Moving scenes – Some random reflections on Orwell, Hemingway, and Percy French

Frank McNally: An Irishman’s Diary

In his memoir Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell mentions an Italian hotel waiter who, he said, had "worked his way up literally from the gutter". This statement may well have been true, even in the strict, grammatical sense.

But he goes on to summarise the waiter’s early career as “crossing the Italian frontier without a passport, and selling chestnuts from a barrow on the northern boulevards, and being given fifty days’ imprisonment in London for working without a permit”.

So the suspicion is that even Orwell, like many people now, was using "literally" in a non-literal sense. Whereas his description of the waiter reminded me of a famous Irish person who did, literally, work his way up from the gutter: songwriter Percy French.

Although certainly a great moraliser, Orwell could be very funny at times

Not that this implied poverty in French's case. He had a degree in civil engineering from Trinity College by the time of his first job. Nevertheless, the notorious fact is that the job was "inspector of drains" for Cavan.


It was in this capacity he began writing the songs that made him famous, and painting the watercolours he considered his true vocation. Grammar zealots might argue he didn’t work his way up from any gutter in particular. Even so, he can certainly be said to have risen from the gutters, plural.

But that in turn reminded me of an email I received some months ago from Berrie O'Neill in Bangor. Berrie is president of the local Percy French Society which has amassed a collection of his paintings and memorabilia, in the North Down Museum.

He wrote to remind me that 2020 will be a Year of the French, or at least that it will mark the 100th anniversary of Percy’s death in January 1920. He was hoping to raise advance interest in that, and the man in general. With accidental help from Orwell, I’m happy to oblige.

Percy French didn't quite live to see a Border in Ireland, but he was beloved about equally on both sides of the emerging divide. In these Brexit-strained days, a revival might be timely. The Northern wing of his fan club is at


Getting back to Orwell, he is often accused of having lacked something French had plenty of – a sense of humour. This is unfair.

Although certainly a great moraliser, Orwell could be very funny at times.

There's a passage in his novel Burmese Days, for example, which I also read recently, that made me laugh for more reasons than one.

Burmese Days was a 1934 follow-up to Down and Out, although the events it fictionalises predated the latter book, going back to Orwell's first job, as a policeman in British Burma. He quickly came to hate imperialism, for its effects on both colonised and coloniser alike.

So the similarly afflicted John Flory, the novel's antihero, is partly based on him, even if Flory falls in love with the appalling Elizabeth, a colonial snob whose desperation to get married helps her overlook his inexplicable interest in what the ghastly natives think.

Anyway, in a pivotal romantic scene, after many interruptions, Flory is about to pop the question, and even gets as far as “Will you . . .” But interrupted again, he never finishes the sentence:

“At the same moment, something extraordinary happened under his feet – the floor was surging and rolling like a sea – he was staggering, then dizzily falling, hitting his upper arm a thump as the floor rushed towards him . . . ”

As we gradually realise, there has been an earthquake.

And when it subsides, with everyone still alive, the marriage proposal is forgotten amid collective giddiness. “An earthquake is such fun when it’s over,” writes Orwell. So happy was the chatter in the colonists’ club that night, “even the butler was included in the conversation”.

Amusing in its own right, Orwell's interrupted love scene reminded me of another novel from the same decade, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. Set during the Spanish Civil War, that tells the story of an American fighting with the republicans and of his doomed affair with Maria. And although the book's love scenes have not aged well, they did launch a concept that ever since has set the Olympic standard for sexual passion.

When Hemingway had his lovers asking each other “Did the earth move?”, they were referencing a Spanish folk belief that this was something you could expect to happen three times in your life. But in suggesting the earth moved for his characters, I think Hemingway was writing in a figurative sense, whereas in this case, at least, Orwell meant it literally.