Still Down And Out
August 7, 2011 11:47 AM   Subscribe

On the trail of George Orwell’s outcasts. 'Some 80 years after George Orwell chronicled the lives of the hard-up and destitute in his book Down and Out in Paris and London, what has changed?'

'Retracing the writer's footsteps,' 'the hallmarks of poverty identified by Orwell - addiction, exhaustion and, often, a quiet dignity - are as apparent now as they were then.'

'Orwell's narration begins in the street he called the Rue du Coq d'Or, in the 5th Arrondissement, where he once lived'

'"Quarrels, and the desolate cries of street hawkers, and the shouts of children chasing-orange-peel over the cobbles, and at night loud singing and the sour reek of the refuse carts, made up the atmosphere of the street…. Poverty is what I'm writing about and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum."'

'Such was George Orwell's recollection of what he called the Rue du Coq d'Or in Paris, 1929 - the real-life Rue du Pot de Fer. Today it's pleasure rather than poverty that defines the Latin Quarter that Orwell frequented 80-odd years ago. The chic pavement cafes are full of contented-looking people leisurely sipping their vin rose, and the air is perfumed by the sweet smell of crepes and tourists' money.

But poverty hasn't left Paris - she's simply changed address. She may not look quite the same as she did in the 1920s but if Orwell were to meet her again on these streets, he'd know her straight away.'
posted by VikingSword (11 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
See also: The Road To Wigan Pier. I'd like to see a similar exercise done for the modern English north.

Orwell was a hell of a writer.
posted by Decani at 12:13 PM on August 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Well that was a strange sensation: thought this was a double from this morning as the link was the clicked colour. Then on mouseover, realised I'd read it at the beeb this morning.

That's all I have to say, other than excellent link, and now I'm off to watch Glen or Glenda.
posted by marienbad at 12:52 PM on August 7, 2011

This was done before in the book "Down and Out: Orwell's Paris and London Revisited" by Sandy Craig and Chris Schwarz, published by Penguin in association with Shelter, the national campaign for the homeless in Great Britain.

It's rather surprising that the author of this piece for the BBC did not mention the book, because its striking photographs by Schwarz of people and living conditions in Paris' Les Halles and St Germain and Mortimer Street and the West End of London are remarkable.
posted by parmanparman at 12:58 PM on August 7, 2011

The BBC linked-to in this post is a really good read, but it's not on the same plane as Orwell's Down and Out. Orwell was writing from an immersive, first-person perspective of a plongeur (it was the first book I, as a 19-year-old line cook, had ever read about the realities of working in a kitchen), and it's also a portrait of a slacker (the narrator's big dream is to return to London to look after a mentally handicapped kid).

This BBC piece is a better counterpart to Wigan Pier; both are pure reporting.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:59 PM on August 7, 2011

Wigan Pier and Down and Out are both available to read online for free, by the way.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:07 PM on August 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

The evil of poverty, wrote Orwell, is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and spiritually.

Truer words were never spoken. Thanks for the link, Decani.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 1:16 PM on August 7, 2011

Down and Out is a really powerful book -- a quick gut punch that makes you admire the cleverness of those getting by while making the constant dread of failing really clear.

The secrecy that's attached to poverty is one of the first things that struck Orwell.

This is something that really stood out for me -- it's like the entire USA has this condition (maybe other countries, too -- I just write what I know). The true religion of this country is the search for success, and failing to get ahead is pretty much the ultimate moral failing. So people who are poor, often through no action of their own (or no direct action or no action that would not have been recoverable if they had had more resources), are hampered with the inability to discuss it, programs to help are dismissed as "handouts to the lazy" and so on. It's shameful and it's numbing -- part of the rot that LuckySeven~ quotes above....
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:43 PM on August 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have been planning to go back to grad school, and after reading Homage to Catalonia and a Chomsky piece about Spanish anarchism I started to think maybe the Spanish Civil War is an area I could focus on. Any thoughts about that? Is that an overly-studied era? Any history profs or grad students care to weigh in?
posted by jwhite1979 at 3:09 PM on August 7, 2011

Sorry. That was off topic. I'd delete it if I could or at least try to make it sound more relevant. Hmm. Well if nothing else I'm going to get a copy of Down and Out in Paris.
posted by jwhite1979 at 3:11 PM on August 7, 2011

The chic pavement cafes are full of contented-looking people leisurely sipping their vin rose, and the air is perfumed by the sweet smell of crepes and tourists' money.

Of course, for anyone who's read the book, this has to make one wonder at the state of the kitchens serving these contented-looking people...
posted by pompomtom at 4:19 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd like to see a similar exercise done for the modern English north.
Your wish is Newsnight's command:
It is quite good, from 2009. I don't usually have the patience to sit through onlin evideo, but di d with this.
posted by bystander at 8:28 PM on August 7, 2011

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