George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

A cross between a travel diary and a personal essay on poverty, Down and Out in Paris and London tells of 30-year-old George Orwell’s experiences of poverty. It’s almost absurd how familiar Orwell’s experiences are to me. Looking back at my own times of being broke, I can’t help but laugh at how strongly I actually felt “poor.”

The first half of Down and Out takes place in Paris. Orwell goes hungry for a while, learns the tricks of surviving on little, and finally gets a job as a plongeur, a dishwasher. This part is peppered with French phrases and words that are evidently untranslatable into English. I don’t speak any French, so these were a little annoying.

My father once said of student life: “When you have money, you don’t have time to spend it. And when you have time, you can’t afford to do anything.” This was certainly true for me when I lived in Turku last year. There isn’t much romance in being broke, it’s mostly just boring. But what’s funny is that it’s easier to live with no money than with some.

Here’s how Orwell puts it:

“These three weeks were squalid and uncomfortable, and evidently there was worse coming, for my rent would be due before long. Nevertheless, things were not a quarter as bad as I had expected. For, when you are apporaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others. 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 til 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.”

Down and out in Helsinki and Turku

My last months at Kapteeninkatu and then on and off in Turku, I was mostly penniless. This being Finland, I was never truly down and out—there was always someone to turn to if I really had need. My parents were broke at the time, but I had a friend who lent me money to pay the rent for the summer. I was apartmentless for only three months, and I never went hungry. Other friends lent me money for food and cigarettes. After a while, my friends also started to pay my way at bars and other social outings. My phone bills I left unpaid.

I had a partner in poverty that summer. We’d both gotten out of alternative service in May and, foolishly, hadn’t thought ahead to find work. While I borrowed from a friend, he turned to his parents. After three months he applied for welfare. There was a lot of bureaucratic paper-shuffling, but his application was turned down. Though he was flat broke, since he’d kept up with his rent and bills, he was clearly not in need of public support. If you want to get welfare from the state, you should not try to manage your money responsibly. Instead, you should just not pay your bills.

At Kapteeninkatu I would return bottles to buy cigarettes. There were always lots of beer bottles around, left by my roommates. Later, in Turku, a few bottles found in the bushes meant, on some days, a meal of half-priced processed food, like maksalaatikko or frozen french fries.

I moved to Turku in the beginning of September to start university. The first five weeks I stayed with a friend I hardly knew at the time. We lived in tight quarters—The Ylioppilaskylä apartment Make lived in is commonly called a “nine square meter suicide cell”—and consequently we got to know each other well.

Though I was eligible for student support, I couldn’t apply for it without an address. And without money, I couldn’t afford the deposit on a private apartment. Student housing was my only option, but I was way down on the waiting list, and didn’t get an apartment until the very end of October. Again I borrowed money from a friend to pay the 200 euro deposit.

During my stay with Make, I lived on raw carrots and oatmeal. After I moved into my own apartment and started receiving student support, my diet greatly improved. But by the end of most months I had run out of money and was back to whole weeks of eating the same meal, day after day. There was potato and onion week, white cabbage week, banana week, beet week, tomato week, frozen french fries week. Except for the french fries, I bought all my cheap food from the farmers’ market held every weekday at the square in downtown Turku. Big bags of fruit and vegetables, weighing one to three kilos, were sold for an euro because they were soft and bruised and going bad. This is the cheapest way to survive—discounting perhaps oatmeal and eating at friends’ houses. I laugh at people who try to eat cheap and buy instant noodles.

The worst were the weeks I ate only fresh fruit. Tomatos and potatos can be cooked into a mushy stew that will last a week. The time I bought bananas turned into a race against time. I ate them even when I wasn’t hungry, and still I couldn’t keep up with the pace the bananas were turning black. I kept the bananas in the fridge and would turn them over twice a day to lessen the bruising of either side.

When faced with the choice of buying food or cigarettes, I always chose cigarettes. I rarely went a day without cigarettes of my own. I didn’t like bumming them: stopping people on the street, rather than getting easier, became harder each time I did it. In late fall I did try to quit, mainly to save money. I decided to smoke only on the weekends. This worked for about six weeks, after which I lost my resolve, and went back to smoking a half a pack a day.

Return to London

Burned out from the seveteen hour work day of a Paris dishwasher, Orwell writes a friend in England, and is offered a job taking care of a “tame imbecile.” The job, however, doesn’t pan out, and Orwell is forced to live as a “tramp” for a month.

Penniless and without a place to live, Orwell begins to see London in a new light. It is a city where “even sitting costs,” he says. This, too, I recognized. My favorite place to sit when I didn’t have any money was the bank. I would go in and take a waiting number. Then, after 15 or 20 minutes, when the number I had was coming up, I’d offer it to someone who had come after me, and exchange numbers with them. This way I could easily sit for an hour or two in the bank.

Down and Out ends in a couple of essayish chapters on the nature of tramps and the cause of poverty. Orwell has a nice way of putting his arguments, but what he says—that tramps are demonized essentially because they go against the Protestant work ethic, and that poverty is rarely caused by laziness—is hardly revolutionary in this day and age. Down and Out was published in 1933, and so must be viewed in context.

Here is how Down and Out ends:

“At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. This is a beginning.”

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