The 2017 Orwell Walk
Pounding the Pavement in Paris and London
by Carol Biederstadt
The Orwell Society’s annual walk was, for the second year, taken in Orwell’s two cities: London and Paris. In London it concentrated on the northern reaches, rather than the Fitzrovia that Orwell and his second wife Sonia knew.
A small group of Orwell enthusiasts hailing not only from England but also from Wales, France, Canada, and the US recently spent a weekend visiting the writer’s former lodgings and old haunts in Paris and London. Unlike Orwell, who deliberately chose to experience life as a tramp in the late 1920s in an effort to expiate guilt over his personal role in the workings of the Empire*1 self-abnegation was not a pursuit of anyone on the Orwell Society’s Paris and London Walk. Instead, this group of Orwellites gathered on September 30th to spend time with like-minded people, to learn, and – truth be told – simply to have fun. If the smiling faces reflected in the photos I took along the journey are any indication, all goals were met.
Booklover’s Corner overlooked South End Green, where the Society and its friends, lead by David Kitchen of the SEGA, gathered on the Walk.
The London leg of the walk began in front of the South End Green Fountain, which stands proudly in the middle of an asymmetrical traffic island in Hampstead. David Kitchen, Chair of the South End Green Association, was there to welcome the group and concluded his brief address with a few words about the writer who had put the location on London’s literary map; gesturing to the flat above the café directly across the street, Kitchen said simply: ‘His name was Eric Blair and he lived up there’.
The former Booklover’s Corner where Orwell worked in 1935-1936. He had a room on the top floor. The lowest part of the memorial plaque to the left of the front window can just be seen.
Guide Michael King then took the helm, leading the group over to Le Pain Quotidien, a trendy café that had once been Booklovers’ Corner, the shop where Orwell worked from 1935 – 1936. It was here, Orwell says in ‘Bookshop Memories’, that ‘paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles’ put him off books forever. His experiences at Booklovers’ Corner also served as the inspiration for McKechnie’s bookshop in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, as even the description of the shop’s location clearly indicates: ‘McKechnie’s stood on a corner, on a sort of shapeless square where four streets converged’*2.
From South End Green one can walk to Hampstead Heath via Parliament Hill Fields where Orwell took a flat after moving out of his Pond Street room.
Taking a shortcut through Hampstead Heath, King then led the group to 77 Parliament Hill, where Orwell lived for a brief time in 1935. Already suffering from a chronic lung condition, Orwell apparently chose the location for its proximity to the heath, which, it was thought, would offer the healthiest of London’s urban air, and even today, the location is superb. Just a few yards away from Orwell’s former residence begins a path leading to the top of the hill from which one can enjoy a breathtaking view of Greater London. While Orwell’s occupancy at this address may have been brief, it was important nonetheless, for it was while living here that he first met Eileen O’Shaunghnessy at a party thrown by his landlady, Rosalind Obermeyer. At evening’s end Orwell is said to have made the comment: ‘“Now that is the kind of girl I would like to marry!”’*3 and indeed, just fifteen months later, Eileen O’Shaunghnessy became Eileen Blair.
Canonbury Square 2017
After several wartime moves, and being blitzed out of their flat, George and Eileen Orwell moved to Canonbury Square. Their neighbours included Orwell’s colleague from the Spanish Civil War, Georges Kopp and his wife Doreen.
Other highlights of the day in London included a visit to 27b Canonbury Square, where Orwell and Eileen, along with their son, Richard, eventually moved after being bombed out of their flat in Mortimer Crescent on July 14, 1944. Now a trendy section of London, guide Michael King explained that it had not always been so; indeed, Richard Blair remembers the family’s new flat as being ‘dark and dingy’ with ‘probably nothing bigger than a 40-watt bulb’. Blair also recalled the hardships of the war years, noting that his father had temporarily moved his possessions to Inez Holden’s flat on Baker Street until the family was able to move to Canonbury Square in early September. Said Blair: ‘He would have to walk with a wheelbarrow from Fleet Street (where he would be working) to Mortimer Crescent, a distance of about 4 miles’, to collect his possessions. Coincidentally, this was just about the time that Orwell completed Animal Farm, and sharing an anecdote about the ‘dog eared’ manuscript of the novel, Blair further described how his father had carted the document, ‘a bit scorched around the edges’, over to publisher Fredric Warburg in the wheelbarrow – a round trip distance of about 8 miles! Despite the difficulties of life in the 1940s, however, Blair retains happy memories of the family’s residence in Islington and recalls the wooden toys that Orwell used to make for him, remembering especially those of the pull-along variety. Joining the group for the walk, Philip Walker, Chairman of the Canonbury Association, was yet another knowledgeable source of information on hand to respond to questions about the neighborhood and its history.
Events organiser Quentin Kopp commemorates the efforts of his father and Orwell in the struggle against fascism. ‘They shall not pass!‘
Having taken the Eurostar to Paris on Saturday evening, the group reassembled in front of the Marshal Ney statue in Port-Royal early Sunday morning to begin the Paris leg of the walk, which was led by Richard Hallmark, an Orwell expert based in Paris. The location offered a view of the establishment that had once been the Closerie des Lilas, the favorite café of Orwell’s close friend Boris, the ‘soldierly’ Russian who plays a key role in Down and Out in Paris and London. A former captain in the Second Siberian Rifles with a passion for ‘war and soldiering’, Orwell says that Boris was drawn to the Closerie des Lilas ‘simply because the statue of Marshal Ney stands outside it’. Adding to the café’s significance, Richard Hallmark noted that it might have served as the inspiration for the Chestnut Tree café of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Richard Blair reading from his father’s works in Paris
Other highlights of the day in Paris included a brief stop in front of the Cochin Hospital, the ‘Hôpital X’ of Orwell’s essay ‘How the Poor Die’, which was based on the writer’s experiences and observations when admitted for several weeks for lung ailments in 1929. An excerpt of Orwell’s moving prose about the death of patient Numéro 57 was read aloud by his son, Richard Blair, and a hush of humility momentarily overcame our small group as, standing in the cold Paris drizzle and absorbing Orwell’s words, we were all likely meditating on our own mortality while gazing at the historic Hôpital X.
Richard Blair at 6 Rue Pot de Fer, Orwell’s thinly disguised address in Paris where he worked as a plongeur (scullion).
Finally, a stroll up the Rue Mouffetard, a poor area in Orwell’s time but today an upscale epicure’s paradise, led to No. 6 Rue du Pot de Fer, disguised in Down and Out in Paris and London as Rue de Coq. It was here where Orwell rented a room in the bug-infested and ‘dirty . . . but homelike’ Hôtel des Trois Moineaux and where he left Boris waiting while he pawned their shabby overcoats, for which he was mistakenly paid the grand sum of fifty francs. Today the ground floor is occupied by an unremarkable restaurant, but if one can look beyond the modern facades and the accouterments of the hospitality industry, it is still possible to envision the lane and its buildings as they were in Orwell’s time: ‘a ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching toward one another in queer attitudes, as though they had all been frozen in the act of collapse’.
Good things come to those who wait.
The event concluded with a meal of gourmet Parisian fare at a nearby eatery, and I can say with confidence that a good time was had by all. Still, reflecting on our pleasant weekend on the train back to London, I couldn’t help but wonder: had Orwell been able to peer into the future, would knowing his words had inspired this merry band of disciples to retrace his footsteps have empowered him or simply embarrassed him? Orwell was a harsh critic, for sure; would he have approved of our groupie-like passion or viewed us as just another crowd of cranks – ‘fruit-juice drinker[s], nudist[s], sandal-wearer[s], sex-maniac[s], Quaker[s], “Nature Cure” quack[s], pacifist[s] and feminist[s]’*4, perhaps even the odd vegetarian or Nancy boy? It made me chuckle to think he might have viewed me, not only for having traveled the farthest to partake of the pilgrimage but also for having the temerity to report on the event, as another ‘incapable, half-baked, vapouring self-pitying woman’ who, like Elizabeth Lackersteen’s mother in Burmese Days, found herself in Paris only after having ‘shirked all the normal duties of life on the strength of sensibilities which she did not possess’.
These ideas amused me for a while, yet I soon recognized them for what they were: sheer hubris. If George Orwell were alive today, he would not be focusing on us, as a brief perusal of the day’s news quickly convinced me. Sadly, October 1st – the very day on which we were out pounding the pavement in Paris – was marked by acts of savagery committed around the world, some in places Orwell held dear. In Marseille, France, for instance, where Orwell had disembarked before beginning a train journey across the country on his return from Burma exactly 90 years ago*5,two young women were brutally slain by a knife-wielding terrorist at a train station; in Spain, where Orwell had been shot while fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, police and Civil Guards in riot gear clashed with Catalan separatists. Chaos reigned across the Atlantic as well: in Edmonton, Canada, a man stabbed a police officer before plowing a U-Haul van into a crowd of people, and later that same evening, in the United States, more than 50 innocent people lost their lives to a gun-wielding madman at a Las Vegas casino. No, if Orwell were alive today, he surely would not be thinking about us. One can only speculate on what he would think about the rise of terrorism or the situation in Catalonia, but one thing seems certain: recalling the battered and corroded 1896 Mauser he was forced to use in the P.O.U.M. militia, Orwell would be outraged to know that a lone psychotic had legally managed to amass his own personal arsenal for use against innocent strangers. If only Orwell were here today to give us his take on the challenges of our times. The world of 2017 could use his keen insights.
- Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier. 1937. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958, pp. 147-48.
- Orwell, George. “Keep the Aspidistra Flying.” 1936. George Orwell. Secker & Warburg/Octopus, 1976, p. 578.
- Thompson, John. Orwell’s London. Fourth Estate, 1984, p. 43.
- Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier. 1937. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958, p. 174.
- Meyers, Jeffrey. “Orwell and the Experience of France.” The World and I, vol. 18, no. 11, Nov. 2003, ProQuest Central.Also used:
Our thanks to guides Michael King in London and Richard Hallmark in Paris, and David Kitchen of the South End Green Association and Philip Walker of the Canonbury Association.
Carol Biederstadt congratulates Quentin Kopp for his organisation.
Article and Photographs (c) 2017 Carol Biederstadt.
Uploaded October 2017
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