Saturday, 6 January 2007

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Spectator

After leaving the Burmese police, George Orwell held few regular jobs in his too short life. He wanted to serve in uniform when his country went to war; with his health precluding that, he worked for the Indian service of the BBC until he became literary editor of Tribune, the left-wing weekly edited somewhat notionally by Aneurin Bevan. And from December 1943 to April 1947 he wrote a column for the paper, "As I Please".

Although everything he ever wrote has been collected in 20 sumptuous volumes, and although he is one of the few journalists who can sustain such a fate (contemplating our own work, some of us would find that a simply horrific thought), he was by no means a consistent writer, and dedicated Orwellians will know how uneven his journalism was. During the war he also wrote a "London Letter" for Partisan Review, the American political-literary magazine, and some of those letters were tired or silly. He observes in a Tribune column that "I was usually wrong when it was possible to be wrong" earlier in the war, and his insistence in PR that Churchill would soon be swept from power by the irresistible Sir Stafford Cripps is indeed a warning to all of us against confident prognostication in print.

But the Tribune columns were among his best things, personal, quirky, salty. He will write about a sixpenny rose bush he once planted, or about "good bad books". He snorts at the rudeness of shopkeepers and he worries about the appalling loneliness of modern urban life. He complains that the traditional English names of flowers are being replaced by pretentious Latin names, he tells little jokes. He shows, when he spreads himself, that he was one of the best literary critics of his age.

What makes the book eerie as well as readable is how often Orwell might be writing a newspaper column today. At one moment he broods about wafer- thin fashion models, with "the overbred, exhausted, even decadent style of beauty that now seems to be striven after", the very thing the Daily Mail has been lamenting lately, at another he warns against the rising tide of xenophobia caused by an influx of Polish workers — 60 years ago! He even complains about ubiquitous music blaring from loudspeakers, though he didn’t know the half of it, and was spared the complete horror of canned music in shops, pubs and restaurants today.

But Orwell did not ignore the great world and its conflicts: some of his best political obiter dicta are here, along with the wrong-headed assertions ("laissez-faire capitalism is passing away"). While Orwell never became a conservative pessimist, and was sharp about the revival of such pessimism (or the refusal to believe that human society can be fundamentally improved, linking T. S. Eliot, Malcolm Muggeridge and Evelyn Waugh a little harshly with Marshal P├ętain in this respect), he concedes that "plans for human betterment do normally come unstuck, and the pessimist has many more opportunities of saying 'I told you so' than the optimist".

When he joined Tribune he knew that he would be writing against the grain of the paper, or at least of its horrible fellow-travelling public. Often he is at odds with readers who are incensed by any criticism of Stalin at the time of the Warsaw Rising in 1944, or of the Red Army the following year when Tribune — to its great credit — published reports of gang rape by the Russian soldiers "liberating" Vienna. And he warns the left that
dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don’t imagine that you can make yourself the bootlicking propagandist of the Soviet regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly return to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.
Over and again one sees the themes of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four taking shape. Orwell looks back on the Spanish civil war and the insane lies that were told about it, wondering whether truthful history could ever be written again. He writes about Yevgeny Zamyatin’s fantasy novel We, which influenced Brave New World as well as Nineteen Eighty-Four. He dissects language, dismayed by the way that more and more people write and speak in an inherently totalitarian style.

And of course, with his faults, there is that unusually high respect for truth and justice which Waugh admired in him, and which distinguished him from so many other writers then (or now). Orwell is appalled by "this whole business of taking vengeance on traitors and captured enemies", and disgusted by the humiliation of women collaborators in France in 1944.

Even if I had read the pieces before, I profited by reading them again in this attractively presented and well edited collection. The index is useless, but Paul Anderson’s notes are not only copious but informative, the work of someone who knows the subject and the period, although he is apparently unaware that Hermann Rauschning’s I-knew-Hitler revelations have been much discredited.

To this day Orwell’s unpopularity on the sectarian left is notorious and perplexing, but maybe there is a clue here. He was not the crypto-reactionary he is painted by some, but he writes very significantly about Anatole France, who was "not a socialist but a radical", nowadays the rarer of the two, and whose radicalism can be seen in "his passion for liberty and intellectual honesty". Could Orwell more obviously be writing about himself?