Down and Out in Paris and London is an autobiographical account of Orwell’s time living on the margins of society, first in Paris and then in London. It’s a fascinating look into a specific time and place and into the lives of people living in poverty.
The first half of the book focuses on the working poor of Paris as Orwell toiled away in brutal conditions in the restaurant industry, working long hours for almost no money at all, just to keep himself fed and off the street. While much of the material here is specific to the time and place, there are also aspects that are universal to anyone who has ever worked in the restaurant business or struggled to make ends meet.
In the second half of the book, Orwell returns to London to take up a tutoring position. When the opening is delayed, Orwell decides to really live life on the margins, and spends his time traveling between ultra-cheap boarding houses and various charitable shelters.
Orwell’s writing style is engaging and often humorous. Even though some of the material in the second half of the book came as a result of a voluntary return to the hobo lifestyle for the purposes of research, at no point does he come across as an entitled superior slumming it. He describes the people he encounters with honesty, respect and dignity and one gets the impression that his interactions with them were similarly genuine.
All in all, it’s an interesting book and an engaging read. The picture above is not a scan of the copy I read but it very well could be! I read the same edition and it was similarly dog-eared. That seems as appropriate as is the cover, a detail from ‘Bank Holiday in the Park’ by William Roberts.