Many years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I lived in Copenhagen where I was registered with the Foreign Ministry as correspondent for The Times. But I made my living washing dishes. The paper paid by the line and used so little of my copy that I was forced to find illegal work as a scullion in one of the city’s less elegant restaurants. And it was during this time, morbidly attracted by the title, that I found a copy of Down and Out in Paris and London.
The book was the first full-length work by George Orwell to be published. A tale of poverty in two cities, it is divided into two parts: in the first the author becomes a dishwasher in Paris; in the second he lives the life of a tramp in London. The book’s obvious appeal for me was that it seemed to be written by a soul mate, a letter from one unpublished writer and dishwasher to another. It enabled me to romanticize my deadly dull occupation, not least by allowing me to think of myself not as a dishwasher but as a plongeur.
Orwell had gone to Paris in the spring of 1928 where he found lodgings in the tall and narrow rue du Pot de Fer in the fifth arrondissement (fictionalized as the rue du Coq d’Or). By the autumn of the following year, unable to make a living out of his writing, he was forced to look for work and entered a squalid world of rat-ridden rooms, lowlife companions and constant hunger. His first job was washing dishes in a big hotel – possibly the Lotti or Crillon – where he witnessed waiters with filthy fingernails, and reeking of stale sweat, mixing salads by hand for the rich clientèle. He then found a job in a newly opened restaurant, L’Auberge de Jehan Cottard.
Orwell descended into the stifling underground kitchen to become the establishment’s plongeur, replacing a woman in her sixties who claimed to have been an actress but was most probably a superannuated prostitute. The wretched drudge had stood at a sink thirteen hours a day, six days a week, for over thirty years. The job offered no prospects, required not a trace of skill, and was entirely without interest, Orwell wrote. It was boring rather than hard, but nonetheless exhausting as it required working sixty to a hundred hours a week merely to survive. The bane of the plongeur’s life was copper saucepans. Each had to be scoured for ten minutes with sand and bunches of chain, before being polished on the outside with Brasso.
Once entered, there was no escape from the world of the plongeur, for it was impossible to save a centime and there was no time to train for anything else. The meagre wages made marriage impossible for men, and many sought sexual release in foul brothels where they indulged in the prix fixe. Orwell found that the heat in the basement kitchen where he worked acted like a Turkish bath, so that after a night’s heavy drinking the after-effects of almost any quantity of alcohol were eliminated in a single hour. ‘Plongeurs know this, and count on it. The power of swallowing quarts of wine, and then sweating it out before it can do much damage, is one of the compensations of their life.’
Staff in the restaurant world have their prestige graded as accurately as that of soldiers, Orwell observed. ‘A cook or waiter was as much above a plongeur as a captain above a private.’ This elaborate and rigid caste system remains in place, a hierarchy that war, revolution and time itself have failed to change. Chefs have contempt for waiters, while waiters look down on plongeurs. And plongeurs know their place.
The Danes are a decent lot, but even during my time in the civilized state of Denmark dishwashers were still viewed as the lowest of the low. No Dane took the job. My fellow-plongeurs consisted of a sleepy, gentle Serb with a shy smile called Tony – saving to buy a taxi in Belgrade – and Pappalardo, an explosive Sicilian. Pappalardo had worked in Germany which enabled him at intervals to groan in despair, ‘My life is scheisse.’
Our co-workers treated us at best with condescension, at worst with contempt. The chefs bossed us about, as high-handed as any pre-revolutionary Russian landowner toward his serfs, while the waiters ignored our existence. (Only a plongeur can appreciate the bitterness in Orwell’s line: ‘Never feel sorry for waiters.’) If the stream of clean crockery slowed, a vast manageress the size and shape of a wardrobe, wearing a long white coat and matching clogs, bellowed at us through a hatch. If you ever want to experience the loneliness and alienation of being a stranger in a strange land, get a job in a foreign country washing dishes.
‘A plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world . . . he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack.’ (And the only profession left for the dismissed plongeur was that of lavatory attendant.)
It was not that a plongeur was stupid, Orwell wrote, and he was certainly not idle, but he became tthe heavy contentment of a well-fed beast. ‘The plongeur lives in a rhythm between work and sleep, without time to think, hardly conscious of the exterior world; his Paris has shrunk to the hotel, the Métro, a few bistros and his bed.’ Sleep was the great luxury, which became the most important thing in life, ‘something voluptuous, a debauch more than a relief ’.
I certainly experienced this bovine contentment. After the anxiety of a freelance writer’s life produced by the cocktail of deadlines, rejection and money worries, three meals a day – plongeurs may not eat well, but they eat regularly – a weekly pay cheque and the monotony of the work induced a state of low-grade kitchen-Zen. Another couple of months polishing glasses and I might never have escaped the trap myself, becoming instead one of Orwell’s ‘eccentrics’, those he described as having ‘fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life’.
In the London section of the book, Orwell goes on the road as a tramp. He joined men wandering aimlessly in rain and freezing cold during daylight hours in the hope of obtaining a place at night in a ‘spike’, one of the basic shelters offering a bed and food. Boredom was the overwhelming emotion in these grim refuges, run like prisons, where men made half-mad by tedium were unable even to talk. Orwell writes that the spikes ‘stank of ennui’. To my mind the London chapters are less engaging than those of the Parisian plongeur. After all, even in poverty, Paris is still Paris. But as an insight into the parallel world of London’s contemporary homeless, they make salutary and chilling reading.
The book – under the title A Scullion’s Diary – was rejected by Jonathan Cape, and then by T. S. Eliot, whose day job at the time was editorial director of Faber. It was eventually published by Gollancz in January 1933, in an edition of 1,500 – the Americans were more ambitious, printing 1,750 copies (one wonders if a modern publisher would have bothered at all). Orwell received an advance of £40. It was not until seven years later, when Penguin brought out a sixpenny paperback of 55,000 copies, that the book began to be widely read.
Just after it first appeared the publisher received a number of letters from the restaurant trade accusing Orwell of exaggeration and slander, and one furious attack by a Jewish reader. ‘I am appalled that a book containing insulting and odious remarks about Jews should be published by a firm bearing the name Gollancz.’
The publisher – Jewish himself and a man of the Left – stoutly defended his author. Orwell’s offence had been to quote the anti- Jewish diatribes of his Russian roommate in Paris. In fact, Orwell deplored the nineteenth-century tradition of denigrating Jews and his intention was clearly to nail the age-old prejudices of an ignorant man. Writing at the beginning of the Thirties when anti-Semitism was soon to become national policy in Germany – Hitler became Chancellor the year the book came out – had the roommate been German rather than Russian, Orwell’s prescience would have been clear.
Although awkward in parts, Down and Out in Paris and London still strikes me as the essence of Orwell and among his best books. I admit to a strong personal prejudice and fondness for a work written by a comrade-in-suds, but even though the subject is poverty the prose is so clear and the experiences so forcefully conveyed that the book’s bleak power leaves the reader moved rather than depressed. Compton Mackenzie described it as having the beauty of an accomplished etching on copper.
The world has moved on, and poverty in Paris and London today is relatively less brutal and certainly less abject. But the poor are still with us and poverty, however mitigated, remains as vicious a trap as ever. ‘Poverty . . . you thought it would be simple, it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring.’ In these parlous times the book’s stark warning stands: ‘Here is the world that awaits you if you are ever penniless.’
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 21 © Christopher Robbins 2009
About the contributor
Christopher Robbins no longer washes dishes for money. He washes them as punishment.