George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London

George Orwell’s novelization of living poor and famished is a reflection of the conditions of poverty and the seemingly endless struggles of living hand to mouth and finding work.  Orwell’s story of his vagrancy throughout London and his endless toil as a plongeur (dishwasher) in Paris – inspired by his experiences with the poor but fictionalized and told by first person narration – presents a stark image of the destitution facing many Europeans following the First World War.

But look a little closer and you’ll find a more subtle and even positive note concealed in the midst of poverty: drinking makes a poor man’s life a little more bearable.  The narrator opines of a nearby Parisian bistro popular with his fellow poor and impoverished: “I wish I could find a pub in London a quarter as cheery.”

As evidence of this cheer the narrator describes Charlie, “one of the local curiosities, talking.  ‘Messieurs et dames, I perceive that you are sad.  Ah, mais la vie est balle – you must not be sad.  Be more gay, I beseech you!  Fill high ze bowl vid Samian vine, Ve vill no sink of semes like zese!’”

Or there is “R.,” another pauper and bistro regular, who is described as “a gentle, domesticated creature, never rowdy or quarrelsome, and never sober.  He would lie in bed until midday, and from then till midnight he was in his corner of the bistro, quietly, and methodically soaking.  While he soaked he talked, in a refined, womanish voice, about antique furniture.”

After a time the central character lands steady work in appalling and miserable conditions of a Paris hotel, where drink was a highly valued commodity; he carefully describes this trade in stolen booze.  “The cellerman stole brandy.  By a rule of the hotel the waiters were not allowed to keep stores of spirits, but had to go to the cellerman for each drink as it was ordered.  As the cellerman poured out the drinks he would set aside perhaps a teaspoonful from each glass, and he amassed quantities in this way.  He would sell you the stolen brandy for five sous a swig if he thought he could trust you.”

Despite miserable conditions and long hours, dishwashing was meagerly compensated.  Yet this fails to deter further boozing.  Boris, the narrator’s compatriot in Paris, doesn’t let his lack of money forestall his drinking.  Following a confrontation over an unpaid debt, Boris and his debtor, “having called one another thieves for two hours…went off together on a drinking bout that finished up the last sou of Boris’s money.”

In addition to drinking, another vice dulls the harsh edges of poverty: “It was tobacco that made everything tolerable.  We had plenty of tobacco, for some time before Boris had met a soldier (the soldiers are given their tobacco free) and bought twenty or thirty packets at fifty centimes each.”

After a time the narrator leaves Paris for London, where drinking plays a far less prominent role in daily life, making the poor man’s life all the more bleak and disheartening.  Because as bad as things are in Paris, at least a drink could be bought to temper the hunger pangs and ease the mind; feelings I, God willing, will never experience.


Please visit The Hip Flask’s Recommended Reading page for other books on drinking culture I’ve enjoyed.

Published in: on March 28, 2011 at 9:36 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. Have you ever read Orwell’s essay from 1946 about this favorite pub? The Moon Under Water. It’s pretty good.

  2. My uncle carried a hip flask in the army like they show in Band of Brothers, even during leave to Paris for a short while. His tales of Paris sound similar to yours. Here’s to better times there for the poor blokes – there and everywhere!

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