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)

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Another Clerihew

I doubt if Siegfried Sassoon
Felt exactly over the moon
When Robert Graves told him his letter*
Should have been written much better.

(Index under:-
Combat: hors de)

*Announcing his refusal to take any further part in the First World War. See his "Memoirs of an Infantry Officer"; also Pat Barker; "The Ghost Road"

Saturday, 24 March 2012

March 25th

Why, people often wonder, does the British financial year begin in early April, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer making his annual financial statement in March? It is all because of the reform of the calendar in the 18th century.

The ancient Roman calendar had only 355 days in a year, and was thus badly out of sync with the solar year. So in 46 BC Julius Caesar asked mathematicians to decide on the correct length of the year, and he then ordered a new calendar from their calculations. The Julian Calendar, as it came to be known, allowed for 365 and a quarter days in a year, with an extra day was inserted every four years to allow for this awkward fraction. Julius Caesar also decreed that each year should start on January 1st (a day of no solar significance, being several days after the winter solstice). Two extra months were inserted in the summer: with typical Roman modesty, one was named after himself (July) and the next after his successor, Augustus. (I am sure many people have noticed that the later months derive their names from the Latin words for seven, eight, nine and ten - septem, octo, novem and decem - whereas they are actually now the months nine to twelve).

The result became known as the Julian calendar, and later became used throughout Christian Europe, but different countries still started their year on a variety of different dates (as with the Chinese, Jewish and Hindu New Years now). In England it was traditional for the New Year to be on March 25th: Lady Day; the feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary. On this day all taxes and rents were due to be paid. However, by the 16th century, improved methods of astronomy led mathematicians to realise that the Julian calendar was slightly incorrect: the true length of the solar year being a few minutes shorter than previously thought. It only amounted to less than one day per century, but the calendar still needed reforming.

In 1582 mathematicians working for Pope Gregory XIII produced a new calendar; the Gregorian, which is still in use today. It took the date forward ten days, to allow for days lost since Caesar's time, and to deal with the awkward fraction of the day, it decreed there would not be a Leap Year day three century years out of four. (Therefore there was no leap year day in 1700, 1800 or 1900; there was one in 2000, but there will not be one in 2100, 2200 or 2300 - not that this will be of any concern to us!) Most of western Europe soon adopted the new calendar, but England refused, because it was "Popish" and therefore suspect, and instead stuck to the old calendar and the change of year on March 25th. This has always made it very difficult for historians when writing about, for instance, the Spanish Armada or the Duke of Marlborough's campaigns: which calendar are we dealing with? the Julian or the Gregorian?

Finally in 1751 Henry Pelham's government pushed through Lord Chesterfield's Calendar Act, which imposed a New Year on January 1st and also advanced the date eleven days to catch up with the continent (not ten, because of the unnecessary leap year day in 1700) The days between September 2nd and 14th in 1752 therefore never existed in England. This caused some trouble, with rioters shouting "Give us back our eleven days!" The Russians, however, stuck to the old calendar, which after 1900 was thirteen days out, so that the October Revolution of 1917 actually took place in November. In January 1918 the new Communist government adopted the Gregorian calendar, though the Russian Orthodox church refused to change, and so continued to celebrate Christmas thirteen days after the west, and Easter on a different day entirely.

The last trace of the old calendar in England is still found in the financial year, which even today begins on March 25th plus those missing days; which is why we continue to have the Chancellor's annual Budget statement in late March.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

A piece of advice

Many years ago an old English teacher, known to all as Jake, told me the following:
"When I started here, I made four resolutions: I would never prepare a lesson, I would never take work home to mark, I would never lose my temper in class, and I would never tell a lie to the boys. Guess which two I've broken!"
Jake was liked and respected by both pupils and colleagues; but I doubt whether all his resolutions would meet approval today!

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Italy in the First World War

In 1882 the Kingdom of Italy signed a Triple Alliance with the Empires of Germany and Austria, designed by the German Chancellor Bismarck to isolate France. It was always questionable how far this alliance served Italian interests, for although Italy had reason to be grateful to Germany, she had a longstanding hostility to Austria, and her feelings towards France were ambivalent. Italy had not been a unified nation since Roman times, and for a century and a half until the mid-19th century it had essentially been a backyard of Austria. The Austrian Empire incorporated Venice and Milan, and most of the petty states to the south were linked to Autria. The central territories were ruled by the Pope, and ruled extremely badly. Only the little kingdom of Savoy-Sardinia retained any indpendence.
In 1859 the French Emperor, Napoleon III, had joined with savoy in a war against Austria, and had driven them from Milan, but had then reneged on his promises and signed a treaty leaving the Austrians still in control of Venice. 1860-61 had seen Garibaldi's campaigns in Sicily and Naples, leading to the creation of an Italian kingdom under Victor Emmanuel III of Savoy, but Rome was still held by French troops, who had been sent there in 1849 to restore the Pope and expel the revolutionaries under Garibaldi and Mazzini. In 1866 Bismarck had organised a defeat of Austria which resulted in Venice being given to Italy, and then in 1870 the defeat of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian war had led to French withdrawal from Rome and the proclamation of the city as the capital of Italy. But the Pope refused to recognise the Italian state, and for the next half-century remained in self-imposed imprisonment in the Vatican.

The new Italy soon went in for imperial adventures in east Africa, and managed to establish footholds in Eritrea and Somalia, but in 1896 was by the Ethiopians at Adowa, a humiliation which rankled for a long time. In 1911, Italy declared war on the Turkish Empire, mostly for the sake of taking Tripoli (modern Libya). In fact, only the coastal strip was ever really occupied, and there followed 20 years of savage fighting to try to stamp out resistance, in the course of which perhaps 100,000 naives were killed. The occupation of Somalia was equally savage. Both these colonial adventures were denounced in the British press, though it could be argued that Italy's only crime was anachronism: the time for brutal colonial adventures of this kind was over. The Italian government hoped for mass emigration to these colonies, but failed: almost all emigrants preferring to go to America. The Italian Socialist party, which was strong and militant always opposed colonial adventures: notably one young firebrand who rose to edit the Socialist newspaper, “Avanti!”. His name was Benito Mussolini.

When war broke out in 1914, Germany could hardly have been surprised that Italy refused to honour the Triple Alliance, but instead announced neutrality. Pope Benedict XV denounced the war as “useless slaughter” (thus earning the contempt of Kipling). The Italian Socialists also bitterly the opposed war, but Mussolini from the start demanded war against Germany and Austria. He left the party and instead started his own newspaper; “Il Popolo d’Italia”.
In 1915 Mussolini's call was met when Italy was lured into the war on the British and French side by the Treaty of London, which held out promises of eventual gains from the Austrians of the Trento, the port of Trieste and the Dalmatian coast. Mussolini at once joined up, and was promoted to corporal, but in June 1917 he was severely wounded in a grenade training exercise and was invalided out.
Italy was ill-prepared for the war: soldiers' food and pay were grossly inadequate, generalship was poor and discipline harsh, with numerous executions. There was little enthusiasm for the fight: one German officer recorded that Italian soldiers tended to surrender at first opportunity. His name was Rommel. But surrender didn’t do them much good: the Italian government made no attempt to facilitate food supplies to prisoner-of-war camps, so that perhaps 100,000 Italian soldiers died of hunger.
There was fierce fighting in the Alps, where the Austrians benefitted from a new 4-wheel drive mountain transport invented by Porsche. In October 1917 Italy suffered a disastrous defeat at Caporetto: about 10,000 troops died, 300,000 were wounded, and 400,000 simply disappeared, presumably they deserted and went home. Austrian forces advanced down into the Veneto, but reinforcements arrived from Britain and France, the front was stabilised, and as Austria collapsed in November 1918, the Italians were able to advance into enemy territory.

Italy was represented at Versailles by the Prime Minister, Orlando, who expected major gains as a reward for his country's contribution to victory, especially in recognition of her 600,000 dead. But Orlando found himself very much junior partner of the "Big Three" (Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau) and his claims were not taken seriously. France did not trust Italy, and considered her own interests best served by the creation of a powerful new state, Yugoslavia, across the Adriatic. Italy was given the port of Trieste and the Trento (the region north of Lake Garda, whose population was divided between German-speakers and Italian-speakers), and in addition Rhodes and the Dodecanese islands were obtained from Turkey; but the Italians were frustrated in their hopes of also gaining Fiume on the Dalmatian coast, where the population was clearly Croat. Italy was opposed to a strong Yugoslavia, did not gain control of Albania (a new country, independent only in 1913; violent and chaotic); wanted bases on the mainland of Turkey, and resented new territories being given to Greece. Orlando walked out of the conference in disgust in April 1919, then returned a month later, but still got no more, and resigned as Prime Minister.
In September 1919 the romantic author and poseur D’Annunzio led a private army which seized control of Fiume and set up his own government there. After 15 months of confusion, Italy and Yugoslavia agreed to accept Fiume as a “free state”, and D’Annunzio returned to Italy a hero.

Like other countries, Italian industry had experienced a major economic boom from war production, mostly benefitting the industrial north of the country, though it had to be paid for with huge war debts and massive inflation: and now the end of hostilities brought depression and unemployment. In the south, peasant soldiers returned to deprivation and poverty. All looked set up for trouble. Many Socialists hoped for revolution on Russian lines, and they ignored or disregarded their firebrand ex-colleague who now started up his own movement: Benito Mussolini!

Adolf Hitler, musing on these events a few years later, thought that one of the chief failings of German diplomacy had been to ally with the untrustworthy Italians rather than with Britain - ironic, in view of his own diplomacy!

Monday, 12 March 2012


One infallible sign that spring has come is the appearance of frogs in my pond. This year they have come a week earlier than usual, following a very mild winter.

This year there are about thirty of them, all getting very excited and making a lot of noise. Very soon the pond will be full of frogspawn

Does anyone know why American frogs are supposed to say "Ribbet?" This is quite a difficult sound to make, involving complex movements of the lips and tongue. My frogs never say anything except "Kaaa! Kaaa!"

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Good Soldier Schweik, by Jaroslav Hasek

This is, uniquely, a very funny novel about the First World War.

Schweik is a Czech who is called up to serve in the army of the Austrian Empire, but at the end of over 400 pages he has still not reached the front line. Instead he manages to get involved in a whole series of ludicrous misadventures, which drive his superiors raving mad. His defence in each case is very simple. "Schweik!" they cry in a mixture of rage and frustration, "Are you a complete imbecile?", to which he replies, "Beg to report, sir; yes, I am a complete imbecile, sir", and illustrates the point to launching into a long, rambling and wholly irrelevant anecdote. He maintains an innocent, guileless expression throughout, and never once complains: on the contrary, he thinks prison food is quite good and enjoys his spell in the lunatic asylum. Long before the end of the book, of course, you suspect that Schweik's assumption of imbecility is actually a cunning ruse which succeeds in protecting him from punishment.
By contrast the men in positions of authority whom Schweik encounters, whether army officers, police chiefs or clergy, are always either lunatics, drunks, brutal martinets or hopeless incompetents; sometimes all of these simultaneously. The only partial exception is Lieutenant Lukash, whom Schweik serves as a batman, and who acts as a kind of despairing Don Quixote to Schweik's Sancho Panza. The administration of the multiracial Austrian Empire is shown as stupefyingly shambolic: troop trains never arrive, rations are not delivered,the wrong people are arrested and imprisoned, private soldiers and most civilians are treated like serfs, and the Czechs, Magyars, Germans and others who make up the Austrian army all hate each other and often cannot understand each other's language. Schweik's behaviour, in fact, is perhaps the only sane way to behave in these circumstances - though on the rare occasions when Schweik himself is given any authority, as for instance when he has to enforce an officer's order, he himself behaves as a relentless bully.

Schweik's infinite capacity for doing the wrong thing of course plays its own inimitable part in the chaos. To take one example from the many: the Ausrian military code is based on a certain page in an enormous novel called "Sins of the Fathers", but unfortunately it has escaped the attention of the authorities that the novel is published in two volumes. When Schweik is dispatched to fetch the copies of the book, he of course brings volume 2 instead of volume 1, with predictable results.

The author died in 1923 with his book unfinished, with Schweik having been taken prisoner by his own side, who have mistaken him for a Russian. I often wonder what might have become of him. Would he ever have reached the front line? Or would he have become part of the Czech Legion, which got involved in the civil war in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, and caused even more chaos there? I can't imagine that he would have been killed; people like Schweik never die.

Schweik remains a folk hero in the modern Czech Republic. Schweik puppets are on sale, complete with dopey grin and pot of beer. The first time I visited Prague I asked our guide what she and her fellow-students did when the Soviet tanks invaded the city to crush the "Prague Spring" in 1968. She told me they behaved in a way of which Schweik would have thoroughly approved: they removed all road signs and street names, and when the bemused Russian soldiers got lost and asked for help, they either acted very stupid or gave them completely misleading directions. It was good to know that the spirit of Schweik still lived.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Somme battlefield

The Somme battlefield makes a notable contrast with the Ypres area. Instead of the flat muddy fields of Belgium we find rolling chalk downlands, where still to this day the ghosts of trenches and redoubts criss-cross the landscape as white scars on the green fields. The land is mostly bare and open, with few trees and excellent visibility. A bloody battle raged here throughout the summer and autumn of 1916, but it is best known for that famous first day of July, when “Kitchener’s Army”, volunteers to a man, advanced across these slopes to be mown down by the Germans, who were dug as deep as 40 feet down into the chalk, immune to the British bombardment. Almost 20,000 British soldiers died that day, and twice as many were wounded. The junior officers in particular suffered a casualty rate of no less than 75%. The entire battle front extends 16 miles north to south, but I hadn’t realised how close together the famous battle-names of 1916 would be: often just a few hundred yards apart. The River Ancre, which marked much of the British front line, turned out to be a stream no more than six feet wide.

The most impressive place on the Somme is “Newfoundland Park” at Beaumont Hamel, where a huge bronze caribou watches over the remains of the trenches where the Newfoundlanders’ battalion stood on July 1st.

They were the only Empire battalion in action that day, and so keen had they been to join in the fun that some of them had paid their own boat fare across the Atlantic. They charged the German lines and were wiped out, suffering one of the highest casualty rates of all. South of here stands the enormous Thiepval memorial, designed by Lutyens, inscribed with thousands of names of the dead.

Nearby the Ulster Tower, built in pseudo-mediaeval style, commemorates one of the day’s great epics, when the 36th (Ulster) division, Protestants all, and nicknamed “Carson’s Army” after Sir Edward Carson, the leader of Ulster in bitter opposition to Home Rule for Ireland, fought their way into the German trenches only to be driven back with dreadful losses.
Behind the British lines is the small town of Albert, atop whose church tower the famous statue of the “Golden Virgin” hung at a precarious angle throughout most of the war.

This has now been restored, but I did not find the result particularly aesthetically appealing. Compared with the Ypres region, there were practically no concessions to tourists outside Newfoundland Park: I couldn’t find even a postcard stall.

We saw many odd bits of the “iron harvest”, bits of wire and shrapnel, shells and bones, ploughed up every year by the local farmers and left lying around on the roadside for the bomb-disposal squads to come round every so often and collect anything dangerous. Only gas shells are treated with any degree of urgency, in case they are leaking. Most alarming for me was a huge shell, over 2 feet high, which had been left standing upright on the rim of the gigantic Lochnagar mine crater at La Boiselle.

(You can get an idea of the scale of this crater when you notice the coach in the lower right-hand corner of the picture). While I was photographing the scene, a school party came along, from Yorkshire to judge by their accents, and the teacher in charge did one of the stupidest things I have ever encountered: namely, he walked up to the shell and kicked it. I would not be here today if it had been as active as the trench mortar that another school party found in a field and tried to smuggle back home on their coach. Fortunately it was intercepted at Dover Customs, and the bomb disposal squad were called. They reported that it was extremely volatile, and if the coach had bumped over a big pot-hole, the jolt could have been sufficient to spark it off.

I once made out a list of famous people who took part in the Somme battles. It was a most extensive list. All the best-known war poets were there, with Siegfried Sassoon capturing a German trench single-handed near Mametz on the first day, and winning a Military Cross. From 1940 to 1963 every single British Prime Minister had been at the Somme: Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan. Macmillan was shot in the stomach and lay wounded in no man’s land until he was rescued. Others were there too: J. R. R. Tolkien, A. A. Milne, the socialist historian R. H. Tawney (also wounded) ….. It made me wonder how many men who might have achieved equal renown were killed there.

I conclude with one of my favourite war poems, by Philip Johnstone, a poet about whom I know nothing. It was written in 1918; and Johnstone imagines a party of tourists being taken round the battlefield some time in the future:-

“High Wood”

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois de Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife
By reason of its high commanding site.
Observe the effect of shellfire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being ……
Madam, please!
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company’s property
As souvenirs; you’ll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me - this way ……
The path, sir please!
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dugout (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper baskets at the gate.”

As a veteran of many conducted tours to the battlefields, I can assert that the only thing wrong here is that High Wood is not open to the public. Otherwise it’s all true!