Down and Out in Paris and London

I’d probably say George Orwell was my favourite author, if you made me choose, and Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) is certainly among his best works. It’s a perfect example of his zeal for social justice and his compassion for his fellow man, regardless of his position in society.

As the title suggests, the book is a memoir divided into two parts, his time spent working as a dishwasher in a Parisian hotel, and a later period spent tramping around England in order to gain a sense of the perspective of the men who lived on the streets. A little context here before I continue: nowadays tramp has a negative connotation, but from the end of the 19th century until about the 1940s it was a general word for a long-term homeless person who travelled from place to place, looking for work, shelter, or food. It was relatively common for people to choose this lifestyle, and the image of the cheerful worriless tramp was a common one. Indeed, Orwell acknowledges part of the appeal of the lifestyle:

It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.

Orwell’s sharp eye for detail though, ensures that the reader isn’t spared the true degradation of the life of the poor. It’s this focus on the everyday details of their life that truly makes one feel what it must really be like to be destitute. What struck me most about the latter half of the book were his descriptions of the banal but ultimately terrible suffering that the homeless endured. The agony of constant hunger and the sheer boredom of being homeless: that’s what I always remember first about this book.

It might seem trivial to write about how awful boredom can be, but Orwell really captures the drudgery of having nowhere to go and nothing to do, day after day, and how this could grind a person down. In a world where men in particular placed so much of their self-worth in their work, and an Englishman’s home was his castle, being idle and homeless could make one feel entirely worthless and demoralised.

Like so much of Orwell’s work, this book still feels sadly relevant today. When I reread the following…

It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.

…I realised how it could apply to so many today who blame the poor and homeless for their situation, and not the systems that exclude them, and preach to them about how to change their lives.

Some have criticised Orwell for being something of a “champagne socialist” as he came from a relatively comfortable middle-class background and was “slumming it” by living and working among the poor. But I defy anyone who’s actually read the book not to feel his genuine compassion for the poor souls he spent time with. To him they’re not merely interesting subjects for some essays and maybe a book if a publisher were interested. They’re all people just the same as him, or you and I, and he’s acutely aware of their suffering. And as in most of his works, his anger at the injustice of the world which let them get to their position and made it so difficult to get out of it positively leaps from the page.

And yet, the book is filled with the humour, hope and philosophy of the people he met. No matter how oppressive and inhumane the world might become, Orwell always seemed to believe in and find that essential part of the human spirit that can’t be extinguished.

I’ll leave the final word to Bozo, a London pavement artist and former amateur astronomer who had fallen on hard times:

The stars are a free show; it don’t cost anything to use your eyes.

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