The Classics Club Spin no. 16 – Down and Out in Paris and London

For the Classics Club Spin I got Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell which he wrote in 1933. It was only on the 28th that I realised that I had to read it before today, luckily it’s a very short read at just around 110 pages.

In 1928 George Orwell moved to Paris and ended up living the life of a poverty stricken down and out. No doubt it was all good copy for his writing, in this book he describes what it was like to be jobless and starving in Paris. He had in fact had his money stolen and I’m sure that he would have been able to get more money from friends if he had really become desperate so the experience wouldn’t have been quite the same as your average down and out.

Eventually he got a job as a dishwasher in a posh hotel, a nightmarish and exhausting existence, he describes the disgusting insanitary conditions in the unseen background of such establishments – not for the squeamish, but honestly for anyone who has had any sort of experience in catering none of it will be particularly shocking. I know that one head chef in a hotel frequented by the Queen in the 1970s routinely spat in the frying pan fat to see if it was hot enough!

Going for days on end with no food and having to pawn the clothes on his back in an attempt to survive must have been no fun, but Orwell must always have had the ability to get money from someone as he must have had friends who would have helped him out if he had asked, unlike the rest of the down and outs.

When he did borrow money to return to London so that he could compare the two cities and the experiences of destitute men he had a lot to learn about the rules that tramps had to stick to if they didn’t want to end up in prison. It seems it was easier to get food as a tramp in England, there were religious groups who would provide bread, margarine and tea – in return for being preached at. No mention of soup kitchens though which surprised me, bread and marg seems to be what tramps lived on in London.

They were only allowed to stay in a ‘spike’ for one night before having to move on to the next one, usually about 14 miles away, walking was the only way to get there, otherwise you would be sleeping on the Thames embankment if you were lucky. A ‘spike’ seems to have been a section of the local workhouse. Tramps weren’t allowed to sit down, they had to keep on the move, literally tramping around. Begging would land you in prison if you were caught at it. There were very few female tramps, almost certainly because they could usually get some sort of live-in employment as a servant.

Due to the fact that all your time was taken up tramping around it wasn’t possible to get any work, not that there would have been many jobs around then anyway. There were various types of dosshouses that you could get a bed of sorts in if you had some money. Sadly the other men were often old soldiers from World War 1, the accommodation was always filthy and usually so crowded that they were breathing into each other’s faces. As George Orwell died of tuberculosis it’s a fair bet that he contracted the disease whilst being down and out in Paris and London.

Ninety years or so on from when this was written things don’t seem to be a lot better for some poor souls in our society – a sobering thought.

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