[This is the fifteenth of seventeen finalists in the book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. This entry was promoted to finalist status by readers; thanks to everyone who voted! - SA]
George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London is at least three things; a highly entertaining, almost picaresque tale of rough-and-tumble living in Europe, a serious attempt to catalogue the numerous humiliations and injustices impoverished people were exposed to in Orwell’s time, and a stark comparison between life as a tramp who makes use of robust, if hellish and kafkaesque welfare resources, and as one who tries to get by working terrible jobs and living in disgusting places.
Orwell begins in Paris, where a long period of intermittent employment followed by a robbery have reduced him from poor-to-middle-class-expat to actual poor person. This is Orwell’s first published book, and he’s quite young (23-25) at the time of writing. I mention this only because, suprisingly, Orwell utterly lacks romantic notions about living an impoverished, bohemian life in a world-class city. Instead he characterizes his plunge into the Parisian underworld as a means of purging himself of the predjudices he aquired as an upper middle class Etonian. His descriptions of the characters in the run down hotel where he starts out are about as close as he gets to Kerouacish gushing about the wacky beatitude that arises out of a life in poverty:
There were eccentric characters in the hotel. The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people—people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work. Some of the lodgers in our hotel lived lives that were curious beyond words.
There were the Rougiers, for instance, an old, ragged, dwarfish couple who plied an extraordinary trade. They used to sell postcards on the Boulevard St Michel. The curious thing was that the postcards were sold in sealed packets as pornographic ones, but were actually photographs of chateaux on the Loire; the buyers did not discover this till too late, and of course never complained. The Rougiers earned about a hundred francs a week, and by strict economy managed to be always half starved and half drunk. The filth of their room was such that one could smell it on the floor below. According to Madame F., neither of the Rougiers had taken off their clothes for four years.
I can’t resist including another of these little characterizations. It’s amazing what Orwell can pack into a paragraph:
Or there was Henri, who worked in the sewers. He was a tall, melancholy man with curly hair, rather romantic-looking in his long, sewer-man's boots. Henri's peculiarity was that he did not speak, except for the purposes of work, literally for days together. Only a year before he had been a chauffeur in good employ and saving money. One day he fell in love, and when the girl refused him he lost his temper and kicked her. On being kicked the girl fell desperately in love with Henri, and for a fortnight they lived together and spent a thousand francs of Henri's money. Then the girl was unfaithful; Henri planted a knife in her upper arm and was sent to prison for six months. As soon as she had been stabbed the girl fell more in love with Henri than ever, and the two made up their quarrel and agreed that when Henri came out of jail he should buy a taxi and they would marry and settle down. But a fortnight later the girl was unfaithful again, and when Henri came out she was with child, Henri did not stab her again. He drew out all his savings and went on a drinking-bout that ended in another month's imprisonment; after that he went to work in the sewers. Nothing would induce Henri to talk. If you asked him why he worked in the sewers he never answered, but simply crossed his wrists to signify handcuffs, and jerked his head southward, towards the prison. Bad luck seemed to have turned him half-witted in a single day.
Orwell rarely stops to inject political or sociological speculation. Rather he tells the story as it happened, and keeps his more academic conlusions to just a couple chapters at the end. I’m going to attempt to honor this structure by going through the book chronologically, and then analyzing his actual arguments for and against such-and-such-solution at the very end.
Orwell’s greatest strength as a writer, wry detachment, also tends to be greatest weakness. Occasionally it feels like his digust, or else his commitment to a somewhat journalistic tone stop him from confronting the sheer grotesquity of some of the people and situations he’s met with. Take his profile of fellow British ex-pat Charlie. He recalls Charlie getting drunk and raping a young prostitute, and then later raphsodizing over the experience:
And so, just for one instant, I captured the supreme happiness, the highest and most refined emotion to which human beings can attain. And in the same moment it was finished, and I was left—to what? All my savagery, my passion, were scattered like the petals of a rose. I was left cold and languid, full of vain regrets; in my revulsion I even felt a kind of pity for the weeping girl on the floor. Is it not nauseous, that we should be the prey of such mean emotions? I did not look at the girl again; my sole thought was to get away. I hastened up the steps of the vault and out into the street. It was dark and bitterly cold, the streets were empty, the stones echoed under my heels with a hollow, lonely ring. All my money was gone, I had not even the price of a taxi fare. I walked back alone to my cold, solitary room…but there, messieurs et dames, that is what I promised to expound to you. That is Love. That was the happiest day of my life
And what does George ‘Conscience of His Generation’ Orwell have to say about this?:
He was a curious specimen, Charlie. I describe him, just to show what diverse characters could be found flourishing in the Coq d'Or quarter.
Disappointing, to say the least. I wonder if Orwell is attempting to be funny, using his callousness to reflect the callousness of everyone who sits around sipping their drinks as Charlie tells poetic stories about raping prostitutes. Or perhaps he thought the story spoke for itself and required no further comment. Luckily Orwell doesn’t do this very often. Most of the time he holds the camera on scenes of degradation and injustice far past the point where we as the reader would prefer to look away, and the book is all the better for it. Such scenes aren’t necessarily disgusting or dirty. Instead, Orwell indulges in an almost Nietzschean interest in the psychological impact of petty humiliations:
You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty. At a sudden stroke you have been reduced to an income of six francs a day. But of course you dare not admit it—you have got to pretend that you are living quite as usual. From the start it tangles you in a net of lies, and even with the lies you can hardly manage it. You stop sending clothes to the laundry, and the laundress catches you in the street and asks you why; you mumble something, and she, thinking you are sending the clothes elsewhere, is your enemy for life. The tobacconist keeps asking why you have cut down your smoking. There are letters you want to answer, and cannot, because stamps are too expensive. And then there are your meals—meals are the worst difficulty of all. Every day at meal-times you go out, ostensibly to a restaurant, and loaf an hour in the Luxembourg Gardens, watching the pigeons. Afterwards you smuggle your food home in your pockets. Your food is bread and margarine, or bread and wine, and even the nature of the food is governed by lies. You have to buy rye bread instead of household bread, because the rye loaves, though dearer, are round and can be smuggled in your pockets. This wastes you a franc a day. Sometimes, to keep up appearances, you have to spend sixty centimes on a drink, and go correspondingly short of food. Your linen gets filthy, and you run out of soap and razor-blades. Your hair wants cutting, and you try to cut it yourself, with such fearful results that you have to go to the barber after all, and spend the equivalent of a day's food. All day you are telling lies, and expensive lies…one could multiply these disasters by the hundred. They are part of the process of being hard up.
You might say these humiliations stem from Orwell’s sudden fall from low-middle-class respectability. But later Orwell will stress that proud, life-long tramps are fairly rare. Most of the people he encounters were also respectable low-to-middle-class people once. So this fall from grace and the obsession with some degree of keeping up appearances is shared by most tramps. Later, when Orwell watches his friend Boris prepare for a job hunt, we see the level of skill some tramps(I’m going to use this word as Orwell does) have acquired in transforming themselves into phantoms of their respectable pasts:
All the clothes he now had left were one suit, with one shirt, collar and tie, a pair of shoes almost worn out, and a pair of socks, all holes. He had also an overcoat which was to be pawned in the last extremity. He had a suitcase, a wretched twenty-franc cardboard thing, but very important, because the patron of the hotel believed that it was full of clothes—without that, he would probably have turned Boris out of doors. What it actually contained were the medals and photographs, various odds and ends, and huge bundles of love-letters. In spite of all this Boris managed to keep a fairly smart appearance. He shaved without soap and with a razor-blade two months old, tied his tie so that the holes did not show, and carefully stuffed the soles of his shoes with newspaper. Finally, when he was dressed, he produced an ink-bottle and inked the skin of his ankles where it showed through his socks. You would never have thought, when it was finished, that he had recently been sleeping under the Seine bridges.
Orwell and Boris share a pretty cute bromance for most of the Parisian section, spending nights together in terrible cheap rooms, discussing their future prospects. Usually, Boris(a Russian expat whose parents were murdered by the Bolsheviks) serves as the brains of the operation:
What things a man can do with brains! Brains will make money out of anything. I had a friend once, a Pole, a real man of genius; and what do you think he used to do? He would buy a gold ring and pawn it for fifteen francs. Then—you know how carelessly the clerks fill up the tickets—where the clerk had written "en or" he would add "et diamants" and he would change "fifteen francs" to "fifteen thousand". Neat, eh? Then, you see, he could borrow a thousand francs on the security of the ticket. That is what I mean by brains…For the rest of the evening Boris was in a hopeful mood, talking of the times we should have together when we were waiters together at Nice or Biarritz, with smart rooms and enough money to set up mistresses. He was too tired to walk the three kilometres back to his hotel, and slept the night on the floor of my room, with his coat rolled round his shoes for a pillow.
The two of them carry on like this for some time, drifting aimlessly though Paris, hoping for work. At one point they get scammed by a fake Bolshevik cell that dissapears once they pay their membership dues. Orwell’s underrated and understated sense of humor is on full display after he and Boris return to the cell office to find it deserted and totally sans Lenin posters:
And that was the last we ever heard of the secret society. Who or what they really were, nobody knew. Personally I do not think they had anything to do with the Communist Party; I think they were simply swindlers, who preyed upon Russian refugees by extracting entrance fees to an imaginary society. It was quite safe, and no doubt they are still doing it in some other city. They were clever fellows, and played their part admirably. Their office looked exactly as a secret Communist office should look, and as for that touch about bringing a parcel of washing, it was genius.
Eventually Orwell does manage to find work, as a scullion in a large, upscale hotel’s underground kitchens, and so begins the Kitchen Confidential section of the book. I love that Orwell feels free to devote such a big section of the story to describing his day-to-day in this horrible, hellish job. There seems to be no doubt in his mind that readers would find it interesting. And his writerly instincts are soon proven out. I first read this book years ago, and whenever it randomly comes to mind, it’s because of these images of Orwell the scullion. Here he is going down into the depths of the hotel for the first time:
He led me down a winding staircase into a narrow passage, deep underground, and so low that I had to stoop in places. It was stiflingly hot and very dark, with only dim, yellow bulbs several yards apart. There seemed to be miles of dark labyrinthine passages—actually, I suppose, a few hundred yards in all—that reminded one queerly of the lower decks of a liner; there were the same heat and cramped space and warm reek of food, and a humming, whirring noise (it came from the kitchen furnaces) just like the whir of engines. We passed doorways which let out sometimes a shouting of oaths, sometimes the red glare of a fire, once a shuddering draught from an ice chamber. As we went along, something struck me violently in the back. It was a hundred-pound block of ice, carried by a blue-aproned porter. After him came a boy with a great slab of veal on his shoulder, his cheek pressed into the damp, spongy flesh. They shoved me aside with a cry of 'Sauve-toi, idiot!' and rushed on. On the wall, under one of the lights, someone had written in a very neat hand: 'Sooner will you find a cloudless sky in winter, than a woman at the Hôtel X who has her maidenhead.' It seemed a queer sort of place.
The ‘it seemed a queer sort of place’ succeeds at Monty Pythonesque humor where his similar treatment of Charlie the rapist seemed to fail. Or perhaps Orwell isn’t being funny, and I think of this attitude as Monty Pythonesque because Python sought to mock the stiff upper lip types of Orwell’s generation. Who knows? I don’t know enough of the nuances of British humor to be sure.
Orwell’s work as a scullion turns out to be less a merciful reprieve from the life of a starving tramp, and more a daily tour of hell. He works 7 am to 9 pm everyday except sunday, with a work flow like this:
I calculated that one had to walk and run about fifteen miles during the day, and yet the strain of the work was more mental than physical. Nothing could be easier, on the face of it, than this stupid scullion work, but it is astonishingly hard when one is in a hurry. One has to leap to and fro between a multitude of jobs—it is like sorting a pack of cards against the clock. You are, for example, making toast, when bang! down comes a service lift with an order for tea, rolls and three different kinds of jam, and simultaneously bang! down comes another demanding scrambled eggs, coffee and grapefruit; you run to the kitchen for the eggs and to the dining-room for the fruit, going like lightning so as to be back before your toast bums, and having to remember about the tea and coffee, besides half a dozen other orders that are still pending; and at the same time some waiter is following you and making trouble about a lost bottle of soda-water, and you are arguing with him. It needs more brains than one might think. Mario said, no doubt truly, that it took a year to make a reliable cafetier.
On top of that, there’s a quaint(in retrospect)race hatred between all the employees, who tend to be sorted into their various positions by ethnicity:
The office employees and the cooks and sewing-women were French, the waiters Italians and Germans (there is hardly such a thing as a French waiter in Paris), the plongeurs of every race in Europe, beside Arabs and Negroes. French was the lingua franca, even the Italians speaking it to one another.
Luckily, none of it seems to matter much once orders stop coming in and everyone is indiscriminately screaming insults at everyone else. If you’ve ever seen on of those Gordon Ramsay cooking shows, what Orwell describes is no different. He admires the order that emerges from the chaos of dozens of people who share no common background or language screaming at one another to hurry up with the damn sauce already. And in his words, all the hustle and hubbub is ‘the good side of hotel work’.
So what’s the bad side?
-it is this—that the job the staff are doing is not necessarily what the customer pays for. The customer pays, as he sees it, for good service; the employee is paid, as he sees it, for the boulot—meaning, as a rule, an imitation of good service. The result is that, though hotels are miracles of punctuality, they are worse than the worst private houses in the things that matter.
Take cleanliness, for example. The dirt in the Hôtel X, as soon as one penetrated into the service quarters, was revolting. Our cafeterie had year-old filth in all the dark corners, and the bread-bin was infested with cockroaches. 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.
I think we ACX readers might jump at the chance to call this ‘a misalignment between th ereal interests of the customers and the incentives of the employees, or else as an ‘optimizing for optics over that which those optics are presumed to represent’ (though maybe that second one is redundant). But neither of those reframings cast much light on the situation for me. Instead I’m left wondering at the real value of kitchen cleanliness as such, in contrast to ‘cleanliness’ as measured by number of people made sick by food from that kitchen. My thinking is that all the grime in the world shouldn’t matter so long as it doesn’t result in any form of customer dissatisfaction, but then so much of that dissatisfaction is determined by how much information a customer gets about the process of food preparation. It’s a tree falling in the forest problem, isn’t it? Cleanliness matters if you have means to judge cleanliness. If you have no means, the way your food is made hardly matters at all(I guess that makes me a consequentalist?)This leads me to wonder if the popularity of television programs showing how processed foods are produced have any effect on their performance in the market.
But then, that’s the funny thing about cleanliness: a person who eats big macs probably has a vague understanding of the way that they’re made, and that it isn’t a very attractive process. They know that frozen patties are placed in a heating tray. That’s all well and good. But god forbid there’s a bit of grime on the tray that heats up the processed meat paddy…now that would be unforgivable. I get the sense that people who lived before the mid-twentieth century had opposite feelings about cleanliness: if your chicken shank falls in the mud, who cares? Wipe it off and eat it. But if that chicken led a wretched life and fell sick before it was slaughtered, you’d better be careful. We moderns don’t seem to give a damn about that kind of thing, so long as our notions of visible cleanliness are maintained. We make a good foil for Orwell’s hotel patrons. But I digress:
Dirtiness is inherent in hotels and restaurants, because sound food is sacrificed to punctuality and smartness. The hotel employee is too busy getting food ready to remember that it is meant to be eaten. A meal is simply 'une commande' to him, just as a man dying of cancer is simply 'a case' to the doctor. A customer orders, for example, a piece of toast. Somebody, pressed with work in a cellar deep underground, has to prepare it. How can he stop and say to himself, 'This toast is to be eaten—I must make it eatable'? All he knows is that it must look right and must be ready in three minutes. Some large drops of sweat fall from his forehead on to the toast. Why should he worry? Presently the toast falls among the filthy sawdust on the floor. Why trouble to make a new piece? It is much quicker to wipe the sawdust off. On the way upstairs the toast falls again, butter side down. Another wipe is all it needs. And so with everything. The only food at the Hôtel X which was ever prepared cleanly was the staff's, and the patron's. The maxim, repeated by everyone, was: 'Look out for the patron, and as for the clients, s'en f—pas mal!' Everywhere in the service quarters dirt festered—a secret vein of dirt, running through the great garish hotel like the intestines through a man's body.
Earlier I mentioned that this section is reminescent of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, a book whose very success proves that we cleanliness obsessed moderns get a voyeuristic kick out of stories such as Orwell’s. I think it’s this same voyeuristic kick that makes Down and Out an appealing book in general. Just as we all go to restaraunts and know almost nothing of what goes on behind kitchen doors, all of us see tramps most everyday and know little about how they live and think. And just like in the case of the kitchens, as much as we get a kick of being let in on the secrets of the unknown underworld, we also have very little desire to actively seek out that information for ourselves. Because a lot of the time, that information hurts.
Orwell ends this rather disturbing expose of hotel restaraunts with some good-natured and utterly English needling of the American palate:
According to Boris, the same kind of thing went on in all Paris hotels, or at least in all the big, expensive ones. But I imagine that the customers at the Hôtel X were especially easy to swindle, for they were mostly Americans, with a sprinkling of English—no French—and seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American 'cereals', and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet à la reine at a hundred francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce. One customer, from Pittsburgh, dined every night in his bedroom on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.
This, at least, was comforting. As were all the colorful tales of criminal hijinks:
There were tales of dope fiends, of old debauchees who frequented hotels in search of pretty page boys, of thefts and blackmail. Mario told me of a hotel in which he had been, where a chambermaid stole a priceless diamond ring from an American lady. For days the staff were searched as they left work, and two detectives searched the hotel from top to bottom, but the ring was never found. The chambermaid had a lover in the bakery, and he had baked the ring into a roll, where it lay unsuspected until the search was over.
And depsite all of that, Orwell says he was reasonably satisfied with his life at the time. Anyone who has lived the life of a manual laborer, even for a very short time, will be familiar with this feeling:
I had no sensation of poverty, for even after paying my rent and setting aside enough for tobacco and journeys and my food on Sundays, I still had four francs a day for drinks, and four francs was wealth. There was—it is hard to express it—a sort of heavy contentment, the contentment a well-fed beast might feel, in a life which had become so simple. For nothing could be simpler than the life of a plongeur. He lives in a rhythm between work and sleep, without time to think, hardly conscious of the exterior world; his Paris has shrunk to the hotel, the Métro, a few bistros and his bed. If he goes afield, it is only a few streets away, on a trip with some servant-girl who sits on his knee swallowing oysters and beer. On his free day he lies in bed till noon, puts on a clean shirt, throws dice for drinks, and after lunch goes back to bed again. Nothing is quite real to him but the boulot, drinks and sleep; and of these sleep is the most important.
Yet I don’t quite believe that Orwell, a highly educated man, and, well, George Orwell, was quite as content as he makes himself out to be. If there is any privilege or classist blindspot that Orwell himself fails to acknowledge here, it is that throughout this book, there is a sense of inevitablity around Orwell’s eventual escape from this life. I can’t point at a specific passage where this makes itself apparent, but I find it permeates the entire text; Orwell knows that eventually he will get out of this, someway, somehow. The bloke went to Eton, after all. That will come up again later on, but suffice it to say, Orwell’s situation never feels really, truly desperate to me. But perhaps that’s just testament to his complete and utter lack of self-pity…and to the intense but fleeting pleasures of a working class life, characterized by back breaking work punctuated by long bouts of drinking:
By half past one the last drop of pleasure had evaporated, leaving nothing but headaches. We perceived that we were not splendid inhabitants of a splendid world, but a crew of underpaid workmen grown squalidly and dismally drunk. We went on swallowing the wine, but it was only from habit, and the stuff seemed suddenly nauseating. One's head had swollen up like a balloon, the floor rocked, one's tongue and lips were stained purple. At last it was no use keeping it up any longer. Several men went out into the yard behind the bistro and were sick. We crawled up to bed, tumbled down half dressed, and stayed there ten hours.
Most of my Saturday nights went in this way. On the whole, the two hours when one was perfectly and wildly happy seemed worth the subsequent headache. For many men in the quarter, unmarried and with no future to think of, the weekly drinking-bout was the one thing that made life worth living.
Never underestimate the power a regular and reliable debauch can have on the endurance of people without prospects. For most of human history, it seems to have been enough to keep peasants pushing their ploughs. At least, that’s what I get from Orwell’s descriptions of the roughly six-hours-a-week of bachnallian fun he and the other residents of his quarter seemed to have attended with almost religious fervor and regularity.
Time wears on, and Orwell finally gets a position at a newly opened restaraunt that he’d been promised several months previous. The most notable character here is the ardent-communist-by-affiliation-and-temperment whom Orwell(a socialist himself) regards with passing interest. Here’s him scolding Orwell for daring to work:
Put that brush down, you fool! You and I belong to proud races; we don't work for nothing, like these damned Russian serfs. I tell you, to be cheated like this is torture to me. There have been times in my life, when someone has cheated me even of five sous, when I have vomited—yes, vomited with rage.
'Besides, mon vieux, don't forget that I'm a Communist. À bas la bourgeoisie! Did any man alive ever see me working when I could avoid it? No. And not only that I don't wear myself out working, like you other fools, but I steal, just to show my independence. Once I was in a restaurant where the patron thought he could treat me like a dog. Well, in revenge I found out a way to steal milk from the milk-cans and seal them up again so that no one should know. I tell you I just swilled that milk down night and morning. Every day I drank four litres of milk, besides half a litre of cream. The patron was at his wits' end to know where the milk was going. It wasn't that I wanted milk, you understand, because I hate the stuff; it was principle, just principle.
This new job, still as a scullion, but now in a small restaraunt frequented by Russian expats(who, because this is 1920s Paris, have all lived extraordinary, tragic, lives) turns out to be even worse than the one at the hotel. He works from:
…seven in the morning till half past twelve the next morning—seventeen and a half hours, almost without a break. We never had time to sit down till five in the afternoon, and even then there was no seat except the top of the dustbin. Boris, who lived near by and had not to catch the last Métro home, worked from eight in the morning till two the next morning—eighteen hours a day, seven days a week. Such hours, though not usual, are nothing extraordinary in Paris.
I found this almost too extreme to believe, simply because of the limits of the human body…until I moved to Japan. Now it seems a given that so long as 14+ hour working days are fairly ubiquitous, they will be endured without hesitation or complaint. On the surface, the causes of overwork in 1920s Paris and 21st century Japan appear quite different, but in the end they’re basically the same: people work this way because if they don’t, they’ll soon be replaced by someone who will. Only in the last couple of decades has Japan realized that more than a labor issue, this is a public health crisis: people die if they carry on working like this for too long, even very young people(and the proof is in the pudding—most of my male high school students here in Japan have noticable greying in their hair. I’m talking 15-17 year olds.)
But of course in Orwell’s Paris, no one kept track of that sort of thing. Yet such a life does have it’s compensations:
At half past twelve I would put on my coat and hurry out. The patron, bland as ever, would stop me as I went down the alley-way past the bar. 'Mais, mon cher monsieur, how tired you look! Please do me the favour of accepting this glass of brandy.'
He would hand me the glass of brandy as courteously as though I had been a Russian duke instead of a plongeur. He treated all of us like this. It was our compensation for working seventeen hours a day.
I suppose this is the plaque-and-a-rolex of the restaraunt life. Unfortunately, it’s not quite enough to keep Orwell working seventeen hour days in a cramped, dirty kitchen. Soon he writes to a friend in England and begs for a job, and actually receives a reply that sends Orwell into daydreams about a more lesiurely sort of employment:
[I] was to look after a congenital imbecile, which sounded a splendid rest cure after the Auberge de Jehan Cottard. I pictured myself loafing in the country lanes, knocking thistle-heads off with my stick, feeding on roast lamb and treacle tart, and sleeping ten hours a night in sheets smelling of lavender.
But before moving on to England, Orwell gives a chapter of analysis of his life as a scullion, and what its greater social significance might be. He quickly labels the Paris scullions a class of modern slaves, and then wonders why such horrible conditions are allowed to exist in a city such as Paris. His answer isinteresting: he sees the problem as basically one of public complacency. The people of Europe see the scullions’ work as something that simply must be done, much like work in the sewers, coal mines etc. But Orwell doesn’t see the scullion’s work that way, at least, not in it’s current state:
…it does not follow that he is doing anything useful; he may be only supplying a luxury which, very often, is not a luxury.
As an example of what I mean by luxuries which are not luxuries, take an extreme case, such as one hardly sees in Europe. Take an Indian rickshaw puller, or a gharry pony. In any Far Eastern town there are rickshaw pullers by the hundred, black wretches weighing eight stone, clad in loin-cloths. Some of them are diseased; some of them are fifty years old. For miles on end they trot in the sun or rain, head down, dragging at the shafts, with the sweat dripping from their grey moustaches. When they go too slowly the passenger calls them bahinchut. They earn thirty or forty rupees a month, and cough their lungs out after a few years. The gharry ponies are gaunt, vicious things that have been sold cheap as having a few years' work left in them. Their master looks on the whip as a substitute for food. Their work expresses itself in a sort of equation—whip plus food equals energy; generally it is about sixty per cent whip and forty per cent food. Sometimes their necks are encircled by one vast sore, so that they drag all day on raw flesh. It is still possible to make them work, however; it is just a question of thrashing them so hard that the pain behind outweighs the pain in front. After a few years even the whip loses its virtue, and the pony goes to the knacker. These are instances of unnecessary work, for there is no real need for gharries and rickshaws; they only exist because Orientals consider it vulgar to walk. They are luxuries, and, as anyone who has ridden in them knows, very poor luxuries. They afford a small amount of convenience, which cannot possibly balance the suffering of the men and animals.
Orwell served for five years an an imperial policeman in Burma(now Myanmar), and so isn’t speaking from some vague antipathy towards asian customs here. He saw such sights everyday for years on end, and it’s no suprise that he would question their essential usefulness. But as brutal as the practice sounds, I find myself questioning his conclusion. Parts of India are punishingly hot, and many of the cities are large and spread out. It makes perfect sense to me that in a time before the wide spread use of cars, another cheap means of transportation would arise to meet the needs of the upper and middle class(because the rides are so cheap, they are not just a privilege of rulers)who want to avoid trudging miles across a large city in the middle of summer. To imply that rickshaws should be banned or phased out because they afford only “a small amount of convenience” strikes me as overreaching at best, and outright authoritarian at worst. But I find Orwell’s basic argument much more compelling when applied to his own situation:
Similarly with the plongeur. He is a king compared with a rickshaw puller or a gharry pony, but his case is analogous. He is the slave of a hotel or a restaurant, and his slavery is more or less useless. For, after all, where is the real need of big hotels and smart restaurants? They are supposed to provide luxury, but in reality they provide only a cheap, shoddy imitation of it. Nearly everyone hates hotels. Some restaurants are better than others, but it is impossible to get as good a meal in a restaurant as one can get, for the same expense, in a private house. No doubt hotels and restaurants must exist, but there is no need that they should enslave hundreds of people. What makes the work in them is not the essentials; it is the shams that are supposed to represent luxury. Smartness, as it is called, means, in effect, merely that the staff work more and the customers pay more; no one benefits except the proprietor, who will presently buy himself a striped villa at Deauville. Essentially, a 'smart' hotel is a place where a hundred people toil like devils in order that two hundred may pay through the nose for things they do not really want. If the nonsense were cut out of hotels and restaurants, and the work done with simple efficiency, plongeurs might work six or eight hours a day instead often or fifteen.
I see Orwell’s dream as having come true in a limited sense. Upscale restaraunts that serve terrible food made by people working for pennies are relatively rare now( except on cruise ships). Their two primary aspects (hellish working conditions and bad food)have split and diverged and now exist in different food industry niches: on the one hand we have the modern fast food restaraunt, where the work is “done with simple efficiency…[scullions] might work six of eight hours a day” and true mid-to-upscale restaraunts, where a higher level of cleanliness and quality in preperation and ingredients is assumed, and I think in most cases, delivered upon. In these sorts of places, which Bourdain describes in Kitchen Confidential, the chefs work in hellish conditions, but are paid relatively well and work more reasonable, if irregular and nocturnal, hours. In fast food places, people are paid less but are subject to a form of basic protection borne out of the sheer size and visibility of corporations like Burger King and McDonalds. No doubt Orwell would find this situation ghastly in it’s own way, but I doubt he’d deny the life of restaraunt and hotel workers has markedly improved since the 1920s.
Trouble is, Orwell doesn’t see these horrible working conditions are merely a result of people’s misguided desire to eat overpriced, low-quality food:
I am trying to go beyond the immediate economic cause, and to consider what pleasure it can give anyone to think of men swabbing dishes for life. For there is no doubt that people—comfortably situated people—do find a pleasure in such thoughts…I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think. A rich man who happens to be intellectually honest, if he is questioned about the improvement of working conditions, usually says something like this:
'We know that poverty is unpleasant; in fact, since it is so remote, we rather enjoy harrowing ourselves with the thought of its unpleasantness. But don't expect us to do anything about it. We are sorry for you lower classes, just as we are sorry for a, cat with the mange, but we will fight like devils against any improvement of your condition. We feel that you are much safer as you are. The present state of affairs suits us, and we are not going to take the risk of setting you free, even by an extra hour a day. So, dear brothers, since evidently you must sweat to pay for our trips to Italy, sweat and be damned to you.
And once again, my experiences in Japan stop me from dismissing Orwell’s rather sinister notion of upper-classes motives outright. The following situation has occured too many times:
Me: So why do Japanese people work so much? Teachers in the US usually go home at 4 or 5. Why do you stay until ten or eleven?
Japanese Colleague: Well, you know, I have to stay because everyone else does. It would look bad if I was first to leave.
Me: Okay, but what if that social pressure was removed?
Colleague: *Expression of shock and horror* but then, I wouldn’t know what to do. I think people need to work, you know. If people have too much time, well…
Please don’t think I’m exaggerating about Japan. I’m really, really, not. But in contrast to Orwell, I’d assert that everyone, including the mob themselves share this same fear of the mob. Everyone is afraid of too much improvement, if that improvement means more ‘idle’ time for poor people. We can spot this now whenever UBI is brought up. I count myself among the skeptics of UBI, but I recognize that much of my initial skepticism amounted to, “But what will all those people do without their horrible jobs to keep them busy?” And I see this mob-fear in the eyes of my Japanese friends whenever I question them. They would probably still see it in my eyes if they asked me about UBI. Orwell sums up the whole, messy, tangled situation far better than I could:
A plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in the process, because they know nothing about him and consequently are afraid of him. I say this of the plongeur because it is his case I have been considering; it would apply equally to numberless other types of worker. These are only my own ideas about the basic facts of a plongeur's life, made without reference to immediate economic questions, and no doubt largely platitudes. I present them as a sample of the thoughts that are put into one's head by working in an hotel.
And with that, on to London!
After a long, mostly uneventful third-class trip by boat, Orwell arrives at his friend’s office, bright-eyed and bushy-taled about his future prospects as an imbecile chaperone:
…and his first words knocked everything to ruins. 'I'm sorry,' he said; 'your employers have gone abroad, patient and all. However, they'll be back in a month. I suppose you can hang on till then?'
I was outside in the street before it even occurred to me to borrow some more money. There was a month to wait, and I had exactly nineteen and sixpence in hand. The news had taken my breath away. For a long time I could not make up my mind what to do. I loafed the day in the streets, and at night, not having the slightest notion of how to get a cheap bed in London, I went to a 'family' hotel, where the charge was seven and sixpence. After paying the bill I had ten and twopence in hand.
Using this converter I see that ten and two pence in 1930 is equivalent to roughly 32 (2017) US dollars. Our friend Orwell was in a pretty tight spot. Yet it was never quite so tight as it seems. From my edition’s introduction:
When Orwell left Paris in December 1929 he did not, in fact, immediately live as a down-and-out in London. Instead, he spent Christmas with his family, whose joy was confined when their penniless son—now aged twenty-six and seemingly an unqualified failure—suddenly reappeared. Defensively he announced to all and sundry that he was working on a book about his time in Paris. But meanwhile he had somehow to earn something and tutoring jobs were found for him near Southwold. Also, he soon began to establish a reputation as a courageously independent-minded reviewer who was not overawed by such ‘Big Names’ as Edith Sitwell or J.B. Priestley.
From this and other research into Orwell’s life at this time, I think we can surmise that his life in Paris was in no way a performance, a LARP, or even an intentional bit of journalism, at least at first. Orwell simply had no other options. On the other hand, his life in London was, at least somewhat, chosen. Orwell’s first published work would end up being an essay on conditions in ‘Spikes’ or, what basically amounted to state run shelters for tramps. But he had family willing to take him in, and shameful though it would be for a twenty five year old Eton graduate to resort to that, there was no real need for him to live as he did in London. But he did live in that way, and I think his reasons are mostly immaterial in regards to his experiences and insights. When class comes into play, Orwell readily acknowledges it. Yet it turns out to be less a factor than he’d first expected. He rarely receives special treatment, but it only adds to his sense of personal degradation:
…I dared not speak to anyone, imagining that they must notice a disparity between my accent and my clothes. (Later I discovered that this never happened.) My new clothes had put me instantly into a new world. Everyone's demeanour seemed to have changed abruptly. I helped a hawker pick up a barrow that he had upset. 'Thanks, mate,' he said with a grin. No one had called me mate before in my life—it was the clothes that had done it. For the first time I noticed, too, how the attitude of women varies with a man's clothes. When a badly dressed man passes them they shudder away from him with a quite frank movement of disgust, as though he were a dead cat. Clothes are powerful things. Dressed in a tramp's clothes it is very difficult, at any rate for the first day, not to feel that you are genuinely degraded. You might feel the same shame, irrational but very real, your first night in prison.
He finds cheap lodging in a “kip” wherein eight men sleep in a room fifteen feet square by eight high. As vivid and horrible as his descriptions of the subterranean kitchen, I somehow find this even worse:
When I got into the bed I found that it was as hard as a board, and as for the pillow, it was a mere hard cylinder like a block of wood. It was rather worse than sleeping on a table, because the bed was not six feet long, and very narrow, and the mattress was convex, so that one had to hold on to avoid falling out. The sheets stank so horribly of sweat that I could not bear them near my nose. Also, the bedclothes only consisted of the sheets and a cotton counterpane, so that though stuffy it was none too warm. Several noises recurred throughout the night. About once in an hour the man on my left—a sailor, I think—woke up, swore vilely, and lighted a cigarette. Another man, victim of a bladder disease, got up and noisily used his chamber-pot half a dozen times during the night. The man in the corner had a coughing fit once in every twenty minutes, so regularly that one came to listen for it as one listens for the next yap when a dog is baying the moon. It was an unspeakably repellent sound; a foul bubbling and retching, as though the man's bowels were being churned up within him. Once when he struck a match I saw that he was a very old man, with a grey, sunken face like that of a corpse, and he was wearing his trousers wrapped round his head as a nightcap, a thing which for some reason disgusted me very much. Every time he coughed or the other man swore, a sleepy voice from one of the other beds cried out:
'Shut up! Oh, for Christ's—sake shut up!’
I’ll take the Parisian kitchen over that any day. His description of the old man’s cough, in particular, makes me never want to sleep in a room with another person ever again. And Orwell seems to share this notion, because he quickly starts to drift from house to house, even “sleeping” in the outdoors sometimes, though in those cases sleep is actually impossible due to harassment by police. Instead he and the other tramps are forced to sit on benches, nodding in an out of consciousness, never really resting. It’s this that sends them into the horrible flophouses. Orwell points out that three or four hours of bad sleep is still a significant improvement over a night apent out on the street.
In general, Orwell’s life as a London drifter is far more dreary and depressing than his time in Paris. Largely because he has nothing to do, nowhere to be…and he’s slowly starving due to the tramp’s diet of “tea-and-two-slices” which he describes as such:
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. For half a day at a time you lie on your bed, feeling like the jeune squelette in Baudelaire's poem. Only food could rouse you. You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.
In fact, Orwell rightly spends quite a lot of time describing the impact of hunger on a man’s will, and identifies it as perhaps the chief means by which respectable people are debased and turned into aimless, wandering tramps. I find these to be among the most moving passages in the whole book:
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 Gruyère cheeses like grindstones. A snivelling 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.
And earlier, speaking on the consolations of poverty:
For, when you are approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others. You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future. Within certain limits, it is actually true that the less money you have, the less you worry. When you have a hundred francs in the world you are liable to the most craven panics. When you have only three francs you are quite indifferent; for three francs will feed you till tomorrow, and you cannot think further than that. You are bored, but you are not afraid. You think vaguely, 'I shall be starving in a day or two—shocking, isn't it?' And then the mind wanders to other topics. A bread and margarine diet does, to some extent, provide its own anodyne.
I’ve experienced this myself during deliberate periods of fasting. Once your body starts burning fat for fuel, and you’re no longer subject to the energetic highs and lows that come from a high-glucose diet, a queer sort of emotional stability sets in. I didn’t like it at all, precisely because of that ‘shocking, isn’t it?’ atttiude that Orwell points out. Not to say that the psychological changes one feels during deliberate fasts approach those experienced during long periods of real starvation. Especially when one considers all the counterintuive changes in attitude that accompany a real transition into the state of desperate poverty all people, in all times have so feared:
…there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs—and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.
And yet that same, dulling hunger pushes Orwell and other London tramps to take charity from religious organizations, where the petty humiliations reach their ultimate climax:
Uncomfortably we took off our caps and sat down. The lady handed out the tea, and while we ate and drank she moved to and fro, talking benignly. She talked upon religious subjects—about Jesus Christ always having a soft spot for poor rough men like us, and about how quickly the time passed when you were in church, and what a difference it made to a man on the road if he said his prayers regularly. We hated it. We sat against the wall fingering our caps (a tramp feels indecently exposed with his cap off), and turning pink and trying to mumble something when the lady addressed us. There was no doubt that she meant it all kindly. As she came up to one of the north country lads with the plate of buns, she said to him:
'And you, my boy, how long is it since you knelt down and spoke with your Father in Heaven?'
Poor lad, not a word could he utter; but his belly answered for him, with a disgraceful rumbling which it set up at sight of the food. Thereafter he was so overcome with shame that he could scarcely swallow his bun. Only one man managed to answer the lady in her own style, and he was a spry, red-nosed fellow looking like a corporal who had lost his stripe for drunkenness. He could pronounce the words 'the dear Lord Jesus' with less shame than anyone I ever saw. No doubt he had learned the knack in prison.
Orwell and a large group of other tramps later attend a church service where they outnumber the worshippers, and so they indulge in stamping their feet and openly heckling the preacher and congregation:
It was so different from the ordinary demeanour of tramps—from the abject worm-like gratitude with which they normally accept charity. The explanation, of course, was that we outnumbered the congregation and so were not afraid of them. A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor—it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it.
Yet we soon meet a man who performs charity in a way the tramps approve of. I suggest you stop right now and try to form a picture of ‘charity done right’ before reading on. It made perfect sense to me in hindsight, and corresponded to instances of unpretensious generosity I’d seen before, but I doubt I would’ve been able to form a clear idea of what it might look like:
Presently the clergyman appeared and the men ranged themselves in a queue in the order in which they had arrived. The clergyman was a nice, chubby, youngish man, and, curiously enough, very like Charlie, my friend in Paris. He was shy and embarrassed, and did not speak except for a brief good evening; he simply hurried down the line of men, thrusting a ticket upon each, and not waiting to be thanked. The consequence was that, for once, there was genuine gratitude, and everyone said that the clergyman was a—good feller. Someone (in his hearing, I believe) called out: 'Well, he'll never be a—bishop!'—this, of course, intended as a warm compliment.
This in contrast to the state-run generosity of the Spike:
It appeared from what they said that all spikes are different, each with its peculiar merits and demerits, and it is important to know these when you are on the road. An old hand will tell you the peculiarities of every spike in England, as: at A you are allowed to smoke but there are bugs in the cells; at B the beds are comfortable but the porter is a bully; at C they let you out early in the morning but the tea is undrinkable; at D the officials steal your money if you have any—and so on interminably. There are regular beaten tracks where the spikes are within a day's march of one another. I was told that the Barnet-St Albans route is the best, and they warned me to steer clear of Billericay and Chelmsford, also Ide Hill in Kent. Chelsea was said to be the most luxurious spike in England; someone, praising it, said that the blankets there were more like prison than the spike. Tramps go far afield in summer, and in winter they circle as much as possible round the large towns, where it is warmer and there is more charity. But they have to keep moving, for you may not enter any one spike, or any two London spikes, more than once in a month, on pain of being confined for a week.
Basically, spikes are homeless shelters spread out all over England, wherein tramps can stay and recieve a little food, a place to sleep, and an absolutely revolting bath:
The scene in the bathroom was extraordinarily repulsive. Fifty dirty, stark-naked men elbowing each other in a room twenty feet square, with only two bathtubs and two slimy roller towels between them all. I shall never forget the reek of dirty feet. Less than half the tramps actually bathed (I heard them saying that hot water is 'weakening' to the system), but they all washed their faces and feet, and the horrid greasy little clouts known as toe-rags which they bind round their toes. Fresh water was only allowed for men who were having a complete bath, so many men had to bathe in water where others had washed their feet. The porter shoved us to and fro, giving the rough side of his tongue when anyone wasted time. When my turn came for the bath, I asked if I might swill out the tub, which was streaked with dirt, before using it. He answered simply, 'Shut yer—mouth and get on with yer bath!' That set the social tone of the place, and I did not speak again.
And this, I think, is why Orwell is about as popular with the right as with the left: he takes an almost libertarian pleasure in describing(and in the case of 1984, inventing)the most grotesque forms of governmental overreach and mission failure imaginable. And basically no matter where you stand politically, it’s hard not to enjoy that kind of stuff.. No horrific detail escapes him. You can see his future as a great writer of dystopian fiction in his depiction of the Spike’s dining-room:
In the morning, after breakfast and the doctor's inspection, the Tramp Major herded us all into the dining-room and locked the door upon us. It was a limewashed, stone-floored room, unutterably dreary, with its furniture of deal boards and benches, and its prison smell. The barred windows were too high to look out of, and there were no ornaments save a clock and a copy of the workhouse rules. Packed elbow to elbow on the benches, we were bored already, though it was barely eight in the morning. There was nothing to do, nothing to talk about, not even room to move. The sole consolation was that one could smoke, for smoking was connived at so long as one was not caught in the act. Scotty, a little hairy tramp with a bastard accent sired by Cockney out of Glasgow, was tobaccoless, his tin of cigarette ends having fallen out of his boot during the search and been impounded. I stood him the makings of a cigarette. We smoked furtively, thrusting our cigarettes into our pockets, like schoolboys, when we heard the Tramp Major coming.
Most of the tramps spent ten continuous hours in this comfortless, soulless room. Heaven knows how they put up with it. I was luckier than the others, for at ten o'clock the Tramp Major told off a few men for odd jobs, and he picked me out to help in the workhouse kitchen, the most coveted job of all. This, like the clean towel, was a charm worked by the word ‘gentleman'.
At three I went back to the spike. The tramps had been sitting there since eight, with hardly room to move an elbow, and they were now half mad with boredom. Even smoking was at an end, for a tramp's tobacco is picked-up cigarette ends, and he starves if he is more than a few hours away from the pavement. Most of the men were too bored even to talk; they just sat packed on the benches, staring at nothing, their scrubby faces split in two by enormous yawns. The room stank of ennui.
I couldn’t find any pictures of a Spike’s interior, but I expect one of a workhouse will serve. Just imagine this, but with worse decor and food:
When Orwell tries to speak to one of his companions(also a tramp)of improvements that might be made, the fear of the mob rears it’s ugly head once more:
…I told him about the wastage of food in the workhouse kitchen, and what I thought of it. And at that he changed his tone instantly. I saw that I had awakened the pew-renter who sleeps in every English workman. Though he had been famished along with the others, he at once saw reasons why the food should have been thrown away rather that given to the tramps. He admonished me quite severely.
'They have to do it,' he said. 'If they made these places too comfortable, you'd have all the scum of the country flocking into them. It's only the bad food as keeps all that scum away. These here tramps are too lazy to work, that's all that's wrong with them. You don't want to go encouraging of them. They're scum.'
I produced arguments to prove him wrong, but he would not listen. He kept repeating:
'You don't want to have any pity on these here tramps—scum, they are. You don't want to judge them by the same standards as men like you and me. They're scum, just scum.'
It was interesting to see the subtle way in which he disassociated himself from 'these here tramps'. He had been on the road six months, but in the sight of God, he seemed to imply, he was not a tramp. I imagine there are quite a lot of tramps who thank God they are not tramps.
This causes Orwell to wonder at the reasons for the fall of all these once respectable, wandering people. He gives several, along with reasons for their entrapment within such a wretched life:
It is a curious thing, but very few people know what makes a tramp take to the road. And, because of the belief in the tramp-monster, the most fantastic reasons are suggested. It is said, for instance, that tramps tramp to avoid work, to beg more easily, to seek opportunities for crime, even—least probable of reasons—because they like tramping. I have even read in a book of criminology that the tramp is an atavism, a throw-back to the nomadic stage of humanity. And meanwhile the quite obvious cause of vagrancy is staring one in the face. Of course a tramp is not a nomadic atavism—one might as well say that a commercial traveller is an atavism. A tramp tramps, not because he likes it, but for the same reason as a car keeps to the left; because there happens to be a law compelling him to do so. A destitute man, if he is not supported by the parish, can only get relief at the casual wards, and as each casual ward will only admit him for one night, he is automatically kept moving. He is a vagrant because, in the state of the law, it is that or starve. But people have been brought up to believe in the tramp-monster, and so they prefer to think that there must be some more or less villainous motive for tramping.
This seems reductive on its face, but Orwell isn’t talking about poverty as a whole here, but rather the particular English phenomenon wherein the impoverished are basically on a neverending walkabout around the countryside. As for the actual cause of poverty, Orwell is anything but reductive. Again and again he states that these are normal men, whom due to an accident, a crime, or one poor decision, have been reduced to tramping. He draws a destinction between what he observes and the American ‘hobo’ culture that was prevalent at this time:
Deliberate, cynical parasitism, such as one reads of in Jack London's books on American tramping, is not in the English character. The English are a conscience-ridden race, with a strong sense of the sinfulness of poverty. One cannot imagine the average Englishman deliberately turning parasite, and this national character does not necessarily change because a man is thrown out of work. Indeed, if one remembers that a tramp is only an Englishman out of work, forced by law to live as a vagabond, then the tramp-monster vanishes. I am not saying, of course, that most tramps are ideal characters; I am only saying that they are ordinary human beings, and that if they are worse than other people it is the result and not the cause of their way of life.
I have little doubt that this was true in Orwell’s time, but I think of all his assertions about the nature of poverty and homelessness, this one is the most dated. In Orwell’s time the ‘tramp culture’ was not a drug culture. At least in the United States, it now most certainly is. The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that “38% of homeless people are alchohol dependant, and 26% are dependent on other harmful chemicals.”1 And how does Orwell describe his fellow tramps, in terms of substance use?
…take the idea that all tramps are drunkards—an idea ridiculous on the face of it. No doubt many tramps would drink if they got the chance, but in the nature of things they cannot get the chance. At this moment a pale watery stuff called beer is sevenpence a pint in England. To be drunk on it would cost at least half a crown, and a man who can command half a crown at all often is not a tramp.
No other drugs are even mentioned. But that isn’t even the most shocking absence from Orwell’s picture of poverty. What struck me first about Orwell’s companions is that despite all of them being unemployed, half-starving wanderers without any social ties…none of them seem to be (extremely)mentally ill. Orwell never once suggests that these men are homeless because of any mental deficiency or disorder. He always maintains that they are just like people he knew in his ‘respectable life’, but poorer. Some are eccentric in the extreme, but nothing like many of the homeless one now sees on the streets of American cities.
This is likely because in 1808, English parliament authorized every county to build it’s own asylum, and in 1845 it became compulsory for the counties to do so. And “by the end of the century there were as many as 120 new asylums in England and Wales, housing more than 100,000 people.”2 Now as to the conditions within these asylums, please consult someone who knows more about the history of mental illness than I do. Maybe you could start with Scott’s review of Madness and Civilization. But it at least seems a likely explanation for the utter and complete absence of the (extremely) mentally ill from Orwell’s Paris and London. Orwell never even mentions the problem. Likely it was a given to him that ‘tramps’ were mostly sane, able-bodied men, and that anyone that was truly insane would’ve been immediately locked up. I can’t be sure, because he never mentions mental illness or the asylum system at all. It’s as if it’s not even worth mentioning.
After a brief discussion of the sexual politics of trampdom (men outnumber women about ten to one, and all tramps are celibate unless they are lucky enough to come into the money needed for the cheapest prostitutes). Orwell assets that sexual starvation is every bit as degrading to the tramps as physical starvation. I find it fascinating that he fixates on celibacy as an indignity reserved for “cripples and imbeciles” whereas now it is an indignity reserved for…lots and lots of people across each and every social class. No doubt people from Orwell’s time would marvel at the modern paradox, wherein sexual liberation has resulted in unprecedented rates(and still growing!) of celibacy in prosperous countries like the US and Japan. And there seems to be no doubt in his mind that the tramps’ lack of sexual and romantic access plays a significant role in their growing alienation from respectable society as a whole. Huh. I think this aspect of homelessness probably isn’t discussed enough. In contast to our image of highly social hobos huddled around campfires, there’s likely a large portion of homeless who live like hikkimoris without a room.
Finally we come to Orwell’s proposed improvements to the system. And to his credit, the proposed changes are concrete, modest, and presumably attainable:
Granting the futility of a tramp's life, the question is whether anything could be done to improve it. Obviously it would be possible, for instance, to make the casual wards a little more habitable, and this is actually being done in some cases. During the last year some of the casual wards have been improved—beyond recognition, if the accounts are true—and there is talk of doing the same to all of them. But this does not go to the heart of the problem. The problem is how to turn the tramp from a bored, half alive vagrant into a self-respecting human being. A mere increase of comfort cannot do this. Even if the casual wards became positively luxurious (they never will)* a tramp's life would still be wasted. He would still be a pauper, cut off from marriage and home life, and a dead loss to the community. What is needed is to depauperize him, and this can only be done by finding him work—not work for the sake of working, but work of which he can enjoy the benefit. At present, in the great majority of casual wards, tramps do no work whatever. At one time they were made to break stones for their food, but this was stopped when they had broken enough stone for years ahead and put the stone-breakers out of work. Nowadays they are kept idle, because there is seemingly nothing for them to do. Yet there is a fairly obvious way of making them useful, namely this: Each workhouse could run a small farm, or at least a kitchen garden, and every able-bodied tramp who presented himself could be made to do a sound day's work. The produce of the farm or garden could be used for feeding the tramps, and at the worst it would be better than the filthy diet of bread and margarine and tea. Of course, the casual wards could never be quite self-supporting, but they could go a long way towards it, and the rates would probably benefit in the long run. It must be remembered that under the present system tramps are as dead a loss to the country as they could possibly be, for they do not only do no work, but they live on a diet that is bound to undermine their health; the system, therefore, loses lives as well as money. A scheme which fed them decently, and made them produce at least a part of their own food, would be worth trying.
Equally modest is the book’s brief conclusion:
My story ends here. It is a fairly trivial story, and I can only hope that it has been interesting in the same way as a travel diary is interesting. I can at least say, Here is the world that awaits you if you are ever penniless. Some days I want to explore that world more thoroughly. I should like to know people like Mario and Paddy and Bill the moocher, not from casual encounters, but intimately; I should like to understand what really goes on in the souls of plongeurs and tramps and Embankment sleepers. At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty.
Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.
But unfortunately, though this might have been a beginning for Orwell, it wasn’t much of a beginning for the rest of the literary world. Though careful studies of homelessness have been made, there’s no other popular book that attempts to do what Orwell did, unless you count stuff like On the Road, which I think obscures more than illuminates what a life in poverty is actually like. I can’t fully convey how much I think a book like Down and Out in San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Every other American City that has a Homelessness Crisis needs to be written, because I think our collective attitude towards homelessness isn’t so different from the one Orwell notices in his middle-to-upper-class fellows. It is something that everyone knows knows about as a general phenomenon, but that almost no one knows about in its particulars. We tend to regard it as something inevitable, unchangeable, or at least, unchangeable by us. Like litter and terrible traffic. But then, there are plenty of places on earth that don’t have much litter or traffic.
I wish the chapter on life in the Spike, in particular, could be read by every politician creating legislation that attempts to combat homelessness. At the very least, it might serve as a cautionary tale for anyone trying to create a shelter system. Beyond that, I wish this and all the rest of Orwell’s excellent non-fiction wasn’t quite so overshadowed by 1984 and Animal Farm. There’s so much here that even a thirteen thousand word review can’t hope to cover.
As for Owell’s own proposed improvements to the Spikes…I can at least say they are improvements over locking hundreds of hungry men in an empty room for ten hours. Perhaps they are even good improvements, but I find myself uncomfortable with turning these homeless shelters into more workhouses. Ironically enough, workhouses were formally abolished by a law passed the very year Orwell probably came up with these ideas. But he at least gestures at the main failings of the system; chiefly that they are by their very nature nearly inescapable because they enforce idleness, and treat men who are desperate for work like parasites, instead of as men who are desperate to work.
The chapters on Paris make no mention of any welfare system that Orwell might’ve drawn upon, and instead stress the desperate search for work and food as absolutely paramount for survival. I can’t find any evidence for a robust welfare system in 1920s Paris, outside of a few laws passed forcing employers to provide insurance in the case of illness, maternity, etc. In this contrast Orwell provides some potent ammunition for opponents of welfare; for on the one hand we have Orwell toiling away in a kitchen but otherwise living a vibrant, interesting life, and on the other we have him drifting from one Kafkaesque state-run welfare prison to the next in order to survive. What’s great about Orwell is that he sees no real dichotomy here; to him these are both symptoms of the same problem, that being upper-class snobbery and fear of the mob, along with an unwillingness to take the suffering and toil of poor people as a real impetus for change, whether it be top-down or bottom-up. He views these problems as stemming from tractable moral failings at the indivual level. And though he goes a long way in making the classism of his time real and palpable to we moderns, I still don’t think we can really understand it, in the same way we can’t really understand a number like a googolplex. We have no means of understanding it, because classism today is so obscured by it’s manifestations, whereas in his time you simply were part of a class, deep in your soul, and were treated accordingly. Appearances and even habits were divorced from your class, which was something invisible, bound to you from birth, like a ghost or a horcrux or something. Take this interaction Orwell has with a soldier-turned-Spike-overseer:
'So you are a journalist?'
'Yes, sir,' I said, quaking. A few questions would betray the fact that I had been lying, which might mean prison. But the Tramp Major only looked me up and down and said:
'Then you are a gentleman?'
'I suppose so.'
He gave me another long look. 'Well, that's bloody bad luck, guv'nor,' he said; 'bloody bad luck that is.' And thereafter he treated me with unfair favouritism, and even with a kind of deference. He did not search me, and in the bathroom he actually gave me a clean towel to myself—an unheard-of luxury. So powerful is the word 'gentleman' in an old soldier's ear.
The notion that Orwell might be lying never occurs to the major. The fact that Orwell is now a tramp like all the others doesn’t matter either. What matters is that he was a gentleman, and therefore still is a gentleman, deep down in chakras. I suppose this is the cultural groundwork for the income-independent classism dicussed at length in Scott’s review of Fussell on Class. I imagine Orwell was laughing at himself on the inside, dissapointed in the knowledge that even months of starving and working as a scullion couldn’t change the fact that he was a upper middle class Etonian that served in the imperial police. But of course it’s that tension that makes this and all the rest of Orwell’s non-fiction so interesting. Whether he’s taking down a stampeding Burmese elephant in Shooting an Elephant or fighting Franco’s fascists alongside anarcho-syndicalists in Homage to Catalonia, there’s alway a sense that he’s somewhere he’s not supposed to be, bringing back forbidden knowledge from unexplored moral territory, so that it might sit comfortably on middle-class and public school library bookshelves. Orwell’s genius, as I see it, is in not being a genius. He was merely among the first to realize that ugly, uncouth, and unconscionable places and people might be worth a closer look, and that the lives of such people had much broader political and social significance than the reading public had yet dared to imagine. If nothing else, Down and Out in Paris and London should serve as inspiration to journalists and writers everywhere; it’s proof that if one wishes to write an important book, one need only write truthfully about the vaguely terrifying parts of society that the average person often sees, but never enters.