Like many of us, I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 in school because they were on the curriculum and have been thinking about the plots of both ever since.
Down and Out in Paris and London tells stories from Orwell’s time as a young man living from hand-to-mouth in a succession of dirty, bug-infested boarding houses and hostels, always on the lookout for enough money to buy basic foods, tobacco and alcohol. Orwell and his friends weren’t above picking up cigarette butts from the footpaths or pawning their clothes to get by.
Orwell worked primarily as a dishwasher while in Paris, for extraordinarily long hours. He worked alongside other waiters and dishwashers whose only wish was for a better paying job in a better hotel. The last sentences in the book sum up what Orwell learned during his time with the poor, and they include his rule of not eating in small restaurants because of the poor hygiene in their kitchens.
In London, Orwell lived an itinerant life alongside other tramps, receiving food stamps and lodging for a night in cold, dirty ‘spikes’ which were run like prisons, only to be booted out on the morning to make their way on foot to the next spike, usually miles and miles away.
Orwell tells the stories of tramps and beggars, pavement artists and scammers, and wage slaves who work almost around the clock, but who are still poor and malnourished with no hope of a better future. At the end of the book Orwell begs readers to find useful work for these men, to create workhouses on farms or even smaller houses with gardens where the poor could live a more settled life doing real work to help sustain themselves.
Unlike many of his companions in Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell had an aunt in Paris and family in England who gave him money when he asked, although this is never mentioned in the book. Fair enough too, because we might not believe or assist someone asking for social change based on their own experiences if we knew they had resources to fall back on.
Surprisingly, Orwell appears to have it in for the Jewish people he encountered, which seemed odd to me when I remembered that he was the writer who showed us how unfair it is that some animals are more equal than other animals. Orwell’s views may have been in keeping with his time and place but I didn’t expect them from him.
It is sad that so many people exposed in this story were happy to rip off the poorest people in society, but even worse to think that human nature doesn’t change and this still happens today.
I enjoyed Down and Out in Paris and London for the stories, the quality of the writing and the style and will continue to look out for Orwell’s lesser-known works.