Yesterday, I got to thinking about money.
Namely, the fact that I don’t have any. I mean, none. I don’t have a red cent to my name, or however that saying goes.
This is by choice, not by circumstance, so I shouldn’t be whinging.
But that’s the thing about money, isn’t it. It is often a cause of major stress, even when you have taken it out of the equation all together. And this is what happened yesterday.
A bad rent inspection set me off, and I had my usual panic attack about how far we are from owning our own home and ridding ourselves of real-estate agents forever. I swear, real-estate agents are put on this earth just to stress me out. (No offense to any real-estate agents out there reading this, I’m sure you’re lovely).
Anyway, so I sank into a pit of stress and despair, wallowing in self-hatred and self-pity. See, it’s my fault we are in such a precarious situation, if I had spent the previous six years of my life getting a university degree instead of getting high, we wouldn’t be here right now.
But, I think we will all agree, self-hatred and self-pity is not a good look on anyone. Especially not on me. So, I did what I always do in this situation, and buried my mind in a book. Not any book though, I selected carefully in order to eliminate these self-indulgent feelings. I pulled on some warm gloves, some woolly socks and a furry hat, made myself a cup of tea, and buried myself in the couch. And I didn’t get up until I had read, cover to cover, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.
This is one of my favourite books of all time. Orwell is in a league of his own when it comes to conscientious, hard-hitting writing, particularly in this wonderful little memoir. It is a semi-factual account of the writer’s time living as a pauper in Paris and a tramp in London, and is a delicate combination of truth, fiction and elements of essay writing that is extremely engaging to read.
This story begins with Orwell’s account of living in Paris on the Rue du Coq d’Or, transient quarters for other such literary geniuses as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Having little money to begin with, Orwell abruptly sinks into destitution when his remaining money is stolen. Interestingly, in the book it is stolen by a crafty Italian, but allegedly in reality it was stolen by a questionable women who Orwell had bought home with him. Apparently this alteration was made to the book in order not to offend the sensibilities of his parents, a fact I find endlessly endearing.
Rue du Coq d’Or, Paris
Orwell hovers a few crumbs above starvation until he manages to find a menial position in a Paris hotel. Having worked in hospitality for many years, I simply adore Orwell’s descriptions of working as a plongeur (kitchen hand) in Paris. He describes a scene that is as typical today as it was eighty years ago when he experienced it:
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 demanding scrambled eggs, coffee and grapefruit; you run to the kitchen for the eggs and to the dining-room for the fruit, going like lightening to be back before your toast burns, and having to remember about the tea and coffee, besides half a dozen other orders that are still pending…It needs more brains than one might think.
This description captures hospitality work to a tee; the stress and anxiety of trying to accomplish the equivalent of three person’s work in a fraction of the time needed while a fearsome head-chef is screaming at you to hurry up…quite frankly, it has to be lived to be believed. As Orwell says himself: I could write pages about the scene without giving a true idea of it.
His account nevertheless gives us a vivid insight into the working conditions in the hotels of Paris at the time, seventeen hour days were considered short and the plongeurs were paid on average a measly 500 francs a month. Orwell describes how simple life becomes when lived this way, each day consisting of nothing but work, drink and sleep.
One can only hope working conditions in Paris have improved slightly…
Orwell’s descriptions of living on the edge of starvation, learning how to stretch out the last few centimes to buy food and tobacco, constantly worried about the possibility of eviction from the filthy, bug ridden hotel room he lived in, are almost beyond imagining. I have lived on what is considered the poverty line in Australia, earning a mere $175 a week with no support, but it was nothing like the nightmare that Orwell describes.
My money oozed away – to eight francs, to four francs, to one franc, to twenty-five centimes; and twenty-five centimes is useless, for it will buy nothing except a newspaper. We went several days on dry bread, and then I was two and a half days with nothing to eat whatever. This was an ugly experience.
Yet, naturally, Orwell’s inherent skills as a writer, and his ability to capture the essence of people on a page, brings a certain poetry and humour to this humourless situation. He describes a hilarious interaction between a Serbian plongeur and a restaurant manager:
“What the devil do you mean by smoking in here?” he cried.
“What the devil do you mean by having a face like that?” answered the Serbian, calmly.
The second half of this book portrays Orwell’s return to England, where he lived as a tramp for around a month. He describes the life of these numerous men whose luck ran out long ago, forced to tramp each day between ‘spikes’, or homeless shelters. They live off a diet of ‘tea and two slices’, supplemented with the tobacco collected from cigarette butts off the street. He describes these down-trodden, luckless men with a measure of grace and humility; having lived their life it is clear to see that Orwell understands their pain. He rages against the sub-human conditions in these ‘spikes’, and the treatment that the men receive, both from those who deign to help them and greater society in general.
It is worth saying something about the social position of beggars, for when one has consorted with them, and found that they are ordinary human beings, one cannot help being struck by the curious attitude that society takes towards them. People seem to feel that there is some essential difference between beggars and ordinary “working” men. They are a race apart – outcasts, like criminals and prostitutes.
Beggars in a workhouse, England
Orwell explains that the reason he believes people feel this way is that they have no empathy or understanding for those who do not make money, for If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately. He expounds the fact that tramps or beggars extract the barest living from society, yet they pay for it over and over in suffering. True to Orwell’s intellect he ends by putting forth his own ideas on making the lives of these men slightly more bearable, namely by improving the conditions in the shelters or ‘spikes’, which he explains how to do at no extra cost to the organisation. Further, he puts forth the idea that these men should be allowed to live and work at these ‘spikes’, by growing their own food. This way, they could benefit immensely from an improved diet, they could settle in one place and avoid the tramping lifestyle, and most importantly, they could be given some measure of purpose or pride in their lives.
This book, its contents and the experiences behind it, are to me what makes Orwell such a brilliant writer and man. There are very few people who would put themselves through such extreme living conditions deliberately, but to write a book this moving and enchanting, there could be no other way. Orwell teaches us about conscientiousness, not from the viewpoint of a well-meaning yet superior advocate for the poor but from the viewpoint of the poor themselves. His ability to capture the lives of those he encounters is second to none, we are given an honest and firsthand account of the realities of living in poverty.
I raise my eyes from this gripping book and look around, taking in the comfortable couch, the bookshelf full of books, and the widescreen television that takes pride of place in my lounge room. I think about the fridge, which if not full at least has food in it, and the shower which emits hot water as a necessity, rather than a luxury. And I smile, overwhelmingly grateful for everything that I have.
Thankyou, Mr. George Owell, Mr. Eric Arthur Blair.
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. That is a beginning.