Archive for the ‘george orwell’ Category


Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

17 June 2008

The fourth and final review of the Penguin Press editions of selected writings by George Orwell, following on from Orwell in Spain, Orwell and the Dispossessed, and Orwell’s England.

(On a fun note, a friend of mine sent me a link to Kate Beaton‘s marvellous comic strip about George Orwell, which I simply have to share.)

Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

The main text in Orwell and Politics is Animal Farm — not 1984, which is what one might expect as the text of choice for a book that focuses primarily on Orwell’s political writings. Either book works, in whatever context, and the choice to look at Animal Farm allowed editor Peter Davison to bring in some letters that deserve to be reprinted in connection with the text. But both books were written relatively late in Orwell’s life, not many years before his death. The bulk of his other political writings deserve just as much attention, if for no other reason than the fact that the essays, review articles, and letters contained in this volume illustrate the formation and development of the ideas that eventually found their expression in his two best-known novels.

Several of the selections in this book explore incidents from Orwell’s time in Burma, serving as a member of the police force that kept colonial rule firmly in place in this outpost of the British Empire. Orwell’s experiences in Burma provided a strong foundation for his interest in socialism and eventually found their way into print in his book Burmese Days. Orwell and Politics also contains the second and third parts of ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ — the first part of which was reprinted in Orwell’s England — which look at how a uniquely ‘English Socialism’ might form a socialist identity free of the ideological weight of Soviet-dictated communism. (Rather interesting that the ‘Ingsoc’ of 1984 would have its roots in a perversion of this idea.) ‘Why I Write’ and ‘Politics and the English Language’, two of Orwell’s finest essays on the uses and abuses of language and political writing, are a notable part of this volume. Several other articles included come from Orwell’s regular column in the left-leaning Tribune newspaper. A number of letters to friends and colleagues round out the book.

One final thing deserves to be mentioned. Towards the end of Orwell and Politics is a particularly fascinating little fragment of writing, penned in May 1949 when Orwell was lying ill with tuberculosis. On it were the names of three dozen writers and artists who he considered to be ‘crypto-communists’ or ‘fellow travellers’, and therefore unsuitable for any work having to do with the creation of anticommunist propaganda. Orwell had written the list for his friend Celia Kirwan, who worked at the Foreign Office — it is now available at the National Archives at Kew in file FO 1110/189. (This New York Review of Books article by Timothy Garton Ash provides more information on the list itself and the circumstances surrounding its creation.) The little snip of information provides a fitting conclusion to Orwell and Politics, a glimpse of one man’s attempt to practise the beliefs he wrote about with such passion and consideration.


Orwell’s England (edited by Peter Davison)

15 June 2008

Continuing from the previous post on Orwell in Spain and Orwell and the Dispossessed, this post looks at another book in the Penguin Press series that place George Orwell’s works in the context of his other letters and essays on a general subject.

Originally, I’d intended to combine this review with the one for Orwell and Politics, but the reviews were a little too long to cram them both into one post. That review will follow soon.

Orwell’s England (edited by Peter Davison)

For all that George Orwell wrote about broad, international issues such as fascism and totalitarianism, the bulk of his published work has a very domestic core. Several of his novels, such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying and A Clergyman’s Daughter, dwell on the particular conditions of the lower middle class and working class of England. He is often at his most eloquent when attempting to come to terms with the civilisation that he seems to love and loathe in equal measure. He summarises it in the essay ‘England Your England‘ as ‘a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons….It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks‘. It is this family, with all of its foibles and flaws, that is the focus of the writings collected in Orwell’s England.

The main book in Orwell’s England is The Road to Wigan Pier, a sociological study commissioned by Victor Gollancz and the Left Book Club and published in 1937 as a report on the grim living and working conditions in England’s industrial north. ‘Wigan Pier’ was a standard music hall joke of the time — a reference to the small offloading pier that serviced the mill town of Wigan, near Manchester — which comedians used to play on the thought of as a dingy northern mill town that possessed its own ‘seaside resort’ to rival Brighton or Blackpool. Orwell, in his account, used the image of Wigan Pier as a symbol of the deprivation, and destitution of the working classes in the north of England. The first half of The Road to Wigan Pier covers the inadequate wages, substandard housing, dangerous workplaces, and chronic unemployment characteristic of England’s working classes, drawing upon Orwell’s experiences living amongst the subjects he was studying. The second half of the book is more theoretical than sociological, as Orwell considers why so many people are reluctant to entertain the possibility that socialism might ameliorate the appalling and intolerable conditions he had just described.

The second half of Wigan Pier is a sudden sharp shift, as Orwell unleashes the full force of his pen in criticising the complacency of his fellow middle-class socialists. Before the Left Book Club edition was published, Gollancz actually felt compelled to add a foreword that attempted to placate those who might be offended by Orwell’s statements. Orwell sketches out several bold arguments to explain why socialism remains unattractive to many who would benefit from it, such as residual class prejudice (the ‘genteel poor’, as poor as they are, would shrink from being lumped together with servants and millworkers) and the prevalence of ‘earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers‘ (in other words, cranks) who alienate the more conventional types. The disagreement between Gollancz and Orwell over the second half of the book played a part in the former’s refusal to publish Homage to Catalonia, and reinforced Orwell’s dim opinions about many of his comrades on the left.

As with the other books in this series, Orwell’s England strings together writings on a collected theme. The book includes journalistic pieces on the conditions of the working poor; ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, an autobiographical essay describing his unpleasant schooldays at St. Cyprian’s prep school in Eastbourne; ‘The Decline of the English Murder’, which looks at the coverage of murder cases in the popular press; and selections from the diaries that Orwell kept in the months shortly before World War II and during the war itself. Orwell’s prose is as clear and lucid as ever, and Davison’s selections do a good job of supporting the overall theme. In the context of this book, it seems hardly surprising that George Orwell’s collected thoughts on the English character have done much to shape the national consciousness ever since.


Orwell in Spain and Orwell and the Dispossessed (edited by Peter Davison)

6 May 2008

A few years ago, Penguin Press released a series of four books that each take one of George Orwell’s works and place it in the context of selected letters, articles, essays written by Orwell which relate to the subject of the book. I’ve split this review of the four books into two parts, with this one focusing on Orwell in Spain and Orwell and the Dispossessed.

Orwell in Spain

The central text in Orwell in Spain is Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s account of his time as a volunteer soldier in Barcelona and the Catalan area of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Orwell joined the Independent Labour Party’s contingent, a group of two dozen or so British volunteers who were allied with the Workers’ Part of Marxism Unification (given as POUM, the Spanish-language abbreviation, in the text). Orwell sent several months in the front line and was finally invalided away from the front when he was shot in the neck — the bullet just barely missed his carotid artery, and the only lasting effect of the wound was a paralysis of one of his vocal cords. (People often told him how lucky he was to have survived, but Orwell usually responded by saying something to the effect of how it would have been even luckier not to have been shot in the first place.) Even after being invalided away from the front, Orwell’s troubles were merely beginning. He was very nearly arrested for being part of a militia that had been declared ‘illegal’ by the anti-Franco forces — the Spanish Communist Party was in the sway of the Soviet Union and was attempting to eradicate rival communist and anarchist groups — and he and his wife Eileen (who had accompanied him) had to flee Spain only a few steps ahead of the Spanish police.

The Spanish Civil War is a very confusing period of 20th-century history, and Orwell was writing for an audience which often had only the most general knowledge of what was going on in Spain at the time. But as the letters and articles emphasise, Orwell’s intent in writing Homage to Catalonia was not merely to denounce Franco and the Fascists, but to criticise the Communist forces in Spain for what he saw as their betrayal of the working classes AND to castigate the press (particularly the English leftist press) for its refusal to entertain any possibility that the Spanish Communists and their Soviet allies could be just as guilty of betrayal and deceit as the monarchists and the Fascists. Orwell’s experiences in Spain also had a direct influence on the writing of 1984. On a personal level he was very concerned with the case of Georges Kopp, a fellow soldier and friend who had been imprisoned by the Spanish police, tortured in an attempt to get him to sign a false confession, and subjected to a special type of punishment which involved being locked in a confined space with a horde of large rats. On a literary level, Orwell’s writings on the Spanish Civil War reveal some of the ideas that would later end up in books like 1984 — one example being the famous ‘two and two are five’ equation that would become so crucial to Winston Smith’s fate in that particular book.

Orwell and the Dispossessed

The central story in this collection is Down and Out in Paris and London, a predominantly autobiographical account of Orwell’s time ‘slumming it’ as a restaurant dishwasher (plongeur) in Paris and a tramp in London in the mid-1930s. The book is a grim account of a grim life, as Orwell describes in great detail the backbreaking labour and low wages of the staff at a fashionable hotel and his struggles in a small cafe — and includes stomach-turning accounts of the utter filthiness of the kitchens in which he worked. The writings that deal with his time in as a tramp in London and the Home Counties are equally grim, presenting a grinding, depressing life of poverty and homelessness in the capital city that still bears a strong resemblance to conditions that exist today. His criticisms of charitable organisations and city-run lodging houses for the poor and indigent are particularly trenchant, and remain so 70 years later.

Down and Out in Paris and London is a fascinating read in its own right, but this volume also contains some of Orwell’s articles, essays, and reviews on popular subjects of the time. He analysed boys’ school stories (such as the Greyfriairs stories that feature Billy Bunter), compared British detective fiction to American ‘pulp mags’, and examined the political leanings of the serial novels published in women’s magazines. There are also a few essays about Orwell’s other ‘slumming journeys’, including one where he joined a group of East End residents who travelled out of London to pick hops for a fortnight and another where he attempted to get himself sentenced to prison for drunk and disorderly conduct. In general, the material collected in Orwell and the Dispossessed focuses on the author’s observations of those who for one reason or another are deprived of choices in their own lives and societies — with subjects as diverse as the poor of India and Morocco, British schoolchildren, and the unfairly persecuted P.G. Wodehouse. And although the theme of this volume is not quite as solid and unified as that of Orwell and Spain, the compilation is a good collection of some of Orwell’s nonfiction writing.


Supping with the Devils: Political Writing From Thatcher to Blair by Hugo Young

9 October 2007

I have a few non-politics books that I’ve been meaning to post, but I need to go back and make a few quick edits for clarity and style before I put them up. For now, though, here’s a nice collection of writings that I’m always willing to recommend.

Supping with the Devils: Political Writing From Thatcher to Blair by Hugo Young

Hugo Young was a prolific political journalist, who wrote for the Sunday Times from 1973 to 1984 and for the Guardian from 1984 until his death from cancer in 2003. His twice-weekly column at the Guardian provides the material for Supping with the Devils, a collection of his writings spanning the better part of two decades. And I would place him firmly in the category of writers I admire — because even if you don’t agree with what he says, you can appreciate the clear, lucid, and penetrating way in which he says it.

Supping with the Devils is a good representative mixture of Young’s writing. Most of his essays deal with current political events, but not all of them are focused solely on the doings and deeds in Westminster and Whitehall. Young writes about serving as a juror (‘we English probably make good jurors partly because of the diet of whodunnits that contributes to so much of our television intake’), about the murder of Stephen Lawrence (‘the larger effect is more to be hoped for: that whites get deeper into their heads the belief that racial justice is something rather more seminal than a branch of political correctness’) and the fatwa against Salman Rushdie (‘Perhaps it would be a different matter if all this was happening to Jeffrey Archer’), amongst other things. But the essay that really struck me most was possibly one of his most famous columns, published in September 2003, where he blasted Tony Blair savagely for squandering all of the political capital and promise he had held in his hands back in 1997. Young died barely a week after that column went to press, and there’s something heart-breaking about reading it now…there’s a sense that Young knew his time was running short, and he had to speak his mind before it was too late.

I’ve seen numerous comparisons made between Hugo Young and George Orwell. Both men wrote until the very end of their lives, writing with almost manic desperation as if writing was the only thing keeping them alive under the onslaught of tuberculosis (Orwell) and cancer (Young). I suppose it’s no surprise that I enjoyed reading this collection of Young’s writings almost as much as I enjoy dipping into a volume of Orwell’s essays and letters.


The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Vols. 1-4

4 September 2007

In honour of the National Archives‘ recent release of the Security Service files on Eric Blair — AKA George Orwell — it’s only fitting to post my thoughts on the fine four-volume collected set of Orwell’s journalism, letters, and essays.

The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus

Volume 1 – An Age Like This: 1920-1940

In the essay ‘Why I Write’, which opens this volume, George Orwell analyses the various factors that affected and influenced his choice of subjects in his early years as a journalist. He mentions his time in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma and the cruelties he witnessed there, he hints at the years of extreme poverty he experienced when he first started to take up journalism and fiction writing, he speaks of his decision to go to Spain and join the volunteers who were fighting against Franco. He even includes a little poem that he wrote in 1935 in which he attempted to sort out his conflicted feelings on contemporary life, which ended with the lines:

I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls,
And woke to find it true;
I wasn’t born for an age like this;
Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?

And as it stands, ‘An Age Like This’ is a more than apt choice for the title of this first volume of his collected essay, letters, and journalistic writings.

Much of the first volume consists of letters to friends and business associates, along with a number of short freelance pieces in which Orwell explored in great depth the life of the poorer sections of the working class, as well as the outright destitute. It’s in this volume where his diaries and notes for The Road to Wigan Pier can be found, along with several short stories including ‘A Hanging’ and ‘Shooting an Elephant’ (both of which came from memories of his time with the police in Burma). There are also a number of notable essays on literary topics, particularly a lengthy essay which looks at the works of Charles Dickens and another which examines the political leanings found in the boys’ weekly papers which produced Billy Bunter and the other ‘school story’ characters that were popular at the time. In addition to the letters, notes, and essays, ‘An Age Like This’ includes book reviews that Orwell wrote for literary periodicals like Time and Tide and the New English Weekly. The reviews of books which dealt with the Spanish Civil War — of which Orwell, unlike most other reviewers of his day, had first-hand experience — are especially noteworthy, even though the books that Orwell was reviewing have all but faded into obscurity these days.

And yet I think it’s in the letters where Orwell really comes to life. There are enough footnotes to keep the letters from being completely confusing, though some familiarity with the time period does make them easier to read. Letters to T.S. Eliot and Victor Gollancz (founder of the Left Book Club, which published several of Orwell’s early books), letters to family members and close friends, all cover the initial span of time when Orwell was trying to find his footing as an author and a journalist. As with any collection of letters, it’s the development of ideas and opinions that is so interesting to watch unfold…and with Orwell, there is never a shortage of ideas and opinions to keep an eye on.

Volume 2 – My Country Right or Left: 1940-1943

The essay ‘My Country Right or Left’ was actually the very last piece in Volume 1, but since it was written in 1940 it works quite well as the title of the second collection of Orwell’s writings. In that essay, Orwell wrote that the night before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, he dreamt that war had already been declared and that in the dream he was fully prepared to fight for his country even if doing so seemed diametrically opposed to his distaste for the existing British government under Neville Chamberlain. And as might be expected, the writings from 1940-1943 that are included in this volume are dominated by the war and Orwell’s opinions on how well or badly it was going at the time.

In the early years of the war, Orwell’s wife Eileen worked for the government’s Censorship Department and Orwell himself was anxious to secure some kind of work for the war effort as well. He joined the Home Guard, but his ill health kept him out of the military and the more physically taxing of wartime jobs. Eventually, he found a position in London with the BBC’s Eastern Section, broadcasting to India. His letters reveal his dissatisfaction with his work, which he saw as little more than the production of propaganda (an experience which he later put to good use for the hero of 1984) designed to keep India and the remaining British possessions in East Asia loyal to the British war effort. During and shortly before his time with the BBC, he kept a running wartime diary, the two parts of which are included at the very end of this volume. The wartime diary is an intriguing summary of news reports and general public observation written by someone who had a keen eye for the media’s ability to ‘spin’ the truth of the war. Though the diaries themselves were not published in any form until well after his death, it’s possible to compare them to his journalism at the time and see where he drew upon notes he had made from some weeks ago.

This volume ends with Orwell’s resignation from the BBC in 1943 to become literary editor of the Tribune, the left-wing weekly newsmagazine. But within ‘My Country Right or Left’ are some of his most powerful pieces of writing, including three-part polemic ‘The Lion and The Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’ and the retrospective ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’. These years saw Orwell at his most fiery, and his critical analyses of England, Englishness, and English socialism still manage to have resonance well over half a century after they were written.

Volume 3 – As I Please: 1943-1945

‘As I Please’ was the title of the weekly column that Orwell wrote for Tribune from 3 December 1943 until 15 February 1945, so it’s fitting that it should serve as the title of the volume which encompasses those particular years. As the title suggests, most of the columns weren’t centred on any particular topic; instead, they were often collections of observations about everyday life and politics, sometimes on issues related to the war and other times on far more mundane topics.

The majority of the entries in this volume are the ‘As I Please’ columns, but there are other essays and letters as well from the later years of the war. Orwell’s essays touch upon such diverse subjects as the difference between British and American crime novels (epitomised by the ‘Raffles’ stories and the now-forgotten No Orchids for Miss Blandish), anti-Semitism in Britain (written in February 1945), and a defence of author P.G. Wodehouse (who at the time was under fire over his ‘propaganda’ broadcasts from Nazi Germany). All in all, this was one of the busiest periods in Orwell’s writing career, for in the midst of his usual literary responsibilities he was also attempting to find a publisher for Animal Farm. One of the final entries in this volume is a short introduction that was meant for the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, a fascinating little note for anyone who enjoyed reading the original book. There’s definitely a lot to explore in Volume 3, and though it covers a shorter span of time than the two volumes before or the volume after there’s no shortage of material to get through and return to over and over again.

Volume 4 – In Front of Your Nose: 1945-1950

‘In Front of Your Nose’ is the title of an essay Orwell wrote in 1946 — it contains the line, ‘To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.’ And while Orwell could rarely be accused of ignoring what was in front of his nose, the final years of his life were marked by a number of different personal and professional struggles. His wife Eileen died in March 1945, leaving him to care for their adopted son Richard, and in the following years he was increasingly unwell with the tuberculosis that had plagued him for much of his adult life. Though he married his close friend Sonia Brownell in late 1949, and continued to work on ideas for new short stories and essays, by the end of the year he was planning to travel to a sanatorium in Switzerland for further tuberculosis treatments. On 21 January 1950, he died at the age of 46.

The time period covered in Volume 4 saw the publication of both Animal Farm (August 1945) and 1984 (June 1949). Many of the letters in ‘In Front of Your Nose’ were written during the times when he wasn’t well enough to write professionally, so the letters are for the most part the only record we have of what he was thinking about and attempting to work on during his low points. But there are several essays and book reviews in this volume, including another set of ‘As I Please’ columns for the Tribune and several pieces written for the Observer. Some of the more memorable pieces in this volume are the long essay ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, a frankly gruesome account of his time at public school, and the shorter ‘How the Poor Die’, an equally gruesome reminiscence of the time he spent in a charity hospital in France, known only as Hôpital X. (‘How the Poor Die’ reads almost like a sequel or companion-piece to Down and Out in Paris and London — Orwell spares no details here.) The final pieces of writing collected here are fragments from a manuscript notebook that Orwell kept by him in the last year of his life, and it’s a little sad to read them and think that some of the fragments might have been turned into another short story or possibly even a book if their author had lived.

The four-volume set contains most all of the written ephemera that any fan of Orwell’s works could ask for. His struggles to publish and eke out a living, his willingness to endure all kinds of squalid conditions for the sake of finding out the ‘real’ side of things in the best traditions of investigative journalism…all the bits and pieces are here in these pages, leaving it up to the reader to piece together the fragments of a writer whose pen-name has (for good or for ill) taken on a life and meaning of its own.