In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell describes my Paris neighborhood as “a ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as though they had all been frozen in the act of collapse.” Orwell changed the street name to Rue du Coq d’Or. Take another look. It’s Rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest streets in Paris. It’s hardly a slum now, but many of Orwell’s memories, like the sour reek of the refuse-carts and drunken singing in the middle of the night, are vividly present today. I marvel at the fact that George Orwell once prowled the streets there, as did John Calvin and Rabelais before him.
“Poverty is what I am writing about,” Orwell explained in Down and Out in Paris and London, “and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum.” Here is chapter 1’s opening scene:
The rue du Coq d’Or, Paris, seven in the morning. A succession of
furious, choking yells from the street. Madame Monce, who kept the little
hotel opposite mine, had come out on to the pavement to address a lodger on the third floor. Her bare feet were stuck into sabots and her grey hair was streaming down.
MADAME MONCE: ‘SALOPE! SALOPE! How many times have I told you not tosquash bugs on the wallpaper? Do you think you’ve bought the hotel, eh? Whycan’t you throw them out of the window like everyone else? PUTAIN! SALOPE!’
THE WOMAN ON THE THIRD FLOOR: ‘VACHE!’
Thereupon a whole variegated chorus of yells, as windows were flung
open on every side and half the street joined in the quarrel. They shut up
abruptly ten minutes later, when a squadron of cavalry rode past and people stopped shouting to look at them.
I sketch this scene, just to convey something of the spirit of the rue
du Coq d’Or. Not that quarrels were the only thing that happened there–
but still, we seldom got through the morning without at least one outburst
of this description. Quarrels, and the desolate cries of street hawkers,
and the shouts of children chasing orange-peel over the cobbles, and at
night loud singing and the sour reek of the refuse-carts, made up the
atmosphere of the street.
It was a very narrow street–a ravine of tall, leprous houses,
lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as though they had all
been frozen in the act of collapse. All the houses were hotels and packed
to the tiles with lodgers, mostly Poles, Arabs and Italians. At the foot of
the hotels were tiny BISTROs, where you could be drunk for the equivalent
of a shilling. On Saturday nights about a third of the male population of
the quarter was drunk. There was fighting over women, and the Arab navvies who lived in the cheapest hotels used to conduct mysterious feuds, and fight them out with chairs and occasionally revolvers. At night the policemen would only come through the street two together. It was a fairly rackety place. And yet amid the noise and dirt lived the usual respectable
French shopkeepers, bakers and laundresses and the like, keeping themselves to themselves and quietly piling up small fortunes. It was quite a representative Paris slum.