So I’m late to the game, I know that, but as an effort to re-engage with some of the books I had never quite got around to reading, I picked up a copy of Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ a couple of weeks ago.
I am increasingly looking for answers to some of the questions I have been asking myself about some of the gross inequalities in our society and thought by taking a step back to read one of the truly great essayists and what he said about inequality in a different era to see if there are any lessons to be learnt from the past.
I read the book through the glasses of one who is living in a society that is divisive as was the Europe of the late 20s although not necessarily in the same ways.
The book is an semi-autobiographical account of Orwell’s sojourn firstly in Paris, scavenging a living washing dishes in Paris. He intricately intersperses the details of his existence and the people who flit in and out of his life at this time drawing a picture of those who live on the lower edges of society. There are particular characters that come to life – particularly ‘Boris’ an acquaintance whose rich parents were killed during the Russian Revolution and ended up in the Russian Army before making his way to Paris.
Orwell’s characterisation of the people he meets in various lodgings and restaurants is perhaps one of the strongest elements of the book.
He intersperses the descriptions and almost anecdotal accounts of situations with his comment on the social situation and proves to be a resolute defender of those who have so little stake in a society in which they are forced to scrap around to make a living.
It is around his observations around the nature of the menial type of job that he undertakes and the attitude of the middle classes to denigrate those who have so little is where the book really shines and comes to life and that draws the differences between a memoir and an essay. His characterisation brings life to those who are struggling from day to day and it adds to his political message as – in the case of Gamu and her immigration status – real political stories carry a lot more power when we ‘know’ the protagonists.
Humans are drawn to stories about other humans who have a reality and personality more than political debate that is always about ‘other people’ – but back to Orwell
‘there is no doubt that people – comfortably situated people – do find a pleasure in such thoughts. A slave, Marcus Cato said, should be working when he is not sleeping. It does not matter whether his work is needed or not, he must work, because work in itself is good- for slaves, at least. This sentiment still survives, and it has piled up mountains of useless drudgery’.
Now, there’s an oblique lesson to be learnt there today in the world that is shifting back to the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ paradigm.
Orwell goes on to say
“A rich man, who happens to be intellectually honest, if he is questioned, about the improvement of working conditions, usually says something like this:
‘We know that poverty is unpleasant; in fact, since it is so remote, we rather enjoy harrowing ourselves with the thought of its unpleasantness. But don’t expect us to do anything about it. We are sorry for you lower classes, just as we are sorry for a cat with mange, but we will fight like devils against any improvement of your condition’ ‘”
After a series of events, Orwell is potentially offered work in London and so relocates.
The London passage of the book, I firstly read through different eyes. This is a city and an environment I know very well – when he talks about the places that the tramps occupy and seek solace in, Embankment, for example, I picture exactly the places he is describing.
His story in London is about the tramps and the ways and places they stay and live in London.
His first comment that
‘It (London) was the land of the tea urn and the Labour Exchange, as Paris is the land of the bistro and the sweatshop’
is explained by his confusion that the ‘plongeurs’ or dish-washers in the Paris restaurants and bistros never organised themselves into unions as their English counterparts might have.
His potential job doesn’t materialise so he moves from and through various doss houses and shelters. His comments on the Vagrancy Acts and the way that they have obliged these tramps to move on every night from fear of arrest are partly of their time but also link to a continuing attitude of sweeping these issues ‘under the carpet’.
He comments that
‘A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless of course – but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless. As a social type a beggar scores well with scores of others. He is honest compared with the sellers of most patent medicines, high-minded compared with a Sunday newspaper proprietor, amiable compared with a hire-purchase tout-in short, a parasite but a fairly harmless parasite. He seldom extracts more than a bare living from the community, and, what should justify him according to our ethical ideas, he pays for it over and over in suffering.
I do not think there is anything about a beggar that sets him in a different class from other people, or gives most modern men the right to despise him’
I wonder if the modern ‘take’ on the ‘beggar’ is the social security claimant. Food for thought. It is not a ‘good’ life and it is not a dignified life but somehow we (the middle classes) think we have gained the right to ‘sneer’.
‘In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or prarasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except ‘Get money, get it legally and get a lot of it’?. Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test, beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a reputable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living, like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.’.
Orwell has an artful rhetoric that holds particularly resonance today.
The specifics might change the the societal attitudes barely have. There are some details of difference of course which makes poverty in the 2010s a preferable life to that of poverty in the 1910s however our world is richer. We should learn through progress about equity and opportunity which have, no doubt increased.
But the stigmatisation of a group of people – that is very much alive and well and the message of the book remains rock solid.
Perhaps one of the reasons I had steered away from ever reading this before was that my school experiences with Animal Farm and 1984 – both fine books of course but ones I definitely associate with my GSCEs!
What I found by reading ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ was an appreciation of the skills of Orwell’s writing beyond fiction. There is no doubt that some of the details in Down and Out are fictionalised versions but there is an over-riding and very clear true strand that overarches the plot points and that is the lesson to be taken from it.
I would definitely recommend it. We need more Orwells – as for me, I’m off to get a copy of ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.