Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

read by Jeremy Northam

Part journalism, part polemic, Down and Out in Paris and London is a justly admired tour de force of social observation—a poignant portrait of the lives of the poor in the two capital cities between the World Wars.

The book is full of characters of copious nationalities (brilliantly brought to life by Jeremy Northam) and it records their picaresque lives and bizarre anecdotes: the Russian waiter Boris, ever optimistic; Italian waiter Valenti, with his tales of extravagant feasts and hilarious short-lived devotion to Sainte Eloise; Charlie, ‘one of the local curiosities’, a youth of family and education who had run away from home; the tramp Paddy, whose ‘ignorance was limitless and appalling’; disabled pavement-artist and amateur astronomer Bozo, whose succession of misfortunes would have destroyed a lesser man.

The ubiquitous filth, the relentless squalor, the disgusting smells, the persistent bugs, the diseased and disfigured bodies, and the unspeakably unsanitary habits of the hotel workers and tramps make for queasy reading. You will hesitate before entering a restaurant and before again eating anything prepared for you out of sight. Down and Out in Paris and London is a deeply shocking work and although it can be argued that Orwell underwent the pains, privations, and indignities largely in order to ‘gather material’ it is highly likely that the tuberculosis responsible for his premature death at the age of 46 was contracted during the period described in this his first book.

Orwell’s closing remarks sum up the hard lessons of Down and Out in Paris and London: ‘At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. 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’.

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