energy he sees in London: the tramps spend their time on the move because they’re only permitted to use a given relief house once, so they move from house to house. All of this time spent walking and waiting for hostels to open could be made more productive, Orwell muses, if lodging homes for the poor included some element of farming: those who stayed would work towards their own support.
Down and Out is utterly readable in the Orwell way and despite its subject is funny from time to time. One man is described as rather ambiguous, for he wore sidewhiskers and those were the mark of either an apache or an intellectual — and no one knew how to place him. In the Paris segment, when the narrator considers a job at the circus, the requirement include: cleaning up litter, moving benches, and standing astride two chairs so that a lion might pass through one’s legs. One of those things is not like the other. Orwell captures a great many human stories, some of them curiosities of the time — like the Russians who fled Stalinist Russia. Part of his argument made a certain sense and others do not. He writes that beggars’ labors should be considered as work, since they perform actions — wailing a song, or drawing on the sidewalk — that are responded to (albeit grudgingly) with money. What’s the difference between that and a man swinging a pick at the railroad, he asks — they’re both labor. That would be the labor theory of value, which is of interest to middle schoolers who spend all day half-hardheartedly picking at their bedrooms and then claim they’ve worked all day at it. The difference between a man paying to go to an Enrico Caruso concert and a man giving a dollar to a street yodeling is that he actually wants to listen to Caruso, and he wants to get away from the yodeler. The London system does seem inefficient, but equally counterproductive is encouraging unemployed people to remain in one county forever through social support, when there are neither jobs nor the prospect of jobs in then near future. People used to move away when opportunities failed; now problems just fester. It just goes to show that there are no solutions, merely trade-offs.