Down and Out in Paris and London is more than just a novel. It’s an analysis of poverty so profound and real that the reader is made to feel dirty, cold, and rejected by the ruthless society of the 1930s. It’s also terribly relevant in a world reeling from the realisation that globalism might not work for everyone, as proved by Trump and Brexit. This book brought me a tiny bit closer to understanding the extensive poverty which still exists in Britain, the world’s 6th largest economy.
Orwell starts the story in Paris, telling of a narrator unemployed and hungry, intermittently in backbreaking work as a waiter. The first few chapters are perforated by updates on how much money he has, pawning all his possessions because there is no work. As he counts away his last centimes, I was struck by the stark contrast between his obviously bleak situation and his fond affection for Boris, the fallen waiter who finds a job at Hôtel X.
Here, just as in 1984, Orwell sublimely captures the spirit of ‘ordinary folk’ from their obsession with tea and toast to the rigid, idiosyncratic hierarchy of the Paris hotel. It is an immensely hopeful book, presented in the way that the protagonist is happiest is during exhausting work at Hôtel X. His life as a plongeur is spent washing dishes and weathering abuse from the higher class waiters, working 16 hour days and barely stopping even to eat. But it’s better than the streets.
Particularly in London, Orwell nails an idea which is not apparent to those people lucky enough to not have been unemployed: To be out of work is to constantly and profoundly wrestle with a crushing boredom. There’s a reason it’s called an occupation – work occupies our time, stimulates us, gives us direction. Even though the hotel work nearly breaks his body, compared to the endless trudge of being homeless in London, Hôtel X is the most contented passage of the book.
It’s also important to note that even when employed at the Auberge de Jehan Cottard restaurant, he is not always happy. A chaotic and dirty existence there, under-staffing and an uncaring boss make for a miserable work life. From this we can draw parallels to today’s zero hours contract work – often unpredictable and always precarious, all for minimum wage.
Despite the dank of London and the stress of the Auberge, there’s always spirit and hope in this book. A band of homeless men at the Salvation Army, sneering and joking their way through a church service just so they can get a mug of tea, is an enduring example that humour survives poverty. When people are together, however bleak the circumstances, however poor the quality of tea, however little the pay, ordinary folk will be alright in the end. Life might be tough, Orwell says, but normal people are still cheerful.
It’s just one of many reasons why Orwell’s genius lives on, as politics cycle and parallels are made with Orwell’s depictions of London and Paris to almost a century on.
Words by Will Allsopp