The first half of the book deals with Orwell’s experiences in Paris, especially when he finds that he has only 450 francs on him. After putting a down payment of 200 francs as rent, he tells himself that he will somehow manage on 250 francs till he finds a better job than his present work situation, which offered him only 36 francs a week for teaching students. However, disaster strikes in the life of Orwell, in the form of a robbery. His remaining measly 250 francs get stolen from his room, leaving him with 40 odd francs which he had on himself. To make matters worse his students quit, leaving him 36 francs a week short. He explains vividly how it felt to be poor and on the brink of starvation every day.
Orwell describes for the readers how there was an abundance of food everywhere, staring at him through windows, making him dream and plot of grabbing a hot loaf and running, maybe even putting some in his mouth before anyone could catch up to him. Poverty and hunger are almost always accompanied by idleness.
Orwell finally turned to a Russian friend by the name of Boris, for help. However Boris was in a far worse state than Orwell, surviving on 2 francs a day and sleeping on the floor. But, the two get together and start looking for jobs. They find some luck when they are both given jobs as “Plongeurs”, at Hotel X. Their job is basically to wash the dishes and help serve the patrons. Orwell describes with revolting clarity how the richer the patrons were, the more unhygienic and dirty their food would be. While everything looks clean on the outside, the kitchens and other areas which were not open to guests, remained filthy and pest ridden.
They barely scraped by on the money from Hotel X. Soon after, both Orwell and Boris went to work for a Russian hotel, which was even worse. From there, Orwell managed to score a job in London. However, he arrived in London only to find that his to be employer has changed his mind. Once again homeless and jobless, Orwell now provides detailed descriptions of what it means to be jobless in London.
London, where a jobless wanderer cannot even sit on the pavement to rest his heels for fear of being arrested, turned out to be much worse during unemployment and financial distress than Paris. Forced to wander the streets, Orwell provides a very constructive view of the homeless people in London, known as “Tramps”. He believes they should be given small plots of land to farm and grow their own food. He does not think them to be lazy but those who are stuck in unforgiving circumstances.
While all the events that occurred in the book are stated to be true at some point or the other, Orwell has definitely taken some creative liberty in the arrangement of the events. Though entirely factual, the sequence of events and their narration for a more dramatic effect does make the book part fiction. But, overall the book is an authentic read on poverty and hunger during the world’s financial crisis, especially since it is not a third persons point of view but written by someone who was surrounded by these challenges himself.
Except for a bit of racial slurring, particularly where he describes people, the book is a must read. But then again, Orwell has compiled his memoirs at a time when racial slurring was not looked down upon with the same hatred as it is today. A must read for anyone who wishes to understand what a majority of the world’s population went through after the Wall Street crash of 1929.