It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty — it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it is all so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.
These are some of George Orwell’s first thoughts on his experience being very poor — being down and out, in fact — in Down and Out in Paris and London. During 1927 and 1928, Orwell lived in these two great cities as an aspiring writer and journalist. He often could not make ends meet, and once had his small savings stolen, so in Paris he took on work as a plongeur, or dishwasher in a restaurant — backbreaking labor for fourteen hours a day, leaving him no time to write and scarcely time to think. His description of the filthy kitchen work is vivid — you can almost feel the heat and smell the overflowing trash can.
Upon being offered a job in London, he scraped up the money for passage there, only to find that he had a month to wait for the job, with nothing at all to live on. Vagrancy laws did not permit men to stay in the casual ward — free lodging — more than one night in succession, so Orwell became to all intents and purposes a tramp, moving from one place to another, doing odd jobs for food, and going hungry when charity could not be found.
I enjoyed this book hugely. Orwell’s prose is vigorous and succinct, always finding exactly the right tone. Despite the fact that he’s writing about something that could range from depressing to genuinely heartbreaking — the experience of true poverty and hunger — he is honest, but still funny, finding the odd, the interesting, and the unexpected in every circumstance. I expected him to sneer at religious charity, but instead he simply observes that even when such charity is given with the kindest of intentions, few are grateful for the sermons and enforced prayers that come with the free meal.
At the end of each section, Orwell makes some brief observations about the system that makes such poverty possible. He asks why plongeurs must work fourteen hours a day — what possible luxury it can provide that could make a man a slave — and why tramps should be vilified for a vagrancy that is enforced by law. He points out that hunger makes men weak, and unfit for work, so those who do not work are more likely to be hungry than lazy. He says that his own experience was merely the fringes of poverty, but that it taught him a great deal, and that most hatred and fear (and therefore ill-treatment) of the poor comes from ignorance.
Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. 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.
His prose is crystal clear, forceful, and fascinating. I would read this, or any other essay, by Orwell in a heartbeat. Highly recommended.