Down and Out in Paris and London – Review

Book: Down and Out in Paris and London
Author: Erich Arthur Blair (George Orwell)
Year: 1933

After reading Animal Farm and 1984, which were simply brilliant books, this one was like re-learning the normal day to day affair of our “mundane” lives. Of course, it wasn’t exactly “normal day to day” this book, but when I say normal I mean that it was a tangible shift in perception from Orwell’s earlier books that I have read. For the record, Animal Farm and 1984, both, were written after the captioned book.

Orwell, after giving up Policing in Burma, returned to London and set his eyes on a writing career. He wrote for magazines and collected material for his story. It was during this stay in London that he collected material for Down and Out’s latter half. The factual accuracy notwithstanding, it is a grim picture painted about the daily efforts and difficulties in the life of a tramp; His food, his bed, his tobacco, it has it all.  Orwell saw the dirtiest, most saddening part of poverty in London and he has something profound to say about how the general population has a prejudiced opinion about them. This is but a small extract of the book:

First, what is a tramp?

A tramp is a native English species.  These are his distinguishing characteristics:  he has no money, he is dressed in rags, he walks about twenty kilometers a day and never sleeps two nights together in the same place.

In short, he is a wanderer, living on charity, roaming around on foot day after day for years, crossing England from end to end many times in his wanderings.

The tramp is cut off from women.  Few women become tramps.  For their more fortunate sisters the tramp is an object of contempt.  So homosexuality is a vice which is not unknown to these eternal wanderers.

Finally the tramp, who has not committed any crime, and who is, when all is said and done, simply a victim of unemployment, is condemned to live more wretchedly than the worst criminal.  He is a slave with a semblance of liberty which is worse than the most cruel slavery.

When we reflect upon his miserable destiny, which is shared by thousands of men in England, the obvious conclusion is that society would be treating him more kindly by shutting him up for the remainder of his days in prison, where he would at least enjoy relative comfort.

His descriptive writing strikes well because he answers every question that a person can possibly come up with. He will give you tiny details like how it is alright to sleep on benches in Paris at night, but one can go to prison for it in London and how even a death is irrelevant to a dishwasher working tirelessly when it interrupts his sleep.

There is a debate about the factual strength of Orwell’s accounts of Paris and London about which a little we’ve written about here. While there can be argument and counter arguments regarding it, here is what the man says himself.

I think I can say that I have exaggerated nothing except in so far as all writers exaggerate by selecting. I did not feel that I had to describe events in the exact order in which they happened, but everything I have described did take place at one time or another.

The book is not about how well he wrote. It’s NOT a story. It’s a peek into the world of the poor and the homeless. It is an account of how people live when going without food for 3-4 days at a stretch meant nothing strikingly out of the ordinary; when working for 17 hours daily became an escape from the monotony… only to dive headlong into another monotony!

Mundane things like cigarette end meant so much to those tramps, it’ll surprise you. It is something to sit back and wonder about Boris, a Russian emigrant so positive that Orwell keeps getting into minor troubles because of him. Orwell will tell you how bugs are more common in Southern London compared to Northern London and other trivia.

The schemes that Boris and Orwell come up with to find a little money, job, tobacco or even just to get their luggage out of their rooms quietly so they don’t have to pay rent before they run off reeks of either extreme care of detailing or brilliant penmanship, both of which, Orwell possessed no doubts. His memoirs from Paris talks about his life as a dishwasher or, as they call them there, a plongeur, talk about the extreme filth in restaurants.

We’ve all heard and read about how dirty the kitchens are. Orwell gave us more food for thought. His essay digs new lows for restaurants. There was an issue regarding this when a Hotelier wrote about how unfair his words were. Orwell replied with a nonchalant, “I do know that in our hotel there were places which no customer could possibly have been allowed to see with any hope of retaining his custom”.

Anyway, there is no mystery to unearth, no suspense to keep you turning the pages, no intelligent manipulation of words to get you all tense. It is all pretty much like a diary entry, which, technically, it is! I’m not here to tell you what the ending is like because of two reasons. One, it’s nothing dramatic to talk about and, two, why’d you want to know how it ends, anyway?


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