The books of George Orwell

The first book by George Orwell I ever read was the first one he published, in 1933, Down and Out in Paris and London. An old tattered Penguin, it fell to bits after a second reading, and I bought a set published by the Folio Society called Reportage, which included all three of Orwell’s non-fiction works as well as a selection of his essays and from which edition I quote. It is dated 1998 and illustrated with photographs by Brassai and Bill Brandt.

Down and Out in Paris and London is a record of an experiment Orwell made during the years 1928 and 1931, of living with and experiencing the life of the poor. He was supposedly inspired by Jack London’s writings about Limehouse, and was motivated by a fervour against social injustice as strong as Jonathan Swift’s. In many ways he was reacting against his former career as an administrator in the Indian Imperial Police.

Right from the start, with the intransigence of his decision and the honesty of his reportage one can see the idiosyncratic way Orwell expressed his beliefs, and unhesitatingly built on them, that made him an original thinker far from any orthodoxy, and which made him as many enemies on the left as on the right. In his first book, and on its first page, one can see journalism being changed into literature by the strength and courage of his convictions.

Quarrels, and the desolate cries of street hawkers, and the shouts of children chasing orange peel over the cobbles, and at night loud singing and the sour reek of the refuse-carts, made up the atmosphere of the street.” (p1.) And then, at the end of the chapter, “Poverty is what I am writing about, and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum. The slum, with its dirt and its queer lives, was first an object lesson in poverty, and then the background of my own experiences. It is for that reason that I try to give some idea of what life was like there.” (p5)

Whether the style is the man is a debatable point, but surely it is with Orwell. Everything he ever wrote, despite the artificial process of shaping his prose into a book or an essay, is so demonstrably what he believed that one hardly needs to know how autobiographical it mostly was. Despite never being doctrinaire, he was remarkably consistent. He has a very high credibility rating. No bullshit, as they say around here.

Orwell had his little bit of money stolen, and became destitute in Paris. He chronicles the shame and the lies it entailed, the boredom, the privations, but also gives many vivid sketches of the eccentrics he met. For a time he worked as a plongeur, doing the washing up in the caverns beneath a fashionable restaurant. Speaking of the virtual slavery of these plongeurs:

“…He is the slave of a hotel or a restaurant, and his slavery is more or less useless. For, after all, where is the real need of big hotels and smart restaurants? They are supposed to provide luxury, but in reality they provide only a cheap, shoddy imitation of it”. (p118)

Hard to argue with Orwell. He was there. He saw. Following his experiences in Paris Orwell came back to London then went on the tramp. The last section of his book is about the tramps he met, their language, and the spikes they stayed at.

“Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handout, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.” (p216)

Down and Out in Paris and London impressed me greatly. I’ve read it six or seven times, and remember the caverns beneath Hotel X where Orwell worked as a plongeur quite vividly. Simply put, Orwell found that poverty was more widespread than anyone had thought, and he objected to the fact that the lives of as much as a third of the population of cities such as Paris and London were wasted. This is where his socialism came from, from a sense of fairness.

The ones with most to fear from communism are fascists, most to fear from fascism are communists: from the centre both look ridiculous.

Orwell was commissioned to write a book on the depressed conditions of life in northern England and published The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937. He was seen as a socialist writer but in fact the left in Britain, very much impressed with the dream come true of Stalinist Russia but then unaware of the dreadful means by which it was realised, were very critical of Orwell. The book contains a passage I have never forgotten and have always found extremely significant.

“As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her – her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen…For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her – understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.” (p13)

Was Bruce Springsteen thinking of something similar: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”

Here is that unique combination of gifts that make Orwell so slippery to evaluate: the exact observation of a superb journalist; the skills of a master of English prose (note the use of alliteration in this passage); the empathy that made him such an effective novelist; the outrage at injustice that made him such a passionate writer on social and political matters. It makes him hard to evaluate as a novelist, an essayist, a political critic, because he was always all of these at the same time.

Whether Orwell is talking about unemployment, working conditions of the miners, or his own experiences as a member of the lower middle classes, he is uniformly convincing. And it is worth while reflecting he is not talking just about Britain in the 1930s, because today, in 2010, in most of the countries of the world including the affluent first world of England, America and Australia, there is a growing increase in the numbers of disadvantaged people. In Orwell’s day, a quarter of the population, today, a third, tomorrow, perhaps a half. Because of this we have one of the most unstable social systems in all of history; the ancien régime looks like the rock of Gibralter by comparison. Our choice: reform, revolution or Big Brother. Another reason why George Orwell is one of the most relevant of writers for people now living.

Orwell was caught up in the Spanish Civil War as so many English left wing intellectuals were and characteristically volunteered for active service. In Spain Orwell found himself involved in the crossfire between Stalinist and Trotskyist factions that did much to ensure the victory of Franco. His book on the conflict, Homage to Catalonia was published in 1938, pleased no-one, and saw the hardening of his opposition to Stalinism. Unlike his other two books of non-fiction it was a commercial failure. It is a testimonial to the fact that totalitarianism succeeds because opposition to it is so confused and divided, not because it is more efficient or powerful.

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In 1968 Orwell’s wife Sonia published The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, a 2,000 page, four volume work that is one of the most absorbing books I have ever read, and one of the world’s great autobiographies.

It is generally agreed by most that Orwell is one of the greatest English essayists, but many of the essays form part of the stream of journalism he produced to earn a living, as do many of his letters, addressed to editors and publishers. Editors Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus here put a selection of Orwell’s writings of this nature in chronological order: as much of what Orwell wrote had an element of autobiography, here is the man’s life and opinions, as told by himself. The first volume, covering the 20s and 30s, has many letters and book reviews, in which Orwell always has something interesting to say, as well as essays and sketches that were used to prepare his books Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. Also the essays “Shooting an Elephant”, “Dickens” and “My Country Right or Left”, charting the development of his attitude towards imperialism, literature and politics.

The second volume covers the years 1940-43, and includes reviews of Mein Kampf, material on his experience in Spain, essays on “The Lion and the Unicorn”, “Tolstoy and Shakespeare” and his attempt to be fair to Rudyard Kipling, as well as his war diaries. The third volume consists largely of his column “As I Please”. Volume four covers the period 1945 to 1950, and includes essays such as “Good Bad Books”, “The Politics of Starvation” and the autobiographical tale of school days “Such, Such Were the Joys”.

Although any selection of essays by Orwell is a joy to read, and they can be read by almost anyone who is literate, reading them in context, as it were, along with treatment of similar issues in letters and reviews, makes it clear how personal all of Orwell’s writings were. He was engaged with what he wrote about and rarely wrote for the dollar, even though for much of his life he badly needed every dollar he could earn.

‘As honest as George Orwell’ should be a proverb: perhaps it already is.

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Sitting on my shelf for over 10 years was a volume I had never read. Called just George Orwell, it was the Heinemann edition of his collected novels. After reading and being impressed all over again by 1984, I took this volume up to see what Orwell’s other novels were like. I was ready for the autobiographical element, the interruption of narrative for discussion of issues that interested the author, the exact observation each book was based on. What took my breath away was the empathy and powerful emotion conveyed by the writing. Each of the books, just as in 1984, was deeply disturbing and moving.

Orwell’s first published novel was Burmese Days, which came out in 1935, obviously based on his experiences in the Indian Imperial Police. It’s the tragedy of Flory, an administrator in Upper Burma, a man passionately interested in music and literature forced into close and humiliating promiscuity with a group of bored, insensitive middle class officials whose main activity is drinking, and who keep their self respect by demeaning the native people under their care. Flory, an intensely lonely man, falls in love with an unsuitable woman who comes to reject him because he is not like all the others, and destroys himself. The observation of the effect that imperialism had on rulers and ruled is exactly observed. Orwell always wrote from personal observation, and was careful to generalise only from this material, which puts him in a class quite separate from most intellectuals. I found the climax of the tale very disturbing. The evil prosper and the good are punished, as in the Somerset Maugham story and that’s how you know there’s a good bit of fact among the fiction.

A Clergyman’s Daughter was published in 1936, an incredibly exact observation of a particular type of the rural clergy which Orwell had obviously studied at first hand. As well as a picture of life in a small rural community, it is also a creditable attempt to understand the frustrations and numbing sense of duty that motivate Dorothy Hare, the rector’s daughter of the title. A sure psychological study, with perhaps a too convenient plot device to throw Dorothy into the society of the destitute of London, A Clergyman’s Daughter has much to say on the role of gossip in small towns, the many faces of selfishness and the fact that so many people deny themselves any chance at all in life.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying, published 1937, is yet another slice of Orwell’s life, the story of a would-be writer and could-be Eric Blair called Gordon Comstock who turns his back on the chance of making his way in an advertising agency and embraces poverty in the form of tending a seedy second hand bookshop after bringing out a slender volume of affected poetry which falls dead from the press. Gordon annoys his few remaining friends and his lover, and irritated this reader at least, by adopting a self righteous air of complaint and rancour throughout the length of the book. Work in a bookshop was something that Orwell did but thankfully he was never a sniveller as is Gordon.

Coming Up for Air, 1939, is in many ways Orwell’s best novel. It is in three parts, the first a scathing description of suburbia, the second a lyrical evocation of an earlier, more provincial Britain much closer to nature, and the third a comical/tragical story of how the hero fares in trying to recapture this past. One is reminded that Orwell was not just an ernest social critic but a satirist, not just a depicter of ‘ordinary’ life but a poet. As usual all these elements are mixed in together, which is what makes Orwell so distinctive a writer, but also so great a writer.

Animal Farm, 1945, is a classic fable which tells the sad story of how every revolution contains the seed of the next one, because a successful revolutionary is also a reactionary. Although based on Stalin’s takeover of the Russian Revolution, every country in the world has a similar story, of idealistic politicians who have to ‘compromise’, of how dreams give way to ‘practicalities’, of how revered figures are really motivated by egotism, of how big a sinner the most admired saint is. The biggest trap is happiness, because the animals are better off under Napoleon – depending on how you define ‘better off’.

1984 (1949) describes a world where people are controlled by a modern version of the Roman Empire’s bread and circuses, and where the controlling members of that society are themselves controlled by someone or something called Big Brother, through television screens in every room which both supervise and condition behaviour. Those who worry about government databases which contain too much information about citizens, or devices which track their activities on the internet, will worry even more after they read it. It is, of course, overstated, a nightmare, but also an exact description of a tendency which is quite prevalent in our own society. It contains the despairing thought that any man can be controlled by any other, simply because he is only an animal with nerve ends and neuroses, and control simply means finding what torture to use, as was the case with the Catholic Church’s Inquisition. It is not about Stalin, nor is it science fiction, but a description of life in every country of the world today, and a warning of how people can become less than human.

How surprising that George Orwell, after excelling as a social critic, a reviewer, an essayist and as it turned out as an autobiographer, should also be a major novelist as well, a man who wrote about himself and the world he knew in such a way that the issues he touched on can be seen to be just as important for us as they were for him.

Orwell’s books are available as free downloads in some countries. See

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Facts courtesy Wikipedia. Please inform post author of any violation.

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