We live in a world with far too much conformity. It's too much trouble to think things through or marshall evidence both for and against before adopting a position. We all too often adopt a position that keeps us in the comfort that we surely deserve even if it dispossesses a thousand others of theirs. Ever bought a pair of named-brand trainers without thinking too deeply about what fraction of the purchase price goes to the women who made it out in Indonesia? When you pay 75c for a litre of milk, do you reflect on the fact that the supermarket makes more by shifting it from the delivery truck to the shelves than the farmer makes by getting up at 0500hrs every morning? Does it have to be like this?
we should respect those who do. They add to the joyful diversity that makes life on this planet interesting. But more importantly they might, just might, make us reconsider our inner certainties. There was something stubbornly mulish about Eric Blair/George Orwell (looking young and idealistic L): he'd do things out of cussedness when, with his Old Etonian tie and extensive circle of well-placed pals, he really didn't need to. I think my favorite of his books is Down and Out in Paris and London. It contains this useful tip "Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it." After slaving and surviving at the very bottom of the catering trade in Paris (Valenti and St Eloise is an ironic story from those times) he hears that he can secure a cushy number "looking after a tame imbecile" back home in England. On arrival, he finds that he is misinformed and that his sinecure won't start for a month. Rather than rocking up to any of his friends and kipping on their sofa for a couple of weeks, Orwell chooses rather to go sleep in a series of itinerants' hostels because they cost ninepence or a shilling a night rather than 7 shillings and 6 pence for a cheap hotel. Part of the adventure is consciously looking for copy as a journalist, but part of it is a willingness to experience how the other half lives rather that just writing indignantly about it.
Note for those younger than 55: the £ sterling was divided into 20 shillings each of 12 pence. In the early 1930s, by statute, an agricultural labourer was earning about 1 shilling an hour; a machinist in a factory slightly more.
I've written already about Orwell's critical evaluation of Kipling, at whom his leftist friends used to sneer. Orwell was prepared to work at his reading and found that although the jingoism, racism and sentimentality in Kipling is indeed objectionable, there is nevertheless something inspiring in the both the quality of the writing and the ideas expressed. I've been very grateful that Orwell gave me permission to like An Habitation Enforced.
For reasons that will become apparent tomorrow (someone else's birthday), I'm going to leave you to read Orwell's essays in your own time to get an education about how good writing can make a difference. Instead I'll talk briefly about Homage to Catalonia, Orwell's account of putting his life on the line for a cause that he cared about. Instead of reading about the Spanish Civil War in the grossly partisan papers back home, "Hence the truly frightening spectacle of Conservative M.P.s wildly cheering the news that British ships, bringing food to the Spanish Republican government, had been bombed by Italian aeroplanes.", Orwell packed a case and went to Barcelona to fight for the tottering Republic. He signed up, more or less at random, with POUM Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista rather than the Popular Front for the Unification of Marxism or the Marxist Workers Front for Unification "splitters". He was sent to various front lines but was far too tall to fit in the Spanish trenches and within four months he'd been shot in the throat and declared unfit for service. Before he returned home, he witnessed the internecine meltdown of the Republic as the various left factions fought each other at least as bitterly as they fought Franco. [see also: Shi'a/Sunni; Catholic/Protestant ?] Orwell's own group POUM was comprehensively purged as Trotskyists by other Marxist cadres funded by Stalin. His bitterness at this trashing of an idealistic socialist dream made him a lifelong skeptic about the USSR. In taking this position he was bucking the trend among his leftist cronies back home. A shocking number of British scientists, anti-Fascists all, were fully rowed-in behind the Stalin regime in the 1930s and 40s looking at horrors of collectivisation through caviar-tinted spectacles, blissfully unaware of the Gulag and even believing that Трохим Денисович Лисенко (Lysenko) might be on to something (the Politburo thinks he's wonderful) in his doctrinaire assertion that plants could be genetically altered by clever changes to their environment. The round-ups, denunciations and shootings in Barcelona in the early Summer of 1937 led more or less directly to Animal Farm and 1984. I haven't read 1984 since a good while before 1984 but it still worries at my mind as a terrier shakes a rat. The Newspeak post-title hints that Orwell knew he wouldn't last very long in his own dystopian future.
It was my birthday last week, and Dau.I gave me (for which much thanks) a copy of Orwell's Why I Write in the Penguin Great Ideas Series. It's Eric Blair's (1903) birthday today. He was born into, the snobbishly precisely graded, "lower-upper-middle-class" won a scholarship to Eton and used his time there to develop his talents as a writer. After his traumatic time as a police-officer protecting the Empire in Burma he worked for the rest of his life by his pen and whatever else turned up. He was always "a bit weak in the wind" and didn't help matters of breathing by smoking a lot of shag-tobacco. He died far too young at the age of 47 from tuberculosis, bronchitis and lungs filled with blood.
A Nice Cup of Tea and I'll be making myself a pot of his preferred beverage forthwith. "One sip of this will bathe the drooping spirits in delight beyond the bliss of dreams." Milton. Cheers!
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