George Orwell felt awkward for being middle class, once he started to make a bit of money as an author this added to his awkwardness and he spent a lot of time in dank and impoverished surroundings.
This book is largely autobiographic, it tells of his time spent with the homeless. Orwell would pretend to be a tramp, not just pretend - he would live as a tramp from time to time. It was his time as a tramp that feed the ideas in this book.
Orwell writes about the camaraderie in the tramp community with warmth, you can feel his fondness for the people he is writing about.
The tramp experience covers only the second part of the book.
The first part describes the life of Parisian hotel/restaurant kitchen workers. It isn't glamorous. It is a life devoid of love, warmth, and happiness. Boris is the star of the "Paris" part of this book.
This is not only one of Orwell's finest pieces of work, it is a book that changes how you feel about life. When I read this book I was struggling financially - but this book put things in perspective, and I still imagine scenes in this book when times are hard.
The contrast between the "Paris" and "London" aspects of the book couldn't be more different, even though both are concerning that corner of society who seem to have nothing.
Read this book on the bus/train on the commute to work and you'll get lost in the dark visuals it inspires. The book had many place names and people's names removed for fear of being libellous, at first this seems clumsy but you get used to it.
on 15 February 2003
One word to describe this book would be "grimy" although that does not convey the wonderful writing style of Orwell- perhaps "almost glamorous grime" would be better. Never have I read such a good book that describes the poverty, dirt and atmosphere of the early twentieth century. The café/hotel culture of Paris and sharing tiny rooms with an assortment of characters in Paris seems to come alive with wit and verve. Similarly the boarding houses and homeless hostels "spikes" in London are gloomier but no less interesting.
Orwell introduces us to many eccentric people without the sexual overstatement that flawed Miller's Tropic Of Cancer- also set in Paris. The detail of the work washing pots and cooking food in the bowels of hotels in France is an eye opener as is the treatment of the homeless in London. Among the day-to-day living Orwell gives us some fascinating facts such as the (lack of) hygiene in the most expensive Parisian restaurants and that there were almost no homeless females in the 1920's.
Orwell's style is always gripping and we can see the beginnings of what he was later to refine further into 1984 and Animal Farm among other works. This is an excellent read that I would recommend to all- it has a wonderful mix of character, style, atmosphere and fact that is irresistible.
on 9 November 2006
If ever there was a book deserving the title 'modern classic', this is it. A thought provoking and subtle collection of anecdotes that will make you laugh and out loud and balk at the extremes of poverty described in equal measure. The fact that Orwell avoides self indulgence and manages to evoke a genuine sense of compassion is truely remarkable and whatever your political orientation, having read this book it is hard to feel anything but respect for the man.
Despite its age, down and out still strikes a resonant chord in the modern world and while much has changed in the intervening years, there are still enough parralels with todays society to make you take stock of the world we live in.
I greatly enjoyed this book and recommend everyone to read it.
on 26 October 1998
Most people are only familiar with Orwell through either Animal Farm or 1984, but Orwell has so much more to offer than just these two excellent books. Take Down and Out In Paris and London for example, it can be considered Orwell's first masterpiece as well as just his first book. In Down and Out In Paris and London the reader is given a glimpse at the dirty streets of both Paris and London in the 1930's, but through the unique eyes of Orwell. Not only does the reader see what it is to be "down and out" in these two world cities, but also the reader experiences why people become "down and out" through Orwell's narrative. We as readers learn that most of the people that are out on the street are not there by their own choice, but rather by the most unfortunate of circumstances. If one wants to experience Orwell, but not read the overread Animal Farm or 1984, read Down and Out In Paris and London because it is truly one of the early treats that Orwell produced. However, one must have an elementary background in French since many of the Paris scenes have French dialogue, and it would be most helpful to have this French knowledge to truly understand the book .
First published in 1933, this was George Orwell’s first full length book which made it into print. Although it reads as though the events within it were concurrent, in fact much of the latter part of the book was published as an essay, titled, “The Spike,” while the author was in Paris. However, the fact that events do not necessarily follow the narrative, certainly does not invalidate the book, or the points that Orwell makes – sadly still very valid today.
The first half of the book sees Orwell in Paris. Although certainly not flush, he does not experience poverty until his meagre savings are stolen. Orwell’s aunt was, as we now know, in Paris at the time – although we do not know whether she helped him financially. Whether she did or not, it is certainly that he did experience financial hardship and that this led him to taking up work as a lowly dishwasher in hotels and restaurants. The scenes of hotel life are so vividly written that you have no problem imagining the organised chaos, sheer filth and wonderfully exotic characters that exist within the pages. Paris, at that time, had a huge Russian émigré population and Orwell is befriended by Boris, a Russian refugee and waiter. Through him, Orwell embarks on arduous attempts to find work. When work is finally obtained, the seventeen hour days, exhaustion and grinding work is offset by the possibility of eating regularly. Some of the characters in the Paris section of the book work so long that they seem trapped in kitchens and hotels around the city. If you go out for a meal after reading this book I will be very surprised!
In the book, Orwell returns to England after finally being driven to write to a friend to help him find work. When he arrives in London, he is lightly told that his employers had gone abroad for a month, but “I suppose you can hang on till then?” Of course, things did not happen quite this way – as we know, the London part of the book was written before the Paris section. Orwell was later to insist that the events within the book had taken place, albeit not in the order they are written here and it is not necessarily important that a little artistic tension is used to give the storyline a little tension.
The London section of the book sees Orwell living as a tramp in London. A real down and out, tramping from one hostel, or ‘spike’ to another. He shows the reality of that life – of being forced to move on constantly, because of rules which refused a man a bed two nights running, the way the tramps were forced into prayer meetings for a cup of tea and a bun, of their resentment and discomfort, of laws which meant the police could move tramps on if they were asleep and the general discomfort and filth they lived with.
This is moving journalism, which really presents a vivid portrait of a life on the edge. As Orwell points out, when funds are low panic sets in. When there is nothing, there is just existence from one meal to the next. He makes many valid points about how the poor are treated and how their life could be improved. Having just read a news report which suggested that so many people in Britain are reduced to using food banks due to problems with their benefit payments and punitive punishments, you have to sadly conclude that his conclusions about the treatments of people living in poverty are still more than valid.
on 27 August 2002
My copy of this book is now a sorry, ragged mess.
Thanks to the tireless work of the British comprehensive system, I lacked the prerequisite sociolagy smarts to properly dissect and analyse the dated bi-partisan frictions of Communism and Fascism that so underpin most of Orwell's blah blah blah...
I always hated those dry academic prefaces at the beginning of every Orwell book. Thay always stood - like a pompous party bore - between me and another one of Mr Orwell's frank and funny guide books to that long vanished world of his.
And by God, what a bloody awful place it was!
Desperate poverty, grinding unemployment, a gloomy pecking order of class riddled britons - many of them hoping for a war - just to relieve the monotony and stagnation of their society.
Hardly your average Dean Koontz.
But the thing that always had me wanting to barge past that pedagogic party bore and hurry away into that poor, battered book - was Orwell's voice. How simply and beautifully he brought to life those long-gone people who populated that prosperity-free period - Boris the crippled waiter, Bozo the street screever (pavement artist to you and I) even Paddy - the self pitying Irishman, too cowardly with hunger to steal a bottle of milk from a step.
It wasn't long before I too could feel the rock-hard convex mattress that Orwell clung onto in some flea-pit Doss House.
And surely I could almost hear the drunken murmur of a Parisian bar, as Orwell and his fellow denizen dishwashers settled in for another night's conference - courtesy of the coarse African wine.
But I've rattled on long enough.
The upshot is: that the myriad of Orwell snobs out there will tell you that this is: 'a technically flawed piece' or: ' a work full of oddly endearing flaws'.
Flaws? What bloody flaws? Where? Show them to me!
Don't listen to that tosh. Buy this book. Be transported through time. Laugh with shocked disbelief - yes laugh - at the horror of it all - safe in the comfort of your 21st century - because none of these blokes tell you how funny Orwell is!
Not many of those literary Larrys ever bother to describe the wonderful way that Orwell brings such comic irony and razor-sharp observation to those people and the abominable social situations that he and his tramping companions had to gamely and bravely struggle through.
I guarantee that if you fall sway to my rantings and buy this book, you will soon possess a sorry, ragged mess of your own.
Or you could always buy the latest Dean Koontz...
on 25 September 2002
Orwell was ahead of his time, really, as his incredibly crisp and intelligent writing will show. Following his 'adventures' through abject poverty, he writes philosophically on his situation and with a very constructive and forgiving manner. He treats things more like an experiment than a terrible situation, his tone as if he did it all for a laugh. Mind you, some of the people who he meets are truly fascinating, in particular the through and through communist, who when totally drunk, becomes a straight faced patriot. Bozo, too, was a tragic figure, but a remarkable man with magnificent outlooks. Reading it made me feel like Orwell was still alive, just simple looking back on his days of youth with all the modern world around him. Instead, the rather depressing knowledge that everyone in that book is now dead. Orwell would have a interesting thing to say about that, I'm sure. One final word, the book is brilliant.
on 16 March 2014
Not many ex-public school boys would have had the confidence and self denial to live as Orwell did, literally down and out and starving for brief periods as described in this book. His indifference to what others ,his peers and contemporaries felt , is also admirable. The book is of course marvellously written and the second part of the book which deals with the political reasons for the poverty and disease he witnessed is as relevant today as when written , the tragedy being that the middle classes, who differ from those of the 30's and 40's , still do not understand their exploitation by those who hold power, altho again the exploiters now differ to some extent (multinationals and bankers). Bankers were always around of course, but were much less greedy in that period.
on 17 January 2016
An autobiographical tale which reads far more like a novel.
Orwell introduces a fascinating and highly diverse range of characters, all of whom he brings to life and weaves into his story of survival on the breadline in the underbelly of two great cultural cities (although he wanders further afield out of London).
The situations are acutely observed and you can almost feel his politics being formed in the stories.
His writing is eminently engrossing and I felt that I was alongside him as one of the unseen and uncared for cogs which make the wheels of life turn.
This is one of those books I have been meaning to get for ages and I am really pleased that it lived up to the wait.
A very enjoyable read which hasn’t dated in style or substance.
on 11 May 2005
I was completely captured by this book from the first page. Having only previously read "Animal Farm" and "Nineteen Eighty-Four" I thought that it was time to explore some early Orwell and make a comparison. Much like with musicians it is usual their early work that they get the most respect for and I feel that it should be the same case here. You get lost in the book and really feel like you are down and out at times, such is the power of the text.
Granted, it is not as fundamentaly powerful as the two mentioned books but it has a different kind of message to it completely, it is a true story for the most part. Whereas "Nineteen Eighty-Four" strikes me as slightly pretentious this is an honest book from an honest and humble, young aspiring writer.
In short the book is a good days reading, excellent when it is raining like when I read it because you get sucked into it. Unlike other, similar down and out stories the book escapes from appearing monotone in your head and depressing, possibly because Orwell turned into a cult hero showing there is hope for all of us.