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Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in

Paris and London

By George Orwell (1933)

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O scathful harm, condition of poverte! CHAUCER

Down and Out in Paris and London

I

The rue du Coq d’Or, Paris, seven in the morning. A

succession of furious, choking yells from the street.

Madame Monce, who kept the little hotel opposite mine,

had come out on to the pavement to address a lodger on the

third floor. Her bare feet were stuck into sabots and her grey

hair was streaming down.

MADAME MONCE: ‘SALOPE! SALOPE! How many

times have I told you not to squash bugs on the wallpaper?

Do you think you’ve bought the hotel, eh? Why can’t you

throw them out of the window like everyone else? PUTAIN!

SALOPE!’

THE WOMAN ON THE THIRD FLOOR: ‘VACHE!’

Thereupon a whole variegated chorus of yells, as windows

were flung open on every side and half the street joined in

the quarrel. They shut up abruptly ten minutes later, when a

squadron of cavalry rode past and people stopped shouting

to look at them.

I sketch this scene, just to convey something of the

spirit of the rue du Coq d’Or. Not that quarrels were the

only thing that happened there— but still, we seldom got

through the morning without at least one outburst of this

description. Quarrels, and the desolate cries of street hawk-

ers, and the shouts of children chasing orange-peel over the

cobbles, and at night loud singing and the sour reek of the

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refuse-carts, made up the atmosphere of the street.

It was a very narrow street—a ravine of tall, leprous

houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as

though they had all been frozen in the act of collapse. All

the houses were hotels and packed to the tiles with lodgers,

mostly Poles, Arabs and Italians. At the foot of the ho-

tels were tiny BISTROs, where you could be drunk for the

equivalent of a shilling. On Saturday nights about a third of

the male population of the quarter was drunk. There was

fighting over women, and the Arab navvies who lived in the

cheapest hotels used to conduct mysterious feuds, and fight

them out with chairs and occasionally revolvers. At night

the policemen would only come through the street two to-

gether. It was a fairly rackety place. And yet amid the noise

and dirt lived the usual respectable French shopkeepers,

bakers and laundresses and the like, keeping themselves

to themselves and quietly piling up small fortunes. It was

quite a representative Paris slum.

My hotel was called the Hotel des Trois Moineaux. It

was a dark, rickety warren of five storeys, cut up by wooden

partitions into forty rooms. The rooms were small arid in-

veterately dirty, for there was no maid, and Madame F., the

PATRONNE, had no time to do any sweeping. The walls

were as thin as matchwood, and to hide the cracks they had

been covered with layer after layer of pink paper, which had

come loose and housed innumerable bugs. Near the ceiling

long lines of bugs marched all day like columns of soldiers,

and at night came down ravenously hungry, so that one had

to get up every few hours and kill them in hecatombs. Some-

Down and Out in Paris and London

times when the bugs got too bad one used to burn sulphur

and drive them into the next room; whereupon the lodger

next door would retort by having his room sulphured, and

drive the bugs back. It was a dirty place, but homelike, for

Madame F. and her husband were good sorts. The rent of

the rooms varied between thirty and fifty francs a week.

The lodgers were a floating population, largely foreign-

ers, who used to turn up without luggage, stay a week and

then disappear again. They were of every trade—cobblers,

bricklayers, stonemasons, navvies, students, prostitutes,

rag-pickers. Some of them were fantastically poor. In one

of the attics there was a Bulgarian student who made fancy

shoes for the American market. From six to twelve he sat on

his bed, making a dozen pairs of shoes and earning thirty-

five francs; the rest of the day he attended lectures at the

Sorbonne. He was studying for the Church, and books of

theology lay face-down on his leather-strewn floor. In an-

other room lived a Russian woman and her son, who called

himself an artist. The mother worked sixteen hours a day,

darning socks at twenty-five centimes a sock, while the son,

decently dressed, loafed in the Montparnasse cafes. One

room was let to two different lodgers, one a day worker and

the other a night worker. In another room a widower shared

the same bed with his two grown-up daughters, both con-

sumptive.

There were eccentric characters in the hotel. The Paris

slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people—people

who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and

given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them

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from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees

people from work. Some of the lodgers in our hotel lived

lives that were curious beyond words.

There were the Rougiers, for instance, an old, ragged,

dwarfish couple who plied an extraordinary trade. They

used to sell postcards on the Boulevard St Michel. The curi-

ous thing was that the postcards were sold in sealed packets

as pornographic ones, but were actually photographs of cha-

teaux on the Loire; the buyers did not discover this till too

late, and of course never complained. The Rougiers earned

about a hundred francs a week, and by strict economy man-

aged to be always half starved and half drunk. The filth of

their room was such that one could smell it on the floor be-

low. According to Madame F., neither of the Rougiers had

taken off their clothes for four years.

Or there was Henri, who worked in the sewers. He was a

tall, melancholy man with curly hair, rather romantic-look-

ing in his long, sewer-man’s boots. Henri’s peculiarity was

that he did not speak, except for the purposes of work, lit-

erally for days together. Only a year before he had been a

chauffeur in good employ and saving money. One day he

fell in love, and when the girl refused him he lost his tem-

per and kicked her. On being kicked the girl fell desperately

in love with Henri, and for a fortnight they lived togeth-

er and spent a thousand francs of Henri’s money. Then the

girl was unfaithful; Henri planted a knife in her upper arm

and was sent to prison for six months. As soon as she had

been stabbed the girl fell more in love with Henri than ever,

and the two made up their quarrel and agreed that when

Down and Out in Paris and London

Henri came out of jail he should buy a taxi and they would

marry and settle down. But a fortnight later the girl was

unfaithful again, and when Henri came out she was with

child, Henri did not stab her again. He drew out all his sav-

ings and went on a drinking-bout that ended in another

month’s imprisonment; after that he went to work in the

sewers. Nothing would induce Henri to talk. If you asked

him why he worked in the sewers he never answered, but

simply crossed his wrists to signify handcuffs, and jerked

his head southward, towards the prison. Bad luck seemed to

have turned him half-witted in a single day.

Or there was R., an Englishman, who lived six months

of the year in Putney with his parents and six months in

France. During his time in France he drank four litres of

wine a day, and six litres on Saturdays; he had once trav-

elled as far as the Azores, because the wine there is cheaper

than anywhere in Europe. He was a gentle, domesticated

creature, never rowdy or quarrelsome, and never sober. He

would lie in bed till midday, and from then till midnight he

was in his comer of the BISTRO, quietly and methodically

soaking. While he soaked he talked, in a refined, woman-

ish voice, about antique furniture. Except myself, R. was the

only Englishman in the quarter.

There were plenty of other people who lived lives just

as eccentric as these: Monsieur Jules, the Roumanian, who

had a glass eye and would not admit it, Furex the Liniousin

stonemason, Roucolle the miser—he died before my time,

though—old Laurent the rag-merchant, who used to copy

his signature from a slip of paper he carried in his pocket.

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It would be fun to write some of their biographies, if one

had time. I am trying to describe the people in our quar-

ter, not for the mere curiosity, but because they are all part

of the story. Poverty is what I am writing about, and I had

my first contact with poverty in this slum. The slum, with

its dirt and its queer lives, was first an object-lesson in pov-

erty, and then the background of my own experiences. It is

for that reason that I try to give some idea of what life was

like there.

Down and Out in Paris and London

II

Life in the quarter. Our BISTRO, for instance, at the foot

of the Hotel des Trois Moineaux. A tiny brick-floored

room, half underground, with wine-sodden tables, and a

photograph of a funeral inscribed ‘CREDIT EST MORT’; and

red-sashed workmen carving sausage with big jack-knives;

and Madame F., a splendid Auvergnat peasant woman with

the face of a strong-minded cow, drinking Malaga all day

‘for her stomach’; and games of dice for APERITIFS; and

songs about ‘LES PRAISES ET LES FRAMBOISES’, and

about Madelon, who said, ‘COMMENT EPOUSER UN

SOLDAT, MOI QUI AIME TOUT LE REGIMENT?’; and

extraordinarily public love-making. Half the hotel used to

meet in the BISTRO in the evenings. I wish one could find a

pub in London a quarter as cheery.

One heard queer conversations in the BISTRO. As a sam-

ple I give you Charlie, one of the local curiosities, talking.

Charlie was a youth of family and education who had

run away from home and lived on occasional remittances.

Picture him very pink and young, with the fresh cheeks and

soft brown hair of a nice little boy, and lips excessively red

and wet, like cherries. His feet are tiny, his arms abnormal-

ly short, his hands dimpled like a baby’s. He has a way of

dancing and capering while he talks, as though he were too

happy and too full of life to keep still for an instant. It is

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three in the afternoon, and there is no one in the BISTRO

except Madame F. and one or two men who are out of work;

but it is all the same to Charlie whom he talks to, so long as

he can talk about himself. He declaims like an orator on a

barricade, rolling the words on his tongue and gesticulating

with his short arms. His small, rather piggy eyes glitter with

enthusiasm. He is, somehow, profoundly disgusting to see.

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