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Following Orwell’s footsteps down the poverty-stricken streets of London and Paris

‘Down and out in Paris and London’ is the book that saw the birth of the famous alias George Orwell, who didn’t want to use his own name Eric Blair when publishing the book in 1933.

It starts in 1928 with him moving to Paris and living in the Latin Quarter, working as an English tutor and sending his articles to different journals. The hotel he stays in gets robbed by an Italian resident thief, which makes Orwell experience poverty for the first time.

He describes pawning his clothes for cash, having the minimum to eat and drink, even starving for two days in a row when he had no money left. That’s the time when he finds a job as a dishwasher in Hotel X. The job turns out to be a nightmare: long hours with a few weekends off and low pay, extremely hot and suffocating conditions as the work is done in the basement and a solid hierarchy system where cooks are on the top and dishwashers are in the bottom and treated like dirt.

Despite that, everyone has to collaborate to serve almost 300 residents dining at different times, which makes Orwell’s description of this daily routine astonishing. Later, he quits his job at the hotel and works with his Russian friend in a restaurant called the Auberge de Jehan Cottard.

The working conditions in the restaurant proved to be worse than the hotel; no hot water to wash the pots and plates, no space to fit the bin so leftovers are thrown on the floor where rats start infesting. Worse still, workers are not paid on time and are expected to work for longer hours. That’s the time when Orwell has enough and asks his friend to send him money to buy a return ticket to London a year later. Unfortunately, the job that Orwell is promised back home is delayed and he finds himself facing poverty again.

This time due to the English laws that prohibit using shelters twice in a month - or else be confined - Orwell has to tramp along with others moving from one hostel to another. His description of different hostels and the bad living conditions of many as well as clothes worn by tramps, illnesses they die from and how money is gained and spent, is vivid and heartbreaking. At the time, the only food that shelters served was two toasts, butter and watered-down tea. Even worst, some shelters made the tramps work for this meagre meal. The funny parts occur at Christian shelters where beggars are given a sermon while eating and expected to join a service afterwards, which many escape stealthily. The characters that Orwell describes in both cities are remarkable, especially the London ones.

Paddy, the Irish tramp who Orwell travels with for two weeks, has experienced almost all shelters in England. As well as his street artist friend Bozo with which Orwell enjoys conversing and is surprised by his vast knowledge that remarkably contrasts with his rough street life. This part is not only a documentation of the street life of London in the 1930s with a whole chapter on the slang used, but also challenges the preconception that people have of tramps. At the end of each part, Orwell suggests ways to improve the lives of lowly paid employees and tramps to stop them from becoming victims of the socially unjust system. It’s an exciting read that leaves you wondering how little things had changed for both parties, though it was written almost ninety years back. Recommended for George Orwell and non-fiction fans.

Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills

trainer and the author of: The World

According to Bahja.

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