Home > 1930, 20th Century, British Literature, Non Fiction > Like a rolling stone

Like a rolling stone

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell. 1936. (230p)

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. That is a beginning.

I wanted to read Down and Out in Paris and London after reading Lisa’s review. I discovered in the introduction that I was actually reading an English version reconstituted from the first English version published and the French translation approved by Orwell himself. Indeed, the first English edition was bowdlerized (tut tut tut: no swear words allowed!) whereas the French one was not. So here I am, French native, reading a book in English and discovering that reading the French version would have been easier and better. How ironic. Things became even more ironic when I came across foot notes added to the text and translated back from the French edition. That’s what happens when you buy books online. *Sigh*

Apart from this slight inconvenience, I really liked this book.

In the first part, Orwell is in Paris, working as a plongeur (the one who washes dishes) in a fancy hotel. Before finding this job, he had started to experience poverty and hunger, both appalling and weakening body and mind:

You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs. (…)

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.

He details the rush in the hotel when it is breakfast, lunch or diner time. He works from “seven in the morning till quarter past nine a night”. He gives a vivid picture of the heat (110°F), the dirt, the noise. In the hotel, hierarchy is as important as in the army. The plongeur is on the lowest part of the scale. Orwell relates how people insult each other in their hurry but also how the hierarchy disappears during breaks, allowing friendly discussions. His work is stupid but requires attention. He is exhausted at the end of the day, sleep is a delight. I was disgusted when he recounts the dirtiness of the hotel cuisines:

Everywhere in the service quarters dirt festered – a secret vein of dirt, running through the great garish hotel like the intestines through a man’s body.

He relates the dirt, the insults in the kitchen and the luxury and politeness to clients, just on the other side of a slim door. Some issues seemed still accurate or brought comparisons to mind.

Despite the dreadful working conditions, employees of the hotel take pride in what they do. The management is not as inhuman as it seems at first sight. After reading Underground Time and Company, I noticed that these were terrible working conditions and thankfully laws were passed to change them. But they were hard for bodies but not soul-destroying. However, they have no life besides work and the week-end drinks.

Nothing is quite real to him [plongeur] but the boulot, drinks and sleep; and of these sleep is the most important.

In France, we have a phrase to sum up life in Paris: “Métro, boulot, dodo”. (literally: Métro, work, beddy-byes). Some things have not changed, I see.  

Orwell also tries to analyse the situation of what we call now poor workers, ie people who have a job but with such a low income that they only survive. He questions the necessity to maintain such jobs as plongeur as fancy restaurants are not indispensable to the society and states that:

This instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think.

Now it is safer to keep them too entertained to think. The president of TF1 (French TV channel) once said in an interview “The spectator’s brain must be available. Our programs aim at entertaining them, unwind them to prepare them between two commercials” It was a scandal inFrance. But then, he had just said aloud what all these upper-classes representatives think about the working class. 

This part is also enjoyable for the description of life in Paris. Orwell portrays all kinds of colourful characters from work and his local bistro. It is full of French phrases such as « Tu t’es bien saoulé la gueule, pas vrai ? » or « foutre le camp ». And I loved the neologism « we were tutoied », sure I’m going to use this one. All the French words gave a real flavour of Paris but I wonder how an English speaking reader perceives it. 

Then Orwell crosses the channel and lives as a tramp in London and my reading became less fluent with phrases as these:

A can o’ hot water wid some bloody oatmeal at de bottom; dat’s skilly. De skilly spikes is always de worst.

It’s hell bein’ on de road, eh? It breaks yer heart goin’ to dem bloody spikes.

Now I knew what the English speaking reader had felt in the first part with the French words… 

The part in England is different as Orwell lived as a tramp. He describes the spikes (workhouses) and their terrible rules: no smoking, no keeping money, no privacy, no beds. Tramps are treated like animals. They wash in terrible conditions and can hardly sleep because of the cold, the promiscuity, the absence of beds. It stinks.

Orwell denounces the absurdity of laws against tramps: they can’t sleep twice in a month in the same spike, so they keep moving from one spike to another. Sometimes, tramps are locked in a room for the whole day and boredom is awful. It’s inefficient because tramps spend their time looking for a shelter for the night instead of looking for a job.

A tramp tramps, not because he likes it, but for the same reason as a car keeps on the left; because there happens to be a law compelling him to do so.

As begging is against the law, they sell matches to be considered as sellers. The police would catch them if they sit on the ground.  

Orwell depicts different characters; the most likable one is Bozo the screever – the pavement artist. Despite his living condition, he keeps his humanity alive.

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.

How remarquable. He fights against poverty. He doesn’t want poverty to invade his brain and destroy his dignity.

There is also a fascinating chapter about the evolution of London’s slang and how bloody became middle-class and fuck had to replace it in the working-class.

 I could write pages about Down and Out in Paris and London. Why is this book so good? Because Orwell is compassionate and tolerant. Because he gave a voice to these second-class citizens and immigrants. Because he never lost his sense of humour.  

There is only one way to make money at writing, and that is to marry a publisher’s daughter.

 Poor Orwell, if he heard of Dan Browns and Marc Levis, he would be devastated.

  1. May 26, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    Very, very interesting. Thanks for a great review. “His work is stupid but requires attention”. That’s the worst kind of work and the working poor. Interesting to experience life like this. Some journalist did such kind of invetsigative journalism, participating like that and of course the “participant obeservation” of cultural anthropology. He didn’t do it purpose though, he did it out of need? I don’t know anything about Orwells life. How much before his famous novels did this happen?
    Tramps who cannot apply for jobs because they need to find a place to stay…


    • May 26, 2011 at 7:15 pm

      This was Orwell’s first book. He did it out of pride : his family didn’t approve of his literary career. He didn’t want to ask for money. Afterwards he thought he could make a book out of it.
      The passages about the coordination of meals in the hotel’s kitchen are fascinating.
      There’s a review of Orwell’s bio on Guy’s blog
      I remember of a German journalist who had lived as a Turkish in Germany in the 1980s early 1990s. Do you remember? His book was very famous. I think he wrote another one on another social issue in the last decade.
      And recently, Florence Aubenas went undercover in an office-cleaning company. I haven’t read her book. Have you?


      • May 26, 2011 at 10:11 pm

        Actually I’ve always thought that there must be some great reads out there written by people who went ‘undercover’ in certain industries.


  2. May 26, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    Günter Wallraff, I was thinking of him and then I got one recently, Black Like Me by Griffin. Seems quite shocking. 1959 New Orleans he darkened his skin and lived as a black guy. I haven’t read Aubenas, no.


    • May 26, 2011 at 8:03 pm

      I’ve read “Dans la peau d’un chinois” by Marc Boulet. He traveled in China in 1981 making Chinese people think he was a Ouigour. Absolutely fascinating.


  3. May 26, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    I read a non-fiction book of essays written by an Orwell scholar about Orwell last year. I gained a great deal of respect for Orwell thanks to the book. One of the things I remember was Orwell commenting that it was better to be poor in France than in Britain, but perhaps that’s because as a poor man in Britain, he stuck out class-wise.

    The passages about the filth of the kitchen and the splendour of the restaurant don’t fade easily.


    • May 27, 2011 at 8:35 am

      He said it was more difficult to be poor in London than in Paris because the laws were harder on tramps and life was (is) more expensive in London:
      – he said that in London you needed to pay to sit down as you can’t sit on the sidewalk without being taken by the police. (can’t you sit in gardens, though?)
      – you can’t beg, it’s forbidden
      – tramps can’t sleep twice in a month in the same place. Sometimes they walk more than 15 miles from one place to another. As they’re underfed, it’s exhausting,
      – you can’t sleep outside, whereas in Paris there was a laissez-faire allowing people to sleep in the métro, on sidewalks, under the bridges, (unfortunately, there are still people sleeping under the bridges in Paris or on the hot air vents from the métro)
      – he could afford to rent a room in Paris, he didn’t even try in London.

      I wonder if there’s a different perception of poor people in Anglo-Saxon countries than in France. Sometimes I’m under the impression that Americans think that it’s your fault if you’re poor.
      The other impression from Orwell’s book is that the British didn’t want to see their tramps and had them move around to have the illusion that they didn’t exist.

      His comments about charities are terrible too. There’s no real compassion and generosity, it’s more like alleviating conscience and fulfulling a social role.


      • May 30, 2011 at 12:14 am

        Yes there does seem to be an underlying idea that you can ‘work’ your way out of poverty.


  4. May 27, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    I’ve not read this one, though I’ve read a fair bit of Orwell. He’s a wonderful writer and hugely compassionate without being maudlin.

    Regarding sympathy for tramps I do think religious background plays a part. Particularly in the US there’s often a sense in certain Protestant traditions that one’s Earthly lot reflects one’s state of grace. Wealth suggests god’s favour. Poverty the opposite. Poverty then becomes not just a fiscal state but a moral failing. There’s an element of it in England, it’s stronger in Scotland but it’s strongest of all in the US.

    That TF1 president’s comment is all too honest isn’t it? Huxley would have recognised that sentiment.

    For undercover accounts I’ve read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed and it’s excellent. Hard to read without getting angry, but then that’s part of the point.


    • May 27, 2011 at 2:56 pm

      I had the feeling that in Prostestant countries, being poor was seen as a failure. Especially in America.

      I think it’s different in Catholic countries. Aren’t Scottish Catholic?

      In Catholic religion the idea of being “chosen” is absent, at least from the common worship. (I’m not a theologist) Chosing to be poor is valued, like Saint François d’Assise. And priests constantly repeat that the poor will be the first to enter into the Kingdom of God. To me it’s just a way to help the dominating classes to have the masses (the mob as Orwell says) stay still as their after-life will be wonderful even if this one is rotten.
      But at least, being poor isn’t a failure but a state.


      • May 27, 2011 at 3:26 pm

        Scotland is still very sectarian actually. It’s predominantly Scottish with historically a fair bit of prejudice against the Catholic minority. My mother’s family are Catholic, my father’s nominally Protestant and when they got together it was something of a scandal.

        It manifests particularly in football. Rangers is the Protestant Team, Celtic the Catholic team. One of the things that put me off football was getting fiercely told off as a child for saying I supported Celtic. It wasn’t my mother’s side of the family that got angry…

        Even to this day football affiliations tend to be on sectarian lines, and around a year or two ago I had a taxi driver who spent much of our trim ranting about Catholics. It’s still very much a live issue.

        I agree with you on how the Catholic church’s doctrine is very effective in maintaining the status quo, but as you say it at least doesn’t blame the poor for being poor.


  5. May 27, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    Nice site!


  6. May 30, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    I remember feeling so silly that I couldn’t figure out the swear words based on context. After I finished the book (which I still consider one of Orwell’s best), I went back and tried and tried to figure out what the lines might stand for but realized in the end that maybe there was something cool about the lines instead…

    Also, it’s absolutely fascinating to learn that the French version (or part of it, at least) is the original! Brilliant book, either way.


    • May 30, 2011 at 9:44 pm

      I’m not sure I understand what “line” stands for in your comment.

      You mean French sentences and swear words? I guess it must have been annoying. I understand that in Orwell’s time, the literate public who would read his book knew enough of French to catch the words. What I don’t understand is why today’s publishers don’t add footnotes to translate foreign phrases or words.
      It shocks me at elitist: If you can understand, good for you. The others aren’t allowed to fully understand what they’re reading.
      The not-translated Latin sentences in The Name of the Rose really irritated me.

      Or you meant you read a copy with __________ instead of swear words in the English text? The edition I have includes all the swear words, found from the French translation. You could solve the mystery…


  7. leroyhunter
    June 2, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    Fine review bookaround. I was going to mention the Ehrenreich book but Max beat me to the punch: I second his opinion, it’s well worth reading. I’d love some of the folks in the US who think Obama’s a socialist to read it and give me their considered response.


  8. June 3, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Hello, I’m so glad you found this book worthwhile – an what an interesting conversation it has generated about the translation issue!
    Thanks for the link, I’ve returned the favour on my original review:)


    • June 5, 2011 at 5:15 pm

      Sorry for the slow answer.
      Thanks for your review and for the link, I wouldn’t have read it without you.


  1. June 3, 2011 at 2:25 pm
  2. July 22, 2011 at 7:05 am
  3. May 31, 2016 at 7:50 am
  4. January 31, 2017 at 7:02 am
  5. October 22, 2017 at 11:21 am

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