“Your clothes get dirty and you can’t afford having them washed. You run out of soap and razor-blades. You start avoiding prosperous friends in the street. You discover hunger. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge wasteful piles. You start thinking: in a day or two I’ll be starving”; this is Orwell’s description of the process of slipping into poverty. “Down and Out in Paris and London” starts in a Paris slum where Orwell lived in 1929, in a lousy hotel in the rue du Coq d’Or among the yells of Mme. Monce, loud prostitutes and children in the street. It’s a narrow street crammed with derelict buildings packed with immigrants of every conceivable nationality, most of them eastern Europeans.
This fantastic book describes the writer’s personal experiences among the inhabitants of an often ignored social stratum, the underworld present in every society and every nation in the globe. “People in this sort of background had given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty freed them from ordinary standards of behaviour” he states. Our protagonist, Orwell himself, spent a year and a half in the Coq d’Or until he ran out of money and started his descent to deprivation where “boredom is also a fellow traveller, as there’s nothing to do and being underfed, nothing interests you”– he says. However, according to him there’s also a feeling of relief, “as your worst fear is just in front of you and you discover that you can stand it.”
After leaving the Coq d’Or, and going to a pawnshop where he had to accept whatever they gave him, finding a job became imperative. He went to see a Russian friend, Boris, an unemployed waiter who thought that being English was a great asset in the pursue of a job as a waiter. However, as Boris was lame and Orwell didn’t have any experience, took weeks before they could find a job. In the meantime, while now and then Boris collapsed in bed weeping desperately as money oozed away, Orwell tried fishing in the Seine river so that they could eat, but found that fish had become cunning after the seige of Paris. Appealing to the solidarity of his fellow country men, Boris suggested that they could get in touch with a Russian secret society in Paris; apparently they were looking for articles on English politics, which could make things easier for Orwell too. So, they went to the secret hideaway, where the Russian revolutionaries demanded 20 Francs from them as an entrance fee. The revolutionaries asked Orwell about British politics and seemed satisfied. However, when Boris and Orwell went to the hideaway again, the Russian revolutionaries had vanished into thin air with the entrance fee money.
They start looking for jobs and they find two possibilities; there was work in the Auberge de Jehan Cottard, but not until some time had passed, so in the meantime they had to start working at the Hotel X. Orwell describe the caste system in there: the manager was at the top of the pyramid, followed by the maître d’hotel, then the head cook, the chef du personnel, the cooks, the waiters, the laundresses and sewing women, the apprentice waiters, the plongeurs (dishwashers) and the chambermaids. Orwell worked as a plongeur, the lower job a man could do, and he describes it as follows:
not enough sleep, continuous toil, one felt neurastenic and with fatigue; there were discarded scrapes of meat on the floor, rats and filth – even so, his workmates stated that they had known worse dirtier places-. “A plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world, no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art.” Among the responsibilities of a plongeur, is washing up, keeping the kitchen clean, preparing the vegetables, making tea, coffee and sandwiches, doing the simple cooking and runnning errands. It also implied tacitally no free day and no fixed working hours, although it was an average of 15 hours per day. They pay was just enough to keep the worker alive, the only holiday was the sack, a plongeur didn’t have time to marry. At that moment there were “men with university degrees scrubbing dishes in Paris for 10-15 hours a day, trapped in a routine that made thought impossible.”
After 5-6 weeks of working in the Hotel X, Boris disappeared, as the Auberge was about to open. Orwell left the Hotel X, but as they arrived they saw that it would take weeks for the Auberge to be ready. They employed them in the necessary works without pay. As soon as Orwell left, he went to the Auberge clean, shaved and in a new suit to feel the “curious sensation of being a customer where you have been a slave’s slave.”
He contacted a British connection -he hadn’t lost touch with the other world completely- so that he could get a job and then he got ready to leave France. But he travelled to England only to learn that his employers had gone abroad and that the prospect of a job had vanished; again, he exchanged his clothes for older ones and money. “Clothes are powerful things”, he claims as he noticed the change in people’s attitude toward him once he changes his suit for shabby clothes. Then, he starts experiencing and describing an even lower stratum of society populated by tramps. Firstly, he looked for the cheapest place to sleep, a battered looking house (know as a kip) in East London, which was full of oriental immigrants. There, he slept with several men in the same room. As he ran out of money -even more-, he changed his lodgings, as he only had a half penny left, and decided to go Romton, one of the London spikes (casual wards). There he met Paddy, an Irish man who had been a tramp for the last 15 years, who explained how the spikes worked. After queuing for a while at the entrance, a lady with a crucifix welcomed them inside, and gave them tea while she talked about religious subjects, and once the tea time was over, the lady insisted on their kneeling down and pray as part of the deal. “Ah, you don’t get much for nothing. They can’t even give you a twopenny cup of tea without you go down on your — knees for it”, says Paddy.
Once in the spike, the authorities only allowed each tramp to keep eightpence and they had to hand any sum to them at the entrance, but most tramps would rather smuggle their own money by tying it in a piece of cloth so that it didn’t chink. Once registered in the office, an officer who treated them like cattle lead them inside. They were searched before bathing and there were 50 stark-naked men packed in a room 20 feet square, with only two bathtubs and two slimy roller towels for all. They bathed in used water. There were no beds, they slept on the floor. After midnight, a man began making homosexual attempts upon Orwell, after which it was impossible to go back to sleep. At 8 in the morning they were out. The meal tickets they had been given lead them to a coffee shop where they were reluctantly served tea and four slices of bread. Paddy wanted to go to the Edbury spike and he explained that the Edbury spike was similar to Romton but tobacco was confiscated at the entrance. Under the Vagrancy Act, tramps can be prosecuted for smoking in the spike.
After Edbury, they went to a Salvation Army shelter, of semi-military discipline, and then they went looking for a friend of Paddy’s, Bozo. Bozo was a screever (pavement artist). He made his drawings on the pavement with artist’s chalks. He mainly painted cartoons, but had to avoid pro-socialist content due to the police and avoided religious charities, as he said it stuck in his throat to sing hymns for buns. He considered himself in a class above ordinary beggars, but the enemy of society all the same. In Bozo’s lodging house Orwell meets blacks, whites and Indians from all kinds of backgrounds, including a former doctor. Bozo explained to Orwell the different types of tramps that populated the streets: Organ-grinders and acrobats, who were considered as artists more than beggars and screevers who were somewhere in between, as they were only sometimes considered as artists. He introduced Orwell to a real artist who had studied art in Paris and copied Old Masters on the pavement. “It’s shabby sort of blokes you get most off and foreigners. The English are mean”. Sometimes he talked like an art critic about the colours in nature. “I go out at night and watch for meteors. The stars are a free show. It don’t cost anything to use your eyes”. “If you got an education, it don’t matter to you if you’re on the road for the rest of your life. 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 – and he tapped his forehead – and you’re all right”. Bozo had managed to keep his brain intact and alert, and so nothing could make him succumb to poverty. Bozo represents an optimistic outlook quite different to the common assumptions on life on the road and poverty, an exceptional character and a remarkable man. As long as he could read, think and watch for meteors, he considered himself free in his own mind.
“Down and out in Paris and London” is an often humorous yet realistic narration which invites to reflection about class issues and reveals the lives of the inhabitants of the lower strata of society, full of ignored poverty-stricken people, rich with stories and experiences utterly alien to the official average citizen.