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Mar-18-2012 15:15printcommentsVideo

Down and Out in Paris and London

George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-1950) was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century,
George Orwell, 1933 (Wikipedia)

(Calgary, Alberta) - The title of his best known book, 1984, has become a cultural reference in itself, like catch-22. Some of the terms from that book have become part of our language: Orwellian an attitude and policy of control by propaganda; newspeak a simplified and obfuscatory language designed to make independent thought impossible; doublethink holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously.

He wrote other novels and memoirs, a few of which I read many years ago, but his other main one of importance, in my view, is his very first book, a memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). He spent the years before publishing it, living in poverty in Paris then tramping around England. He did it intentionally in order to write about poverty and the conclusion I reach in 2012 is that some things never change; by this I mean Western society’s denigration of those who do not make a lot of money.

The story of Bozo

Of course, I’m not the first to point out that money is destructive as a societal value. Orwell met a man on his travels in England named Bozo—a screever, i.e., a pavement artist.

I’m what they call a serious screever. I don’t draw in blackboard chalks like these others, I use proper colours the same as what painters use; bloody expensive they are, especially the reds. I use five bobs’ worth of colours in a long day, and never less than two bobs’ worth. Cartoons is my line—you know, politics and cricket and that. Look here,” he showed me his notebook—“there’s likenesses of all the political blokes, what I’ve copied from the papers. I have a different cartoon every day. For instance, when the Budget was on, I had one of Winston [Churchill] trying to push an elephant marked ‘Debt’ and underneath I wrote, ‘Will he budge it? See? You can have cartoons about any of the parties, but you mustn’t put anything in favour of socialism, because the police won’t stand it. Once I did a cartoon of a boa constrictor marked Capital swallowing a rabbit marked Labour. The copper came along and saw it, and he says, ‘You rub that out, and look sharp about it,” he says. I had to rub it out. The copper’s got the right to move you on for loitering, and it’s no good giving them a back answer.”

Bozo had a smashed foot from a fall from a scaffolding years earlier which restricted his mobility. “His right leg was dreadfully deformed, the foot being twisted heel forward, in a way horrible to see.” The two were crossing a bridge into Lambeth when Bozo “stopped in one of the alcoves to rest. He fell silent for a minute or two, and to my surprise he was looking at the stars. He touched my arm and pointed to the sky with his stick.

Say, will you look at Aldebaran! [the brightest star in the constellation Taurus the Bull] Look at the colour. Like a—great blood orange.

From the way he spoke he might have been an art critic in a picture gallery. I was astonished. I confessed that I did not know which Aldebaran was—indeed, I had never even noticed that the stars were of different colours. Bozo began to give me some elementary hints on astronomy pointing out the chief constellations. He seemed concerned about my ignorance.”

[Bozo] had a gift for phrases. He had managed to keep his brain intact and alert, and so nothing could make him succumb to poverty. He might be ragged and cold, or even starving, but so long as he could read, think and watch for meteors, he was, as he said, free in his own mind.”

In the lodging-house where they were staying, Bozo found himself a penny short for the night’s kip. He “took the things out of his pockets and looked them over, debating what to sell. He decided on his razor, took it round the kitchen, and in a few minutes had sold it for threepence—enough to pay his kip, buy a basin of tea, and leave a half penny over.

Bozo got his basin of tea and sat down by the fire to dry his clothes. As he drank the tea I saw that he was laughing to himself, as though to some good joke. Surprised, I asked him what he had to laugh at.

“’It’s bloody funny!’ he said. ‘It’s funny enough for Punch . What do you think I been and done?’


“’Sold my razor without having a shave first: Of all the [expletive deleted] fools!’

He had not eaten since the morning, had walked several miles with a twisted leg, his clothes were drenched, and he had a halfpenny between himself and starvation. With all this he could laugh over the loss of his razor. One could not help admiring him.”

This is a romantic view of poverty, albeit with a substantial kernel of truth, that our society has come to pathologically focus on exterior, material things, instead of living out of the inner foundation of who we are—our integrity and internal values. We can’t say that Bozo could have lived a more fulfilling life because, by his standards, he was already doing that. The suffering in his life was artificial, applied egregiously by society itself.

Here is an inconvenient truth: Poverty exists because it is government policy. Governments, whether state, provincial or national governments dictate minimum wages and amounts for social assistance. I estimate that if minimum wages were raised to be living wages, at least half the existing poverty would disappear overnight.

Philosopher Edward Heath’s first impression of economics was that it was a “crude right-wing ideology”. He says that as he learned more about economics, “a number of studies have since shown that studying economics can actually make you a bad person.” He added in his footnote, however, that “in fairness, I should point out that these studies do not show that studying economics makes you a bad person. It may just be that bad people are more likely to be attracted to the study of economics. Anyhow, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.”

True or not, one of the baddest people of the 20th century was the economist Milton Friedman, a technocrat (like Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War) both believed in the correctness of technical belief structures, whether nature cooperated or not. Friedman supplied the economic ideology behind Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the contemporary conservative movement. He is featured in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine where his ideology was (and still is) completely oblivious to the sufferings of millions of ordinary people. As Klein wrote:

Milton Friedman had been awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize for Economics for his ‘original and weighty’ work on the relationship between inflation and unemployment. Friedman used his Nobel address to argue that economics was as rigorous and objective a discipline as physics, chemistry and medicine, reliant on an impartial examination of the facts available. He conveniently ignored the fact that the central hypothesis for which he was receiving the prize was being graphically proven false by breadlines, typhoid outbreaks and shuttered factories in Chile, the one regime ruthless enough to put his ideas into practice.”

In January, 1984, Apple Computer used the theme for one of the most famous ever ads for the SuperBowl to introduce the Macintosh computer.


On poverty, Orwell wrote:

When you are approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others. You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginning of hunger: 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 farther 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 your mind wanders to other topics. A bread and margarine diet does, to some extent, provide its own anodyne.”

On the second day I thought of pawning my overcoat but it seemed too far to walk to the pawnshop, and I spent the day in bed, reading the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. It was all that I felt equal to, without food. Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one has been turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and luke-warm water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger; that, and being obliged to spit very frequently, and the spittle being very white and flocculent, like cuckoo-spit.”

According to the law in London, you may sit down for the night, but the police must move you if they see you asleep; the Embankment and one or two odd corners (there is one behind the Lyceum Theatre) are special exceptions. This law is evidently a piece of wilful offensiveness. Its object, so it is said, is to prevent people from dying of exposure; but clearly if a man has no home and is going to die of exposure, die he will, asleep or awake. In Paris there is no such law.”


When in Paris he managed to get work as a plongeur (kitchen slave) in an expensive hotel. (Sonia Orwell, his widow, identified the hotel and I’m sure the proprietors spent considerable effort refuting or living down what Orwell wrote.)

On the job, “I calculated that one had to walk and run about fifteen miles during the day, and yet the strain of the work was more mental than physical. Nothing could be easier, on the face of it, than this stupid scullion work, but it is astonishingly hard when one is in a hurry. One has to leap to and fro between a multitude of jobs—it is like sorting a pack of cards against the clock. You are, for example, making toast, when bang! down comes a service lift with an order for tea, rolls and three different kinds of jam, and simultaneously bang! down comes another order demanding scrambled eggs, coffee and grapefruit; you run to the kitchen for eggs and to the dining room for the fruit, going like lightning so as to be back be fore your toast burns, and having to remember about the tea and coffee, besides half a dozen orders that are still pending; and at the same time some waiter is bothering you and making trouble about a lost bottle of soda-water, and you are arguing with him. It needs more brains than one might think<>/b>.”

One night an English lord came to the hotel, and the waiters were in despair, for the lord had asked for peaches, and there were none in stock; it was late at night, and the shops would be shut. ‘Leave it to me,’ said the German [plongeur]. He went out, and in ten minutes he was back with four peaches. He had gone into a neighbouring restaurant and stolen them.”

In a hotel a huge and complicated machine is kept running by an inadequate staff, because every man has a well-defined job and does it scrupulously. But there is a weak point, and it is this—that the job the staff are doing is not necessarily what the customer pays for. The customer pays for, as he sees it, for good service; the employee is paid, as he sees it, for the boulet—meaning as a rule, an imitation of good service. The result is that, though hotels are miracles of punctuality, they are worse than the worst private houses in things that matter.

Take cleanliness, for example. The dirt in the Hotel X, as soon as one penetrated into the service quarters, was revolting. Our cafeterie had year-old filth in all the dark corners, and the bread bin was infested with cockroaches. Once I suggested to killing these beasts to Mario. ‘Why kill the poor animals?’ he said reproachfully.”

In the kitchen the dirt was worse. It is not a figure of speech, it is a mere statement of fact to say that a French cook will spit in the soup—that is if he is not going to drink it himself. He is an artist, but his art is not cleanliness. To a certain extent he is dirty because he is an artist, for food, to look smart, needs dirty treatment. When a steak, for instance, is brought up for the head cook’s inspection, he does not handle it with a fork. He picks it up in his fingers and slaps it down, runs his thumb round the dish and licks it to taste the gravy, runs it round and licks again, then steps back and contemplates the piece of meat like an artist judging a picture, then presses it lovingly into place with his fat, pink fingers, every one of which he has licked a hundred times that morning. When he is satisfied, he takes a cloth and wipes his fingerprints from the dish, and hands it to the waiter. And the waiter, of course, dips his fingers into the gravy—his nasty, greasy fingers which he is for ever running through his brilliantined hair. Whenever one pays more than ten francs for a dish of meat in Paris, one may be certain it has been fingered in this manner. In very cheap restaurants it is different; there, the same trouble is not taken over the food, and it is just forked out of the pan and flung onto a plate, without handling. Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it.”

(Cooks spitting in the soup recalls a story told by Peter C. Newman of the Toronto Club, the pinnacle of clubs for the Canadian Establishment. He wrote:

During the fifties there was a retired railway steward called Richards who served senior members of the Toronto Club. He complained of the abusive treatment meted out to him by Sir James Dunn, but he found an appropriate solution. Whenever he served him soup, he spat into it first.”)

Once the waiter on the third floor dropped a roast chicken down the shaft of our service lift, where it fell into a litter of broken bread, torn paper and so forth at the bottom. We simply wiped it with a cloth and sent it up again.”

After he quit the hotel, he went to work in a private restaurant. His co-worker Jules, said: “’Fool! Why do you wash that plate? Wipe it on your trousers. Who cares about the customers? They don’t know what’s going on. What is restaurant work? You are carving a chicken and it falls on the floor. You apologise, you bow, you go out; and in five minutes you come back by another door—with the same chicken. That is restaurant work.’”

Have things changed? I suggest not. In the opening of the movie The Birdcage starring Robin Williams and Nathan Hale, (as co-owners of the night club) Williams opens the door to go into the kitchen where a cook is bending over, picking up a piece of meat from the floor.

Hotel guests were routinely swindled in a wide variety of ways, wrote Orwell. “According to [Orwell’s friend] Boris, the same kind of thing went on in all Paris hotels, or at least in all the big, expensive ones. But I imagine that the customers at the Hotel X, were especially easy to swindle, for they were mostly Americans, with a sprinkling of English—no French—and seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American ‘cereals,’ and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet à la reineat a hundred francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce. One customer, from Pittsburgh, dined every night in his bedroom on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.”

Obviously things have not changed in the eighty years since Orwell wrote this book. Note the phenomenal success of the fast-food industry in America, with McDonald’s at the top.

When Orwell returned to London, he took his suit (which he was still wearing) and went to a shop to trade it for some cheap clothes and whatever cash difference he could get. The shopkeeper

collected some dirty looking rags and threw them on the counter….the clothes were a coat, once dark brown, a pair of black dungaree trousers, a scarf and a cloth cap…I had worn bad enough things before, but nothing at all like these; they were not merely dirty and shapeless, they had—how is one to express it?—a gracelessness, a patina of antique filth, quite different from mere shabbiness….An hour later, in Lambeth, I saw a hang-dog man, obviously a tramp, coming towards me, and when I looked again it was myself, reflected in a shop window. The dirt was plastering my face already. Dirt is a great respecter of persons; it lets you alone when you are well dressed, but as soon as your collar is gone it flies towards you from all directions.”

Yet if one looks closely one sees that there is no essential difference between a beggar’s livelihood and that of numberless respectable people. Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is work? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course—but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless. And as a social type a beggar compares well with scores of others. He is honest compared with the sellers of most patent medicines, high-minded compared with a Sunday newspaper proprietor [written 70 years before Murdoch and News of the World], amiable compared with a hire-purchase tout—in short, a parasite, but a fairly harmless parasite. He seldom extracts more than a bare living from the community. and, what should justify him according to our ethical ideas, he pays for it over and over in suffering. I do not think there is anything about a beggar that sets him in a different class from other people, or gives most modern men the right to despise him.”

People are wrong when they think that an unemployed man only worries about losing his wages; on the contrary an illiterate man, with the work habit in his bones, needs work even more than he needs money. An educated man can put up with enforced idleness, which is one of the worst evils of poverty. But a man like Paddy, with no means of filling up time, is as miserable out of work as a dog on the chain. That is why it is such nonsense to pretend that whose have ‘come down in the world’ are to be pitied above all others. The man who really merits pity is the man who been down from the start, and faces poverty with a bleak, resourceless mind.”

Bozo comes to mind, again. Orwell suggested that he knew a lot about the stars.

Not a lot. I know a bit, through. I got two letters from the Astronomer Royal thanking me for writing about meteors. Now and again I go out at night and watch for meteors. The stars are a free show; it don’t cost anything to use your eyes.”

In addition, said Orwell, Bozo “spoke French passably, and had read some of Zola’s novels, all Shakespeare’s plays, Gulliver’s Travels, and a number of essays…

Bozo did not need a great deal extra money in his life to have lived reasonably well without the Darwinian struggle our society forces on everyone. I'm reminded of the reality at the other end of the scale.

Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughter House Five) and Joseph Heller (Catch 22) attended a function hosted by a hedge fund billionaire on Fire Island. Vonnegut pointed out that the billionaire made more money in one day, than Heller had earned in his whole life from his book. Heller responded: "But I have something he'll never have....Enough."

Bozo may have been materially poor, but he was spiritually rich, a wealth sadly lacking in the vast majority of people in our culture today. Could you, for example, find Aldebaran? Or even Sirius? (Being the brightest star in the sky, this should be easy) Do you know the differences between a meteor, a meteoroid and a meteorite? In the sky, can you differentiate between a star and a planet?

Orwell concluded in 1933—something that is equivalently true today in both the UK and the US.

The English are a conscience-ridden race, with a strong sense of the sinfulness of poverty. One cannot imagine the average Englishman deliberately turning parasite, and this national character does not necessarily change because a man is thrown out of work. 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. I am not saying, of course, that most tramps are ideal characters; I am only saying that they are ordinary human beings, and that if they are worse than other people it is the result and not the cause of their way of life.”


Born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, Daniel Johnson as a teenager aspired to be a writer. Always a voracious reader, he reads more books in a month than many people read in a lifetime. He also reads 100+ online articles per week. He knew early that in order to be a writer, you have to be a reader.

He has always been concerned about fairness in the world and the plight of the underprivileged/underdog.

As a professional writer he sold his first paid article in 1974 and, while employed at other jobs, started selling a few pieces in assorted places.

Over the next 15 years, Daniel eked out a living as a writer doing, among other things, national writing and both radio and TV broadcasting for the CBC, Maclean’s (the national newsmagazine) and a wide variety of smaller publications. Interweaved throughout this period was soul-killing corporate and public relations writing.

It was through the 1960s and 1970s that he got his university experience. In his first year at the University of Calgary, he majored in psychology/mathematics; in his second year he switched to physics/mathematics. He then learned of an independent study program at the University of Lethbridge where he attended the next two years, studying philosophy and economics. In the end he attended university over nine years (four full time) but never qualified for a degree because he didn't have the right number of courses in any particular field.

In 1990 he published his first (and so far, only) book: Practical History: A guide to Will and Ariel Durant’s “The Story of Civilization” (Polymath Press, Calgary)

Newly appointed as the Deputy Executive Editor in August 2011, he has been writing exclusively for since March 2009 and, as of summer 2011, has published more than 160 stories.

View articles written by Daniel Johnson

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Anonymous March 19, 2012 6:27 am (Pacific time)

It's an age old reaction...

You're posting under multiple names, which makes your input worthless. Why can't you adapt to the realities of honest commentary?

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