Guest post: Reflections of Down and Out 80 years on

Thursday 03 October 2013

The Orwell Prize, Britain’s most prestigious prize for political writing, is supported by the Media Standards Trust, Political Quarterly, AM Heath and Richard Blair (Orwell’s son). A guest post by David Cano Fernández to celebrate the 80th publication anniversary of Down and Out in Paris and London Around the time I first read Down and Out I was working and living in a grotty Irish pub in South London. I worked long hours and the accommodation was cramped, dirty and unsafe. There was no lock on my door, and one night, at about four in the morning, I was abruptly awoken by my door being kicked suddenly, and violently, open. I looked up and saw a middle aged man wearing nothing but a pair of y-fronts, looming over me. He was swaying from side to side, his face flushed red, his eyes glazed and sloshing around in his skull. I sprung up in bed and clamped the duvet to my chest like a prudish, middle aged woman. “Oh my God,” he garbled, “I’m so sorry.” I knew this man. He was one of the alcoholics that rented a room above the pub. He had gone to the toilet, and accidentally burst into my room thinking it was his. He was one of several characters who frequented the place. Most of them were hopeless drunkards. One morning we found a trail of black stains in the hallway carpet. They stank of faeces. We had a hunch about who the culprit might have been, an old alcoholic who lived there and only ever drank Guinness. Also, the trail lead directly from the toilet to the door of his room. I was reading a lot at the time, and Orwell struck a particularly discordant note with me. Orwell defined himself as lower-upper-middle class; I grew up poor. However, I never wanted for anything, my mother kept our flat immaculately clean, and cooked for us every day. This pub was my first real experience of hardship, of poverty, of the edges of society. Orwell’s London suddenly became very immediate as I came into contact with the broken down, the stripped of dignity, wandering spectral figures that had previously only barely existed at the edges of my consciousness. In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell continues the Dickensian tradition of social documentation, albeit in a far more involved and participatory manner. What splits the book in two is the contrast between the cities, for while Paris represents the savagery of human existence, full of hard, conniving characters, a whirling tumult of sex, violence, and work, London is so utterly miserable. There is a sense of nobility in even the lowest form of work, but a barely a trace of it can be found in London. And here lies the essence of Orwell as a writer, a humanism that recognises the individual and abhors injustice and inequality. As I read Down and Out, his portraits came alive for me. These weren’t people that existed in some conveniently forgotten, dark era of London’s history, they were still here in front me. Most of them had been labourers at some point who had drifted around the country, finally settling in London, too worn and defeated to work any more. They were alone. They told me that they didn’t have families, but I suspect that their relatives had dusted their hands of them. They formed their own little community and drank from open to close before stumbling upstairs to repose a few hours before starting the whole cycle anew. I, like most people there, regarded them as, a troupe of tragic jesters there for our amusement. One of them was a tiny Scottish man with a grizzled, worn face who would drink almost an entire bottle of scotch every day. There was a single plaster column in the pub, and when he was really smashed, he would cling to it like a panicked sailor clinging desperately to a mast during a storm, much to the amusement of all the regulars. Shortly before I left that pub, the little Scottish man walked in one day and ordered a drink, looking more dejected than usual. Throughout the course of my shift, I heard rumours that he had just been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and was probably going to die soon. Later that night I saw him, for the last time, cling mournfully to the column amidst the party that raged on around him. I don’t know what ever became of these people, whether they’re still alive, or if they continue to live in the same way. What I do know, is that there are more just like them. A city the size of London will always accommodate this strata of forgotten individuals. Orwell took part in it, and recognised the humanity in each individual. He brought light to the shadow of city living, a darkness that contains everything we do not want to recognise about ourselves. Orwell helped me to see the person behind the outward appearance, but also the short, unlucky tumble that could land me in the same spot. On the evening of Wednesday 9th October John Bird will join Brian Sewell in conversation about ‘Tramping Today’ in an event bought to you by The Orwell Prize and Quartet Books hosted by Foyles at their flagship in Charing Cross. Book tickets here.