"Down and Out in Paris and London" by George Orwell - Book Review
George Orwell and "Down And Out In Paris And London"
George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London is an account of the months he spent with the poor, destitute and half-starving people living on the brink in two great capital cities.
In this review I want to look at the contents of Down and Out, give some insights into George Orwell's thinking at the time and to ask questions about its relevancy for today.
Down and Out in Paris and London, the Penguin Modern Classics version, is 230 pages long, made up of 38 short chapters. The first twenty-four are set in Paris, the remainder in London. It was first published in England on 9th January 1933 by Victor Gollancz, and in New York on June 30th by Harper & Brothers.
Orwell's descriptions of life in the lowest strata of society are full of wit, colour and stark reality. From page one you are immediately taken into the Paris suburbs to learn of the daily grind on the Rue du Coq d'Or, 'a ravine of tall leprous houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes'.
Here the writer meets with all kinds of underworld characters : Henri, the melancholy sewer worker, the Rougiers, an old ragged, dwarfish couple, and Boris the Russian soldier turned French waiter. There are dozens of other floating characters, eccentrics who for one reason or another happen to have little or no income whatsoever.
Orwell sets out his chapters like days of a diary. This works well because it gives the reader a familiar framework which contrasts wildly with the odd goings on. Some days are just about ok, most days are submerged in a grim, desperate atmosphere of hunger, hopelessness and poverty. When he's not in the pawn shop, he's trekking around the city with Boris looking for work. When he's not debugging his grimy bed with pepper, he's struggling with the long hours of work in a filthy hotel kitchen. As a plongeur (dishwasher) Orwell finds himself the lowest of the low in the cruel hierarchy that exists in the hotel business.
"By seven I was in the desolation of the cold, filthy kitchen, with the potato skins and bones and fishtails littered on the floor, and a pile of plates, stuck together in their grease, waiting from overnight."
Orwell being Orwell, he delves much further into the life of the humble dishwasher. Chapter 22 for instance is an essay in itself on why it is necessary to have such a job in a modern, progressive civilisation.
He then goes on to build up a bigger picture of how the poor survive in abysmal conditions, in a world that doesn't want to know.
"Down And Out In Paris And London"—Orwell's Argument
Orwell has a plain yet profound way of putting down his thoughts about the poor, and how they are perceived by those who are rich and educated. In chapter 22 he writes:
'But the trouble is that intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor. For what do the majority of educated people know about poverty?'
His argument is that both rich and poor are essentially the same, separated only by income. Underneath they are just humans, striving for a happier life. It's the system that has created the means by which the rich can control the poor and keep them in their place.
You can read between the lines of this brilliantly constructed book and catch glimpses of Orwell's compassionate, intelligent socialism. He suffers many a hardship to get an inside view of life in order to get a true picture of the reality, albeit brief and transitory. His humanity shines through, although I have to say the shock of reading an account of a murder in chapter sixteen does put things into perspective.
A man is attacked and has his skull cracked open on the street below Orwell's room window. Some people do go down to find the man dead, his purple blood on the cobbles.
'But the thing that strikes me in looking back is that I was in bed and asleep within three minutes of the murder. So were most of the people in the street; we just made sure that the man was done for, and went straight back to bed.'
Next morning the body has gone and only children remain to ogle at the blood. This is the world of the Parisian slums, where a life is taken and no-one seems to care, or according to the writer, people are too numb to care because they are exhausted from long hours of tedious work.
Eventually George leaves France and heads back to London where he teams up with various characters, tramps and beggars and homeless types, giving us great descriptions of how the poor are treated, and how they treated him.
Of great interest is the man named Bozo, a disabled beggar who can speak French, sketch with some skill and who knows the names of stars and constellations. He even wears a tie and collar. Orwell finds him fascinating and spends a few weeks with him on the streets and in filthy lodging houses. He is a one off, a cut above the other homeless men.
Orwell : 'It seems to me that when you take a man's money away he's fit for nothing from that moment.'
Bozo: ' No, not necessarily. If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and ideas. You just got to say to yourself, "I'm a free man in here"—he tapped his forehead—and you're all right.'
Orwell's First Book A Launch Pad For The Young Writer
On the last page George Orwell writes:
'I can at least say, Here is the world that awaits you if you are ever penniless. Some day I want to explore that world more thoroughly.'
He did manage to do that in his book The Road to Wigan Pier, and he continued to champion the rights of the oppressed throughout his writing career. Down and Out in Paris and London helped launch the young author and established him as one of the most sensitive and politically intelligent writers of his generation.
He went on to produce his visionary masterpiece 1984 fifteen years later, using the deep experiences of his time on the streets to help create the sinister world of Big Brother.
George Orwell was born Eric Blair but changed his name partly because he was afraid of embarrassing his upper middle class parents, who wanted their son to follow a more conventional path into a normal type of career. Having their well educated son mix with dubious individuals from the lower strata must have come as some shock! Luckily for us George persisted in his writing and went on to become one of the most successful writers of his generation.
Relevant For Today?
Is George Orwell's book of relevance for today's modern world? The answer to this is a resounding yes. Not only is it beautifully written, the observations are acute and the conclusions full of integrity. It still has a message for us. I hope this review has underlined that.
Poverty is a relative issue. In this high-tech age we may have loads of gadgets and other gizzmos to keep us amused but beggars still beg on our streets and the homeless still sleep cold on the bench. Poverty is still very much with us and as long as this situation continues Down and Out in Paris and London will be a relevant read.
© 2013 Andrew Spacey