An Age Like This, 1920-1940 (Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. 1)

Orwell left instructions in his will forbidding a biography, so this is as close as we presumably can get to know the man hiding behind a pseudonym (although biographies have, of course, been written). Unfortunately, it comes with a big smack in the face for me, Blair/Orwell’s misogyny coming through clearly when you read condensed notes for his books and his letters/journalism. (His love of Henry Miller, his comments that women “as usual, don’t understand politics but have adopted the views of their husbands as wives ought,” among many other examples.)

That said, I can take a deep breath and appreciate some of the bits, such as the first hint in 1932 of his desire for anonymity seen in a letter to his literary agent, Moore, asking him to “please see that it [Down and Out in Paris and London] is published pseudonymously, as I am not proud of it.” In another later, he suggests possible names to use, such as P.S. Burton, the name he uses when tramping, or possibly Kenneth Miles, George Orwell, or H.Lewis Allways. “I rather favour George Orwell.”

I also enjoyed some of the pieces I hadn’t seen before, like Clink, his description of being locked up as a drunk (intentionally), where we learn the delicious epithet of “Fucking toe-rag!”

He seems to fancy his friend Eleanor Jaques, who ends up marrying another of his friends (Dennis Collings) instead. Blair signed his letters “with much love” and was always pressing Jaques for visits. Another woman correspondent was Brenda Salkeld, on whom Blair lavished intense literary instruction, telling her what to read and what to think about Ulysses which he revered above all. (Garnett’s The Twilight of the Gods is a “positive duty” to read). He’s dismissive of Gertrude Stein (shocker!), saying that Wyndham Lewis’s takedown of her in The Enemy wasn’t worth the effort.

Several of his book reviews are included, which I enjoyed for the content and the structure (always looking for tips!), but I really dug the letters. From these, we learn that he opens a village store as a way to cover his rent while he writes in the morning (store open in the afternoon); his discussion of the benefits of a store that sells sundries vs a bookstore sticks with me—essentially people browse forever in a bookstore and never buy, but in a real shop, they come with a purpose and are less troublesome.

He also has a friend (Jack Common) stay in his cottage to care for the chickens and goats while he’s in Morocco (giving him instruction on what type of toilet paper won’t clog the septic system). And I loved the tale of stealing a copy of H.G. Wells’s Country of the Blind from his fellow school friends because they were all so eager to read it (“It’s a very vivid memory of mine, stealing alone the corridor at about four o’clock on a midsummer morning into the dormitory where you slept and pinching the book from beside your bed.”).

I hadn’t realized Orwell was in contact with John Middleton Murry as well (“I heard from Murry who seemed in the weeps about something” – which doesn’t surprise me). He also agitates friends to try and stockpile paper and printing equipment ahead of the coming war (in 1938), rightfully thinking that they’ll be in short supply when war does break out. (“I cannot believe that the time when one can buy a printing press with no questions asked will last for ever.”)

His essay on joining the Independent Labour Party is instructive: “… the era of free speech is closing down. The freedom of the press in Britain was always something of a fake, because in the last resort, money controls opinion… The time is coming… when every writer will have the choice of being silenced altogether or of producing the dope that a privileged minority demands.”

Least liked was the extensive takedown of Dickens, but he slightly redeems himself in the 5th section by saying “By this time anyone who is a lover of Dickens, and who has read as far as this, will probably be angry with me.”

Homage to Catalonia

Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War, written in a frenzy a few months after he left the front lines to recover from being shot in the throat. If you like detailed books about war, you may enjoy this, but I didn’t find it as interesting as his other books, tops in my mind being 1984 and Down and Out in Paris and London. Blair/Orwell volunteers to fight for the revolutionaries against the fascists and finds things chaotic and understaffed, to say the least. Not enough guns or ammunition, pseudo-training of the young boys by marching them around the square double-time but no real training of how to shoot a weapon or throw a bomb. The primary concern of folks at the front was firewood, food, cigarettes, candles, and the enemy, in that order. His pal Kopp says, “This is not a war, it is a comic opera with an occasional death,” and Orwell grants that his life was probably saved many times over by the “Spanish standard of marksmanship,” i.e. to miss wildly. The real weapon on the front was the megaphone, as each side would taunt the other, the revolutionaries mentioning (falsely) the delicious buttered toast they were eating and for the other side to hurry up and defect already to get their hands on some.

Beyond his detailed account of the boredom and cold on the front, Orwell heroically tries to explain all the various factions that were theoretically on the same side fighting against Franco, but that were all infighting as well. The POUM (the division Orwell was with) believed that the only alternative to fascism was worker control. The PSUC (which eventually won control) was pushed by the Stalinist line from the USSR to set up a parliamentary democracy first and revolution later (or hopefully never, but they lured recruits by dangling the revolution mañana). He says that the best strategic opportunity of the war (liberating Morocco) was thrown away “in the vain hope of placating French and British capitalism.” Orwell lucked out to find himself embedded with the most revolutionary part of the Spanish defenders, people truly treating each other equally with no rank. This group was soon overthrown (and hundreds imprisoned) when the Right-wing Communists made their move; yes, right-wing. It was a weird amalgamation of groups that banded together to fight fascism.

While on leave from the front, Orwell finds himself dragged into the fighting that breaks out in the streets of Barcelona. His wife (Eileen Blair) is living in Barcelona and attempting to help out as a nurse after her main job of delivering cigars and other English necessities was accomplished. I yearn for an account of what she experienced during those frantic days of street fighting, which was then quelled when 6,000 police got shipped in from Valencia. “The Civil Guards and the Carabineros, who were not intended for the front at all, were better armed and far better clad than ourselves. I suspect it is the same in all wars—always the same contrast between the sleek police in the rear and the ragged soldiers in the line.”

Orwell has some harsh words for the journalists writing about the war from the safety of their homes hundreds or thousands of miles away from the front. “It’s the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front line trench, except on the briefest of propaganda tours. Sometimes it is a comfort to me to think that the aeroplane is altering the conditions of war. Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hold in him.”

This is viewed by some as the best account of the Spanish Civil War, although Orwell credits The Spanish Cockpit by Franz Borkenau as the “ablest book that has yet appeared on the Spanish war.”

The Road To Wigan Pier

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Published in 1937 after Orwell was commissioned to write it by the Left Book Club (whose purpose was to get people united against fascism), this book dives deeper into the poverty and misery he first explores in Down & Out in Paris and London. Orwell spends time in the industrial centers of North and South England, acting as a canary in their coal mines to warn us about the dangers of industrial capitalism with rampant unemployment causing people to resign themselves to a lifetime of living on the dole. Leaky roofs, cracked walls, bugs, inadequate space, windows that don’t open because the houses shift from all the excavation nearby– these are commonplace in the homes Orwell lodges in or visits. He honestly lays out his own middle class preconceptions, taught to view the underclass as something to loathe as a way to retain his tenuous grip on an upper class rung when his income nears the boundaries of the lower class. He complains of overflowing chamber pots left unattended under the dining room table and claims that these lower class people just plain smell bad (along with losing all their teeth). Class differences and having to get over prejudices are main obstacles to Orwell’s dream of socialism. He also tongue-in-cheek claims that socialism attracts the outcasts and cranks: vegetarians, pacifists, feminists, etc.
At first I found this offensive, then chuckled as I imagined women conspiring to make this myth take hold in order to not have to get up in the middle of the night to feed breakfast to departing miners:

Apparently the old superstition that it is bad luck to see a woman before going to work on the morning shift is not quite extinct. In the old days, it is said, a miner who happened to meet a woman in the early morning would often turn back and do no work that day.

So much of what Orwell writes is still very relevant today, including:

This business of petty inconvenience and indignity, of being kept waiting about, of having to do everything at other people’s convenience, is inherent in working-class life. A thousand influences constantly press a working man down into a passive role. He does not act, he is acted upon. He feels himself the salve of mysterious authority and has a firm conviction that “they” will never allow him to do this, that, and the other.

Orwell notes that a shift has taken place over the last eight years, now that *everyone* is unemployed, it is no longer shameful:

To study unemployment and its effects you have got to go to the industrial areas… It is only when you lodge in streets where nobody has a job, where getting a job seems about as probable as owning an aeroplane and much less probable than winning fifty pounds in the Football Pool, that you begin to grasp the changes that are being worked in our civilisation. For a change is taking place, there is no doubt about that. The attitude of the submerged working class is profoundly different from what it was seven or eight years ago… The people have at any rate grasped that unemployment is a thing they cannot help… It makes a great deal of difference when things are the same for everybody.

Cheap luxuries as the opiate of the masses. I also appreciate his comment that the ruling class wasn’t savvy enough to have come up with this on their own, that it’s merely the effect of the market:

Of course the post-war development of cheap luxuries has been a very fortunate thing for our rulers. It is quite likely that fish and chips, art-silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate (five two-ounce bars for sixpence), the movies, the radio, strong tea and the Football Pools have between them averted revolution. Therefore we are sometimes told that the whole thing is an astute maneuver by the governing classes–a sort of “bread and circuses” business–to hold the unemployed down. What I have seen of our governing class does not convince me that they have that much intelligence. The thing has happened, but by an unconscious process– the quite natural interaction between the manufacturer’s need for a market and the need of half-starved people for cheap palliatives.

Orwell definitely has a thing against canned food:

If the English physique has declined, this is no doubt partly due to the fact that the Great War carefully selected the million best men in England and slaughtered them, largely before they had had time to breed. But the process must have begun earlier than that, and it must be due ultimately to unhealthy ways of living, i.e. to industrialism. I don’t mean the habit of living in towns–probably the town is healthier than the country, in many ways–but the modern industrial technique which provides you with cheap substitutes for everything. We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.

Again railing against tinned food, but so much more. Fun to imagine Orwell’s reaction to how we live today.

The sensitive person’s hostility to the machine is in one sense unrealistic, because of the obvious fact that the machine has come to stay. But as an attitude of mind there is a great deal to be said for it. The machine has got to be accepted, but it is probably better to accept it rather as one accepts a drug–that is, grudgingly and suspiciously. Like a drug, the machine is useful, dangerous and habit-forming. The oftener one surrenders to it the tighter its grip becomes. You have only to look about you at this moment to realise with what sinister speed the machine is getting us into its power.
To begin with, there is the frightful debauchery of taste that has already been effected by a century of mechanisation… as a single instance, take taste in its narrowest sense–the taste for decent food. In the highly mechanised countries, thanks to tinned food, cold storage, synthetic flavouring matters, etc., the palate is almost a dead organ… Wherever you look you will see some slick machine-made article triumphing over the old-fashioned article that still tastes of something other than sawdust. And what applies to food applies also to furniture, houses, clothes, books, amusements and everything else that makes up our environment. There are now millions of people, and they are increasing every year, to whom the blaring of a radio is not only a more acceptable but a more normal background to their thoughts than the lowing of cattle or the song of birds.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Orwell is a breath of fresh air, his tremendous writing pokes you in the gut with jabs of anti-capitalist hypocrisy. In this tale, we have Gordon Comstock, last scion of a once-briefly-noble family, toiling away in a bookshop and writing poetry at night in his wretched rented room where he sneaks cups of tea and tiptoes down the stairs to dispose of the used tea leaves. He’s (self-proclaimed) moth-eaten, and has declared a War on Money, living on £2 a week and later on about half of that after he’s fired from his job after one reckless drunken evening where, celebrating the receipt of a £10 check from a magazine printing his poem, he gets drunk and (among other things) socks a policeman.

The story follows him hungrily stalking the streets, spying aspidistras on window sills everywhere, bemoaning the dead existence of modern life, slaves to capitalism, eager to have drinks with his rich friend Ravelston but only if he can moan about poverty and buy the first drink while Ravelston fronts the remainder. Throughout the story, he’s haunted by the looming specter of penury, aspidistras, and the odd advertisement for Bovex with Roland Butta. Orwell shows us a penniless life amidst advertisements and more prosperous citizens; Comstock quit his decent job as an advertising copywriter in order to focus on poetry, the beginning of his war on money. Money jangles in his pocket and his brain– preventing him from having a decent outing in the country after he and his girl, Rosemary, end up at an expensive hotel for lunch and haughtily order a meal that costs everything he has (this after borrowing money from his sister to cover the train fare to the country).

He is ashamed to take money from anyone but family, and nearly dies of embarrassment in having to have Rosemary cover their train ride back (and tea, always that necessary British afternoon tea). One interesting note about the trip to the countryside – the reactions of the city-folk (Gordon/Rosemary) to basic country delights (smooth tree bark, rabbits, a feather from a jay, fungi on trees) struck me as similar to country-folk reactions to the city; we bemoan tourists’ “absurd enthusiasms” over regular city things we take for granted. After the drunken escapade, he lets himself go, wanting to sink further into the mud, truly enjoying the wretched and dirty attic garret he ends up in, giving up literature for the crappy books he loans at the lending library. He’s jarred from this rut by news of Rosemary’s pregnancy (that old shopworn plot point), and after mental anguish, serves himself up for his old job, marries Rosemary, gets respectable. “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” is a rallying cry to chin up and pretend the world is normal as is spirals toward another devastating war, as it descends blindly into the clutches of capitalism.

He went back to the front room. The Nancy had put his book back in the wrong shelf and vanished. A lean, straight-nosed, brisk woman, with sensible clothes and gold-rimmed pince-nez – schoolmarm possibly, feminist certainly – came in and demanded Mrs Wharton-Beverly’s history of the suffrage movement. With secret joy Gordon told her that they hadn’t got it. She stabbed his male incompetence with gimlet eyes and went out again.


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Terrifying account of an inhumane society focused on power for power’s sake, stripping away basic intellectual desires like love, curiosity, objections, history. Bureaucracy abounds, keeping the Outer and Inner Party busy.

Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite old files to match the current state of affairs. If a person disappears, it’s his job to eradicate that unperson from the history of Oceania. He suspects he is the only sane person, his mind not conditioned to doublethink. He hooks up with Julia, a rebellious sort whose primary interest is in following the big rules in order to cut corners on other rules and enjoy sexual freedom. Winston is the brains of the piece, battling back with O’Brien as he attempts to recondition Winston’s mind. Room 101 is where the worst thing that you as an individual could endure takes place; in Winston’s case, this is a cage of rats, which he betrays Julia for, demanding that they be set upon her instead.

I read this, as most people did, before I was eighteen. To require this as reading in school is an injustice, because then one can say “Oh, I’ve read that book,” but not really. You must read this when your brain has completely formed, when you’ve had a few years under your belt out in the cold world of work, shuffling papers, to give it the full breadth of meaning.

Thanks to Murakami’s 1Q84, which I initially picked up and then decided to postpone until I’d given 1984 a thorough re-read. Another trivia bit I picked up? George Orwell was a pseudonym for Eric Arthur Blair.

Down and Out in Paris and London

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Orwell leads us deep into the cellars, basements, homeless shelters (“spikes”) of his Paris and London, shoving us down into his misery of hunger, near slavery as a plongeur (dishwasher and more, working 18 hour days of backbreaking work in a dim-lit dirty kitchen), rushing to catch the last Metro of the night, sleeping a few hours and getting up before dawn to do it all over again. Along the way, he gathers the stories of his fellow wanderers and tramps.

It’s great biographical writing, sparing no detail of squalid life. I suppose it’s an example of the worst possible scenario one could encounter after losing a job. Once you know the worst, it’s not so bad– it’s survivable.