My favourite novel of all time is still “Nineteen Eighty Four” by George Orwell. I originally got it out for a book report back in high school and devoured it in a single night. No novel has ever affected me so greatly. The tale of Winston Smith rebelling against the totalitarian government of the Dystopian Airstrip 1 is just as brilliant, accessible and relevant as when it was published. Watching a lateline story last night about North Korea and it immediately reminded me of this novel. 60 after it was published and the world that the novel describes is scarily accurate to modern North Korea with its strong cult of personality and ludicrous state run propaganda that idiolises Kim Jong Ill like Airstrip One did Big Brother.
Despite being a massive Orwell fan I had never gotten around to reading any other books from him apart from 1984 and Animal Farm. Unfortunately Orwell’s own life was cut short at 46 and he had only written 6 novels at the time of his death. Wanting to be familiar with more of his writings I got “Down and Out in Paris and London” out from the library and was blown away yet again.
To me Orwell’s talent as a political writer was at making what would otherwise seem like academic ideas of politics and class and making them accessible and incredibly interesting in a literary form. A lot has been written about how the leaders of the Russian revolution quickly oppressed the masses it sought to free, but its doubtful any other writings on the subject have had the influence of Animal Farm with its brilliant metaphor of Animals overthrowing the humans and taking over the farm.
To me Down and Out wrote about the poor and downtrodden in our society in an accessible way that I haven’t seen any other writer do. The book is a partial autobiography about the author’s time living in poverty in the late 1920’s. Although Orwell lived a rather sheltered upper class English life to this point (he attended Eton) he threw himself into the life of the strugglers. He clearly described what life was like, being unemployed before the modern welfare state. He describes pawning his remaining clothes for food and sleeping rough and vivid descriptions of his primitive living conditions and backbreaking work he did for minimal pay.
Orwell told the tales of the other people he associated with and how they found themselves as societies outcasts, from a painter who broke his leg at work to a Russian ex-colonel trying to make it as a waiter in Paris despite his war injuries. Even the people out to help the less well off who ran the lodging houses treat the homeless as barely human.
Life may be better for the worse off nowadays, but homelessness is a problem that we still continently ignore more than ever. We use the modern welfare state as an excuse to absolve ourselves of guilt for the estimated over one hundred thousand people who sleep hard each and every night. We still think of them as bums, that it is their own entire fault and that “we” are much better than “them”. A lot has changed since the 20’s, but Down and Out is a good book for making you think about how the less fortunate live. It’s probably lost more of its relevance than his other books, but still an interesting read.