The next day Orwell finds a more desirable lodging house in Pennyfields. The beds are cleaner and the conditions more humane. The narrator is particularly fond of the house’s kitchen, where stevedores do laundry half-naked and lead other lodgers in sing-a-longs. Everyone shares food. Those with money are careful to make sure the out-of-work don’t starve.
Following the bleakness of the previous chapter, this sudden change of conditions has a disorienting effect. Orwell paints this lodging house as a place of cheerful friendliness, but the lodgers’ lives turn out to be more complicated than he initially imagines.
Orwell finds London cleaner and blander than France. There is not as much drunkenness or quarreling, and there is a lot more consuming of tea and bread. Despite the relative calm, Orwell does wander into an argument between Mormons and a crowd smearing them as polygamists, and another fight at the lodging house between a well-fed stevedore and an old age pensioner who has lost his supply of bread for three days. The latter fight is ugly and disheartening and it ends with the old man weeping into his hands.
The old man’s pathetic fate is perhaps more illustrative of the London lodging house tenant than that of the naked, singing stevedore. Here, Orwell acquaints the reader with another sad fact of poverty: it is often the result of old age and infirmity rather than laziness or criminality. And the old are particularly vulnerable in a city like London where the poor are uniquely despised.
With his own money dwindling, Orwell goes in search of cheaper housing and finds it in Bow. The house is much dirtier than the last—plagued with black beetles—and the men a more desperate group. During the night, a man vomits on the floor next to Orwell’s bunk. And, when Orwell wakes up the next morning, he does so to another man’s dirty feet hanging in front of his face.
Lest Orwell forget that he is living the life of a poor man, the bugs are there to remind him of his lowly position in society’s ranks. The image of another man’s dirty feet in his face likewise work to reinforce how far he has fallen.