Monday, August 15, 2011

Down & Out in Paris & London by George Orwell

Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised?-for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living.  In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable.  In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service & the rest of it, what meaning is there except "Get money, get it legally, & get a lot of it"? Money has become the grand test of virtue.
~George Orwell

In 1928, George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Blair) moved to Paris, joining the cavalcade of artists & writers attracted to the City of  Light during its Luminous Years.  By 1929, he had returned to England, & in 1933 he wrote a semi-autobiographical account of his life during this period called Down & Out in Paris & London.  It was his first book.

The novel is split into two sections, based on geography.  In Paris he works in restaurant & hotel kitchens, primarily as a "plongeur" (dishwasher).  In London, he finds himself living the life of a tramp when the job he expected to find waiting for him is not yet available. Both sections are written in the first person & read like a memoir, but there has been some debate as to the factuality of Orwell's account.

But no matter.  Even in this first book, Orwell's prose is entertaining, his pictures of the kitchens of 1920s Paris vivid enough to put you off your next restaurant visit; his tales of "screevers" (sidewalk chalk artists) more harrowing than Dick Van Dyke's attempt at a Cockney accent in Mary Poppins; & descriptions of various shelters, dormitories, & "spikes" will make you grateful to be able to take a bath without sharing water with 20 or more filthy men. 

If you enjoy reading about working in restaurants & hotels, try also:

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

Waiting: True Confessions of a Waitress by Debra Ginsberg

Hotel Bemelmans by Ludwig Bemelmens

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