One of the benefits of membership of the Orwell Society is participation in the annual Orwell Walk. Lead by an expert, such walks explore the streets, districts and haunts known by George Orwell during different times in his life. We publish reports of these events and announce them on our Facebook page and Twitter stream.
Most recently Events Secretary Quentin Kopp has dedicated these events to Orwell’s time in London and Paris, using high speed trains to swap between cities but still occupy no more than a weekend.
In 2018 the Orwell Walk literally followed the cities in the title of Down and Out in Paris and London, starting in Paris and ending in London. Nuria Saura was there and sends us this report from September’s exploration.
Chronicle on Orwell’s Paris and London walk (and some other thoughts)
September 28th – 30th 2018
It was a bright day in Paris, when we left the Gare du Nord and en route for Port Royal station. Standing, we began to listen to the words of Richard Hallmark telling us about Orwell in Paris.
Not by chance, we started close La Closerie des Lilas, an ancient dancing mad café. If Bateau-Lavoir was the meeting point of young wild artists like Picasso, La Closerie des Lilas was the place where the artists met the poets1 Apollinaire, Verlaine, Maeterlink, or Gide. This ancient café is where the poets Breton and Tristan Tzara, had a quarrel that put an end to the Dada Mouvement2. But it seems that as for George Orwell, this ambiance and coffee were not close enough to the real Paris.
We were a group of 10 members of the Orwell Society walking from Montparnasse to the Latin Quarter stopping in different places in the city of Paris relating to Orwell. Richard Hallmark was our guide. He explained to us that Paris was not a foreign place for Orwell, who knew and wrote in perfect French. It was a language of his family, and the language of his young years working in miserable hotels there. Far from La vie en rose or La Bohème, Orwell lived closer to homeless, clochards, people without money, unemployed, miserable talking with rude words and shouting at night in the hotel of bad name where he stays in the ancient Rue du Coq d’Or, in the middle of Latin Quarter. His book, Down and Out in Paris and London was published in 1933, when the writer was 29. This book, is his youthful chronicle of both the misery and knowledge he experienced in Paris, beginning with what will be his fate, to be closer to those who live on the edge and are not always present in high literature.
The day-before of our walk, we had the opportunity to attend the performance of Orwell’s Down and Out live done in La Génerale, an artistic cooperative, in Friday 28th September. The event was organized by the Orwell Foundation. This performance, initially performed in June in London, was now repeated in Paris. From 14:00h to 18:00h, we listened to the live reading of the whole book Down and Out in Paris and London, and thought about Paris in the twenties, far from the glamour usually associated with it. A team of excellent young performers, as well as the readers, who formed a group of activists, artists, and young people, give us an aesthetic experience about what it was like living under these harsh conditions putting it in connection with the present, a good Orwellian perspective. One of those readers was a member of the Orwell Society, Quentin Kopp, the son of Georges Kopp, who was an international volunteer, and the commander of Orwell’s Brigade, during the Spanish Civil War, on the Aragón Front.
Maybe Paris was a turning point in the life of Orwell, where he decided to begin a new path in literature choosing this first journalistic approach, closer to the Van Gogh painting of “The Potato Eaters” a group of peasants in dark colours and with bony hands, that shows that they “have tilled the earth themselves3” than to the famous masterwork “Bal du moulin de la Galette (Dance at the Moulin de la Galette)”, 1876, of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, with a group of bourgeois dancers. Even if those paintings are from a previous time to the years when the writer lived in Paris, they contain the essence of this new trend that more and more is going further in art and literature: reality can be more interesting even than fiction, and fiction can also relate to reality. Chronicle and dystopia, these are I think, the Orwell key aspects.
We continued listening to Richard Hallmark with interest, trying to find a place with sun in the street, where the shadow is still chilly. This idea about fiction that can be related to reality, was also present for the utopian of the early twenties Henry Barbusse (Asnières 1873-Moscow 1935). We stopped in the Paris street with his name. Barbusse was the first person to publish Orwell in his left-wing periodical Monde, where John Dos Passos, Ortega y Gasset and Diego Rivera among others were also contributors4.
Henry Barbusse street is located in Montparnasse. He was a utopian author writing about peace in the twenties, with a world that is still marked nowadays by the injustice and wars, that he wanted to avoid. At the times, when Orwell arrived at Paris in 1928, Richard Hallmark explained, Europe was experiencing strong workers protests and was still revolted by the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti (1921-27). They were two young Italian anarchists persecuted in the United States apparently for a crime for which it was difficult to prove the controversial charges. Maybe strong prejudices and political interests led them to the final death sentences, due to the anarchist engagement and ideas of the accused. Until their last day, full of demonstrations and protests in streets, they still pleaded their innocence, Vanzetti said that: “I wish to tell you that I am innocent, and that I never committed any crime but sometimes some sin”5. Ennio Morricone and Joan Baez make the soundtrack of the film in memory of these two young Italian anarchists (1971). The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti (I) begins with the poem that is written on the Statue of Liberty, in New York. Written by a poet and advocate of refugees of Jewish origin, Emma Lazarus, this poem is a silent plea, listened to now in streets and marches rallying people against anti-immigration policies and attitudes in the USA6. It is more than ever necessary to recall these words in these dark times: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
In Montparnasse, the sun is high, our group of ten members of the Orwell Society, seem so interested in the explanations that we stay in silence listening to Richard, talking at times among us, just to jump late again in our thoughts watching the beauty of these calm streets, on this Saturday morning. We continued our walk with several stops until we arrived at the end of Rue Mouffetard, a buzzing historical street in the Latin Quarter.
Latin was the language of universities, which is the origin of the name and history of this area. Students in the Middle Ages spoke in Latin in their common desire to share knowledge. In 1968, students took the streets from the university La Sorbonne, and tried to find the beach under the cobble-stones, Sous les pavés, la plage! They shout in the streets a slogan even with some Orwellian reminiscence: Soyez réaliste, demandez l’impossible (Be realistic, demand the impossible)7.
Due to their ancient origin, streets in the Latin Quarter are not built under the Haussmann paradigm of big and wide streets and boulevards to control masses. Narrow streets and small squares that have become touristic, were the former miserable areas of Paris. Other writers like Hemingway or Joyce also lived there. We walked along Rue Mouffetard to the Orwell’s “Rue du Coq d’Or”, the Rue du Pot de Fer, where Orwell lived in an hotel, far then from luxury and tourism. At those times, it was a nowhere place with apparently no interest in living, but with great interest for a writer who wanted to write about life. Shouts and rude words in the middle of the night, were different to those nice French songs that we used to listen to. Even hunger was experienced by Orwell in Paris. La vie d’artiste is a song of Leo Ferré (1950) that talks about this, what happens to an artist when the end of the month appears 7 days per week. Something that is even nowadays experienced by young European artists with still not enough support for their creation and works.
Descending close to Place de la Montagne de Saint Genevieve, we find a charming square almost hidden, with coffees where students go to talk. We arrived at a still authentic Brasserie, and where we talked and laughed about the journey with a good menu and wine. After lunch, we still had time to walk to the Seine, Notre-Dame and this old bookshop Shakespeare and Co, an independent English bookstore in the heart of Paris, running from the beginning of XXth century. The original one was opened in 1919 by Silvia Beach and it was a place of meeting for “expat literary life in Paris”8, later forced to close during the Nazi occupation9. The current bookstore, opening in 1951, kept this name and is still open today not just for books, but also for writers and young artists who desire to stay there under three conditions: “read a book a day, help at the shop for a few hours a day, and produce a one-page autobiography”10. It is also an open place for people coming to debates and public readings. I’ll like to find about some new books in, but it’s time to take the Eurostar, and go to London, because we need to arrive for the Sunday Orwell Walk in London.
In the train, I recalled the lively explanations of Richard Hallmark who helped me to understand better this hidden city behind the apparent façade of Paris. A route of narrow streets, writers and misery that marked the path of Orwell. From Paris to London, he was a European writer, engaged with what happened in Europe, who left behind almost everything, except his wife Eileen, to come to fight to the Spanish civil war. The departure point was also an old Parisian train station. The route Paris-London has strong ties between us.
In London, at 11 o`clock, it’s a sunny Sunday morning. The meeting point is in Goodge Street, close to Fitzrovia. We are now 19 people and the guide this time is Michael King.
I used to know this area, because I lived in a student residence here. But now, this time, the perspective is quite different. I realize that behind these historical blue plaques on brick walls, there was a buzzing life that it is still necessary to be reminded of, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”11. The Horizon’s site is one of these places. Horizon: Review of Literature and Art was published from 1939 until 1950. Directed by Cyril Connolly, from this street between 1940 and 1948, it published essays, short fiction and writers like W.H.Auden, E.M. Forster, Stephen Spender and George Orwell12. Paying attention to the window from outside, we can imagine listening to the sound of old typewriters, and seeing Sonia Brownell, then assistant editor to Cyril Connolly translating some French literary papers. She was to become the second wife of Orwell, he knew her from the Horizon, but they married just some months before he died. She is associated with Julia, the girl working in the Fiction Department13, in Nineteen Eighty-four. Later a friend of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, reading about her I discover that she had both artistic and literary interests as well as beauty. I consider that this is something still difficult to manage and even to accept for women. She used to live at those times in an apartment located in Fitzrovia, this area of London, close to Bloomsbury, that we are going to visit.
There’s not a long distance between the main Orwell sites in London, you can go walking from one point to another in one morning, under the attentive regard of the building of the Senate House-University of London that was the inspiration for Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. An interesting point to think about, it’s that Orwell, like a lot of millennial young Europeans, didn’t own a house. A contemporary nomad, from Paris to the Spanish Civil war, where he travels with his wife Eileen, he writes firstly chronicles. A literary format, nowadays maybe being replaced by blogs and posts of travellers. So, we don’t find an Orwell house in our walk, hence different sites in connection this time not only with his life, but also with his fiction works and his masterwork Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, places are not just scenery for Orwell. From Paris to London, Barcelona and the Isle of Jura, we can identify works in connection with sites that become literary landscapes for a writer, that evolves from chronicle to dystopia.
Behind an apparent Chinese restaurant located in New Oxford Street, we found hidden another point of inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four, following the explanations of Michael King. Another Nineteen Eighty-Four point is the Senate House-University of London, an art-deco building that overlooks life in London. This was the Ministry of Information headquarters during Second World War. One of its most famous messages was the well-known slogan “Keep Calm and Carry on”14. Eileen, the first wife of Orwell worked there until 1944. Orwell worked between 1941-1943 for the Eastern Service of the BBC, where he had to liaise with the Ministry of Information. But he resigned. A radical clever and turbulent mind, he couldn’t stand just propaganda. Fiction is different from propaganda. The edge between fiction and reality merged in the dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four. Even if the work was written on the Isle of Jura, it has inside it the thoughts of the writer about wars, that he left behind: The Second World War but also the Spanish Civil War. A book on freedom and repression, Nineteen Eighty-Four echoes of the clashes experienced during Spanish Civil War by him and his POUM comrades, including Georges Kopp, in the events of May 1937 in Catalonia, with the Communist Party and Catalan authorities against them. After the May Events, there was a subsequent ban and persecution of the POUM members even though they were anti-fascist fighters, under the framework in Europe of Stalin’s repression of perceived Trotskyism.
Dog and Duck Interior
Fiction and reality are connected in the works of Orwell, but irony is also another relevant aspect. Comedy was the lost book of Aristotle, that appears banned in Umberto Eco’ novel, The Name of the Rose. Animal Farm is written in a satirical form to defy authoritarianism. Fitzrovia is now a smart area, but in the past, it was a dirty and not always advisable place to be in, whispered Liz, another member of Orwell Society, to me during the London walk. Pubs were not only a place to drink, maybe also a non-conformist way to live, a place to drink, laugh and think. We stop in a pub called The Dog and the Duck. Inside, there’s still an ancient clock almost striking thirteen. In the mirror, I saw the reflection of the members of the Orwell Society having a beer and talking standing or siting in the bar stools. The walls ochre, blue and brown surround the space. There is a restaurant on the second floor named after George Orwell, who used to go there to have a drink and discuss with other writers and friends. Friends are important in Orwell’s life and works as well as people loved by him, as his wife or his child. Standing facing the former Faber and Faber office, we are reminded of the influence of Eileen O’Shaughnessy to Orwell. An independent, lively and clever woman educated in Oxford, she had written a poem entitled “1984”, explained Michael King. She was the first reader of Orwell’s drafts and writings, and later she gave critical feedback and advice to him. They were together for 10 years until she died tragically in 1945, just some months after adopting his beloved son, Richard.
Orwell then went to the Isle of Jura where he wrote his final work: Nineteen Eighty-Four. Every two years the members of the Orwell Society travel to Jura, to visit Barnhill, the house where George Orwell wrote his final work. Barnhill, which is on the top of a cliff, is where he lived with his small child surrounded by a deep and pure wildlife, that now is being menaced by the threat of an industrial fish farm. He loved animals and children, maybe because he had known what mankind is able to do, not only in war, even in peacetime. Our final stop is University College of London, where George Orwell died in 1950. The first edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four was published by Secker & Warburg, in 1949. He couldn’t imagine the impact of his book in our contemporary world.
Maybe it’s time to read Nineteen Eighty-Four again .
Nuria Saura, October 2018.
Nuria Saura and Quentin Kopp thank Richard Hallmark and Michael King for leading each part of the walk.
3The Potato Eaters, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), Nuenen, April-May 1885. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
4 Gordon Bowker, George Orwell, Hachette UK, 2013.
5 The New York Times Archive “Sacco and Vanzetti Put to Death Early This Morning” 23 august 1927.
6 Kattie Mettler, “Give me your tired, your poor’: The story of poet and refugee advocate Emma Lazarus” The Washington Post, 1 february 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/02/01/give-us-your-tired-your-poor-the-story-of-poet-and-refugee-advocate-emma-lazarus/?utm_term=.cc99856e4ffd
7 John Lichfield. “Signs of the times: The sayings and slogans of 1968” , Independent, 22 february 2008https://www.independent.co.uk/extras/saturday-magazine/features/signs-of-the-times-the-sayings-and-slogans-of-1968-5449812.html
8 Shakespeare and Company Paris. “A Brief History of a Parisian Bookstore” https://shakespeareandcompany.com/35/history/36/a-brief-history-of-a-parisian-bookstore
9 James McAuley, “Shakespeare and Company, Paris’s famous bookstore where wandering writers are welcome”, Independent, 29 September 2016.
10 Shakespeare and Company Paris. “A Brief History of a Parisian Bookstore”.
11 George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949.
12“Horizon: Review of Literature and Art” The Open University http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/horizon-review-literature-and-art
13Jeremy Lewis, The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell
Hilary Spurling, book review The Guardian, 19 may 2002. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/may/19/georgeorwell.biography
14 University of London, The History of Senate House, https://london.ac.uk/about-us/history-university-london/history-senate-house