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?