Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.
Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.
Today’s story, for day 10 – Shooting an Elephant, by George Orwell
Read it online here:
Shooting an Elephant, by George Orwell
In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people–the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.
—-George Orwell, Shooting an Elephant, opening line.
When you think of George Orwell, you think of 1984 first, and then, a little later, you think of Animal Farm.
And rightfully so – few works of literature have coined as many frightening words and phrases that have entered our daily life as 1984 – Big Brother, Thought Police, Doublethink, thoughtcrime, memory hole. When watching the news today the phrase, “Oceania was at war with Eurasia; therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia,” keeps ghosting through my mind without me willing it.
But for me, the most impressive book by Orwell isn’t fiction, it is his (pretty much) autobiographical book, Down and Out in Paris and London. Somewhere on the early internet I found some kid recommending this tome, saying it was the best book he had ever read. He wrote about it in a way that I tended to think he was on to something, so I bought and read the book.
There is plenty of misinformation on the internet (Oceania was at war with Eurasia) but in this case, the kid was right
Excerpt from Down and Out in Paris and London, chapter III:
It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have
thought so much about poverty–it is the thing you have feared all your
life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it, is
all so utterly and prosaically different. 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.
You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty. At a
sudden stroke you have been reduced to an income of six francs a day. But
of course you dare not admit it–you have got to pretend that you are
living quite as usual. From the start it tangles you in a net of lies, and
even with the lies you can hardly manage it. You stop sending clothes to
the laundry, and the laundress catches you in the street and asks you why;
you mumble something, and she, thinking you are sending the clothes
elsewhere, is your enemy for life. The tobacconist keeps asking why you
have cut down your smoking. There are letters you want to answer, and
cannot, because stamps are too expensive. And then there are your meals–
meals are the worst difficulty of all. Every day at meal-times you go out,
ostensibly to a restaurant, and loaf an hour in the Luxembourg Gardens,
watching the pigeons. Afterwards you smuggle your food home in your
pockets. Your food is bread and margarine, or bread and wine, and even the
nature of the food is governed by lies. You have to buy rye bread instead
of household bread, because the rye loaves, though dearer, are round and
can be smuggled in your pockets. This wastes you a franc a day. Sometimes,
to keep up appearances, you have to spend sixty centimes on a drink, and go
correspondingly short of food. Your linen gets filthy, and you run out of
soap and razor-blades. Your hair wants cutting, and you try to cut it
yourself, with such fearful results that you have to go to the barber after
all, and spend the equivalent of a day’s food. All day you are telling
lies, and expensive lies.
You discover the extreme precariousness of your six francs a day. Mean
disasters happen and rob you of food. You have spent your last eighty
centimes on half a litre of milk, and are boiling it over the spirit lamp.
While it boils a bug runs down your forearm; you give the bug a flick with
your nail, and it falls, plop! straight into the milk. There is nothing for
it but to throw the milk away and go foodless.
You go to the baker’s to buy a pound of bread, and you wait while the
girl cuts a pound for another customer. She is clumsy, and cuts more than a
pound. ‘PARDON, MONSIEUR,’ she says, ‘I suppose you don’t mind paying two
sous extra?’ Bread is a franc a pound, and you have exactly a franc. When
you think that you too might be asked to pay two sous extra, and would have
to confess that you could not, you bolt in panic. It is hours before you
dare venture into a baker’s shop again.
You go to the greengrocer’s to spend a franc on a kilogram of
potatoes. But one of the pieces that make up the franc is a Belgian piece,
and the shopman refuses it. You slink out of the shop, and can never go
You have strayed into a respectable quarter, and you see a prosperous
friend coming. To avoid him you dodge into the nearest cafe. Once in the
cafe you must buy something, so you spend your last fifty centimes on a
glass of black coffee with a dead fly in it. Once could multiply these
disasters by the hundred. They are part of the process of being hard up.
You discover what it is like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in
your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is
food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot
loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of
potatoes, vast Gruyere cheeses like grindstones. A snivelling self-pity
comes over you at the sight of so much food. You plan to grab a loaf and
run, swallowing it before they catch you; and you refrain, from pure funk.
You discover the boredom which is inseparable from poverty; the times
when you have nothing to do and, being underfed, can interest yourself in
nothing. For half a day at a time you lie on your bed, feeling like the
JEUNE SQUELETTE in Baudelaire’s poem. Only food could rouse you. You
discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not
a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.
This–one could describe it further, but it is all in the same style
–is life on six francs a day. Thousands of people in Paris live it–
struggling artists and students, prostitutes when their luck is out,
out-of-work people of all kinds. It is the suburbs, as it were, of poverty.
I continued in this style for about three weeks. The forty-seven
francs were soon gone, and I had to do what I could on thirty-six francs a
week from the English lessons. Being inexperienced, I handled the money
badly, and sometimes I was a day without food. When this happened I used to
sell a few of my clothes, smuggling them out of the hotel in small packets
and taking them to a secondhand shop in the rue de la Montagne St
Genevieve. The shopman was a red-haired Jew, an extraordinary disagreeable
man, who used to fall into furious rages at the sight of a client. From his
manner one would have supposed that we had done him some injury by coming
to him. ‘MERDE!’ he used to shout, ‘YOU here again? What do you think this
is? A soup kitchen?’ And he paid incredibly low prices. For a hat which I
had bought for twenty-five shillings and scarcely worn he gave five francs;
for a good pair of shoes, five francs; for shirts, a franc each. He always
preferred to exchange rather than buy, and he had a trick of thrusting some
useless article into one’s hand and then pretending that one had accepted
it. Once I saw him take a good overcoat from an old woman, put two white
billiard-balls into her hand, and then push her rapidly out of the shop
before she could protest. It would have been a pleasure to flatten the
Jew’s nose, if only one could have afforded it.
These three weeks were squalid and uncomfortable, and evidently there
was worse coming, for my rent would be due before long. Nevertheless,
things were not a quarter as bad as I had expected. For, when you are
approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the
others. You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of
hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the
fact that it 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. You are
bored, but you are not afraid. You think vaguely, ‘I shall be starving in a
day or two–shocking, isn’t it?’ And then the mind wanders to other
topics. A bread and margarine diet does, to some extent, provide its own
And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I
believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It 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.