Writing to Henry Miller in August 1936, George Orwell confessed to having 'a sort of belly to earth attitude and always feel[ing] uneasy when I get away from the ordinary world where grass is green, stones hard, etc'. As if to illustrate the integrity of this revelation, he interrupts the letter because he has 'to go and milk the goat'.
Orwell was living at 'The Stores', in the small Hertfordshire village of Wallington. He had rented sight unseen a ramshackle house and arrived there in April, after three months among the unemployed coal miners in the north, to write The Road to Wigan Pier.
He also set to work to make the 300-year-old house habitable, reclaim the weedy garden, buy a goat and some hens and open a small 'general store'. He made good progress on all these projects, so much so that when he interrupted his letter to Miller, he really did have to do the milking.
Orwell's Wallington interlude and, at the other end of his life, his retreat to Barnhill on the inhospitable Hebridean island of Jura were the two occasions when he was able to indulge his 'belly to earth' preference and his desire for peace and seclusion.
By 'belly to earth', however, Orwell meant not only the uncomplicated, hands-on approach that he brought to these places but also, pre-eminently, a close engagement and harmony with the natural world, an engagement threatened by what he judged to be the 'evil' times into which he had been born.
His diary of this time — as events in Europe deteriorated daily — is determinedly bucolic.
14-4-39: Cloudy, & a few small showers. Cold after dark. Saw two swallows (not martins) ... Wall flowers in sheltered positions are full out. No apple blossom anywhere yet. Eight eggs. For the first time M [Muriel, Orwell's goat — also the Animal Farm goat] gave a quart today.
15-4-39: Chilly, windy in the evening & light showers. Began clearing out rhubarb patch, otherwise busy moving hen-houses ... Saw another swallow. Thrush is sitting on eggs in our hedge ... Eight eggs.
5-8-39: Raining almost continuously until 6.30pm. Parts of the day rain extremely heavy. Baldock High Street said to have been flooded. Marrows swelling rapidly. French & runner beans 3" or 4" long. Apples growing very fast ... 9 eggs (2 small). Sold 30 @ 2/6 a score. Total this week: 77 of which 15 small.
Looked at from one point of view, Orwell's domestic diaries seem trivial. Of course, he never intended them for publication, but when in 2009 they appeared as part of his collected works and correspondence, his characteristically detailed and meticulous record of life at The Stores, Wallington, attracted some criticism.
One reader, though keen to be on Orwell's side, reported a 'feeling of vacuity on reading his diary', while poet Gwilym Williams objected with corrosive irony: 'On this day in 1939: Belgium signed a trade treaty with France, 71 people died in the "Black Friday" bush fire in Victoria, Australia, and George Orwell's chickens laid two eggs.'
This is a typical criticism, but it misses the point on two scores: first, Orwell was under no compulsion to make his daily personal diary a compendium of world events — though he later did so with war looming; and second, it is wrong to assume that Orwell saw his recording of vegetables, weather, egg laying and other small-holder concerns as necessarily dwarfed by the great world.
On the contrary, being 'belly to earth' was crucial, in his view, to fully realised, harmonious living. It was just that national and international crises, the naked opportunism, destructive ambitions and political antagonisms of various world leaders, and jargon ill-disguised as philosophical debate all interposed themselves between the human sensibility and the natural world, between, so to speak, the belly and the unequivocal earth.
Orwell's diary of simple tasks and pleasures did not shield him from the iron truths that he continued to see clearly in his wintry, uncompromising way; nor was his fearless enunciation of them in any way softened: 'The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.'
As we contemplate the corruptions, machinations, posturings, personal vendettas, moribund language and calculated distortions to which our state and federal parliamentary discourse has now descended, we might well feel, despite our antipodean good fortune, that we live in 'evil times'.
This is of course a gloomy exaggeration. Still, there is something to be learned, some consolation to be drawn from Orwell's passionate commitment to understanding, engaging and being in tune with the rhythms and metamorphoses of the natural world. It is not a romantic attachment; rather it is at heart political.
His delight in ordinary unromantic natural scenes and his insistence on the value of meaningful quotidian pleasures and projects are quietly exultant because, as he elsewhere points out, 'neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove' of all these activities, can prevent one's enjoyment of them. They are both humbly below and triumphantly above the political sight lines.
Brian Matthews is Honorary Professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.