George Orwell is probably most of the well-known authors around the world, with his book Nineteen Eighty-Four being on almost all ‘every book to read before you die’ list. And while Nineteen Eighty-Four is a well written and thought-provoking book, I also feel that Down and Out in Paris and London is equally as important to read, but for a different reason. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian novel that centres around the consequences of government over-reach, totalitarianism, mass surveillance and severe regimentation of people and their behaviours within society, but Down and Out deal with an issue that might hit slightly closer to home.
In this book, Orwell describes the life of poverty in two cities, Paris and London. In Paris, he explains how he has just lost his job and all his savings, through unfortunate circumstances and a robbery by a strange Italian man. In a desperate need to find work, he and his friend Boris turn to the restaurant business and work long hours with extremely little pay. Throughout his time in Paris, Orwell describes the struggles of being a working man in Paris met with empty promises of job opportunities and a wistful desire for a better life.
The second part of the book moves to London, where Orwell is living the life of a homeless man travelling from shelter to shelter. He intended to be working for a family, but upon arrival, they inform him that they will not need his services for another month. So Orwell, similarly to in Paris, sells his clothes and tries to get by day-by-day. He spends the night in a series of dirty lodging houses, casual wards, and charitable establishments run by organisations like the Salvation Army. The story goes onto describe the people he meets and their backgrounds.
In this day and age, it is hard to know how to act towards homeless people. While I am always inclined to give food rather than money, sometimes I try and remember not to pass judgement on them so quickly. There is a particular inclination to believe that all homeless people will spend their money on drugs, but is that any different than all the 18-year-olds nowadays going to clubs and taking coke? Why is that more readily accepted, than an adult who has probably faced a lot of hardship to get to that point where they are living on the street.
While reading Orwell’s book, the idea struck me of how displaced we become from understanding homeless people, and how comfortable we feel in judging them. I suggest anyone read Down and Out if you’ve never spoken to someone in that situation before and want to see it from their perspective. Obivously I understand that book is set in a different time period, but the feelings and experiences do not seem to be greatly different.
Until next time,