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Orwell’s apples

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. He was writer-in-residence for the 2015 Mesmerism new music festivals. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also recently won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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Comments

  1. On Orwell’s dry humour… years and years ago when I read 1984 I was led to expect dark humour from the back-cover blurb.

    Four hundred rather depressing pages later I concluded that I would not trust that back-cover blurb again.

  2. Yes, well, I think for the humour you have to go to the essays. And as I say, his humour tends to be a bit diffident, so dry it’s almost invisible.

  3. ‘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.’
    That made me laugh!

    • I believe the correct response is ROTFLOL.
      I write at Overland to make you laugh Jeff. That’s my secret reason.

  4. One essay that sticks in my mind was Orwell’s self analysis of his own anti-Semitism, which he used to examine the mainly unspoken perameters of English anti-Semitism. Yes, dispassionately honest, I think.

  5. Hi Alison
    Yeah, I think so. I also see it as honesty which I would describe as scrupulous. I suspect that it’s an honesty that probably most of us couldn’t adhere to and in some ways maybe wasn’t always helpful to him. Metaphorically, one can see it in the bug-in-the-milk incident. It wasn’t just that English phobia against ‘dirt’, but a refusal to compromise one’s chosen values no matter what, like an English officer in a prison camp who still finds ways to iron his collar every day.

  6. He was a little less trivial, though. I guess, as with the story about shooting the elephant or his memoirs of school, he was the insider whistleblower, exposing the nasty and violent mechanisms of class and Empire. I can forgive him his sexism, though it’s a real blind spot.

  7. He was very dependent on women wasn’t he? After Eileen’s unexpected death in 1945, an event which must have been quite devastating, he asked something life four or five women to marry him.
    He’s a very forgiveable writer. I guess it’s because he’s so clear-headed on so many things literary and political at a time when it was very difficult to be either, and so obviously not a hypocrite.

  8. Like with you Stephen, Orwell was a formative literary encounter for me back in the 1960s. A recent read was “The Orwell Diaries”, edited and annotated by Peter Davison (Penguin, 2010). The diaries cover the period 1931-1948. The everyday world and his encounters are exhaustively detailed, so too his writing and politics. Orwell up close and personal.

  9. I found the idea that Orwell could be formative to me in high school and still be relevant to be now very intriguing. I’m not sure I can think of many other writers of whom that could be the case. I’m not surprised that Orwell kept extensive diaries. His thoughts on himself as a writer would be interesting to track.
    (I assume, BTW, that’s not Peter ‘Fifth Doctor Who’ Davison.)

  10. Not a neo-liberal writer then. When I think of Orwell these days I think too much time has elapsed, and that he has slipped away from us, or me at least. (This may be due to the eclipsing of the year 1984, which is becoming increasingly backward looking?) I observe also from the googleplex machine how Orwellian has come to mean a single dystopian idea – official deception, secret surveillance, and manipulation of the past in service to a totalitarian or manipulative political agenda – which is not the Orwell of fond remembrance here; and how Animal Farm and 1984 together have sold more copies than any two books by any other 20th-century author. How easy then to be picked up and spat out to the advantage of the machine: simply extract signifiers and rename signifieds to service your own ideology, as happened with the word proles. Which is not to say I dislike Orwell: I have retained a beaten up copy of his Selected Writings, first published by Heinnemann Educational Books in 1954 that I was tortured with at school. (There was no need to read Boys’ Weeklies; it was a week by week lived through experience.) I learnt useful secretarial skills about formal language use from Politics and the English Language; more useful to me though in a language sense was the Hemingway of the Nick Adams stories, whose A Moveable Feast I adored (unlike Down and Out in Paris…), and although I abhor what Hemingway became, he doesn’t throw a pall over my past like Orwell does. Even the thought of rereading Orwell’s allegorical novels creates an Orwellian spell. Perhaps he wrote too well?

  11. Schooling is a very efficient way of not just killing one’s enjoyment of something, but of creating an active aversion to it. Going to uni gave me a hatred of so many things I didn’t give a toss about before. Amazing.
    Orwell’s characters don’t exactly have neo-liberal experiences. It also seems to me that he really struggles as a novelist. His best books are his non-fiction ones, for me especially Homage to Catalonia.
    His novels in a sense ride on the back of his essays.
    Your schooling sounds like Orwell’s in ‘Such, such were the joys’. I’d recommend it to you, but it would be a kind of torture for you – Orwell telling you how torturous your schools days were reading Orwell.

  12. Perhaps another interesting aside to Orwell’s life in respect of Poetry and the Microphone and other matters was the BBC decision (potitical or not) to destroy their Orwell radio archives. Could be a novel, tv drama or film in that?

      • Only if one could make it ironic – Orwell having an Orwellian life. Anyway, it doesn’t take much to outrage the BBC. See Spike Milligan’s troubles making the Goon Show. And of course the banning of the Pistols God Save the Queen.

  13. Looks like Orwell had the idea for the cover of Paul McCartney’s RAM before Paul did.

    Thanks for a very thoughtful post. I need to revisit some of these essays. I love his essay on Dickens–or at least, I have never been able to put it out of my head, especially when I read Dickens.

  14. Give me Orwell the goat over McCartney the ram any day.
    Orwell is cool on other writers isn’t he? In his essays on Miller and on Dickens, you can see how important prose was to him. It wasn’t just a way to make a living, or to sound off. Orwell’s novels may not be great, but you can tell how important the writing of them was to him, and not least because he could muck about with prose. Which is a very hard thing, but a very fun thing, that seems to replace one’s bones sometimes.

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