Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell

Posted on October 1, 2010


For most of us, travel is synonymous with pleasure, if not fully, at least in part. We travel either to fulfil a desire to do so, or, as in the case of business trips, to achieve an ultimate, but desired goal. If considered from this point of view, George Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ offers a completely new perspective from which to view the idea of travel, that is, one which is strictly utilitarian, if not a complete waste of time. Let me explain.

Set in the 1930s, the book speaks of George Orwell’s time as a hard up and often completely penniless man, first as an unemployed/restaurant worker in Paris, then as an outright tramp in London. ‘Down and Out’ was not the result of a warm hotel room, days of sightseeing and memorable meals at sophisticated restaurants, but quite the opposite – it was the outcome of the author’s personal encounter with real poverty, often including long periods of hunger.

The book is fascinating for this very reason, and also because of its treatment of the concept of travel. Throughout the book, Orwell and his group of changing companions travel across the Parisian and London landscape out of necessity rather than pleasure. In Paris, they walk from and to home after work, make their way to the pawn shop to pawn their belonging for some extra cash for food and tobacco and continuously thread up and down streets looking for a job. Why do they travel like this? Because they have to, and because they cannot afford to take the metro. In London, Orwell joins a group of wandering tramps who are not allowed, because of the rules and regulations of the time, to neither take a seat in the city, nor go to the same spike more than once per month (a military-style building with free basic food- tea and bread- and accommodation – cells with no beds), therefore being put in a position where they had to perpetually walk from one spike to another, while at the same time being sleep-deprived, malnourished and sick. In this context, travel loses the meaning we so readily attribute to it today, and becomes simply an unnecessary torment in an unfair world where you have to choose between walking for days on end and sleeping out in the cold.

While having been published 80 years ago, ‘Down and Out’ remains a must-read for anyone interested in travel writing and travel literature, and it’s a powerful reminder of how lucky many of us are nowadays, and how much we have to be grateful for. At the same time, it asks us to remember that in many parts of the world, millions of people still travel much like George Orwell, for pure necessity.

Find Down and Out in Paris and London and many more recommendations in my book shop.

-Travel Book Reviews by Denise Pulis @