George Orwell's luminous truths

Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings, by George Orwell, Harvill Secker, RRP£25, 496 pages

December 6 2014 / Financial Times

The title of this book is especially apposite. George Orwell’s luminous gift was for seeing things, for noticing what others missed, took for granted or simply found uninteresting, for discovering meaning and wonder in the familiarity of the everyday. In Culture and Anarchy (1869) Matthew Arnold defined culture as “the best which has been thought and said”. But for Orwell, though he was prodigiously well read and deeply learned, culture meant something quite different — “the life most people lead”, as John Carey has put it. Orwell never distinguished between high and low culture: all things were not of equal value to him but they were of equal interest. Nothing escaped or seemed beneath his notice, which was what made him such a good reporter.

There is a scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in which Winston Smith watches a propaganda news film depicting images of war. Amid the slaughter and brutality Winston notices something: a woman attempting to protect a child from the artillery fire that will kill them both. She puts her arm around the boy “before the helicopter blew them both to pieces”. The gesture is futile. What can she really do for the boy? Yet, for Winston, the “enveloping, protective” gesture of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something fundamental, an act of human dignity and selflessness, and an expression of unconditional love in an unforgiving world.

Repeatedly in Orwell’s fiction and essays, one encounters moments of clarity such as this, when the reader is startled by something small but significant that Orwell has seen. One thinks in particular of the essay “A Hanging”, set during his years as an imperial policeman in Burma, in which the writer looks on as a condemned man steps to avoid a puddle as he is being led to the gallows. Why should he care about getting his feet wet when he is about to die? But, Orwell writes: “When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we are alive.”

One thinks too of the essay “Shooting an Elephant”, in which Orwell recalls the day he shot a rogue elephant and left it to die in agony, not because he wanted to or felt the act was just but because he feared the derision of the villagers who were watching if he did not.

Seeing Things As They Are, selected and edited by the veteran Orwell scholar Peter Davison, features none of the most celebrated essays. It is intended to be a collection first and foremost of his journalism, with preference given to lesser-known pieces and reviews as well as some of the poems he wrote. It is full of interest and curiosities, such as the inclusion of “Awake! Young Men of England”, a jingoistic poem about the start of the first world war published in 1914 when Orwell was 11, in the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard.

Orwell did not have a private income, unlike his old friend Cyril Connolly, and his early career was characterised by struggle and poverty. From the mid-1930s until his death in 1950, he wrote compulsively and was published anywhere and everywhere. Davison includes an appendix that estimates Orwell’s earnings from 1922-45; when he died his estate was valued at less than £10,000. Of his books only Animal Farm (1945) could be considered a success, after which he complained: “Everyone keeps coming at me, wanting me to lecture, to write commissioned booklets, to join this and that, etc — you don’t know how I pine to be free of it all and have time to think again.”

For much of the time Orwell lived by what he wrote in little magazines and weeklies: the short book or theatre review, the personal column (many of his “As I Please” columns, in which he explored the rituals of English life and his varied enthusiasms for the leftwing Labour paper Tribune are collected here), the political essay, the eyewitness report, the BBC talk.

Orwell could see things but he could also see ahead because he had such an acute interest in and understanding of the present, informed by deep knowledge of the past and of the canon of English literature. The limpidity of his prose — he said that he wished to “make political writing into an art” — could be explained by his desire to be understood, especially by the general reader.

He did not wish to obfuscate, intimidate or obscure. He despised jargon. In his great essay “Politics and the English Language” he warned against the dangers of the “inflated style” — against excessive stylistic ornamentation, long words, redundant or strained metaphor, ready-made formulation and use of the passive voice. He wanted to illuminate the times in which he lived — to show as well as tell, to report and discover rather than merely pontificate.

Both left and right have claimed him. The right because of his vigorous anti-totalitarianism, popularised in the late novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and because in his essays and journalism he never ceased challenging leftist conformity, the actions of those he contemptuously called the “orthodoxy-sniffers”. In a 1941 review of Malcolm Muggeridge’s The Thirties, he writes of the “shallow self-righteousness of the leftwing intelligentsia”.

Throughout this book, in reviews, essays, “London letters” for the American readership of Partisan Review and occasional pieces, he similarly rails against the false pieties of the left and against those who, as he put it in an essay on Arthur Koestler not included here, “have always wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian”. Yet, I think, in spite of his ultimate sense of disappointment, gloom about the future and hatred of the all-powerful state, Orwell remained of the left, even if he was also profoundly conservative in his reverence for the traditions, codes and character of English life. As a young man he was in his own self-description a “Tory anarchist”; later he called himself a democratic socialist.

But he was too uncompromising, too committed to uncovering the truth to be an ideologue. Just as he rebelled against the expectations of his “lower-upper-middle class” background — St Cyprian’s prep school, Eton, the absurdities and cruelties of imperial life in Burma — so he refused to submit to the rigidities of any one doctrine. No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is the title of a Van Morrison album. It could have been the title of the autobiography that Orwell never wrote. Except that it would surely have been too grandiose for his taste.

. . .

One of Orwell’s finest passages occurs at the very end of Homage to Catalonia (1938), his book about Spain and the betrayals he witnessed there during the civil war when, like many other idealistic socialists, he joined the international resistance to Franco’s fascists, only to be shot in the throat while in combat. During his months in Spain, Orwell was outraged by what he considered to be the treachery of the Soviet-backed communist government, which was persecuting and killing anarchists and members of the Marxist POUM militia, for whom he fought.

In 1937 Orwell wrote an indictment of the communist government, which he denounced as a totalitarian, “antirevolutionary” force. He called it “Eye-witness in Barcelona” and sent it to Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, from whom he’d received encouragement. It was rejected (but eventually published in New English Weekly as “Spilling the Spanish Beans”, which is reproduced here).

As a committed socialist, Martin was concerned that Orwell’s report could have “caused trouble” for the left: a case of you are either with us or you are not. “As a sop”, says Davison, Orwell was asked to review a book about the civil war, The Spanish Cockpit by Franz Borkenau. Martin promptly spiked it against the judgment of his literary editor, Raymond Mortimer. Orwell never forgave Martin, whom he accused of censorship and cowardice.

Homage to Catalonia, which sold fewer than 1,000 copies in his lifetime, ends with Orwell’s return to England. Disillusioned by his experiences in Spain, he finds his home country to be reassuringly, seductively becalmed. The book’s wonderful long final paragraph — one of the best Orwell wrote — begins, “And then England — southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world.”

The author discovers that “down here” it was “still the England” he had known in his childhood — “the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate”, “men in bowler hats and posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings”, and so he goes on in characteristic style. However, something isn’t quite right. The people are “sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England”, yet Orwell knows that war is coming, that it’s going to happen, and that soon everyone will be “jerked” awake by “the roar of bombs”.

It’s often said the left seeks traitors and the right converts. In 1949, sick with pulmonary tuberculosis and with his judgment becoming increasingly erratic, Orwell compiled a list of “crypto-communists and fellow travellers” for the International Research Department of the Foreign Office. Some of his acquaintances never forgave this small act of betrayal. On the list were two New Statesman editors, Martin, whose mostly brilliant editorship lasted from 1930-60, and Norman Mackenzie, who worked on the paper for 20 years from 1943 and used to lunch with Orwell. (Also included was the superpatriot J.B. Priestley, author of English Journey.)

In a letter to a friend written on the day of Orwell’s funeral, Frederic Warburg, who published Animal Farm after it had been repeatedly rejected as well as Nineteen Eighty-Four, described it as one of the “most melancholy occasions of my life”. He felt that “English literature had suffered an irreparable loss”. Warburg’s judgment has proved prescient: many have since aspired to write in the Orwellian tradition, most notably Christopher Hitchens, but no one has come close to matching his authority or his mastery of so many different forms. His loss was indeed irreparable.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell wrote. Few have written pellucid, plain English prose better than he did. As a novelist perhaps his style can be too plain and his realism too simple and even sentimental. As a journalist, when he was not reporting, he could be priggish. He was not always right — it was foolish to have drawn up his list of crypto-communists and fellow travellers, for instance — but he was always sincere in his commitment to truth-telling, even at the expense of making enemies of former friends, as he did of HG Wells.

Orwell was a radical and a conservative, an English rebel who hated imperialism and all forms of tyranny, from the boarding school bully to the Stalinist apparatchik. He was a moralist who wrote of the world as he found it not as he wished it to be. He celebrated the English character as something worth conserving. And he never ceased writing well or loving his country. Dead at the age of 46, his influence and example grow more radiant with each passing year.