There are several things that have kept me away from reading masses of travel writing, the dominant reason being that they’re a collection of incidents without rhyme or reason. On the whole, I have always been a bigger fan of fiction that non-fiction for that reason, because I need a conclusion – perhaps a flaw in myself, the eternal need for closure when reading.
‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ sort of fits with this expectation. Chapters are full of vitalised and interesting details, only to end with sentences declaring ‘I just wanted to give an impression of life here’, and that is Orwell’s eternal reasoning behind his writing. As such, I can see why he struggled to find publication for this – the ‘Introduction’ by Dervla Murphy indicates as much, highlighting Orwell’s tendency to identify intense detail before drifting off and realising his purpose has been lost.
There were two times this didn’t happen, and for me these were the most interesting moments of the book: when Orwell transitioned from Paris to London and gave his account of poverty, and when in London debating the social exclusion of ‘tramp’ culture. Here was a flare, a passion being explored, and it was absolutely fascinating; this wasn’t just some socialist rant from a soap box, it was a man who had been this down and out, who had served his time of hardship to learn what vagrancy truly is, not just identifying it by perceptions alone. This was the ultimate redemption for the book in my opinion; how often do we see things from the homeless person’s perspective? The modern equivalent, perhaps, is ‘A Streetcat Named Bob’, a story which, like Orwell’s, doesn’t want sympathy, love or high esteem from being told, but tells it so we can see what life is really like.
And that, upon reflection, is why ‘Down and Out’ works – despite the aforementioned lack of direction, it is insightful to see how life works when down and out, without being constantly pushed towards an agenda. Orwell’s account doesn’t ask for sympathy, donations, a plea to buy his books so his down and out days are over – it simply shows us what the world is really like beneath the veneer through which we see it. He dispels the myths surrounding his contemporary perceptions on homelessness and vagrancy, and shows readers that vagrancy doesn’t mean a lack of ambition or want, more a lack of opportunity.
It’s a travel book I would heartily recommend, and I will be looking into collections such as ‘Burmese Days’ and ‘Shooting an Elephant’ with a renewed interest in the genre – hopefully, one that is sustained.