When I was 16 it was suggested by well meaning parties that I broadened my literary scope. At the time I was firmly fixated on Stephen King and David Eddings and very rarely ventured further. As I had been studying the birth of communism and the rise of Stalin it made sense that I should read Animal Farm by George Orwell. After that I went on to 1984 and both books have a safe place on my bookshelf. Now that my tastes have advanced to include more than science fiction and fantasy I decided to return to Orwell and see how his other works fared. At a second hand book shop I found a slightly battered copy of Down and out in Paris and London and the next two days were spent with my nose firmly fixed in it.
Down and out in Paris and London was based on an experiment carried out by Orwell. He put aside his worldly gains and lived in poverty, both in Paris and London. At the end of it he published his first full novel detailing his experiences. I’ll start by saying that I don’t believe this to be one Novel. It’s two. There is such a clear divide between Paris and London that the two cities take on styles and tones of their own. Therefore I’m going to separate the two here.
At the start of the book the Narrator, As I’ll refer to him, is staying in the slums of Paris. He starts off not wealthy but fairly comfortable. Especially when compared to the other residents. after a robbery in his accommodation he ends up having to fight for survival alongside everyone else. As he himself says “I had my first contact with poverty in this slum. The slum, with its dirt and it’s queer lives was first an object-lesson in poverty, and then the background of my own experiences. much of the first part of the book is taken up with the Narrator and his Russian friend desperately trying to make money while they wait for a promised job in a restaurant. After a while they find work at a hotel and it is here that the Narrator starts his life as a Plongeur or Dish Washer. I know quite a few people who work in the hospitality industry and the stories of madness behind the scenes that they’ve told me matches the stories listed here. It’s somewhat comforting to know that things haven’t changed since 1933.
After growing tired of the exhausting life he leads in Paris the Narrator writes to a friend in London asking if he has any work available. A job is found and he returns to London. unfortunately the job isn’t going to be starting for a month and our Narrator is left on the streets with no money and 30 days to wait. Over the next month he discovers and documents the inner workings of the vagrant community in London. from the Screevers-Pavement artists, The Clodhoppers-Street Dancers, the Moochers-outright beggars and the simple Tobies-Tramps, We learn of the mentality shared by many of the London homeless at the time. what’s interesting is that it’s probably not that different from the mentality today. In fact many of the Narrator’s observations regarding the homeless problem in the capital could be raised today and no one would bat an eyelid. This is one of those instances where a lack of change doesn’t have the same comforting appeal. quite the opposite in fact.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book. As the Narrator is not a developed character the book does read more like a commentary and less like a story. therefore we can view his observations with an unbiased eye even though he is sharing in the poverty and problems we are learning about. As I have mentioned before the book is clearly in two parts. the first part would be enjoyed by anyone who has worked in the Hospitality industry. As for the second part, I don’t think there is a set group of people who should read this. I think society as a whole should read it and see how little we’ve grown in the last 83 years. Our attitude towards the homeless has stayed very much the same and this, more than the stories of life in the hotel, more than the fantastic language or the humour found in bad situations, is what I will take away from this book. We talk about the difference in generations I have heard people my age share with the elderly and the very young, the sentiment that it’s their fault and they chose this life. Everyone should read this book. Even if it’s just for a bit of a wake up call.