The tale of working 100 hour weeks in the kitchens of Paris and surviving as tramp on the streets of London. A historical gem that will ring true with anyone who’s ever lived hand to mouth.
Down and Out in Paris and London was one of the most remarkable travel books of its time and inspired generations of writers to transcend their comfortable backgrounds and discover the realities of living hand to mouth on the road.
George Orwell was born into a comfortable background and served the calling of his class as a military policeman in Burma, adminstering the British Empire until the entire affair sickened him. Some have speculated that Down and Out in Paris and London was a manner of expiating his past in assisting the evils of colonialism but it’s equally likely that his sheer curiosity and empathy for the working class drew him to such a life.
The book begins with Orwell idling in Paris in a cheap guesthouse in the 1928, watching his funds slowly evaporate. He’s teaching English and roughing it with a bunch of unsavoury characters whom he delights in describing at great length. His lessons soon come to a halt though and he finds himself going broke fast. He needs to pawn his clothes, subsist on bread and butter and he treats the whole experience with his usual philosophical air of enquiry:
“It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty – it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it is all so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring.”
He learns what is hunger and at the same time strives to keep up appearances with the result that when he bumps into his laundress who demands why he hasn’t sent her any washing, he can merely mumble until she suspects that he’s found someone else to do his washing and he’s made an ‘enemy for life’.
The first half of the book deals with Orwell’s entry into the life of a plongeur, the washing up man in French kitchens who must also perform a hundred other menial tasks at high speed and temperatures some 17 hours a day. He reaches the end of a 100 hour working week and gets ready to drop – only to be shaken awake by his employer and told he must fill in for someone who’s sick.
The detail and squalor that Orwell describes are a delight to read and will shame the average traveler for complaining about his or her bar job in Greece. Orwell educates us about the realities of the working person in the 1930’s and reminds us just how good people in the first world have it today. Head to India or Egypt, naturally and little has changed.
The second half of the book is about Orwell’s return to England and London where he has the promise of a job but must first pass 6 weeks living on the streets until the work materialises.
He joins the rank of England’s tramps and again revels in articulating the miseries, the shame and the tedious nature of poverty amongst the homeless. He tells of the church services the tramps must endure to get a free piece of bread, the consumptive coughing of men in the shelters who keep the rest awake all night and the impossibility of staying clean.
Yet for all that, Down and Out in Paris and London is a funny and fluent read. Orwell never loses sight of the human spirit and indeed is inspired by the characters he meets who seem to transcend their condition.
One such person is an crippled artist called Bozo who makes a few coins by drawing topical cartoons on the pavement. Orwell meets him in a guesthouse where Bozo is one penny short of the night’s fee – it’s been raining and he hasn’t been able to ply his trade. Bozo sells his razor for three pennies and then cracks up laughing as he realises he forgot to have a last shave. Orwell notes with awe:
“He had not eaten since the morning, had walked several miles with a twisted leg, his clothes were drenched and he had a half penny between himself and starvation. With all this he could laugh over the loss of his razor. One could not help admiring him.”
Down and Out in Paris and London is more than the tale of a man on the road, surviving on his wits in much the way that Kerouac or Henry Miller would come to do, it’s a first hand anthropological investigation into poverty, original gonzo journalism where Orwell comes to understand his subject through personal experience.
An inspiring and influential book, Down and Out ranks among Orwell’s best.