May 20, 2010


466 pages, Penguin

Fanfare for The Common Man by Pat Black

If I ever get around to making my own movie version of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I’ll use the face of Frank Zappa for the “Big Brother Is Watching You” poster. Frank would have been tickled by this – and so would George Orwell, I reckon.

We are used to Orwell the prophet and satirist, the man who created a masterful allegory with Animal Farm as well as the classic vision of a nightmare totalitarian state above. But while his novels granted him the supreme test of fame by turning his name into an adjective, I’d argue that it is in his essays that Orwell’s status as one of the very best writers is secured.

In clear, precise and plain – though never dull – English, he reveals to us hard truths about ourselves and our world. But there’s always time for a wry smile, or even a snigger; Orwell was almost certainly a man who enjoyed a good blue joke. With an unflinching eye for injustice and dishonesty mixed with a warm common touch, the author stands, to this day, peerless.

In a recent review of Ernest Hemingway’s work, I reflected on how odd it is that critical appraisal of a writer can go through strange ebbs and flows given the passage of time. Generations who have grown up revering Uncle Ernie have given way to younger people more cynical of his themes, if not his prowess as a writer. If George Orwell ever undergoes a similar re-evaluation, I don’t think it will be anytime soon – most likely in a few thousand years, when we have managed to overcome inequality and prejudice and reached true enlightenment... Hmm.

Orwell has an uncanny knack of being proved right. Where we can see stark, obvious parallels between what he foresaw in Nineteen Eighty-Four and our own CCTV-regulated, email-snooping modern world, there are equally striking moments in his Essays, quite jarring shocks of recognition which we can apply to our own times.

His own background is a rather strange mix. He was an old Etonian who went there on a scholarship; his family started out as reasonably monied middle-class, and yet they fell on hard times, with the family estate disappearing. He is undoubtedly a great Englishman, yet he wasn’t born there – he was born in India. He effectively grew up without his father after his mother took him and his two sisters back to England when he was a boy. The experience of public school both brainwashed him and alienated him. He was forever an outsider, always wandering, never quite at home anywhere despite his love of the land, spending time in Burma, then down and out in Paris and London before almost getting shot dead in a foreign land for a noble cause.

Perhaps it was his peripatetic nature, as well as a latent sense of rejection, that gave him such a broad outlook on humanity, with the plight of the less fortunate among us close to his heart. Always, he wanted to know how the poor lived, to understand their difficulties and to blow the whistle on the brutal unfairness of it all.

With such noble sentiments front and centre, we can allow Orwell leeway for a bit of embellishment. Even if he was never actually poor enough to live in “The Spike”, you can bet he came out of the experience with his senses refreshed. This was a world unexamined; in his exposure of the workhouse-like atmosphere of the dosshouse, we can see a little bit of Dickens in Orwell, in his need to engage with injustice in society, but without the kindly garnish of Victorian philanthropy and the tincture of pure schmaltz. In “The Spike”, as well as “A Hanging” and “Shooting An Elephant,” we have the essence of good undercover journalism. Taking him at his word in these essays (there are some who believe he never shot an elephant, nor that he ever witnessed a hanging), Orwell wanted to get in about it, to show you how things really were and to draw the veil away from the face of social injustice through his own first-hand experiences. How he must have resented the image of the piles of uneaten food being crammed into bins while, a matter of feet away, homeless people survived on sugary tea and black bread.

Orwell’s dedication to what he calls democratic socialism is spelled out in the masterful “Why I Write”, and it’s a simple clarion call to fairness and decency, a rejection of conservatism and capitalist greed and the forces of suppression, brutality, intolerance and bigotry. As he promises, this sense of fair play touches just about everything he writes. But he’s not quite as much of a rebel as you might think. Orwell was a patriot and a most English creature indeed, and despite one or two descriptions of what he suspects might happen when the revolution comes to that land (meaning Britain) in “The Lion and the Unicorn”, he’s not terribly radical. We can trace his progress back the way, as well as forwards. In his love of the English countryside and its wildlife, there are echoes of Hardy and the Romantic poets; while in his deconstructions of saucy seaside postcards, popular music hall songs and paperback novels, we might discern a prehistoric form of post-modernism – genuine affection for his low subject matter, delivered with a slight smirk.

“Such, Such Were The Joys” may be Orwell’s true masterpiece. His reminiscences of the British private school system make for uneasy reading, as much for the unabashed recounting of all that is miserable about his boarding school - bed-wetting, humiliation in class, the cowardice he shows when he punches a lad in the mouth without warning and then refuses to fight him – as it is for the caustic depiction of the British class system and prejudice, the jingoism and indoctrination he undergoes, and how he’s struggled to escape from it ever since. Hey, you should have tried being a Catholic, George.

If I have one bone to pick with George Orwell, he’s rather too English for my liking – with some hints here and there that he was quite anti-Scots. The suspicion that he rejected his birth name – Eric Blair – for a much more Anglicised moniker on the grounds that the “Blair” part was a bit too Scottish for him, quite tickles me. What he would have made of his namesake, Tony Blair – born and educated in Scotland, with Scottish family from Govan, Glasgow, no less, almost cynically turning his back on that background in order to cosy up to the middle-English electorate – we can only guess at. He also uses that skin-crawling term “Scotchmen” in one or two essays, and in that I can hear something of the sneer of Dr Johnson. Even the fact that, in trying to create the right mental atmosphere for writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, he packed up his typewriter and buggered off to Jura, should not really be taken as a compliment, however back-handed, when you think about it.

But in “Such, Such Were The Joys”, we can perhaps understand where this apparent disdain of all things Caledonian comes from – to listen to his affluent peers at school talking about summering in “Scotland”, you would think that the entire place was a playground for the upper middle classes and English aristocracy, a land where funny little Groundskeeper Willie-style servants bowed and scraped and treated mater and pater like Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It is to Orwell’s immense credit that he refutes his own early prejudices so effectively, realising later that people in Scotland were (as they are now) on the whole subject to worse poverty and deprivation per capita than any other region in Britain, and therefore arguably far better subjects for his unblinking moral searchlight. Here, he echoes another great chronicler of the 20th century, Edward R Murrow, in his assertion that: “Each man is a prisoner of his own experiences. No-one can eliminate prejudices – just recognise them.”

Where Orwell is genuinely progressive is in his love of literature and his warts-and-all appraisals of great writers, both in historic and contemporary terms. Though Orwell was never stylistically brash, he is knowing and appreciative of the merits of Joyce’s Ulysses and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. He is brave in his take on Charles Dickens, lamenting the author’s bourgeois concerns for those beneath him while being frank in his love for the man’s books, his characters, his compassion and his literary legacy. Most touching of all, he mounts a robust defence of PG Wodehouse, whose reputation had been sullied by a series of radio broadcasts made from Belgium, where the Nazis had placed him under house arrest. He denounces Wodehouse as being guilty of nothing more than naivety and foolishness, and shields him rather heroically from a great deal of detractors.

In “The Art of Donald McGill”, Orwell quite bravely takes on the subject of seedy seaside postcards, and pins down the themes and underlying tensions as being rather conservative in their nature – and yet, in their own way, are still a reaction against the forces of traditionalism and conservativism. As he puts it, “their whole meaning and virtue is in their unredeemed lowness”, going on to assert:

I never read the proclamations of generals before battle, the speeches of fuehrers and prime ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and left-wing political parties, the national anthem, Temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from the millions of common men to whom these sentiments make no appeal.

The shock of recognition I hinted at earlier on is most apparent in two brilliant pieces, “The Sporting Spirit” and “Decline of the English Murder”. In the former, Orwell talks about the negativity and bloodthirsty on-field scenes when the Soviet Union’s Moscow Dynamo football team undertook a tour of top British sides in the aftermath of the war. (“I am told that the match in Glasgow was a free-for-all,” he sniffs. Those bloody Scotchmen again, eh? What are they like, mate?) Orwell was a keen sportsman but he foresaw some grave consequences to the toxic mixture of nationalism and sport: “If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will in the world, you could hardly do it better than to organise a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, Italians and Jugoslavs (sic), each match to be watched by an audience of 100,000 spectators”. In this, Orwell foresaw the rise of football hooliganism and the idea that the worst aspects of pure tribalism are brought to the fore by a simple game. This essay is especially relevant with the World Cup coming up this summer in South Africa. I don’t entirely agree with Orwell, preferring to think of football as a joyous, even cohesive force in our appreciation of the aesthetics of the sport. But if we were to have an argument about it he could simply point to any number of English football hooligans, organised riots, jingoistic headlines splattered across the front pages of national newspapers and the admittedly absurd sense of public grief generated by something so silly as a game of football.

In “The Decline of the English Murder”, something even more frightening is going on. Orwell starts by rather facetiously lamenting the fact that the “classic” Agatha Christie-style British murder is becoming a rare beast in the post-war years, with poisonings to get rid of troublesome spouses being usurped by more “American” style homicide. Here there is a complete absence of motive and the circumstances of the cases follow the delinquent narratives of US fiction and popular gangster movies. What starts off as a semi-comic examination of British values and the type of murder stories that gruesome old ladies might smack their lips over with relish at a public library dissolves into a cultural comment on the growing phenomenon of sociopathy, with random, meaningless acts of violence explained as the ultimate rejection of common cultural values and public decency. This seemed so germane to modern times, and chimes with any number of news headlines you might see on any given day of the week. The essay sent a chill up my spine the first time I read it. We have come to accept the notion of motiveless murder, even to expect it: we hardly invented it in the post-modern world (the Jack the Ripper case is referenced as evidence of this), but Orwell was sharp enough to notice something of a sea change, stating that at least the hypocrisy of Edwardian domestic poisonings “ensured that crimes as serious as murder should have serious emotions behind them”.

Like Frank Zappa, Orwell is one of the artists who I would love to have seen examine the modern world in their own unique styles. In 24-hour rolling news, where in the past wee while we’ve seen a British prime minister almost hounded out of office on the basis of his personality alone, I can imagine Orwell would have been appalled. And yet, it’s possible that he might have defended the hideous game show which bears his signature. In Big Brother we might well have witnessed some terrible low points in popular culture – but Orwell might have been more interested in the reasons why it seemed to so grip the popular imagination. He would also have examined the show’s appeal to commonality, the engendering of a passive acceptance of what might have been termed obscene less than a generation ago and, as one commentator I know put it, in the way celebrity culture has replaced simple gossip over the garden fence; and we know Orwell wasn’t against that.

But most of all, Orwell loved simple things in life. I see a lot of myself in the lad who ran about England’s green fields and grew up keeping them close to his heart. So, my favourite essay of Orwell’s is “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”. He describes the simple joys of spring, and all the natural wonders to be found on a simple May day – like today – and how no-one can take it away from you. “Atom bombs are piling up the factories, police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming through the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going around the sun, and neither the dictators or the bureaucrats, much as they disapprove of the process, can do anything to stop it.” He also focuses on the toad itself, which has “the most beautiful eye of any living creature... liquid gold”, as yet another boost for the little guy, the ignored, the unloved – the great poets seem to ignore this humble little animal when it comes to writing about the joys of spring, he notes.

My one complaint about this fantastic collection is that there’s a couple of crackers missing. In “North and South” Orwell has a terrific swipe at reverse snobbery, the notions that all northerners are tough, are hard-workers and have grit and integrity, while southerners are soft, effete, supercilious profiteers – a complete nonsense, he argues. Meanwhile, in “Revenge Is Sour”, Orwell witnesses first-hand the degrading treatment handed out to German war criminals by a Jewish man in Belgium in the immediate aftermath of the war, contrasting this with the compassion displayed by a Belgian man who is badly affected by the sight of a dead German commando by a bridge. Orwell refutes the whole idea of revenge – indeed, reveals the illusion of revenge - in a quite masterful couple of thousand words. And he even further reveals himself to be a man after my own heart in “A Good Cup of Tea”, that very British of vices. None of these are to be found in this collection, a terrible pity.

So, rather perversely, in my examination of a man who dedicated himself both intellectually and physically against the forces of prejudice, I’ll sum up with one of my own – I am biased; I love this book. Opening it again feels like putting on your favourite pair of jeans, or throwing on your old leather jacket for a night out, or tipping a beer with your best friends on a warm spring night, or simply having a good chat with a neighbour – it’s vital, indispensable and something anyone who’s interested in good writing, fairness and common humanity should own.

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