April #DavidBowieBookClub: George Orwell

Judging from David Bowie’s list of favourite books, I suspect he was not only a voracious reader but also very interested in issues of social justice and equality. After James Baldwin in February, April’s book club choice was Orwell’s seminal study of poverty Down and Out in Paris and London. A reread for me and one that I very much enjoyed. And yet another reason to love David Bowie.

Unlike more recent works in this area (very much worth reading too: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America or Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain), this is not a journalist going undercover to research poverty, but an actual memoir of a certain period in Orwell’s life, so more similar to Linda Turado’s memoir Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.

Working as a dishwasher in the Parisian kitchens (the lowest of the low in the hospitality industry hierarchy) to pay his rent, often going hungry, Orwell not only shares his personal story, but also the stories, hopes and disappointments of the people he meets along the way. This compassion and empathy for others shines through in his work, even when we flinch at some of the anti-semitic terms he uses. However, reading more carefully, this appears to reflect the common attitude at the time (he quotes others making these statements, for instance the joke about ‘Trust a snake before you trust a Jew. Trust a Jew before you trust a Greek. And trust any of those before you trust an Armenian’). Perhaps he is presenting these statements as so much rope for those speaking to hang themselves with. Or perhaps it’s just wishful thinking and he was a child of his time, although far more progressive than most.

In the second part of the book, he is living in homeless shelters in London and speaking to tramps, who had previously been misrepresented in literature. Orwell doesn’t make them stock figures of fun or sentimentalise them (the tramp with the heart of gold), like Dickens is prone to do. He does not see himself as superior or more deserving in any way. He gives them dignity and respect by listening to them and by telling their stories, in clear and fresh language that doesn’t sound at all as if it were written nearly 80 years ago.

The comparisons between squalor in Paris and in London are interesting as well: there are similarities but also differences. There are jobs in Paris, but they are exploitative ones with long hours, while in London it seemed easier to end up on the street. The poor were mainly foreign-born in Paris, while the London ones were natives. Of course, that was all about to change.

It is tempting to wonder what Orwell would have written if he had been living today. And to wonder why we don’t have many journalists writing today, willing to listen, understand, write in depth. Or is it that we don’t have people willing to listen and read?



19 thoughts on “April #DavidBowieBookClub: George Orwell”

  1. One of my forever heroes, Orwell. I do think (I hope) that more of us are AWARE of race, class, gender, different abilities, and what ‘rich, white, male, positions of mainstream privilege is’ But I am also absolutely sure that take ANY of us who are aware of this, and open to our own unconsidered privilege, and plonk us down in an earlier time -even a short time ago – and we would find ourselves – even the most enlightened of us – with some aspects of the unthinking of those times, reflected.

    Even though I know that I have always thought about these things, I know how my thinking has been continually challenged. It was not until I had an unhappy workplace experience of being the ONLY female in a travelling workplace environment that I BEGAN to think ‘what would it be like to be the only….. And I have to say that the ‘unhappy workplace experience’ was not in any way a traumatic one, these were politically, socially, conscious people, it was just a something about subtle shared experiences and there being no one seeing the world I was in from a female perspective. Recently, a black colleague on first meeting the group she would be working with for a year or so, noted ‘so I am the only black person, again, in a group’. Our journey together would be all about becoming more widely reflective, self-and-other aware, and again, this made me revisit the experience of being some kind of outsider

    1. Very good point – it is difficult to rise above our background, culture and times and be truly enlightened. [Although it scares me to see people forgetting the lessons of the past, and becoming LESS enlightened, but that is a different subject.]
      And there is an added bonus: my own love for Orwell is mirrored in my older son, who independently of me, declared Animal Farm was his favourite book and is also reading 1984 now.

  2. I’ve always liked Orwell very much, Marina Sofia, so it’s good to hear the book club did this one. And I think you’re absolutely right that Bowie was a voracious reader. That adds to my respect for him, no doubt about it.

  3. I myself could write a decent book about the plight of low income people with mental illnesses, esp schizophrenia, today, if anybody cared to read. Thanks to my late parents, I do own a home, and thanks to the federal and state gov I have a Lilliputian income and nutrition assistance, but even so, life is kind of gory sometimes. I had a terrible drinking problem that culminated not in cirrhosis and death but rather the indignity of treatment I received at the emergency room on Labor Day last year. I might write a post about that night for me. I succeeded and still do in staying sober, so now it’s only the schizo (sz for short) I live with every day. I take my medication, a second generation antipsychotic (a/p for short) called Vraylar (no Latin-derived name) every morning and hope for the best. I usually don’t complain, since most sz’s have it much, much worse than I have. President Trump (pardon the oxymoron) issued a statement last winter, something about mandating all mentally ill to be institutionalized. So, ho-de-ho, I sit by and wait and see if the asshole gets his way, or if maybe it was just the passing fancy of a harebrain whose lunacy is worse than mine. You never know. I have my own unpopular blog, http://robgradens.wordpress.com, if anyone is curious enough to read my interior world. It isn’t contagious, tho I recommend avoiding my posts from before 9/12/17. Thanks and have a thoughtful day 😀

    1. I am very, very sorry to hear about your troubles, It is frighteningly easy to get labelled and cast aside by society, and many of the homeless people on the streets of London do suffer from mental health problems that went undiagnosed or untreated for years. A lot more compassion, a lot less rush to judge, and a willingness to listen to people would do so much good in the world.

      1. Thanks for reading me. I guess it can take a few years to gather followers on WordPress. Thanks for the good wishes for me in grad school. A little luck would be fantastic.

  4. I’m sure Orwell woud have mentioned Amazon and their appalling working practices, which some journalists have exposed, and the gig economy, a hip phrase for piece work with which he would have been familiar.

    1. That was exactly what I was thinking about when I reread this book: ‘what would Orwell make of the gig economy and zero hours contracts?’

  5. God this is such a brilliant book. My dad borrowed it off me about a decade ago, when we were all on holiday and he’d run out of books. He read it in a week and didn’t stop talking about it for months. (Also, James Bloodworth’s just written a book called Hired which is very similar to the Ehrenreich and Toynbee titles you mentioned; he does six months in low-paid work, places like Amazon warehouses and call centres. It’s fairly grim reading.)

    1. Trust you to be adding to my list of books – I am fascinated by these kind of books (I studied social anthropology after all), so you can bet I will seek out Bloodworth’s book.

  6. This one has a very special place in my heart (a place where I love Orwell to bits, despite the dated elements). I was lucky enough to study this, 1984 and Animal Farm at Grammar School and ended up with a lifelong love of the man and his work. As you say, his prose is so clear and fresh, and despite its apparent simplicity, so clever. I know Lady F shares my love of Orwell and view of him as such a decent human being – we miss commentators of his calibre nowadays.

  7. The depressing thing is that despite the passage of years, it is still frighteningly easy for someone to find themselves without a roof over their head. Once you’re homeless, its incredibly difficult then to get yourself out of those circumstances.

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