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George Orwell > Down and Out in Paris and London > Chapter I

Down and Out in Paris and London

Chapter I

The rue du Coq d'Or, Paris, seven in the morning. A succession of
furious, choking yells from the street. Madame Monce, who kept the little
hotel opposite mine, had come out on to the pavement to address a lodger on
the third floor. Her bare feet were stuck into sabots and her grey hair was
streaming down.

MADAME MONCE: 'SALOPE! SALOPE! How many times have I told you not to
squash bugs on the wallpaper? Do you think you've bought the hotel, eh? Why
can't you throw them out of the window like everyone else? PUTAIN! SALOPE!'


Thereupon a whole variegated chorus of yells, as windows were flung
open on every side and half the street joined in the quarrel. They shut up
abruptly ten minutes later, when a squadron of cavalry rode past and people
stopped shouting to look at them.

I sketch this scene, just to convey something of the spirit of the rue
du Coq d'Or. Not that quarrels were the only thing that happened there--
but still, we seldom got through the morning without at least one outburst
of this description. 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.

It was a very narrow street--a ravine of tall, leprous houses,
lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as though they had all
been frozen in the act of collapse. All the houses were hotels and packed
to the tiles with lodgers, mostly Poles, Arabs and Italians. At the foot of
the hotels were tiny BISTROs, where you could be drunk for the equivalent
of a shilling. On Saturday nights about a third of the male population of
the quarter was drunk. There was fighting over women, and the Arab navvies
who lived in the cheapest hotels used to conduct mysterious feuds, and
fight them out with chairs and occasionally revolvers. At night the
policemen would only come through the street two together. It was a fairly
rackety place. And yet amid the noise and dirt lived the usual respectable
French shopkeepers, bakers and laundresses and the like, keeping themselves
to themselves and quietly piling up small fortunes. It was quite a
representative Paris slum.

My hotel was called the Hotel des Trois Moineaux. It was a dark,
rickety warren of five storeys, cut up by wooden partitions into forty
rooms. The rooms were small arid inveterately dirty, for there was no maid,
and Madame F., the PATRONNE, had no time to do any sweeping. The walls were
as thin as matchwood, and to hide the cracks they had been covered with
layer after layer of pink paper, which had come loose and housed
innumerable bugs. Near the ceiling long lines of bugs marched all day like
columns of soldiers, and at night came down ravenously hungry, so that one
had to get up every few hours and kill them in hecatombs. Sometimes when
the bugs got too bad one used to burn sulphur and drive them into the next
room; whereupon the lodger next door would retort by having his room
sulphured, and drive the bugs back. It was a dirty place, but homelike, for
Madame F. and her husband were good sorts. The rent of the rooms varied
between thirty and fifty francs a week.

The lodgers were a floating population, largely foreigners, who used
to turn up without luggage, stay a week and then disappear again. They were
of every trade--cobblers, bricklayers, stonemasons, navvies, students,
prostitutes, rag-pickers. Some of them were fantastically poor. In one of
the attics there was a Bulgarian student who made fancy shoes for the
American market. From six to twelve he sat on his bed, making a dozen pairs
of shoes and earning thirty-five francs; the rest of the day he attended
lectures at the Sorbonne. He was studying for the Church, and books of
theology lay face-down on his leather-strewn floor. In another room lived a
Russian woman and her son, who called himself an artist. The mother worked
sixteen hours a day, darning socks at twenty-five centimes a sock, while
the son, decently dressed, loafed in the Montparnasse cafes. One room was
let to two different lodgers, one a day worker and the other a night
worker. In another room a widower shared the same bed with his two grown-up
daughters, both consumptive.

There were eccentric characters in the hotel. The Paris slums are a
gathering-place for eccentric people--people who have fallen into
solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or
decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as
money frees people from work. Some of the lodgers in our hotel lived lives
that were curious beyond words.

There were the Rougiers, for instance, an old, ragged, dwarfish couple
who plied an extraordinary trade. They used to sell postcards on the
Boulevard St Michel. The curious thing was that the postcards were sold in
sealed packets as pornographic ones, but were actually photographs of
chateaux on the Loire; the buyers did not discover this till too late, and
of course never complained. The Rougiers earned about a hundred francs a
week, and by strict economy managed to be always half starved and half
drunk. The filth of their room was such that one could smell it on the
floor below. According to Madame F., neither of the Rougiers had taken off
their clothes for four years.

Or there was Henri, who worked in the sewers. He was a tall,
melancholy man with curly hair, rather romantic-looking in his long,
sewer-man's boots. Henri's peculiarity was that he did not speak, except
for the purposes of work, literally for days together. Only a year before
he had been a chauffeur in good employ and saving money. One day he fell in
love, and when the girl refused him he lost his temper and kicked her. On
being kicked the girl fell desperately in love with Henri, and for a
fortnight they lived together and spent a thousand francs of Henri's money.
Then the girl was unfaithful; Henri planted a knife in her upper arm and
was sent to prison for six months. As soon as she had been stabbed the girl
fell more in love with Henri than ever, and the two made up their quarrel
and agreed that when Henri came out of jail he should buy a taxi and they
would marry and settle down. But a fortnight later the girl was unfaithful
again, and when Henri came out she was with child, Henri did not stab her
again. He drew out all his savings and went on a drinking-bout that ended
in another month's imprisonment; after that he went to work in the sewers.
Nothing would induce Henri to talk. If you asked him why he worked in the
sewers he never answered, but simply crossed his wrists to signify
handcuffs, and jerked his head southward, towards the prison. Bad luck
seemed to have turned him half-witted in a single day.

Or there was R., an Englishman, who lived six months of the year in
Putney with his parents and six months in France. During his time in France
he drank four litres of wine a day, and six litres on Saturdays; he had
once travelled as far as the Azores, because the wine there is cheaper than
anywhere in Europe. He was a gentle, domesticated creature, never rowdy or
quarrelsome, and never sober. He would lie in bed till midday, and from
then till midnight he was in his comer of the BISTRO, quietly and
methodically soaking. While he soaked he talked, in a refined, womanish
voice, about antique furniture. Except myself, R. was the only Englishman
in the quarter.

There were plenty of other people who lived lives just as eccentric as
these: Monsieur Jules, the Roumanian, who had a glass eye and would not
admit it, Furex the Liniousin stonemason, Roucolle the miser--he died
before my time, though--old Laurent the rag-merchant, who used to copy
his signature from a slip of paper he carried in his pocket. It would be
fun to write some of their biographies, if one had time. I am trying to
describe the people in our quarter, not for the mere curiosity, but because
they are all part of the story. Poverty is what I am writing about, and I
had my first contact with poverty in this slum. The slum, with its dirt and
its queer lives, was first an object-lesson in poverty, and then the
background of my own experiences. It is for that reason that I try to give
some idea of what life was like there.

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