Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 3, 2010

Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell

 Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) is George Orwell’s first book. I read it in transit between Spain and Australia so my impressions may be influenced by jet-lag. (Travelling through two stopovers, Rome and Singapore, means one ‘loses’ a day; it’s better than a long haul direct flight, but it’s rather disorientating).

The book documents the precarious life of the poor in (as the title says) London and Paris. Wikipedia suggests that there is some dispute about just exactly how autobiographical the work is. I could check: we have Orwell, The Authorised Biography by Michael Sheldon, (1991) but I’d rather take the book on its own terms. The author says that he lived hand-to-mouth while working in the restaurant trade in Paris after his money was stolen and he lost his job teaching English; and that on his return to England a promised job fell through so he lived as a tramp, sleeping rough sometimes and also in men’s shelters. He acknowledges in this book that he did so partly out of pride: he was ashamed to cadge money from friends so there was sometimes an element of choice, but this IMO does not detract from the veracity of his experiences.

In the context of the Great Depression this book served the purpose of raising awareness of poverty and challenged the prevailing judgemental views about its causes. It’s vivid, and it’s passionate about the injustice of a social system that allows its people to live in such hardship.

Down and Out in Paris and London documents the struggle to find and keep work – how it depended on ineffective networks passing on information about where work was and how it was subject to exploitation by employers who knew that there was an infinite source of unemployed men.

It also explains the social impact of poverty on the lives of both the unemployed and the working poor. Orwell describes vividly the precarious life of casual work as a Parisian  ‘plongeur’ (kitchen hand) and shows that most of the workers in the restaurant trade were paid so poorly and worked for such long hours, that they had no hope of ever improving their circumstances and could not ever afford to marry and have what we in Australia today regard as a normal home life. He makes it quite clear that what was for him (because of his education and prospects) a temporary situation was not a matter of choice for his fellow-workers and he is angry about it.

He was also angry about the army of unemployed men in Britain who were required by law to keep moving from one place to another to maintain the social fiction that there was work to be had and to spread the cost of the miserly relief effort amongst the plethora of local councils. He documents the patronising and humiliating procedures of charities, with the Salvation Army coming in for particular criticism. He shows how the awful subsistence diet wrecked a man’s health, how the authorities provided health checks for lice but no health care, and how mean shelter accommodation was in Britain’s miserable cold winters.

He shows the demoralising effect of life on the road, with particularly poignant descriptions of its impact on relationships. It wasn’t just that women dismissed these men out of hand since they were obviously not viable as marriage prospects, it was also that an itinerant life jeopardised male friendship too. They lost touch with each other because they had no money to write letters (if they could write) and they had no permanent address for letters to be sent to. These transient friendships sustained them on the road and clearly it bothered Orwell that by the time he came to write this book he did not – could not – know if some of the men he came to care about were still alive.

He describes his companions vividly, taking care neither to objectify them nor to romanticise their solidarity. He is at pains to show that they are ‘just like everyone else’ – a mixture of decent fellows and ratbags; blokes who literally share their last crust and those who steal; the craven and the proud; the clever and the stupid. He wanted something done about their awful circumstances, and this book was his clarion call for social reform but it took Orwell a while to find a publisher and Down and Out in Paris and London turned out to be a commercial flop.

A book like this still matters because in economies throughout the world there is still no ‘safety net’ for the poor and vulnerable. Some countries can’t afford it; some choose to rely on a hit-and-miss system of families or charities providing it; and some are opposed to it on philosophical grounds for the reasons that Orwell describes and rejects – that people will take advantage, will freeload, will cheat the welfare system, or will become ‘welfare dependant’.   Amongst contemporary writers tackling the same issue, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai shows how immigrants are the working poor in America and The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga exposes the hopelessness of prospects for the underclass in India’s new economy. I Do Not Come to You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani shows how perilous advancement is in Nigeria; while in Britain Jon McGregor writes about the underclass in Even the Dogs, and in Two Caravans Marina Lewycka traces the lives of itinerant pickers from the EU.  (You can find my reviews of all these suggestions by using the drop-down categories tab in the RHS menu to search either for the author’s name or the title).

These writers of social conscience have my admiration; like Orwell, they’re writing about what they know and they’re not afraid to reveal it.

Author: George Orwell
Title: Down and Out in Paris and London
Source: I read the Project Gutenberg version on my Kindle, but I don’t recommend it, not when you can get a copy for $7.31 AUD –  the Gutenberg version had some really annoying typos.

Update: June 3, 2011

BookAroundTheCorner has written an excellent review, well worth visiting to see what she has to say about the translation.  Yes – translation, and Orwell was British, n’est-ce pas? Check it out!


Responses

  1. Actually this was the first book I read on my old Rocket eReader . . . must be about ten years ago now. Not sure if that’s where I got the text though. I remember thinking I should read more books by him apart from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ which I think I’ve read three times now. But I never have.

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  2. I’ve read a few, Jim. I read Animal Farm and 1984 when I was a teenager and again at university but I didn’t realise there was anything else to read until I stumbled across Burmese Days in some online reading group I belonged to. You can find that one for free online too; it’s very interesting because he was anti-colonial when he was working in Burma in the colonial administration.

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  3. I do like Orwell, but haven’t read this one yet. I’ve noticed some typos in my Project Gutenberg books too. I guess that’s the price you pay for not paying a price!! I think you can volunteer to fix things can’t you? Must admit I haven’t really investigated their process at all.

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    • Hi Sue, how’s HK?
      I must admit that I’m only just resisting the temptation to join up with the PG team so that when I come across these typos I can just dive into the file and fix it, like I occasionally do with Wikipedia.
      Actually I don’t think they’re really typos. These old books are scanned and sometimes the scanner gets it wrong. In one recent one (a Balzac story), it read ‘Us’ for ‘his’ for example. So PG needs proof readers willing to read the texts and fix them up…a volunteer job for my retirement maybe?

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      • HK is fun but pretty exhausting. I’m not really a big city gal but am very glad tio have finally made it here.

        Re PG … I agree that a lot of them are probably scanning/OCR errors like we get in the Newspaper Digitisation project I wrote about in my last Monday Musings. I correct those often but they make it easy by showing you the original and then a text version you can edit. A very worthy retirement volunteer project I reckon! Good for times when you want to do something but not have to engage the brain too much!

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  4. I’m an Orwell fan, but am yet to read this one.

    Interesting to read your review at this point in time, when the new Coalition government here are hell bent on changing the welfare state because they claim too many people take advantage of it. Perhaps I should send a copy of the book to our new PM and chancellor??

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  5. Well, yes, I hear that conservatives have done well in the US too, and they always have the same agenda: small government, low taxes and spending cuts. And say what they will, dressed up in whatever rhetoric is flavour-of-the-month, this always means cuts in welfare, always on the grounds that people take advantage of it or that welfare dependency is a bad thing or that charities can provide it better without taxpayers having to support it.
    I suspect that people who have those kind of political beliefs have convinced themselves that what they advocate is best, and I don’t imagine that reading Orwell’s book would enable them to empathise with a different POV.

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  6. Your review of this book bought to mind a book by Jeremy Mercer “Books, baguettes & bedbugs”. It’s about a Canadian who escapes to Paris due to a sticky situation resulting from his life as a crime reporter. With no money and no friends he lucks upon the Shakespeare & Co bookshop and becomes part of the life there. While reading of how he survived with no job and money I had to keep reminding myself that this book was not written in the thirties but a true account in 2005. It’s a great entertaining read.

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  7. Hello ALi, thanks for dropping by. Ther Mercer book sounds interesting, but different, because it’s one thing to be down on yoru luck when you’re the only one, and another thing entirely when it’s not just one person but a whole underclass of society.

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  8. Great read. You’re right that writers like Orwell really matter. I actually wrote a review of this myself:

    http://www.eclecticbookreviews.com/2010/11/12/george-orwell-down-and-out-in-paris-and-london/

    Hope you enjoy!

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  9. Hello Bill, I like your review too, and I like what you write about balancing the NF history with novels because they amplify the world of the past. Where are you based? I had a look at your ‘About’ page, but…

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  10. I’m in San Francisco, for the moment. I added a very small about bit for the moment. I’m actually migrating bits I’ve written over the last year to that new site. I’ll put you on my blogroll, too.

    B

    http://www.eclecticbookreviews.com/

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