Ah, when I get to typing, it’s sometimes hard to stop. As my poor comma key would tell you. Sometimes we need a wee check, whenever a head of steam gets built up. A friendly hand on the shoulder.
George Orwell’s essays are the measured talking-to that any typing hothead needs. Cool, calm, collected, sometimes flawed but always honest, George is the man I keep coming back to. He’s not a hobby, he’s a habit. I’ve blogged – exhaustively – about what I like about his essays here. I should probably have taken a leaf out of George’s book, as it’s a whopper of a review.
As we continue to have our faces slapped with elements of Orwell’s fiction that ring uncomfortably true today, particularly from Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, someone has come up with the idea of Orwell Day – a celebration of the man’s life and works. It falls on January 21st, marking the day he died in 1950, although this year will also see the 110th anniversary of his birth fall on June 25th.
Some people might see the irony in such a celebration, or attempting to secure iconic status for a writer, having read about Orwell’s Proles adoring Big Brother or foaming at the mouth over the Two Minutes’ Hate. But I don’t mind the idea, as it might draw more people’s attention to Orwell’s true genius – the essays.
Orwell and Frank Zappa are the two cultural commentators no longer with us whom I’d most love to resurrect for just a day, to get their thoughts on our ridiculous age. Zappa will have been gone 20 years this December, and we can only wonder at how much material – how many albums – the guy might have gotten out of the George W Bush years alone.
He might even have taken him on and beaten him in the 2004 elections – Zappa made no secret of his political ambitions. Never mind Michael Moore, imagine Dubya tussling with Zappa! Hunter S Thompson might never have been driven to suicide. Corollaries, patterns, pathways, wormholes.
So much for that. But imagine if Orwell was still here. What would he make of the place?
The continuation of inequality, despite globalisation, despite there being enough wealth and money around to feed, clothe, and employ the world, would depress him. Humans could sort their problems, even at a very basic level, from country to country, were it not for greed. The financial crisis should not have surprised him too much, but the idea of the banks and capitalist governments solving their problems by employing the same solutions despite earlier systemic failures would have utterly stymied him. I think Einstein’s definition of madness might do well to explain the current world economic situation and the crisis facing the west.
Current notions of class might bewilder him. Although Orwell was no stranger to internecine struggles, and indeed Animal Farm shows you exactly what can lie in store during political divisions, he might have been annoyed at what has happened to the Labour Party in the UK. Orwell would have supported the NHS and a free education system. The rise of the polytechnic, maintenance grants and more working class men and women in higher education would have pleased him immensely. The fact that this apparatus should have been dismantled in part by the Labour Party would have disgusted him, much as that party’s embrace of globalisation, seeing jobs sent abroad for less. He would have railed against tuition fees, I feel sure; we are now seeing the resumption of the old stratification in schools, colleges and universities that he knew full well as an old Etonian.
Certainly he should have taken a careful aim at the current UK government’s front men, David Cameron and George Osborne, and he should have recognised a dangerous buffoon in Boris Johnson. In modern conservativism, with its pledge of “all in it together”, he would have reflected bitterly on his creation of “doublespeak”.
The world of popular music, television and the masses’ current opiates would have left Orwell similarly cold. He had scant regard for association football in his lifetime, so surely he would have been annoyed by the commodification of what was essentially entertainment and distraction for the working classes.
That the sex lives of footballers should have become national news would have astonished him. Orwell once said that there could be nothing less harmonious for international relations than a football tournament pitting the world’s countries against each other. The World Cup already existed when Orwell wrote this, of course, and he might have been a tad severe there. Surely the magic and exhilaration of the World Cup has helped us forge closer ties with other countries, through an appreciation of footballers from other nations? The great black players – Pele, Eusebio, Tigana, Roger Milla, Ruud Gullitt – were surely fine ambassadors for racial harmony and equality. But even so, Orwell knew the dangers contained within the clarion call of cheap nationalism. Football riots would not have been a surprise to him, nor would the occasional adherence of right wing groups to British football clubs.
And yet, Orwell knew and appreciated the allure of cheap entertainment, and the outlet it provided for the common man. So rather than music halls, penny dreadfuls and rude postcards, now we have television to amuse us. And so, he might not have been so horrified at the incorporation of one of his most famous creations, Big Brother, as well as his notion of constant surveillance, into popular entertainment through the reality TV show that bears its name. He would have found lots to say about the notions of reality and performance blending into one. He should not have been averse to seeing the rich and famous barracked by the public, no matter how vulgar the format.
Perhaps he would have been more impressed by I’m A Celebrity, an emeto-fabulous show in which b-list celebrities and serving politicians fight it out for the right to eat kangaroos’ testicles and live insects ahead of a public vote. He would have found lots to say about Nadine Dorries taking part in the show.
What he would have been most outraged by in the digital world is not so much the idea of our lives being plotted out through website clicks and internet browser histories, but the fact that so many people gladly sign up for this. Facebook, Myspace, Amazon, Twitter, Google… No-one held a gun to anyone’s heads to join these sites or use these services. And yet we all do. There are bots out there right now that know us better than we know ourselves. Orwell, who foresaw the corrosive effects of surveillance culture in Winston Smith’s overseen world in Nineteen Eighty-Four, would surely have fought against this, been appalled by it.
Although Orwell understood the common man’s need to extemporise, I’m not sure Orwell would have been too impressed by the culture of trolling, below the line comments and online bullying we see across the internet. Although Orwell knew there was power in the sound of “thousands of raspberries” drowning out the pomposity of political and intellectual life, he liked fair play. He should certainly not have held up online trolls and miscreants as proponents of free speech, and should have been a stern opponent of bullies and disingenuous cowards everywhere, as he was in life.
What of the arts? Orwell would have continued to review books and write about writers. He would have backed Amazon in its efforts to set writers free, though he may have indulged his cruel, peremptory and somewhat condescending side with bloggers (ha ha!) and self-publishing wannabes.
Orwell was acutely aware of his fastidiousness in many matters, but he still indulged it now and again. Lots of times, Orwell uses his reviews to speak of “good books” or “bad books” or even (most famously) “good bad books”, but his qualification for these terms is hazy at best. What he might have made of modern fiction, I can’t say – except that he adored the modernists, and readily embraced the avant garde (though his own prose was best served with neither garnish nor trimmings). Perhaps he would have lamented the lack of political fiction coming through the ranks. He might have wondered where the working class voices had gone these past sixty years.
I’m fascinated by how Orwell might have reacted to the explosion of cookery and food culture in this country – a very recent invention. For some, English cooking is still a bit of a joke, and god knows it took a while to emerge from the tyranny of starch, lard, lumps of butter, gravy granules and Sunday roast. Never mind how the poor lived – Orwell knew how the poor ate. Who can forget the landlady’s black fingernail pressed down on the bread in The Road To Wigan Pier, or the boys in “The Spike” having to survive on bread and black tea while the restaurant two doors down stuffed perfectly edible food into dustbins? Or the Parisian chef licking the length of a steak in Down And Out In Paris And London?
But his disgust is manifest, for all his understanding. It helps temper his sense of injustice. Orwell would have been disgusted by the horse meat scandal, but he wouldn’t have been surprised by it – certainly he would have understood the need for cheap meat, whether it comes from a horse, a pig’s arse or a convocation of cow’s arseholes and eyeballs.
I think Orwell might have embraced his inner foodie – certainly we’d see him on Saturday Kitchen, and he’d have taken the greatest pleasure penning the sort of columns the late Michael Winner became famous for in his later years. He would have become that very curious thing: a thin man who nonetheless enjoys love affairs with food.
And what of war? We’ve lived with war for more than a decade, now. While its ramifications are brought home to us any time bodies are repatriated, or on the alarmingly frequent occasions extremists are brought to trial, their plans thwarted by the security services, our Middle Eastern wars are still distant as Oceania to us.
Orwell was a fighting man – someone who felt deep guilt at his best years having fallen between the two world wars, so much so that he volunteered to fight in Spain, with near-fatal consequences. Would Orwell have signed up to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, offering his country his military service even though he wasn’t of an age?
No. Orwell was a child of empire and indeed enjoyed colonial adventures in Burma in his twenties, so he would have known at a stroke exactly what was at stake for the west, even after the Twin Towers fell. He would surely not have fallen into the ideological trap that snared Hitchens and others, seeing the fight against religious extremism as a blow for freedom. Orwell was too canny for that. Certainly he’d have thrown himself into embed missions, pottering around in his blue helmet and flak vest, receiving an occasional dusting from enemy mortar fire and collecting the stories of the horrifyingly young men sat with their rifles in their desert fatigues, sleeping in concrete enshrouded bivouacs. He would surely have spared a thought, at all times, for the countless thousands who died in Iraq and Afghanistan – faceless victims of suicide bombings, marketplace blasts, mindless extremism. This was a man deeply moved by the sight of a dead German commando in the wake of the Allied advance into Europe.
Orwell was a patriot, but it’s worth remembering that his finest moments came at a time when his beloved England was under the threat of being over-run by Hitler. Orwell would have been conveniently disappeared had Hitler done so, there can be no doubt of that.
But there’s no comparison between Britain under the threat of the Nazis and the threat of international terrorism. There is no correlation between that England and today’s England. He should have called the wars for the fraud they were. He should have thought it a black joke that Tony Blair should become Middle East peace envoy, and – like Zappa – that George W Bush should have become anything.
Constitutional matters of today are where Orwell and I might have differed. No great lover of Scotland, he was minded to change his Scottish-sounding name for a more anglified one. Although he accepted and renounced this prejudice, born of public school days spent gnashing his teeth at the stories of landed gentry holidaying in great, primeval estates in the Highlands – he was never less than frank about himself and his flaws, one of his more endearing qualities – I’m not sure he would have been wearing the notion of Scottish independence.
It’s never “Britain” or “the UK” for Orwell – it’s always “England”. He makes no apology for smothering the whole island with the identity of only one of its constituent parts in his writings. What would he have made of Irish republican terrorism? Or Scottish nationalism? It’s Orwell’s one blind side. Even though Jura knew him on sight, and he suckled well from that bitter teat.
Here I think Orwell would have found a more patriotic vibe. It would have interfered with his sense of fairness. If Scotland can become independent for economic reasons, he might have asked, then why not the north east of England? Scotland seceding would have been anathema to this Englishman. Certainly he’d have gotten a few commissions out of the Telegraph and the Spectator out of this stance. But not The Mail.
One criticism often levelled at Orwell is that he wasn’t quite progressive about women. The 1950s, never mind the 1960s, didn’t happen to Orwell, so we can perhaps forgive Orwell some of his more bizarre pronouncements about women, and Winston Smith’s somewhat kinky wish that he might murder Julia. But this is a symptom of the age. In fact, Orwell was no prude. He welcomed debate on sex, and was open about it, moreso in his essays than in his fiction. As in all other things, Orwell should have been all about equality and women’s rights, and even gay rights in time. My main criterion for asserting this is in Orwell’s knack of sniffing out hypocrisy. He should have been incredulous at the sight of so many politicians arguing against gay marriage, when some of these politicians have in the past been shown to have been in sham marriages, a cover for their homosexuality. Orwell would have been for equality under the letter of the law. Nothing else would do.
Current attitudes to Europe might have caused him concern. Always in the UK, there are people on the right wing of the country who wish to have less to do with Europe; to have less fiscal and legal ties to the European Union. What Orwell would tell you is that, not so very long ago, Europe was a battlefield, with scores of people slaughtered. European diplomatic infrastructure was put in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Anyone who thinks war will not blight Europe again is a fool. And look at the situation in Greece, still facing meltdown, young people with no work and no prospects. And yet we still huff and puff over measures to pull them out of it. The “union” part is what bothers some on the right wing. But there’s no real way out of the economic crisis without co-operation. Watching Greece burn should be the shame of an entire continent.
This is all speculation, of course. But one thing I think we can count on is that George Orwell would always have been honest with us. His prose would have spoken to us in clear, concise lines. He would never have ranted at us. There was a kindly cast to that face that I think he probably struggled to show in real life. Always, no matter how uncomfortable, we should reveal the truth. We should not dissemble, nor should we rely too much on the cloak of irony as a facilitator of our prejudices or cowardice.
Tell it straight, tell it true – that’s what George would do.