Friday, 20 November 2009

Up, down, out and long gone

I've been re-reading 'Down and Out in Paris and London'. T received it free with The Times along with half-a-dozen other daily distributed Penguins. What a bonus! But a select one - the only place she saw them was at Highbury and Islington tube station, strangely; I certainly didn't receive any from my local newsagent.

Even if you already own an edition, it's a pleasure to receive another (for free) in that simple but strikingly elegant jacket design. The colours vary from the classic but are still recognisably part of the same antiquely modern palate: pink, maroon and light green (I suspect there are far more authentic names for these shades: pansy violet, tyrian purple and paris green perhaps?)

There's an artist, a good part of whose work involves painting roughed up versions of Penguin jacket designs but with sometimes amusing titles, Harland Miller. He seems to have done lots of them - the joke and even the aesthetic wearing thin. A testament to the perennial attractions of the design perhaps, but also to the economic imperatives of the modern art market: if you come across a commercial winner, flog it to death.

As for Orwell, there's surely nothing left to say that hasn't already been said. Another appreciation of Orwell's pellucid style, unshakeable integrity, transparent intelligence and reckless commitment is surely as needed as another Hirst spot painting. But George being 'a hero and a saint' - as I heard him described once by Mrs Thatcher's one-time house historian Norman Stone, with no irony but quite a lot of provocative playfulness - surely deserves it. Purely for his style, which T. described as like drinking clear, cold, fresh spring water: fluent and refreshing.

Reading 'DAOIPAL' now, one thing that strikes you is that it might well work today as reality TV, the campaigning, issue-driven end of it. Orwell's total immersion in poverty and hardship, however, is more extreme than anything to be found on television today. In fact, I'm not sure where you'd find an act this radical - it probably killed him in the end, as he may have caught his fatal TB whilst tramping in London. In the territory of conceptual art? Now a work like that really would deserve the much overused description 'brave'. The squalor, filth, infestation and dearth are all a few removes from anything one is ever likely to experience directly.

But there are also some passages that strike a chord of recognition in anyone who's been a bit reckless when young or dipped into life on the margins. Here's the best description I've come across of the euphoria, depression and self-disgust successively produced on a boozy, comradely Saturday night. The location was a bar in a slummy part of the Left Bank (now extremely chic and extremely expensive) and I've excised references to local characters to make it a bit more universal:
The brick-floored room, fifteen feet square, was packed with twenty people, and the air dim with smoke. The noise was deafening, for everyone was either talking at the top of his voice or singing. Sometimes it was just a confused din of voices;  sometimes everyone would burst out toegether in the same song - the 'Marseillaise', or the 'Internationale', or 'Madeolon, or' Les Fraises les Framboises'....
Everyone was very happy, overwhelmingly certain that the world was a good place and we a notable set of people.
For an hour the noise scarcely slackened. Then about midnight there was a piercing shout of "Citoyens!" and the sound of a chair falling over [a local character goes through his weekly turn - drunken speech, anger, tears, prostration, sickness, exit]
...The table was wiped by a cloth, Madame F. brought more litre bottles and loaves of bread, and we settled down to serious drinking. There were more songs... The doors and windows were opened to cool the room. The street was emptying, and in the distance one could hear the lonely milk train thundering down the Boulevard St Michel. The air blew cold on our foreheads, and the coarse African wine still tasted good; we were still happy, but meditatively, with the shouting and hilarious mood finished.
By one o'clock we were not happy any longer. We felt the joy of the evening wearing thin, and called hastily for more bottles... Men grew quarrelsome. The girls were violently kissed and hands thrust into their bosoms and they made off lest worse should happen... People seized each other by the arm and began long rambling confessions, and were angry when these were not listened to. The crowd thinned...
By half-past one the last drop of pleasure had evaporated, leaving nothing but headaches.We perceived that we were not splendid inhabitants of a splendid world, but a crew of underpaid workmen grown squalidly and dismally drunk. We went on swallowing the wine, but it was only from habit, and the stuff seemed suddenly nauseating. One's head had swollen up like a balloon, the floor rocked, one's tongue and lips were stained purple. At last it was no use keeping it up any longer. Several men went out into the yard behind the bistro and were sick. We crawled up to bed, tumbled down half dressed, and stayed there ten hours.
Most of my Saturday nights went in this way. On the whole, the two hours when one was perfectly and wildly happy seemed worth the subsequent headache...

Ah, happy days! This was once a familiar parabola for me, not always so extreme in its changes of direction and with probably more than a couple of hours of euphoric enjoyment at its hedonistic peak, certainly when I was young. Much has changed. Apart from hardly ever venturing out to booze nowadays, the euphoria seems a lot harder to generate - instead after more than one or two glasses I find myself just getting more relaxed, then sleepy.

I don't think it's solely a function of age because T. has found the same thing. That means it's probably down to the chronic tiredness produced by young children. Another of their uses: not only will they keep an eye on you in old age, they'll make it more likely you'll reach it, helping you avoid the awful consequences of that tyrannous curse, unique to contemporary life, the binge drinking.

14 comments:

worm said...

I read DAOIPAL whilst living abroad in fairly similar circumstances, and like you I found it quite timeless and universal in theme!

If I could travel back in time to Mr Orwell's french bar, I'd tell him he should just find another local to drink in, as the one he describes sounds rubbish - i've certainly never experienced a drunken night out in the way he has - I would never take a drink with someone who can't handle their booze

Brit said...

Have to say I've experienced many, many drunken nights that follow exactly that trajectory. Nothing new under the sun, of course. It's just that as the years go by that line On the whole, the two hours when one was perfectly and wildly happy seemed worth the subsequent headache... becomes increasingly untrue.

But a very great many of the best times of my life have involved binge drinking. As ever, Doc Johnson understood.

Gaw said...

Worm: You mean you've never been with someone (or been yourself) uncontrollably drunk? I'm intrigued as to how you've managed to do this.

Brit: Yes, Dr J was, 'as ever', right. Probably to do with that escaping from self thing. I remember in my youth a night of oblivion could be tremendously refreshing.

Peter Burnet said...

Of course, the return on all pleasures of the flesh diminishes with age. Our modern compulsion to pretend otherwise is why we are all going mad and why Big Pharma makes gazillions. I remember reading somewhere that in India the ideal for men whose families have grown is to sell all their wordly goods, provide for their wives and then don sandals to traipse through the mountains seeking enlightenment. But that was before Viagra was invented.

And speaking of which, now that the ads for Viagra have dropped all pretense of being for medical conditions, isn't it time for Big Pharma to give us an instant hangover cure? Some of us will need a lot of Dutch courage before setting off into the mountains in sandals.

I read DAOIPAL many years ago when I was still in my sixties mindset and was metaphorically bitch-slapped by the depiction of what real poverty was then. Perhaps Brit should send a copy to Mr. Kingsnorth for Christmas.

Brit said...

Bloody hell, that reminds me! Kingsnorth never judged that competition, did he? I must chase him up.

worm said...

Of course Gaw, I'm often uncontrollably drunk! Just never maudlin, or around maudlin people.

Brit said...

Nothing wrong with maudlin, Worm.

worm said...

maudlin music:good
maudlin people:bad
blogposts about maudlin:excellent

malty said...

Down and out must be the only book that can have you reeling, just from the fumes. He must have had a constitution like an ox, anyone having the misfortune to be in the vicinity of 'coarse African wine' can testify to that.
In our over regulated world there must be very few places left like his boozer.

Memorable conviviality tends to be unplanned even if the event being celebrated is not, stags, weddings etc.
There is also the often unpalatable fact that trauma was the end result, leading to 'never again'

I came to and found myself sitting on a fence, how I had managed to stay on it whilst with the cuckoo's, don't ask, somewhere north of Lillehammer, mountains, snow, daylight approaching, didn't feel the cold, no hangover just completely puggled, nearest farmhouse about five hundred yards away, eureka, stag night, Norwegian friend, smuggled Tamnavulin, Lutefisk, then what, blank, nothing.
Never again did I say yes to being a Norwegians best man, never again did I eat Lutefisk.

Brit said...

Puggled - excellent word.

But Malty, "In our over regulated world there must be very few places left like his boozer."

Check out St Mary's Street, Cardiff, at 3am on a Sunday morning. A Hogarthian nightmare.

malty said...

Brit, but will they let Geordies in?

Gaw said...

Worm: Have you never even grabbed someone 'by the arm and began long rambling confessions'? I thought everyone had done this after a few drinks. And regretted it deeply the next day!

Malty: Memorable conviviality tends to be unplanned. That's so true: there are few more dispiriting phrases than 'let's party!'.Or more anticlimactic nights out than New Years Eve.

I have to second Brit. There's a lot of it about.

Brit: But I'm sure featuring peripherally in a Hogarth scene could be fun. I've been out in Cardiff a few times and had a laugh. No idea how it looked to a sober observer though.

Malty, they'd assume you were North Walian, from Anglesey or somewhere weird like that.

Gaw said...

Peter: Orwell did us such a service there but it's a lesson we never tire of forgetting.

I'm not sure I want to start discussing Viagra, even as a disinterested party. I just feel it would be a bit of a watershed moment, one which I'm not really ready for.

malty said...

A hippopotamus walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a beer. "That will be £8 please" says the bartender. So the hippo gives the bartender his money and starts to sip his beer. "You know we don't very many hippos in here" mutters the bartender.

The hippo replies, "At these prices it's no wonder!"