Monday, 7 January 2013

My influences: George Orwell

Where do I start with writers and thinkers who have influenced me? It is difficult to know where to start, but out of random, I'd like to pick George Orwell. The essays I like of his that are the best are the ones which are almost sociological studies -The Art of Donald McGill, How the Poor Die, Boy's Weeklies, Decline of the English Murder. He writes on Dickens and education, on Salvador Dali, and a host of subjects only tangentially related to politics. His pieces in the Tribune were called "As I Please", and they were very much what he wanted to write upon.

As I Please was a regular column for the Tribune, from December 1943 to February 1945, and again from November 1946 to April 1947. All of the 'As I Please' columns can be found in 'The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell', and some in the link above. And some of it is intentionally very funny, and some just wonderful in capturing a place and time. A few extracts:

Looking through the photographs of the New Year's Honours List, I am struck (as usual) by the quite exceptional ugliness and vulgarity of the faces displayed there. It seems to be almost the rule that the kind of person who earns the right to call himself Lord Percy de Falcontowers should look at best like an overfed publican and at worst like a tax collector with a duodenal ulcer.

Years ago I lodged for a while in the Portobello Road. This is hardly a fashionable quarter, but the landlady had been lady's maid to some woman of title and had a good opinion of herself. One day something went wrong with the front door and my landlady, her husband and myself were all locked out of the house. It was evident that we should have to get in by an upper window, and as there was a jobbing builder next door I suggested borrowing a ladder from him. My landlady looked somewhat uncomfortable. 'I wouldn't like to do that,' she said finally. 'You see we don't know him. We've been here fourteen years, and we've always taken care not to know the people on either side of us. It wouldn't do, not in a neighbourhood like this. If you once begin talking to them they get familiar, you see.' So we had to borrow a ladder from a relative of her husband's, and carry it nearly a mile with great labour and discomfort.

Back in the eighteenth century, when the India muslins were one of the wonders of the world, an Indian king sent envoys to the court of Louis XV to negotiate a trade agreement. He was aware that in Europe women wield great political influence, and the envoys brought with them a bale of costly muslins, which they had been instructed to present to Louis's mistress. Unfortunately their information was not up to date: Louis's not very stable affections had veered, and the muslins were presented to a mistress who had already been discarded. The mission was a failure, and the envoys were decapitated when they got home. I don't know whether this story has a moral, but when I see the kind of people that our Foreign Office likes to get together with, I am often reminded of it.

It is desirable that people should own their own dwelling houses, and it is probably desirable that a farmer should own as much land as he can actually farm. But the ground-landlord in a town area has no function and no excuse for existence. He is merely a person who has found out a way of milking the public while giving nothing in return. He causes rents to be higher, he makes town planning more difficult, and he excludes children from green spaces: that is literally all that he does, except to draw his income.

England is a country that ought to be able to attract tourists. It has much beautiful scenery, an equable climate, innumerable attractive villages and medieval churches, good beer, and food-stuffs of excellent natural taste. If you could walk where you chose instead of being fenced in by barbed wire and Trespassers will be Prosecuted' boards, if speculative builders had not been allowed to ruin every pleasant view within ten miles of a big town, if you could get a drink when you wanted it at a normal price, if an eatable meal in a country inn were a normal experience, and if Sunday were not artificially made into a day of misery, then foreign visitors might be expected to come here.

The fact is that there is strong popular feeling in this country against foreign immigration. It arises partly from simple xenophobia, partly from fear of undercutting in wages, but above all from the out-of-date notion that Britain is over populated and that more population means more unemployment. Actually, so far from having more workers than jobs, we have a serious labour shortage which will be accentuated by the continuance of conscription, and which will grow worse, not better, because of the ageing of the population.

Even his more overtly political books - The Road to Wigan Pier, Down and Out in Paris and London, are crammed with details so vivid that you can picture it. The terrible lodging house. Behind the scenes at the restaurant where food was prepared. The different companions on the road. It's all brought to life vividly, and in a clear readable prose; he has a distinctive voice in his writing, and draws the reader in.

It is true that 1984, and Animal Farm were masterpieces, especially the latter, but that shouldn't lead to a neglect of his other writings. "Politics and the English Language" should be required reading for all politicians, and lovers of English, where he gives and dissects examples of writing, each quite different, but as he says:

"Two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse."

How many politicians sound just like that as they drone on and on in the States of Jersey, and you skim vast tracts of Hansard that are like a desert, looking for a few refreshing springs. And how often do we hear a Minister on the Radio, not answering questions, but instead supplying words with no real meaning at all. The poor interviewer does his best, but it is like trying to nail down jelly, because of the words chosen. Orwell's article on language exposes all this kind of cheating.

What I most like about Orwell is that while he is clearly someone who is "of the left", he is not dogmatic; he can't fit into any neat box. He's probably more to the left than I would like to be, because he is writing about the English class system, and the Jersey man or woman has a tradition in politics that simply doesn't easily fit into the English class divide. That's not to say Jersey is classless, but it is a different sort of system, often bound up with Methodism and the farming community in the past, as well as some English immigrants driving Jerriais out of the Education system - use of it at school became a punishable offense!

If I can give a comparison, the Romans came to England, and brought with them a Pantheon of Roman gods, and they proceeded to try to amalgamate the Celtic gods to the Roman pattern, looking for common attributes. At times, the fit is quite good, at other times it it stretched to breaking point, and at times Celtic gods just vanish off the radar.

It's a bit like that trying to bring English thinking to Jersey politics, it doesn't work well at all. I've noticed an attitude with some immigrants from England - usually the same ones who talk about "the mainland" (which geographically of course is France) that they try to understand Jersey from an English perspective. It's like the first anthropologists, who went out, and took all their own bias with them. It's what Annie Parmeter called "cultural imperialism".

And natural though it is to do that, it ignores a very strong strand in Jersey politics. The Jersey independent politician, who can at times be exasperatingly rigid about practices which really should be changed, but can also turn to put in substantial reforms, even against those of their own background. The nearest to it might be the Liberal Tories, under Robert Peel, especially if we consider a politician like Philip le Feuvre who brought in the Social Security Law, and was ostracised by his own fellows in the farming community.

But what I like about Orwell is the way he captures the people so well, and also this is where he shines above the more doctrinaire politicians of the left. His interests are wide ranging, and you feel that an evening in his company would be enjoyable, not a monologue on a fixed idea. Politics is important to him, but it is not all consuming. And he'd also clashed with what might be called the "hard left", rigid, often humourless, people who he felt were out of touch with the common man.

Here's a piece from The Lion and the Unicorn which I think captures his writing extremely well.

England Your England by George Orwell
(An extract)

In all societies the common people must live to some extent against the existing order. The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities. One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world. They have to satisfy these tastes in the face of astonishing, hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts, etc. etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody but in practice allow everything to happen.

Also, the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ. The power-worship which is the new religion of Europe, and which has infected the English intelligentsia, has never touched the common people. They have never caught up with power politics. The 'realism' which is preached in Japanese and Italian newspapers would horrify them. One can learn a good deal about the spirit of England from the comic coloured postcards that you see in the windows of cheap stationers' shops. These things are a sort of diary upon which the English people have unconsciously recorded themselves. Their old-fashioned outlook, their graded snobberies, their mixture of bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme gentleness, their deeply moral attitude to life, are all mirrored there.

The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic. You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil. It is a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers. In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement. And with this goes something that is always written off by European observers as 'decadence' or hypocrisy, the English hatred of war and militarism. It is rooted deep in history, and it is strong in the lower-middle class as well as the working class. Successive wars have shaken it but not destroyed it. Well within living memory it was common for 'the redcoats' to be booed at in the streets and for the landlords of respectable public houses to refuse to allow soldiers on the premises.

English literature, like other literatures, is full of battle-poems, but it is worth noticing that the ones that have won for themselves a kind of popularity are always a tale of disasters and retreats. There is no popular poem about Trafalgar or Waterloo, for instance. Sir John Moore's army at Corunna, fighting a desperate rearguard action before escaping overseas (just like Dunkirk!) has more appeal than a brilliant victory. The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction. And of the last war, the four names which have really engraved themselves on the popular memory are Mons, Ypres, Gallipoli and Passchendaele, every time a disaster. The names of the great battles that finally broke the German armies are simply unknown to the general public.

It is not that anyone imagines the law to be just. Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepts the implications of this, everyone takes it for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not. Remarks like 'They can't run me in; I haven't done anything wrong', or 'They can't do that; it's against the law', are part of the atmosphere of England. The professed enemies of society have this feeling as strongly as anyone else. One sees it in prison-books like Wilfred Macartney's Walls Have Mouths or Jim Phelan's Jail Journey, in the solemn idiocies that take place at the trials of conscientious objectors, in letters to the papers from eminent Marxist professors, pointing out that this or that is a 'miscarriage of British justice'. Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power, has never taken root. Even the intelligentsia have only accepted it in theory.

The English electoral system, for instance, is an all but open fraud. In a dozen obvious ways it is gerrymandered in the interest of the moneyed class. But until some deep change has occurred in the public mind, it cannot become completely corrupt. You do not arrive at the polling booth to find men with revolvers telling you which way to vote, nor are the votes miscounted, nor is there any direct bribery. Even hypocrisy is a powerful safeguard. The hanging judge, that evil old man in scarlet robe and horse-hair wig, whom nothing short of dynamite will ever teach what century he is living in, but who will at any rate interpret the law according to the books and will in no circumstances take a money bribe, is one of the symbolic figures of England.

British democracy is less of a fraud than it sometimes appears. A foreign observer sees only the huge inequality of wealth, the unfair electoral system, the governing-class control over the press, the radio and education, and concludes that democracy is simply a polite name for dictatorship. But this ignores the considerable agreement that does unfortunately exist between the leaders and the led. However much one may hate to admit it, it is almost certain that between 1931 and 1940 the National Government represented the will of the mass of the people. It tolerated slums, unemployment and a cowardly foreign policy. Yes, but so did public opinion. It was a stagnant period, and its natural leaders were mediocrities.

Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal times it is deeply dishonest. All the papers that matter live off their advertisements, and the advertisers exercise an indirect censorship over news. Yet I do not suppose there is one paper in England that can be straightforwardly bribed with hard cash. In the France of the Third Republic all but a very few of the newspapers could notoriously be bought over the counter like so many pounds of cheese. Public life in England has never been openly scandalous. It has not reached the pitch of disintegration at which humbug can be dropped.

The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power. Another marked characteristic is the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality. Many intellectuals of the Left were flabbily pacifist up to 1935, shrieked for war against Germany in the years 1935-9, and then promptly cooled off when the war started. It is broadly though not precisely true that the people who were most 'anti-Fascist' during the Spanish Civil War are most defeatist now. And underlying this is the really important fact about so many of the English intelligentsia - their severance from the common culture of the country.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

England is a country that ought to be able to attract tourists. It has much beautiful scenery, an equable climate, innumerable attractive villages and medieval churches, good beer, and food-stuffs of excellent natural taste. If you could walk where you chose instead of being fenced in by barbed wire and Trespassers will be Prosecuted' boards, if speculative builders had not been allowed to ruin every pleasant view within ten miles of a big town, if you could get a drink when you wanted it at a normal price, if an eatable meal in a country inn were a normal experience, and if Sunday were not artificially made into a day of misery, then foreign visitors might be expected to come here.

Barring the comment about eatable meals in country inns, he has just summed up Jersey!