Can we just spare a moment to admire this cover?
To be poor and destitute in 1920s Paris and London was to experience life at its lowest ebb. George Orwell, penniless and with nowhere to go, found himself experiencing just this as he wandered the streets of both capitals in search of a job. By day, he tramped the streets, often passing time with ‘screevers’ or street artists, drunks and other hobos. At night, he stood in line for a bed in a ‘spike’ or doss house, where a cup of sugary tea, a hunk of stale bread and a blanket were the only sustenance and comfort on offer. Down and Out in Paris and London is George Orwell’s haunting account of the streets and those who have no choice but to live on them.
This was my first Orwell! It seems a bit hard to believe- I’ve owned Animal Farm for years, and was supposed to read 1984 for university in second year but didn’t get around to it… It was the week I was getting my knee reconstructed and I had a ton of work to get done before that, so I just skimmed as much as I could, and not enough to really count it as “read”. So for my Winter/Summer Reading Challenge, I picked this up!
I’m so interested in Paris and London (especially London!) as historical cities, and I’m always interested in how the lowest class lived in them. I knew this would be a bit of a dark book, but I wasn’t expecting the moments of levity it would have, especially in the Paris section.
Since the book is split into two sections, those being Paris and London, it’s easy to discuss the differences in tone and experience. The Paris section, though infested with bugs and full of filthy restaurants, has moments of fun and some totally ridiculous situations. Boris was a fantastic character, who kept it going swiftly and bringing some hope to the situations. The London section, however, lacked this hope and fun, but was more philosophical and bleak.
I’ve never been rich, but I’ve lived comfortably enough. The utter pennilessness with no hope of safety is something I can’t imagine. Despite being flat broke at some times in my life, I’ve always had a roof over my head, food, healthcare and clothing. This book puts that all into perspective, and makes you realise how damned lucky you are if you have any of those things. The way people treat you when you’re hard up can be appalling, but luckily for me, I’ve escaped that judgement since I’ve always looked “put together”, unlike a tramp (though my clothes have often been mended or are very old), but as soon as some people discover that I get government assistance for being a student, their demeanour changes. Never mind that I’ve been employed almost non-stop since I was 14- people like me are bludgers and a waste of taxpayer’s money. I can’t even imagine how it must be for someone on the dole (as people get even more judgemental about that) or who are even below that, plus supporting kids. I’d get into a huge rant about the current Australian government and their attitude towards the poor, but that’s for another time and place!
Thing is, through Down and Out, it’s obvious that nothing has changed. The rich still spit on the poor, people will beat and steal from the homeless, the religious nuts still berate them, the government and their stooges harass them. It’s disgusting that after all this time, despite the belief that we live in a humane society, we’re still the same as those in Orwell’s time.
I can’t say I really enjoyed this book though. It got me thinking, and I liked the section on Paris, but found the London section dragged a lot. I felt like Orwell could have perhaps discussed more about individuals (if he knew about them) than the action of trudging around, looking for money, buying bread etc. It all became a bit same/same, so I lost interest towards the end. The writing is great though, as Orwell was just a natural storyteller.