Reflections on ‘Down And Out In Paris And London’

This is not a formal review as such but just a few thoughts on a valuable book which makes telling observations on the underclass (and sometimes merely the unlucky) of society. This book was published in 1933 and is apparently based on Orwell’s real experiences living on the edge of poverty in Paris and London. Taking the narrator of a book as a character based on Orwell, we don’t find out a lot about whether he has a family who could act as an escape route from the life he finds himself in but we know that he has done some journalistic work and been an English tutor. The impression given is of a man of some means who is experiencing the discomforts of the life for real but is perhaps also a voyeur of sorts. Knowing Orwell now as a writer and not just the protagonist of the story, the book could be read with the impression of one gathering experiences as possible material for a book. Orwell had not been published up to that point, however, so we should give him the benefit of the doubt on that score. Interesting to fast forward 60 years to the 1990s and the rise of the backpacking culture. Many backpackers are middle-class and of means but willingly plunge themselves into a period of survival on a limited budget and some degree of spontaneity when compared to the 2-week holidaymaker. Some make genuine changes to their life both in circumstance and general values while knowing that there is a safety net to catch them if it all becomes too much.

The ‘plot’ as it is finds Orwell working as a ‘plongeur’ (essentially a dishwasher in a hotel kitchen) in Paris and then doing the rounds of doss houses in London for around 2 months while waiting for a promised job to become available. In Paris, he writes of incredibly long hours of work in hot, cramped and stressful kitchen situations, where workers seem to be in character and take out their frustrations on each other as a means to survive and preserve their sanity. He meets all manner of characters with all manner of life stories and writes largely without judgement, one of the common themes of the book. The tramps who dominate the London segment of the book have their own hierarchy and values while seeming to naturally think as one in certain situations, not surprising due to their sharing of a rather extra-ordinary (in the literal sense of the word) station in life.

This is what they do, but what impression does Orwell give of the life itself and the people who populate it? Among few positives, Orwell writes that ‘poverty annihilates the future’, written in the sense that it eradicates the worries that burden those with the financial means to have a discernible future of choices and possibilities. He writes of ‘relief of being at last genuinely down and out. You have talked often of ‘going to the dogs’ and, well, here are the dogs and you have reached them and you can stand it.’ Personally, i think there is something to say for living on your wits and having few possessions, which are actually precious to you and worth defending. Disposable income so often means filling your house with useless trinkets and objects saved for the proverbial ‘rainy day’ which never seems to come.

We buy 100 books, CDs, DVDs etc…, always meaning to read/listen to/watch them, but inevitably find ourselves falling back on the few we really like and relate to and which give us genuine pleasure. We also have a tendency to glamorise poverty to some extent, perhaps sensing that we would like to own less and have less to defend.

Having said that, this is just a short paragraph of the book and simply serves to show that almost any situation can have good and bad aspects in comparison to another. Nothing is black-and-white. This solitary paragraph is to life on the edge of poverty what Trainspotting was to heroin. There’s a glimmer of relief in an otherwise desperate and often frightening existence. The difference of course between life as a tramp, or a virtual slave doing a job of back-breaking, badly-rewarded toil, and a heroin addict is that the latter at least has a recognisable high which can generally be relied upon to deliver. Other than the afore-mentioned calming effect of no burdensome decisions to make about the future, there is no high in the life that Orwell lives and observes in Paris and London. There is release of pressure of course, and this comes out for the majority in generally rude behaviour and verbiage towards those around them and for some in violence.

What might be surprising to some is the importance given to the role of boredom in this life. Before the modern world of endless possibility for distraction, boredom must have been a fact of life for those in all sections of society, but for the down-and-outs it is all-consuming and debilitating. As a ‘plongeur’ in Paris, it is not such a problem as his/her life consists of time-pressured marathon shifts, so most downtime is taken up by catching a few hours of precious sleep. In the various levels of lodging houses, tramps’ hostels and Salvation Army shelters of London, however, there is intolerable idleness to be suffered, without even one’s personal space for comfort.

Above boredom though, the two biggest ‘great evils’ in a tramp’s life are hunger and its accompanying malnutrition, and the lack of contact with the opposite sex. So, in essence the tramp is deprived of food, sex and usefulness, and Orwell attempts to use this deprivation to explain away certain myths about tramps somehow being characters disposed to nomadism, drunkenness and criminality. Orwell argues well that the first of these traits is entirely caused by the laws of the time not allowing tramps to stay in the same place. Of the latter two, Orwell doesn’t find these to be essential parts of the tramp’s makeup at all. The author sees the tramp as a person forced by his circumstances to play out an essential role for survival and to find relative comfort whenever he can. It is alarming to read of the laws of the time, and how society seems almost to want to make the tramp’s life as hard as possible and keep him down. Orwell often wrote of this need to keep the underclass down, which by the time of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ was apparently 99% of the population, in order to stop them having time and space to think about the realities of the system they live in and are brought up to accept. It’s interesting at this point to compare Orwell’s later vision in ‘1984’ with that of Aldous Huxley in ‘Brave New World’. In the former view of dystopia, people are kept down by intimidation and the ever-present threat of violence while in the latter they are subject to prolonged suggestion by ‘sleep teaching’ and then dumbed-down by simple pleasurable distractions. In any case, as a first novel ‘Down And Out In Paris And London’ sets the scene for many of the themes and general outlook of Orwell’s later, perhaps more polished, books.

In conclusion…instead of my own, I’ll simply quote the final short chapter of Orwell’s book, which needs to be read in its entirety to understand the main things that the author gathered from his experiences. ‘I can point to one or two things i have definitely learned from being hard up. I shall never again think that tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when i give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.’