I vividly remember when I first read George Orwell. It was at Eton, Orwell’s old school. Not coming from a family with any Eton connections (a portion of my fees was paid by the school), I had refined a test: if a boy’s father had gone there, then that boy’s grandparents had been rich enough, in the early nineteen-fifties, to come up with the money. And, if his grandparents had been rich enough, the chances were that his great-grandparents had had enough cash to send Grandpa there in the nineteen-twenties—and back and back, in an infinite regression of privilege. There were probably hundreds of boys whose family wealth stretched so far back, into the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, that, for all intents and purposes, the origin of their prosperity was invisible, wallpapered over in layers and layers of luck.
It seemed extraordinary to a member of the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie that these boys were incapable of answering two basic questions: How did your family make its money? And how on earth did it hold on to it for so long? They were barely aware of their enormous, unearned privilege; and this at a time of deep recession and Mrs. Thatcher, in which English fields became battlegrounds and policemen on horseback fought with armies of striking coal miners. I spent my time at that school alternately grateful for its every expensive blessing and eager to blow it up. Into those receptive hands fell Orwell’s 1941 pamphlet “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,” with its own war cry: “Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there.” And also: “England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly. . . . A family with the wrong members in control.”
“The Lion and the Unicorn” is a powerfully radical pamphlet, published at a time when Orwell thought that the only way for the British to beat the Nazis was to make the war a revolutionary one. British capitalism had been culpably inefficient, he argued. Its lords and captains had slept through the nineteen-thirties, either colluding with or appeasing Hitler. There had been a long period of stagnation and unemployment. Britain had failed to produce enough armaments; as late as August, 1939, Orwell notes, British dealers were still trying to sell rubber, shellac, and tin to the Germans. By contrast, the Fascists, stealing what they wanted from socialism and discarding all the noble bits, had shown how efficient a planned economy could be: “The mere efficiency of such a system, the elimination of waste and obstruction, is obvious. . . . However horrible this system may seem to us, it works.” Only by shifting to a planned, nationalized economy and a “classless, ownerless” society could the British prevail. Revolution was not just desirable but necessary. And what was needed was not just a change of heart but a structural dismantling, “a fundamental shift of power. Whether it happens with or without bloodshed is largely an accident of time and place.”
During the nineteen-forties and fifties, a social revolution did take place in Britain. Though it would not be Orwell’s idea of a fundamental shift of power, his writing certainly contributed to the quieter change that occurred when the Labour Party won the 1945 election, ousted Winston Churchill, and inaugurated the welfare state. After the war, Orwell became most famous as a left-baiting anti-totalitarian, but he did not change his opinion that vast, systemic change was necessary in order to make Britain a decent and fair country to live in: he continued to make the case for the nationalization of major industries, tight government regulation of income disparity (he originally proposed that the highest income be no more than ten times the lowest), the winding up of the Empire, the abolition of the House of Lords, the disestablishment of the Church of England, and reform of the great English boarding schools and ancient universities. This revolution, he thought, will be a curious, ragged, English thing: “It will not be doctrinaire, nor even logical. It will abolish the House of Lords, but quite probably will not abolish the Monarchy. It will leave anachronisms and loose ends everywhere.”
Nowadays, Orwell’s imprecision about exactly how this revolution might come about seems telling, because, despite the fighting words (“At some point or other it may be necessary to use violence”), his vagueness seems a kind of wish fulfillment, as if a nice muddled revolution might spontaneously emerge from the gentle London fog. “A real shove from below will accomplish it,” he writes, in “The Lion and the Unicorn.” Ah, that will do the trick.
But there is a difference between being revolutionary and being a revolutionary, and journalists are not required to be tacticians. More striking is that Orwell premises the economic viability of his socialistic planned economy on the economic success of the Nazis’ planned economy, and, in turn, premises the viability of the Nazis’ planned economy only on its efficiency in wartime. Nazism worked, to use Orwell’s verb, because it was good at producing tanks and guns in wartime, but how good would it be at building hospitals and universities in peacetime? He doesn’t say. So the example of efficient Fascism is what inspires the hope of efficient socialism. Orwell seems never to have realized the economic contradiction of this, at least explicitly. Perhaps he did realize it, unconsciously, because later works, such as “Animal Farm” (1945) and “1984” (1949), worry away at the Fascistic temptation inherent in the socialistic, planned, collective economy—the “classless, ownerless” society.
This is not to suggest, as contemporary neoconservatives like Jonah Goldberg absurdly claim, that socialism is just fascism with a bleeding heart. Orwell never thought that. Despite the anti-totalitarian books, and his reputation’s later theft at the hands of the right wing, he remained revolutionary in spirit until his death, in 1950, at the age of forty-six. But he never really reconciled his hatred of what he called the “power instinct” with a candid assessment of the power instinct that would have to be exercised to effect revolution. As he saw it, the English revolution would come about precisely to dismantle power and privilege, so how could it possibly end up replacing one kind with another? The English just wouldn’t do that. An actual revolution, in Russia, with its abuses of power and privilege, necessarily disappointed him, because it contaminated the ideal. Orwell became not so much anti-revolutionary as anti-revolution.
When I first read “The Lion and the Unicorn,” I was so blinded by superb, boiling lines like “And if the rich squeal audibly, so much the better” and “The lady in the Rolls-Royce car is more damaging to morale than a fleet of Goering’s bombing planes” that I missed this incoherence. To someone surrounded by alien acres of privilege, Orwell’s relentless attacks seemed a necessary, obliterating forest fire: “What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old. . . . We have got to fight against privilege.” Now I am struck by the fact that, throughout his work, Orwell is much more vocal about the abolition of power and privilege than about equitable redistribution, let alone the means and machinery of that redistribution. There is a fine spirit of optimistic destruction in his work, a sense that if we all just work hard at that crucial, negating “shove from below,” the upper-class toffs will simply fade away, and things will more or less work out in the interests of justice. In “The Lion and the Unicorn,” there is a suggestive moment when Orwell writes that collective wartime deprivation may be more necessary than political programs: “In the short run, equality of sacrifice, ‘war-Communism,’ is even more important than radical economic changes. It is very necessary that industry should be nationalized, but it is more urgently necessary that such monstrosities as butlers and ‘private incomes’ should disappear forthwith.” In other words, let’s agree to be vague about the economic stuff, and keep the serious rhetoric for the lady in the Rolls. This is the same Orwell who wrote in his wartime diary, “The first sign that things are really happening in England will be the disappearance of that horrible plummy voice from the radio,” and the same Orwell who, dying of tuberculosis in a country nursing home, wrote in his notebook in 1949 about the sound of upper-class English voices: “And what voices! A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a constant bah-bahing of laughter about nothing, above all a sort of heaviness and richness combined with a fundamental ill-will. . . . No wonder everyone hates us so.” For Orwell, getting rid of those accents was more than half the battle.
It is probably fair to say that Orwell was even more consumed by the spectacle of overweening privilege than by the spectacle of overwhelming poverty, despite the two committed books he wrote about the poor, “Down and Out in Paris and London” (1933) and “The Road to Wigan Pier” (1937). A pair of new volumes of his essays, collected as “Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays” and “All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays,” allow us to experience again the strongest examples of Orwell’s journalistic work. The selections, by George Packer, a journalist (and a regular contributor to this magazine), are now the best and fullest available, and a big improvement on the slightly thin Penguin collections that were in print for twenty years or more. There are useful, intelligent introductions by Packer and Keith Gessen (who writes about the critical essays). All the famous pieces are here, along with a good amount of less well-known work, like the diary that Orwell kept during the war; his account of a visit to Morocco; and the scarifying review he wrote in this magazine of Graham Greene’s “The Heart of the Matter.” Again and again in these volumes, Orwell returns to the abuse of power. In his long essay on Dickens, one of the finest he wrote, he marks Dickens down for not being revolutionary enough (Dickens is “always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure”), and argues that a purely moral critique of society is not quite sufficient, since, as even Dickens recognized, the “central problem—how to prevent power from being abused—remains unsolved.”
His nicely pugilistic essay on Tolstoy’s hatred of “King Lear,” from 1947, is skeptical about Tolstoy’s late, monkish religiosity, and sets up a binarism that is repeated two years later, in his essay on Gandhi. For Orwell, the humanist is committed to this world and its difficulties, and knows that “life is suffering.” But the religious believer wagers everything on the next life, and though the two sides, secular and religious, may occasionally overlap, there can be no ultimate reconciliation between them. (Orwell was on the humanist side, of course—basically an unmetaphysical, English version of Camus’s philosophy of perpetual godless struggle.) Orwell suspects that when the bullying Russian novelist became a bullying religious writer, he merely exchanged one form of egoism for another. “The distinction that really matters is not between violence and non-violence, but between having and not having the appetite for power.” The example he appends is an interesting one: when a father threatens his son with “You’ll get a thick ear if you do that again,” coercion is palpable. But, Orwell writes, what of the mother who lovingly murmurs, “Now, darling, is it kind to Mummy to do that?” The mother wants to contaminate her son’s brain. Tolstoy did not propose that “King Lear” be banned or censored, Orwell says; instead, when he wrote his polemic against Shakespeare, he tried to contaminate our pleasure in the play. For Orwell, “Creeds like pacifism and anarchism, which seem on the surface to imply a complete renunciation of power, rather encourage this habit of mind.”
Orwell became increasingly obsessed with this kind of manipulative, insidious power; his repeated denunciations of those he thought wielded it—pacifists, anarchists, Communist fellow-travellers, naïve leftists—reached a slightly hysterical pitch. But his terror of the tyrannical mother who lovingly murmurs at you while rearranging your brain is what makes the two books written under that shadow, “Animal Farm” and “1984,” so potent. The most appalling moments in “1984” come when the State has already read Winston Smith’s mind and is committed to abolishing his interiority. A man sits in a room and thinks: we expect the traditional realist novel to indulge his free consciousness and represent its movements on the page. When we are told, in effect, that this cannot happen in the usual literary way, because this man is being watched by the State, that this man fears even to betray himself by speaking aloud in his sleep, the shock, sixty years after the book’s publication, is still great. The all-seeing but benign novelist (Daddy) becomes the dreaded telescreen, or the torturer O’Brien (Mummy), who seems to know in advance what questions Winston will ask.
Eric Blair (Orwell’s real name) was born in 1903, in Bengal, to a father who worked as a minor official in the Indian Civil Service; his mother was the daughter of a French teak merchant who did business in Burma. In a kind of morbid squirm, Orwell wrote that he belonged to the “lower-upper-middle class,” a station with prestige but no money. Such families went to the colonies because they could afford to play there at being gentlemen. But this self-description appears in “The Road to Wigan Pier,” where it must have seemed very important to scuff his social polish a bit. In fact, “lower-upper class” would be more accurate and compact: he was the great-great-great-grandson of an earl, the grandson of a clergyman, and in later life kept up with Old Etonian chums like Cyril Connolly, Anthony Powell, and A. J. Ayer. At St. Cyprian’s, a preparatory boarding school he was sent to at the age of eight, little Eric was inducted into a regime of violence and intimidation. According to his memoir “Such, Such Were the Joys” (which was not published in his lifetime, for fear of libel laws), he was singled out for bullying because he was a poor boy, on reduced fees. There was soft and hard power here—Mummy and Daddy were both at work. The headmaster and his wife used Blair’s depressed financial status as manipulative weapons. “You are living on my bounty,” the headmaster would say, as he vigorously caned the boy. His wife comes across as an understudy for O’Brien; she could make young Blair snivel by saying things like “And do you think it’s quite fair to us, the way you’re behaving? After all we’ve done for you? You do know what we’ve done for you, don’t you?”
Having crammed for an Eton scholarship, which he won, Orwell then seems to have taken the next five years off, though he read an enormous amount in his own time. Eton was enlightenment itself after St. Cyprian’s, and he confessed to having been “relatively happy” there. But he must have been painfully aware, as he had been at St. Cyprian’s, of not being able to keep up with wealthier boys. There was probably a more sophisticated version of the inquisition that he remembered from St. Cyprian’s, in which “new boys of doubtful social origin” were bombarded with questions like “What part of London do you live in? Is that Knightsbridge or Kensington? How many bathrooms has your house got? How many servants do your people keep?” (I certainly remember an updated edition of this.) Unable to win a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge, Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma, in 1922. It was a peculiar decision, but, like the atheist who loves churches, it perhaps represented an unconscious form of rebellious espionage.
School provided Orwell with one of his lifelong obsessions, class; his experience as a colonial policeman provided a tutorial in the other, the abuse of power. The famous essays that come out of the time in Burma are written with cool fire—a banked anger at administered cruelty. In “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell is ashamed that he must kill a magnificent elephant simply to avoid losing face, as a policeman and a white man, before a large Burmese crowd. In “A Hanging,” the horror of the execution—“It is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man”—is made more trenchant by the triviality that surrounds the event: Orwell describes a dog that bounds up and tries to lick the face of the condemned man, and he notices, in a celebrated moment, the prisoner swerve to avoid a puddle as he walks toward the gallows.
Orwell claimed that in a peaceful age he might have been a harmless, ornamental writer, oblivious of political obligation. “As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer,” he wrote in 1946. “First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure.” That verb, “underwent,” suggests not coercion but voluntary self-mortification. The truth is that in 1928 Orwell went to Paris, like many other poor, aspiring artists, to see what he could produce. He ran out of money, and ended up working as a dishwasher, or plongeur, in a Paris hotel. He contracted influenza, and spent two weeks in the public ward of a hospital in Paris, in hideous circumstances—an experience he wrote about in “How the Poor Die.” He returned to England, and tramped around London and Kent with the down-and-out, living like the homeless, on bread and margarine and cups of tea, and putting up for the night at doss-houses, or “spikes.” But he chose to do all this rather than, say, go and live with his parents, because he was scouting for material.
And what material! “Down and Out in Paris and London,” his first book, which was published in 1933, is in some ways his best. There is a young man’s porousness to impressions, a marvellous ear for speech, and a willingness to let anecdotes play themselves out. Four years later, in “The Road to Wigan Pier,” he wrote again about the poor, this time the miners, steelworkers, and unemployed of towns like Wigan and Sheffield, but in that book they are hardly ever allowed to speak. As there are no voices, so there are no stories in the later book, no movement, just the tar of deprivation, which glues his subjects into their poverty. Orwell has become a pamphleteer. The earlier book, curiously, is a joyful, dynamic one. There is Boris, the unemployed Russian waiter and former soldier, who likes to quote Marshal Foch: “Attaquez! Attaquez! Attaquez!” There is the frighteningly precise account of hunger, and the worldly tips that Orwell enjoys passing on—such as eating bread with garlic rubbed on it, because “the taste lingers and gives one the illusion of having fed recently.” There are the vivid descriptions of the labyrinthine inferno in the bowels of the hotel where he works: “As we went along, something struck me violently in the back. It was a hundred-pound block of ice, carried by a blue-aproned porter. After him came a boy with a great slab of veal on his shoulder, his cheek pressed into the damp, spongy flesh.” And there are characters like Bozo, a London pavement artist, who rattles on:
The whole thing with cartoons is being up to date. Once a child got its head stuck in the railings of Chelsea Bridge. Well, I heard about it, and my cartoon was on the pavement before they’d got the child’s head out of the railings. Prompt, I am.
Have you ever seen a corpse burned? I have, in India. They put the old chap on the fire, and the next moment I almost jumped out of my skin, because he’d started kicking. It was only his muscles contracting in the heat—still, it give me a turn. Well, he wriggled about for a bit like a kipper on hot coals, and then his belly blew up and went off with a bang you could have heard fifty yards away. It fair put me against cremation.
Bozo, whose collar is always fraying, and who patches it with “bits cut from the tail of his shirt so that the shirt had scarcely any tail left,” is both real and heightened. He is pure Dickens, and Orwell almost certainly worked up his speech like a good novelist. Who’s to say that Orwell did not come up on his own with that simile, “like a kipper on hot coals”? It perfectly fulfills one of the requests he would make thirteen years later in a well-known essay, “Politics and the English Language,” for “a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech.” His own writing abounds with images of kipper-like pungency: “Even the millionaire suffers from a vague sense of guilt, like a dog eating a stolen leg of mutton.” In his novel “Coming Up for Air” (1939), the old bucolic town of Lower Binfield has unattractively expanded after the First World War and has “spread like gravy over a tablecloth.”
But, even if Orwell worked at his journalism like a good novelist, the strange thing is that he could not work at his novels like a good novelist. The details that pucker the journalism are rolled flat in the fiction. Orwell needed the prompt of the real to speak as a writer. In the novel “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” (1936), the impoverished hero, about to go to a genteel tea party, ponders inking the skin of his ankles where it peeps through his threadbare sock. It’s a marvellously evocative moment, which gives new meaning to the phrase “down-at-heel.” But it comes from something Orwell saw in Paris, and recorded in “Down and Out,” before recycling it later in the fiction. No one forgets the waiter in his first book, inking his ankles, stuffing the soles of his shoes with newspaper, or squeezing a dirty dishcloth into a patron’s soup as a revenge on the bourgeoisie; no one forgets Mr. Brooker, in “The Road to Wigan Pier,” who runs a tripe shop and has filthy fingers, and “like all people with permanently dirty hands . . . had a peculiarly intimate, lingering manner of handling things.” But there is absolutely nothing memorable in the watery, vaudevillian description of the urban poor—“the proles”—in “1984”; it is just neutered Gissing.
Orwell is famous for his frank and easy style, and for his determination that good prose should be as transparent as a windowpane. But his style, though superbly colloquial, is much more like a lens than like a window. His narrative journalism directs our attention pedagogically; George Packer was right to choose the phrase “All Art Is Propaganda” (from the essay on Dickens) as the title of one of the new volumes. There is a cunning control of suspense. The dog who bounds up to the prisoner in “A Hanging” is introduced like this: “Suddenly, when we had gone ten yards, the procession stopped short without any order or warning. A dreadful thing had happened—a dog, come goodness knows whence, had appeared in the yard.” Whatever dreadful thing one has been made to expect at that moment, it is unlikely to be as harmless as a dog. Likewise, the characteristic Orwellian formulation “It is interesting that” or “Curiously enough” generally introduces not some penny curiosity but a gold-plated revelation: “Curiously enough he was the first dead European I had seen,” he writes in “How the Poor Die.” The man’s swerving to avoid the puddle in “A Hanging” is passed off rather similarly, as a kind of found object, a triviality noticed by chance. But the essay is structured around two examples of irrelevance, each of them suggestive of an instinctive solipsism. The dog who bounds up to the condemned man is living its own joyous, animal life, and this has nothing to do with the imminent horror; this incursion is then “balanced”—in a formal sense—by the victim’s equally “irrelevant” swerve, which, among other things, is also an example of a body or a mind still moving at its own instinctual rhythm. The piece is highly choreographed.
Orwell almost certainly got this eye for didactic detail from Tolstoy. The man swerving around the puddle has an ancestor in the young Russian, in “War and Peace,” who, about to be executed by French soldiers, irrelevantly fiddles with his blindfold, because it is too tight. Nikolai Rostov, in the same book, finds that he cannot kill a French soldier, because instead of seeing an enemy he sees “a most simple, homelike face.” In “Looking Back on the Spanish War” (usefully included in the selection of narrative essays), Orwell is about to shoot a Fascist soldier, and then cannot, because “he was half-dressed and was holding up his trousers with both hands as he ran.”
Orwell is wrongly thought of as the great neutral reporter, immune to the fever of judgment—the cool camera, the unbiased eyeball. He was attacked by Edward Said for propagating “the eye-witness, seemingly opinion-less politics” of Western journalism. “When they are on the rampage, you show Asiatic and African mobs rampaging: an obviously disturbing scene presented by an obviously unconcerned reporter who is beyond Left piety or right-wing cant,” Said wrote about the Orwellian tradition. Almost the opposite is true. Orwell may seem cool, because he does not flinch from violence and poverty. Yet he thinks about horror coolly and watches it hotly. Henry Mayhew, whose reportage in “London Labour and the London Poor” (1861) is often compared to Orwell’s, generally writes a rather detached prose. He goes around the London streets cataloguing and recording deprivation, an enlightened anthropologist. But there is nothing detached about Orwell’s diction. He frequently describes the world of poverty as “loathsome,” “disgusting,” “fetid,” “squalid.” In the Paris hotel where he works, there is the “warm reek of food” and the “red glare of a fire.” He labors alongside “a huge, excitable Italian” and “a hairy, uncouth animal whom we called the Magyar.” Tramping around London and the English countryside with the homeless, he shares quarters in hostels with people who revolt him: “I shall never forget the reek of dirty feet . . . a stale, fetid stink. . . . The passage was full of squalid, grey-shirted figures.” In one doss-house, where the sheets “stank so horribly of sweat that I could not bear them near my nose,” a man is lying in bed with his trousers wrapped around his head, “a thing which for some reason disgusted me very much.” Orwell is woken the next morning
by a dim impression of some large brown thing coming towards me. I opened my eyes and saw that it was one of the sailor’s feet, sticking out of bed close to my face. It was dark brown, quite dark brown like an Indian’s, with dirt. The walls were leprous, and the sheets, three weeks from the wash, were almost raw umber colour.
Notice, as ever, the crafty use of suspense (“some large brown thing”), and then the diction—“dark brown like an Indian’s”—that borrows from a nineteenth-century sensationalist like Wilkie Collins. (The contemporary novelist Ian McEwan has in turn learned quite a lot about narrative stealth and the titration of disgust from Orwell.)
Perhaps Orwell struck Said as dangerous because, though politically didactic, he is rarely obviously sympathetic. On the contrary, he thrashes his subjects with attention. In “How the Poor Die,” what stays with the reader is the description of the administration of the mustard poultice:
I learned later that watching a patient have a mustard poultice was a favourite pastime in the ward. These things are normally applied for a quarter of an hour and certainly they are funny enough if you don’t happen to be the person inside. For the first five minutes the pain is severe, but you believe you can bear it. During the second five minutes this belief evaporates, but the poultice is buckled at the back and you can’t get it off. This is the period the onlookers most enjoy.
First, there is the apparent coolness (“and certainly they are funny enough if you don’t happen to be the person inside”). And then the heat—the leap to that last sentence, with its combination of Grand Guignol and unverifiable self-projection: How can he really know this? Isn’t it actually the moment that Orwell might most enjoy as a spectator, even while hating it?
Orwell says of Mr. Brooker, in “Wigan,” that like all men with dirty hands he handled food in a lingering way, but it is really Orwell whose eye cannot stop lingering on those dirty hands. In “Down and Out,” he cannot suppress the relish with which he tells us how many times he has seen the nasty fat pink fingers of the chef touching steak. Then he joyfully drives it home: “Whenever one pays more than, say, ten francs for a dish of meat in Paris, one may be certain that it has been fingered in this manner. . . . Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it.” The effect is both sadistic and masochistic, because Orwell does not exempt himself from the punishment: it is understood that at some point he, the Old Etonian, will be the patron, not the waiter; and, indeed, he seems to want to taste the sweat on the meat, as a salty political reminder. In a similar way, his rhetoric of disgust in “The Road to Wigan Pier” works so well because it involves us in his own difficult struggle to admire the working classes. If I can overcome my repulsion, he seems to say, then you can, too.
There is a long historical connection between revolution and Puritanism (with both a capital and a lowercase “P”), and Orwell sings in that stainless choir. In Paris, he exults that the only thing separating the diners from the squalor of the kitchen is a single door: “There sat the customers in all their splendour . . . and here, just a few feet away, we in our disgusting filth.” This is a religious scourging. He is like Jonathan Edwards, reminding his congregation in a sermon that we are suspended over hell by “a slender thread,” and that an angry God can cut it whenever it pleases Him. Throughout the nineteen-thirties and early forties, as Orwell’s radicalism grew, this politics of the slender thread became more pronounced. It provides one of the most powerful passages in “Wigan,” when he reminds us that our comfortable bourgeois existence aboveground is founded on what men do beneath, in hellish conditions:
Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without a pause. . . . In order that Hitler may march the goosestep, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lord’s, that the Nancy poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming.
And it is the same with empire—a “stream of dividends that flows from the bodies of Indian coolies to the banking accounts of old ladies in Cheltenham.”
But Orwell’s radicalism was also conservative. He was a socialist artist but utterly anti-bohemian; a cosmopolitan who had lived in Paris and fought alongside Trotskyists in Spain but who was glad to get back home to lamb and mint sauce and “beer made with veritable hops.” He wanted England to change but stay the same, and he became a great popular journalist in part because he was so good at defending the ordinary virtues of English life, as he saw them, against the menace of change; even when he is attacking something politically disagreeable—like the popular boys’ weekly “The Magnet,” featuring Billy Bunter, whose tales were set at a posh, Eton-like boarding school—he sounds as if he wanted it to last forever. In the forties, he wrote a column for the weekly left-wing paper the Tribune, as well as squibs for the Evening Standard (some of them included in Packer’s selection), in which he praised the ideal cup of tea, the ideal London pub, the solid English food he liked (Yorkshire pudding, kippers, Stilton—“I fancy that Stilton is the best cheese of its type in the world”); attacked women’s makeup (“It is very unusual to meet a man who does not think painting your fingernails scarlet is a disgusting habit”); asked why people use foreign phrases when “in nearly every case an English equivalent already exists”; and lamented the disappearance of the warming pan and the rise of the hot-water bottle (“clammy, unsatisfying”).
What makes his essays about Donald McGill’s seaside postcards, and Dickens, and the decline of the English murder, and Billy Bunter so acute is his talent for describing closed worlds and for adumbrating their conventions. If he pioneered what became cultural studies, it is because he could see that these worlds were both real (in that they were produced by a living culture) and unreal (in that they subsisted on their own peculiar codes). He transferred to the description of these existent fictional worlds the talent he lacked as a novelist of nonexistent worlds; he needed a drystone wall already up, so that he could bring his mortar to it and lovingly fill in the gaps. And he did the same with the closed world of English life, reading the country’s narrative conventions. This semi-fictional England, beautifully described in “The Lion and the Unicorn,” was a rather shabby, stoical, anti-American, ideally classless place, devoted to small English pleasures like marmalade and suet pudding and fishing in country ponds, puritanical about large luxuries like the Ritz Hotel and Rolls-Royces, and suspicious of modern conveniences like aspirins, shiny American apples, cars, and radios. There is an undoubted comedy in Orwell’s never having realized that what was obviously utopia to him might strike at least half the population as a chaste nightmare.
The biggest convention in this semi-fictional world is the working class. In “The Road to Wigan Pier,” Orwell says that he knows too much about working-class life to idealize it, and then proceeds to idealize it, like some moral-moistened Victorian genre painter. In the best kind of proletarian home, he says, “you breathe a warm, decent, deeply human atmosphere,” and a working man has a better chance of being happy than an “educated” one. Life is good there: “Especially on winter evenings after tea, when the fire glows in the open range and dances mirrored in the steel fender, when Father, in shirt-sleeves, sits in the rocking chair at one side of the fire reading the racing finals, and Mother sits on the other with her sewing, and the children are happy with a pennorth of mint humbugs, and the dog lolls roasting himself on the rag mat.” What will that scene be like in two hundred years’ time, he asks, in that utopia where there is no manual labor, and everyone is “educated”? There will be no coal fire, he answers, and no racing news, and the furniture will be made of rubber, glass, and steel.
Like many radicals, Orwell had strong Rousseauian tendencies: the simpler, apparently more organic life of the countryside seemed a tempting birdsong compared with London’s mechanized squawks. He could see that, with or without a revolution, postwar British society would be very different from the bucolic pre-1914 world in which he grew up, and, uneasily, he returns repeatedly to what lies ahead. For millions of people, he laments, the sound of the radio is more normal than the sound of birds. (In his nursing-home diary, he noted with pleasure that the chief sound was of birds.) Modern life should be simpler and harder, he argues in this vein, not softer and more complex, and “in a healthy world there would be no demand for tinned foods, aspirins, gramophones, gaspipe chairs, machine guns, daily newspapers, telephones, motor-cars, etc., etc.” Note that “etc.”—there speaks the puritan, reserving the right to stretch his prohibitions, at cranky whim. In his novel “Coming Up for Air” (1939), the hero returns to the country town not far from London that he remembers from childhood (based on Orwell’s own childhood memories of the Thames Valley), to find that it has become an overdeveloped horror, full of flimsy new houses and orbital roads; it looks just like “these new towns that have suddenly swelled up like balloons in the last few years, Hayes, Slough, Dagenham. . . . The kind of chilliness, the bright red brick everywhere, the temporary-looking shop-windows full of cut-price chocolates and radio parts.” The same new towns recur in “The Lion and the Unicorn,” when Orwell admits that life has improved for the working classes since 1918, and that people of an “indeterminate social class” have emerged, in new towns and suburbs around London, places like “Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes.” He acknowledges that this is the future; indeed, he says that this puzzling non-class will provide the “directing brains” for the postwar socialist revolution. But he cannot really admire these people:
It is a rather restless, cultureless life, centring round tinned food, Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine. . . . To that civilization belong the people who are most at home in and most definitely of the modern world, the technicians and the higher-paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists.
Lest one be in any doubt as to what Orwell feels about this “indeterminate class,” it is just such people who, in “1984,” have emerged after the wars and now run the totalitarian apparatus: “The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers. . . . These people, whose origins lay in the salaried middle class and the upper grades of the working class, had been shaped and brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government.”
“Monopoly industry” and “centralized government” sound pretty much like capitalism and socialism, respectively. And perhaps Orwell had, by the late nineteen-forties, soured on socialism, along with capitalism. On the one hand, capitalism produced unemployment and monopoly and injustice (i.e., England in the nineteen-twenties and thirties); and, on the other hand, socialist collectivism produced totalitarianism and barren machine-progress (i.e., Soviet Russia). And both political economies seemed to point to the loathsome postwar world of rubber and industrial chemists and hot-water bottles. During the mid- to late nineteen-forties, when Orwell was writing his two most famous books, he remained faithful to an ideal English revolution, while losing faith in actual socialism, because, for all his powers of political prophecy, and his general approval of what the Labour Party stood for, he could not envisage a realistic English postwar future. (In “1984,” when Winston and Julia meet for their first illicit lovemaking, they travel outside soulless London into the unspoiled rural world that Orwell grew up in.)
Show MoreI recoiled as the pungent odor of human suffering and affliction pervaded my nostrils. All around me; human skeletons staring at me as if I was from Mars. I was a lion among by hungry hyenas. Little children shod in makeshift clothes made from rags stopped what they were doing to gape. They looked so fragile, so frail, as if they would fall and break into a million pieces at the slightest touch. Trying to ignore their outstretched arms, I continued in stupefaction down the cracked concrete road. Poverty had swept through like a hurricane, reducing these people, who work fourteen hours a day and still barely survive, to flesh and bone.
Here in the western reaches of China, almost twenty percent of the population lives in poverty or…show more content…
The depressing thing is, if ten percent of what the world uses on weapons each year was used to fight poverty, it would no longer exist in about twenty years. I don’t have nearly that much money, but I did find a way to help.
For half a month, I lived the life of a farmer. It was a truly traumatizing experience for me. Every day I woke up an hour before sunrise to begin work. My back would begin to hurt even before the first rays of the sun splashed onto the Earth. I would stand in the muddy fields for hours, planting rice that will be consumed in a miniscule fraction of the time it took to harvest. The work consumed all my time and energy. There was no extra time to watch television or play ball with friends, the former largely due to the fact that television is unheard of and does not exist here. At the end of the day, my only thoughts were of food and sleep. My mind and body quickly deteriorated. The daily menu included: bread, stale bread, vegetables, water, and some meat on special occasions. After about a week of the work, I became a nearly broken machine. Every day: work, eat, work more, then sleep. It became mechanical. After two weeks I became deathly sick, chiseled down to flesh and bone. People do not realize how hard life can be until they plant a few million grains of rice wearing somebody else’s shoes.
Having now experienced poverty myself, I believe that the world as a whole needs to