Saturday 6 June 2020

Down And Out In Paris And London by George Orwell

Down And Out In Paris And London by George Orwell
Published in the UK by Victor Gollancz on the 9th January 1933.

One of my Classics Club reads

How I got this book:
Borrowed from a friend

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Down and Out in Paris and London is the first full-length work by the English author George Orwell, published in 1933. It is a memoir in two parts on the theme of poverty in the two cities. The first part is an account of living in near-destitution in Paris and the experience of casual labour in restaurant kitchens. The second part is a travelogue of life on the road in and around London from the tramp's perspective, with descriptions of the types of hostel accommodation available and some of the characters to be found living on the margins.

In researching the background to Down And Out In Paris And London I found out that the book was initially published as a work of fiction before Orwell admitted that it was practically all autobiographical, albeit with his London homelessness occurring before his Parisian stint in real life. As with the other books of his that I have read, this one is immediately engaging with such a lively prose style that I found it to be a real page-turner. Orwell is simultaneously incredibly insightful and observant, but rarely harangues his readers. Instead he shows us the life he led for several years, described in often sickening clarity. I'm not a particular fan of posh hotels or restaurant dining anyway, but after spending a few hours with Orwell at his dead-end job in an overheated cellar kitchen, Iit will be a long time before I risk eating food I haven't personally seen being cooked for me!

What particularly struck me about Down And Out In Paris And London was the contrast in social attitudes in the two cities towards those down on their luck. In Paris, cheap accommodation is available - filthy, but affordable - and casual jobs can be had without too much fuss. Also Parisians have no issue with people sitting on the kerb if they are tired, or lying in a park when they have nowhere else to go. This isn't to say that Orwell and his companions had life easy in Paris - far from it. However I felt a far more positive attitude from him at this time. He mixes with many different people, from Russian royalty down men even worse off than himself, but there is usually a sense of camaraderie and hope.

The situation Orwell finds himself reduced to once in England struck a very disconcerting note. Again it is the social attitudes to homelessness which are most shocking, especially as I could see absolutely no improvement over the past eighty years from the callousness prevalent in the 1930s. The English not only choose to blame destitute people for their own misfortune, but also had developed a system that limited each man to only stay one night in a recognised hostel - a 'spike' which was basically an extension of the workhouse. The next night he must be fifteen or twenty miles away at another spike, the journey undertaken on foot with, if he is lucky, tea-and-two-slices (of bread and margarine to sustain him. How cruel and also how ridiculous! At this time, there are thousands of men effectively shut out of society because of this daily forced march. They can never stay anywhere long enough to put down roots and begin to integrate and contribute.

The total lack of empathy and understanding shown by the English towards destitution hadn't changed since Dickens' time and is still essentially Tory policy now. There are crystal clear parallels between the London segment of Down And Out In Paris And London and Terry Tyler's brilliant dystopian novel, Hope, both of which shine powerful spotlights onto the dehumanising belief that homelessness is only the plight of those that 'deserve' it. That, somehow, someone marching twenty miles a day, six days a week, on next to no food is just 'lazy'. That the best way to deal with homelessness is not to find ways in which everyone can be supported and hang on, but instead to kick the lowest rungs away and pat ourselves on the back that We could never end up like That. Though, of course, if it can happen to an Etonian boy like Orwell ...

Etsy Find!
by Mr Mustards Print Shop in
the UK

Click pic to visit Etsy Shop

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by George Orwell / Biography and memoir / Books from England


  1. I have this one and still need to read it which makes me so happy to see that you have this one at 5 stars! I didn't know this was actually mostly creative nonfiction and autobiographical which colours me all the more intrigued. And it sounds like the contrast between the two places is done so well!

  2. That is interesting, the difference in attitudes toward the poor and homeless. It's shocking how so many countries, and so many people, look so down on the homeless and never stop to think that it really could happen to anyone, and then society makes it so hard to get out of the situation.