- Liveright, 597 pp.
Minister of Truth
George Orwell’s essay describing the hanging of a rebel in British-ruled Burma during the 1920’s is frequently included in anthologies of great literature. It should be. The episode was crucial in turning a young British colonial officer named Eric Blair into the prophetic writer we know as George Orwell.
In this essay, Orwell relates how the bound prisoner side-stepped a puddle of water on the path to the gallows. What would make a man, firmly gripped by two prison guards, try to keep his feet dry only moments before a noose was placed around his neck and the trap-door sprung?
“When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle,” Orwell wrote, “I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.”
“A Hanging” was published in 1931, the same year that Orwell began a series of diaries. These have been edited by the great Orwell scholar, Peter Davison. The volume also includes a brilliant introduction by Christopher Hitchens, no-mean essayist himself and author of Why Orwell Matters. Sadly, Hitchens died shortly after writing these insights into Orwell’s life.
When Orwell began recording the events of his daily life in these diaries, he had less than twenty years to live. But what a sustained burst of creativity those years represented. Between 1933 with Down and Out in London and Paris and 1939 when he published a comic novel, Coming Up for Air, Orwell produced a major book every year. In 1945 came Animal Farm, followed in 1949 by 1984.
It might be taken for a certainty that such a truthful and observant writer as Orwell would use his diaries to record events, living conditions, and insights into human character and personal reflections that were directly relevant to his books. Yet, with the exception of The Road to Wigan Pier, his study of the lives of English coal miners published in 1937, this is not the case.
Orwell’s Diaries are a day-to-day record of a man trying to survive – physically, emotionally and intellectually – in difficult, sometimes desperate, conditions. Entry after entry records the weather, how many eggs his chickens have laid and how much he earned from their sale. Occasional passages of lyrical beauty and “spot-on” insights into human nature appear. Diary entries with political orientation are most notable between September 7, 1938 to March 28, 1939, when Orwell was convalescing in Morocco, and for the period just before the outbreak of World War II and the early years of that conflict. Yet, even during those dramatic times, Orwell wrote more as an observer of humanity than a self-regarding commentator on world events.
The content of the diaries certainly informed Orwell’s major works, indirectly or, in the case of Animal Farm, ironically. Orwell spent much of the time that he wrote Animal Farm tending to his own animals at his small country home of Wallington in Hertfordshire. He showed a true countryman’s insensitivity to rabbits, remarking on the color of their fur in one passage, noting how many he shot and skinned in the next.
In some ways these domestic diaries constitute an independent work, of nature writing or social reflection. Orwell’s observations on his life and surroundings follow in the great tradition of Gilbert White’s 18th century masterpiece, A Natural History of Selborne. Here is a representative quotation, dated January 1, 1940:
No thaw. It would be possible to skate on the church pond, but unfortunately I have no skates here. The other ponds not bearing. Water beetles (the kind whose legs look like oars) can be seen moving about under the ice…Turned up a woodcock in the country lane. No rabbits in the field today. Birds very bold and hungry. Rooks in the vegetable garden, where they do not usually come. One or two primroses and polyanthi budding, in spite of the frost upon them. One of the elm trees apparently bleeds a brown coloured stuff, sap or something, & large icicles of this hanging down like toffee. Milk when frozen goes into a curious flaky stuff like flaky pastry.
Orwell directed the same resolute, unblinking gaze on nature and human life during his stay in Morocco. He had been severely wounded fighting for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and his health had been worn-down by tramping about the English countryside and industrial slums. His writings in Morocco depict the lives of Moorish natives and the French colonials alike, ragged, begging children with infected eyes and officious bureaucrats at the post office. While there, Orwell and his wife were befriended by soldiers of the Foreign Legion, so poorly paid they could not afford to buy cigarettes. Shortly before leaving, Orwell went to the cinema, where the mood of the movie-goers was more interesting than the film.
In Casablanca went to the pictures, and saw films making it virtually certain that the French Gov.t expects war. The first film on the life of a soldier, following up all the different branches & with some very good shots of the inner arrangements of the Maginot line…The significant point was the attitude of the audience – utterly unenthusiastic, hardly a clap, & a few hostile comments.
When Orwell returned to Britain in the spring of 1939, he was struck by the same apathy and indifference to the onslaught of war. Europe had yet to recover from the First World War and the Allied peoples were at a grave psychological disadvantage in comparison with the civilian population of Nazi Germany. Through nearly a decade of political indoctrination, news censorship and threats of imprisonment or worse, the German people were schooled for war. To Orwell, the only things that could shake the British out of their complacency were the drone of the engines of German aircraft over London and the detonation of the bombs they dropped.
That was exactly what happened and the British people responded magnificently. Some of the most vivid writing in these diaries is Orwell’s eyewitness account of the Blitz. Unforgettable vignettes abound like the entry for September 21, 1940.
Yesterday two girls stopping me in the street, very elegant in appearance except that their faces were filthy dirty: “Please, sir, can you tell us where we are?”
Trying to get one’s bearings in the bewildering political climate of the 1930’s and 40’s was as difficult as finding safety during the Blitz. Orwell was disgusted and outraged at the entrenched snobbery of the British upper class even as the bombs fell on London. He longed for a social revolution, hearkening back to the Puritan Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell that had emerged in England from the disastrous Civil War of the 1640’s.
But unlike many Britons who were dissatisfied with a social hierarchy little changed from the Victorian era, Orwell cast a suspicious and critical eye on the Soviet Union. Hitler’s attack on Russia on June 22, 1941 made the Nazis’ enemy into Britain’s “friend.” Orwell refused to unthinkingly accept Stalin as an ally, a word he was loathe to use. On July 3, 1941, he wrote what can be seen as the genesis of “Big Brother” in 1984:
One could not have a better example of the moral and emotional shallowness of our time, than the fact that we are now all more or less proStalin. This disgusting murderer is temporarily on our side, and so the purges, etc., are suddenly forgotten…The most one can truly say for Stalin is that probably he is individually sincere, as his followers cannot be, for his endless changes of front are at any rate his own decision. It is a case of “when Father turns we all turn,” and Father presumably turns because the spirit moves him.
The oracle-like nature of Orwell’s major post-war novels was due to a devoted and extremely perceptive reading of a wide range of newspapers during the Second World War. He made a thorough comparison of how the Right and the Left chose to believe and disbelieve the same events. The results were not encouraging. People, no matter what their political persuasion or the news sources they subscribed to, were easily duped by their daily dose of “Newspeak.”
Orwell also diligently listened to radio bulletins and current events programs. As with the movie audience in Casablanca, he astutely noted the mood of the public listening to these broadcasts in venues like bars or bomb shelters. During the latter phase of the Second World War, Orwell worked for the BBC. His account of the editorial duplicity that governed broadcast policy is revelatory of the way that the Allies played fast and loose with the facts. Censorship was not a monopoly of the Third Reich.
The real fascination with these diaries lies in the way that they reveal Orwell the man, rather than Orwell the prophet. Some of Orwell’s less appealing traits appear in the diaries such as his dislike of Jews. That was more of a cultural prejudice than a consuming personal hatred. The diaries of Virginia Woolf contain similar remarks, though it is a point of debate whether she was a true anti-Semite or just could not abide her Jewish mother-in-law. To Orwell’s credit, he always tried to track down the origin of negative reports about Jews to verify the details. By the end of the Second World War, his attitude toward Jews had changed to a positive one and he wrote a sensitive and incisive essay in 1945 entitled “Antisemitism in Britain.”
And then there were times when Orwell’s passions and “pet-peeves” got the best of him. On June 14, 1940, his disgust with consumerism, mild by today’s standards, led him to a remarkably off-target remark.
Always as I walk through the Underground stations, sickened by the advertisements, the silly staring faces and strident colours, the general frantic struggle to induce people to waste labour and material by consuming useless luxuries or harmful drugs. How much rubbish this war will sweep away, if only we can hang on throughout the summer. War is simply a reversal of civilized life, its motto is “Evil be thou my good,” and so much of the good of modern life is actually evil that it is questionable whether on balance war does harm.
When Orwell expressed his aggravation with the “silly staring faces” on subway advertisements, the fall of France was a certainty and the Battle of Britain was about to begin. Orwell would play his own quiet role in Britain’s Finest Hour. So this uncharacteristic question “whether on balance war does harm” should not be held against him.
Even prophets can have a bad day.