Friday, 24 August 2018

Down and Out in Paris and London


Down and Out in Paris and London, which was published in 1933, was George Orwell's first full length work. It is a memoir in two parts in which the narrator describes his experiences of being destitute in both Paris and London.  The book was based on Orwell's experiences of working in hotel kitchens in Paris as a dishwasher (plongeur) when he ran out of money.  He also spent some time living rough on the streets of London as preparation for his writing.

This is more than a personal account of being poor in the early 1930s.  It is also a social commentary on the inequalities of society, capitalism and the stupidity of the legal system which forced homeless people at that time to walk from parish to parish in order to obtain a bed for the night.

Although the topic is quite depressing, the author does manage to make the book interesting through his descriptions of the places and characters he meets.  Memorable characters include Boris the Russian in Paris and Paddy the Irishman and Bozo the street artist in London.  A few comic incidents lighten the book including the description of the narrator's encounter with "a secret society".  This consisted of Russians who then disappeared with some of the narrator's money.  The narrator says, "personally I do not think they had anything  to do with the Communist Party;  I think they were simply swindlers, who preyed upon Russian refugees by extracting entrance fees to an imaginary society."

The book provided an interesting contrast between Paris and London - the narrator did have a job in Paris but had to work very long hours for very little pay.  The Depression in Britain meant that there were lots of men after the same job - if a man found employment there was no job security as the jobs were all casual.  Although the situation in Britain has improved with the introduction  of the Welfare State there is still a huge problem of homelessness which costs the local authorities millions of pounds in providing temporary accommodation for homeless people instead of building affordable homes for people.  The situation of many workers who are trapped in low paid jobs in 2018 is probably not much better than it was for the plongeurs of the book.  This is compounded by the increasing use of zero hours contracts which provide no job security.

The narrator sums up his experiences at the end of the book saying, "I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant.  That is a beginning."

Most of the classics I read are 19th century novels and so this book was a complete contrast.  It was also interesting reading about a different historical period.  In conclusion, I am glad I read Down and Out in Paris and London which was thought provoking and well written.





2 comments:

  1. I read this one fairly recently and although I found it quite depressing it was also very interesting. I had had no idea that in the UK homeless men and I suppose women had to actually walk around from town to town, literally tramping as they weren't allowed to stay in the same hostel two nights running. It's a wonder any of them survived.

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  2. I didn't realise this work was autobiographical, I'm looking for more classic non-fiction & this sounds interesting - thanks.

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