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Books that inspired me
Down and out in Paris and London
In the first of an occasional series on books that inspired socialists, Tracy Edwards looks at Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
"People are wrong when they think that an unemployed man only worries about losing his wages; on the contrary, an illiterate man, with the work habit in his bones, needs work more than he needs money."
This is typical George Orwell style. Orwell had a fairly privileged background, having been born in India to an 'upper lower middle class' family. But as a novelist his writings were based on his experience. He developed a socialist consciousness, which later enabled him to write some of the best literary works of the 20th century. His writings are vivid, entertaining, witty and enlightening.
In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell leaves his privileged lifestyle behind to experience life day to day as part of the 'underclass'. Published in 1933, Orwell mingled with the victims of post-World War One society, producing a vivid account of life on the gutter.
This book laid the basis for later writings such as The Road to Wigan Pier - which describes the harsh realities of life in Britain's industrial coalmining communities and Homage to Catalonia following his return from fighting fascism during the Spanish civil war.
I'm sure when Orwell wrote Down and Out in Paris and London, he would not have expected the conditions he describes from the 1920s to be making such a comeback as they are today.
In the book's first half Orwell works in horrendous conditions as a 'ploungeur', ie a general dogsbody, in kitchens in hotels and bistros across Paris. The exploitation of these workers resulted in enduring days without food and moving from bed to bed.
Many workers lived in temporary, vermin infested accommodation. Like today, the service industry offered no job security or salary. Ploungeurs could work up to 14 hours a day, surviving on a diet of bread and cheese.
Orwell tells some funny and interesting stories about the characters he met along the way - he doesn't feel pity or become patronising towards the people he writes about. He understands they are part of a class and caste system - they are there as a result of their class and position in society.
When George Orwell returns to London, he decides to live as a tramp. He dresses like a tramp and goes through the same experiences - living in 'spikes' ie temporary dormitories for the homeless. Spikes were usually run by the clergy. People were expected to sit through a religious ceremony before being granted a bed for the night.
The same treatment and view of homeless people is still prevalent today. Beggars were seen as society's drop-outs with nothing to contribute. Begging on the street could result in a jail sentence. Orwell skilfully dismantles the myth that beggars have somehow got an easier ride in life - that they don't have to earn an 'honest' living like the rest of society.
The rhetoric promoted by people such as Work and Pensions Minister Iain Duncan Smith, who attempt to divide people along the lines of deserving and undeserving poor, would have found an echo in certain circles.
It's 80 years since Orwell wrote this book but it remains a useful insight into the lives of people on the bread line. The conditions the working class had to endure throughout the 1930s laid the basis for the mass pressure that emerged following World War Two which forced the Labour government at that time to develop the welfare state, create jobs and build homes.
This book should inspire us to keep building a trade union and socialist movement that will halt the dismantling of all those important gains and introduce a socialist society that could secure a productive future for everyone.
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In The Socialist 20 March 2013:
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