Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell, gives us an eye opening insight into the lives of those at the bottom of the social ladder, whilst making a convincing case for changing some to the rules that made their life needlessly hard in his time. It is a concerned and journalistic autobiographic essay, but also artistic in the way it makes us feel what it must be like to fall on hard times as strongly as any book could.
Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs adds another dimension to our literary understanding of hard times, albeit a much lesser work in any other respect: that of being not only down and out but also half witted. I don’t mean this as an offence to Jeremy Mercer, the author. It’s just a fact so blatantly obvious that ignoring it would be an act of reading in denial. And now the good news: once acknowledged this, it makes for interesting reading, a real ‘page turner’ in fact. Jeremy’s effort is saved by his sincerity, telling the story of his time in Paris and at Shakespeare & co the way he saw it, truthfully, and even hitting on some deeper “truths” occasionally that really sound revealing if not intellectually challenging. So, Mercer is not a genius, but then: are we? Being honest will bring about the echo of recognition and ring true to our ears more than spectacular wit, for aren’t all humans by and large the same? I think so.
You might have noticed by now how I have omitted to dig into the meat of the book in any way, being extremely judgemental without supporting my opinions with facts and examples taken from its pages. I didn’t want to give any of the story away, somebody even gets killed…
Read it and you will find out how charmingly familiar the utopian blend of righteousness and self indulgence can be by yourself. You will rediscover what it feels like to be young maybe, or remember your hard times if you had any. The filth, the stench, the numbing sleeplessness. Maybe you also met your own ‘George’: the unlikely hero, an older man that pops up when you seem most to need him and deliver you from your predicament by giving you shelter and soup in exchange for listening to life lessons and showing a little deferential respect. Or more, occasionally.
After a while the volunteer bums of the upper classes like most of the guests at Shake. & co grow tired of being bohemien and reclaim their respectability and comfort by rejoining society: they get a job, move in with a rich girl or boy friend or simply go home to mum and dad. Not ground to pieces by a relentless and unjust system like the Orwellian characters, they inevitably fall back into place as it were, in the larger scheme of things, due to the gravitational forces that push us on from birth and whose dynamics are so hard to break free of.
If it is fair to judge a society on the basis of how the lower classes fare, it must be seen as some credit to France - if but a very meagre consolation to the unfortunate who have to endure it- that being homeless in Paris is reputedly better than in any other capital of the world.