Reading George Orwell, pt 1

From Down and Out in Paris and London…

At the end of chapter 12 George Orwell writes about washing up in a hotel kitchen: “It is dreadful to think that some people spend whole decades at such occupations. The woman whom I replaced was quite sixty years old, and she stood at the sink thirteen hours a day, six days a week, the year round; she was, in addition, horribly bullied by the waiters. She gave out she had once been an actress – actually, I imagine, a prostitute; most prostitutes end as charwomen. It was strange to see that in spite of her age and her life she still wore a bright blonde wig and darkened her eyes and painted her face like a girl of twenty. So apparently even a seventy-eight hour week can leave one with some vitality.”

George Orwell’s descriptons of his companions and colleagues never show or arouse feelings of pity or moral outrage; they don’t glorify things either. These writings are broad urban landscapes; great canvases of human survival. The impression is of the absurdity, brutality and serendipity of life. One sees the alliances, petty betrayals, bizarre encounters, companionships and even friendships of human life, framed by ingenious and calamatous undertakings, triumphs, capitulations and regalvanisations.

These people aren’t victims of c-p-lism or anything like that. And you could not call them “poor”. As with the dishwasher woman, a certain vitality is possessed. This vitality’s politics is pragmatic, individualistic, amoral. There is not resentment but ambition.

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