I think if I had a dinner party solely filled with literary figures, George Orwell would be at the top of the list. Sure, I’d want Steinbeck and Hemingway there, but from what I can gather, they apparently were a bit, you know, dipso and racist. Yet George (we’re on first name terms, obviously), despite all of his fame and his brilliance, just seems like a really stand-up kind of guy. They type that you’d bring home to your parents. Actually, that’s a lie. The type that you would bring to trivia, because he would answer all of the questions correctly and then not even brag about it (which I definitely would). And while George may well be famous for his totalitarian works, it’s his non-fiction stuff, like Down and Out in Paris and London that show that on top of brains, ol’ Georgie-boy also hell of a lot of class…and not the type that comes with cash.
Can you believe there was a time when George Orwell, considered perhaps the most famous author of the 20th century (and Etonian to boot), was poor? And not just ‘poor’, but living below the poverty line, often going days without eating. I’m sure, regardless of whether you’re into books, publishing or anything of the sort, you’d be thinking ‘NOOOOO, WHY HADN’T SOMEONE COMMISSIONED HIM TO WRITE A BOOK?’ just like I was throughout Down and Out in Paris and London. Of course, he was obviously hired eventually, and alas, Down and Out in Paris and London was his first full-length book published.
Down and Out in Paris and London is set across two periods of George Orwell’s life; unsurprisingly, they took part in Paris and London, respectively. In this memoir, Orwell recounts the struggles that he faced while he was unemployed, including finding work in a seedy hotel in Paris, becoming a bum in London, and learning to deal with hunger pains after literally days without any food. Though it is implied at the end of the book that Orwell eventually finds permanent work, his memoir is a refreshing yet bleak insider look into the world of the poor.
What is great about Down and Out in Paris and London is that is filled with refreshing truth bombs and insights that seem so very obvious once they’ve has pointed them out, but which you’d never really considered previously. Considering he was an Etonian, I will make the assumption that Orwell came from a wealthy family, so heck, maybe it was this exact period of his life that explains why he has so much knowledge and empathy towards different classes.
One particular point that Orwell brings up is the idea of the class system – particularly the idea that the poor have to work outrageously long hours for a pittance, if only to ‘keep them busy’. The theory behind this is that the rich, or the upper classes, fear what they don’t understand, and they think that if they (the poor) have spare time on their hands they’ll somehow take over the world (or something). Of course, as Orwell points out, regardless of wealth, most people are generally the same, and for that matter, the average person is not going to go out of their way to destroy another person’s happiness.
The scary part of this of course is that while Down and Out in Paris and London was written in 1933, sometimes it feel like not a lot has changed. Gina Rinehart, that loathsome Australian businesswoman, has stated in the media that she believes that the working class are lazy, should be working more and shouldn’t complain about lack of pay (while she sits on a fortune that’s in the billions of dollars). And while she is an extreme example, the gap between classes is still evident, and for many people living on or below the poverty line, it is extremely difficult to work yourself out of that situation, if only for the stigma that is attached to poverty.
The other interesting aspect of his memoir is that it shows an earlier perspective into the life and character of George Orwell – a man who was worried that his Etonian accent would prove he shouldn’t be a bum, and who refused to smoke the cigarette butts found on the ground. While most of us know Orwell’s character as an incredible literary figure, this insight shows that anyone, even the very intelligent, can have a fall from grace and have to rely on the kindness of others.
A compelling memoir and a fresh perspective on Orwell and perhaps the origins of some of his later works, Down and Out in London is superbly written, refreshing and insightful into a group of people that are frequently overlooked. If you’re a George Orwell fan or interested in memoirs, then I’d definitely recommend picking this one up.
Have you read Down and Out in Paris and London? Are you a fan of George Orwell? Let me know!