Why are beggars despised? (An Orwellian odyssey into poverty in Paris and London)

Down and Out in Paris and LondonFollowing a recent article in the Financial Times, on the lack of contemporary English writers able to make sense of the reactions to Thatcher’s death (incredibly fascinating and difficult to grasp for an expat like myself), I was reminded that George Orwell wrote more than 1984. I suppose I did know he had written other books, but even though I remember liking 1984 when I read it, I don’t remember ever seeking out any more of his writing afterwards.

Well, after reading a few thousand pages of Knausgård, deeply dwelling into the psyche of a Nordic man (somewhat narcissistic, I know), I felt it was time to head deeper into the English literary scene. Judging by the FT-article, one of those places is securely devoted to Orwell, who also happens to be my flatmates favourite writer. So after browsing several volumes in our book shelf I settled for his first novel, perhaps since I had just returned from Paris and felt a bit worn out: “Down and Out in Paris and London” carried the kind of title I was looking for.

The novel is an exposé of  the very bottom of society in Paris and London, the conditions of existing without money, and what it does to a person, and to the people around you. As a long-form journalistic endeavor it’s impressive, its lack of sentimentality, the many examples of crude humour and random spectacles presents an interesting perspective to anyone living in a big city. As a novel it has some weaknesses, mostly its failure to create emotionally lasting bonds to the characters as they walk in and out of the story.

I did enjoy the occasional philosophical questions on society and poverty, and the meaning of work though. They often feel worryingly current even now, 80 years since first being published. His thoughts about begging stayed with me, so I figured I might as well share them with you:

Why are beggars despised? – for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic, the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except ‘Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it’? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could even earn ten pounds a week begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately.”

I don’t automatically subscribe to this thought myself, but there is something intriguing about the suggestion.


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