Saturday, 20 April 2013

A Good Excuse to Hang Around in Sleazy Bars

Once, after reading a biography about George Orwell, I took myself off to Paris. In the book there were references to the real names of places in his book 'Down and Out in Paris and London.' The hotel where he worked as a dishwasher (Hotel Lotti next to the Place de Vendome). The street where he pawned his shirt collars (in Belleville). The cafe where he often went for breakfast. This was back in the 1980's so I didn't have the luxury of the internet. I had loved Down & Out so much when I read it in the early 70's and I really felt I knew the places he mentioned in the book - many with changed names - so it almost felt like I was going there to rediscover these places from my own past. I spent a week roaming around the back streets of various parts of Paris, feeling a little like a detective. None of these places had plaques up saying 'George Orwell pawned his shirt collars here' or 'was sacked from here' or anything. This was original research, or at least it felt like it. By the end of that week, my feet were sore but I flet like I'd recaptured my youth.

A number of years went by before I attempted to do this again. I was recounting the story at dinner with friends one evening. Later my wife asked me if I'd take her to these places. I said I would sometime, but that I'd rather do something new. How about another Orwell - Homage to Catalonia.  Soon after we found ourselves in Las Ramblas in Barcelona, trying to persuade someone to let us get out onto the rooftops of the old post office building, from where Orwell had fought a gun battle with Franco's troops in the streets below. We sat under the palm trees, eating a simple lunch of tortilla with pan con tomate, as he might have in the Placa Real and we took a bus out into the hills where he spent weeks dodging bullets in the cold winter after the partisans' retreat from outside Valladolid. It was thrilling.

Since that time I have had a trip to Amsterdam seeking out bars and cafes that feature in Camus' 'The Fall' and to Oran to experience the same author's world of 'The Outsider' (or The Stranger). All have turned what might have been a reasonably pleasurable holiday into something of intense interest and pleasure. It has given the locations real meaning for me and memories that are indelibly burned into my memory. Why don't you give it a try sometime? It's so much easier now with the internet. Of course some people will think it strange. A friend of mine said it was a poor excuse for hanging around in sleazy bars. "Who needs an excuse?" I replied.

N.B. Fired by this obsession, in my own writing I often remember to mention the names of cafes, bars and places I hope readers might be inspired to visit. You'll find plenty in 'Long Road, Hard Lessons,' of course, but also in 'Special Treatment'. If the name is disguised, the disguise is usually very thin.

Others on my hit list for the near future are:

Goodbye to Berlin - Christopher Isherwood (Berlin)
Rock Springs - Richard Ford (Montana)
A River Runs Through It - Norman Maclean (Livingstone, Montana)
As I Walked Out One Mid-summer Morning - Laurie Lee (Spain)
Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row & Sweet Thursday - John Steinbeck (Monterey & Salinas Valley)
Trainspotting - Irvine Welsh (Edinburgh - does 'the worst toilet in the world' really exist?)
The Alexandria Quartet - Lawrence Durrell (Alexandria)
The Pearl - John Steinbeck (Northern Mexico)
A Time of Gifts - Patrick Leigh-Fermor (a walk from Hook of Holland to Constantinople)
Sailing Through Europe - Negley Farson (Towns & cities along the River Danube)

Photo courtesy

If you want to read stories by the author, or the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons," click on these links or in the right hand margin of this blog.


  1. When I was reading Pickwick Papers by Dickens, I happened to be in England. I also happened to travel to the cities that he spoke of as the book progressed. It was some bizarre twist of fate. But being able to physically place yourself in those spots that the author writes about as you follow the book, or the authors footsteps, is kind of magical :)

    1. Yes, Dickens is another good writer to do that with - albeit that he was writing a long time ago and the places are much changed. Adds so much to one's experience of the story though. Glad I'm not alone in this. I was in Galicia last week and walked some of the paths Laurie Lee walked in 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.' Very special.

  2. A nice idea Mark.
    Though A Time of Gifts (wonderful book) could let you in for quite a long walk!

    1. Yes indeed, Mike. I was thinking of doing it by boat and covering the Negley Farson book at the same time (more or less the same route) over a period of a year - now that is dedication! PLF's description of Presburg (Bratislava) particularly inspired me. I have cycled through it but not up the old street by the castle (red light street of old). Thanks for your comments.