“Down and out in Paris and London” by George Orwell was his first full length work. It’s essentially autobiographical and tells the story of Orwell being poor in the late 1920s. basically. When he talks about poor, it’s not your average, nowadays poor of I can’t afford a pair of pretty shoes or I might have to forgo that Starbucks, but a state where everything depends onfood. Finding a penny in the gutter could make your week, as that would mean you can afford a hunk of stale bread, surviving for another day.
For the first half of the book, Orwell’s in Paris, scraping out a living amongst the whores and restaurant workers. It’s a complicated existence where he has to pawn his possessions to get money, but not too many to look destitute, or the boarding house managers will throw him out, rent paid or not.
His narrative style is odd but definitely Orwell – although he’s outside of the situation simply by it being his past, he manages to convey his emotions and feelings throughout, without being sentimental.
The second half of the book concentrates on him being homeless in London, after a job he returned for fell through. It describes a world where the homeless are provided for in the form of prison-like shelters, but most come with caveats. The Salvation Army ones demand prayer, which seems ridiculous as the men (the majority are men) barely have faith in themselves, let alone a deity who they can’t see or hear and is content to let them starve to death. Other shelters subject the ‘inmates’ to an intrusive full search, confiscating money, tobacco and anything else before they’re allowed to sleep on the concrete floor, with their boots as pillows if they’re lucky.
This all sounds pretty bleak. It was, and yet, Orwell carries you through his story with hope by painting vivid pictures of the characters he met along the way. It helps that he went on to become one of the greatest writers ever, and future echoes of “1984” are recognisable in the anger Orwell feels at being treated like cattle in the face of the establishment, and the despair of the men he mixes with at being trapped in a cycle they can’t get out of.
This is all relevant today – if you’re homeless, you can’t get a job and if you can’t get a job you can’t get a home. There are many choices to be made before you become homeless, but there are millions of people in the UK alone who are, or who have been, living on the streets. Orwell even proposes a solution – turn the ‘shelters’ into a self sufficient farm. The people who live there could be allowed to stay for longer than one night on the proviso that they farm the land to grow vegetables and raise animals. The people get food, shelter and a sense of self worth they may never have had. I’ve seen stuff on this sort of thing recently, but it’s a great idea that could work now – a half way house between the streets and a home.
Of course, this is a pretty Guardian view – there are people who feel more comfortable on the streets, they fit in there and have spent decades building up their lives based around a routine.
I don’t normally read books like this, but was highly recommended by Miss F and, at the end of the day, that’s what the book challenge is all about. I’m glad I read it though, and look forward to re-visiting Orwell soon.