Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Living on the edge

There's something about visiting a restaurant or cafe that encourages a strange suspension of disbelief. Rather than having to prepare and cook a meal for yourself, you pay to have it brought ready-made to you, and this has the effect of divorcing the finished product from the origins of its ingredients and the means of its production. Or, if you do reflect on your meal, you assume that the quality and standards of its preparation are at least as high as your own in the kitchen at home.

But if you've ever worked in a restaurant or cafe, as I have, and know what goes on behind kitchen doors, then that suspension of disbelief is both impossible and ridiculous.

This dichotomy between public and private is perfectly captured by George Orwell in 'Down And Out In Paris And London'. He writes of the Hotel X in the French capital: "It was amusing to look around the filthy little scullery and think that only a double door was between us and the dining-room. There sat the customers in all their splendour - spotless table-cloths, bowls of flowers, mirrors and gilt cornices and painted cherubim; and here, just a few feet away, we in our disgusting filth. For it really was disgusting filth. There was no time to sweep the floor till evening, and we slithered about in a compound of soapy water, lettuce-leaves, torn paper and trampled food. A dozen waiters with their coats off, showing their sweaty armpits, sat at the table mixing salads and sticking their thumbs into the cream pots. The room had a dirty mixed smell of food and sweat".

What's more, Orwell argues, "dirtiness is inherent in hotels and restaurants, because sound food is sacrificed to punctuality and smartness". Outward 'smartness' is key - it's all about creating an illusion to disguise the reality: "Apart from the dirt, the patron swindled the customers wholeheartedly. For the most part the materials of the food were very bad, though the cooks knew how to serve it up in style".

As I'd been led to believe by the friend who recommended Orwell's memoir to me, a jaded ex-service industry worker, its most vivid passages concern the depiction of the hotel's upstairs / downstairs divide, the sharp contrast between the self-consciously grand and gaudy decor and facade of the foyer, restaurant and rooms, and the hellish underworld beneath: "He led me down a winding staircase into a narrow passage, deep underground, and so low that I had to stoop in places. It was stiflingly hot and very dark, with only dim yellow bulbs several yards apart. There seemed to be miles of dark labyrinthine passages - actually, I suppose, a few hundred yards in all - that reminded one queerly of the lower decks of a liner; there were the same heat and cramped space and warm reek of food, and a humming, whirring noise (it came from the kitchen furnaces) just like the whir of engines. We passed doorways which let out sometimes a shouting of oaths, sometimes the red glare of a fire, once the shuddering draught from an ice chamber".

Orwell paints a colourful picture of the chaotic goings-on behind the scenes, despite claiming to be unable to do so: "The chargings to and fro in the narrow passages, the collisions, the yells, the struggling with crates and trays and blocks of ice, the heat, the darkness, the furious festering quarrels which there was no time to fight out - they pass description". At the Hotel X these quarrels were not untypically exacerbated by the workers' serious and sustained consumption of alcohol on the job, which he was amazed to discover could be sweated out easily without suffering any adverse effects.

It was an incredibly tough life. More than "a mere physical necessity", Orwell recalls how sleep became "something voluptuous, a debauch more than a relief", the drunken and riotous nights in the local bistro his only other pleasure. This type of drudgery, he recognises, is a modern form of slavery which "makes thought impossible". And all for what? The pointlessness and absurdity of it all appals him: "Essentially, a 'smart' hotel is a place where a hundred people toil like devils in order that two hundred may pay through the nose for things they do not really want". This, he implies, is capitalism in action.

'Down And Out In Paris And London', as the title suggests, concerns not only Orwell's experiences of the hardships of the Parisian service industry but also of life on the streets in and around the capital of his home country. He relates the dispiriting trekking between "spikes", the casual wards which reluctantly offer a place to sleep for the night in return for hard labour the following day, and points out that vagrants only have to move from place to place because the law debars them from staying at any one spike for more than one night.

In England, as in Paris, Orwell encountered numerous eccentric characters "who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent". In one sense, then, extreme poverty is a form of liberation from social pressures and conventions, freeing people "from the ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work".

The "great redeeming feature of poverty", Orwell admits later, is "the fact that it annihilates the future". Everything becomes about the day-to-day, about living - or, rather, surviving - for the moment. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that there is "a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. 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". In other words, when you're at rock bottom at least you know you can't fall any further.

But 'Down And Out In Paris And London' is very far from offering a simplistically romanticised view of penury: "You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar LOWNESS of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping". Creating a whole tissue of lies with which to deceive both others and yourself is, Orwell says, just one of the first consequences of poverty.

Orwell's reflections on the destitute are suffused with a warm humanism and free of negative or critical value judgements. He notes that tramps are effectively "condemned to perpetual celibacy" and advances his belief that beggars are despised "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". There is a degree of identification here: he has already referred to the profitability of his own work at the Hotel X and later in the Parisian restaurant (even if only for others, rather than himself) while lamenting its ultimate uselessness and absurdity.

But Orwell does not make the mistake of seeing himself as one of the unfortunates he describes. "At present", he admits, "I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty", belittling his own account as "a fairly trivial story". The matter-of-fact style and particularly the lack of self-pity are remarkable. His motivation in writing the book was to document his own experiences but in so doing to alert his middle-class readership to a world concealed from them, if not one they deliberately ignored. That explains the underlying indignation which occasionally bubbles up into barbed asides: "It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level".

Orwell's big novelistic successes came towards the end of his life, with 'Animal Farm' in 1945 and 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' in 1949, but 'Down And Out In Paris And London', published in 1933, serves as a reminder that even the most celebrated of writers struggle for their art. Orwell's achievement was to take that very struggle and turn it into art.

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