Wednesday, 31 October 2012

We Humbly Recommend... Orwell's Non-Fiction

George Orwell was one of the most significant writers of the 20th century. Partly it's the man, partly the era that he lived through. Of Orwell's novels, most are fair, one or two extraordinary, Animal Farm's re-enactment of the major stages of any revolutionary uprising being his best. For high grade Orwell though, you have to turn to his non-fiction.

A tramp at home, a plongeur abroad  

Actually, Down and Out in Paris and London, is both fact and fiction. Orwell claimed that every event in the book actually happened to him at one time or another, though not necessarily in the same order. The Paris sections generally took place after the London ones.

The book recounts Orwell's experiences of living on the poverty line in Paris and later as a tramp on the streets of London. He'd come from a lower-upper-middle class family, educated at Eton and recently returned from serving in the Burmese police force. In Burma he'd witnessed and recorded the indignities suffered under British rule (explored in depth in The Road to Wigan Pier). He dressed as a tramp upon his return to England and went out to get amongst the poorest and assess their situation. He slept in kips, he slept in missionary huts, he even tried to get himself arrested one night. Orwell wrote and published a plethora of articles on his experiences, as well as forming the latter part of Down and Out in Paris and London.

It's a book of two halves which could almost be called Down in Paris and Out in London. The first half finds Orwell reduced in circumstances after being robbed and spending every waking hour washing dishes at a high class Parsian hotel. When he can take no more, he returns to England and his troubles really begin. It's a fictional account of a number disjointed events in the writer's life, but Down and Out in Paris and London  has all of Orwell's character traits, his curiosity and his humanity; his searching mind and ability to frame the questions that society need address to itself. It has its flaws, but an important work of anthropology and serves as a bridge to the works that followed. 

Mining the north

The Road to Wigan Pier, like Down and Out in Paris and London, is a book of two halves. The first half depicts Orwell's experiences travelling around the industrial towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the 1930s, investigating the conditions of the poor. The second half is written in essay form. It examines class consciousness and is Orwell's passionate defence of socialism. It contains the famous words, 'The working classes smell'.

Which is what the middle class were taught, we are told, and Orwell takes his own strata of society to task for their snobbish attitudes to those lower down the food chain. However, as with all his writings, it as much what The Road to Wigan Pier tells us about an important epoch in history that matters. Thirties politics was dynamic, unlike today, with widely divergent opinions fighting for supremacy, occasionally even fighting side by side. The road to Wigan Pier led George Orwell all the way to Catalonia to sign up against the fascists. These days he'd be labelled an insurgent.

The Road to Wigan Pier isn't patronising or pompous, it merely sets out Orwell's observations and his opinions and asks that they be added to the aggregate of intellectual thought on the subject. That it is done with such forthrightness is all the better. And yet like so many books written against the backdrop of the great depression, The Road to Wigan Pier speaks to the modern world with new relevance. It reminds us how far Britain has come.


For me George Orwell's most accomplished work is Homage to Catalonia. It was 1936. Even then many in Europe saw war between Germany and Great Britain as inevitable. Civil war erupted in Spain between the Nationalist fascists and the Republican co-operative of anarchists, socialists and communists. Men scurried from the continent to join the action, writers like Arthur Koestler, Laurie Lee and Hemingway arrived in Spain to lend their support. George Orwell headed for Barcelona and joined the POUM militia.
Homage to Catalonia  is Orwell's memoir of life on the Aragon Front, the lice, the cold, the boredom. It also records the street fighting that broke out in Barcelona in 1937. The Republican coalition was tearing itself apart and as Orwell took leave in the city, fighting broke out between the Communists and the other leftist factions that they were trying to ban and repress. Orwell returned to the front but was shot in the throat. It ended his war and with perfect timing. The POUM had been declared illegal and its members were being rounded up under orders from Moscow. He left Spain the day the warrant was issued for his arrest.

Homage to Catalonia is Orwell's most accomplished work because it shows political disintegration in action. The egalitarian feel upon arrival in Barcelona, the seeming parity between all trades and classes, all of that disperses in such a short space of time. There is a marked changed in atmosphere in the city when he returns and it all soon boils over. He concludes that Stalin would rather lose to Spain to the fascists than have to share it with the anarchist syndicates. Absolute rule or noting. It's a salutary lesson for our time. The biggest enemy is often the one that supposed to have your back.


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