While I've read most of Orwell's novels I have somehow never got around to his non-fiction. As I was a journalism student, this is close to criminal....moreWhile I've read most of Orwell's novels I have somehow never got around to his non-fiction. As I was a journalism student, this is close to criminal. In happy remedy to this, BBC radio is currently having an Orwell season, all the programmes (readings, adaptations and documentaries) archived for posterity at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pyz0z so please pay it a visit.
Down and Out in Paris and London is, along with The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, considered one of the great pieces of reportage of the 20th century. Orwell's description of his time living on (and below) the breadline in these two capitals is breathtaking. He manages to combine a journalistic distance with a visceral understanding and explanation of what it means to be truly broke, to a level which is almost inconceivable in the same societies scant decades later. His descriptions of hardship never come across as unfair or whining, partly because the level of poverty is so extreme but mostly due to the fact that he so often compares his own plight with others he meets who are even worse off than himself; Orwell has the expectation that his privation is temporary (and we know this to be the case, in retrospect) many of the people he meets are sinking to depths he assumes he will never reach, habituated to their lot, or otherwise hopeless cases. Yet Orwell's writing is infused with compassion and a sense of social justice that he is never condescending to or belittling of their situations; without preaching he draws attention to the social inequalities that not only allow but require people to beg or starve, that marginalise a large section of society to the impoverishment of everyone due to the moral damage and human waste this engenders. Such ire as Orwell expresses (and there is not much; this is a book of compassion rather than anger) is reserved for those who perpetuate the status quo - whether they are those who use their power over anyone worse off than themselves, the religious charities who exploit the need of the poor to spread their message or those vagrants who still somehow buy into the injustice.
This is, perhaps, the definitive example of journalism as social activism, and serves not only as a reminder of how things once were but as a warning in a time when social safety nets are being dismantled in the name of austerity of the very real social and human dangers of a society that is happy to regard those who have fallen on hard times as surplus to requirements.(less)