Wednesday, August 31

On the trail of George Orwell’s outcasts

Dear Kannu

Some very powerful images here of poverty in London and Paris. Poverty is something that you will need to handle and manage and oversee and discuss and debate. I cannot see poverty ending over the next century or even further onwards. While you arent poor and can indeed be said to be fairly well off, these poor people exist outside your existence. You havent seen them really. Yes, you have been to India and might have seen poor beggars outside the window of the air conditioned car or gaped at some of these on the platform, but generally you havent seen poverty, much less experienced it.

Poverty is fun – NOT, it is degrading, it reduces you to a quivering mess of jelly. You do anything to get out of it. Its horrible. I dont think you will ever face it either but if you are going to be all what you want to be, you will face poor people, this article gives a rather interesting overview of the poor. And yes, they also exist in the UK and France, the first world nations. Not to the extent of what we have seen in India! but still, interesting to check and read.


BBC News - On the trail of George Orwell’s outcasts

6 August 2011 Last updated at 01:40 By Emma Jane Kirby BBC News, Paris and London

Orwell’s narration begins in the street he called the Rue du Coq d’Or, in the 5th Arrondissement, where he once lived

Some 80 years after George Orwell chronicled the lives of the hard-up and destitute in his book Down and Out in Paris and London, what has changed? Retracing the writer’s footsteps, Emma Jane Kirby finds the hallmarks of poverty identified by Orwell - addiction, exhaustion and, often, a quiet dignity - are as apparent now as they were then.

“Quarrels, and the desolate cries of street hawkers, and the shouts of children chasing-orange-peel over the cobbles, and at night loud singing and the sour reek of the refuse carts, made up the atmosphere of the street…. Poverty is what I’m writing about and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum.”

Such was George Orwell’s recollection of what he called the Rue du Coq d’Or in Paris, 1929 - the real-life Rue du Pot de Fer. Today it’s pleasure rather than poverty that defines the Latin Quarter that Orwell frequented 80-odd years ago. The chic pavement cafes are full of contented-looking people leisurely sipping their vin rose, and the air is perfumed by the sweet smell of crepes and tourists’ money.

But poverty hasn’t left Paris - she’s simply changed address. She may not look quite the same as she did in the 1920s but if Orwell were to meet her again on these streets, he’d know her straight away. And I doubt he’d find her greatly changed…

Poverty came knocking on Claudine’s door five years ago when she was made redundant. She leans in close to me as she talks, her right hand often rising to her mouth as if it wants to censor the words that her lips keep forming. “Tomber dans la misere” (falling into misery), is the phrase she whispers most and I notice her breath is sour like someone who diets or skips meals.

“We don’t eat lunch,” she tells me. “It’s just my little way of economising.” She nods down to her bulging shopping caddy. “It’s enough for my family’s dinner,” she says, “but not enough for two meals a day.”


Claudine and I are sitting in a big warehouse in the north of Paris, which serves as a food distribution centre for the city’s chronically poor. It reminds me of the sort of indoor market you find in the less salubrious quarters of former Soviet states - mountains of unbranded pasta and rice piled on tables, misshapen, anaemic-looking vegetables wilting in crates, biscuits and chocolate wrapped in such bland, stark white paper, that not even a child could be excited by its contents.

Continue reading the main story

We watch the steady line of people, Europeans, Maghrebians and West Africans, methodically trudging from table to table, collecting their rations and stuffing them quickly into a pram hood or caddy. Despite the animated cheerfulness of the staff, I notice not one of the customers meets their eye as they take the food parcels.

Shame, Claudine - who is French - tells me, is what links everyone here. She’s told no-one that her weekly shop is a hand-out and she doubts anyone else here has admitted it either.

The secrecy that’s attached to poverty is one of the first things that struck Orwell.

“From the start,” he wrote, “it tangles you in a net of lies and even with the lies you can hardly manage it.”

Milly is fighting poverty with a fierce, indignant energy. A bilingual secretary from Cameroon, she is immaculately dressed and has the practised deportment of a society debutante.

In the drop-in centre where I meet her, she looks decidedly out of place next to the dusty, weary figures that are slumped beside her. Appearances, she tells me, are everything if one is to cling on to one’s dignity. She agrees to talk to me but only in a private room so that the other people here won’t realise that her situation is as bad as theirs. When the door closes she tells me that she’s homeless and last night she slept on a veranda.

Milly is facing deportation. She came here legally but after she fell ill and had to stop working, her carte de sejour - the papers that allow her to stay and work in France - were revoked. She admits that she is homesick but is terrified to return to Cameroon empty-handed. I ask her if her family know she’s homeless and she throws her hands up in the air and rolls her eyes in horror.

“It would kill them,” she tells me. “They would drop down dead with shame.”

Aching all over

When I meet Modi from Mali, he looks as if he might drop down dead with fatigue. Like Orwell, Modi is a plongeur, a washer-upper in a big restaurant and he works six days a week, 12 hours a day cleaning pots and pans.

When we talk in the bar of a neighbouring restaurant, his head keeps drooping onto his folded arms and it seems to be such an effort for him to articulate his words that he either slurs them all together in a gluey, glottal jumble, or shoots out small phrases in tiny bursts of energy that fizzle out before the last word has been formed.

Orwell complained that when working as a plongeur he felt as if his back were broken and his head “filled with hot cinders”. Modi agrees that he aches all over and at the end of the day he cannot feel his feet.

Because rent in Paris is too expensive, he lives an hour’s train ride outside the city. Although after midnight the trains are slower so it takes two hours for Modi to get home. He gets up at 0700 and gets to bed at 0200. Most plongeurs in Paris these days are either Pakistani or West African. I stop asking myself why that is, when Modi tells me how much he is paid - just under 4 euros (£3.50) an hour. He’s working, of course, “on the black”.

“The last time I had a night out,” he says flicking through a virtual diary in his brain, “was… last year.”

Madame Jolivet can have as many nights out with friends as she wants to - her problem is she’s not allowed to have any nights in with them.

Madame JolivetMadame Jolivet’s tiny B&B room costs 1,730 euros a month

The rules of her B&B state clearly that visitors are not permitted, but I have managed to frighten the landlady into admitting me by pretending to be an official from the local authority. Now I’m standing (albeit slightly stooped) in her fusty-smelling attic apartment.

I am Madame Jolivet’s first visitor in six years and she is laughing hysterically at having won this tiny victory over her hated landlady. I tell her that in Orwell’s day, the residents in his filthy hotel used to yell “Vache! Salope!” (“Cow! Bitch!”) at their landlady, and Madame Jolivet doubles up with mirth as she mimes the insults at the sky-light. Then, quite suddenly, she looks sick with fear and switches the TV on at a high volume, motioning to the door and telling me the landlady is probably listening at it. She’s right. We hear her tread softly back down the stairs.

Orwell’s hotel room was infested with bugs - Madame Jolivet’s is infested with mice. She’s tormented by their scratching at night. She’s caught them on camera during the day, and once she found one in her fridge. She complained to the landlady who warned her that if she mentions it again, she’ll kick her out - after all, she’s already been warned that her daughter’s voice is too loud.

Madame Jolivet is a large lady and she squeezes herself round the tiny space of her apartment. When she’s at the sink she’s jammed between the bed and the table, her body painfully curved sideways to avoid smacking her head on the sloped ceiling. The landlady charges 1,730 euros (£1,500) a month for this space which she rents out as a 16 sq m apartment. Recently the police did a spot check on Madame Jolivet’s apartment and recorded the actual habitable surface area as just 5 sq m - that’s the size of about six or seven beach towels.

Madame Jolivet lives here with her grown-up son and daughter. Until last year her other daughter lived with them, too, but she tried to kill herself twice and is now in psychiatric care.

Although it’s miles from the hostel where she’s staying tonight, Milly, the dignified lady from Cameroon offers to come with me in the taxi to the Gare du Nord where I’m catching my train home to London to make my next step of Orwell’s journey.

“In my country,” she smiles, “we never let a traveller start a journey alone.”

She’s very jolly in the cab, reminiscing about her family, her sister in London, the present she sent her nephew in America last year. By the time we get to the Eurostar terminal I’ve completely forgotten that Milly’s homeless and I realise with a real physical shock that this is exactly what she wanted, that she wanted me to see her as she was before poverty possessed her - a very proper, very animated, valuable woman.

She waves me off, her whole body swaying into the gesture, in that exaggerated way that small children say goodbye. Each time I turn, she’s still there, both arms in the air, her head following the rhythm.

Sitting in my seat on the train, my eyes closed, I can see her still. The last line from a Stevie Smith poem comes into my head:

Not Waving but Drowning…

No comments: