Saturday 17 September 2016

cashing in the couch

I am a fan of George Orwell since I was a teenager. We both had the benefit of an expensive education, him at Eton, and then failed to parlay that effectively into an Establishment position and a house in the suburbs. The Orwell book which I read repeatedly in the 70s was Down and Out in Paris and London. If I'd read it aloud to Dau.I and Dau.II in the 00s, then they probably wouldn't have gone to work in the catering trade. Part of Orwell's attraction, as well as the lucid easy-to-read prose, is his controlled anger at, and exposure to public awareness of the injustice and inequality underneath the warm blanket of Western society.

There's an incident in D&OiP&L where Orwell and his pal Boris are starrrvin' because they've been promised jobs in a new restaurant that is delayed in the outfitting. They each have a roof and a bed (although the rent in in arrears) but they haven't a sou for anything else. Orwell retires to bed because it's warmer there and waits as hunger grinds at his vitals. In his desperation, he prays to Sainte Éloise for 3 or 4 francs, for a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine. Shortly thereafter, a visitor notices, hidden in plain sight, a pile of ca$h in the form of an empty paraffin can on which there is a FF3.50 deposit. She goes to the grocery "in three minutes she was back with two pounds of bread under one arm and a half-litre bottle of wine under the other. I didn't stop to thank her; I just seized the bread and sank my teeth in it. Have you noticed how bread tastes when you have been hungry for a long time? Cold, wet, doughy--like putty almost. But, Jesus Christ, how good it was! As for the wine, I sucked it all down in one draught, and it seemed to go straight into my veins and flow round my body like new blood."

Having been thus miraculously revived, Orwell is gasping for smoke, manages to scrabble together 12 sous (=60 centimes) for the cheapest pack of fags and asks his benefactrix to take these last coins to the corner tobacconist. He then recalls his debt to St Éloise and reluctantly countermands the cigarettes in favour of a candle to the saint.
"Who is St Éloise?"
"The lady in that picture, to whom I prayed for a few francs"
"Imbecile, you have been praying to Suzanne May a famous prostitute of La Belle Époque"
He got his cigarettes after all and showed that he had rather sketchy moral compass. Orwell died of TB and cigarettes in 1950 at the absurdly young age of 46. The good news is that his entire oeuvre, including D&O, is out of copyright and you can download some excellent English prose onto your Kindle. If you cannot read, you might listen to Chomsky on Orwell.

The Beloved comes from a family of voracious readers: mad about the books they were (and, indeed, are). If they were flush, they'd buy new books and if skint, then second hand green penguins, or the works of Georgette Heyer would do . . . even if they'd been read before. The oldest sister, whom we shall call M because in poor light and with a following wind she could pass for Dame Judy "Skyfall" Dench, has had more of an economic roller-coaster of a life than some of the rest of us. Cocktails at the races would alternate with spuds and scrag-end. She lived for many years, with her teenage daughter, in an extensive but dark-and-damp basement flat in one of Dublin's more salubrious suburbs. One weekend there was no food except oatmeal and only a handful of that. After a night without supper, they woke inspired to look in every drawer and haaanndbag for change. She then remembered that in the good days, she'd been in the habit of using folding money as book-marks and they riffled systematically through a couple of thousand books to amass enough to make a trip to the grocer worthwhile.

These stories came bubbling to  the top of my 'mind' when I watched a youtube about some students who found $41,000 stuffed down the back of a couch they'd bought from a thrift store for $50. The owner of the couch, an elderly lady, had been taken into hospital and her relatives had officiously tided up her belongings. Luckily the students found a deposit slip with a name on it and were able to return the loot to its rightful owner. I don't think I would have been so assiduous in depriving myself of such a windfall - another thing I have in common with George Orwell.

The feel-good couch story triggered youtube's you'll-like-this algorithm to a snippet about a homeless man called Helinski who finds a forgotten bank account in his name that had been accumulated years of security checks. Enough to get himself a proper home!  Go America! Pity it only works for 1 homeless person in 100,000.

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