I first read Orwell at school, and when I bailed out of home at seventeen I acquired an omnibus of his novels and a complete set of the newspaper columns As I Please. I still have my old copy of Inside the Whale, a book that I purchased with my first professional pay cheque, that contains several of my favourite Orwell essays including ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’, an essay that might be the best thing on Shakespeare I’ve ever read.
Just lately I was re-reading Orwell’s essays and journalism, writing I hadn’t looked at for several years. Orwell was a writer of plain conversational prose, a kind of writing that he perfected I think. Even when he’s boring, as in his essay ‘The Lion and The Unicorn’, or confusing (‘Bombing is not especially inhumane’), he can still be something of a pleasure to read.
Reading someone when you’re seventeen years of age, then reading them years later after various disasters and weird events have been negotiated and lunatics confronted and so on, can be a salutary experience that merely shows you (to paraphrase Orwell’s terrific line at the end of his essay ‘Such, Such Were The Joys’) how great has been the deterioration in your self. Of the books owned by my seventeen-year-old self, Orwell has survived in my library in exactly the way that Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet hasn’t. Re-reading a ton of Orwell’s essays recently was an experience of some happiness for me. It was not just that I rediscovered that friendly authorial voice, prescient analysis of politics and scathing insight into writers and their suspect motives, but that I also found something I hadn’t seen before. Of course, there was still the annoying shrewishness that creeps in from time to time, the macho ‘common-sense’, the prudish overtones of homophobia and Orwell’s strange obsession with dirt. (In Down and Out in Paris and London, a starving Orwell has spent his last centimes on some milk. He is heating it up when an insect falls into it. Naturally Orwell has to throw the milk away, untouched.)
But what I discovered anew in Orwell were many things that had gone straight past me before, but which chime intensely with my thinking these days. It was like reading Orwell for the first time.
(Orwell feeding Muriel the goat at Wallington in 1939)
In April or May of 1936 Orwell planted an apple tree, a Cox’s Pippin, in the garden of the cottage where he lived in Hertfordshire. He had just returned from his tour of the slums and mills and mines of Lancashire and Yorkshire, was writing The Road to Wigan Pier, and was about to get married. The essay in which he talks about planting the tree, ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, is one in which he also describes making the kind of horrible and undrinkable tea my Irish grandmother used to make – tea so strong you could stand a spoon in it. (Do not use Orwell’s essay as an actual guide to making tea, unless you are on some weird immersive historical research trip, and are dressed in heavy tweed, on a diet of lard and tripe, and want to taste English tea as it was drunk by a chain-smoking journalist in the 1930s.)
Orwell reckoned his apple tree could live for 100 years, which means that if the tree is still alive, it’s getting into its seventy-seventh year. It’s an oddly reassuring thought that if I went to England I might possibly be able to pick an apple off the tree planted by Orwell. I have a friend in my local village of Nimbin, a painter, who in the late 1970s lived for six months at Charleston, the famous home of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell (that is, Virginia Woolf’s sister). The reason my friend stayed there is because he was caring for the ailing Duncan who was in his ninetieth year. Whenever I see my friend I try to dig stories out of him that Duncan might have told him about Virginia. I do it because I can. Even if the apples off Orwell’s tree were sour, I’d still pick one and eat it, just to say I had.
Anyway, yes I realised that Orwell was a wonderful observer and recorder of concrete things: apples, spades, cups of tea, fish ponds, poorhouses and bombed buildings. Orwell took simple enjoyments in solid objects and mundane experiences, which is why, whatever his faults may have been, I suspect that he was in many ways an honest man. In his memoir Four Absentees, Rayner Heppenstall tells a famous story of sharing digs with Orwell. Heppenstall came noisily home drunk one night and was attacked by Orwell who clobbered him with a shooting-stick. To be honest, after reading Four Absentees, which included portraits of John Middleton Murry and the sinister Eric Gill, I felt like hitting Heppenstall myself.
A phrase that continually recurs in Orwell’s work is ‘the surface of the earth’. I counted it seven times in a collection of fifty essays, so about once every seven essays he gets right down to ground-level and looks at the world from that viewpoint, a viewpoint he sometimes identifies as that of a child.
In Coming up for Air, Orwell’s pre-war novel about a middle-aged insurance salesman who decides to revisit the village of his youth, there are some wonderful pieces written from a child’s perspective. There is an eye for detail that is almost photographic, and overlaid on top of those photographic images – scumbled as it were – are the smells, the sounds and, most importantly, the physicality of things. You can see it in the essay I mentioned earlier, ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, an essay not published until after Orwell’s death, that deals with the cold horrors of his boarding school life, and also in ‘Down the Mine’ and ‘Shooting an Elephant’.
All of Orwell’s writing is permeated with the physicality of the world, even his political writing that ostensibly deals with ideas. Everything is written from the view on-the-ground, with the eye of the child who observes and does not forget, and who is also observing himself at the same time. Orwell was not afraid to be a writer of place and time. If he was looking for universals, it was in the knowledge that things change continually, that the solid objects we love dissolve and disappear. It’s a theme that runs right through his work.
Orwell’s political writing is probably unmatched in its clarity and intelligence. But it is his writing about books, writers and writing that I really enjoyed this time round: his essay on Dickens, his great essay on Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, his throwaway description of Joyce (a writer Orwell liked very much) as ‘a kind of elephantine pedant’, his highly entertaining survey of popular comics Boys Weeklies, and his ruthless dissection of writers in Why I Write.
Orwell is not typically thought of as a humorous writer, but when you come down to it, it seems to be his humour that leavens what he does. It’s an exceptionally dry humour, so dry it’d parch your throat. A dry humour is often a shy humour, an attitude that sticks its head up diffidently to see if anyone else finds even a little amusing what it finds hilarious. I’m thinking of Orwell’s ‘Hard cheese old chap!’, when describing particularly lachrymose poetry. Or his observation of the individual crumbs that he got to know by sight moving up and down the dining room table at his lodgings in The Road to Wigan Pier. And his account of being unable to shoot at a fascist soldier in Spain because the soldier was running with his pants held up with both hands.
It’s strange to think that if Orwell had lived to be say 75, he would have died in 1978. That is, he would have lived to witness the rise of Margaret Thatcher, read about the Six Day War, the US carpet-bombing of most of South East Asia, the Hilton Hotel bombing in Sydney, and to have watched the Sex Pistols TV interview with Bill Grundy. God knows what Orwell would have thought about all of that, and what sort of person he would have become. Odd things happen to us in old age, and a querulous Orwell, hunched in a cardy over a mug of dark brown tea complaining about young people today doesn’t bear thinking about.
Anyway, if in a situation of some urgency I suddenly had to come up with a personal credo to describe what I think about life and my tiny place in it, perhaps if I were running away from a sniper while trying to hold my pants up, I’d probably have to plunk for nicking Orwell’s description of himself:
As long as I remain alive and well, I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.