I was going to subtitle this post “The essays of George Orwell” but then no one would read it. I’m afraid it would have the same result as something Orwell says in Poetry and the Microphone: “Arnold Bennett was hardly exaggerating when he said that in the English-speaking countries the word ‘poetry’ would disperse a crowd quicker than a fire-hose.” I know that I would have skipped over such a sub-title until a month or so ago when I read the essay Such, Such Were the Joys.
Before reading Such, Such Were the Joys, my image of Orwell was of a rather shadowy and paranoid individual whose insistence on saying unpopular things made him seem somewhat of a crank. But this lively, poignant, sad and funny memoir of life in St Cyprian’s boarding school contrasts with his 1984, a book so stark that it scared me when I read it in high school. I never want to read it again. Yet Little Eric Blair, (his real name) who even then was developing one of the sharpest, most extraordinary minds of the century, being mistreated and misunderstood broke my heart.
He describes a beating that went on for so long it frightened and astonished him. He recalls that it didn’t hurt, however, because “fright and shame seemed to have anesthetized me.” He cried partly “because of a deeper grief which is peculiar to childhood and not easy to convey: a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of being locked up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them.”
From all that I can make out, the adult Eric Blair was a bit of a crank, but he was cranky about a lot of the things I am cranky about so that’s just lovable. He was also funny, imaginative and curious, qualities that I admire and prize. All my friends are required to have at least two out of the three. He saw not just two but several sides, and then the layers to ideas. He picked through issues like he picked through items in junk shops. He said the things that everyone else subconsciously knew but no one wanted to admit to. And he has some of the greatest first lines I have ever read.
He left St Cyprian’s on a scholarship to Eton. From there he did not do the expected, that is, go to Oxford or Cambridge. He joined the police force in Burma. Upon his return to England five years later, he lived with the homeless for years and eventually wrote the book, Down and Out in Paris and London under his pseudonym. He got married. He studied the poor and working classes in northern England and wrote about them in The Road to Wigan Pier. By now Big Brother was beginning to watch George Orwell. What agitating was he doing up there in Lancashire? MI-5 probably started what would become a big, fat file on him. The day after he sent in his manuscript, he and his wife Eileen left for Spain and joined the Spanish Civil War. He was wounded. The two of them escaped back to England.
When the Second World War began percolating, Orwell got a job with the BBC, which he hated. He hated office politics and pretensions. He hated having a boss. He hated censorship. He lasted two years. He wrote essays for various publications and created his own column for the periodical,Tribune. Reading his wartime essays enhances the experience of watching Foyles’s War. Orwell already had me with Such, Such Were the Joys, but the name of his newspaper column made him my comrade. He called it As I Please. The topics are diverse, but even within one column he writes about whatever is on his mind, and there is always more than one thing on his mind. In his first As I Please he transcribes a conversation in a tobacconist’s shop, comments on who has legal jurisdiction when Americans who have lately over-run the country are involved, has a paragraph about Fascism, and refers to a 19th century novel by one Mark Rutherford in reference to London slums.
There are 80 As I Please columns, numbered, not titled because they don’t have one central topic. Here are my notes to remind me what it was I enjoyed most in some of the columns: the honor’s list, short stories, anti-semitism, flying saints, Joyce, political language, fascism, war revenge, newspapers, women’s make-up, I.A. Richard’s poetry experiment, C.S. Lewis, children’s toys, executions, writer’s magazines, Tories, shopkeepers, propaganda, popular songs, Fairchild Family children’s book, dead metaphors.
In other published essays he writes in depth about Dickens, Kipling, the English people, the Spanish Civil War, socialism and fascism. He writes about poking around junk shops, how to make a proper cup of tea, Tolstoy’s sour grapes in regards to Shakespeare, and titillating comic post cards. He gets cranky about the degradation of language. T.S. Eliot, Thackeray, and Marx come up a lot. He writes book reviews that I enjoyed even if I had never heard of the book and wasn’t interested in reading it. In short I will read anything Orwell wrote (except 1984 for a second time) even if I am not particularly interested in the subject because he writes so well. I’ll get interested in the subject.
To finish out the biography, Eric and Eileen adopted a baby boy in 1944. Eileen died unexpectedly from the anesthetic in an operation in 1945. 1984 was published in 1949, and Eric Blair died in 1950 at the age of 47.
I have a huge list of Orwell quotations that made me either snicker, marvel, or sit up and think but I will save those for the next post and begin here with some of his first lines:
*As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later. (Marrakech, 1939)
*Dickens is one of those writers who is well worth stealing. (Charles Dickens, 1940)
*In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. (Shooting an Elephant, 1936)
*As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. (The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, 1941)
*The time was when I used to say that what the English climate needed was a minor operation, comparable to the removal of tonsils in a human being. Just cut out January and February, and we should have nothing to complain about. (Bad Climates are Best, 1946)
*This trip was a failure, as the object of it was to get into prison, and I did not, in fact get more than forty eight hours in custody. . . (Clink, 1932)
*The Spanish war has probably produced a richer crop of lies than any event since the Great War, but I honestly doubt, in spite of all those hecatombs of nuns who have been raped and crucified before the eyes of the “Daily Mail” reporters whether it is the pro-Fascist newspapers that have done the most harm. (Spilling the Spanish Beans, 1937)
*When Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer appeared in 1935, it was greeted with rather cautious praise, obviously conditioned in some cases by a fear of seeming to enjoy pornography. (Inside the Whale, 1940)
*It was a pity that Mr. Eliot should be so much on the defensive in the long essay with which he prefaces this selection of Kipling’s poetry, but it was not to be avoided, because before one can speak about Kipling one has to clear away a legend that has been created by two sets of people who have not read his work. (Rudyard Kipling, 1942)
*In peacetime, it is unusual for foreign visitors to this country to notice the existence of the English people. (The English People, 1947)
*Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. (Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali, 1944)
*Soon after I arrived at St Cyprian’s. . . I began wetting the bed. (Such, Such Were the Joys,1948)