Monday, 10 May 2010

DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON by George Orwell

I read this book in part I admit because I have always thought it had a cool title. And I guess George Orwell has a track record, 1984, ANIMAL FARM, etc.

What I really admired about this book was it's clarity. It was just in such good taste, so clearly and unpretentiously written. I have been reading a lot of development research at the moment (votes: should I blog about this? I know this blog is supposed to be about everything I read in 2010, but are you really tough enough for posts on such gems as IMPLEMENTING THE SADC PROTOCOL AGAINST CORRUPTION: RECOMMENDATIONS AND DRAFT RULES OF PROCEDURE? Suspect not) and this research is just so jargon laden, and overwritten as shit. I suspect it's because they've nothing real to say and need to cover that up.

The bio is hilarious, wait, let me quote: “He served in Burma, an experience that inspired his first novel BURMESE DAYS. Several years of poverty followed.” I don't know if they mean it to be funny, but it is. Ah, the arts and how they don't pay anything. So this book follows those years of poverty in Paris and London, where Orwell is homeless and near homeless. This must have been an experience and a half for an old Etonian, but we don't learn much about him – it's not autobiographical in that sense – it's more about the people and places he ecountered, and the difficulties of living on little money and food.

At one point, when he hasn't eaten in three days, he gets a job as a plongeur, which is I guess some kind of dishwasher at fancy Parisien hotels. This is a dreadful job, apparently, with 17 hour days being quite routine. Unsurprisingly, he is pretty big on the subject of how fancy hotels are useless, and has a lot to say on what's wrong with a world in which people can be enslaved for the useless purpose of fanciness.

He ends with what he's learnt: “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning”

It's an interesting picture of poverty in any period, and an interesting picture of its time in particular – for example, men with shell shock are a routine problem, as they keep people awake in the paupers' dorms with their screaming. It's also of its time in being rather anti-semitic, misogynist, and homophobic. But there you go, you can't have everything.

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