Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

(Finished August 24, 2011 — Slacking on blogging!)

Down and Out in Paris and London is another book I’ve wanted to pick up for ages, but never got around to reading. I’m glad I did.

A very realistic and mostly autobiographical book, Down and Out describes George Orwell’s experiences living and working amongst the poorest of the poor in two of Europe’s most well-known and richest cities, (both of which I adore.)

Many people have a romantic vision of Paris and London. I certainly did. But now I know the neighborhoods around the Seine and the Thames are not all rosy. In my study abroad program, we learned about and spent time in every kind of neighborhood in Paris. One of our assignments was to attend and write about a market in the historically underserved neighborhood of Saint-Denis outside Paris. It really opened our eyes. (Story and pics: http://bit.ly/rlx2g8) And in London, we certainly wandered through some not-so-ideal places.

Anyway, none of that was as shocking as some of Orwell’s stories. (But of course, one must realize that he wrote decades ago.)

Orwell describes his experiences in a matter-of-fact way, not lingering in self-pity. He does not seek sympathy from his readers, but merely describes the lice-ridden public houses and the dirty George V hotel kitchens.

One of my favorite quotes from the book came when George’s acquaintance, a down-and-out Englishman, was discussing how he failed to let his economic standing affect his mind.

Bozo said: “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.” (p. 165)

Another great quote to ponder: “In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except ‘Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it.’? Money has become the grand test of virtue.” (p. 174)

So true. And depressing.

Another favorite addition was the glossary beginning on p. 174 of British slang of the day. For example, a clodhopper was a street dancer, a toby was a tramp and kip, a place to sleep.

My francophile and anglophile tendencies were more than satisfied by this book. If you share those interests, you should read it post-haste.

Down and Out in Paris and LondonDown and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Filed under biography, historical fiction

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