Wednesday 5 October 2011

Orwell October: Down and Out In Paris and London

Can we also talk about how much I love this cover? Like, enough to buy this one, even though I already had a copy. Yeah.

I've read Down and Out in Paris and London once before, and while I was re-reading it, I realised that all I know about poverty, I learned from this book (and, considering it's nearly 80 years old, that's probably not a good thing). I kind of feel like I should object to the book on principle though, because Orwell went to Eton, was, I think, pretty well off, and I'm guessing had a pretty good safety net in terms of being able to pull himself back out of poverty even once he'd sunk into it. However- I can't fault him, even for his middle-classness, because he makes it clear himself that yes, he is really lucky that he was able to escape poverty, and that this book is sort of his attempt to make other people aware of the poverty that existed, and maybe even to get them to do something about it (certainly he makes suggestions as to how he thinks the poverty found in London should be eradicated).

So yeah, once I got over my whole 'well, he went to Eton so I'm sure he was fine,' prejudice, I've gotta say, this book was pretty great. I think I've made it clear that I really really like the way Orwell writes, so he could probably be writing about something really dull like the economy (I don't find the economy dull in itself, but I literally am physically unable to understand financial jargon, so I feel like a moron whenever I try to read something about it) and I'd be like 'Wow! He so knows everything that's happening and stuff!' But really, everything I know about poverty in London in the 1930s, I first learnt from this book- there's a bit where he talks about this really unpleasant lodging where you sleep sitting up, leaning against this bit of string, and then when it's morning, the string is cut and everyone has to leave. It sounds wholly unpleasant, but when I re-encountered it in this reading I was like 'Ah, where have I heard about this before', and as far as I can tell, it was from this book. Good times!

Poverty, I imagine is pretty awful, and while it's reductive to compare poverty now to poverty in the 1930s (which, I only just realised the prevalence of which was probably mainly to do with the Wall Street Crash and all that jazz- History GCSE was wasted on me) but this book makes poverty then seem pretty awful. I mean, having basically a penny a day for food, subsisting on bread and tea (and, kind of hilariously, cigarettes, which to Orwell seem more important than food) and because of the lack of food the lack of energy to find a job, and so the cycle continues. If I'm pushed to say where poverty seemed more awful, I'd have to go with London- in Paris, Orwell at least finds what sounds like one of the hardest, least rewarding jobs in the world, but it is, at least, a job. In London, there don't seem to be any prospects, and nothing a person can do to pull themselves out of poverty and back into jobs. If I was going to hazard a guess, I'd say they had a Conservative Government, because, seriously, that sounds really familiar...

Orwell encounters some extremely interesting people in his journey through poverty, and in doing so manages to not romanticise the conditions that they exist in, which I think he could easily have done, whilst still pointing out that basically, you can still be a wholly interesting and worthwhile person, even if you have fallen upon hard times. My favourite of all these people was Bozo, a street artist who believes, quite rightly, that it is who you are, rather than what you have that makes you either worth knowing or not so much. This leads to this exchange between the two men:
" 'It seems to me that when you take a man's money away, he's fit for nothing from that moment'
'No, not necessarily. If you set yourself to it, you can still live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself "I'm a free man in here" '- he tapped his forehead- 'and you're all right.' "
Such a philosophy in such abject conditions is wonderful to hear, and Orwell quite rightly admires Bozo, and seems to hold him up as an example to everyone. Or maybe that's just me.

Down and Out in Paris and London is not only well-written (because, why would you expect anything else?) it's also a really interesting slice of social history, and I think really we've all got to be grateful that Orwell did have these weeks of poverty in his life, because who else could have recorded it so vividly and with such style? I found the end, where Orwell states all the important lessons he has learned, so that others might learn them also, really heartwarming, and it is clear how strongly he wants others to also heed these lessons so that they might do something about the conditions faced by many people in Britain. You never doubt that Orwell cares about these people, and for that I can't help but adore him, and this book.


  1. Man. I need to read more Orwell. Also I keep confusing him with George Bernard Shaw, which is unfortunate.

    "there's a bit where he talks about this really unpleasant lodging where you sleep sitting up, leaning against this bit of string, and then when it's morning, the string is cut and everyone has to leave."

    Hah! This happens in the terrible Johnny Depp movie From Hell. So I guess that's a Victorian (or maybe it started even earlier) practice that held out.

  2. Ooh, I must have seen that in From Hell to since, being a Johnny Depp movie, I've obviously seen it! Definitely read about it in Down and Out... first though.

  3. I love Orwell and Animal Farms is one of my most read books of all times-after reading Down and Out in Paris and London I lost all desire to eat in fancy restaurants!