Book Review: Down and Out in Paris and London

I finally got around to reading this after my friend suggested it. And let me say straight up that it’s an oddly life affirming read. I’ve always loved Animal Farm (having written an amazing assignment on it during Year 7) and 1984 is obviously a favourite classic. I’ve read a few Orwell short stories as well, but coming at this book a little bit later in life shook me up in all kinds of thought-provoking ways. Even better than the amazing insights Orwell gives the reader is the way the man writes. It’s sublime, hitting perfect notes constantly. It’s simplistic, yet manages to build towards fantastic conclusions. His journalistic nature definitely adds more to the prose. But enough gushing; what are the highlights? Well, too many to include them all.

Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work.

Oh man, what a doozy to start with. It’s a neatly balanced sentence, but it brings up my dislike of utilising the word ‘just’ …unjustly. Personally, I try to avoid including it in any sentence; it feels so plebeian. But I digress. Orwell is referring in this part to his neighbours in Paris. From here the book really gets going, and essentially hangs on this idea throughout. What is poverty, and why/how do people succumb to it? Is it merely a tool that allows a certain way of life? Though I must say that, at least today, money does not equate to freedom from labour. In a welfare state it might even be the other way around…

It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty…You thought it would be simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring.

Immediately I want to jump on Orwell’s use of the semicolon a.k.a. the most awesome piece of punctuation. I honestly can’t believe there is debate over its validity; anyone who disagrees should be forced to read Down and Out. I’m getting all giddy by looking at those sentences. Back to the topic, throughout the book Orwell really enforces the fact that poverty is extremely boring, and is perhaps the worst aspect of the whole ordeal. However, he somehow make his mundane experiences vibrant, interesting, and naturally verbose. The characters he meets are rich and full of their own stories, and at times it feels like they are right next to you regaling in another yarn.

The moral is, never be sorry for a waiter.

That speaks straight to me. In fact the whole retelling of life in hospitality hit a sweet spot in my mind. My jobs may never have been as crazy or harsh as Orwell describes, but there are definitely similarities to make. It’s written so enthusiastically that I almost wish I had experienced the 1930s stuck in a hotel kitchen. Almost.

The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.

Now my leftist side is coming out. This experience with poverty clearly affected Orwell in such a moving way, and the influences can be felt through most of his later work. He laments the fact that those in power to be able to change will never do so for fear of losing their grip on that power. And yet what is the difference between these people but cleaner threads? We are all as despicable or amiable as each other, and the only true determining factor is how much capital we own.

No, not necessarily. If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, “I’m a free man in here“—he tapped his forehead—and you’re all right.

This is where I am right now. I don’t have a lot (but that is not to say I am struggling, far from it), but I am quite content with books and reading and exploring my own ideas. This is why I’ve gone back to university, this is why I’m writing again with more vigour than before. This quote also highlights the simplicity of life—it is what you make of it. Earlier the same character had said that, “The stars are a free show; it don’t cost anything to use your eyes.” Never a truer word was said.

Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised.

This is as relevant today as it was then, perhaps more so. Again, Orwell muses on what really separates man from man: money. Race, gender, and sexuality may all have bearing on opinion and prejudice, but at the end of the day how much money (also known as power and capital) you have is what matters. Until we can even this playing field—and inequality is a growing concern—humanity will always be at war with itself.

A word becomes an insult, one would suppose, because it means something bad; but in practice its insult-value has little to do with its actual meaning.

Always the wordsmith, a little chapter on slang and swears is a good diversion from the road of poverty. And it makes me think about the word ‘gay’. Now, I understand that a lot of people take offence when someone says ‘That’s gay‘. However, when someone says those words, there is no longer a correlation to homosexuality (insulting someone by assuming that being gay is a bad thing is different). Like the word ‘bastard’ or ‘bugger’ it’s lost these connotations. That’s the way English goes, and clearly, from reading Down and Out, always has gone.

A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor—it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it.”

This quote is referring to tramps/beggars and their unseemliness towards charitable churches. What I thought of refers to government. Now, bear with me. Tax reforms, welfare, and other government subsidies are all necessary, but what if the reason we hate our politicians is because 1) there are more of us, 2) a platform to express dislike, and 3) because the government looks after us. They are our benefactors, and everyone from the 1% to the Great Unwashed Masses hates them for it. I’ll admit, it’s a flimsy argument that needs a lot of work, but it’s only a thought.

That’s not even all the quotes and highlights I marked. This is a book that is as relevant today as it was almost 100 years ago. I highly recommend it for anyone still young enough to have an open mind.

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One thought on “Book Review: Down and Out in Paris and London

  1. amandatse says:

    Hi !! I lenjoyed your post! I just finished reading a book and reviewing it on my blog. I think that you might enjoy it. It’s called “The Last Pet Shop in Belfast” http://amandatse.wordpress.com/caste-system-of-education/a-creative-and-great-find/

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