George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and London recounts Orwell’s time spent as a low-paid plongeur (dishwasher and hotel dogsbody) in Paris, and a tramp in London. This wasn’t some sort of literary adventure or self-test, but a time in which the young Eric Arthur Blair was searching for some sort of direction in his life, and fell upon genuine hard times. This was his first published book, and concern about how it might be received, and how its publication might affect his family, led to his using the pseudonym George Orwell.

There are some interesting insights into the life of poverty, as in this, early on: “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.”

Or the fact that poverty “annihilates the future”: “Within certain limits, it is actually true that the less money you have, the less you worry. When you have a hundred francs in the world you are liable to the most craven panics. When you have only three francs you are quite indifferent; for three francs will feed you till tomorrow, and you cannot think further than that.”

Orwell relates his own experiences and describes some of the other characters he meets in his time in the two cities. Occasionally he takes a chapter out to draw some conclusions, which make interesting reading, such as his asking why the work of a plongeur is at all necessary — he exists to slave away so that others may have the illusion of luxury, and why is that necessary? Or to point out that tramps are tramps simply because the law in England (at the time — I’m not sure about it now) forces them to move on after a few days, or be charged with vagrancy, thus creating an artificial situation.

I felt Orwell could have been more self-revelatory. What did it really feel like to be living such a life? At other times I was slightly shocked by his cultural snobbery, as in this passage: “But I imagine that the customers at the Hotel X. were especially easy to swindle, for they were mostly Americans, with a sprinkling of English — no French — and seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American ‘cereals’, and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet a la reine at a hundred francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce… Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.”

But what comes through is Orwell’s intelligence as applied to poverty as a social, rather than an individual, problem. He points out that the poor aren’t poor because they’re lazy, and that in fact unemployment is a greater burden on them than on the state, because of its sheer life-destroying boredom. There isn’t enough of that sort of thing in the book — certainly, few practical solutions are suggested — but what there is implies the basis of an interesting rethinking of the situations he finds himself in, looking at them practically, and asking those basic questions it’s so easy to forget to ask when something has been as it is for so long.

Blue Jean Blues

My favourite pair of jeans announced their retirement the other day by ripping in what is, I’m sure, an unfashionable place (just beneath the left buttock). The zip gave up holding properly about four years ago — on a train of all places — but I fixed it by threading my keyring through the hole in the end of the zip so it could be hooked over the button at the top, a fix which has remained in place ever since.

So I went to town and forced myself to shop for clothes. I know it’s sort of grumpy-old-mannish of me, but I did find it more than slightly ridiculous that as I was looking around in search of a replacement for my ripped jeans, most shops were selling pre-ripped jeans. I suddenly felt anxious. What if I bought a pair of jeans and something was wrong with them, like a hole in the pocket or a faulty zip, and I took them back only to be laughed at and told the fault was intentional, in fact fashionable? Or should I take advantage of the situation and try to part-exchange my authentically ripped jeans for new ones? They might even have gained some sort of retro glamour in the ten or so years I’ve had them, and be worth more than what I paid for them in the first place. Perhaps I should put them on eBay.

John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns

First Amazon rental of the month is John Carpenter’s entry in the Masters of Horror series, Cigarette Burns. I really only included it in my rental list because I was adding Stuart Gordon’s entry, an adaptation of The Dreams in the Witch House (I can’t resist the promise of Lovecraft on film, even though the results are so often disappointments — notable exceptions being Stuart Gordon’s Dagon and the HPLHS’s silent Call of Cthulhu), and I caught a glimpse of Cigarette Burns’ plot synopsis, which was enough to get me intrigued: Years ago the first showing of an obscure European director’s film La Fin Absolue de Monde resulted in a spontaneous bloodbath in the audience. The film’s single print was supposedly destroyed, but a rich collector has information to the contrary, and he hires our hero Kirby Sweetman to find it.

I love this sort of plot, where someone embarks on a quest to track down some obscure book or film (as in Theodore Roszak’s novel Flicker, or Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions). And John Carpenter directed one of my all-time favourite films, The Thing, which is also one of the most Lovecraftian-without-actually-being-Lovecraft movies I’ve seen. (He also created some brilliantly moody-but-minimal soundtrack scores — a recent purchase was The Essential John Carpenter CD.) However, Carpenter also directed They Live!, a film whose great genre premise (an alien race enslaves mankind through the use of subliminal advertising) is totally ruined by its being turned into a crass action movie. (Not that I’ve got anything against action movies, it’s just that you want a film founded on an idea to reach some sort of idea-based solution, not one involving nothing but big guns and grenades.)

So, I was prepared to be disappointed by Cigarette Burns. Thankfully I wasn’t. The Masters of Horror series was originally made for TV. Thirteen notable horror filmmakers each directed an hour-long self-contained episode, and perhaps it’s the fact that Cigarette Burns is only an hour long that makes it work, as the need for brevity keeps the story on track.

Of course, the thing with a film like this — a film about a film — is that at some point the hero has to find the film he’s searching for and watch it. Whereupon we, the audience, will have to see it too, otherwise we’ll feel cheated. And how can any filmmaker deliver, after all the build-up about it being a work of undeniable though diabolic genius and power? Flicker and The Book of Illusions could dodge this issue because they were books about films, so their authors could describe the films without having to realise them in full. A film about a film doesn’t have that option.

The Japanese version of Ring (another favourite, though the US remake isn’t), really delivers on this promise, by making the content of its cursed videotape both short and extremely surreal. In Cigarette Burns we see glimpses of La Fin Absolue de Monde, but only after we’ve been told the reason why it has the effect it has. (As I want to try to keep this a spoiler-free zone, I won’t reveal it here.) So the mythical film retains its glamour by relegating all but those few glimpses to the viewer’s imagination, which is the right thing to do.

On the subject of books and films about (invented) films, there are of course many books about (invented) books. I read Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind earlier this year (it was recommended by Richard and Judy, for heaven’s sake!), and though it was quite readable, I really only read it to the end because I couldn’t believe such a critically acclaimed book boiled down to nothing but an awful quasi-gothic melodrama, but it did. The Invisible Library website aims to list all invented books, of which there is a surprisingly large crop.