Making George Orwell: Down and Out

George Orwell "Doqn and OUt in Paris and London"ISBN 978-0-141-1843808. “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell was first published by Gollancz in 1933. This edition by Penguin is from 1989 (this a 2001 reprint) with Introduction by Dervla Murphy and Notes on the Text by Peter Davison. In 1928 the young Eric Blair moved to Paris to fulfil his dream of being a writer. Just one year previously he had quit from his job with the Burmese Colonial Police in disgust at the abuses of Empire. His disillusionment with that Etonian world pushed him into a journey that lead him to experiment with living in doss houses in London – a path that still seems amazing by modern standards. He deliberately chose to thrown himself amongst the most poorest and destitute of peoples. Maybe he felt that his life lacked the depth of experience needed to become a great writer. He suffered for his art. Today maybe we would view such adventures as impossibly romantic. They were a product of the time yet “Down and Out” proved to be Orwell’s first success. From it he embarked upon a path that took him to fight Fascism & write “Nineteen Eighty-four”.

Orwell’s time in the Spanish Civil war (see “Homage to Catalonia“) were highly formative of his views leading directly to the books that made him legend (see “Animal Farm“, “Nineteen Eighty-four“). However that was 1938 some ten year after the events in “Down and Out”. Despite his experience in Burma there are actually few clues about Orwell’s own opinions from “Down and Out”. His experiences with the homeless lead Gollancz to commission “The Road to Wigan Pier” where Orwell blasts away at the injustices of the day with both barrels. By 1937 he has grown up and his views about social conditions had matured into a form of Socialist idealism. This, coupled with his hatred of Fascism, lead him to the battlefields of Spain, thus making the Orwell we know today. Other than being a stepping stone to “Wigan Pier” there are few clues in “Down and Out” about the man Orwell would become. Yet few could be left in any doubt that he was an extraordinary person on an epic odyssey.

In ‘Wigan Pier’ we learn of Orwell’s very first experiences with experimenting with homelessness in London. In fact that early experiment is not discussed in “Down and Out”. His story picks up again in Paris sometime later as his writing career hits the rocks. There is no indication of Orwell’s deliberate path into destitution. This book was originally classified as fiction although Orwell himself was at pains to point out that he was selective in his characterisations and the sequence of events – yet everything he portrayed actually happened. What was fictional was the impression that Orwell gave that he had no choice. In fact he was not alone in Paris as his Aunt could have helped him if he had asked for it. Likewise upon his return to London he could have moved back to Southwold to be with his parents. He did NOT need to be down and out. He wanted it because that was where he was comfortable.

‘Down and Out’ was his last attempt to publish under the name Eric Blair. However his family were deeply uncomfortable about his chosen career and the manner he conducted his new life experiences. He chose his new writing name in part as homage to the River Orwell that flows from the North Sea through Ipswich (in the south of the county of Suffolk) just a half day’s journey down the coast from his childhood home in Southwold. ‘Down and Out’ was almost never published. By 1932 several publishers had turned it down and he turned his attentions to writing the (fictional) “Burmese Days”. He asked a family friend to destroy the manuscript. Instead she took it to a literary agent who brought it to the attention of Victor Gollancz. Gollancz was building a portfolio of leftist writers describing social conditions. It was a match made in heaven and endured until “Wigan Pier”.

Four years earlier the young Eric could only dream of such a turn of events. He had made some small pots of money writing short articles but soon the money dried up. He found himself penniless on the streets of Paris. He was never quite without a roof over his head and it was with the help of some of the more colourful characters he met there that he survived. There were times he went hungry and times he slept rough yet he pulled through and managed to get work in hotel kitchens. There the old Etonian was the lowest of the low, a slave’s slave – as he described it. The implicit class layers from Hotel Guest, to manager, to waiter, to chef… All the way down to humble dishwasher are described by Orwell in detail. He devotes an entire chapter to the way in which people exist in such appalling conditions. Why do they put up with it? The noise, the heat, the endless bullying? He seemed more fascinated with this ‘slavery’ than the poverty that produces it.

Orwell considers such work as “useless drudgery” – beyond the economic need what would persuade any man to work at such awful work? For Orwell the creation of such slave conditions are not the result of some economic Darwinism but the outcome of class struggle:

“I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob.”

It is curious reasoning that leads him to conclude that the poor are kept busy to prevent revolution. If you deny them leisure time then they cannot cause trouble. Here we witness the young Eric even at the end of the 1920 starting to form opinions about society that seem novel – if not just strange. For Orwell the rich could never set the poor free no matter how much they would sympathise with their fate:

“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 with you.”

This was a topic he returns to at great length in “Wigan Pier” – the relationships across the classes. He is scathing of the people we today might describe as ‘champagne socialists’. It was the reason he went so far in shedding his Etonian privilege in favour of the grime of poverty. He felt he could never understand the working class unless had been laid low amongst them.

“Very few cultivated people have less than (say) four hundred pounds a year, and naturally they side with the rich, because they imagine that any liberty conceded to the poor is a threat to their own liberty.”

Thus the class divide is eternal for fear of what the poor could do if they were to be raised up by their fellow man. They feared the revolution. The 1920s were very different times from now – an alien world, a different country, yet by 1933 Hitler and Mussolini were in power built upon exactly these sentiments.

Eric quits Paris his dream in tatters. He spent one too many nights in drunken debauchery in Parisian Bistros and way too many days without food. He got an offer of work in London and returned only to find that the job offer had been delayed by some weeks. He borrows some money from a friend to keep him going but seeks the life of a tramp rather than fleeing to his family. The days of the workhouse were over but each borough was apparently obliged to maintain a “spike” – rough sleepers hostel when the down and out could get a bed for the night and some food. It was either that of the charity of various churches. The catch was that no tramp could stay at a single spike for two nights in a row. Hence the word “tramp” – an army of homeless forever walking around and around in search for the next bed, the next meal. Remarkably the old Etonian fitted right in and no one resented his posh school-boy accent. He made many friends which may say as much about the remarkable character of Orwell as it does about the comradeship of the homeless.

Even amongst those homeless Orwell finds evidence of a class system every bit as crude as that into today’s “Chavs” culture. He talks to one young man who was a casual carpenter by trade yet he had no tools. Yet this man kept aloof from the tramps and saw no good reason why food should be wasted upon them:

“Through he had been famished along with the others, he at once saw reasons why the food should have been thrown away rather than given to tramps. [..] ‘If they made these places too comfortable, you’d have all the scum of the country flocking to them. It’s only the bad food as keeps all that scum away.’ “

Thus even a homeless man could believe his fellow poor as being “scum”. Writes Orwell:

“This tramp-monster is no truer to life than the sinister Chinaman of the magazine stories, but he is very hard to get rid of. The very word ‘tramp’ evokes his image. And the belief in him obscures the real questions of vagrancy.”

Thus in the final chapter Orwell turns to what is to be done about the down and outs. The problem, he states, is the prejudice against the homeless. It is hiding the problems and the solutions. Indeed as with “Chavs” today the smokescreen hides the grimy reality and slots us into a comforting illusions of how things are. Tramps, as Orwell can testify, are not dangerous nor are they criminals:

“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.”

Thus if we put a human face upon the problem it can be assessed more fairly. The laws regarding vagrancy were different in the 1920s than now so it is hard to compare. It can not be as simple as blaming the law any more. Those obstacles have been removed – yet the poor are still amongst us. However, in essence, Orwell is right in that we have little education about the true nature of the difficulties inherent in homelessness.

“It follows that the ‘Serve them damned well right’ attitude that is normally taken towards tramps is no fairer than it would be towards cripples or invalids.”

Orwell then makes some quite practical suggestions about how tramps could be re-integrated back into society and the productive economy. We witness no long tracts about social policy or politics in general. You will have to wait until “Wigan Pier” to witness the birth of Orwell as Socialist utopian. For now he is content with suggesting that the spikes invest in a small farm or kitchen garden into which the homeless could invest their time growing the healthy food they desperately needed. He goes as far as to suggest that these could be partially self-supporting and less a drag upon the economy.

“A scheme which fed them decently and made them produce at least a part of their own food, would be worth trying.”

…a progressive view yet no socialist utopia, not yet. He is pragmatic: allow the tramps to work the farms for as long as they need. No need to keep moving them on. For Orwell the growing of their own food is the ‘automatic’ answer to the homeless and under-fed. True then as now. Today we cite the lack of homes…

Of the books we have read on Orwell’s path to writing “Nineteen Eighty-four” this may well be the least relevant. It would be twenty years before that memorable book would appear. “Down and Out” was about establishing Orwell’s brand of social commentary. His choice of living amongst the poor as a poor man was his alone. It was a unique approach by a man who obviously thought differently from his contemporaries. It is a testimony to the special person he was that he took the decision he did. In the end it did deliver the literary success he craved. Beyond that it set him up as the commentator that gave voice to his concerns about class war and the rise of Fascism.

“Down and Out” is but a stepping stone to the trenches of Catalonia and within this work we see only brief clues of the man Orwell was to come. Not his most essential work but it exudes charm and was an enjoyable & informative read. I doubt we’ll see the like of this ever again.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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