George Orwell’s Paris

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George Orwell’s Paris
From the pretty Place de la Contrescarpe, tourists and regular French shoppers in their hundreds make their way each Saturday down the Rue Mouffetard, to one of the most famous street markets in Paris, le marché Mouffetard. The narrow sloping street is filled with multicultural restaurants, alongside fruit and vegetable stalls, fresh fish stalls and specialist cheese and bakery shops which attract queues of people who spill out over the already crowded pavement. This little slice of the Latin quarter, a short walk from the Pantheon in the 5th arrondissement, with the Jardin des Plantes on its doorstep, is a much sought after area to both live in and meet up with friends at night. Walking down from Place de la Contrescarpe, the tiny Rue du Pot-de-Fer is on the right– one of the most ancient streets in Paris. Buzzing with restaurants and small hotels, it is hard to imagine that number six was the home to George Orwell when he wrote Down and Out in Paris and London; this is the street he called the Rue du Coq D’Or. In 1928, Orwell described the Rue du Pot-de-Fer (Rue du Coq D’Or) where he lived for almost 18 months in rather less than enthusiastic terms: “All it was a very narrow street, a ravine of tall, leprous houses lurching towards each other… All the houses were hotels and packed to the tiles with lodgers, mostly Poles, Arabs and Italians. At the foot of the hotels were bistros where you could be drunk for the equivalent of a shilling. On a Saturday night about a third of the male population were drunk.” “My hotel was called the Hotel des Trois Moineaux. It was a dark rickety warren of five storeys cut up by wooden partitions into 40 rooms. The rooms were small, arid, and inveterately dirty. 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 long 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.” Fights were common, the bistros mostly rancorous dives selling cheap alcohol and rife with prostitution. Hemingway, who had preceded Orwell by six years, moving into Rue du Cardinal Lemoine on the other side of Place de la Contrescarpe in 1922, never forgot the experience of his first home in Paris and the Cafe des Amateurs, “the cesspool of the Rue Mouffetard” and “the squat toilets of the old apartment houses, one by the side of the stairs on each floor…emptied into cesspools which were emptied by pumping into horse drawn tank wagons at night. In the summertime with all the windows open we would hear the pumping and the odour was very strong, the tank wagons were painted brown and saffron colour and in the moonlight when they worked the Rue Cardinal Lemoine, their wheeled, horse-drawn cylinders looked like Braque paintings. No-one emptied the Cafe des Amateurs though and its yellowed poster stating the terms and penalties of the law against public drunkenness was as flyblown and disregarded as its clients were constant and smelly.” Hadley, Hemingway’s then wife, described the bistros in the Place de la Contrescarpe as ‘smelly and awful’ where ‘bundles of rags blocked the doorway, then the rags moved, revealing themselves as wine soaked men and women.’ Flower vendors dyed their flowers there and the purple dye would run down the gutters. Orwell and Hemingway met once as war correspondents in Paris in the 1940s, whether their shared experiences in the Place de la Contrescarpe were exchanged is not recorded. From the squalor of the ‘Rue Coq D’Or’, Orwell’s circumstances did not improve in his working life. Sometimes going without food for up to three days and pawning his clothes a regular occurrence, Orwell was grateful for finding a job as a plongeur, (washer up) in one of the ten most expensive hotels in Paris at that time. Orwell discreetly called it Hotel X. One can only be hugely relieved to not have been in Paris in the 1920s and inadvertently have dined in the Hotel X. “Behind the double door to the dining room-spotless table cloths, bowls of flowers, mirrors and gilt cornices and painted cherubs- and here just a few feet away, we in our disgusting filth- 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 salad and sticking their thumbs into the cream pots.” Orwell brings…

Lead photo credit : Rue du Pot de Fer, Paris. © Matt Casagrande & Creative Commons

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.


  • Jack G
    2019-04-28 18:50:18
    Jack G
    The point is. That homeless and poverty stricken people may not have a well to do family support system. That is why many men are homeless. To fend for themselves. Men are expected to provide and receive less help. Who knows whether Orwell's family would have supported him. Surely his life was his own responsibility.


  • Israel S
    2018-09-20 20:12:45
    Israel S
    Excellent narration. Thanks for sharing


  • Nicholas Cox
    2016-12-01 11:44:11
    Nicholas Cox
    Great article with some lovely photos!