The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people—people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work. Some of the lodgers in our hotel lived lives that were curious beyond words … Poverty is what I am writing about, and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum. The slum, with its dirt and its queer lives, was first an object-lesson in poverty, and then the background of my own experiences. It is for that reason that I try to give some idea of what life was like there.
‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, George Orwell
I’m often to be heard moaning about being poor. I’m sure many of us are feeling the pinch at the moment and reassessing our expectations. Nevertheless, it’s difficult, as a ‘first world’ citizen in 2011, to comprehend the reality of abject poverty.
In 1928, George Orwell resigned from serving in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma and returned to Europe, his decision prompted by guilt that his race and caste prevented him from befriending the Burmese. He chose to live in ‘fairly severe poverty’ amongst the poor of Paris and London, and used his experiences to create Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933.
I’m familiar with George Orwell’s fiction, but I must confess that his literary journalism was never high on my list of must-reads. This was a mistake. Down and Out in Paris and London has been a rather wonderful discovery, courtesy of CSA Word and Jeremy Northam.
Orwell’s experiences of living in Paris with no work or money, and later, working in various Paris hotel kitchens as a plongeur, are as funny as they are tragic.
The second half of the novel comprises a travelogue as Orwell writes of his experiences living as a vagrant in London. He describes the people he meets and the appalling conditions in tramps’ lodgings, and exposes the ill-founded prejudice in the prevalent attitudes towards tramps.
The book is not only a colourful, humorous, and often shocking look at the lives of the extremely poor, but also a powerful social commentary that still has relevance.
CSA Word very wisely asked audiobook ‘don’ Jeremy Northam to voice their audio version of Down and Out and he delivers a characteristically brilliant reading. Of course, to those of us familiar with Jeremy’s audio work, this comes as no surprise. But if you have only seen Jeremy’s on-screen work, and have thought that audiobooks are only for the blind, then you’re in for a treat!
In Jeremy’s experienced and intelligent hands, the inhabitants of Paris and London spring into vivid, entertaining and poignant life. Jeremy is an extremely talented interpreter of the written word and like all the best storytellers, he holds us with him from start to finish. Each individual we meet in the novel is memorable and distinct, whilst the social commentary feels relevant, contemporary and moving.
Bea Long from CSA Word told me:
‘Jeremy’s reading on Down and Out in Paris and London is excellent, which is why we were thrilled when he consented to be the voice of young Orwell during one of the most important formative periods for the the author, on our forthcoming Homage to Catalonia.
Jeremy’s skill can sustain an intense unabridged production like the Down and Out audiobook and the longer text of Homage, something which may not come as easily as you’d think, even to experienced actors.
We want readers to feel they are listening to the thrilling man himself when they listen to our Orwell non-fiction, and this is what Jeremy delivers.’
Down and Out in Paris and London audiobook from CSA Word is an unabridged reading of the novel. It is 7.5 hours in length, and consists of 6 CDs. It’s available from the CSA Word website and also from audiobook retailers as a download or on CD.
Homage to Catalonia will be published by CSA Word in May of this year, and is already available for pre-order at Amazon UK. I’ll bring you more news on this closer to publication.
Many thanks to Bea Long at CSA Word for her co-operation.