You don’t know you’re born!
‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ (a.k.a You Don’t Know You’re Born) is one of my favourite Orwell books. The other would be ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, as along with a quite a few other people, I prefer his more journalistic work to his fiction. I think that where his true self lies, as an observer, rather than creator.
The book is a memoir of a skint Orwell trying not to starve to death in Paris, by working up to 17 hour days as a kitchen ‘plongeur’, washing up and other kitchen porter work, on his feet in filthy places, beating the rats from the food served to the customers, and working himself to exhaustion. Some nights he missed the last metro of there isn’t enough time to go home, so he just lays on the kitchen floor for the few hours between shifts. He rents a bug-filled room in a rough part of Paris, and when unable to find work gets perilously close to starvation. He meets lots of interesting people and finds the best way to keep his room cockroach-free is to cover everything in pepper, which makes him sneeze all the time, but is better than countless little feet crawling all over him as he sleeps. He then gets a letter from a friend in London who has found him a job, looking after a learning disabled person, and sends him his fare home. when he gets there, he finds the family have gone away and his job won’t start for a month, cue the second half of the book, Orwell trying not to starve to death in London.
He sleeps in various places, never allowed entry to the same place twice in a month, a policy designed to keep the homeless moving. He describes in horrid detail the boarding houses the tramps use and their ‘hot urine stench’, the beds so close together another man’s foot can share his pillow, and a lot of fighting. The Salvation Army isn’t much better, if anything, worse. They provide a bed, yet again, so close together that on other side other people are breathing in his face, and a strict routine of lights out at ten, up at seven, no drinking, smoking, or talking. At night, only sleeping and praying are allowed.
While neither Paris or London are described attractively, I have decided if I ever find myself transported back in time to a position of poverty between the wars, in either Paris or London, in spite of being crap at French, I’d rather be in Paris. The poverty seems just as hard, but romantically so. When Orwell or his friends have any money they have bread, cheese and wine, walk around the city being joyful in a damned way. They get drunk, tell stories and sing songs, and as he says, you can sleep on a bench in Paris, but in London he is moved on when he even sits on one, his clothes being too shabby and his poverty evident. He is scared to sit on the pavement as he thinks that will incur an even greater punishment, and so Orwell and his friend Paddy just stand for hours, killing the day, with aching feet and empty stomachs. There seems to be more camaraderie between the poor of Paris, the poor of London seem more like caged dogs, always ready to turn on each other.
I suppose the most alarming thing about this book is the way it is still relevant. There are still people that poor, and also refugees living on that same extreme edge of poverty, but unlike Orwell being able to wash up in a restaurant, in some countries the wait for refugee applications and therefore allowed to work can be a ludicrous amount of time, leaving a person with no legal way to earn money for in some cases, three years. So now I wonder what he would make of these times, and want to read what Orwell would write now, were to step into their shoes and chronicle the experience, especially compared to his earlier work.