George Orwell's homage to a fellow underdog

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He came bounding out of the bush, a blurred shadow in the ambiguous light of dawn, landing right in the middle of my vegetable patch where his paws dug into the soft earth. We were only metres apart but, oblivious to me, he stared back at the tree line as if something was chasing him. His long bushy tail waved languidly. Then, turning, he saw me. With that peculiar cheekiness typical of foxes, he gave me a long, scrutiny before loping away in his own good time. Probably, back in his earth, is a detailed plan of attack on my chooks and geese. But I couldn’t help admiring him. And that reminded me of something …

Almost exactly 60 years ago George Orwell published a wonderful essay called, Some Thoughts on the Common Toad. It was characteristic of him that he should have chosen, of all creatures, the stereotypically repulsive toad to characterise the coming of spring. It was partly homage to a fellow underdog: ‘… the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from the poets.’ But the point of the essay is to insist ‘that the pleasures of spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing’.

Thoughts on the Common ToadThis observation, however, raises for Orwell the question, ‘is it politically reprehensible … to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song …’ Not unexpectedly, he comes down firmly on the side of nature. Observing with pleasure the rites of spring ‘even in London N1’, he thinks of ‘all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could’. Despite the threatening presence of a number of evils which remain familiar today – destructive weapons, official lies, ubiquitous policing – Orwell takes comfort in the knowledge that ‘the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it’.

ictators and bureaucrats are still, however, well in the frame and still disapproving. You don’t have to enter the arcane realm of AWB or the self-protective labyrinth of the Department of Defence to know that bureaucrats and their flawed systems are proliferating – even, perhaps especially, at the ground level of ordinary lives, as distinct from the oxygen-lean heights of bribing or bungling senior officials.

George Orwell - Time 28/11/83A young man of my acquaintance, for example, had to give up his youth allowance last year because illness had forced him to study part-time. Having recovered, he re-applied at the beginning of this year but despite his having already fulfilled all requirements of identification and documentation only two years ago, and despite all this being on Centrelink’s computer, he had to start again. Obstacle after obstacle rose in his well-meaning path, including new forms which no one told him about until he’d laboriously filled in the old ones, and a new ‘interpretation’ of a section he’d formerly had no problem with.

The university adviser to students in their dealings with Centrelink – an expert in the field of youth welfare – was reduced to inarticulate exasperation as he tried to guide the student through an ever-changing landscape of requirements and qualifications. Five months after he first re-applied, the young man – broke, on the point of being thrown out of his accommodation and battling to focus on his university work in a weekly maelstrom of Centrelink uncertainties and delays – finally received a letter confirming his allowance. One week later, another letter advised that unless he submitted more identification to add to his original birth certificate, driving licence, enrolment record, bank account details, his Youth Allowance would be stopped.

There are honourable bureaucrats, but there are many for whom the whiff of power afforded by their small administrative niche is too great a temptation: exercising it can be a heady experience, compensating for who knows what resentments and grudges.

Defence Capability PlanWhich brings us back to Orwell who, in 1949, published his last novel, 1984. Near the end of the book, the ‘hero’, Winston Smith, makes one last effort to wrong-foot his torturer, O’Brien, protesting that the Party’s control was fatally limited. ‘Look at the stars,’ he says. ‘They are out of our reach forever.’ But O’Brien dismisses him with scorn. ‘What are the stars?’ he says. ‘They are bits of fire a few kilometres away … The earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.’ And so Orwell, close to his deathbed, contradicts his optimism of two years earlier: the bureaucrats and the dictators have won.

It is no doubt a too gloomy view. But even at a level far below the strutting officialdom whose lies and blunders fill our news daily, it’s hard not to feel oppressed by petty dictators protecting their ridiculously over-complicated little principalities. 



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The acceptance by the world of the false official account of 9/11 brings to mind O'Brien's words about the stars and the ability of the Party to bend reality.

Peter | 20 November 2008  

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