Was George Orwell Really Down And Out?


The balance between fact and fiction in George Orwell’s investigations of poverty has been questioned ever since an anonymous reviewer of his 1933 memoir, “Down and Out in Paris and London,” wondered “if the author was really down and out”. But now an academic has dug up court records which put one of Orwell’s experiments on firmer ground: the author’s arrest for being “drunk and incapable” in the East End of London while posing as a fish porter named Edward Burton.

Orwell’s unpublished 1932 essay “Clink” describes a colorful 48 hours in custody in December 1931 after drinking “four or five pints” and most of a bottle of whisky. His intention was to be arrested, “in order to get a taste of prison and to bring himself closer to the tramps and small-time villains with whom he mingled”, according to biographer Gordon Bowker.

“When the charge sheet was filled up I told the story I always tell – that my name was Edward Burton, and my parents kept a cake-shop in Blythburgh, where I had been employed as a clerk in a draper’s shop; that I had had the sack for drunkenness, and my parents, finally getting sick of my drunken habits, had turned me adrift,” the author of Animal Farm wrote in a posthumously published essay. “I added that I had been working as an outside porter at Billingsgate, and having unexpectedly ‘knocked up’ six shillings on Saturday had gone on the razzle.”

Now Dr Luke Seaber of University College London has discovered court records in the London Metropolitan archives which he claims, in a paper published in “Notes and Queries,” offer “unambiguous external confirmation that Orwell did indeed carry out, more or less as described, one of his ‘down-and-out’ experiments”.

The records also confirm a number of other details of Orwell’s essay, particularly his descriptions of the other prisoners with whom he waited in the Old Street Cells. Orwell’s lines about an “ugly Belgian youth charged with obstructing traffic with a barrow” corresponds to “Pierre Sussman, aged 20, who pleaded guilty to obstructing Shoreditch High Street with a costerbarrow”, writes Seaber in his article. According to Seaber, the newly discovered document “demonstrates that his writing about this experience is as near to 100% accurate reportage as possible – the few minor mistakes seem honest, as they are exactly the sort of thing one might get wrong when listening to people in a cell”.

Listen to The Book Report at your convenience. Go to https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-book-report/id540205917?mt=2, or at bookreportradio.com, click on Archived Shows


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