Book Club: Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell

George Orwell is perhaps best known for his seminal works 1984 and Animal Farm.  One of his lesser-known works that I’ve come to appreciate is Down and Out in Paris and London.  The book is an examination of working class poverty in 1929 Paris and London.  It is true that George Orwell had a safety net.  Just as Thoreau lived on Emerson’s property for free and often went back into Concord to either dine or do laundry while he toiled away writing Walden, Orwell always had the ability to contact his middle-class family for help if he did get into real trouble.  Knowing that does, in a way, vitiate some of the desperation we read about.

That being said, the short chronicle, weighing in at just past 200 pages, is worth the read, if only to appreciate just how “first-world” our problems these days really are when so many of us have running water, indoor plumbing, and a bed to call our own.

For, when you are approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others.  You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future. (from Chapter III)

Obviously, there is a stoic positivity to this – who needs to worry about tomorrow?  Focus on the daily.  And yet, that annihilation of the future also implies a destruction of dreams and goals.

There’s a humorous moment in the book when I realized that immigration problems don’t just belong to our century.  Orwell recounts a visit to the pawnshop:

And then, after all our trouble, the receiver at the pawnshop again refused the overcoats.  He told me (one could see his French soul revelling in the pedantry of it) that I had not sufficient papers of identification; my carte d’identité was not enough, and I must show a passport or addressed envelopes.  Boris had addressed envelopes by the score, but his carte d’identité was out of order (he never renewed it, so as to avoid the tax), so we could not pawn the overcoats in his name. (from Chapter VII, emphasis mine)

There’s also an unexpected insight into the life of waiters and service staff in Parisian hotels and restaurants, where Orwell has to turn for work as his money dwindles away to nothing.  One would hope that hygiene and other practices recounted in the book have improved…but perhaps they are simply toned down rather than gone.

A good 65% of the book is dedicated to Paris – the rest to London.  Perhaps the biggest surprise was how prepared the English were to accommodate the homeless through a series of government shelters.  They were dreadful, but still offered room and board for a night.

In one of the final chapters Orwell reflects that: “The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and spiritually.”  If the book inspires you to do anything, it may be to help people out of poverty, and the first world does have real and practical tools to do that, starting with sites like Kiva, which allows you to loan as little as $25 to people looking to improve their lives around the world through various endeavors and projects.

But perhaps the lasting lesson for me is that today, as in Orwell’s time, it is possible to live meanly, or even well, for not a lot of money.  Reading about the darkness Orwell experienced makes you appreciate the City of Light that much more.

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Homelessness in Paris

Homelessness is an issue in any big city, but it’s an absolute epidemic here in Paris.  The local phrase translates into English as “sleeping rough,” and from what I can tell by conversing with fellow Parisians, it’s only been on the rise as of late.  Yet, in that recognition, there is a sense that it’s an accepted way of life rather than a problem that will be eradicated anytime soon.

20090402_paris_homeless02A socialist way of thinking in France ensures a high level of tolerance for homelessness.  People set up tents on frequently traveled streets.  People sleep in store doorways after those stores close, and in subterranean car parks when it’s cold (those places are quite warm), and in the metro (all the time).

The homeless themselves have their own routine.  You can catch them hanging out, reading, or holding puppies, which leads to a 500% increase in the level of donation.  “Oh, you have puppies, so you must need more money,” not, “You’re homeless, why the hell do you have a dog?”

At least once a day someone will get on the metro and make a speech.  They’ll cite children, or being out of work, or some other malady.  They then walk through the car, cup or hand extended.  People will donate mostly on your appearance.  Avuncular and kindly-looking types clean up.  Young and unkempt routinely get nada.  Women are 50/50.  Once they’ve gone through your carriage, at the next stop, they go to the next carriage and repeat the routine.

Buskers (people playing music) get donations purely based on their quality.  There is a guy at Opera who is at the change to the 8 Line every Sunday (that’s the station I change at to go to Mass) who plays his accordion with an amp which distorts the sound and gives nobody any peace for the 3-4 minutes we are waiting on the platform for our train.  I’m too annoyed to donate.  But last week there were these two guys playing acoustic guitar who TOTALLY cleaned up.  This wasn’t just because they were handsome guys playing guitar (surely some scribbled phone numbers were mixed in with those euros), but also because they happened to be GOOD.  They had decent voices and were playing the strummy catchy music you wouldn’t mind hearing on your metro trip.  There IS money to be made in the metro – we always have spare change in our pockets – and unlike in the US where coins are mostly denominated under $1USD, in Europe those coins can be 1 or 2 euros and what can look like a jumble of coins is probably close to (as it looked to be on this night) close to $100USD, ostensibly just in this carriage on this particular ride.

Just last night I witnessed two young lads do a satiric song-and-dance striptease (down to a shirt and briefs from shirt, suit and tie) about ticket inspectors on the Metro.  I might have been the only one who did not contribute – just about everyone else in the carriage did.  Want to make some money on the Metro?  All you need to do is strip in front of the French.  They find it tres amusant, apparently.  The americain was not.

Yet, for all the antics – puppies, begging on trains, etc., the fact that I’ve seen more than one homeless person reading is impressive to me.  It reinforces the notion that maybe this is a “regular person” who is just down on his/her luck, or if not, proof that being homeless doesn’t need to lead to despair.  It might just be another way to be happy with what you have.

Featured photo is from Nando Prudhomme’s site and is used with his permission.  You can find Nando on Twitter @cyanskies and at http://www.cyanskies.com/.