Thursday, 26 May 2011

Celebrating England’s greatest blogger: George Orwell

I go through a phase of reading George Orwell every five years or so. Of course, I have all the novels, but I haven’t reread them for years (although I enjoyed them hugely when I was teenager, despite our English teacher’s dismissal of them as “journalistic”). It’s the non-fiction I return to regularly: the four volumes in the Penguin Collected Essays, Letters and Journalism of George Orwell series, five of the eleven volumes in Secker & Warburg’s Complete Orwell series, a collection of his Observer stuff, and I’m currently reading the 2008 paperback edition of  Orwell in Tribune 1943-7, edited by Paul Anderson, who did a great job. 

Orwell’s work for Tribune reads like the world’s best-ever personal blog. As the title of his column - “As I Please” - suggests, he covered exactly what he wanted, and he covered everything. Read most personality columnists or bloggers, and they stuff rapidly falls into a recognisable pattern - daffy dame in her twenties, married journo with a useless husband and crazy kids, jolly angry right-winger, compassionate, bleeding heart liberal female... they have a shtick, as I believe it’s called. Orwell was shtickless. In fact, he was so brilliant, so relentlessly original, so immediate, so eclectic, so down-to-earth and so erudite, his columns are unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Orwell was undoubtedly, by a mile, the greatest essayist and jobbing journalist working in England in the 20th Century (there were better letter-writers, diarists and novelists). 

I’m hardly the first person to reach this conclusion, and I certainly won’t be the last. The question is, given he’s such a confirmed lefty, and given how incredibly irritating most left-wing writing is, why do so many right-wingers adore him?

Unlike most contemporary commentators, he isn’t trying to show how clever or caring or witty he is: he really does appear to be that strange animal – the writer who’s more interested in what he’s saying than in what it tells us about him. Consequently, he was as honest as they come. Who else, when discussing a short story competition organised by the journal he’s writing for would tell his readers, “…the great majority [of the stories] were, in my opinion, very bad… without character interest and usually written in a slovenly way”. Nothing like buttering up your audience!

He is refreshingly, uniquely untribal – his fellow-socialists, famously, come in for a terrible mauling, and this is in a left-wing publication! He constantly attacks the idea that leftists should hide certain facts because they would be “unhelpful” to the cause – in one example, he cites the refusal of socialist journalists to report that, as Russia occupied large parts of Europe at the end of the war, its beast-like soldiers were raping anything that moved. 

Orwell constantly attacks cherished left-wing notions. For instance, far from agreeing that sport helps to spread international understanding and harmony, he describes it as “an unfailing cause of ill-will”. He dismisses the notion that scientists are largely on the side of internationalism by pointing out that the vast majority of them are only too happy to do what they’re told, no matter who’s in power. He savages the notion that “the aeroplane and the radio have abolished distance” or that “all parts of the world are now interdependent” - “Actually, the effect of modern inventions has been to increase nationalism, to make travel enormously more difficult, to cut down the means of communication between one country and another, and to make the various parts of the world less, not more dependent on one another…” He is brilliant on the way the word “fascist” is sprayed around as a largely meaningless insult (some thing really never change). He has a go at the TUC for refusing to allow Polish refugees to work down the mines, even thought their contribution was needed for the war effort (Workers of the world...etc.)

No wonder Orwell hated the phrase “toe the line” – not only was it a cliché, but he was simply incapable of doing it.

He is often astonishingly prescient. This what he has to say on the use of music in restaurants and holiday resorts: “Its function is to prevent thought and conversation, and to shut out any natural sound, such as the song of birds or the whistling of the wind, that might otherwise intrude”, and goes on to suggest that the aim is to return us to the womb “where one’s thoughts, if any, were drowned by a continuous rhythmic throbbing”. But his predictive powers often fail him:  he’s dead right about the world resolving itself into two or three hugely powerful spheres of influence after the war - but utterly wrong about what’ll happen inside these spheres. But at least he was always willing to stick his neck out.

Then there are the small details of everyday life: wondering whether lifting the injunction against turn-ups on trousers is really a good thing and comparing 1944 to pre-war prices (“Small, very bad quality coconut fibre scrubbing-brush, price before the war 3d: present price 1/9d.”)

He is painfully honest about his own profession – his explanation of why reviewers are so timid when it comes to attacking the books they’ve been sent sounds spot on (they don’t care about the vast majority of them, barely glance at them, and they won’t be sent any more if they’re nasty). He’s also endlessly interesting when writing about other areas he knows about, such as the BBC, political journals, Spain, internecine left-wing fighting, newspapers, farming, the poor and nature. 

Of course, there’s quite a lot of socialist nonsense in there as well – his attitude to religion and the upper-classes quickly grates, as does his relentless refusal to accept that capitalism – as represented by America – can ever really work. Only a lefty could write: “there is no reason to think that the supposed acquisitive instincts of the human being could not be bred out in a couple of generations”, or this: “If the poor are not much better dressed, at least the rich are shabbier”. When entering this mode, he seems to temporarily switch off his intellect and run along the rails that almost all other left-wing writers lazily ride. But, on the whole, you can never be quite sure what line he’s going to take on any subject - or which subject he’ll choose to cover.

Apart from the liveliness of his mind, the depth of his reading, his genuine interest in the minutiae of daily life, his honesty and courage, the sheerquality of the writing makes him marvellously readable – and re-readable. For instance, this is from an article about British attitudes to Jews:  “Nor is it any use, in my experience, to talk about the persecution of the Jews in Germany. If a man has the slightest predisposition to anti-Semitism, such things bounce off his consciousness like peas off a steel helmet.” What a brilliant image!

Why do I think of him as a blogger? Because so much of what he writes seems so contemporary - on practically every page (screen?) he’s discussing things we’re still still talking about today: I hate the idea that writers from the past have to be made to sound relevant to the here and now - but Orwell just is!

All that makes George Orwell, to my mind, one of the greatest Englishmen of the 20th Century, and a socialist we can all cherish, no matter what our political leanings. 


  1. Scott, quoting Orwell: Only a lefty could write: “there is no reason to think that the supposed acquisitive instincts of the human being could not be bred out in a couple of generations” ...

    That’s from As I Please #34, 21 July 1944.

    It stood out like a sore thumb when I read it:

    In this country we are not troubled by lack of water. If anything we have too much of it, especially on Bank Holidays. As a result water hardly enters into our consciousness ... So also with any other kind of goods. If they were made plentiful, as they so easily might be, there is no reason to think that the supposed acquisitive instincts of the human being could not be bred out in a couple of generations. And after all, if human nature never changes, why is it that we not only don’t practise cannibalism any longer, but don’t even want to?

    It stood out because it is so far beneath him.

    Normally he writes with utter integrity. He hates totalitarianism, whether Communist or Fascist, and here he is apparently recommending eugenics.

    He is writing in the context of one of the eternal questions. “Socialists are accused”, he says, “I think without justification ... of assuming that Man is perfectible”. He is trying to defend Socialism and to distinguish it from totalitarianism. He does so by claiming that Man is perfectible. By eugenics.

    It’s ghastly, but it’s not Orwell, he must have had a fit on 21 July 1944, it ... stands out like a sore thumb ... from everything else he wrote.

    I like to think that this awful article of his gave him sleepless nights for some time to come.

    And that he published Raffles and Miss Blandish[1] on 28 August 1944 by way of expiation.

    R&MB is a neat little essay. Orwell contrasts Raffles as an anti-hero to Slim, the anti-hero of James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish, which sold half a million copies, and reading which Orwell describes as a “header into the cesspool”.

    Raffles is a nice, English sort of an anti-hero, a baddy, but he did play cricket for England and he did die nobly in the Boer War. Slim, by contrast, is simply revolting and the tenor of Orchids is a celebration of raw power, in which men are tortured and women are kidnapped and tortured and raped and the cruelty is not a means to an end but “a means to a means”, as Orwell puts it, the book is meant for sordid people who enjoy the thought of cruelty and Orwell is horrified that it sold so many copies.

  2. He’s got the contrast set up, he amplifies his case with examples from other writers, some in the Raffles camp, others in the Slim camp, it’s neatly done and then he moves in for the kill -- this megalomania is the touchstone of totalitarianism, the exercise of raw power, whether over a kidnapped girl or an entire population, the popularity of Orchids may be a one-off, something to do with the war, he hopes so.

    Job done. He’s made his point. He’s nailed totalitarianism. Again. But he goes one step further, and finishes R&MB with this:

    Raffles, as I have pointed out, has no real moral code, no religion, certainly no social consciousness. All he has is a set of reflexes -- the nervous system, as it were, of a gentleman. Give him a sharp tap on this reflex or that (they are called ‘sport’, ‘pal’, ‘woman’, ‘king and country’ and so forth), and you get a predictable reaction. In Mr. Chase's books there are no gentlemen and no taboos. Emancipation is complete. Freud and Machiavelli have reached the outer suburbs. Comparing the schoolboy atmosphere of the one book with the cruelty and corruption of the other, one is driven to feel that snobbishness, like hypocrisy, is a check upon behaviour whose value from a social point of view has been underrated.

    The first time I read that, my hair stood on end at “Freud and Machiavelli have reached the outer suburbs”. It was only the second time I read it that I noticed “snobbishness, like hypocrisy, is a check upon behaviour whose value from a social point of view has been underrated”.

    I have 100 eulogies for the man who can write that. I will limit myself to three. His socialism has just dissolved. He doesn’t believe in eugenics. And he is rightly to be celebrated.

    From Wikipedia [2]:
    “James Hadley Chase is the best-known pseudonym of the British writer Rene Brabazon Raymond ... Chase, a London-born son of a British colonel serving in the colonial Indian Army ... with the help of maps and a slang dictionary, he wrote No Orchids for Miss Blandish in his spare time over a period of six week ends ...”

    Orchids is a rip-off of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Orwell absolves Faulkner of the vices of Mr Chase. I’m not sure I would. I love Faulkner’s books in general, but there are a couple where he gets all pervy, he has a hang-up about impotent men getting some sort of satisfaction by watching their brother rape a kidnapped woman. I prefer to ignore the pervy bits. In fact I’d forgotten about them until I read R&MB.



    Saturday, June 4, 2011 - 11:23 PM

  3. As far as I’m aware, Orwell was about the only serious writer who took an interest in what the plebs were reading – as a teenager, he led me to both “Raffles”, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and “No Orchids for Miss Blandish”, which seemed very tame, given that I’d already read a lot of Mickey Spillane by that stage (whose books really were pornographically brutal, even though written in the 1950s). Imagine any other intellectual giving a damn what the groundlings were consuming!

    I’m glad the same article leapt out at you: it was so at odds with his normal cool, questingly intelligent outlook. The more I read Orwell, the more it occurs to me that his only real drawback was a belief in the ability of the state to run anything successfully – which was odd, given how healthy sceptical he was of bureaucrats and totalitarianism. Despite that, what a wonderful journalist he was!
    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 - 09:05 PM

  4. Good point, yes, he immersed himself in ordinary people's lives, the opposite of the "querulous ... English left-wing intelligentsia" he kebabs so accurately [1].

    I've just finished his Poetry and the Microphone [2], in which he tackles the question how to bring about a rapprochement between poetry and its public. I love "Poetry is disliked because it is associated with unintelligibility, intellectual pretentiousness and a general feeling of Sunday-on-a-weekday".

    Sunday-on-a-weekday ...



    Thursday, June 9, 2011 - 02:39 PM