I’m away from home – my chance to do some heavy reading when I don’t have my television accessible. The first book I read was Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, a classic which fits in, in fact nearly fills up, a tiny niche in literature where authors write about being poor, about poverty itself.
If you wonder what it’s like to be really poor, as opposed to deprived, or strapped, then this is the book to read.
Orwell’s matter-of-fact description of the people he met, the jobs he performed, the hunger he felt, the humiliation and disdain he encountered, the surprises, and so on, strips him of superiority over the wretches he meets. Once or twice he mentions that he is a well educated, or even just literate, young man and notes the advantages this brings him over the rough-edged, uneducated men who keep him company. He is appreciative of the various circumstances which brought his fellow tramps so low, from exile to illness to unemployment. Stupidity and lack of sensitivity are not among those circumstances.
The words are appropriately “man” and “men” because on the trails trodden by the desperately poor, there are few women, at least in his day. (The book was written in 1933.) As he notes in the last chapter of the book, one of the deepest insults to the humanity of the very poor is their lack of hope for affection, companionship, or family life. He quotes Chaucer at the outset, “O scathful harm, condition of poverte.” (scathful means pernicious.)
I have driven through parts of America where it seems to me there are people who are poverty-stricken, though I am sure the people I saw in Zimbabwe were a lot poorer. Around New York though, there are only people who are relatively poor. Our poor can find more to eat than the tea and two slices which sustained Orwell’s tribe of itinerants, guaranteeing them a permanent state of malnutrition. Living on MacDonald’s hamburgers would be an improvement, though you would still die young.
Being down and out in Paris was interesting enough, but Orwell added a stint on the roads of England for comparison, and the book rears back for a hit on more universal political, religious, and social nerves. Attitudes matter; laws matter; religious beliefs matter.
The swear words, at least the worst of them, have been replaced by dashes throughout the book. I don’t know if this was affected by Orwell himself, leaving us to our darkest imaginings of what the actual words were, or by a prudish editor at a later phase of publishing. It looks silly in this era.
Orwell seems happy to be home when he gets back to England; on the other hand, he has certain advantages being an Englishman in the restaurant world of Paris, a different kind of advantage being an educated “gentleman” in the English world. Even though he will not be condemned to permanent destitution, as are the other men in his story, he describes the life so well that the reader gets the point.
The point is that even when you haven’t had anything but bread and tea in months/years, haven’t slept on anything softer than straw, haven’t stayed in the same place, had a regular schedule, or made long-term friendships, there is still a bit of life to be lived. When a man who has nothing but the clothes on his back sells his razor for a few pence so he’ll have a pallet to sleep on that night, he dissolves in laughter at his situation. Maybe Down and Out in Paris and London is, in the highest sense of the word, a comedy.