In this story, Orwell tells how he lives when he finds himself basically destitute. While in Paris, he runs low on money and then gets robbed, leading to a stretch of out-and-out poverty.
Since this misfortune starts in Paris, it is easier to accept. Why otherwise would a well-born Englishman end up dependent on the generosity of pawnbrokers to get food? As the story progressed, I could accept the plausibility of his dire straits only because he was in a foreign place. I’ve been in foreign places, and things are different there. I would accept discomforts and experiences that would have been unacceptable at home, because things are supposed to be strange when one is traveling.
Things got pretty strange for Orwell. He writes of how he has to fake solvency to keep his landlady from kicking him out.
He writes with both feet on the ground. The descriptions are utterly realistic — he gives exactly the sort of detail I would ask for if it were a friend of mine telling me their story over a drink. He gives exact numbers of how much things cost, and tells about the way he had to smuggle food into his room. He mourns that he must waste money on the more expensive bread, because the cheapest variety will not fit into his pocket for smuggling.
He does eventually find work as a dishwasher, which gives him enough sustenance to form the idea to ask for help from a London acquaintance. Alas, things don’t always work out as intended.
The characters that fill the Paris portion of the book are vividly drawn, including people living in the shadow of misfortunes of health and love. The cheap Paris boarding house included a share of impractical dilettantes as well. After he crosses the channel, the London characters enjoy the same brilliance of description.
While the Paris paupers have their own methods of getting by, the British differ substantially. It took the author some time to get the hang of homelessness in the UK. He describes the wandering life, going from homeless shelter to homeless shelter. In the contemporary term, they are formally known as casual houses or informally as spikes.
This is George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984. There were some well-reasoned political thoughts regarding poverty. The book was published in 1933, which means the stories related must have happened during the Great Depression. There was a whole lot of poverty to ponder at the time. A lot of people were beginning to think “whatever we’ve been doing, we should stop and do the opposite.” There was evidently a lot wrong with the world, in many people’s eyes.
So, Orwell took the opportunity to propose some new activities for homeless people. And he talked about the prejudice held in the hearts of most comfortably situated folks. He would have us realize that tramps are people, too.
This book was set about 70 years ago. When I picked it up, I wasn’t sure I would like it. I was utterly amazed by it. I don’t think I’ll forget it. Of course, I couldn’t help comparing it to Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. I admit, I’ve only read portions of that book, but I know that it is hugely popular, even spawning a musical of itself.
I feel like Orwell happened upon his down-and-outness a little more honestly than Ehrenreich. She meant it to be an investigative journalistic experience, but Orwell just found himself poor and kept his eyes open to the experience. He was not ashamed of his life experiences. He published them and gave all of us a gift in the form of this book.
As a final word, I’d suggest that those interested experience the audio-book version as I did. Frederick Davidson did an excellent reading of the many, many accents of the characters in the book and made them vibrant.