Saturday, 31 March 2012

George Orwell; Life and Writings: Part One

1903 Born Eric Blair in India, the son of a British colonial official
1904 Taken back to England by his mother: hardly sees his father for the next 8 years
1911 Wins scholarship to St Cyprian’s prep school
1917 Briefly at Wellington College, then wins scholarship to Eton
1922 Joins Colonial Police in Burma
1927 Suffers with fever, comes home on leave, and resigns. Tries living as a tramp as a social experiment
1928 Goes to Paris and works in a kitchen. His first journalism published
1929 For the next few years lives at his parents’ house, taking various jobs, writing and travelling the country
1932 Adopts the pen-name George Orwell
1933 Publication of his first book; “Down and Out in Paris and London”; followed by four novels, and by “Road to Wigan Pier”
1936 Marries Eileen O’Shaughnessy. Travels with her to Spain to fight for the Republican government in the Spanish Civil War. Joins POUM
1937 Sees front-line action and is shot in the throat. Flees from Spain as POUM is crushed by the Communists
1938 Publication of “Homage to Catalonia”, his account of the Spanish Civil War.

Orwell later wrote a long essay, “Such, such were the joys”, about how awful his prep school was; a hotbed of snobbery and bullying,where he was tolerated only because he was likely to bring the place prestige through winning a scholarship to a major public school. Many former pupils argued that his portrayal of the headmaster and his wife was grossly unfair. Orwell wrote hardly anything about his time at Eton, but his friend Cyril Connolly, in his book, “Enemies of Promise”, tells us how they fared there. Connolly enjoyed Eton; we may presume Orwell did not. ( A personal note here: Connolly felt that, as a socialist, he ought to have despised Eton, but then he reflected that if he had wanted “retarded development in unfriendly surroundings” he should have gone to Wellington. When, some years ago, I was working at Wellington and was asked to find some literary references to the college, I came up with this. I passed it on to the headmaster, but I don’t think he ever made use of it!)

The novels which Orwell wrote in the 1930s (“Burmese Days”, “A Clergyman’s Daughter”, “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” and “Coming up for Air”) would probably not be read at all nowadays but for the fame of his other works, and he was quite dismissive of them in later years. His two works of non-fiction are very much better. “Down and out in Paris and London” recounts his time as a tramp and a kitchen worker. He was probably inspired by Jack London, who at the start of the century had wandered round London as a penniless American sailor and turned his experiences into an alarming book; “The People of the Abyss”. For “Road to Wigan Pier” Orwell followed the example of William Cobbett and other writers. He touring the English industrial north and midlands, staying in cheap lodgings and observing living and working conditions and people’s behaviour. The second half of the book consists of political-philosophical speculations. Why, he wonders, are the lower-middle-classes so reluctant to embrace socialism when it is clearly in their interests to do so? Why are they afraid of the working classes? On the other hand, he is extremely contemptuous of the sort of middle-class people who do sympathise with socialism: pacifists, Quakers, vegetarians, wearers of sandals and beards etc: everyone, in fact, who might nowadays be classified as “do-gooders”. (I wonder if English is the only culture where saying that someone is trying to do good is intended as abuse!)

The Spanish civil war was the seminal experience of Orwell’s life. It set the tone for all his later writings, especially the two famous novels, and “Homage to Catalonia” is by far his best book. In 1936 the Spanish army had risen in revolt against the elected government, but had succeeded in seizing only half the country. A vicious civil war then ensued. Hitler and Mussolini supported the army; Stalin supported the government. Britain and France declared for “non-intervention”, but contrived to turn a blind eye to the large quantities of foreign arms and troops flooding into Spain from Italy and Germany. Many young left-wingers like Orwell, disgusted by the hypocrisy of their governments, travelled to Spain to form the “International Brigades”, fighting for the Spanish government. People at the time saw the war as a straightforward clash between fascism and communism, but as historians now realise, and as Orwell learnt by bitter experience, it was actually far more complicated than that. When Orwell first went to Barcelona he was thrilled by the revolutionary atmosphere prevailing in the city: equality and co-operation everywhere, and a complete absence of privilege, snobbery and imposed discipline. He joined POUM, a small independent socialist party. But when he returned from the front line, he found everything had changed. The Communist Party was now in charge. Order and discipline had been imposed, and POUM had been crushed; its leaders arrested and shot, under the ludicrous accusation that they were agents of fascism. (This all occurred in the midst of Stalin’s purges, with their mass arrests, show-trials and confessions to fantastic crimes). Orwell believed strongly that the communists had betrayed the Spanish revolution; a belief which dominated all his subsequent thinking. Furthermore, when he returned to England, he found that his friends on the left refused to believe him, and his publisher, Victor Gollancz, would not touch his book. He remained a man of the Left, but henceforth always accused the Left of moral blindness where the Soviet Union was concerned. (In retrospect it is difficult to understand what Stalin was trying to do in Spain, since his actions only served to help General Franco. Was his policy so complex and Machiavellian that no-one could follow it? Or is it simpler to conclude that he had no Spanish policy at all?) Orwell returned from Spain wounded and disillusioned, but certainly not a convert to conservatism.

(Part 2 of this essay will follow)

No comments:

Post a Comment