I once mistakenly thought that The Road to Wigan Pier was another of Orwell’s superb novels, but it is not; it’s an investigation into and a treatise on the working class and socialism.
Down and Out in Paris and London is quite different and describes in vivid terms what it is like to relinquish all possessions and live on the streets of those cities. Whereas Wigan Pier can be said to be observational, Down and Out is experiential – and it shows.
There isn’t, of course, a pier at Wigan, but it does have an area known as The Pier. It’s alongside a canal used for loading and unloading goods and materials. Orwell was much moved by the plight of the poor. In order to fully understand and experience their condition, he decided to closely observe the lives of workers in Wigan, notably miners. He wanted to obtain firsthand experience of how they live, what kind of people they are, and how they view society.
This decision to live a life of poverty was mirrored in his experiences in Paris and London where he lived on the streets as a penniless beggar. He undertook adventures in these cities without a penny in his pocket and wearing the clothes of a vagabond.
In Paris, he managed to stay alive by agreeing to wash dishes (the French would have called him a plonguer) in hotels and cafés. In London, he experienced the full horrors of the workhouse and the daily struggle to feed himself. Of particular value are the descriptions of other ‘down and outs’ he befriended and the tricks they taught him for survival. His experience of the ‘spike’ or casual wards of workhouses are particularly vivid and shocking.
His observations of Wigan workers he covers in the first part of the book.
The second part is a discourse on socialism and why it is the only natural system of organising ourselves. This surprised me; not that he may have been a socialist, but that he should proclaim it so strongly and at such length. It really is a full-throated call to join the Labour Party.
The value I took from reading both these works was not so much Orwell’s plea for socialism in one of them, but his very sympathetic and insightful attitude to the poor he befriended, whether in Wigan, Paris or London. To a certain degree, these two books triggered my own investigations into the poor and how they were viewed by and treated by society over the centuries which I have incorporated in a new work Workhouse to be released first as an ebook on 31 March 2021.
This review was first published on the author’s Facebook page in January 2019.