The writing project is almost complete, and progress of a woolly kind creeps on very slowly in odd moments, although not enough for the evidence to be worth showing. So in the meantime I thought I’d comment on something I’d just finished reading. January 21st was the inaugural George Orwell day, and this inspired me to read ‘Down & Out In Paris & London’ (there’s also a film by Kevin MacDonald in the pipeline and I wanted to read the book first). It’s Orwell’s account of his experience of true poverty as a struggling, penniless writer in the 1930s, and I would defy anyone to read it and not be eternally grateful for the welfare state.
Nowadays if we lose our jobs and find ourselves down on our luck, perhaps due to injury or just circumstance, we have a safety net; in Orwell’s day, should fate decide to terminate your employment for any reason and you couldn’t pay your rent there was no social agency to appeal to; you could expect to be cast out on the street immediately. Once there you would have little option but to pawn your clothes in exchange for some rags and a few shillings, just enough to buy you bread and margarine and a bed for the night in a lodging house. Here’s a description of a lodging house:
“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…The sheets stank so horribly of sweat that I could not bear them near my nose… The walls were leprous, and the sheets, three weeks from the wash, were almost a raw umber colour. I got up, dressed and went downstairs. In the cellar were a row of basins and two slippery roller towels. I had a piece of soap in my pocket, and I was going to wash, when I noticed that every basin was streaked with grime – solid, sticky filth as black as boot blacking. I went out unwashed. Altogether, the lodging house had not come up to its description as cheap and clean. It was, however, as I found later, a fairly representative lodging house.”
From thereon your life would be tramping from one lodging house to another or, if you hadn’t begged enough to afford that, to ‘the spike’ (which was infinitely worse). Unless you were someone like Orwell who could call on contacts or a genius talent for writing there was no hope of escaping from this life because your health would be ruined and your filthy, ragged appearance would prevent you from getting a job. It was the true definition of a poverty trap. Orwell’s experience of this life, albeit quite brief, makes up the second half of the book, and it’s gritty reading.
The first half – the ‘Paris’ bit – is a horse’s-mouth view of what it was like to be penniless in that city. It’s fair to say that despite the hunger and squalor, Orwell’s shenanigans with Boris, the colourful Russian chef, have more of an air of romance and black comedy about them than his time as a tramp, but his descriptions of working as a plongeur make even the worst student gap-year job seem like a holiday. Essential reading after a bad day at the office!
I also had to post a photo of a gift I got from Katie at the weekend.
She bought the doll from a charity shop whilst at Grandmas and under her own steam designed and embroidered the little fabric placard. It was supposed to be a Mother’s Day present but she was so excited she couldn’t wait to give it to me. How cool is that!