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Wintry conscience

The war against Iraq reminds us that thugs in office have had their way with the English language. Killing women and children becomes ‘collateral damage’. Their guerrilla fighters become our ‘terrorists’, and foreign occupation is rechristened ‘liberation’.

Better than anyone, George Orwell, born 100 years ago (25 June 1903), alerted us to the ways in which politics can twist language to suit its purposes. Reprinted in many standard anthologies, his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) was one of the most read essays of the past half-century. Trouble is, the thugs on their way to power read him too, and turned his lessons on their heads. They learned to throw dust or dazzle into the air, to disguise what was going on, or else they lied sincerely so that people thought they must be telling the truth. The spin masters, alas, are all graduates of Orwell’s school.

Nevertheless, George Orwell remains a necessary read for anyone wanting to be a worthwhile citizen, because honest political writing encourages good citizenship. Bad prose makes it harder to think straight. His main aim, he said, was to develop political writing into an art. Hard thinking about language lay behind the popular success of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, giving us expressions like ‘thought police’ and ‘doublethink’ and ‘Big Brother’, as well as satirical mock slogans such as ‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others’.

In his least regarded book—ignored by many biographers—The English People, he boiled the rules of good writing down to two: concrete words are better than abstract ones, and the shortest way of saying anything is always the best. Then he expanded this advice a little:

Whoever writes English is involved in a struggle that never lets up even for a sentence. He is struggling against vagueness, against obscurity, against the lure of the decorative adjective, against the encroachment of Latin and Greek, and, above all, against the worn-out phrases and dead metaphors with which the language is cluttered up.

You can add to this list of advice Orwell’s liking for sharp similes, a hallmark of his prose style. In ‘Politics and the English Language’ there are four similes that pull you up with their freshness. Example: an accumulation of stale phrases chokes a writer ‘like tea-leaves blocking a sink’.

This particular simile is a window into Orwell’s world. It’s an affirmation of his contact with the experience of everyday people, who would sluice the remains of their pot of tea down the kitchen sink, sometimes blocking it. Ordinary people did this every day. But dukes and duchesses, members of posh clubs and those with servants never did it. So Orwell’s simile, which they would barely understand, was a blow against them and for the people they lived off.

Orwell’s writing always had a hunger for equality, or classlessness. You can see this best in Homage to Catalonia, his growing-up book written in 1938 about the Spanish Civil War. Faced with the challenge of an armed, triumphal fascism, he responded by going to Spain and joining up against Franco. In an anarchists’ militia, he experienced the pure joy of equality. It was almost mystical, a vision of socialist paradise that sustained his politics for the rest of his life:

One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug … General and private, peasant and militiaman, still met as equals; everyone drew the same pay, wore the same clothes, ate the same food and called everyone else ‘thou’ and ‘comrade’; there was no boss-class, no menial-class, no beggars, no prostitutes, no lawyers, no priests, no boot-licking, no cap-touching. I was breathing the air of equality, and I was simple enough to imagine that it existed all over Spain. I did not realise that more or less by chance I was isolated among the most revolutionary section of the Spanish working class.

You might argue that anarchists couldn’t run a chook raffle, or a state—no matter, he had once seen the glory. He had seen hellfire there too, the criminal assaults and murders by Soviet hitmen as they took control over the anti-Franco side. Such experience made Orwell the most acute critic of Stalinism in the West, without drawing him to Trotskyism. (Trotsky had a better mind, he said, but would have been as bad as Stalin.)

Orwell’s politics were without a program or theory or ideology—apart from the decencies of the common man. On the left? Yes, but a socialism without doctrines. He might have liked the old Australian phrase, ‘socialism is just being mates’. Attempts to make a theory of socialism from his writings are a waste of time. The latest attempt, by the New Yorker’s in-house literary historian, Louis Menand, makes a hash of Orwell’s ‘socialism’ by stringing together bits and pieces of his occasional writings as if he had written political programs. Silly. The man was a moralist, not an ideologue, whose point of departure was the common decency of common people. Which is why he was often a celebrant of ordinary, trivial things: cups of tea, fishing, roses, off-colour postcards, vegetable gardens, roll-your-own fags. He didn’t like saints because they were a cut above the rest of us, or so he thought.

For all that, this Old Etonian was well looked after by the old-boy network, which found him work and kept him going between episodes as a down-and-out. In dosshouses he tried to cover up his toff’s accent but it kept creeping out and winning him favours. To get to Spain, he pawned the family silver. In Homage to Catalonia, his Old Etonian’s culture still intrudes. Half a dozen times, searching for a word to describe something that irritates him—the water, or sandbags—he fixes on ‘beastly’. ‘Beastly’—it’s a word you expect to hear from Billy Bunter or Alexander Downer, not a socialist. Well, no-one escapes his or her background entirely. Orwell made the effort more than most.

However, there was one part of his heritage he did not struggle to correct—anti-popery, the residual religion of many Englishmen. From an early age, George Orwell disliked Catholics and their church, a dislike confirmed by Spain. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the evil O’Brien is so named as a hit against Catholics. In Spain, everyone he met thought the church ‘was part of the capitalist racket’. He said he never saw anyone there make the sign of the cross, and that perhaps anarchism was their make-do religion.

Most of the churches he saw were closed or wrecked. Gaudi’s Sagrada Famiglia cathedral in Barcelona appalled him: ‘one of the most hideous buildings in the world … the anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up’. (Orwell is an uncertain guide to architecture: he called Christopher Wren’s Greenwich Observatory ‘the ugliest building in the world’.)

Although Orwell had church weddings and a church funeral and burial, he wasn’t interested in religion. He once told a friend that ‘he liked the Church of England better than Our Lord’. It wasn’t the theology of Anglicanism that attracted him, rather the dotty vicars, choirboys, harvest festivals and prayerbook prose—that over centuries had made the C of E an enduring part of the folk culture of English village life. The anti-popery, too.

V.C. Pritchett’s description of him—‘the wintry conscience of a generation’—is the subtitle of Jeffrey Meyer’s recent biography, one of the best of the dozen so far written. In this centennial year, it is a reminder of the challenging side of this uncomfortable moralist who still has much to teach a world of collateral damage, terrorists and liberation.

Edmund Campion’s Lines of My Life: Journal of a Year (Penguin) is published this month.



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