“Down And Out In Paris And London” by George Orwell (1933)

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“The Rue du Coq d’Or, Paris, seven in the morning.”

As someone who has long worked in customer service, currently funding my wine and book purchases being a barista and waiter, I’ve long had a sense of community with those seen at the bottom of the pile by many others in society. I’ve never been someone with a high-flying corporate job, or a role that brings in buckets of cash, and in some ways maybe that’s for the better, although there are definitely advantages to having money. One of my colleagues, however, was reading Down and Out in Paris and London which goes into great detail on what it’s like to be on the fringes of society, and so I was inspired to finally pick up by copy too and explore.

This is a biography of George Orwell in the time that he was living in poverty, first in Paris and then later in London. In France, he finds himself desperate for work, and eventually finds a job as a plongeur (washer-upper) in a fancy Parisian hotel. The pay is terrible and the hours are long, but the stories he gets from his time there are numerous and unbelievable. When he finally gets time to write to friends at home, he escapes back to London, only to find that the job he has been promised won’t be available for a month and he finds himself a tramp, living on the streets and trying to carve a living out from the city’s underbelly.

Who knew that a book about washing up could be so compelling? Orwell takes us down into the grittiest parts of two of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities and removes any remaining shine on their surfaces. I’ve always been a fan of the idea of taking a time machine to the 1920s and exploring, but after reading about the kitchen hygiene standards of the time, I’ll definitely be packing sandwiches. The world he gives us is grimy, sticky, cold, rough and six inches deep in potato peelings and cockroaches. And yet, it’s fascinating.

It is the people living on society’s fringes that make this story so great. The one that particularly struck me was Bozo, a London screever, who is perhaps the only person in the book to say that poverty doesn’t matter, because you’re still free inside your head. Unlike most of the others, he has time to still study and is very literate and educated. Although Orwell rarely looks down on those in the same situation as him – and indeed, the book ends with him saying that his time in poverty has taught him never to judge those who end up there – there is a sense that he considers himself more educated and more of a “gentleman” than others. In one London doss house (“spike”), someone learning that he’s had money in the past gives him special privileges. With Bozo, he actually gets taught some things, however, as the screever is a keen astronomer, whereas Orwell admits he hadn’t even noticed before that stars were different colours. Oscar Wilde famously said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Maybe Orwell has spent too long face down in his washing-up water.

Ultimately, it’s quite a tragic book. Orwell escapes poverty eventually, and his experience, while horrific, is temporary. The book shines a light on those who live like this for years, decades, or even their whole lives. There are people who find cigarette butts on the pavement just for the tiniest hit of tobacco, those who have eaten nothing but bread and butter for months, and men wandering the streets with a plethora of diseases that they cannot afford treatment for. It’s a remarkable book and one that should be read by everyone, whether or not they have felt the harsh reality of poverty. It’s especially vital reading now, given that we seem to live in one of the richest societies in the world but have a ridiculously high poverty level. Our governments could learn a lot from this, and not from Orwell’s other works as they seem to have done previously.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Free-Range Chickens” by Simon Rich (2009)

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chickens“Got your nose!”

As the news becomes more and more farcical, and I steadily lose the ability to comprehend what’s going on, I find that it’s better (in the short term, at least) so hide inside books. With this in mind, I now joyfully return to the mad mind of Simon Rich. One of the finest, silliest writers working today, my blog is already liberally sprinkled with his work – Ant Farm and Spoiled Brats to name two – and every time I dip into one of his collections, I come out smiling.

In this collection, we are treated to over fifty examples of sparkling flash fiction divided into the categories of “Growing Up”, “Going to Work”, “Daily Life”, “Relationships”, “Animals” and “God”. Rarely is a story more than two pages long, some are merely three or four lines, but each one is a perfectly crafted joke and tells so much more than what is revealed. A lot of them are simply lines of dialogue, but they’re all wonderfully smart and punchy.

Among others you have a young Simon learning about the tooth fairy for the first time and wondering whether there is a face fairy too; two frogs discussing the fact that they are killed and dissected for appalling crap science reports; Batman arguing with the mayor of Gotham City for better prisons to stop the Joker escaping; Count Dracula’s dating profile in which he attempts to prove he is a normal human; God forgetting exactly what his big plan is; what happens in the four years at acupuncture school; and the horrific truth behind logic problems. Two of the funniest – “Time Machine” and “Actor’s Nightmare” – are also among the shortest, but you’ll have to read them yourselves to see what I mean.

There’s not a whole lot else to say about this book, really. The stories are cleverly crafted and terribly funny, epitomising the adage that “brevity is wit”. There’s not a single wasted word and I can guarantee that this book will make you feel a whole lot better and perhaps a bit less alone.