Book review

Down and Out in Paris and London was Orwell’s first full-length book. It is written in the form of a memoir, describing the time Orwell spent living on or near the breadline in London and Paris. I’ve not been able to ascertain whether this pairing of the two capital cities was a deliberate nod towards Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, or whether the symmetry is a simple consequence of Orwell’s time spent in both capitals. The book is also about two cities in another sense – that of the prosperous middle and upper classes and that of the working and underclass. So the symmetry works really well, even if it was accidental!

The first part of the book is Orwell’s account of his time working in hotel and restaurant kitchens in Paris. This was the original core of the book, to which the second, London-based half was later added. It covers a period of around ten weeks. You wouldn’t know it from this account, but Orwell lived in Paris for approximately two years, from the time he quit his job in the Imperial police force in Burma. Why Paris? By this point in his life Orwell was completely committed to being a full-time writer, and Paris had the attraction of a) being a cheap place to live, compared to London, and b) the home of a thriving artistic community, including a large Russian émigré community. Basically it was a lot more exciting than London.

At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all 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.

I can probably guess how Orwell spent most of his time in Paris, but in March 1929 he had most of his money stolen, forcing him into seeking a job. He had the option of reaching out to family or friends – or anyone else in the English community in Paris, (none of whom are even mentioned – taken at face value this book suggests that Orwell was the only Englishman in Paris in the 1920s!) but instead he took a job as a dishwasher in a very posh hotel and then latterly in a small bistro. His experiences in these establishments and his thoughts on the social structures that underpin them form the bulk of the first half of the book, and for some time were the only part of the book – it wasn’t until after several rejections by publishers that Orwell had the idea of welding his English down and out experiences to the text, immeasurably strengthening the overall structure.

Orwell left Paris in December 1929 and returned to his parents’ house in Suffolk. While waiting for a job as a private tutor to begin he went ‘tramping’, not for the first time (as the book implies). That is to say he put on some dirty clothes, left most if not all of his money behind, and set off on the road to live among the down and out. His experiences in ‘spikes’ are vividly recorded. Spikes were temporary hostels for the homeless, often constructed as part of the workhouses which still existed in pre-war England. In 1905 a Royal Commission had recommended that specialised institutions for different classes of the poor and homeless be established, and spikes, where you were only allowed to stay one day per month, were a result. The rules of the spikes were punitive and humiliating, and Orwell captures the misery of them perfectly.

The history of the publication of the book is quite interesting. Following rejections from several publishers Orwell effectively abandoned the typescript at the home of a family friend. Proving the adage that it’s not what you know, but who, this friend showed the text to a literary agent, who in turn offered it to Gollancz, who offered to publish it subject to the excision of some curse words and a few other changes to make them less likely to be sued. The title went through various iterations – Confessions of a Down and Outer, Confessions of a DishwasherThe Lady Poverty, In Praise of Poverty, only settling on Down and Out in Paris and London at the last. This was the first time Orwell used his pseudonym, again having toyed with various alternatives. It seems the pseudonym was used to save his respectable family any potential embarrassment given the slightly sordid subject matter.

It did not occur to me when I first read Down and Out to question how accurate it was. Perhaps I more sceptical nowadays – certainly I wonder to what extent Orwell embroidered his account? He made several differing comments on this question, leaving the issue unclear. I think the honest truth is that he omitted some detail and reordered others, but the essential truth of the memoir is unavoidable – there’s nothing here that is over the top, unbelievable or cause for any doubt. The events of the book are almost bland in their plainness. But somehow this fairly uneventful narrative has had an impact far beyond the sum of its parts. Perhaps this is because we know it is the first major work by an author who was going to go on to write in a few short years 1984, Animal Farm and so much more. You can quite easily see many of the essential principles of Orwell’s writing technique in Down and Out – the lack of over-ornamentation, use of plain English, and a willingness to say the unsayable (the f-bomb is dropped casually in a later chapter about the language of the streets.)

I’ve mentioned this in previous reviews of some of Orwell’s books, but his views on Jewish and gay people haven’t aged well. He is casually anti-Semitic in the way he writes about Jewish people, and expresses similarly dismissive attitudes towards gay people. There are worse examples elsewhere in his journalism, letters and diaries, but I wouldn’t want to dismiss the examples that appear despite this.

Orwell has been in the UK media a lot in recent days because of the dispute between one of the BBC’s presenters and the organisation itself on the question of freedom of speech. Lots of commentators have pointed out the irony of the BBC trying to censor Gary Lineker for his comments on Government immigration policy all the while ignoring this quote from Orwell which is on the wall of its main entrance:

Well said, as always. Apparently the quote comes from a draft preface to Animal farm which was never used. Just one more irony to go alongside the fact that at the time he worked at the BBC in the early 1940’s, Orwell was effectively a propogandist for the UK Government!


Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell, 1933


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