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May 2016

1930’s Paris And London Calling

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“It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty–it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it, is all so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar LOWNESS of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.”

Apparently Mr. Orwell didn’t take rejection all too well as displayed by his defeatism in response to the disparaging comments of publishers while perusing the manuscripts of Down and Out in Paris and London. They bemoaned the fact that the material was too bleak, I can’t say that I disagree, but sometimes bleak is good, not good to experience but great reading material and it also enhances ones perspective. It reaffirms the aspects of your life to be thankful for, and promotes hard work as a means of not getting to a point where bleakness is a foregone conclusion. Eric Blair even selected George Orwell as a pseudonym to respect his family’s wishes given the outspoken nature of his semi-biographical story, and the unbecoming manner of himself as well as the features of the underbelly that he presented to the audience. All George really wanted to do was to tell the story of many of the diverse characters that he encountered on his inner-city walkabouts. The perceived authenticity of the characters was not of great importance, but their stories warranted attention.

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“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 are many trials and tribulations that afflict people living on the margins, but none more so than that of hunger. However; in the early 1900’s men on the streets writhing in pain due to starvation would give up a fresh baguette with butter for affection from the opposite sex. In between the public drunkenness, arguments, and gunshots there are men desperately trying to fill the void and feel true love even if it’s for a split second. Being in Paris many would think that wouldn’t be to hard to realize, but at the time men without money there’s essentially no chance for love but loneliness. For the narrator he is slowly starting to look like the man he feared he would become after his first foray into poverty. Out of work, pawning his clothes (except his best suit), sleeping in bug-infested rooms, spending weeks between showers and shaves, with little food, is the construct of his new life. It has gotten so bad that he has written ex-girlfriends asking for money, contemplated working as an English correspondent for a communist organization and has given himself up to false hope and empty promises as a means of getting by. It isn’t until he gets a job as a plongeur or dishwasher in a hotel kitchen where he realizes the abuse and prejudices that struggling people are subject to. Operating in the lowest rank of the kitchen, part of the dregs of the hotel hierarchy, the narrator is despised by everyone, chastised at every turn and treated as a ‘slave’ in the kitchen among the kitchen staff snobs. Working for the weekends has never been held in such a true regard than that of working in a restaurant. Many of the employees work seventeen hour shifts seven days per week in trying working conditions. The narrator’s spare time is spent drinking in order to achieve some semblance of social exercise; think Trevor Reznik from The Machinist in some ways. Sleep deprived and perhaps becoming a ‘nutter’ the narrator needs a change fast and after only two weeks at the Hotel X, he decides to go back to London; his perceived paradise.

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” ‘Why should I work?’ I protested. ‘This is my day off.’  ‘Day off, nothing! The work’s got to be done.  Getup!’ I got up and went out, feeling as though my back were broken and my skull filled with hot cinders. I did not think that I could possibly do a day’s work. And yet, after only an hour in the basement, I found that I was perfectly well. It seemed that in the heat of those cellars, as in a Turkish bath, one could sweat out almost any quantity of drink. Plongeurs know this, and count on it. The power of swallowing quarts of wine, and then sweating it out before it can do much damage, is one of the compensations of their life.”

After coming through the other end of a living hell for a few months, the narrator is relying on the notion that it is in fact impossible to starve in London. What would a story about being down and out be if everything went according to script. Finding himself without a job for a month the narrator has noticed that he has done a lot more walking than he has ever done previously. While homelessness is slowly destroying the physical, psychological and spiritual state, the narrator meets a man ironically named Bozo that teaches him to live with no fear, regret, shame, or self-pity and most importantly always maintain a sense of humour despite your circumstances. Living in an organizational hierarchy once before in a kitchen he slowly finds that there are similarities as it equates to buskers working on the street. One thing Bozo tells him that sticks with him is that no matter what state you find yourself in always be thinking and never stop learning.

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“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. “

This is a good ‘travel’ diary documenting the extreme circumstances facing the impoverished during the late 1900’s and early 1930’s in metropolitan heavy hitters Paris and London. As long ago as the 1930’s may seem to the reader the problems surrounding the narrator and his cohorts is very much relevant in this day and age. The memoir is told in a very direct manner with no agenda or influence to be garnered, just a method for the author to tell his story about a world view very few ever truly see, or a world observed with complete indifference. He reflects on a time in his life with a subtle anger at the wealthy, the disregard of the government, and society as a whole. In his mind there’s much more that could be done and a plan that for the most part is easily achievable. Given the lack of change, as we are close to one hundred years since the book being published it is safe to assume that the influential forces surrounding the poverty-stricken may in fact play a big role. As thoughtful and progressive as this book is, it also has some funny moments that helps lighten the mood. Recommended.

‘“Idiot!” she cried at last. “T’es fou! T’es fou! Do you mean to tell me you really knelt down and prayed to that picture? Who told you it was Sainte Éloise?” ‘But I made sure it was Sainte Éloise!’ I said. ‘Imbecile! It isn’t Sainte Éloise at all. Who do you think it is?’ ‘Who?’ I said.‘It is Suzanne May, the woman this hotel is called after.’ ‘I had been praying to Suzanne May, the famous prostitute of the Empire . . . ‘But, after all, I wasn’t sorry. Maria and I had a good laugh, and then we talked it over, and we made out that I didn’t owe Sainte Éloise anything. Clearly it wasn’t she who had answered the prayer, and there was no need to buy her a candle. So I had my packet of cigarettes after all.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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