This weekend I finished George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. A bit of light reading, I know. By virtue of being the only person in the office to finish a book recently, you now get to hear all about it! Aren’t you lucky? I’ve also been told this is the first entry in our ‘What we’re reading’ section. So no pressure or anything then …
I’m not sure what made me pick it up. I’d gone to the library to return a book, thinking to myself, I’ll be good, I won’t get any more out so I can work my way through my pile of unread books. (Don’t judge, we all have one.) So naturally, I wandered around the library and picked up several other books. Down and Out … is a memoir written by Orwell during the 1920s. It was published in 1933 and was his first full-length book, describing his experiences of poverty in two cities, Paris and London. It’s one of those books I’d always intended to read but never got round to.
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I think only the most hardened bibliophile could stand up and say they aren’t influenced by the aesthetic (look at me throwing out the big words today) of a book. Or of course, they could be a great liar. The image on the front cover fascinated me; it was a photograph, taken by Stéphane Passet, of Paris in 1914, giving an idea of what it looked like in the past. That time period especially was interesting, just before the First World War and the rapid transformation it brought about. Throughout reading the book, I kept coming back to it, intrigued by the figure pushing the overladen cart, the smartly dressed gentleman standing in the middle of the road, the lack of cars, the building covered in posters … I could go on, but I suppose it might be a history enthusiast getting overly excited about old photos.
So, what were my impressions of the actual book? I really, really enjoyed it. Admittedly, it took me about a month to read, what with my packed social schedule and all, but when I did find the time to settle down into it I was always amazed by the quality of the writing. It was fascinating, learning about Paris and London in the 1920s, about what it means to be destitute, about the realities of métro, boulot, dodo (my French teacher would be so proud). Orwell’s description of the people he meets and befriends is vivid, graphic, and occasionally grotesque. The chapter where he introduces Charlie stuck in my mind for a long time, both because of Orwell’s detail, his apparent detachedness and the knowledge that such things have happened and will continue to happen.
What I found most curious about the book is that Orwell was a privileged, middle-class old Etonian. Why not just write to mummy and daddy asking for money? Why not give up on Paris for a while and go back to England? When he returned to London, why not go on a month-long holiday to his parents? Orwell’s dogged dedication to the life of a plongeur and, later, a tramp, is fascinating in itself, and actually makes me like him more. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and do meaningless work in order to eat the most basic of foods. He knew what it was to be hungry, to reach the point where life’s only motivation is Saturday night revelries. Most importantly, for me at least, he truly immersed himself in the culture of the city he was in, whether it was Paris or London. He engaged in local customs, he was involved in ordinary life, he lived it, more so than perhaps Hemingway or Fitzgerald could claim to have.
Having read the introduction, I was aware of some questions that arise through reading the book. Did Orwell ever really experience poverty, considering he would surely have thought about, even subconsciously, the safety of friends and family with funds? After all, Orwell is never reduced to stealing, or committing ‘victimed’ crimes (yes, that’s probably a made-up word but I think it conveys my point fairly well). At least, he doesn’t write about committing crimes. I can see where the arguments are coming from though, and to some extent I agree. But I feel like he became so invested in his lifestyle, so committed to being independent, so involved in his new-found society that it doesn’t matter to me that he could have gone to mummy and daddy for money. When he does borrow money from ‘B.’ on a few occasions of abject need, he never asks for more than he requires, nor does he ask for lodgings with them.
Finally, the criticism he levels at society is both scathing and telling. Reading this book after having read 1984 and Animal Farm, I feel like I can understand where he got some of the inspiration and passion for his writing. His description of ‘useless jobs’ proves very interesting, as he lists jobs that are, in his opinion, created by the rich in order to make themselves feel better about the poor. We learn that the work of a plongeur wouldn’t be necessary if rich people didn’t go out to expensive restaurants to eat, and that more fulfilling work could be performed instead. In the London section, he rails against the idea of forcing men, who could be useful to society, to wander the country, shutting them up in ‘casual wards’ for sometimes 18 hours a day doing nothing. He tells us repeatedly that the main object between men and work is hunger: it’s difficult to see beyond today when all you’ve eaten is the usual tea and two slices. He criticises the old-fashioned notion that tramps are dangerous monsters that are idle and threatening. Orwell’s tramps don’t want charity, they don’t want to beg, they want to work and have a decent meal. The scene in which a group of tramps jeer through a church service in London, having just received free food and tea, is telling of this, as such charity has robbed the tramps of their pride and dignity in a worse way than sleeping on the streets ever could. Whilst his suggestions for improvement might come across as idealistic and impossible, the reasoning behind them made sense, to me at least.
Overall, I found this book well-written, fascinating and thought-provoking. I would recommend it to anyone. Anyone at all. Now I shall remove my intellectual beret* and go back to reading One Punch Man.
*NB, this is figurative. Please don’t think I actually go around in one.