Classic of the Month: Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933)

I’d of course read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but this was my first taste of George Orwell’s nonfiction. It was his first book, published when he was 30, and is an excellent first-hand account of the working and living conditions of the poor in two world cities. I started it on the Eurostar between London and Paris and have enjoyed dipping into it over the past couple of weeks. I most appreciated the first two-thirds, in which Orwell is working as a dishwasher and waiter in Paris hotel restaurants for up to 80 hours a week and has to pawn his clothes to scrape together enough money to ward off starvation. Chapter 3 is a masterful piece of writing that, with its second-person address, puts the reader right into this desperate situation with him. The matter-of-fact words about poverty and hunger are incisive:

Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one had turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and luke-warm water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger

Two bad days followed. We had only sixty centimes left, and we spent it on half a pound of bread, with a piece of garlic to rub it with. The point of rubbing garlic on bread is that the taste lingers and gives one the illusion of having fed recently.

It is disagreeable to eat out of a newspaper on a public seat, especially in the Tuileries, which are generally full of pretty girls, but I was too hungry to care.

Even as he’s conveying the harsh reality of exhaustion and indignity, Orwell takes a Dickensian delight in people and their eccentricities. His pen portraits of those he associates with – Boris, a former captain in the Russian Army who is always coming up with new money-making schemes in Paris; Paddy, a tramp he falls in with in London; and Bozo, a “screever” (street painter) who “managed to keep his brain intact and alert, and so nothing could make him succumb to poverty” – are glistening passages enhanced by recreated dialogue. There are a few asides, such as a chapter about London slang and swearing, that break up the flow, and I might have liked more context about Orwell’s earlier and later life – how he slipped into poverty and how he worked his way out of it again – but he more than succeeds in his aim of exposing the truth of what it was like to be poor at that time.

Depressingly, though, this is not merely a period piece: well over 80 years later, the poor are still in danger of homelessness and enslavement to low wages and zero-hours contracts. No doubt it is still what Orwell refers to as a “dismal, demoralizing way of life,” and the poor “are ordinary human beings … if they are worse than other people it is the result and not the cause of [that] way of life.”

Our town has its fair share of the down-and-out, as was brought home to me just yesterday. My husband had an unpleasant encounter with a group of them when he tried remonstrating with a man who was cutting flowers in the community garden we’ve volunteered our time to create – the very day before the Britain in Bloom competition! When I dropped by later to help get the garden tidy for judging, they were still hanging about on the other side of the canal, smoking and drinking. Then I spotted with them an older woman who goes to our church. I’ve broken bread with her on a regular basis. She borrowed a couple of books from the theological library last week. And she must be a hair’s breadth away from homelessness, if not actually homeless. It felt like a wake-up call, a reminder that these people whose lives seem so hopelessly foreign are not as distant or as different as we might like to think.

George Orwell’s 1943 press photo. Branch of the National Union of Journalists (BNUJ). [Public domain]
Since 1994 the Orwell Prizes have been awarded to the best political writing. It’s clear that we still need voices like his to reveal what’s going on in the world and call us comfortable folks out on our complacency. As he caricatures a rich person’s response here, “don’t expect us to do anything about it. We are sorry for you lower classes, just as we are sorry for a cat with the mange, but we will fight like devils against any improvement of your condition. We feel that you are much safer as you are. The present state of affairs suits us”. I would commend this to any nonfiction reader, and hope to read much more of Orwell’s journalism.

My rating:

 


Next month: The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley

16 thoughts on “Classic of the Month: Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933)

  1. What an experience you had in The community garden! Is there any way you can befriend this woman, perhaps invite her to have a coffee with you at Waitross?

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  2. God it’s magnificent. I’ve gone hungry (briefly, post-university) and his writing on the feeling of inertia and exhaustion that surrounds hunger is so spot-on. (I have an odd feeling that he didn’t fall into poverty so much as volunteer for it – there’s an idea somewhere in the back of my head that he did this as investigative journalism, like Barbara Ehrenreich did in Nickel and Dimed, but I might have just made this up as a nice parallel.)

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    1. I haven’t researched the book’s composition, but a brief scan of opinion on Goodreads suggests that it might be more autofiction than pure autobiography — and you may well be right about doing it for the journalistic cred.

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  3. I too read it many years ago as a young man, but it’s still deep set in my memory, even if the details are hazy. True, he was an old Etonian, so hardly likely to persist in penury, but it’s still a powerful account of the hardshstill faced by many. His essays are still worth reading, too

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  4. I read this years ago too in my late teens and it had a profound effect on me and helped me be compassionate about people in poverty (along with other influences then). He did put himself in the position rather than falling into it and being unable to get out, but he still reports so brilliantly on how it feels and how it all works (or doesn’t). A very pertinent book still now, indeed, and heart-breakingly.

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