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

Down and Out in Paris and London

Chapter XXXI

The charge at Bozo's lodging-house was ninepence a night. It was a
large, crowded place, with accommodation for five hundred men, and a
well-known rendezvous of tramps, beggars, and petty criminals. All races,
even black and white, mixed in it on terms of equality. There were Indians
there, and when I spoke to one of them in bad Urdu he addressed me as
'turn'--a thing to make one shudder, if it had been in India. We had got
below the range of colour prejudice. One had glimpses of curious lives. Old
'Grandpa', a tramp of seventy who made his living, or a great part of it,
by collecting cigarette ends and selling the tobacco at threepence an
ounce. 'The Doctor'--he was a real doctor, who had been struck off the
register for some offence, and besides selling newspapers gave medical
advice at a few pence a time. A little Chittagonian lascar, barefoot and
starving, who had deserted his ship and wandered for days through London,
so vague and helpless that he did not even know the name of the city he was
in--he thought it was Liverpool, until I told him. A begging-letter
writer, a friend of Bozo's, who wrote pathetic appeals for aid to pay for
his wife's funeral, and, when a letter had taken effect, blew himself out
with huge solitary gorges of bread and margarine. He was a nasty,
hyena-like creature. I talked to him and found that, like most swindlers,
he believed a great part of his own lies. The lodging-house was an Alsatia
for types like these.

While I was with Bozo he taught me something about the technique of
London begging. There is more in it than one might suppose. Beggars vary
greatly, and there is a sharp social line between those who merely cadge
and those who attempt to give some value for money. The amounts that one
can earn by the different 'gags' also vary. The stories in the Sunday
papers about beggars who die with two thousand pounds sewn into their
trousers are, of course, lies; but the better-class beggars do have runs of
luck, when they earn a living wage for weeks at a time. The most prosperous
beggars are street acrobats and street photographers. On a good pitch--a
theatre queue, for instance--a street acrobat will often earn five pounds
a week. Street photographers can earn about the same, but they are
dependent on fine weather. They have a cunning dodge to stimulate trade.
When they see a likely victim approaching one of them runs behind the
camera and pretends to take a photograph. Then as the victim reaches them,
they exclaim:

'There y'are, sir, took yer photo lovely. That'll be a bob.'

'But I never asked you to take it,' protests the victim.

'What, you didn't want it took? Why, we thought you signalled with
your 'and. Well, there's a plate wasted! That's cost us sixpence, that

At this the victim usually takes pity and says he will have the photo
after all. The photographers examine the plate and say that it is spoiled,
and that they will take a fresh one free of charge. Of course, they have
not really taken the first photo; and so, if the victim refuses, they waste

Organ-grinders, like acrobats, are considered artists rather than
beggars. An organ-grinder named Shorty, a friend of Bozo's, told me all
about his trade. He and his mate 'worked' the coffee-shops and
public-houses round Whitechapel and the Commercial Road. It is a mistake to
think that organ-grinders earn their living in the street; nine-tenths of
their money is taken in coffee-shops and pubs--only the cheap pubs, for
they are not allowed into the good-class ones. Shorty's procedure was to
stop outside a pub and play one tune, after which his mate, who had a
wooden leg and could excite compassion, went in and passed round the hat.
It was a point of honour with Shorty always to play another tune after
receiving the 'drop'--an encore, as it were; the idea being that he was a
genuine entertainer and not merely paid to go away. He and his mate took
two or three pounds a week between them, but, as they had to pay fifteen
shillings a week for the hire of the organ, they only averaged a pound a
week each. They were on the streets from eight in the morning till ten at
night, and later on Saturdays.

Screevers can sometimes be called artists, sometimes not. Bozo
introduced me to one who was a 'real' artist--that is, he had studied art
in Paris and submitted pictures to the Salon in his day. His line was
copies of Old Masters, which he did marvellously, considering that he was
drawing on stone. He told me how he began as a screever:

'My wife and kids Were starving. I was walking home late at night,
with a lot of drawings I'd been taking round the dealers, and wondering how
the devil to raise a bob or two. Then, in the Strand, I saw a fellow
kneeling on the pavement drawing, and people giving him pennies. As I came
past he got up and went into a pub. "Damn it," I thought, "if he can make
money at that, so can I." So on the impulse I knelt down and began drawing
with his chalks. Heaven knows how I came to do it; I must have been
lightheaded with hunger. The curious thing was that I'd never used pastels
before; I had to leam the technique as I went along. Well, people began to
stop and say that my drawing wasn't bad, arid they gave me ninepence
between them. At this moment the other fellow came out of the pub. "What in
--are you doing on my pitch?" he said. I explained that I was hungry and
had to earn something. "Oh," said he, "come and have a pint with me." So I
had a pint, and since that day I've been a screever. I make a pound a week.
You can't keep six kids on a pound a week, but luckily my wife earns a bit
taking in sewing.

'The worst thing in this life is the cold, and the next worst is the
interference you have to put up with. At first, not knowing any better, I
used sometimes to copy a nude on the pavement. The first I did was outside
St Martin's-in-the-Fields church. A fellow in black--I suppose he was a
churchwarden or something--came out in a tearing rage. "Do you think we
can have that obscenity outside God's holy house?" he cried. So I had to
wash it out. It was a copy of Botticelli's Venus. Another time I copied the
same picture on the Embankment. A policeman passing looked at it, and then,
without a word, walked on to it and rubbed it out with his great flat

Bozo told the same tale of police interference. At the time when I was
with him there had been a case of 'immoral conduct' in Hyde Park, in which
the police had behaved rather badly. Bozo produced a cartoon of Hyde Park
with policemen concealed in the trees, and the legend, 'Puzzle, find the
policemen.' I pointed out to him how much more telling it would be to put,
'Puzzle, find the immoral conduct,' but Bozo would not hear of it. He said
that any policeman who saw it would move him on, and he would lose his
pitch for good.

Below screevers come the people who sing hymns, or sell matches, or
bootlaces, or envelopes containing a few grains of lavender--called,
euphemistically, perfume. All these people are frankly beggars, exploiting
an appearance of misery, and none of them takes on an average more than
half a crown a day. The reason why they have to pretend to sell matches and
so forth instead of begging outright is that this is demanded by the absurd
English laws about begging. As the law now stands, if you approach a
stranger and ask him for twopence, he can call a policeman and get you
seven days for begging. But if you make the air hideous by droning 'Nearer,
my God, to Thee,' or scrawl some chalk daubs on the pavement, or stand
about with a tray of matches--in short, if you make a nuisance of
yourself--you are held to be following a legitimate trade and not
begging. Match-selling and street-singing are simply legalized crimes. Not
profitable crimes, however; there is not a singer or match-seller in London
who can be sure of 50 pounds a year--a poor return for standing eighty-four
hours a week on the kerb, with the cars grazing your backside.

It is worth saying something about the social position of beggars, for
when one has consorted with them, and found that they are ordinary human
beings, one cannot help being struck by the curious attitude that society
takes towards them. People seem to feel that there is some essential
difference between beggars and ordinary 'working' men. They are a race
apart--outcasts, like criminals and prostitutes. Working men 'work',
beggars do not 'work'; they are parasites, worthless in their very nature.
It is taken for granted that a beggar does not 'earn' his living, as a
bricklayer or a literary critic 'earns' his. He is a mere social
excrescence, tolerated because we live in a humane age, but essentially

Yet if one looks closely one sees that there is no ESSENTIAL
difference between a beggar's livelihood and that of numberless respectable
people. Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is WORK? A navvy
works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A
beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose
veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite
useless, of course--but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless.
And as a social type a beggar compares well with scores of others. He is
honest compared with the sellers of most patent medicines, high-minded
compared with a Sunday newspaper proprietor, amiable compared with a
hire-purchase tout--in short, a parasite, but a fairly harmless parasite.
He seldom extracts more than a bare living from the community, and, what
should justify him according to our ethical ideas, he pays for it over and
over in suffering. I do not think there is anything about a beggar that
sets him in a different class from other people, or gives most modern men
the right to despise him.

Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised?--for they are
despised, universally. I believe it is 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. In all the modem talk about energy, efficiency, social
service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except 'Get money, get it
legally, and get a lot of it'? Money has become the grand test of virtue.
By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could
earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable
profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a
businessman, getting his living, like other businessmen, in the way that
comes to hand. He has not, more than most modem people, sold his honour; he
has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible
to grow rich.

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