Tag: Paris

Down and Out

In the spring of 1928, aged about 24, Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) moved to Paris, a city in which the cost of living was very low. He tried to earn a living by writing and giving English lessons, but it hardly paid. He was then stripped of his possessions and money by “a little trollop he’d picked up in a café” leaving him with very little cash. His parents back home in England were spared the knowledge of his predicament, possibly due to his concern for their middle class sensibilities. He could have returned home to Southwold, but having previously chosen to leave a career in the Imperial Indian Police in Burma, that was not an attractive path. He had little option but to work in the foul kitchens of the Hotel Lotti on the Rue de Rivoli. His final impecunious 10 weeks in Paris provided the material for his book, Down and Out in Paris and London, the first draft of which was completed in 1930. This was no journalist’s assignment, research or a gimmick.


The following are observations on poverty in the early chapter of the book and reveal something of the life he led.


“…it is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty….you thought it would be terrible, it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first…the shifts it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust wiping.


You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty…you dare not admit it, you have to pretend that you are living quite as usual.


You discover what it is like to be hungry…everywhere there is food insulting you in huge wasteful piles…a snivelling self pity comes over you at the sight of so much food.


You discover the boredom…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…


…but you discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future…


And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety”.


(Chapter 3, Down and Out in Paris and London 1933)



Squalor, boredom, secrecy, hunger, future discounting and relief from anxiety were the key features, for Orwell, of poverty. In 1930 in Paris there was no system of welfare benefits to fall back on. In London , the casual wards (‘The Spikes’) provided some refuge, although the conditions were far from salubrious. Orwell went hungry, and at times had absolutely no money. One lack, which was sorely felt, was that of tobacco, something he again experienced on the front line in Spain when he later joined the POUM militia (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, or Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification) in the civil war in Catalonia. The privations in the front line caused by the conditions and the absolute lack of resources for the militia was another form of poverty.


“In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy. In winter…they were important in that order” (Homage to Catalonia 1938, p23).


Winter in the Catalan trenches, Spring in Paris, but in this list we can note the reduction of human need to Maslow’s base of his hierachy of need. Apart from the ‘enemy’ in Spain the similarity is of course there to see. Orwell in both books mentions the centrality of tobacco, and of course of alcohol, in daily life.


It might be tempting to dismiss Orwell’s observations as belonging to another age and therefore of little relevance to the experience of poverty today in modern Welfare States. That I think would be a mistake. The psychosocial sequelae of poverty remain the same; what it does to self, self esteem and the setting of priorities.


The ‘secrecy’, the ‘dare not admit it’, alludes to what Erving Goffman called ‘passing’ in his theory of Stigma. People with a stigma try to ‘pass’ as normal to avoid oppressive acts.

Poverty was and is a stigmatising condition. Orwell tells of sitting in parks in Paris but being very aware of the distaste expressed by women particularly, towards him.

A source of stigma, for Goffman, arises out of an actual or perceived ‘character blemish’. Another source is membership of a ‘tribe’. Poverty provides both sources. Currently, many believe the poor to be at fault for their poverty due to their poor moral choices and character weaknesses. The Moral Underclass Discourse emphasises that the fault lies within the individual. The poor may also be seen as members of a ‘tribe’ who live apart from the deserving and hard working families; they are the chavs, the skivers, the welfare scroungers.

Poverty can be a discrediting stigma as it might have an outward appearance, or it could also be a discreditable stigma as an internal invisible ‘mark’ known only to the poor themselves. It can, of course, be a felt stigma and an enacted stigma as society exercises certain sanctions and behaviours towards the poor. Family members and friends of those on hard times may feel courtesy stigma on their behalf.

Thus, as a highly stigmatising condition, those who today are in poverty may wish to hide away or use ‘maladaptive coping mechanisms’ such as smoking, drinking or drug taking. Orwell’s continual descriptions of the need for and centrality of tobacco illustrates this point. Many today would see tobacco as a dangerous luxury. His fixation with food illustrates the shifting of priorities, and the collapse of time to orientate to the present. Future discounting might explain why the dangers of smoking and the future threats to health just do not impact on present behaviour.  It also clearly illustrates is the exercise of one’s personal agency being highly mediated by (and mediating) the culture and the social structures one lives in. It may seem to today’s sensibilities that tobacco use would or should be resisted if poor. However, Orwell makes it plain to see how one’s psychological state gets reduced and focused in both time and space. His ‘annihilation of the future’ and ‘boredom’ are telling. It might explain why we make what seems to be irrational decisions in the face of hardship. Orwell of course would have a way out, but if one believes that the future is set, the discounting of the future to deal with the present may be a highly rational strategy.

The fear of poverty disappearing, because one is actually poor, is another seemingly irrational mind set. But if the dogs have turned up you at least know you can sink no lower. There is no such thing as status anxiety, or keeping up with the Jones’. The ‘psychosocial comparison’ thesis of poor health outcomes no longer applies to you because the fear of being compared and of comparing has been assuaged by the surety of the lowliness of status. What is left is survival today, not tomorrow, because tomorrow never comes.

Before we thus rush to judgment on the choices the poor make, or provide theories of why there is poverty based on individual failure, Orwell’s exposition provides a window into their world and might make us think twice.










I have just spent an uncomfortable 20 minutes this morning.

Nothing to do with last night’s whisky, watching drizzle dripping down the window or remembering injudicious comments at an after party. Rather, it was because I found myself agreeing with Peter Hitchens of the Daily Mail who writes today, in the context of ‘Paris’, “calm down and think”. This is probably a first for me as I usually regard the Mail and its outpourings as the moral equivalent of a sewage outfall pipe onto a pristine Cornish beach. So, yes, calm down, think.

What is the real risk to your health and well being? It certainly is not bombs and bullets – you have to go to Syria for that. You are far more at risk from the cigarette you are smoking, from the trans fatty acids and high fructose corn syrup in your foods, from over indulgence in alcohol, from the cans of coke you drink, from the way you and others drive cars, from work related stress, from nuclear accidents, antibiotic resistance, climate change, increasing precarity in employment, ocean acidification, deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil erosion……yet we are treated this morning to 20 minutes of ‘discussion’ on the BBC of ‘threat’ ‘security’ ‘borders’ ‘migrants’ ‘muslims’. No analysis of why or any perspective on the killings. Instead the narrative was ” Islamic terrorists/migrants are free to enter Europe and kill, and thus what we need is more surveillance”. It feeds the knee knerk patriotism and small mindedness of right wing neofascists who will use Paris to argue for kicking migrants out, labelling all muslims as potential terror threats, increased security measures such as compulsory ID cards and paper checks as we walk the streets, backed up by the fallacious “if you’ve got nothing to hide” twattery.

The risks we face arise from the conditions of modern technological societies, the rule of plutocrats and oligarchs, post imperial hubris and a blindess to ecological degradation. ISIS members who shoot and bomb are criminals who murder and maim as part of their myopic death cult world view. Civil society (if it does not lose its head), the security forces, the military, police and intelligence services can deal with this if politicians stop and think, and if the media stop seeing these stories as a money spinner. The latter point is misguided because that is their ‘raison d’etre’ – why else show double page spreads of paris city centre with little stars showing where the events took place.

Meanwhile, Syria burns.

Ben and Sean’s excellent adventures

1000 miles in about 10 days in France for the `cornwall air ambulance’ see www.justgiving.com/benandsean.

what follows are ‘home thoughts from abroad’


Laurel and Hardy, Ant and Dec, Love and Marriage. What have they got in common? Nothing.

And that, I suspect, is what we’ve got, given our approach to packing.

Yes, that time has come when the bikes need loading, the planning is complete and loins are girded. Sean’s approach to ensuring that all necessary equipment is required, and my approach, resembles that of Scott and Amundsen. One amiable gentleman with faith in simply being British to carry the day, the other engaged in Nordic analysis and planning. We know how that all ended. The difference this time is that Scott and Amunsden are joined as a team. This ensures that success is upped by a factor of 0.01%. This random figure is about as mathematically sound a method of prediction as astrology. The fly in the ointment and what actually is in common in the above pairings, is comedy. Except for Love and Marriage, which are as funny as piles on your birthday, only less rare.

With weeks to go, I had a list of items to be taken in the panniers, cognisant of weight and utility being criteria to be applied to any item. This list I shared with Sean, in the vain hope it now appears , as planning is as Alien a concept to Sean as ‘ecumenicalism’ is to Islamic State, the only difference is that ‘The Caliphate’ can spell ‘ecumenicalism’ while ‘planning’ , I suspect is ‘what other people do’. Scott did not get to the Pole without meticulous planning, oh wait a minute…! That’s right, if I recall, a trip saved only by a good quote and gin and a typically British disregard for adequate resources, knowledge of the terrain and a map. For every Nelson, there is a Mr Bean, for every Wellington there is a Frank Spencer and for every Queen Elizabeth there is Philip. Glorious amateurism, joined with enthusiasm and a comedian’s nose for order will combine to make our own Tour de France a beacon of British civility, self delusion and misplaced grandiose ambition.

On our way to Plymouth:


Jewel of the West, Pearl of the Orient (if you are in St Just) and darker than the blackest hole of Calcutta’s fetid sewer. However, there is a light to guide the weary traveller and the foot sore pilgrim. The station cafe serves a bacon sandwich the likes of which would turn an orthodox Jew into a slabbering, salivating apostate quicker than George Osborne shouts ‘welfare cuts’. So, suitably loaded with pork based victuals, we await the 1023 to Paddington.

Loading two bikes should not present too many problems.

Loading two heavily laden bikes with the handling characteristics of a hysterical toddler with ADHD and a caffeine habit, is another matter. We are in danger of holding up the train and thus causing First Great Western’s timetable to go into meltdown. The ‘Dispatch Team’ (one bloke with a white paddle, a grievance and a whistle) begin to wobble, fearing for his job no doubt if FGW’s management learn of late departures. And they will, because they are watching. There is a bloke in an office in Bristol sitting at a bank of screens monitoring every train dispatch from every corner of FGWs system. He saw us getting on at Redruth and with finger hovering over the ‘fire’ button of his weapon system, was ready for any tardiness. Luckily for us he dropped his cheese butty just as the train was leaving and so, momentarily distracted, we escaped his wrath. He has a calendar on his desk, but it only has one year: 1984.

The trip up to Plymouth was gloriously uneventful, if slow. I believe there are such things as ‘high speed trains’ up country. I believe there is discussion about building more high speed lines to connect the metropolis of London to ‘sorted’ Mancunia via Brummegen. I will also believe in fairies if it ever takes less than two and half hours from Penzance to Plymouth on the ‘drekly’ line. Never mind. I suspect that if a Cornishman does anything quickly it’s only to rubbish the quality of a Devonian cream tea.

Did I say it was raining in Redruth when we left? Mind you, you could have guessed it really. This is the default meteorological condition in Fore Street. There could be sunshine and tea treats in St Ives but the glowering granite bank of Carn Brea gathers the clouds up on its shoulders like little children who then need a pee over Camborne and Redruth. Anyway, those clouds followed us to Plymouth so that we completed the journey in liquid form. At one point on the train I heard children, which prompted a flash back to a train to Preston and poo. Not my poo of course. However, and to our immense relief, these children were well trained. I did not even smell a fart.

The Copthorne is our first hotel of many and is only a short 5 minute bike ride from the Station. And so to rest, to check last minute equipment needs. Note to cyclists: you know what ‘butt cream’ is for but refrain from asking your companion if they have their butt cream while walking into the corridor of a hotel in earshot of the cleaning staff. They might get the wrong impression and may not be able to sleep at night.


Ferry at three.

0700: A seagull awakes me, singing like cat trying a gregorian chant at 78 rpm•. Its friend joins in. Otherwise it is very quiet considering we are in the city centre. I can just about hear the gentle hum of tyre on tarmac as the odd car drives by. Only just. The hotel is next to a Sainsbury’s car park and I would expect a cacophony, but no. Plymouth is as quiet as a mid week church. There is a fan in the ceiling that has been on all night. Reminds me of the opening scene in Apocalypse Now but without the drinking, underpants and sweat. It, too, hums gently as the blades travel in a weary circle above our heads. The next sound I hear is an extended fart in what I think is in the key of A sharp major, a bit like a trombone tuning up. it should really be accompanied by a clash of cymbals. Sean sleeps the sleep of the contented.

Today we head for France. The ferry leaves at 1500 from what I believe used to be Millbay Docks. I think the area is being ‘gentrified’, a euphemism for cleaning out working people whose only possessions are pots for pissing in and replacing them with slightly more wealthy white collar working people who have two pots for pissing in, both of which were financed by Northern Rock or RBS and are in negative equity, and if interest rates rise would need to be sold. You would then see pissing pots being sold in the pannier market for ‘affordable’ prices to Rich London Plutocrats who think Millbay would be a great place to base their mistresses. Thus the cycle of prostitution in Millbay would be complete. Plymouthian streetwalkers being replaced by the uber rich’s tarts in fur. This is a metaphor for modern Britain; we replace long established, if old fashioned, dirty work with nouveau riche foreign parvenues providing services. The only difference is a thin veneer of respectability and Russian blood money. I could of course be making this up, but we’ll see.

Breakfast will be big. A plate the size of the Harvest Moon. I ordered free range corn fed chicken eggs; freshly cured, smoked pig; croissants; flatulence free beans, coffee in a bucket and fifi trixie-belle to serve it.

The ship is the ‘Armorique’ which in Breton means “of the coast”. I’d rather it remains ‘of the sea’ as in my experience ships and coasts make uneasy bedfellows, a bit like a turd and your custard: to be kept separate. The captain, I’m assured, is not Italian and always keeps the bow doors shut. See what I did there? Two oblique Maritime disaster references for the price of one. Mind you the Armorique, when launched, was originally named differently. If you look closely at the present name on the stern, the blue letters on a white background ‘Armorique’, one can see a faint trace of the old name: ‘Le Titanic’. Sense of humour, the French. There is a fake iceberg anchored off Drake’s Island just for effect. It is made of the frozen tears of Plymouthians’ dashed hopes and regrets they were not born in Kernow, after all a ‘Dewdney’ is not a ‘Philps’. Anyway, the sailing is at 1500, so we’d better be ready. Bon Voyage!

*sigh, I guess I have to explain to the ‘youth’ that 78 refers to the speed of vinyl, or was it hard plastic like bacolite, record turntables.




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