Monday, 29 November 2010

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell


DATE READ: November 2010

NOTES: I had forgotten how good this book is. Orwell recounts his time as a hotel worker in Paris (albeit often unemployed) during the late twenties. He was hoping to write but found that all his time was taken up with looking, trying to eke out his money or recovering from the long hours required by hotels. What comes over again and again is the way in which employers were able to treat their workers with utter disdain. Jobs could be lost for the smallest infraction with no consideration for the employees’ situation. Although conditions are harsh Orwell tells of how friends help one another, give good advice and even share their meagre rations.

In London Orwell joined the large community of tramps. By being on the inside (rather than being a well-meaning do-gooder) he was able to write about the full horror of life for men on the road. Apart from the horror of the sleeping conditions in many of the hostels available the lives of the tramps were made more difficult by the numerous petty rules. For instance, men could only stay for one night in any place and could not return with a month. Although there were undoubtedly many people hoping to help the men but were nonetheless unable to hide their disdain. As Orwell says: “Curious how people feel they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.”

Throughout the book he shows great respect for the tramps, beggars and others down on their luck. These were times when being “broke” meant that you had literally no money or means of any kind – no credit cards, no bank overdraft – and certainly no state benefits. A few coins made all the difference between eating and starvation. Anyone who feels the poor are treated too generously now should read this book!

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