Janet's Reviews > Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
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Aug 01, 2011

it was amazing

Like “The Road to Wigan Pier”, this book is a social commentary about the lives of ordinary lower-class people living on, or below, the breadline.

The first 23 chapters look at Orwell’s life in the slums of Paris where he finds himself living in a squalid, bug-infested ‘hotel’ which is really little more than a doss house. At first he was able to make a little money by giving English lessons, but they soon came to an end and he had to pawn most of his possessions.

Thanks to a friend, Boris, he got a job working fifteen hours a day as a ‘Plongeur’ (basically someone who washes up!) in a hotel working in hot, dirty conditions for very little money. After moving to a hotel with better prospects, only to end up doing the same job for even longer hours, Orwell decided to head back to England and with financial help from a friend he reclaimed his belongings from the pawn shop and purchased a ticket back to the UK, where he had been promised a job taking care of an ‘imbecile’.

However, on returning to England, the start date for his new job was delayed for a month so he sold his clothes and took to the road (after a brief spell trying different boarding houses). He befriended a tramp called Paddy and they travelled together, sometimes walking as many as 18 miles a day between various towns, staying at “The Spike” - a colloquial term for the Workhouse.

A vagrant was only allowed to spend one night per month at a particular institution - any longer, or to return within a month, meant prison. Here they swapped their squalid clothes for a uniform (whilst their clothes were fumigated), a bath, a bed and some little, poor quality food. In the morning, they would perform various duties to ‘pay for their keep’ before being given a meal of bread and cheese to take with them, or a voucher for exchange at a local café.

There were various ways for people on the road to get a meal, including soup kitchens, visiting churches (where they would get a good meal but then have to attend a religious service before being allowed to leave), but mostly society felt that these people chose to live like this without looking at the reasons they’d ended up having such a life, so they were treated badly, their diet was poor and life was very hard.

Of course, for Orwell, although he lived amongst these people and lived exactly like them, he had the safety net of family and friends - this way of life for him was really so that he could observe the living conditions in order to write firstly essays on homelessness and then later this book.

Orwell’s writing style is very easy and he has real empathy for these people and therefore writes with sympathy and compassion. It’s a fascinating read and one I really enjoyed.
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