Sunday, 6 December 2009

Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

I didn't know which excerpt to post from this book - the sickening account of the filthiness of the expensive Parisian hotel kitchen (cockroaches in the bread bin, 'the waiter, of course, dips his fingers into the gravy - the nasty, greasy fingers which he is for ever running through his brilliantined hair, the toast retrieved from the dirty floor); the wolfing down of two loaves of bread and a bottle of wine after starving for three days; the lament of the kitchen dishwasher who bobs helplessly on waves of the cook's 'ceaseless, nagging... orders'; or the religious workers who tempt the homeless with fruit buns? But perhaps including any of these excerpts from a book which is all about not having food (or very much else) is not telling enough - the passages that struck me most were those where food and hunger are obsessions, when the narrator finds himself in a world in which food, the one thing that can revive him or inspire any motivation in him, is obscenely abundant, and yet horribly out of reach. Personally, it also disturbs me whenever I read it because, while aware, intellectually, that there are billions of people for whom constantly battling hunger is a reality, it is so easy to be totally oblivious on a daily basis of that fact, and to have not even a chance of understanding what it must be like when you live in a world where your most difficult choices about food are whether to have dessert or not or whether to go to a Japanese restaurant or eat an organic, grass-fed burger instead - so Orwell provides a good jolt in that respect. It is, at least, an interesting counterpart to the many excerpts we have here which are all about feasting - in these, the feast is nothing more than an impossible, painful fantasy.

And then there are your meals - meals are the worst difficulty of all. Every day at meal-times you go out, ostensibly to a restaurant, and loaf an hour in the Luxembourg Gardens, watching the pigeons. Afterwards you smuggle your food home in your pockets. Your food is bread and margarine, or bread and wine, and even the nature of food is governed by lies. You have to buy rye bread instead of household bread, because the rye loaves, though dearer, are round and can be smuggled in your pockets. This wastes you a franc a day. Sometimes, to keep up appearances, you have to spend sixty centimes on a drink, and go correspondingly short of food. [...]
You go to the baker's to buy a pound of bread, and you wait while the girl cuts a pound for another customer. She is clumsy, and cuts more than a pound. 'Pardon, monsieur,' she says, 'I don't suppose you mind paying two sous extra?' Bread is a franc a pound, and you have exactly a franc. When you think you might be asked to pay two sous extra, and would have to confess that you could not, you bolt in panic. It is hours before you dare venture into a baker's shop again. [...]
You discover what it is to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyere cheeses like grindstones. A snivelling self-pity comes over you at the sight of so much food. You plan to grab a loaf and run, swallowing it before they catch you, and you refrain, from pure funk.
You discover the boredom which is inescapable from poverty; the times when you have nothing to do, and, being underfed, can interest yourself in nothing. For half a day at a time you lie on your bed, feeling like the jeune squelette in Baudelaire's poem. Only food could rouse you. 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.


Two bad days followed. We had only sixty centimes left, and we spent it on half a pound of bread, with a piece of garlic to rub it with. The point of rubbing garlic on bread is that the taste lingers and gives one the illusion of having fed recently... We were too hungry to think of anything but food. I remember the dinner Boris finally selected for himself. It was: a dozen oysters, borscht soup (the red, sweet, beetroot soup with cream on top), crayfishes, a young chicken en casserole, beef with stewed plums, new potatoes, a salad, suet pudding and Roquefort cheese, with a litre of Burgundy and some old brandy. Boris had international tastes in food. Later on, when we were prosperous, I occasionally saw him eat meals almost as large without difficulty.

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