Down and Out in Paris and London recounts Orwell’s time spent as a low-paid plongeur (dishwasher and hotel dogsbody) in Paris, and a tramp in London. This wasn’t some sort of literary adventure or self-test, but a time in which the young Eric Arthur Blair was searching for some sort of direction in his life, and fell upon genuine hard times. This was his first published book, and concern about how it might be received, and how its publication might affect his family, led to his using the pseudonym George Orwell.
There are some interesting insights into the life of poverty, as in this, early on: “You have talked so often of going to the dogs — and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”
Or the fact that poverty “annihilates the future”: “Within certain limits, it is actually true that the less money you have, the less you worry. When you have a hundred francs in the world you are liable to the most craven panics. When you have only three francs you are quite indifferent; for three francs will feed you till tomorrow, and you cannot think further than that.”
Orwell relates his own experiences and describes some of the other characters he meets in his time in the two cities. Occasionally he takes a chapter out to draw some conclusions, which make interesting reading, such as his asking why the work of a plongeur is at all necessary — he exists to slave away so that others may have the illusion of luxury, and why is that necessary? Or to point out that tramps are tramps simply because the law in England (at the time — I’m not sure about it now) forces them to move on after a few days, or be charged with vagrancy, thus creating an artificial situation.
I felt Orwell could have been more self-revelatory. What did it really feel like to be living such a life? At other times I was slightly shocked by his cultural snobbery, as in this passage: “But I imagine that the customers at the Hotel X. were especially easy to swindle, for they were mostly Americans, with a sprinkling of English — no French — and seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American ‘cereals’, and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet a la reine at a hundred francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce… Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.”
But what comes through is Orwell’s intelligence as applied to poverty as a social, rather than an individual, problem. He points out that the poor aren’t poor because they’re lazy, and that in fact unemployment is a greater burden on them than on the state, because of its sheer life-destroying boredom. There isn’t enough of that sort of thing in the book — certainly, few practical solutions are suggested — but what there is implies the basis of an interesting rethinking of the situations he finds himself in, looking at them practically, and asking those basic questions it’s so easy to forget to ask when something has been as it is for so long.