Writing is ephemeral. Well, mostly… Taken out of its context – the time and place in which it is embedded – non-fiction may well have limited worth, beyond being a pointer to the past.
Thus when historic non-fiction is re-published, one is compelled to ask, ‘Why’? What value will it add? Beyond satisfying established fans, and/or those with a collector’s instinct, what will it deliver for the uninitiated?
George Orwell is a name woven deep into the British intellectual and literary fabric. For those of a, ahem, ‘certain age’, his novels in particular will be familiar from schooldays. (Nineteen Eighty-Four was a compulsory text for some exam that this reviewer probably should’ve taken more seriously. And who can forget the following line, from Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”)
What many won’t know, however, was that Orwell was not only a novelist, but a journalist too. And an essayist, poet, columnist, reviewer, and social and cultural commentator. In the excellent Introduction, we read of Orwell’s self-declared motivation for writing: ‘…sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse…and political purpose.’ And to that one must add, a need to convey his truth with brutal honesty. Time and again in this collection, the reader is left somewhere between shock and awe, at the sheer nakedness with which Orwell delivers his thoughts. From his review of J.B. Priestley’s Angel Pavement, published in The Adelphi, 1930:
“…but unfortunately, a novelist is not required to have good intentions but to convey beauty. And when one has finished applauding Mr Priestley’s effort to make clerks and typists interesting, one must add that the effort does not, even for a single page, come off. It is not that he writes ineptly, or is lumpishly dull… His work has no damning faults, but neither has it a single beam of beauty. Nor any profundity of thought, nor even memorable humour; the book is simply a middle article spun out to six hundred pages.”
From today’s context, for a writer to have no care for diplomacy – not even for colleagues, countrymen and paymasters – is arresting. Here’s Orwell writing in Le Progrès civique in 1929, with an article titled ‘How a Nation is Exploited: The British Empire in Burma’:
“The government of all the Indian provinces under the control of the British Empire is of necessity despotic, because only the threat of force can subdue a population of several million subjects. But this despotism is latent. It hides behind a mask of democracy.”
But beyond his style per se, it is the subjects which dominated his intellectual life – “…social justice, literary criticism, the evils of imperialism, censorship, and…popular culture” – and the resonance that his concerns find today, nearly one hundred years later, that makes his writing still relevant; and still potent. Here he is on social housing:
“…the curious thing about the squalor and discomfort of the ordinary lodging house is that these exist in places subject to constant inspection by the LCC. When one first sees the murky, troglodytic cave of a common lodging-house kitchen…it is a surprise to find that <these> are governed by a set of minute and (in intention) exceedingly tyrannical rules.”
This is a lovingly arranged collection of an intellectual and literary giant. In case Orwell has fallen out of favour with those crafting the nation’s curricula, it is worth stating that his critique on ‘who we are’, will echo resoundingly for many.
Any Cop?: The title – Seeing Things As They Are – is strikingly apt.