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

England Dreaming: George Orwell

George Orwell’s luminous gift was for seeing things, for noticing what others missed or simply found routine or uninteresting; for discovering meaning and wonder in the familiarity of the everyday. Matthew Arnold defined culture as “the best which has been thought and said in the world”. But for Orwell culture meant something quite different — “the life most people lead”, as John Carey has put it. Orwell seldom distinguished between high and low culture. Nor was he a relativist: all things were not of equal value to him but they were potentially of equal interest. Little escaped or seemed beneath his notice, from boys’ comics to the rituals of hop-picking, which was why he was such a good reporter.

There’s a scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in which Winston Smith, the troubled, isolated hero, is being forced to watch propaganda films. He is moved by something he sees in one of the broadcasts: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked from the air. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets hitting them both but she embraces him all the same – before, we are told, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.” For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm symbolises something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in a hostile world.

Repeatedly in Orwell’s fiction and non-fiction, one encounters moments of clarity such as this, when the reader is startled by something small but significant that the writer has revealed or noticed. One thinks in particular of Orwell’s essay “A Hanging”. Recalling his period as an imperial policeman in Burma, the writer describes looking on as a condemned man steps to avoid a puddle as he is led to the gallows. Why should he care about wet feet 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, edited by the veteran Orwell scholar Peter Davison, showcases none of the most famous essays but helpfully features lesser-known pieces and book reviews as well as some poems. It’s full of interest and curiosities. I was particularly fascinated by “Awake! Young Men of England”, a jingoistic poem about the start of the First World War which Orwell wrote when he was eleven and published in 1914 in the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard.

Orwell did not have a private income, unlike his old friend and fellow Etonian Cyril Connolly, and his early career was scarred by rejection and hardship. From the mid-1930s until his death in 1950, he wrote compulsively. In the New Statesman archive I once discovered a handwritten note in the margins of a back issue in which one of Orwell’s book reviews had been published: “He is keen. Will do more.”

In an appendix, Davidson estimates Orwell’s earnings from the period 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 commercial 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.”

Orwell lived by what he wrote in small magazines and weekly reviews: the short book or theatre review, the personal column (many of his “As I Please” columns, in which he anatomised the rituals of English life for the left-wing 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, and the limpidity of his prose — he wanted to “make political writing into an art” — could be explained by his desire to be understood, especially by the general reader.


Published during the Second World War, “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” was Orwell’s attempt to articulate a new language of progressive patriotism. He denounces revolutionary leftist internationalism and rootless cosmopolitanism and writes with respect about the patriotism of the ordinary man and woman. “One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilisation it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it.”

Orwell was writing in 1941, before the Americans had entered the war, when the British nation was isolated and imperilled. For Orwell the nation was bound together by an invisible chain. “At any normal time the ruling class will rob, mismanage, sabotage, lead us into the muck; but let popular opinion really make itself heard, let them get a tug from below that they cannot avoid feeling, and it is difficult for them not to respond.”

“Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again,” he wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn, four years before what he desired became manifest in the landslide victory of Clement Attlee’s Labour government. Patriotism and intelligence: the argument will have to be made all over again in our own age of bitter division and upheaval.

Orwell despised jargon. In his famous 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 of course claimed him; the right because of his vigorous anti-totalitarianism, popularised in the late political fables Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and because he never ceased challenging the pieties of the left or 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 left-wing intelligentsia”. He rails against those who, as he put it in an essay on Arthur Koestler not included in Seeing Things, “have always wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian”.

Yet, I think, in spite of his pessimism and hatred of the all-powerful bureaucratic state, Orwell remained of the left and for the left, even if he was also profoundly conservative in his respect for the traditions, codes, institutions 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. And he instinctively sided with the outsider and the underdog.

Just as he rebelled against the expectations of his “lower-upper-middle class” background — St Cyprian’s prep school, Eton, imperial life in Burma — so he refused to submit to the rigidities of doctrinal orthodoxy. “No Guru, No Method, No Teacher” is the title of a Van Morrison album. It could have been the title of the autobiography Orwell never wrote - except that it would have been too grandiose for his taste.


Some of Orwell’s finest writing occurs towards the end of Homage to Catalonia (1938), his account of the betrayals he witnessed during the civil war in Spain when, like many other idealistic socialists, he joined the international resistance to Franco’s fascists, only to be wounded 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 on the Aragon front.

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

As a committed socialist, Martin was concerned that Orwell’s report could have “caused trouble” for the left: a case of you are either on our side or you’re not. “As a sop”, says Davison, Orwell was asked to review a book about the civil war, The Spanish Cockpit by Franz Borkenau, which Martin also rejected, against the advice of his literary editor, Raymond Mortimer. Orwell was outraged and never forgave Martin, because he had allowed ideological sympathies to influence his editorial independence: Martin’s was the “corrupt face” of censorship.

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 and with his hatred of revolutionary dictatorship intensifying, he finds his home country to be reassuringly, seductively becalmed. The book’s wonderful, long final paragraph — one of my favourite in all of Orwell — begins, “And then England — southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world…”

The author discovers that “down here” in Deep England it was still the country he had known in 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 war is coming and that soon everyone will be “jerked” awake by “the roar of bombs”, as in time they were.

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, Kingsley Martin, whose editorship lasted from 1930-60, and Norman Mackenzie, who worked on the paper for 20 years and used to lunch with Orwell. (Also included was the super-patriot 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 - described it as one of the “most melancholy occasions of my life”. Warburg said that “English literature had suffered an irreparable loss”. He was correct: many have since aspired to write in the Orwellian tradition, most recently and notably Christopher Hitchens, but no English writer has his authority and moral clarity or his mastery of so many different forms: the essay, the parable, the book review, the narrative report. His loss was indeed irreparable.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell wrote. As a novelist, perhaps his style was too plain and his realism too simple, even sentimental. As a journalist, when he wasn’t 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 sincere in his commitment to truth-telling, even at the expense of making enemies of former friends, as he did of HG Wells.

George Orwell was a radical and a conservative, an English patriot and an English rebel. He disliked imperialism and all forms of tyranny, from the boarding school bully to the Stalinist apparatchik. He was an empiricist, not an ideologue. And 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 and English civic life as something worth conserving. And he never ceased writing well or loving his country. He was dead at the age of 46, yet his influence and example grow more radiant with each passing year.