Life Below the Poverty Line

Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell

There is so much in this book and it is actually really hard to know where to start, however I will start off by saying that it is not strictly an autobiography. Sure, Orwell did land up in a situation in Paris when all of his money had been stolen and had to work as a plounger, which is basically another name for a minimum wage kitchen hand (if the minimum wage actually existed back then), and he did live for a time on the streets of London as a tramp, but he did so not by necessity but rather because he was looking for something to write about. However it is certainly going to the opposite end of the spectrum from Mrs Dalloway, the previous book that I read, which dealt mainly with the upper eschelons of society (and their first world problems).


Actually I'm starting to wonder about this whole idea of the first world problem. Sure, my issues at the moment relate to the fact that I am in a small hotel room with no wifi, limited credit on my mobile phone, and the fact that the cord for my laptop not only doesn't reach from them socket to the bed upon which I am sitting, but it also has a European adaptor which means I am going to have to spend money on an adaptor for Australia so I don't have to fork out the money for a new power supply once I get home. I'm sure that these problems are minor compared to the beggar sitting on Praed Street in Paddington with a cup in his hand relying upon the generosity of those walking by, or the guy on Paul Mall that could hardly stand up because his legs were simply not working and the men that were dressed in suits that were worth more than he would ever earn in his lifetime simply threw their noses up and him and wandered to the nearest wine bar.


While the issues that Orwell raises in this book certainly apply to Australia, since I am currently in London (though I am leaving very soon), and have recently travelled the continent (even if it was only the Low Lands and France), I will try to stick to what I have seen here. Also, the book can be easily divided into two parts – the life of a tramp, or a beggar, and the life of a minimum wage worker (if such a thing actually existed back in Orwell's day). The thing with what Orwell experienced is the harsh reality of capitalism where human beings are simply given a worth based on their productive capability, and when we have unskilled labour, and plenty off it, then the laws of supply and demand simply say that their wages are based upon the available workforce, and when there is a lot of people going for the same jobs, then the laws of economics simply say that their pay should be based as such. This is why we have minimum wage laws, because people who work should be able to earn enough money to at least be above the poverty line.


As with beggars though; things have changed since Orwell wrote this book. We no longer have spikes, or work houses, where the beggar would get a room for a night, and a simple meal, in return for half a days work, and then had to move on to the next one. What we do have is an allowance that theoretically should put them above the poverty line, so that they at least can have food to eat, clothes to wear, and a roof over their head. The problem is, and this hasn't changed at all, is that many of the people that rely on these benefits are uneducated, which means that they are idle. As such the free money, and in reality it is free money, means that it is going to be used to relieve that boredom – cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. Governments are attempting to deal with that through a basic income card, but what is happening is that the store keepers, much as was the case in Orwell's time, are adding fees on top of purchases to basically skim off to the top these people who aren't actually able to use this income card in any place other than places that accept this card.


Then there is a term used in Australia called 'Work for the Dole'. That is a recipient of unemployment benefits has to do a set number of hours of work a week to receive their benefits. I'm actually in favour of this, but it is open to abuse. First of all left wing agitators are dead against it claiming that it not only puts other people out of work, but it creates what is in effect a slave workforce. Mind you, they are generally guiding the lily a lot because McDonalds simply cannot sack its entire workforce and use 'work for the dole' labour, namely because only certain organisations, those who rely entirely on voluntary labour, can actually employ somebody through a work for the dole scheme. However, if somebody is doing such work then I feel that they should be entitled to an increased payment than what they are receiving, especially if it hinders their ability to find a full time job.


One interesting thing that I discovered as I wandered through Europe is that on the continent you find a lot more beggars that will be carrying babies, or have children with them. This is simply not seen in either England or Australia. On the continent you do need to watch out for them, especially since they train their children to steal from you. For instance if somebody approaches you at the Eiffel Tower with a clip board and asks if you speak English, scream at them in a language that is neither French, nor English, and get as far away from them as possible.


Another thing that I picked up from this book are the type of beggars. Many of us simply consider that a beggar is somebody who is sitting at the side of the road with a cup in hand. This is not always the case – for instance Orwell suggests that those people who busk in the local public space, draw pictures on the sidewalk, or make sculptures out of sand, are basically in the same position, except that they have some artistic ability. In fact I remember wandering through the streets of Brussels and seeing a couple of girls playing the violin. They were good, really really good, but it makes me wonder whether they spent all that time at university learning how to play the violin only to land up on the streets of Brussels begging for small change. Actually, I remember sitting at a cafe in Naples once and a guy wandered through the streets playing an accordion. Now, my brother loves the accordion, and started giggling and looking at the guy, much to the horror of the waiters. Sure enough he comes up to us, and plays in front of us until we actually give him money. It sort of reminds me of that Cheech and Chong film where they set up in the middle of some French town, start playing rock music, and everybody comes out of their houses and throws money at them to make then shut up.


Now the minimum wage thing is also interesting because there is one thing that I discovered as I was wandering around London – that is that I would land up with a lot of small change, change that would eventually become useless. Normally I just tell the service attendant to keep the change, but in places like Sainsbury's, McDonalds, and such, they actually can't do that. In fact if you tell them to keep the change they have to put it in a donation box on the counter. Personally that absolutely appals me, particularly since these guys are being paid a minimum wage (which is about seven quid in England). I don't mind the tip jar, where the staff divide the tips among themselves at the end of the night, but after discovering that the small change at KFC goes to their 'special charity' I decided that I would pass on that and give it to the guy with his cup in his hand. Sure, he might end up using the money to go and buy drugs, but then again at least I know where that is going – I really don't know what KFC are doing with the money that they are refusing to give as tips to their staff.

Oh, English beer – I should mention English beer since Orwell made a comment about it as well. What he was doing was that he was debunking the myth that the tramps use their money to get drunk. Well, as it turns out English beer is little more than coloured water, which means you need an awful lot (something like thirty pounds worth) to actually get tipsy. However, he is gilding the lily a bit there because while it is true that English beer is pretty weak, gin is not – and it is also pretty cheap. If you want to get plastered in England, you don't go for the beer, you go for the gin – that will definitely do the job for you. In fact, I'm just going to pop down to the off license just to see how much a bottle of gin will actually set me back (about twelve pounds for a small bottle, so no, it's not cheap now, but it probably was back in Orwell's day).