The decision to seek a job did not mean that Eric was throwing in the sponge in the struggle to become a writer. It was a reasonable response to the realization that his book was not going to rescue him from poverty in time. How poor he was is shown by his move some time around Christmas 1931 from Windsor Street, Paddington, a poor but clean and decent lodging, to ‘Westminster Chambers, S.E.I’, slum properties on the wrong side of the river from Westminster. This was the model for the bug-ridden ‘frowsy attic’ in the ‘filthy kip’ by Lambeth Cut to which Gordon Comstock sinks in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
There it was that he received T. S. Eliot’s final letter of rejection from Faber’s on 19 February 1932. This must have plunged him into depths of Comstock-like dejection. The place, anyway, was too foul to work in. And he, unlike Gordon Comstock, had no ‘Rosemary’ to come down and drag him back by her pregnancy into a salutary or ironic compromise with ‘the money god’. Eleanor, by then torn between Dennis Collings and Blair, did not play that part. Perhaps he sat hoping that she would, but she did not. Eric had to and could save himself.
He made one more slightly ignominious retreat before taking up his teaching job, which was to begin after Easter. He went back up to Leeds to resume tap-tapping away with his welcoming and indulgent older sister, but also to endure his brother-in-law nagging away at him about the need to have some pride in himself and to get a proper job. The local branch librarian in Leeds remembered Blair, because he used the library a lot during this visit. The librarian recalled him as a ‘compelling personality’, though looking ‘thin and ill’, with nervous movements: ‘not... very communicative, and it seemed that he was, not exactly confused, but in the process of rearranging himself A librarian might draw a clear distinction between ‘rearranging’ and ‘restocking’. Eric used the library mostly to read newspapers and magazines, but he browsed among the fiction shelves. The librarian introduced him to Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and obtained for him Aldous Huxley’s recently published Brave New World. Blair advised the librarian to read Madame Bovary. He has not yet done so.
On 26 April 1932, Blair wrote to Leonard Moore from The Hawthorns, Station Road, Hayes, Middlesex, where he was to teach until Christmas 1933. (The address changed after i July 1932 to Church Road, Hayes, but it is still the same comer house.) In this letter he gave an account of the misfortunes that had befallen ‘Days in London and Paris’; he asked Moore if by any chance he were to get it accepted to ‘please see that it is published pseudonymously, as I am not proud of it’; told him of a novel he had begun several months before, and ‘shall go on with next holidays’ (plainly Burmese Days), asked to exclude from their agreement any articles or book reviews, though he promised (or threatened) ‘a long poem describing a day in London which I am doing’; and sadly asked if he could get him any more translation work from the French — ‘I could also translate old French, at least anything since 1400 A.D.’ And he said he was very busy.
He was very busy. For he was ‘head master’ of the school, The Hawthorns, which consisted of fourteen or sixteen boys between the ages of 10 and 16. There was only one other master, also as new and as unqualified as Blair. Legends grow. A recent biographical study of Orwell rashly imagined a ‘prep school ... like St Cyprian’s in its academic objective — to prepare boys for public schools — though a day school and less grand in its social pretension’. And a recent play inflates it still further into a boarding prep school complete with a Victorian Gothic chapel and masters sitting in book-lined studies. In truth it was not preparatory but terminal: it took boys who had nowhere else to go, who could not get into grammar school and whose lower-middle-class parents could not afford even a minor public school, but whose concept of being middle class at all depended on keeping their children out of the local authority schools, however poor the local private school. The Hawthorns did not prepare the pupils for university matriculation but for the examination of the Senior College of-Preceptors (acceptable in commercial offices for salaried and pensionable clerical work). It was originally a pair of Edwardian small houses, The Briars and The Hawthorns. They were turned into one house during the First World War as The Rectory, but then became two again when the new Rectory was built: The Hawthorns became the school, ‘Hawthorns High School for Boys’, some six or seven rooms standing amid early nineteen-twenties, cruder, pseudo-Tudor ribbon-development houses. Two of the rooms were used for teaching and the rest for the family of the proprietor and Blair as head teacher and lodger. The proprietor, Mr Derek Eunson, was too uneducated to do the teaching himself but ran the school precariously as a small business and also had a job at the HMV gramophone factory. If Uxbridge, like Illyria, had been on the sea-coast, it would have been a cheap hotel, not a school. The previous head teacher had just been removed for some minor financial fraud. As one of the boys remembers, ‘the school was a proper hoodwink’. (When Orwell came to write about Dorothy’s school-teaching experience in A Clergyman’s Daughter, this became heightened into ‘the dirty swindle... called practical school-teaching’.)
He was certainly an odd fellow and one who lived almost entirely within himself. It was obvious that his head was full of interesting and amusing thoughts and not infrequently these would get the better of him and his face would be creased with irrepressible smiles. Rarely, however, did he reveal the details to those in his company.
He was a great nature lover and took delight in taking some of us lads (after school hours) to search for Puss Moth caterpillars eggs on the Black Poplar or to collect marsh gas from some stagnant pond. He taught me the rudiments of oil painting and gilding. In fact, he had wide interests which he delighted to share with anyone who cared ... He wrote a school play and produced it in full hand-made costume with modest success in a local Hall at the end of the school year.
He remembered Blair’s ‘inward laughter’. Blair gave the boys a lot of his spare time. He mixed with them unselfconsciously. Mr Stevens recalls a remarkable man ‘who seemed to think of the boys as friends — when he was trying to get an answer out of someone he would poke him gently in the stomach with a ruler’. He kept a large stick by his desk which ‘he used fairly often’. Mr Stevens had a taste of it: ‘I couldn’t sit down afterwards and had bad bruises for a week. He really hit hard.’ If there was a sadistic streak in Blair, the cane was a very ordinary part of school life in those happy days. ‘Nobody bore any ill will,’ the pupil concluded. Blair once offered sixpence from his own pocket as a prize for anyone who could spot a ludicrous misspelling in a local laundry window. ‘He was always doing little things like that.’
Apart from Blair using the cane to keep the natives in order, the picture presented is much the same as that by the Peters brothers in Southwold: of a kindly man who shared his thoughts with the boys and, punishments apart, treated them more as equals than any adult they had known. Mr Stevens is emphatic in his memory that Blair told the proprietor’s son, who also attended the school, that he was working on a book about tramps and his experiences of being poor in Paris. This might have gone over well with the boys, but to admit that he had lived among tramps could have scared the parents greatly — particularly after what had happened to his predecessor (he must have known). Perhaps he was being naively honest, or perhaps it was part of the ‘inward laughter’ that he was imagining the parents weighing ‘tramp’ in the scales against the new head master being an ‘Old Etonian’, a Colleger too — if they could have understood such things. Etonians were rarely tramps.
The reference to working again on Down and Out dates and confirms Mr Stevens’ memory. Good news had come from Leonard Moore. Gollancz would publish it, subject to certain revisions being made.
Victor Gollancz had had an enthusiastic report from his reader, Gerald Gould:
This is an extraordinarily forceful and socially important document, and I think it most certainly ought to be published ... I know nothing about the author but I am absolutely convinced of his genuineness. Nobody could have made up the experiences which he describes. He may, of course, have embroidered a little here and there, but substantially this is a true picture of conditions which most people ignore and ought not to be allowed to ignore ... The picture is convincing and personally, although I found it utterly disgusting, as of course it is meant to be, I also found that it held my attention far more closely than the ordinary novel ...
He warned strongly, however, about obscenity, blasphemy and libel. But Gould pointed to what would appeal to Gollancz: an important and genuine document that people should not be allowed to ignore.
Gould’s report is dated 16 June 1932. Gollancz wrote to his solicitor, Harold Rubinstein, the very next day. (Rubinstein was of the family firm that were to achieve such prominence in publishing law.)
My dear Harold,
DAYS IN LONDON AND PARIS by Eric A. Blair
This is an extraordinary and important book. It is also full of possibilities of libel, running to thousands of pounds. Do you see any way in which it can be made watertight from that point of view? The obscenity can, I think, be satisfactorily dealt with.
Rubinstein responded quickly, full of sympathy with the book, but insisted that every name be changed and checked with the author, and that all f— blanks became simple blanks; and warned that even references to the filthiness of unnamed coffee-stalls and unspecified Salvation Army hostels could be perilous. Blair went to see Gollancz as soon as he had heard from his agent, Moore, and he ‘gave me a full account of the alterations he wants made in the book. Names are to be changed, swearwords etc, cut out.’ He got to work in his room at The Hawthorns on yet another, but now the last and minor, revision of the manuscript. He made no protest at the cuts and was thoroughly businesslike and practical in correspondence. Gollancz did not like ‘Days in London and Paris’ as a title. Blair wrote back to suggest ‘Lady Poverty’, and he added: ‘I think, if it is all the same to everybody I would prefer the book to be published pseudonymously. I have no reputation that is lost by doing this and if the book has any kind of success I can always use the same pseudonym again.’
This seemed a sensible decision to make, and there is no great mystery associated with his change of name nor yet any change of style, belief or personality. He did not have much confidence in the book, the parts are, indeed, so much better than the whole; and he took this view of all his writings in the 1930s (except for Homage to Catalonia), and only Animal Farm ever lived up to his own high standards and intentions. While his parents had known about his tramping and knew vaguely what he was writing about, he could by using a pseudonym shield them somewhat if they found his book upsetting, or if it was denounced by the reviewers as scandalous. Knowing that his next book would be on Burma, the need to spare and protect the family was even greater. If the books failed, he could continue his literary career by still using ‘Eric Blair’ for the reviews and articles which were now appearing not only in the Adelphi but in the New English Weekly and the New Statesman and Nation too. Also he did not like his own name, particularly ‘Eric’. Certainly when the name ‘George Orwell’ began to be well known, it acted as a kind of ideal image to himself and he grew late in life towards a more balanced, integrated and yet public personality, somewhat different from the more contradictory and prickly young man. But though some critics have made much of his change of name, have implied a contemporary change of personality, and have pointed to ‘the deeper and less easily defined forces at work’, there is no evidence at all for these psychological speculations and what cannot be ‘easily defined’ had best be ignored.
He told Moore and was to tell Eleanor Jacques that he ‘was not proud’ of the book; he probably felt that he had revised it too much so that the freshness and immediacy had been lost. Also he had hoped that his first major publication would be a novel: he was in two minds whether Down and Out was journalism or literature. It was long before he realized that his documentaries were better than most of his novels. Also Blair was uncertain where he stood, indeed uncertain whether to make a stand, and if so whether it should be politically, morally or aesthetically (he had still had a hope that he would turn out, after all, to be really a poet). The Adelphi was exposing him to new ideas and new uncertainties. Middleton Murry threshed around, looking for answers and redefining ‘the questions’ (relieved by now of editorial work by both the spasmodic energy and the steady cash of Sir Richard Rees). The librarian in Leeds had been shrewd to notice that ‘he was, not exactly confused, but in the process of rearranging himself. Acceptance of the manuscript did not lift a general cloud of gloomy conviction, such as diffused all of his novels, that he was bound to fail. He shared at least some of the thoughts of his future character, Gordon Comstock, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying who ‘liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal. That was where he wished to be, down in the ghost-kingdom, below ambition.’ This was not just simple pessimism; he genuinely valued art more than success.
An odd episode occurred in this rime of intellectual uncertainty while Blair was at The Hawthorns: he began to attend church. This may have been a false start at ‘rearranging himself or simply because, as he told Eleanor Jaques:
Hayes ... is one of the most godforsaken places I have ever struck. The population seems to be entirely nude up of clerks who frequent tin-roofed chapels on Sundays and for the rest bolt themselves within doors. My sole friend is the curate — High Anglican but not a creeping Jesus and a very good fellow. Of course it means that I have to go to Church, which is an arduous job here, as the service is so popish that I don’t know my way about it and feel an awful BF when I see everyone bowing and crossing themselves all around me and can’t follow suit.
He makes a joke of it in his letters of June and July to Eleanor, who was firmly Humanist. These letters, though full and friendly, are signed, ‘Yours, Eric A. Blair’; and he keeps up the joke even in October, after the summer vacation in Southwold, when their relationship changed.
I take in the Church Times regularly now and like it more every week. I do so like to see that there is life in the old dog yet — I mean in the poor old C. of E. I shall have to go to Holy Communion soon, hypocritical tho’ it is, because my curate friend is bound to think it funny if I always go to Church but never communicate.
But which friend was he deceiving? Or was he uncertain himself?
The curate’s widow, Mrs Madge Parker, remembered Blair well and was shocked at the idea that he was not in Communion. He served for her husband at Mass, as they firmly called it, twice a week. He attended Sunday services and on several occasions went ahead to prepare the sick to receive the sacraments. Blair went fairly far if he was just obliging friends. He washed up after Church Guild meetings and often took tea or supper with them in their kitchen, helping with domestic tasks for the church, chopping wood and filling coal-buckets: ‘you know, the kind of person who fits into a kitchen and helps you with everything in your own house, didn’t stand on ceremony.’ She remembers him as giving a lot of time to the boys out of school hours, and Mr Stevens remembers Eric bringing church ornaments into school for them to paint and gild (which thus confirms Mrs Parker’s memory). Eric observed that the crown of the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was tarnished, sought permission and successfully cleaned her in onion water — which alarmed and impressed them. He gave Eleanor a much funnier version of the same story — also gilded: ‘promised to paint one of the church idols, a quite skittish-looking BVM ... and I shall try and make her look as much like one of the illustrations in La vie parisienne as possible.’
Mrs Parker is indignant at the idea that he was not a genuine believer. She argues that her husband looked him over very carefully indeed (in view of what had happened to the previous head teacher — one of her sons had been a witness) when he tried to get the names of the local clergy back on the school prospectus. On the other hand, they had other concerns that drew them together. The Parkers had started in a working-class parish in Birmingham, and the curate was to spend the rest of his life in industrial chaplaincies. They were deeply concerned with the plight of the unemployed. The Hayes and Uxbridge area had exceptionally high unemployment in that bleakest of years. Blair asked them a lot about industrial conditions and told them a lot about his journeys among tramps and destitutes. Mrs Parker remembers that he made one short tramping trip while at Hayes. The three of them had seen and remembered the United Dairies pouring fresh milk down the drain because nobody could afford to buy it. If they were not fully socialists at that rime — her memory is uncertain — she is none the less sure that they were each to become so soon. And she and her husband were, like Eric himself, serious without being solemn: they kept in their garden ‘the Holy Goat’, which they taught Eric to milk.
All this could have been reason enough for friendship and therefore for his church attendance. Yet he contributed an unsigned review that June to New English Weekly on Karl Adam’s The Spirit of Catholicism, which he praised as being more informative than most English Catholic polemic, ‘free from silly-cleverness’, while he warns that the Catholic Church must be taken seriously, for its ‘dogmatic intolerance’ is a more proper target for anti-clerical feeling than ‘the poor, unoffending old Church of England’.
The reviewer is thus determined to show that there are good grounds to be anri-Cafholic, but also that he is fair to individual thoughtful, non-polemical Catholics. He is not anti-religious. He studiously reserves his own position. This may be a case of the dog that did not bark. In a letter he mocks a ‘moribund hag who stinks of mothballs and gin’ who has to be helped to the altar to take communion ‘lest the Devil should happen to slip in at some moment when she is in mortal sin’ (so close to Dorothy’s thoughts in A Clergyman’s Daughter); but in the same letter to Eleanor, one of the passionate phase, he says casually that he is ‘reading a book called Belief in God by Bishop Gore — late Bishop of Oxford, who confirmed me, and seemingly quite sound in doctrine tho’ an Anglican’. Gore was a Christian Socialist.
A poem published in March 1933 in the Adelphi, though obviously written in 1932, wavers somewhere between the psychologically pessimistic and the existentially religious. The first two verses are conventionally Georgian both in tone and content:
Sometimes in the middle autumn days,
The windless days when the swallows have flown,
And the sere elms brood in the mist,
Each tree a being, rapt, alone,
I know, not as in barren thought,
But wordlessly, as the bones know,
What quenching of my brain, what numbness,
Wait in the dark grave where I go.
The third and fourth verses take on something of the tone and deeper sentiments of T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land, while the language is reminiscent of Anglican hymns:
And I see the people thronging the street,
The death-marked people, they and I
Goalless, rootless, like leaves drifting,
Blind to the earth and to the sky;
Nothing believing, nothing loving,
Not in joy nor in pain, not heeding the stream
Of precious life that flows within us,
But fighting, toiling as in a dream.
And the eighth and last verse:
is indeed, enigmatic and ambivalent, ‘some faith’ but ‘a silent grave’.
Whatever was happening, or did not quite happen, none of these themes occur again explicitly anywhere else in his writings or letters. ‘George Orwell’ was to be a clear Humanist, even a Rationalist with a pronounced anti-Catholicism, even though one with an ironic attachment to the liturgy, the humane political compromises and the traditions of the Church of England.
Religion was not his main preoccupation that summer in Southwold. Dennis Collings, certainly Eric’s ‘best friend in Southwold’, best male friend that is, was courting Eleanor Jaques at the time, though working in Cambridge. The three of them often went walking together when at home. Brenda Salkeld occasionally joined them, though as Eric’s friend — she was not so close to the other two as they were to each other and to Eric. Some time that summer Eleanor and Eric grew very much closer.
36 High Street
18 August 1932
Do not forget, Tuesday, 2.15 by Smith’s bookshop. And, as you love me, do not change your mind before then. If you are at church on Sunday, pray for good weather on Tuesday. If it does rain, can you meet me same time and place after all, and we will go somewhere or other. Till then, all my love,
p.s. Please send me a line to reassure me that you have not changed your mind.
Eric was soon to enjoy what may have been his first serious affaire. It was not without its difficulties, geographical and economic as well as the need to avoid hurting his friend Dennis Collings.
Much of that summer he and Avril camped out together in Montague House, a property in the High Street that Ida Blair had just bought with a small family legacy on her mother’s death. Eric never called it ‘Montague House’, putting ‘36 High Street’ on his letters, unlike the rest of the family. His parents had let their old house in Queen Street to summer visitors and were staying with Marjorie. ‘Eric and I’ wrote Avril, ‘moved into Montague House ...’
It had very little furniture in it, because most of our furniture was in the other house. Eric was writing away hard all day, and I was out. I was at that time working in a tea-shop in the town and came back pretty late at night. For some unknown reason, we only had two electric-light bulbs. I don’t know why we didn’t buy any more, but we each had one, and we used to take them round from room to room plugging them in wherever we wanted them.
When he wasn’t writing, Eric was trying to distil some black treacle and water and make rum. He’d fermented this black treacle and water and was busily boiling it up in a kettle. Out of the spout of the kettle, or fixed on the spout of the kettle, there was yards and yards of rubber tubing, crisscrossed across the kitchen, slung up on chairs and draped over the sink. Every time you had to move from the gas-stove to a cupboard or to a table, it was a sort of hurdle. Eventually the stuff did come out distilled at the other end as pure alcohol. When we tasted it, it had the most frightful taste of rubber tubing.
Even if his sense of propriety towards his parents’ property had allowed, he could hardly have enticed Eleanor into all that mess. And Avril would not have stood for it either, neighbours described her at this time as ‘a bitter pill’ (‘wickedly amusing at the expense of other people’). He had to conceal his brief love affair from his sister.
In September he was back at the school and Eleanor was in Southwold. He wrote to her in October that he was going up to town for a night or two to see how the sleepers on the embankment got on at that time of year. He mentioned the food riots in Lambeth, believing that some of his old friends would have been involved. Dennis Ceilings had asked him up to Cambridge for half-term, but he could not get away: he did not want to tell Dennis that there were ‘two or three people at Cambridge whom I’m not anxious to meet’. (More likely it was Dennis himself.) They exchanged gossip from Southwold: he ‘was sorry to hear about poor old Crick’, the proprietor of the local cinema at which Mr Richard Blair attended every new film — having run into some trouble over income tax — ‘another sign of the bad times of course.’ He recalled the summer: ‘It was so nice of you to say that you looked back to your days with me with pleasure. I hope you will let me make love to you again sometime, but if you don’t it doesn’t matter, I shall always be grateful to you for your kindness to me.’
The tone is stilted and restrained, he was plainly not at ease writing about sexual and personal matters. The ‘doesn’t matter’ and ‘always be grateful’ can be read two ways: as either a kindly, decent fairness, or as conveying self-pity, perhaps even veiled reproach — as if to suggest that she thought he was not good enough for her and was only doing it out of kindness.
Their letters that autumn and into the next year are full of frustrated attempts to meet. They did meet in London for a matinee of Macbeth at the Old Vie. He hoped she would be able to get a job in London; she did; but Hayes was still fifteen miles from the centre of the city. ‘If we had even passable weather, how would it be to go out some Sunday into the country, where we could go out for a long walk and then have lunch in a pub? London is depressing when one has no money ... When we were together you didn’t say whether you were going to let me be your lover again. Of course you can’t if Dennis is in Southwold, but otherwise? You mustn’t if you don’t want to, but I hope you will. Write soon .. .’ He was plainly humiliated by his penury in trying to conduct a love affair over a long distance. But he pursued her even into December for a walk from Uxbridge and lunch at Denham in Buckinghamshire. ‘Letting you pay for my meals,’ Gordon Comstock was to exclaim. ‘A man pays for a woman, a woman doesn’t pay for a man.’ The planning and the topography in the letters are very close to that of the sad excursion in Keep the Aspidistra Flying when Gordon Comstock does succeed, more or less, in making love in the woods to his reluctant Rosemary, but then is caught out by the price of a set tea in a pretentious hotel and is humiliated by having to borrow the bus fare home. If these incidents in the novel came as close to what he actually did as the topography undoubtedly does to where he actually walked, they would have taken place the following summer. ‘I think it would be nicest if we went somewhere where there are woods, seeing what the weather is like, e.g. to Burnham Beeches,’ he wrote to Eleanor on 6 June 1933.
School kept him busy. Successive letters tell the tale: ‘I have managed to put in an hour or two at my own work, also frantically busy with a play the boys are to act at the end of term ... I’ve done no other writing, except part of a mucky play the boys are to act later... Besides all the usual school work, I have had to write and produce a play — am now in the throes of rehearsing it — and what is worst of all, have had to make most of the suits of armour etc. for the boys to act in.’ He made them in the evenings out of glue and brown paper, just as the heroine of A Clergyman’s Daughter was to do. One of the young actors so liked the play that he preserved the script lovingly. It is a school play.
KING CHARLES II ACT I
Scene: an inn near Worcester. It is the evening of the battle of Worcester, 1661 [sic]. Present in the Inn are the landlord, Mr Giles, the oldest inhabitant of the village, his granddaughter, Lucy, and George Burton, a labourer.
MR GILES (setting down his mug): You’ve been a-watering that beer again, landlord.
LANDLORD No, not I.
MR GILES It don’t taste as it did when I were a boy.
I mind the time, in good Queen Bess’s reign (a booming noise.
All except Mr G look towards the window).
BURTON Hark! Did you hear that? The guns!
A Mr Burton, it will be remembered, was last heard of being thrown out of Whitechapel Police Station despite his refusal to pay the six shilling fine for being drunk and disorderly. The play ends:
MESSENGER Sir! Sir! The king’s escaped!
His ship has left the harbour. They fired that shot as they crossed the bar. The soldiers arrived there just a minute too late.
CAPTAIN CHAMBERS Ten thousand curses ...
SIR JAMES DIGBY Good people all, this is a joyous time
When our good king, long in most dangerous plight
Is safe at sea and bound for friendly France.
We’ll honour it with song, and silver too
Sir Edward here and I will give you all
To drink good health unto his majesty.
Long may he Hourish, and soon come the day
When the usurper Cromwell ends his sway;
Peace, freedom and prosperity shall reign
When England has her own true king again!
Come, sir, if you’ve a song, let’s hear it.
Private school teachers had to commit such jolly atrocities to keep their jobs. A Christmas play in the Church Hall was the school’s main public advertisement. If the school could not attract more boys, it would soon be done for. What is interesting, however, is that Blair took the Royalist side against, so the play implies, the miserable, narrow-minded, kill-joy, life-baring Puritans. That this was not tongue in cheek to please the royalism of the suburbs is suggested by Richard Peters’ memory that Blair told them that he would have favoured the Cavaliers against the Roundheads. In A Clergyman’s Daughter the school play also involves Charles II and Oliver Cromwell, who is made to sound ridiculous in the children’s words and accents. (‘ ’Alt! I ’old a pistol in my ‘and.’) On the edge of socialism though he was, there was still something to his joke — was it? — to the Adelphi staff that he was a ‘Tory anarchist’. Richard Rees was to use the phrase of him, and Orwell was to use it of Swift.
Private school teaching must have been a bit like life in the Burma Police: periods of taxing over-activity followed by spells of utter boredom and a constant doubt as to whether one was doing any good at all. In September Blair gave Brenda Salkeld a vivid description of the English Suburban Sunday entre deux guerres:
I am writing as I promised, but can’t guarantee an even coherent letter, for a female downstairs is making the house uninhabitable by playing hymn tunes on the piano, which, in combination with the rain outside and a dog yapping somewhere down the road, is rapidly qualifying me for the mental home.
I have spent a most dismal day, first in going to Church, then in reading the Sunday Times, which grows duller and duller, then in trying to write a poem which won’t go beyond the first stanza, then in reading through the rough draft of my novel [Burmese Days] which depresses me horribly. I really don’t know which is the more stinking, the Sunday Times or The Observer. I go from one to the other like an invalid turning from side to side in bed and getting no comfort whichever way he turns.
Some things have changed very little.
Though publication of Down and Out was planned by Gollancz for the first week in January and proofs (needing a lot of correction, for libel was still worrying everyone concerned) reached Blair by mid-November, yet the title and the pseudonym were still not decided. Gollancz favoured ‘The Confessions of a Down and Out’, but Blair protested that ‘I don’t answer to the name of down and out, but I will let it go if he thinks seriously that it is a taking title.’ He favoured ‘The Confessions of a Dishwasher’. Very much as a compromise, Gollancz decided on ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, a decision made so late that the first edition was printed with ‘Confessions of a Down and Out’ as the running title on the pages. He let Blair retain a line from Chaucer as a legend: ‘O scathful harm, condition of poverte.’ ‘As to a pseudonym, a name I always use when tramping etc. is P. S. Burton,’[*] he wrote to Moore, ‘but if you don’t think this sounds a probable kind of name, what about Kenneth Miles, George Orwell, H. Lewis Allways. I rather favour George Orwell.’ And so did Victor Gollancz.
Thus was born ‘George Orwell’, luckily not ‘H. Lewis Allways’. The Orwell was a river that he knew and liked, the whole name had a manly, English, indeed country-sounding, ring to it with perhaps an under-current of industry in the buried ore. Certainly one of his characteristic themes became the price of progress: that the elimination of poverty can threaten nature and tradition. Be that as it may, he continued to review and write articles under his real name for two more years. To his old friends, he remained Eric Blair; but gradually he became ‘George Orwell’ and George to new friends. He didn’t reserve Orwell for a public face: he was happy to be George. Before long he was answering to both and signing himself by either name according to how he was addressed. But Eric Blair remained the name he used in all legal and domestic contexts — signing cheques, leases, contracts, and getting married.
____ § ____
Advance copies of Down and Out reached George Orwell three days before Christmas 1932. Somewhat naively he asked Moore ‘What does “a recommendation of the Book Society” on the cover mean?’ and humbly and unnecessarily asked that ‘one copy should be sent for review to the Adelphi? They know me and I write for them sometimes, so they would give it a sympathetic review, I expect.’ He carried copies with him up to Southwold where he had agreed to spend Christmas — rather than, as the year before, trying to get into prison. He met Eleanor Jaques at Liverpool Street Station to travel back together.
The book was published at 8s 6d on 9 January 1933 and got good notices. Orwell wrote to Moore and said he would leave one hundred pages of his novel (Burmese Days) in his office when on the way back to school from Southwold and added: ‘I have seen a number of notices about the other book, and they were very much better than I had expected, particularly those in the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail. I believe there was a good one in the Morning Post... No libel actions hitherto, I hope? The book was listed in this week’s Sunday Express among “best sellers of the week”. Does that mean anything definite. I suppose it will go some weeks before you can tell whether it is selling or not?’
At first it looked hopeful. After a modest first printing of 1,500, there was a second impression of 500 that January, and then a further 1,000 printed, probably in February. But then it stuck. A similar thing happened with the American edition published by Harper Brothers in June: they printed 1,750 but by February 1934 had remaindered it, selling off the remaining 383 copies cheap. There was to be a French edition by Gallimard in 1935 (5,500 copies — not exhausted by 1953), and a Czech translation that same year. Its great fame came only in 1940 when Penguin printed 55,000 sixpenny copies, classifying it both on the cover and in their trade list as ‘Fiction’. (No records survive either at Penguin Books or in Orwell’s papers that throw any light on this misclassification — for in subsequent reprints it appeared on the non-fiction list and in the non-fiction colours.)
Not too bad, in fact, for a first book. Gollancz must have hoped for better, but he realized that he had good growth stock on his hands if not an instant success. For though he made no attempt to cultivate Orwell personally as he tended to do his star authors, yet he kept pressing Moore for news of Orwell’s next writings.
The money problem was not solved. The most Orwell could have made out of the book, spread over two years, was between £150 and £200: not enough to give up ‘foul teaching’. Yet the notices heartened him. W. H. Davies, the poet and sometime tramp, said in the New Statesman and Nation for 18 March 1933: ‘This is the kind of book I like to read, where I get the truth in chapters of real life ... his book is packed with unique and strange information.’ C. Day Lewis, the poet soon to join the Communist Party, told readers of the Adelphi: ‘Orwell’s book is a tour of the underworld, conducted without hysteria or prejudice... a model of clarity and good sense... The facts he reveals should shake the complacence of twentieth century civilization, if anything could; they are “sensational”, yet presented without sensationalism’ (February 1933). The Manchester Guardian saw the moral aptness of the style. ‘M. H.’ commented: ‘He has ... so much to say in that quiet, level voice of his that he has written a book which might work a revolution in the minds of those who are totally unable to look on down-and-outs as other than something entirely unlike themselves’ (January 1933). The Times Literary Supplement thought well of it as ‘a vivid picture of an apparently mad world’. The dust-jacket of the first American edition could quote J. B. Priestley saying: ‘Uncommonly good reading. An excellent book and a valuable social document’; and Compton Mackenzie wrote: ‘A clearly genuine human document which at the same time is written with so much simple force that in spite of the squalor and degradation thus unfolded, the result is curiously beautiful with the beauty of an accomplished etching on copper.’
Only the anonymous reviewer of the New English Weekly had doubts and wanted to know more about the author and if it all really happened to him: ‘This book ... is forcefully written and is very readable. Yet it fails to carry conviction. We wonder if the author was really down and out. Down certainly, but out?... A most interesting book, which does not, however, bear comparison with one or two recent publications of the same kind’ (16 February 1933).
The older generation at Southwold must have received the book with considerable reserve. A friend and neighbour remembers that Ida Blair was puzzled by it and said that it was not the Eric she knew. Richard and Ida Blair were glad that their son was writing under a pseudonym. They would have been still more grateful had they known about his novel on Burma. Avril remembered that ‘they were rather surprised at the outspokenness of the language’ but were ‘not in any way shocked’ (or if so, they did not show it, she probably meant). The Blairs were not a family to discuss such things. One suspects some careful understatement when she says:
In his relations with his family, my brother had always been detached and one almost might say impersonal. There was never any discussion of sex or his love affairs or anything of that nature at all. So when all those matters came out in his book, it almost seemed as if it had been written by a different person. Although there was this element of surprise about Down and Out when we read it, it didn’t mean that there was ever any estrangement in the family...
His Southwold friends, Dennis, Eleanor and Brenda, however, were enthusiastic about the book, and Dennis even wanted to write to The Times when a hotelier ‘of forty years experience’ challenged Down and Oaf’s authenticity. Perhaps Eleanor restrained him. By now the triangle may have been vibrating somewhat.
Back in Hayes, Orwell wrote in triumph to Eleanor to say that Moore was ‘very pleased with the hundred pages of the novel I sent to him and harries me to get on with it’. Years later he was to recall: ‘I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which words were used partly for the sake of their sound. And in fact my first completed novel, Burmese Days, which I wrote when I was thirty but projected much earlier, is rather that kind of book.’ He is too self-deprecating. Some have seen it as among his very best books. If the characters are two-dimensional, yet they are vivid portrayals of characteristic types and they carry the plot precisely and economically; the sense of time and place is profound and brooding, a rare sociological if not a psychological imagination is at work, and the descriptions of nature are magnificent in their own right and stand symbolically in contrast to both the frailty and the beastliness of man — imperial man at least — and to those he corrupts. But the writing did not come easily. He worked hard. By 7 July he wrote to Eleanor that ‘My novel will be about finished by the end of this term, but I don’t like large sections of it and am going to spend some months revising it ... God send I’ll be able to drop this foul teaching after next year.’
Eleanor had left the job in London that had given them some chance of being together, and that spring and summer they seem to have had only one meeting and walk in the country, to Burnham Beeches. He told her that he was taking a new job at a similar school in the autumn, but that they wanted him to do some vacation teaching, so he would not be back for as long as usual in Southwold. By 30 July, ‘I have finished my novel, but there are wads of it that I simply hate, and am going to change.’
What happened that summer in Southwold? Eric told his agent that he was only down for two or three weeks in August. If there were any more letters from him to Eleanor after July they have not survived; and none at all from her to him. All that is certain is that in August of the following year, the Southwold Recorder noted the engagement of Hubert Dennis Collings and Eleanor Violet Mary Jaques, and in September their marriage took place at Cambridge. The paper noted that Mr Collings would be leaving for an important post in Singapore (he had left his research post in Cambridge and joined the Colonial Office). How close the true relationship was between Eric and Eleanor is unclear. If she ever thought seriously of marrying him, did she reject the idea because he was poor and seldom with her, whereas her other suitor was closer to hand, and promised to be successful? There is now no way of telling. But two years later, when he came to write Keep the Aspidistra Flying, he was able to convey with extraordinary success the rage and self-pity of someone who thinks he is not able to pursue a normal courtship or love life because of lack of money. The hero’s degrading poverty and hopelessness as a breadwinner holds him back and nearly spoils everything — until the lady herself. Rosemary, intervenes, brushes him up, and drags him back into the world of commercial employment whether he likes it or not. If there was anything of Eleanor in Rosemary, as there was much of Eric or George in Gordon, she does not appear to have attempted any dragging, even if he did some wretched waiting.
Meanwhile another correspondence had increased in volume and intensity, that with Brenda Salkeld. The gym mistress and Eric became good friends in the early 1930s and remained in touch with each other all his life. The letters are deeply revealing about his literary tastes and development: that is the side of him that interested her. Nearly all his letters to her that survive are in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. Miss Salkeld has inadvertently created an unnecessary mystery about them since at her request they each appear labelled ‘extract’ and carry no salutations or farewells. In fact they are, apart from some trivialities, full texts, only the salutations are missing, which are mainly mild endearments of a kind common among good friends. A few are stronger but have no relation to the content of the letters themselves, and thus seem almost mocking in tone. Possibly he was a little importunate with her, but she would have nothing of him but friendship, so that he, occasionally, like many a lonely and sexually underemployed young man, tried to make her feel guilty and then rudely mocked her. Her letters to him do not survive, but their friendship did all their life.
She must have moved among Shavians, for he turned loose a fine polemic against’... any more of your friends who worship Bernard Shaw? Tell them that Shaw is Carlyle and water, that he ought to have been a Quaker (cocoa and commercial dishonesty), that he has squandered what talents he may have had back in the ‘80s ... that he suffers from an inferiority complex towards Shakespeare ...’ ‘Do you ever see the New English Weekly? he asked in another letter. ‘It is the leading Social Credit paper. As a monetary scheme Social Credit is probably sound, but its promoters seem to think that they are going to take the main weapon out of the hands of the governing classes without a fight, which is an illusion.’ And he went on to say that a few years ago he had thought it ‘rather fun’ to reflect that our civilization is doomed, but now it ‘fills me above all else with boredom to think of the horrors that will be happening within ten years’. It would either be ‘some appalling calamity, with revolution and famine’, he said, ‘or else all-round trustification and Fordificarion’ in the hands of the bankers. (So Orwell can imagine such a stage towards Nineteen Eighty-Four long before he had read James Bumham’s Managerial Revolution.)
He had obviously been reading the New English Weekly very closely. It was the platform of those of Orage’s disciples who had stayed true to the relative sanity of his Social Credit period (under the influence of Major Douglas) before Orage had surrendered himself to slavery under the teacher and mystic, Gurdjieff. Major Douglas was forever attacking ‘the trusts’. Dislike of big business was no monopoly of socialists. Ezra Pound, for instance, shared such views, as did American populists; and so did Tory anarchists, presumably.
‘Have you read Ulysses yet? It sums up better than any book I know the fearful despair that is almost normal in modern times. You get the same kind of things, though only just touched upon, in Eliot’s poems. With E, however, there is also a certain sniffish “I told you so” implication ... as the spoilt darling of the Church Times.’ He had managed to borrow a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses which was only published in Paris, and was being watched out for eagerly by those custodians of public morality. His Majesty’s Inspectors of Customs and Excise. And in December Eric wrote Brenda a huge letter, almost two thousand words, answering her ‘What do you think Joyce is after?’. It could have been printed almost as it stood, a highly perceptive and interesting piece of critical writing. The book moved him deeply.
[to answer your question] one has got to decide what a novel normally sets out to do. I should say that it sets out first... to display or create a character, secondly to make a kind of pattern or design which any good story contains, and, thirdly, if the novelist is up to it, to produce good writing which can exist almost as it were in vacuo and independent of subject... I think Ulysses follows this scheme fairly closely, but the queer and original thing about it is that instead of taking as his material the conventional and highly simplified version of life presented in most novels, Joyce attempts to present life more or less as it is lived. Of course he is not trying merely to represent life. When Ulysses first came out one heard it said on every side that it was an attempt to describe a day in somebody’s life, leaving nothing out, etc. etc. It is not that. If one thinks, a complete description of a day, or even of an hour, would be simply an enormous omnium gatherum, quite formless and probably not at all interesting, and in any case would not convey the impression of life at all. Art implies selection and there is as much selection in Ulysses as in Pride and Prejudice. Only Joyce is attempting to select and represent events and thoughts as they occur in life and not as they occur in fiction.
Orwell shared Joyce’s scorn for those who write novels through reading other novels. He appreciated the formal structure of Ulysses more than most (many could not see it at all) and yet ‘quite apart from the different styles used to represent different manners of thought, the observation is in places marvellous.’ Some of the passages ‘have haunted me ever since reading them. If you read them aloud you will see that most of them are essentially verse.’
This Ulysses letter, while mainly it shows an enthusiast trying to define and convey his growing absorption in the mechanics and craft of fiction, yet also shows a potentiality for real critical ability — as came later in the great essays on Swift, Dickens and Henry Miller. But Ulysses proved nearly fatal to his own development as a novelist. Self-consciously and mechanically he wrote A Clergyman’s Daughter with ‘different styles used to represent different manners of thought’; and there are still elements of this, though less gross, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A year later he confided to Brenda:
I managed to get my copy of Ulysses through safely this time. I rather wish I had never read it. It gives me an inferiority complex. When I read a book like that and then come back to my own work, I feel like a eunuch who has taken a course in voice production ... but if you listen closely you can hear the good old squeak just the same as ever.
The novel he was working on at that time which ‘instead of going forward goes backward with the most alarming speed’ was A Clergyman’s Daughter. Joyce stimulated Orwell as a critic but could have been disastrous to him as a writer, if his documentary plain style had not already emerged in Down and Out and was there to fall back upon, even to extend and still further purify.
That autumn of 1933 he had had a poem of real quality published in the Adelphi:
A dressed man and a naked man
Stood by the kip-house fire,
Watching the sooty cooking-pots
That bubble on the wire;
And bidding tanners up and down,
Bargaining for a deal,
Naked skin for empty skin
Clothes against a meal...
The tale was as simple as the diction. The bargain is struck, the one gets the clothes, the other a meal, the positions are reversed; but the unstated implication is that both are still in a hopeless and pitiable condition. It is far better than the literary and contrived pessimism of the earlier, somewhat religious poem. The following April, the Adelphi printed another poem, which was to be included in The Best Poems of 1934, published by Jonathan Cape and selected by Thomas Moult. This was ‘On a Ruined Farm Near the His Master’s Voice Gramophone Factory’ (which was at Hayes). He contrasts the ruined countryside:
As I stand at the lichened gate
With warring worlds on either hand
The factory-towers, white and clear
Like distant, glittering cities seen From a ship’s rail...
and which seem to generate their own
A close friend in 1945 was to talk affectionately, thinking of Benjamin in Animal Farm, of ‘donkey George’. He was already torn between what were to be important themes in The Road to Wigan Pier, Coming Up For Air and The Lion and the Unicorn: progress which could abolish the horrors of poverty and progress which could destroy traditional decencies of an England still close to the country-side — the machine versus nature. But we need both.
By early December he had retyped his revision of Burmese Days, after having lent most of the manuscript to Brenda Salkeld to read and comment upon. He had moved that September to Frays College, Harefield Road, Uxbridge, near to Hayes, a far larger and more respectable establishment with about one hundred and eighty pupils, thirty of whom were boarders. The Hawthorns had run into financial difficulties and the proprietor had sold the school to a somewhat larger local establishment, whose head master was soon afterwards arrested and served six years for indecent assault.
Fellow teachers at Frays remember him well. He was popular with the pupils and cordial enough but ‘somewhat aloof with his colleagues, though they remember his courage as a new master in persisting in smoking at the staff table, a practice frowned upon. He did not linger in the Common Room in the evenings but went to his room and typed solidly. H. S. K. Stapley, then a young master there, later to be head master, remembers that he brought a second-hand motor-bike which he rode on Sundays dressed only in his old sports coat and grey flannel trousers, no protective clothing whatever. On one ride in the middle of December he got caught in an icy rainstorm. He went down with a chill.
He did not have to endure the new school long, for the chill developed into pneumonia and he was rushed into Uxbridge Cottage Hospital. For a few days there was real anxiety. ‘My mother was sent for,’ wrote Avril, ‘and I drove her down’:
He was very ill indeed, but the crisis had passed then, and he was re-covering. He was very worried about money, so the nurse told us. He’d been delirious, and he’d been talking the whole time about his money. We re-assured him that everything was all right, and he needn’t worry about money. It turned out that it wasn’t actually his situation in life as regards money that he was worrying about, but it was actual cash: he felt that he wanted cash sort of under his pillow.
In his tramping days he must have slept with his money under his pillow. If you lost your last ten shillings in those circumstances you might be submerged for ever, not able to reach the next Spike or, in his case, get back to friends or home. However, worry over his actual situation, his miserable job and the disappointing sales of his book might have shown through when his guard was down.
He was still in hospital on 28 December when he wrote to thank Moore for several visits, and said that when he got out in about a week’s time, ‘I am going straight down to Southwold. Of course I can’t go back to school at the beginning of the term, so I am going to chuck teaching, at least for the while. It is perhaps rather imprudent, but my people are anxious that I should do so, as they are concerned about my health, and of course I shall be able to write my next novel in 6 months or so if I haven’t got to be teaching at the same time.’
Hospital records of this stay have long been destroyed. One can only surmise that he brought the illness on by overwork, sitting upright typing for hour after hour into the night when already tired. Following the attack of pneumonia, did he perhaps suspect that he had tuberculosis, not simply occasional chronic bronchitis?
This return to Southwold may have been an easier one than his return from Burma. Home is, after all, where you try to be when you are ill. He had published a book, he was reviewing regularly, and having lived on his school master’s salary, still had some of the Down and Out advance and royalties. He wrote to Moore at the end of January 1934, ‘I am much stronger, and have begun doing a little work. By the way, I know that Harper’s owe me a few royalties — not much, I am afraid, but about £20 or £30. Do you think it would be possible to get anything out of them say next month? It doesn’t matter now, but I may be getting rather hard up in a month or two.’
He seemed to get on better with his father, for they were often seen taking short walks together and working diligently but ineptly, by local working-class standards, on an allotment. What he grew on it, I don’t know, but he and Eric knew nothing about gardening. They were always coming across to borrow a rake or a shovel or ask what to do. They didn’t have a clue — and owning an allotment was an odd thing for a man in his walk of life to do, none of the other retired civil servants did.’ Such was the opinion of Mr Percy Girling, whose father owned a pub and rented the Blairs the allotment. When asked what he thought their ‘walk of life’ was, he replied: ‘They were people who had missed their way somewhere, they weren’t quite right, do you see? For instance, the allotment. And old man Blair looking so scruffy and lost. There was money there, there had been money there, you could tell from the furniture. Lovely carpets, good Georgian furniture. Lovely dining room they had. But they didn’t have enough money then ...’
Perhaps the allotment was Eric’s idea, but it gave Mr Blair an additional interest to attending the cinema and his club, the Biythe Club, the gentlemen’s club, a cut above the Constitutional Club where those in trade gathered. Blair did not care for his wife’s bridge parties and whist drives which went on as regularly as before, earning her much affection and acquaintanceship, though the Blair parents do not seem to have made close friends in Southwold. Avril had gone into partnership with a local woman, whose mother ran a sweet shop, to run a ‘good class’, they said, tea-shop, inevitably called ‘The Copper Kettle’. Social paradoxes abounded. Orwell already wore his famous shaggy uniform of sports jacket and grey flannel trousers; but Mr Denny the local tailor remembers that ‘they were always beautifully cut and made to measure [by Mr Denny’s father]. He was a difficult man to fit off-the-peg, being tall and thin.’
Yet there were tensions in Southwold. A neighbour remembers a ‘stand-up row’ between Humphrey Dakin and Ida Blair about Down and Out, Dakin roaring that Eric knew nothing about the working man, he knew far more and could get on better with them in any pub than Eric. Mrs Blair defended her tall son indignantly, but not perhaps very enthusiastically. What could she have cared whether he understood the working man or not? The neighbour thought that neither of the brothers-in-law were obvious candidates for possession of the common touch, although Eric was always courteous and gentle. She also remembers that some of Ida Blair’s friends at this time found Eric ‘very outré and were very condescending: “how terrible for Mrs Blair to have a son like that, he looks as though he never washes”.’ They would have been positively shocked had they known what he was working away at so hard: A Clergyman’s Daughter, and highly alarmed, especially as so many of them had connections in India, had they known what he had just completed and was trying, with little success, to get published: Burmese Days. As V. S. Pritchettwas to write long after-wards: ‘A scathing and vivid novel with the amusingly old-fashioned title of “Burmese Days”: many an Anglo-Indian must have thought it a collection out of Blackwood’s and must have had a shock when he read it.’ His description is hard to better:
His pictures of the white man have a contempt mingled with pity. On the other hand the Burmese are not pictured as saints. Orwell is in fact not the usual minority man who turns against the British Empire and who makes heroes of the oppressed simply because they are oppressed. Orwell is far subtler and far more honest than that. He is really an active moralist, a preacher who sees that oppression creates hypocrisy, and that hypocrisy corrupts. He scents the decay in civilization with an almost fanatical nose. He detests the decay yet he has too much detachment to be a fanatic. There is a note of flat tiredness too, a note of the wearied saint. This Burmese novel is written on the raw; its realm is as distinct as anything in Kipling or E. M. Forster. It used to be said after the fall of Singapore that the novels of Somerset Maugham had indirectly prophesied it; Orwell went further than Maugham; Orwell’s prophecy was savage and direct. And yet, all the time he is interested, more and more absorbed by the dejection of the life he describes. And he writes with a bitter humour and wit, punctuated by sudden bouts of sympathy and pity for the people he has attacked.
Yet that glory was for later. At the time it was a case of:
My dear Moore,
I have thought this over again, and I feel that I would really sooner not go further with it. I can’t face the sleepless nights.
Gollancz must already have said ‘no’ once, for Orwell’s letter to Moore of 29 January expressed disappointment that Heinemann had turned it down also for fear of libel. The publishing houses moved quickly in those days, or perhaps that was what a good agent could do for a new writer: get a quick decision. Fortunately Eugene Saxton was in London then, the chief editor of Harper Brothers of New York. He saw Orwell and was impressed by the man and the manuscript, despite the disappointing sales of Down and Out in America. He proceeded cautiously, but after obtaining some alterations from Orwell, making the very real risk of libel less likely (it was, after all, a bitter attack on ‘fictional’ individuals, both Burmese and British, in a fully contemporary setting), Saxton agreed to publish it. The book appeared on 25 October in New York. ‘My novel is due to come out in New York tomorrow ...’, he wrote to Brenda Salkeld. ‘Please pray for its success, by which I mean not less than 4,000 copies. I understand that the prayers of clergyman’s daughters get special attention in heaven.’ The prayers of the rationalist, ex-clergyman’s daughter were not quite answered. Harper printed 2,000, there was a second printing (probably of fewer copies), and then it was remaindered in February 1935 with 976 copies unsold. Once again, the sales were out of line with a respectable number of respectful critical notices. Publishing novels in the 1930s (as still today) was highly speculative, either they did well quickly or they were dropped at once, it was simply not worth carrying small stocks to sell in pennyweights over the years.
That same October, Orwell wrote to Moore, saying that he had met Jonathan Cape and had asked him to read Burmese Days when they got copies from Harper. He was not optimistic, he said, because Cape used the same solicitor as Gollancz. Nearly all of the publishers did, in fact, because Rubinstein’s judgement on libel was excellent, and successful actions could destroy publishers and authors alike, quite apart from the cost of litigation. Gollancz, however, kept the book in mind. When he saw that no one from Burma had tried to make his fortune in the Manhattan courts at Harper’s expense, he wrote to Orwell again.
1 February 1935
Dear Mr Blair,
It occurs to me that it might be worth while to consider the Burmese novel exhaustively from the point of view of libel. We could take our time over it and it might be that the points could be cleared up. With this end in view, would you send me the typescript?
By then Orwell no longer had a copy, so Moore had to send him the already amended American edition. This text was followed when the English edition appeared in June 1935, apart from still further changes in name. Lackersteen became Latimer, for instance — seemingly more dangerous as a more common name, unless Orwell had owned up to having an aunt called Limouzin; and all the Burmese and Indian names were mangled into nonsense: Gollancz’s fear seems to have been that some Babu, more than some Sahib, would pop up in London to take out a writ because his name had been ‘used, or so he would claim. The Penguin edition of 1944 still followed the American version and has become the established English text, since the original manuscript is lost.
Amid all these visions of gain and loss, he was still hard up. He made several more attempts to obtain translation work — all unsuccessful; and through Eugene Saxton he tried to interest Chatto and Windus in commissioning a short biography of Mark Twain. The paradox of the humorist who was also a bitter pessimist must have stirred a chord of empathy in Orwell — perhaps he saw Mark Twain as the Yankee Swift or hoped that ‘George Orwell’ could become the English Mark Twain.
Brenda Salkeld was teaching away from Southwold most of this rime, so meetings got fewer. His letters continued in the same fond vein, however: ‘How I wish you were here! I am so miserable, struggling in the entrails of that dreadful book and never getting any further, and loathing the sight of what I have done. Never start writing novels, if you wish to preserve your happiness.’
Some time in August, Eric told her that as soon as he finished the present book, he was going to live in London. A friend had offered him part of a Hat in Bayswater, but it would ‘choke me to live in Bays-water’: he wanted to live ‘somewhere in the slums for choice’. She must have ticked him off smartly for ‘eating worms’, for in another letter he denied that he meant living in a slum, only in a slummy part; he did not like ‘respectable’ areas; ‘they make me sick.’ He was generally depressed:
I have practically no friends here now, because now that Dennis and Eleanor are married and Dennis has gone to Singapore, it has deprived me of two friends at a single stroke. Everything is going badly. My novel about Burma made me spew when I saw it in print, and I would have rewritten large chunks of it, only that costs money and means delay as well. As for the novel I am now completing, it makes me spew even worse, and yet there are some decent passages in it. I don’t know how it is, I can write decent passages but I can’t put them together ... I nearly died of cold the other day when bathing ...
This age makes me so sick that sometimes I am almost impelled to stop at a comer and start calling down curses from Heaven like Jeremiah or Ezra or somebody — ‘Woe upon thee, 0 Israel, for thy adulteries with the Egyptians’ etc etc. The hedgehogs keep coming into the house, and last night we found in the bathroom a little tiny hedgehog no bigger than an orange ...
The image of Jeremiah caring for a baby hedgehog is characteristic and beautiful.
He professed to dislike London. Why he planned to go there is not clear. Probably he went mainly to get away from Southwold, but perhaps also because he thought he could get more reviewing work if he were on the spot. He may have wanted to see more of Richard Rees and the young writers whom Rees encouraged to drop in for tea round the gas fire in the Adelphi’s humble office, or whom he occasionally asked to his Hat in Chelsea.
He sent Moore the completed manuscript of A Clergyman’s Daughter on 3 October 1934 with the rather gloomy comment: ‘It was a good idea, but I am afraid I have made a muck of it — however, it is as good as I can do for the present. There are bits of it that I don’t dislike, but I am afraid it is very disconnected as a whole, and rather unreal.” He told Brenda at the same time that he was only staying in Southwold long enough to rough out an idea for his next novel. So although a lot of the locale of Keep the Aspidistra Flying is Hampstead, the mood and themes surrounding Gordon (Jeremiah) Comstock (‘I don’t know — perhaps I’d sooner sink than rise’) must predate his next move. When Orwell wrote to Moore next, saying that he ‘knew there would be trouble’ over A Clergyman’s Daughter, the letter was dated 14 November 1934; and the address was 3 Warwick Mansions, Pond Street, Hampstead, London N.W.3 — above the bookshop where he had just found, or rather been found, a part-time job.
1. Letter of Mr F. M. Gardner CBE, of Luton, to author of 26 Oct. 1972.[back]
2. CE I, pp. 77-8.[back]
3. Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, The Unknown Orwell (Constable, London, 1972), pp. 248-9. They even have him obtaining the job through Truman and Knightley Associates, the rivals to Gabbitas-Thring as employment agents for private schools. But it seems very unlikely that such an agency would deal with such a school. Bernard Bergonzi repeats this in good faith in his excellent Reading the Thirties (Macmillan, London, 1978), pp. 30-31, which shows how legends grow. In their second volume, Orwell: The Transformation (Constable, London, 1979), Stansky and Abrahams compound the error further. They have now identified the school as ‘Evelyn’s School’ (pp. 10-33 passim) and have Blair ‘coughing and hacking in the damp gloom of the Hawthorns’ (p. 22) which they call ‘that genteel rooming-house’ (p. 19). There was, indeed, an Evelyn’s School (a prep school complete with chapel, etc.) but it had closed by Sept. 1931, the year before Blair came to the area, to move and to amalgamate with Famborough School in Hampshire. Stansky and Abrahams have even conjured up a ‘poor Mr Evelyn’ (p. 32) and a ‘hapless Mr Evelyn’ (p. 33) telling his staff that the school was collapsing. But the school never had a head master of that name — its founder in 1872 was a G. T. Worsley, whose son was christened Evelyn and became head master, but was killed in France in 1916. (See Middlesex Advertiser and Gazette, n Sept. 1931, for a long retrospective article, ‘The Passing of Evelyns’.) I am indebted to Mr B. T. White, the chairman of the Hayes and Harlington Local History Society, and to Mary Pearce, the Local Studies Librarian at Uxbridge Library, for leading me to this information.[back]
4. Robert Holman’s Outside the Whale as performed at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, in 1976 and at the Bush Theatre, London, in 1978.[back]
5. Interview by the author with Mr Geoffrey W. Stevens of Hayes, Middlesex on 18 Dec. 1972.[back]
6. In the possession of Victor Gollancz Ltd, quoted by kind permission of Livia Gollancz.[back]
7. loc. cit.[back]
8. CE I, p. 84.[back]
9. ibid., pp. 84-5.[back]
10. Keith Alldritt, The Making of George Orwell (Edward Arnold, London, 1969), p. 55. See also, for the same thesis or concern, Stansky and Abrahams, The Unknown Orwell; John Atkins, George Orwell (Calder & Boyars, London, 1954); and T. R. Fyvel, ‘George Orwell and Eric Blair: Glimpses of a Dual Life’, Encounter, July 1959, and more speculatively in his contribution to the special number on Orwell in World Review, June 1950.[back]
11. CE I, p. 81.[back]
12. ibid., p. 103.[back]
13. Interview by the author and correspondence with Mrs Madge Parker of North Petherton, Somerset, in July 1975.[back]
14. CE I, p. 82.[back]
15. ibid., pp. 79-81, 101-2.[back]
16. ibid., p. 118.[back]
17. Orwell Archive.[back]
18. Avril Dunn, ‘My Brother, George Orwell’, Twentieth Century, March 1961, pp. 257-8.[back]
19. Orwell Archive. The two passages I quote are not in the shortened version of this letter in CE I, pp. 102-4.[back]
20. Orwell Archive. Most of this letter is reprinted in CE I, pp. 107-8, but not the last four sentences.[back]
21. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, p. 146.[back]
22. Unpublished letter of 6 June 1933. Orwell Archive.[back]
23. CE I, pp. 102, 103 and 105.[back]
24. Copy in Orwell Archive, Manuscripts and Typescripts. A copy of the play was preserved by Mr Geoffrey Stevens who was a pupil of Orwell’s and who acted in the play.[back]
25. CE I, p. 100.[back]
26. ibid., p. 105.[back]
* Not always, he had been ‘Edward Burton’ to the Whitechapel magistrates. (Some echo of Burton the explorer who went native to reach Mecca?)[back]
27. ibid., p. 106.[back]
28. ibid., p. 109.[back]
29. Unpublished letter of 17 Jan. 1933. Berg Collection, New York Public Library.[back]
30. I. R. Willison, ‘George Orwell: Some Materials for a Bibliography’, submitted to the School ofLibrarianship and Archives, University of London, for the Diploma in Librarianship (Part III), May 1953, pp. 1-5. Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]
31. These reviews are all from files in Orwell Archive.[back]
32. Avril Dunn, ‘My Brother, George Orwell’, Twentieth Century, March 1961, p. 258.[back]
33. Unpublished letter of 18 Feb. 1933. Orwell Archive.[back]
34. ‘Why I Write’, CE I, p. 3.[back]
35. CE I, p. 122. I have reversed the order of these two separate sentences.[back]
36. ibid., p. 123.[back]
37. ibid., pp. 119 and 120-21.[back]
38. See John Carswell, Lives and Letters (Faber and Faber, London, 1978) for a masterly study of Orage and his circle.[back]
39. CE I, p. 121.[back]
40. ibid., p. 126.[back]
41. ibid., p. 139.[back]
42. ibid., pp. 123-4.[back]
43. ibid., pp. 134-5.[back]
44. Author’s correspondence with Mr H. S. K. Stapley in Jan. 1973; and see Stansky and Abrahams, Orwell: The Transformation, pp. 34-8. After reading their fuller account, from which I draw in the above paragraph, I regret not having interviewed Mr Stapley back then, as they did. The school is now closed and he cannot be traced to comment on the accuracy of our accounts. But this time they have got the right school and produced some interesting evidence.[back]
45. Avril Dunn, ‘My Brother, George Orwell’, Twentieth Century, March 1961, p. 257.[back]
46. CE I, p.129.[back]
47. ibid., p. 133.[back]
48. Interview by Audrey Coppard with Mr Percy Girling, Southwold, 27 Dec. 1974.[back]
49. Interview by Audrey Coppard with Mr Denny, Southwold, 28 Dec. 1974.[back]
50. Interview by Ian Angus with Mrs Vera Buckler, Southwold, 28 June 1965.[back]
51. V. S. Pritchett on ‘George Orwell’, in Gilbert Phelps (ed.), Living Writers: Being Critical Studies Broadcast in the BBC Third Programme (Sylvan Press, London, 1949), p. 109.[back]
52. In the possession of Victor Gollancz Ltd, quoted by kind permission of Livia Gollancz.[back]
53. From an unpublished letter to Brenda Salkeld, undated, headed ‘Tuesday night’, probably 20 Oct. 1934. Orwell Archive (under seal).[back]
54. I. R. Willison, op. cit., p. 7.[back]
55. Letter of 25 Sept. 1934 in Berg Collection, New York Public Library.[back]
56. In the possession of Victor Gollancz Ltd.[back]
57. CE I, p. 136.[back]
58. ibid., pp. 137-40, a conflation of two letters.[back]
59. ibid., p. 141.[back]
60. ibid., p. 142.[back]
Booklovers’ corner was owned by Francis and Myfanwy Westrope. It is now the Prompt Comer, a chess players’ cafe on the comer of South End Green, Hampstead, but it remained a bookshop until the mid-1950s. South End Green marks the beginning of Hampstead ‘proper’ when approached up the hill from Kentish Town, a working-class and heavily Irish district. It was social borderland (and boarderland). In Orwell’s day a tram route from the City brought crowds up to the famous Hampstead Heath fairs on Bank Holidays, and brought East Enders for Sunday outings. Hampstead was, and is, a place for intellectuals (both real and pretend) to live; and in the 1930S there were still many houses with cheap bedsitters, a favourite area for young writers and artists on the make or on the mend, as well as for the established who could afford small Georgian or ample Victorian houses.
Hampstead and Chelsea were thought to be, indeed to a large extent were, London’s artistic inner suburbs, only yielding intellectual precedence to Bloomsbury. Unlike Bloomsbury, however, Hampstead possessed a broad middle class, less extreme in its social divisions than upper-middle-class true Bloomsbury and declasse sub-Bloomsbury. Booklovers’ Comer sold a range of second-hand books that reflected the broader Hampstead range, and matched the description in the opening pages of Keep the Aspidistra Flying: ‘There were high brow, middle brow and low brow books, new and second-hand all jostling together, as befitted this intellectual and social borderland.’ I bought books there as a student just after the War and it was still just such an extraordinary diversity. Gordon’s caustic comments on the merits of the types of books, authors and customers may be taken as Orwell’s satiric exaggeration of his own general attitude to contemporary writing: ‘dead stars above, damp squibs below. Shall we ever again get a writer worth reading?’ Lawrence was ‘all right’, and Joyce ‘even better before he went off his coconut’. Above all he railed at the ‘snooty, refined books ... by those moneyed young beasts who slide so gracefully from Eton to Cambridge and from Cambridge to the literary reviews’. ‘Beasts’ and ‘beastly’ are somewhat overworked words by Orwell at this time.
The bookshop fortified Orwell’s interest in popular culture. Even though Gordon Comstock mocks, George had read and understood emphatically a good deal more of the sources of popular taste than most other intellectuals. So many seemed over-concerned to break with the past, whether seen as the English literary heritage or their own youthful readings, whereas Orwell liked the best of both worlds, Dickens and Wells as well as Joyce and Miller. His main motive, however, in coming to London, to which he was not particularly attached, must have been to enjoy the company of other writers, perhaps of intellectuals generally. He had been through a long period of isolation, thinking a great deal but rarely discussing books and ideas; indeed, there had been few literary friends in his life since his school-days, apart from walks, talks and letters with Eleanor Jaques and Brenda Salkeld. Neither as Blair nor even as Orwell did he like to talk about his current writing. He believed that those who talked about their writing rarely wrote, but in this period in his life he showed the need to talk about other related problems, literary, social or political; and Hampstead was a good place to meet young writers and radicals with whom he could argue as an equal.
Orwell did see more of Richard Rees and others of the Adelphi circle. Rees became deeply fond of Orwell. Just before he died, Rees told Melvyn Bragg that he respected Orwell as a writer for not being ‘trendy’ or for trying to be ‘with it’ (Rees kept up with new idioms to the last). He was always reliable in a good old-fashioned way, both as a friend and as a contributor. Rees had already noted sadly that there were ‘Left Intellectuals who criticized the Adelphi for its “rotten Liberal reformism” or its “muddleheaded mystical idealism” ...’ and that ‘apart from George Orwell’ he had met very few ‘literary equalitarian of whom it is quite certain that their equalitarianism is even, in the ordinary and simple sense of the word, sincere’. Orwell, Rees asserted, ‘had an essentially simple mind ... and was only able to see one point at a time.’ If that was so, it had been a rare quality indeed in the kaleidoscopic world ofMiddleton Murry and Rees in the Adelphi days. But perhaps Orwell’s mind was neither so simple nor so uncritically friendly, if we assume that ‘Ravelston’ in Keep the Aspidistra Flying is even in part modelled on Sir Richard Rees. Ravelston, the rich socialist editor, masochisrically enjoys guilt feelings about the un-employed as he tucks into a thick and bloody steak:
Ravelston lived on the first floor and the editorial offices of Antichrist were downstairs. Antichrist was a middle-to-high-brow monthly, Socialist in a vehement but ill-defined way. In general, it gave the impression of being edited by an ardent Nonconformist who had transferred his allegiance from God to Marx, and in doing so had got mixed up with a gang of vers libre poets. This was not really Ravelston’s character; merely he was softer-hearted than an editor ought to be, and consequently was at the mercy of his contributors. Practically anything got printed in Antichrist if Ravelston suspected that its author was starving.
If Rees recognized himself in this, he may have blushed a little, but he took no offence. Perhaps in his good Christian heart he expected each fallen mouth he fed to bite his hand a little, and he not merely forgave them but revelled in their independence and, occasionally, success. Others were to say that Orwell was equally soft-hearted when he became literary editor of Tribune.
Orwell developed circles of his own in Hampstead partly through the bookshop and partly through Mabel Fierz. Though he made it out to be extravagantly boring, even a bit shoddy and dishonest, his job in fact interested him; and into the shop came some genuinely interesting people, not just as Comstock declaims ‘poseurs, bores and lunatics’. Over cups of strong tea, poor coffee or mugs of bottled beer, he would sit with his friends in their rented rooms (he never entertained himself at the Westropes’), talking things over, setting the world aright and damning fashionable reputations. Almost all these friends were younger men, for his years in Burma had made him at 31 older than most of those beginning to make their way as writers.
‘With the fine scorn of the unpublished, Gordon knocked down reputation after reputation. Shaw, Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Huxley, Lewis, Hemingway — each with a careless phrase or two was shovelled into the dustbin.’ Either Gordon or George was not wholly consistent about Joyce. Edwin Muir, the Scots poet, who lived in Downshire Hill, described in his autobiography this time as when ‘Hampstead was filled with writing people and haunted by young poets despairing over the poor and the world, but despairing together, in a sad but comforting communion’. Orwell was about ready for this limited form of sociability.
For his first six months in Hampstead, Orwell lived in the Westropes’ own flat in Warwick Mansions, above the bookshop. Jon Kimche (later to become editor of Tribune, then of the Jewish Observer and Middle East Review) also lodged in the same flat, where he had arrived a month or two before Orwell to work in the shop during the mornings in return, like Orwell, for a rent-free room. So Orwell had the mornings and evenings to write, serving in the shop for the afternoon. He occasionally went out to buy books for the proprietor from private houses, so he must have shown some aptitude in the trade beyond a love of books.
My present landlady is the non-interfering sort, which is so rare among London landladies. When I came she asked me what I particularly wanted, and I said ‘The thing I most want is freedom’. So she said, ‘Do you want to have women up here all night?’ I said, ‘No,’ of course, whereat she said, ‘I only meant that I didn’t mind whether you do or not.’
Apart from being a motherly, pleasant and helpful type, his ‘employer’s wife’ may well have been so indulgent since she was, in fact, a good friend of his Aunt Nellie Limouzin who had written to her on 23 September 1934 from Paris:
I had a letter from Eric yesterday ... He intends finishing his third novel [sic] by the end of this month and will then go up to London and ‘stay some months’. I shall give him your address and hope you will be able to see him. I shall advise him to write to you first, for no doubt you are both very busy with the shop, the house and I L P work. He may possibly be staying in Golders Green for I know he has a friend there, and, if so, would be ‘contagious’ to you.
Kimche knew the Westropes through their activities in the Independent Labour Party (Left-wing, egalitarian, a strange English mixture of secularized evangelism and non-Communist Marxism) and assumed that Orwell had met them by the same route. Even though they lived in the same house and talked to each other a lot, Kimche did not know that Orwell had met the Westropes through a family connection rather than through I L P meetings at the Conway Hall. And Orwell did not tell Brenda Salkeld either. She can only remember him grumbling, when they met either at Southwold one weekend or in London some time that year, about ‘his remote and gradgrind employers’ — rather as Comstock does in the novel. When in an essay the following year he actually referred to ‘my employer’s kindness to me’, he still said ‘employer’, not ‘friend’.
Orwell did like to keep his small worlds apart. Perhaps in his distortion of the kindly, unworldly and basically poor Westropes, he was trying to act out the hero (or the anti-hero) of his coming novel, suppressing the more benign and mundane real world. Gordon Comstock’s life in the bookshop is an imaginative projection of what things could have been if Orwell had had no friends or had not, at last, got his first two books published and a third in the press. If the physical descriptions both of people and places in Keep the Aspidistra Flying are transparently Hampstead (Willowbed Road for Willoughby Road and Coleridge Grove for Keats Grove, for instance), most of the acute sense of personal failure and pessimism that permeates the novel must refer back to the four or five previous years of Orwell’s life.
The first effect of poverty is that it kills thought. He grasped, as though it were a new discovery, that you do not escape from money merely by being moneyless, [p. 63]
Life on two quid a week ceases to be a heroic gesture and becomes a dingy habit. Failure is as great a swindle as success, [p. 72]
For the rest, in two whole years he had produced nothing except a handful of short poems — perhaps a score in all. It was so rarely that he could attain the peace of mind in which poetry, or prose for that matter, has got to be written. The times when he ‘could not’ work grew commoner and commoner. Of all types of human being, only the artist takes it upon him to say that he ‘cannot’ work. But it is quite true; there are times when one cannot work. [p. 41]
Gordon Comstock’s character, vivid though it is and one of the best, Angry Young Men in English literature before John Osbome’s Jimmy Porter, yet exhibits somewhat contradictory traits: many of his diatribes seem intended to satirize self-pity, but others show the author’s own lingering self-pity. A gloomy man mocks a morbid man. By 1935 Orwell had achieved enough success, self-confidence and hope of living decently by his pen to be ironical about Gordon and his old self, but had not distanced himself enough to take out all auto-biography.
The Westropes’ precise political orientation is highly significant and was concealed equally from old and later friends by Orwell. For dramatic effect, as has been shown already, he talked in both The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia as if he entered the socialist camp, and in the particular Left-wing but anti-Communist way he did, as a direct and immediate consequence of the events he describes. In fact, without committing himself, he had been brooding over such a socialism for a long time. Almost certainly the Westropes and their friends influenced him politically, just as it is certain that he found it congenial to work for people whose political convictions he was coming to share. Kimche does not remember him as talking much about politics then, except that he held forth a great deal about the iniquities of the Roman Catholic Church; he thought of him ‘as a kind of intellectual anarchist’. Orwell’s individualism, his ‘Tory anarchism’, would not allow him to come near the organized Communist Party; the Labour Party would have appeared in those days of the National Government as both discredited and too milk and water; but he knew a lot more about Marxism than readers of the second section of The Road to Wigan Pier might suppose — the I L P Marxists whom he met in Spain all agree on that. Perhaps St Paul had for a long time been ambivalent and broodingly tortured about Christianity but had found his final commitment both easier to explain and more convincing to others if he expressed it in terms of sudden illumination on the road to Damascus.
Mary Myfanwy Westrope had been a member of the I L P since 1905 and by 1935 was a veteran of the women’s rights movement. It seems her pacifism kept her out of the militant Pankhurst suffragettes. Francis Westrope was imprisoned as a conscientious objector in the First World War, where he met the pianist Frank Merrick and Fenner Brockway. Merrick says that Westrope and he became interested in Esperanto by accident while in prison: a grammar was the only mind-stretching book available, apart from theological works. Perhaps there was some accident about Westrope’s interest, but Esperanto had an ideology of brotherhood of man and international fraternity about it that must have appealed: the tower of Babel, not Mammon or Eve’s apple, was to him the primal curse. Given one language, there would be perpetual peace. But the Esperantist cause was nothing if not eclectic and ecumenical: it could sail alongside or take up on board many another great cause or small crankery — including vegetarianism in the Westropes’ case. Esperanto led them to meet Nellie Limouzin and Eugene Adam. Like Adam, Myfanwy Westrope had visited the Soviet Union (in 1931), and she too had returned profoundly disillusioned, not with socialism but with what she saw there. She plunged into I L P activity even more heartily on her return.
The I L P was a striking mixture of optimism and pessimism, of heavens and of hells. Domestically, the capitalist system was breaking down, a revolution would occur — it need not be forced — but it would be resisted by counter-revolutionary forces, so these forces had to be anticipated. However, the socialist movement must maintain both internal party democracy and extend to all, not destroy, what the Communist Party called ‘mere bourgeois liberty’. The I L P was divided on the Hitler question, whether he was a witness to the last days and death-throes of capitalism or a new autonomous force to be actively resisted by arms. But internationally, most of the I L P saw war as both imminent and as a purely nationalist, capitalist occurrence, a phenomenon of the final era of a capitalism tearing itself apart. This would provoke, after terrible devastation, an international general strike of working men. And in all this, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its affiliates had become little better than the new Fascist regimes: an historically specific form of state monopoly capitalism. While not strictly pacifist, the I L P’s anti-militarism made working alliances with pacifists easy; and while declaring itself revolutionary, the I L P appealed to Left-wing activists in the existing British Labour movement, still picking itself up slowly after its betrayal by Ramsay MacDonald.
The ‘friend in Golders Green’ referred to in Nellie Limouzin’s letter was of course Mabel Fierz, who herself knew the Westropes. So twice in his early career Orwell was exposed to broadly the same range of ideas that he was to meet, but much more vividly, among the Spanish socialists and anarchists; and exposed indeed to the same association of socialism and assorted crankeries that he was to attack in The Road to Wigan Pier. To Brenda Salkeld, if not to Mabel Fierz, he was keeping up his pose of’Tory anarchist’ as late as May 1935, when he told her that he had called on Richard Rees to borrow money, having forgotten it was a Bank Holiday:’... but he was at some sort of Socialist meeting and they asked me in and I spent three hours with seven or. eight socialists harrying me, including a South Wales miner who told me — quite good-naturedly — that if he were dictator, he, would have me shot immediately.’ All that can be certain is his proximity at that time to Left-wing socialist ideas, but not yet his full commitment. Mosley’s Blackshirts were also very active on the periphery of Hampstead and could have been a powerful negative influence in putting him on the road to Catalonia.
If the political Orwell is beginning to emerge, the literary Orwell was enduring typical difficulties. Gollancz was driven to commission three lengthy opinions. A Clergyman’s Daughter was a curate’s egg — everyone who read it agreed that it was ‘good in parts’. Gerald Gould, his chief reader (and a regular novel reviewer for the Observer), said that it was ‘an extraordinary book’, was ‘very original’, and ‘on literary merit I think it certainly ought to be published’; but drew attention to ‘snags and difficulties’. These included, again, the fear of libel, since ‘the author is so particular and exact in his geographical indications’. The terrible school where Dorothy teaches is said, for instance, to be ‘at Southbridge, about twelve miles from London’ (as is Uxbridge where Blair had taught). This fear of libel is a good measure of how autobiographical readers assumed the book to be. Despite that, however, Gould found the school-teaching scenes completely implausible and ‘quite ludicrous as a representation of what could possibly go on today’ (which Orwell was firmly to deny — indeed to show a sardonic delight in the fact that Gollancz and his advisers found it implausible). Gould thought the night scene in Trafalgar Square, when Dorothy loses her memory among tramps, ‘extremely powerful’ and ‘a mixture of James Joyce in the ULYSSES period and O’Casey in his latest mood’. But he saw its ‘change of mood and manner’ as ‘a distinct artistic mistake’.
As usual, Gollancz’s solicitor, Harold Rubinstein, to whom it was sent straight away, gave more than legal advice. The difficulties of libel raised by Gould could, he thought, be quite easily overcome; but not those of structure. He said that the book fell into five distinct and far too loosely related sections: (a) Dorothy’s life as a drudge for the church and housekeeper for her bigoted and incompetent father; (b) her life as a hop-picker when her memory fails and, following the attempted seduction by the literary gentleman, she runs away; (c) her night in Trafalgar Square with the tramps and down-and-outs; (d) her life as a schoolmistress under the ignorant and despotic proprietor; and (e) her return, somehow defeated, somehow resolute, to the routines of the old parish life. Rubinstein briskly called the first section ‘good’, the second ‘much better’, the third ‘magnificent’, the fourth ‘puerile’ and the fifth ‘unconvincing’. He concluded that the ‘fine qualities’ of the book would be hopelessly prejudiced if it went out without drastic revision.
Gollancz was in a quandary. He had great faith in Orwell, perhaps not in A Clergyman’s Daughter, but then a publisher has to keep a new author going, setting his sights on future successes so long as actual loss can be avoided in the present. So he asked for a formal opinion from Norman Collins, his young fellow-director. Collins wrote to him on New Year’s Day 1935 to say that it was in many ways the oddest manuscript he had ever read. He agreed wholeheartedly with the solicitor’s excellent literary criticism, saw that drastic changes to the structure would improve it, possibly it should be three different books rather than one. But how would the author react?
His reply to such suggestions would, I am convinced, be precisely what O’Casey’s reply was to the Abbey Theatre when they turned down his play — and that was a perfectly plain and unequivocal ‘Go to hell’. I think then that it is up to us to publish the book, making a ballyhoo of the fact that in many respects this is perhaps the most remarkable novel that we have ever published, etc, etc.
I know nothing of Orwell, but it is perfectly clear (to adopt a convenient phraseology) that he has been through hell, and that he is probably still there. He would certainly be a plum for a practising psycho-analyst. There is in his work, either latent or fully revealed, almost every one of the major aberrations ... The whole of this report adds up to this, I should certainly publish it as it stands rather than let it go, but I would certainly put it up to the author that he makes the sort of alterations which I have suggested ... rather than publish in its present form.
However, Gollancz meanwhile made up his mind to publish with only minor revisions, perhaps fearing that Orwell would prove as difficult as O’Casey.[*] But Orwell, in a letter to Moore six weeks before Collins wrote his report, had already said that he would be willing to do ‘a little toning down’ of the school scene to meet Gollancz’s incredulity; and he had assured him that questions of libel and obscenity were but ‘a small matter’ to be put right ‘by a few strokes of the pen’. By 22 January 1935 Orwell thanked Moore for getting such good terms from Gollancz for the book, asked that a reference to Burmese Days be included, and cheerfully remarked ‘I am afraid he is going to lose money this rime, all right.’ He at least did not lose. Four thousand copies were printed and, though the type was distributed, none was remaindered: a good, modest piece of estimating on Gollancz’s part. The reviews were very mixed, indeed most reviewers did not know how to place the book, rather like the reports made for Gollancz. Orwell himself had had such doubts when he had told Moore with half-gloomy and half-cheerful frankness, ‘It was a good idea, but I am afraid I have made a muck of it.’ When he presented a copy to Brenda Salkeld he said that it was ‘tripe’, apart from the Trafalgar Square night-scene. This was endearingly modest and honest but also obsessively perfectionist. He was to say such things again about his other writings, with far less cause.
Years later when Orwell was putting his affairs in order, he renounced it entirely. He left instructions that it was not to be translated or reprinted, and wrote to a friend that it was a book he was ashamed of and that: ‘This was written simply as an exercise and I oughtn’t to have published it, but I was desperate for money, ditto when I wrote Keep the A. At that time I simply hadn’t a book in me, but I was half starved and had to turn out something to bring in a £100 or so.’ But his contemporary letters to Brenda Salkeld make clear that he was writing it for publication and that, while certainly an experiment in seeing whether different styles and perspectives could be combined in one narrative as Joyce had done, it was not a mere exercise. He had already had plenty of exercise in producing writing that did not get published. Also he was not ‘half-starved’, even if still very hard up, at the time he was writing either A Clergyman’s Daughter in Southwold or Keep the Aspidistra Flying in Hampstead. His worst times had been in the immediately preceding years. He wanted to make money with these books, if not enough to live on then almost enough, so he drove himself hard, and far from ‘not having a book’ in him, he moved from one to another with great speed and determination. At this stage in his life he lacked time, tranquillity and security, certainly, which money would help provide; but he did not lack ideas.
A Clergyman’s Daughter may not be consistently excellent, but it is better, in parts, than many, including Orwell himself, were to believe. The central character of Dorothy, slaving for her useless father, is a real type and the description of her claustrophobic life rings true, the sociological detail of middle-class poverty and pretension is fascinating, even if psychologically the character remains shallow; but he was simply not that kind of novelist, and there is this other kind of novel. The breakdown following an attempted seduction that moves her into the company of tramps and the hop-picking fields is absurdly arbitrary and implausible; but once established in another closed world, the description is rich, vivid and compelling. The night scene, written as dialogue between the tramps in Trafalgar Square, is, in its own right, astoundingly awful and, as a straight crib from Joyce’s Ulysses (fully deserving O’Casey’s abuse), embarrassing; it is only interesting for picaresque detail better placed in his essays and documentaries. Then her life as a schoolmistress, when she surfaces again, is another compelling creation of a closed world, the remorseless detail of which was drawn, like the tramping scenes, directly from his own experience. Someone else must have furnished the details of life in a poor vicarage, for his own home had nothing of such poverty and despair. But the three good chapters out of five, all studies in closed societies, have no real relationship to each other and could just as well have been separate short stories. The final chapter, when Dorothy’s father allows her home again, is as unresolved and ambiguous as the ending of Keep the Aspidistra Flying was to be. She simply forsakes any hope of freedom and resumes the old life, just as Gordon Comstock was to go back to the advertising agency and forsake his poetry. Material circumstances defeat them both. We leave her making cheap costumes once again for the school play:
The problem of faith and no faith had utterly vanished from her mind. It was beginning to get dark, but, too busy to stop and light the lamp, she worked on, pasting strip after strip of paper into place, with absorbed, with pious concentration, in the penetrating smell of the gluepot.
But is she defeated (as Gordon could be said to be) by the Money God, or is she (as Gordon could be said to be) reconciled to what is at least the ‘best of all possible worlds’? Is the final tone sardonic mockery or sardonic pity? The author seems undecided. Orwell himself seems unresolved. If mockery, he can only be the spectator, however good a writer; but if pity, then something should be done about it, while remaining a true writer.
Yet if there was no sign of political commitment in the book, the very first paragraph contained symbols and concepts strangely prescient of his very last great work.
As the alarm clock on the chest of drawers exploded like a horrid little bomb of bell metal, Dorothy, wrenched from the depths of some complex, troubling dream, woke with a start and lay on her back looking into the darkness in extreme exhaustion.
Whatever Orwell revealed about himself in A Clergyman’s Daughter (and Norman Collins plainly read too much into it-had he met Orwell he would have been astonished at how ordinary and commonsensical he appeared), he did not reveal his politics.
Orwell had a girlfriend in Hampstead, who was a member of the Labour League of Youth, but she remembers that he talked very little about politics except to curse the Empire and ‘the Scots by whom he appeared to imagine it dominated’. He had several friends at this period with whom he was on occasional ‘walking out together’ terms, but there were two ‘steady’ or ‘regular’ girls. ‘Sally’ (a pseudonym) seems to have been, like Rosemary in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a commercial artist; but unlike Rosemary she kept the real George more or less at arm’s length. She gave way, with some overlap, to Kay, who worked in a secretarial agency near Russell Square. Kay was someone of literary tastes, who liked to do typing for writers and therefore meet them and mingle with their lives. Orwell met her in the late autumn of 1934 when she came into the shop. She lived very close and knew the Westropes. She was both more down to earth and political than the lesser lights, who seemed to Geoffrey Gorer — in a rather suspect collective memory — to be ‘arty’ types: ‘candles and sandals’, given to wearing dirndl skirts and carrying the New Statesman and Nation like a talisman. Eric liked the role of a kindly, wiser, older brother, a young girl’s guide to literature. He must have been pleased to have a girl both serious and merry to talk to, to walk with, and occasionally when luck and circumstances permitted (for it was always ‘to leave by midnight’ in those dark days beyond recall), go to bed with. He told her to read Dickens and Conrad and to repair lack of knowledge of the great tradition before tackling the modems, like Lawrence and Joyce. But Kay needed little such advice: she was already widely read and used to splitting her votes between the ancient and the moderns. A contemporary described her as ‘a jolly, smiling, warm-hearted, open, marvellously calm lady’.
Orwell did not even talk to Kay about his writing. He was, in fact, somewhat secretive. Making love was nice enough, but it stirred no great warmth in him, no confessions or soul-baring. Somehow a story grew that he carefully closed a big notebook before sharing his bed one night and, on another occasion, placed a tea-towel modestly over a pile of manuscript. Kay did leam that he was writing a verse epic of the history of the English from the times of Chaucer and in a Chaucerian manner. His aspiration to be a poet still lingered. No trace of this epic survives. The only echoes of this in Orwell’s work are the title-page device from Chaucer to Down and Out — ‘O scathful harm, condition of poverte’ — and a snatch of dialogue in Keep the Aspidistra Flying:
‘Have you read Chaucer’s Man of Lawe’s Tale?’
“The Man of Lawe’s Tale? Not that I remember. What’s it about?’
‘I forget. I was thinking of the first six stanzas. Where he talks about poverty. The way it gives everyone the right to stamp on you ...’
Orwell talked to Kay mainly about literature or else volubly and knowledgeably about birds as they walked Hampstead Heath together. He loved birds and he also loved cats. He grumbled to her about cats killing birds: he could not accept this contradiction in nature. She can only remember discussions about politics in the company of other friends: it was clear he was strongly ‘pacifist’, she said, or more likely anti-militarist, and strongly anti-colonialist; but she has no memory of any specific socialism.
By early March Orwell was well into his new novel, and due to the illness of Myfanwy Westrope, he said (Jon Kimche remembered it as Frank Westrope), he had to find rooms outside. The ever-active Mabel Fierz found him a room in a first-floor flat at 77 Parliament Hill, the last house in the road right on the edge of Hampstead Heath: Parliament Hill itself, on which young and old still fly kites, was framed in his window. The flat was owned by a psychologist of Jungian persuasion, Mrs Rosalind Obermeyer (later Mrs Henschel), who was taking the postgraduate psychology course at University College, London. She let out two rooms, the other to a medical student, Janet Grimpson; and the three of them shared the sitting-room. Rosalind Obermeyer had met him briefly a few years before when Orwell was staying at the Fierzs. Now Mabel asked her friend to let Orwell have the room specifically because it would give him fresh air from the Heath that he badly needed for his weak chest. Neither Jon Kimche nor Kay realized that he had a weak chest. ‘Just a bit of a cough sometimes, a bit chesty, you know’ — people remember Orwell saying things like that, part confiding, part forbidding inquiry and sympathy. Two new friends were only aware that Orwell had bronchitis ‘each winter’.
He brought Kay to his room at Parliament Hill to meet these two new friends, Rayner Heppenstall and Michael Sayers. Heppenstall, new to London after reading English at Leeds University, was beginning to write for the Adelphi. He became a novelist and a poet, and later a famous producer on the BBC’s Third Programme in its early days. One evening earlier that spring, Richard Rees had asked Heppenstall to join him for dinner at Bertorelli’s restaurant in Charlotte Street to meet a fellow contributor — George Orwell. Heppenstall brought another writer with him, whose poems were beginning to appear in the Adelphi, Dylan Thomas. Both he and Thomas, Heppenstall relates, were ‘already pretty well stoked up on Henekey’s cider’, and ‘There was a good deal of nonsense that evening ... but nothing which casts much light upon either Dylan or “George Orwell”’. Almost immediately, Heppenstall and Orwell met again at the house ofT. Sturge Moore, a white-bearded poet in a skull cap who was the original of A. E. Housman’s much-travelled remark, ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’. Through Heppenstall Orwell met Michael Sayers, poet, writer and Communist fellow-traveller who later emigrated to the United States. He asked them both to dinner, cooked a good steak for them on his newly-purchased ‘Bachelor Griller’, and they drank beer out of wooden ‘tree pattern’ mugs that he was then collecting (as Heppenstall states, but Kay is very firm that he collected pewter tankards, and only had one such arty ‘tree pattern’, that she had given him as a joke).
‘Curious,’ wrote George to Brenda Salkeld on 7th March,
... that you should mention that review ofJoad’s book, because Heppenstall, the man who wrote it, stayed at my place the night before last — in fact he was having breakfast with me when I was reading your letter. I did not tell him what you said about ‘second-rate highbrows’. As a matter of fact, he is very nice — a Yorkshireman, very young, twenty-four or five, I would say, and passionately interested in the ballet... I cannot tell you how I am looking forward to coming down next weekend. I do hope it won’t fall through.
He also introduced Rayner to Mabel Fierz, who delightedly took him under her wing as a young hopeful, as she had taken Eric some years before.
George and Rayner were welcome, Kay remembers, at literary ‘At Homes’ given by such as Edwin Muir and his wife, Willa. Orwell refused to go, indeed he crossed the street rather than pass the Muirs, so strong was his irrational dislike, they all noted, of the Scots. (In fact the Muirs came from Orkney and Shetland.) He railed against ‘the whisky-swilling Scottish drunks’ who misgoverned and maltreated the Burmese; and perhaps some hate lingered from the time when Mrs Wilkes favoured the kilted Scottish lordlings in St Cyprian’s days. More speculatively, an obsessively long incident, six whole pages, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying might furnish a more specific reason. Gordon, invited to a party by ‘Paul Doring’ and his wife in ‘Coleridge Grove’ (Keats Grove is next to Downshire Hill) finds, on his arrival, that the house is empty. He may have got the wrong night but they may have done it to him deliberately.
Otherwise, Orwell seemed to be in a mood for company. He sometimes dined at small restaurants in Soho on half-crown set meals; so even if money was very right, he was no longer precisely poverty-stricken. At one such dinner, Rayner Heppenstall was impressed by George sending back a bottle of red wine to have the chill taken off. He joked that the experience of the Paris plongeur was socially one up on his own student days in Leeds or in provincial France. Nevertheless, without ever quite discussing it, Heppenstall and Sayers thought that Orwell was only half-educated compared with their own fine selves.[*] Any university degree was better than none, and they were certainly in highbrow mood, Heppenstall attending and writing about ballet and chasing ballet girls, and Sayers leading what he held to be a poet’s life. Heppenstall was to claim (something that no one else can remember) that all Orwell’s women at that rime were ugly, as if there were more than one, and imputes some kind of masochism to his amatory forays. Sayers and he saw something a little comic in Eric, ‘a nice old thing, and kindly eccentric’, going on and on about Dickens, Samuel Butler and Gissing, and something odd in his collection of comic postcards. Also Orwell was found reading the Magnet and the Gem, children’s comics. Plainly culture had to be defended against the masses, even in a Marxist mode, whereas Orwell was beginning to show signs of actually appreciating what Herbert Read was to mean by saying, in the title of a once-famous essay, ‘To Hell With Culture’; and his interest in popular culture had something anthropological about it (anticipating the great days of Picture Post).
This attitude received reinforcement from a long friendship that followed an unexpected letter from Geoffrey Gorer, the social anthropologist. He had read Burmese Days and wrote to its author:
Will you allow me to tell you how very much indeed I admire your novel Burmese Days: it seems to me an absolutely admirable statement of fact told as vividly and with as little bitterness as possible. It is difficult to praise with-out being impertinent; it seems to me that you have done a necessary and important piece of work as well as it could be done. I wonder if you intend your stricture on the Burmese sahib-log who are ‘living a lie the whole time’ to apply to their domestic counterparts; it seems to me to work admirably.
My most sincere congratulations.
This soon led to a meeting (when Orwell cooked him liver and bacon, to his distaste). Years later Gorer recalled:
I found he was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known. I was never bored in his company. He was interested in nearly everything. And his attitudes were original. He didn’t take accepted ideas ... I would have said he was an unhappy man. He was too big for himself. I suppose if he’d been younger you would have said ‘coltish’. He was awfully likely to knock things off tables, to trip over things. I mean, he was a gangling, physically badly coordinated young man. I think his feelings that even the inanimate world was against him which he did have at some times, I mean any gas stove he had would go wrong, any radio would break down ... He was a lonely man — until he met Eileen, a very lonely man. He was fairly well convinced that nobody would like him, which made him prickly.
Burmese Days was reviewed by Cyril Connolly in the New Statesman and Nation. The prep-school friends had drifted apart at Eton, and there had been no contact since.
Burmese Days is an admirable novel. It is a crisp, fierce and almost boisterous attack on the Anglo-Indian. The author loves Burma, he goes to great lengths to describe the vices of the Burmese and the horror of the climate, but he loves it, and nothing can palliate, for him, the presence of a handful of inefficient, complacent public school types who make their living there. The ... vigour and rapidity of (his extremely biased book ... His novel might have been better had he tolled down the ferocious partiality of the Lawrence-Aldington school, but personally I liked it and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a spate of efficient indignation, graphic description, excellent narrative, excitement, and irony tempered with vitriol.
This led to an invitation to dinner, ‘a “bifteck aux pommes” cooked by himself Connolly remembered. Later he was to admit, with rare empathy, that it was quite natural for their renewed acquaintance to have been so delayed: ‘when Orwell came back from Burma he did not care for Oxford and Cambridge intellectuals, the easy livers, “the Pansy Left” as he called them.’ ‘His greeting was typical, a long but not unfriendly stare and his characteristic wheezy laugh, “Well, Connolly, I can see that you’ve worn a good deal better than I have”. I could say nothing, for I was appalled by the ravaged grooves that ran down from cheek to chin. My fat cigar-smoking persona must have been a surprise to him.’ From then on,[*] Connolly bestirred himself to introduce Orwell to people and, particularly during the War, to encourage and publish his essays. Theirs was a friendship of unlike characters. They must have looked at each other like two strange, noble beasts of different species, happening to share the same waterhole, not hostile but generically remote. Connolly admired Orwell for his integrity, authenticity, and eccentricity; but was faintly condescending about his wasting time over the social question rather than concentrating on high literature, while Orwell admired Connolly for his erudition, his knowingness and sociability, but was faintly condescending about his wasting time with Part pour Fart rather than advancing the good old cause. Both seem to have thought that they were patronizing the other by renewing and pursuing (after thirteen years) their ironical but warm friendship. They each had secondary characteristics, however, which were close to the other’s dominant one: Connolly then shared the fashionable Left-trending views, as shown by his enthusiastic account of a brief visit to revolutionary Barcelona the following year (which he republished in The Condemned Playground); and Orwell had hoped, in A Clergyman’s Daughter, to write a novel as an exercise in style. None the less, what Connolly would repeat years after his friend’s death sums it up well enough: ‘I was a stage rebel, Orwell was a true one.’
A lot of things happened at once. Through Connolly, Orwell was to meet the wife of his last days, but through his landlady he now met the wife of his great creative period. With all these new friends, sociability almost went to the solitary man’s head. He decided to give a small party. This meant asking his landlady to let him use some of her space, so it was agreed they would give one together.
After about three months in which we rarely met (I engrossed in my studies, he often writing his latest novel), he asked me one day, could we not give a joint party as his bedsitter was too small. I know he said one of the people he would invite was Richard Rees and was it Heppenstall? As far as I can remember, he had not invited any women friends, but I remember clearly inviting Eileen O’Shaughnessy, a fellow student at University College, and a lay psychotherapist, Dr Jennings White, who was on the Committee of the Institute for the psychological treatment of delinquency, where I had obtained work as a social worker, and I invited also one or two men students also in the Psychology Department of University College.
When our very pleasant evening ended, I remember Eric accompanied the guests to the nearby buses and trains at the bottom of the hill — on his return he came into my sitting-room, I had noticed that he had paid a good bit of attention to Eileen and Eric said, ‘Now that is the kind of girl I would like to marry!’ I was delighted to hear this, as I, too, felt they had much to give each other. She was a very attractive, very feminine Irish woman, with lively interests and a gay, infectious laugh. So I replied, ‘Fine! I’ll invite her when I see her again in two days’ time, and you tell me which evenings would suit you, and both come and have dinner with me.’
At College I saw she Was already reading Burmese Days (perhaps he had lent it to her). Our small dinner party two days after was a very gay affair. I left them quite soon (after the meal) in my sitting-room and went out to nearby friends.
Soon after, George took Eileen horse-riding on Blackheath — some old habits die hard — close to where she lived at Greenwich. Two or three weeks later she told another student who had been at the party, Lydia Jackson,[*] that he had as good as proposed to her. She had not said yes, but she had not said no.
Eileen Maud O’Shaughnessy was of Irish stock, bom in 1905 and brought up in Sunderiand on Wearside. She had won a scholarship to St Hugh’s College, Oxford, from where she graduated in 1927 with a Second Class Honours degree in English. She tried teaching in a girls’ boarding-school but could not stand it, held various odd jobs, including reading to the aged Dame Elizabeth Cadbury and some social work, but then took a secretarial course, eventually taking over some-time in 1931 a small firm herself, ‘Murrells Typing Agency’ in Victoria Street, London, SW i. The office junior, or ‘the oil rag’, then 15 years old, remembers her well as a ‘vivid personality’, happy but unbusinesslike. Instead of copy-typing the thesis of a White Russian emigre, she rewrote it: the office thought that she should have got the doctorate. Eileen tried to educate young ‘oil rag’ and prepare her for university, but the girl’s mother would have none of it.
Eileen became interested in psychology, sold the agency and entered University College, London in 1934, passing a qualifying examination for the MA in Psychology. In 1935-6 she completed the course work for the degree, though she was never to finish her thesis (something to do with measuring imagination in school children, undertaken on the advice of the Professor, Cyril Burt). She also acted as secretary during this time to her brother, a surgeon and chest specialist. A fellow student and her experimental partner (it was the high court of scientific and experimental method, allegedly), John Cohen (later Professor of Psychology at Manchester), remembers her as ‘rather stiff and austere’, but also bright, argumentative and provocative. Her great concern for her brother’s work was also evident.
Eileen was socialist in her convictions, but did not belong to any organizations or political parries. Indeed, like her future husband, she distrusted parties even if she was prepared to espouse ideologies. The closest she came to activism was teaching two short courses in Psychology for the Workers’ Educational Association while at University College. In appearance, Eileen was small, dark and fine-boned. No one called her ‘beautiful’ but everyone remembers her as either remarkably ‘pretty’ or ‘handsome’ — even Rayner Heppenstall admitted this, allowed her to be an exception to his dubious generalization that George only cared for ugly girls. However, Eileen did not care too much how she dressed, usually in shabby and unbrushed but ‘good’ black suits. Cyril Connolly remembered her as ‘very charming... intelligent ... and she loved him, and she was independent, and although she didn’t wear make-up or anything like that, she was very pretty, and totally worthy of him as a wife; he was very proud other.’ Her friends are vehement that she understood people far better than George, and that her range of interests was almost as wide. They were not to be perfect together, but always a good match. She fought his fights and looked after him as well as he would allow — although she was a woman careless of creature comforts herself. She indulged, even enjoyed, his eccentricities. Brenda Salkeld thought well of her, believed her to be the kind of woman George needed. Some ofEileen’s friends, however, were not so sure that George was the right man for her, and were puzzled that such an emancipated and forceful woman was so willing to play second fiddle to what appeared to be a rather self-absorbed and gawky minor novelist.
Eileen gave George a new optimism. So unsure of himself with people, he found it marvellous to be loved by a woman like this who did not nag him to look for a steady job, not try to change his bohemian habits. He is likely to have viewed marriage rather conventionally. Having lived alone for so long, he saw the institution of marriage as partly a surrender of liberty in return for security. He did not think that two ‘free souls’ such as theirs would, in uniting, make a marriage of a unique kind; rather that marriage was a bit of a compromise, forcing the partners to take on many bourgeois conventions.
Perhaps Eileen’s arrival in his life could account for the sudden, strange and rather ambivalent ‘happy ending’ of Gordon Comstock’s odyssey — when he decides to take the soul- or poetry-destroying job in the advertising agency and marry Rosemary. Luckily Orwell did not himself do anything so drastic as look for a full-time job again.
Our civilization is founded on greed and fear, but in the lives of common men the greed and fear are mysteriously transmuted into something nobler. The lower-middle-class people in there, behind their lace curtains, with their children and their scraps of furniture and their aspidistras — they lived by the money code, sure enough, and yet they contrived to keep their decency. The money-code as they interpreted it was not merely cynical and hoggish. They had their standards, their inviolable points of honour. They ‘kept themselves respectable’ — kept the aspidistra flying. Besides, they were alive. They were bound up in the bundle of life. They begot children which is what the saints and the soul-savers never by any chance do.
He wanted children very much, more so than Eileen. But he told Heppenstall one thick night three years later, on a rare occasion when his tongue was loosened by trying to keep up with his Alcibiadian companion, that he believed himself to be sterile (which is confirmed, at least his belief is confirmed, by Eileen telling a friend the same thing). Why he believed this to be true is unclear. Perhaps it was simply that, as he told a woman friend ten years later, they had tried to have children and failed. But odd that he should shoulder the blame so self-critically: it takes two to make a child.
Some time in September 1935 Orwell was to write to Heppenstall, ‘You are right about Eileen. She is the nicest person I have met for a long time. However, at present alas! I can’t afford a ring, except perhaps a Woolworth’s one.’ And in October he told him that ‘Eileen says she won’t marry me as yet’ until she had finished her course and was earning some money. ‘Perhaps I shall be earning more next year,’ he said vaguely. ‘On the other hand by next year we may all have been blown sky-high. I was down at Greenwich the other day and looking at the river I thought what wonders a few bombs would work among the shipping.’
Keep the Aspidistra Flying was nearing completion when he wrote these cheerful words which make Comstock and Orwell sound so very close to each other. The work as a whole is not political, the diatribe against the ‘money god’ is not put in socialist terms but seeks to show the damage done to individual (almost individualist) artistic impulse by both commercialism and sheer lack of money (the two perspectives do not always focus together). But there is a definite recurrent theme which, while it is unrelated to the plot, is an extension of the hero’s ‘apocalyptic relish’; bombing. Even before the Spanish War many novels and poems worked in the theme of the coming of bombing planes, either in straightforward fear or as a desperate hope for the collapse and purgation of a rotten civilization, as well as odd bits of Futurist servility to anything metallic, shiny and inhuman. But Orwell’s concern with bombing reflects some of the specific concerns of the immediate company he kept. By 1935 Orwell, through friends like Michael Sayers and the Westropes, was being introduced more and more to advanced Left-wing thinking. Mrs Westrope’s younger brother had even introduced him to the abrasive Reg Groves, one of the first British Trotskyists, who had been Orwell’s immediate predecessor in the bookshop. Orwell pretended to Brenda Salkeld that he was keeping his distance from these socialists, who would like to see him shot, but he was not convincing, either to her or to Kay, whom he told that ‘what England needed was to follow the kind of policies in Chesterton’s G. K.’s Weekly’ (a kind of anti-capitalist, agrarian ‘Merrie England’ medievalism). Orwell knew that such retreats were impossible precisely because of the likelihood of a new and specific kind of war.
And the reverberations of future wars. Enemy aeroplanes flying over London; the deep threatening hum of the propellers, the shattering thunder of the bombs, [pp. 23-4]
Gordon squinted up at the leaden sky. Those aeroplanes are coming. In imagination he saw them coming now; squadron after squadron, innumerable, darkening the sky like clouds of gnats. With his tongue not quite against his teeth he made a buzzing blue-bottle-on-the-window-pane sound to represent the humming of aeroplanes. It was a sound which, at the moment, he ardently desired to hear. [p. 29]
You can’t look at it without thinking of French letters and machine-guns. Do you know that the other day I was actually wishing war would break out? I was longing for it — praying for it, almost, [p. 106]
The electric drills in our streets presage the rattle of machine guns. Only a little while before the aeroplanes come. Zoom — bang! A few tons of TNT to send our civilization back to hell where it belongs, [p. 282]
In part this imagery of bombing is no more than, once again, that ‘this age makes me so sick that sometimes I am almost impelled to stop at a comer and start calling down curses from heaven like Jeremiah’. Indeed, his Burma poem had already called down a violent doom, part retributive and part sadistic, not merely on the Empire but on England herself. The specific images in Keep the Aspidistra Flying not only make a remarkably good prophecy put forward in 1935 of events in 1939-45 but also offer a clear anticipation of some of the precise imagery and the general intensity of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The anti-militarist and pacifist rhetoric in the novel, however, shows the specific kind of discussions going on in the left-wing circles in which Orwell moved. They all believed, as did many military theorists, that the bombing aeroplane would be utterly, drastically and quickly decisive in any future war. And that from the bombed-out ruins of capitalist civilization, an organized working-class movement would spontaneously arise (to the I L P aerial war, not mass poverty, would mark the breakdown of capitalism). If a Guernica did not occur quite on that scale, all ‘thinking people’ expected it to happen before it did. The imagery of bombing gives some measure of how much Orwell in 1935 was already penetrated by one other great political theme of his time, war as well as unemployment and poverty.
The main literary consciousness of the mid-1930s was gradually, under the pressure of external events, in danger of becoming wholly or overly politicized. Some writers felt the need, as when Yeats in his poem ‘Polities’ mocked Thomas Mann, to defend the very existence and irrelevance of poetry (much as Mann himself in the 1920s had defended the ‘ivory tower’ against his brother’s advocacy of descent into the political arena). Jack Common reminisced:
After Down and Out ... Orwell was well and truly launched as a novelist. That is he was always well-reviewed and could count on a faithful readership likely to grow. The danger was, this being the Thirties, that [his novels] might come to seem irrelevant. It was typical of the way things were going that the Adelphi, formerly a monthly ivory tower sheltering or gathering together the devotees of truth-beauty, beauty-truth in writing, was now a political light-house in which doughty polemicists argued about which way to direct the beam.
Along with his immersion in cultural and political pessimism (which was as a tendency quite as evident in contemporary literature as ‘commitment’), Orwell remained positive and tender towards nature and the traditions of the common people — in all, an almost pietistic exaltation in the texture of everyday life, aspidistras and all. He was also brooding on themes that we would now call ‘environmentalist’, looking back with horror at the suburban sprawl over the countryside around such places as Uxbridge. Apart from one poem, these themes did not appear in print until 1939 in Coming Up For Air. There was a three-year gap until his next novel (indeed last true novel) during which time the subject matter of his writing became dominated (whether against his natural inclination or not) by his moral reaction to political events; but not before.
That August he began to write regularly for the New English Weekly which A. R. Orage had founded in 1932. It is doubtful if Orwell ever met Orage, who died in 1934. It was his successor, Philip Mairet, whom Orwell principally wrote for, two years of a gruelling ‘Some Recent Novels’ column, appearing about once a month. Mairet knew Orwell well. (Orwell only ceased to write for his weekly when, in 1940, it stuck to a pacifist line and Orwell changed to support for the war.) The New English Weekly paid almost nothing, but it was a good way to obtain books. Orwell wrote his column conscientiously, obviously reading all the books carefully. If he was harsh to bad (and especially to pretentious) authors, it was clear that he had suffered in reading their work, not just snatched at the jacket and a few random pages. In December 1935 he made a revealing comment in a brief review of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer — it showed the general effect he was trying to achieve in Keep the Aspidistra Flying — ‘Man is not a Yahoo, but he is rather like a Yahoo and needs to be reminded of it from time to time.’
He had moved house in August, perhaps to gain more privacy. Grateful though he must have been to Rosalind Obermeyer for introducing him to Eileen, there were difficulties in having his fiancee’s fellow-student as landlady. He was still seeing Kay, who had accepted her secondary role, but perhaps he wanted, nevertheless, to put space between himself and her. But the move was precipitated by Mabel Fierz and Rayner Heppenstall. Rayner had lost his digs because of an intolerant landlady, and rucksack on back had fled to Golders Green and Mabel. She had suggested that the three of them, Heppenstall, Sayers and Orwell, find a flat together — to be her ‘junior republic’, she said, a joke none of them found very funny. They found a flat at 50 Lawford Road, a working-class area just off Kentish Town High Street, so only twenty minutes away from the bookshop where Orwell continued to work each afternoon. The house was small, a yellow-brick early Victorian semi-detached villa, and their flat of three rooms and a kitchen was on the first floor. On the ground floor there was a tram-driver and his wife, and in the basement a plumber. George took a weekly bath in the public baths, Rayner went up to Mabel’s at weekends for his; and Michael only used the flat for assignations.
Part of that summer Heppenstall had been away at the first of the Adelphi summer schools at Caerleon, when Middleton Murry, then in mystical Marxist or Christian-Socialist phase,[*] decided that a ‘fellowship’ should be founded; and then Heppenstall went to stay with Middleton Murry in Norfolk. George had been driven over to Norfolk from Southwold by his sister Avril (the Blairs could run a small motor-car), and had taken Brenda Salkeld for the ride. Almost as soon as Rayner returned to London that August the thought took him to become a Catholic. He actually went to Oxford for instruction under Father D’Arcy. He soon gave it up. Michael Sayers, as the winds blew him, either veered towards or away from the Communist Party. They made a most unlikely pair of flat-mates for a man who was already anti-Catholic and anti-Communist. The presence of Rayner and Michael may prove that friendship knows no barriers, or on the other hand it may have been a sign of his slow ferment in trying to place himself politically and morally. The three of them got on, at first, reasonably well. Heppenstall later admitted that they rather exploited ‘old Eric’. The rent-book was in Orwell’s name and Michael was forgetful about the rent, though he always paid up in the end; but Rayner often had no money by the end of the week. George was first up each morning. He had a certain dignity and formality: unlike Rayner, he would not attempt any serious writing while unshaven and in his dressing-gown. It was George who cooked breakfast, washed up, did most of the cooking; and Rayner stretched himself to fetch the beer for dinner each evening in a jug from the Duke of Cambridge pub on the corner. He and Michael did not seem to take George too seriously; they continued to think of him as ‘a nice old thing’. He was ten years older, indeed, than Sayers and eight than Heppenstall. His time-out in Burma had made him older than most of the young writers still leading this kind of ‘floating life’; but it also gave him an emotional detachment from them and immunized him from fashion.
Eileen came to see George on Sundays, and George and she would head off by train or Green Line bus for walks in the country. On one such Sunday they set off for Epsom, George carrying a shooting-stick. Rayner himself (he later wrote in self-deprecatory comic vein) went to the Ballet Club at Netting Hill Gate. The business manager was aware of his over-attentiveness to one of the girls and had been told off to ply him with whisky to divert his attention until the girl had had a chance to dress and depart. On his way home to Kentish Town, Rayner passed out twice and made the final ascent up the stairs on his hands and knees. Orwell was waiting up for him.
‘... Bit thick you know... This time of night... Wake up the whole street... I can put up with a lot... A bit of consideration ... After all...’ All exemplary sentiments, but somehow at the time they seemed inappropriate.
‘Eric,’ I said, ‘do shut up and go away.’
‘... Time of night... Put up with a lot... Bit thick ... the neighbours ... I do think ...’
Eric did not go away. Rayner swung at him feebly and relates that he came to ten minutes later on the floor with a bloodied nose. Unable to clean the blood off his floor, he crawled into the absent Michael’s room and bed. Orwell then locked him in. Rayner started to kick the door; and when Orwell opened it, Rayner saw that he was armed with his shooting stick.
I pushed it [the stick] aside and sprang at him. He fetched me a dreadful crack across the legs and then raised the shooting-stick over his head. I looked at his face. Through my private mist I saw in it a curious blend of fear and sadistic exultation. I moved sideways, caught up Michael’s chair. I had raised it sufficiently to receive on it the first crash of the descending metal-fitted stick.
‘Sadistic exaltation’ is, of course, meant to demolish more of Orwell’s achievements than his lack of Adelphi Quaker-Marxist virtues in dealing with a difficult friend. Heppenstall was not alone in pointing to this dark side of Orwell’s character, even if he may have exaggerated it. The account written some twenty years later raises the same kind of problems as Orwell’s own autobiographical writings. The incident certainly occurred, as Mabel Fierz confirms, to whom the battered Rayner retreated the next morning — but she puts it down simply to his ‘silly behaviour’. It is more reasonable to infer from it that when Heppenstall wrote this account, he had come to think that Orwell’s writings were grossly overestimated or that he intended his account to be a symbolic criticism of Orwell’s character, rather than to believe that he saw the incident in just such terms at the time.[*]
The ‘junior republic’ broke up, but Orwell and Heppenstall met again, perfectly amicably, the following summer when Orwell went to lecture at Middleton Murry’s new Adelphi centre in Essex. Heppenstall took the chair for him. They retired afterwards to a pub together, ‘with perfect contentment’, for Rayner to tell George personal news of an old friend of Hampstead days, days already behind them both. Orwell was by then married, settled in the country, and had returned from a crucial journey. They remained friends, albeit not close friends, and Rayner Heppenstall was a constant visitor in the last days. ‘His friendships were constant, but seldom close,’ as Cyril Connolly remarked.
1. Keep the aspidistra Flying, pp. 18-19.[back]
2. ibid., p. 14.[back]
3. Richard Rees interviewed and transcribed (though this part not broadcast) for a BBC television ‘Omnibus’ programme of 1970 on Orwell, ‘The Road to the Left’, produced by Melvyn Bragg (Post Production Script no. 06349/1139, BBC Archives). Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]
4. Richard Rees, A Theory of My Time (Secker & Warburg, London, 1963), pp. 72, 201 and 180.[back]
5. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, p. 100.[back]
6. Compare Keep the Aspidistra Flying, chapter i, with his essay ‘Bookshop Memories’, CE I, pp. 242-6.[back]
7. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, pp. 197-8.[back]
8. Quoted in Mavis and lan Nome (eds), The Book of Hampstead (High Hill Books, London, 1960), p. 103.[back]
9. Interview and correspondence with Jon Kimche, Nov. 1979.[back]
10. Letter of 16 Feb. 1935. Orwell Archive. This passage is not included in the CE text of the letter, CE I, pp. 147-8.[back]
11. This extract from a letter from Elaine Limouzin was included in a letter to this author from Myfanwy Westrope of 21 Oct. 1972. Unhappily Mrs Westrope died before I was able to meet her.[back]
12. I am indebted to Professor John Saville of the University of Hull, for information about the Westropes and their ILP connections.[back]
13. Unpublished letter to Brenda Salkeld. Orwell Archive (under seal).[back]
14. In the possession of Victor Gollancz Ltd.[back]
* The mention of Sean O’Casey’s name was to give Gollancz an idea. He sent him a proof copy asking him for a puff for the jacket — a tactic V. G. so often pursued. He must have said something about the Trafalgar Square scene being in the manner of Joyce, for O’Casey replied that ‘Orwell had as much chance of reaching the stature of Joyce as a tit has of reaching that of an eagle.’ And for fair measure he says that he called it ‘a bastard ballet of lamentation’; but by the time he wrote that (in Sunset anil Evening Star, London, 1954, pp. 133—5), he was working off old scores against Orwell from a book review. (Orwell, to complete the tale, had reviewed his Drums Under the Windows in 1945: ‘W. B. Yeats once said that a dog does not praise its fleas, but this is somewhat contradicted by the special status enjoyed in this country by Irish nationalist writers... the basic reason is probably England’s bad conscience. It is difficult to object to Irish nationalism without seeming to condone centuries of English tyranny and exploitation ... So literary judgement is perverted by political sympathy and Mr O’Casey and others like him are able to remain almost immune from criticism’ — almost (The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. iv pp. 13-15).[back]
15. CE I, pp. 142-3.[back]
16. ibid., p. 147.[back]
17. ibid., p. 141.[back]
18. ibid., p. 150.[back]
19. CE IV, p. 205.[back]
20. Peter Stansky and William Abrahams were evidently able to interview ‘Sally’, of whom they give a full and interesting account, see their Orwell: The Transformation (Constable, London, 1979), pp. 63-5.[back]
21. Interview with and letters from Mrs Kay Eke vail in Dec. 1973 and May to July 1979.[back]
22. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, p. 114.[back]
23. Rayner Heppenstall, Four Absentees (Barrie and Rockcliff, London, 1960), p. 46.[back]
24. Letter of 7 March of Miss Salkeld. Orwell Archive (under seal). The passage quoted is not in the extract from the same letter in CE I, pp. 150-51.[back]
* Michael Sayers’ attitude emerges in this sting in the tail of his double review of Burmese Days and A Clergyman’s Daughter. ‘One feels he has ideas about the novel, and that his future work is going to be unusually interesting. At present Mr Orwell seems to be most concerned with presenting his material in the clearest and honestest way. Being a man of considerable and diverse experience this problem naturally comes to him before any aesthetic consideration ...’ (Adelphi, August 1935, p. 316).[back]
25. Heppenstall, op. cit., pp. 59-60.[back]
26. Letter from Geoffrey Gorer of 16 July 1935. Orwell Archive.[back]
27. Gorer recorded for Melvyn Bragg’s BBC ‘Omnibus’ production (see note 3 above).[back]
28. Cyril Connolly in the New Statesman and Nation, 6 July 1935.[back]
29. Cyril Connolly, The Evening Colonnade (David Bruce and Watson, London, 1973), p. 375.[back]
30. Recalled by Connolly in a headnote to some letters of Orwell to him published in Encounter, Jan. 1962. In that headnote, however, Connolly speaks of the meeting taking place ‘at his rooms in Islington’. Orwell was not in Islington until 1944. Connolly always gave vivid detail in his reminiscences, but much of it is, alas, unreliable, especially regarding time and place.[back]
* Denys King-Farlow said to the editors of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters that Orwell had told him that ‘Without Connolly’s help I don’t think I would have got started as a writer when I came back from Burma.’ (Vol. i, p. 162) But King-Farlow’s memory must have been at fault. On Connolly’s own testimony, they did not meet until 1935 when Orwell already had two books out, a good publisher, a small reputation and a known character.[back]
31. Letter of 12 Nov. 1974 to the author from Mrs Rosalind Henschel (formerly Obermeyer) of Eastbourne.[back]
* Her pen name was Elizaveta Fen. She was bom in Russia in 1899, coming to England in 1925 and meeting Eileen at University College, London in 1934. She remained a close friend of them both.[back]
32. Elisaveta Fen, ‘George Orwell’s First Wife’, Twentieth Century, Aug. 1960, pp. 115-16.[back]
33. Letter of Edna D. Bussey to Ian Angus, 19 Sept. 1968.[back]
34. Letter of Professor John Cohen to the author, 5 Dec. 1979; and see also Stansky and Abrahams, op. cit., p. 96.[back]
35. Melvyn Bragg’s BBC ‘Omnibus’ production (see note 3 above), para. 3423.[back]
36. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, p. 293.[back]
37. Rayner Heppenstall, ‘Orwell Intermittent’, Twentieth Century, May 1955, p. 473; interview with Lettice Cooper in June 1976; and Orwell also told Anne Popham in a letter in 1945 that he thought he was sterile, see p. 336 above. However to state categorically on this evidence ‘that Eric was sterile’ (as do Stansky and Abrahams, op. cit., p. 166) seems unwarranted.[back]
38. CE I, pp. 153 and 154.[back]
39. ‘Apocalyptic relish’ is Bernard Bergonzi’s phrase in his treatment of the bombing theme in literature in his Reading the Thirties (Macmillan, London, 1978), pp. 102-10.[back]
40. Reg Groves, agitator and author, had been active in the ‘Balham succession’ from the Communist Party which was the beginning of Trotskyism in Britain. (See his The Balham Group, Pluto Press, London, 1975.) He only knew Orwell ‘vaguely’ in the bookshop days, but remembers that the Westropes had a wide circle of’genuine revolutionary socialists’ and ‘all sorts of odd cranks’. (Interview by author with Mr Reg Groves, Wandsworth, 15 April 1981.)[back]
41. CE I, p. 140.[back]
42. From an unpublished MS. of Jack Common’s, ‘Orwell at Wallington’, in the Jack Common Collection, University of Newcastle. I am grateful to Mrs Common for permission to reproduce this, and to Dr Eileen Aird.[back]
43. CE I, p. 155.[back]
44. Heppenstall, op. cit., p. 57.[back]
* Murry had concluded a few years before that Marx was essentially a religious teacher: ‘... Communism is the enemy of all “religions”, because it is itself the one religion’ (The Necessity of Communism, [Cape, 1932], p. in, a book that Orwell almost certainly had read). ‘Murry believed in a change of heart,’ wrote Rayner Heppenstall long afterwards: ‘He believed in the class war, but insisted that it should be waged without hatred.’ (Four Absentees [Barrie and Rockcliff, 1960] p. 33).[back]
45. Heppenstall, ‘The Shooting Stick’, Twentieth Century, April 1955, p. 370. There is a similar account in his Four Absentees.[back]
46. Heppenstall, Four Absentees, pp. 85-6.[back]
47. Interview by author with Mabel Fierz at Surbiton, 19 Jan. 1973.[back]
* re-reading my first edition, grateful that some critics reacted well to my deliberately avoiding the overly psychological kind of biography, but noting that some think I have overdone it, that there is a ‘sado-masochistic’ streak in Orwell that is only implicit in my narrative, I look at this passage again. Heppenstall’s account is well known, so I could not ignore it although my scepticism is obvious. But perhaps the fairer criticism is that he appears to me to crystallize, like the accomplished novelist he is, a complicated and recurring matter into a single significant anecdote of seemingly instant illumination.
The complicated matter is surely evident throughout this work, but I may not anywhere have been explicit enough. Orwell certainly from very early days liked to push himself into extreme situations: tramping, the tripe shop in Wigan and the trenches of Catalonia to come, possibly the Burma Police, as well as many small incidents, un-popular stands and difficult ways of doing ordinary things; and all despite his ill health. These can all be rationalized as the needed explorations of a genuine and profound political writer. And Orwell’s sense of what was ordinary is not to be judged by the home life of Hampstead and Chelsea literary intellectuals. But none the less, however usefully channelled and exploited from his writing, something odd and disturbing remains. I only say that it is inexplicable, except from stock and a priori psycho-analytical positions, and that it is to be rejected as an overall ‘explanation’ or ‘reduction’ of his literary and moral achievements. I do not mean to imply that it does not exist.
Victor Pritchett’s remark, which I quote more than once, that ‘he might be described as a writer who has “gone native” in his own country’ may have a deeper implication. Orwell was an explorer of ‘the lower depths’, but like some of the great explorers of Africa or of the Arabian deserts, as well as discovery there was a constant self-testing and a self-mortification, some hang-over of how some great individualists had played their version of the Imperial system’s ‘great game’: to see how much a man could take in extreme situations, self-discovery as well as geographical or, in his case, social and political discovery.[back]
48. Cyril Connolly, The Evening Colonnade (David Bruce & Watson, London, 1973), p. 374.[back]
No data (so far).
In March 1940 Orwell published with Gollancz Inside the Whale, a book of essays, in which the tide essay looked back over the debate about artists and political commitment in the 1930S. He criticized two famous stanzas from the original 1937 version of W. H. Auden’s poem ‘Spain’, to be much revised and finally disowned.
Tomorrow for the young poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the winter of perfect communion;
Tomorrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings: but to-day the struggle.
To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death;
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.
Orwell said that he had seen bodies of murdered men, ‘I don’t mean killed in battle’ and ‘To me, murder is something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person. The Hitlers and the Stalins find murder necessary, but they don’t advertise their callousness.’ So they didn’t call it murder, only ‘liquidation’ or ‘elimination’ or ‘some other soothing phrase. Mr Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled. So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.’ The general point is just, but Orwell may have belaboured Auden with the wrong end of the stick, for the poet probably did mean (though the whole poem is astonishingly ambiguous and ambivalent compared to its reputation) merely ‘killed in battle’ when he says ‘necessary murder’. Auden revised the deterministic ‘necessary murder’ that so angered Orwell into the more existential (and evasive) ‘fact of murder’; and he did so after Orwell’s first criticism had appeared.
Orwell himself was not a squeamish liberal when it came to ‘necessary murder’, he was more like an old Roman Republican or (at last) a Cromwellian Puritan (for the guilt was there too); but he discovered that the simple duty of defeating Fascism and of atoning for his complicity in class oppression by taking up arms was befouled by the acceptance of murder within the republican camp. Not that he took a simple view of Fascism: he was one of the very few on the Left who saw it not as ‘advanced capitalism’ but as a grim perversion of Socialism, a genuine mass movement with an elitist philosophy but a popular appeal. He knew about the Moscow trials before going to Spain and shared the views of the ILP Press that these were political murders; but he did not yet think that the whole international Communist movement was involved in or would condone these aberrant Russian terrors and follies; and still less did he suspect that Fascism and Bolshevism could have anything in common.
Being misinformed that people entering Spain to fight needed papers from some Left-wing organization, he had applied to John Strachey (whom he had met through Richard Rees) who took him to see Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary of the British Communist Party. Pollitt would have known of Orwell because the row with Gollancz was already on, unbeknown to Orwell, about how or whether to publish The Road to Wigan Pier; and Strachey, as the most active selector for the Left Book Club, cleared all difficulties with Pollitt. ‘Pollitt after questioning me’, said Orwell, ‘evidently decided that I was politically unreliable and refused to help me, also tried to frighten me out of going by talking a lot about Anarchist terrorism.’ When asked if he would join the International Brigade, Orwell replied that he wanted to see for himself what was happening first. Pollitt then refused to help, says Orwell, but ‘advised me to get a safe-conduct from the Spanish Embassy in Paris, which I did’. This was not entirely unhelpful of Pollitt; it was naive of Orwell to have gone to him — even though his mind was more open at this stage about the practical effectiveness of the Communist effort in Spain than has usually been supposed. So Orwell ‘rang up the ILP, with which I had some slight connections, mainly personal, and asked them to give me some kind of recommendation’. Fenner Brockway gave him letters to their representative in Barcelona. He made contact with the official ILP contingent who were then gathering in London, meeting in pubs and cafés near the ILP Headquarters in the Farringdon Road, spending their time collecting funds and organizing public meetings. But impatient to be off, he went on ahead of them, alone.
Orwell left London about 22 December and was in Barcelona by the 26th (the Blairs rarely seem to have celebrated Christmas as a family reunion), two weeks ahead of the ILP main contingent. He only stopped a day in Paris, just long enough to collect Spanish travel documents. But he found time in the afternoon, before catching the midnight express to the Spanish border, to pay a call, perhaps a little incongruously in the circumstances, on Henry Miller.
For Miller not merely took no interest in the Spanish War whatever, he genially told Orwell that it was the act of an idiot to go to Spain, that anyone who went from a sense of obligation was plain stupid: all those ideas about defending democracy, etc., were ‘baloney’. They discussed ‘liberty’. To Miller, it was something entirely personal, to be defended against whimsical beliefs in public obligations and responsibilities, and civilization was, in any case, doomed to take a nasty turn for the far worse whatever brave boy scouts like Orwell did about it. To Orwell, liberty and democracy went together and, among other things, guaranteed the freedom of the artist; the present capitalist civilization was corrupt, but Fascism would be morally calamitous. Political argument drew them apart, but there was sufficient sympathy between them as writers for Orwell to confide to Miller his feeling of guilt at having served in Burma (though he was to say this publicly in The Road to Wigan Pier); and for Miller boldly but sympathetically to ask Orwell, feeling for him and admiring his Down and Out, whether he had not punished himself enough already. Such psychological probing brought ‘the classic reply’, recounts Alfred Perles, Miller’s Boswell, ‘that... where the rights and very existence of a whole people are at stake, there could be no thought of avoiding self-sacrifice. He spoke his convictions so earnestly and humbly that Miller desisted from further argument and promptly gave him his blessing.’
Since Orwell was wearing a blue suit, presumably to look respectable at the Consulate, the blessing took the form of the gift of a corduroy jacket which, though not bullet-proof, Miller avowed to be warm and to be his contribution to the republican cause: ‘Henry discreetly refrained from adding that Orwell would have been welcome to the jacket even had he chosen to fight for the opposite side.’ A man who travels light often gathers strange burdens.
Visiting Miller he was upset by an absurd quarrel with a taxi-driver who got aggressive and abusive on being asked by Orwell, in innocence and ignorance, to drive him a very short distance and then presented with a large banknote which he could not change. Orwell reminisced that he must have appeared to the taxi-driver as ‘a symbol of the idle, patronizing foreign tourists who had done their best to turn France into something midway between a museum and a brothel’. He was to contrast this incident to what happened when he boarded the train for Spain that night, virtually a troop-train full of tired Czech, German and French volunteers, and to the following morning when ‘as we crawled across southern France, every peasant working in the fields turned round, stood solemnly upright and gave the anti-Fascist salute’. He concluded that the motives of the ‘polyglot army... of the peasants with raised fists... my own motive in going to Spain, and the motive of the old taxi-driver in insulting me, were at the bottom all the same’, all part of ‘the wave of revolutionary feeling’. Writing in 1944, he may have predated his own revolutionary feelings as distinct from a fierce commitment to the defence of the republic.
Orwell carried letters of introduction to John McNair (1887-1968), a Tynesider who had worked in France for twenty-five years, but otherwise devoted his life to the socialist cause (he became General Secretary of the Independent Labour Party from 1939-55). He ran the ILP office in Barcelona where he coordinated the money, materials and men raised in England by the ILP for the benefit of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificatión Marxista, the United Marxist Workers’ Party), whom they regarded as their sister party. The POUM had its own militia, though they were the smallest of the political militias. So did the Communists who, thanks to Russian aid, were the best equipped. The largest of the militias were those controlled by the official trades union federation, the CNT-UGT, an alliance of two federations, the anarcho-syndicalist Confederatión National de Trabajadores and the socialist Unión General de Trabajadores.
Communists would join the UGT and POUM members would join the CNT. As the CNT had led the revolution in Catalonia, its alliance there with the cautious UGT worked badly. The CNT anarchists in Catalonia had their own militia, but some preferred to enlist with the POUM militia, which was a slightly more disciplined body and must have been one of the most politically conscious militias ever. The Communists helpfully simplified the situation by calling everyone in the POUM and their militias ‘Trotskyites’. Some had been, like their leader Andres Nin, and a few still were in spirit; but Nin had broken with Trotsky long before, finding him too egocentric and dogmatic, and had not been in correspondence with him since 1934. In 1936 Nin argued, however, that Catalonia should offer Trotsky political asylum; but that was to be an act of compassion, not to seek his leadership: the POUM was an independent Marxist force. They were the ILP’s ideal self image.
John McNair wrote towards the end of his life that one late December afternoon the POUM sentry at his door said, ‘There’s a great big English-man who wants to see you.’
A moment later Orwell followed him in. He drawled in a distinctly bourgeois accent, ‘I’m looking for a chap named McNair, I’ve got a couple of letters for him.’ At first his accent repelled my Tyneside prejudices and I curtly replied, ‘A’am the lad ye’re looking for.’ He handed me his two letters, one from Fenner Brockway, the other from HN Brailsford, both personal friends of mine. I realized that my visitor was none other than George Orwell, two of whose books I had read and greatly admired... I asked him what I could do to help and he replied, ‘I have come to Spain to join the militia to fight against Fascism.’ I asked him if he had ever been a soldier and he mentioned that he had been a police officer in Burma and could handle a rifle. I told him that I remembered this from Burmese Days. For the first time he smiled and the atmosphere became friendly...
He took careful note of my description of the militia bodies and then added that he would like to write about the situation and endeavour to stir working-class opinion in Britain and France. I suggested the best thing he could do would be to use my office as his headquarters, get the atmosphere by going to Madrid, Valencia, and the Aragon front where the POUM forces were stationed and then get down to the writing of his book. He then said that dlis was quite secondary and his main reason for coming was to fight against Fascism.
So McNair, taking Orwell at his word, took him straight along to the POUM barracks and he signed up on the spot. Victor Alba, who has written a history of POUM, was then a young journalist of 20 and he was asked, because he spoke French, to show Orwell round Barcelona. He remembers him as a ‘silent, taciturn, not a good humoured man’, giving no impression of being an interesting person; but he noted that he had enlisted voluntarily, that he was not simply paying a visit, as were so many English and French intellectuals.
When McNair was interviewed, however, at about the same time as his written account, he did not even say ‘book’; but simply that Orwell had talked about doing ‘some articles’ for the New Statesman and Nation. That accords with the memories of two others. But what is reasonably clear is that for Orwell at that time writing was, indeed, a quite secondary motive for coming to Spain; and it is quite certain that Fred Warburg was mistaken when he claimed in his autobiography that Orwell came to him to discuss Homage to Catalonia before going to Spain. When the book began to take shape in Orwell’s mind months later he offered it to Gollancz who, knowing what it would say and probably anxious to placate Strachey and Pollitt, turned it down sight unseen.
Each of Orwell’s documentary books and his essay or story ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ have posed a problem for the biographer. As with ‘Shooting an Elephant’ and ‘A Hanging’, they are a compound of fact and fiction, honest in intent, true to experience, but not necessarily truthful in detail. Down and Out was far from a literal record of ‘what actually happened’, and The Road to Wigan Pier was less a straight documentary than often supposed. Homage to Catalonia is, however, closer to a literal record than anything he wrote; for in order to controvert the many existing false accounts (he was not breaking new ground, only in the way he wrote) he had to get the facts right and give himself no artistic licence. It poses no general problem of genre, only lesser problems of some particular questionable judgements; and while he warns his readers that Catalonia was not the whole of Republican Spain, he did not always take his own advice. His account of his own motives both contains some hindsight and a reversal of cause and effect once again for dramatic effect: ‘I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because... in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.’ And he was to admit to having written somewhat uncritically about the POUM because they had been so slandered and vilified in the international Press. But the purpose of the book, to expose Communist folly and wickedness and to cry to the conscience of mankind to save the Republic, demanded that nothing in it could be faulted as fact, even if it was also ‘art’. The names he gave of his comrades in the line and back in Barcelona are real names, and survivors have confirmed all of the main incidents he describes, whether of trench warfare or street-fighting.
His humility, fine simplicity and courage in Joining the POUM militia irradiate his book. What does not emerge is that from the beginning he both assumed and had thrust on him positions of minor leadership, and that in a militia where commands had to be persuasive rather than arbitrary. He tells of ‘what was comically called instruction’ but not of his own instructing. This was by virtue both of his own training and of his character. The Burma Police had been, after all, a kind of militia. Part of his job had been the training of native constables in small arms, drill, hygiene and field movements as well as in police routines. When McNair went round to the Lenin Barracks three days after Orwell had enlisted (as ‘Eric Blair’, of course) to see how he was getting on:
...there was George forcing about fifty young, enthusiastic but undisciplined Catalonians to learn the rudiments of military drill. He made them run and jump, taught them to form threes, showed them how to use the only rifle available, an old Mauser, by taking it to pieces and explaining it. Gone was the drawling ex-Etonian, in his place was an ardent young man of action in complete control of the situation. When the two hours drill was over, he chased the lads off to the bathing pool, jumped in first himself and they all followed him.
Good officer stuff, but working with anarchists and socialists: Orwell was in his element. McNair asked him how he had succeeded in establishing this ascendancy and twenty-eight years later claimed to remember ‘practically word for word’ his reply:
‘When I got here four nights ago they seemed to think I was a bit of a curiosity. They had hardly ever seen a foreigner. After our meal I noticed they were whispering behind my back. I just rolled a cigarette, sipped my wine and waited... I tumbled to their game, they were going to make the big Englishman drunk. They tried very hard. Bottle after bottle of the rough Spanish wine came up and we all kept on drinking. They did not know that I had worked for a year and a half in Paris in hotels and pubs and know all about cheap red wine which the French call “Gratte-gorge” (throat-scraper). One by one they began dropping out and stumbled away to their bunks. We were only three or four left so I said quietly, “Well, boys, we’ve had a nice friendly drink so I’ll just toddle off if you’ll show me where I sleep.” They understood my French. I managed, but only just, to get to bed quietly... A strange commentary on life that I was only able to obtain their respect because I could drink most of them under the table.’
‘Next morning they all had a hang-over so I decided to jump in. My Catalonian being inadequate I got the man in charge to translate from my French. “Now, young fellows, we had a jolly good night but we’re not here to booze, we’re here to smash the fascists. You will now all drill under my orders and follow what I do.” To my surprise and joy they all agreed, they soon got over their hangovers, and since then they think I’m somebody and treat me with comradeship and respect.’
‘Comradeship and respect’ is what Orwell found everyone showing each other in Barcelona. The bourgeoisie seemed to have vanished. It was a working-class town, no one ‘well dressed’ and everyone addressing each other as ‘Comrade’, and using the second-person familiar ‘thou’ in place of the distancing ‘you’. He did not realize, in fact, that the revolutionary phase of the red Hags or the anarchist red and black Hags was nearly over — republican normality was about to be restored by the central government for the sake of a united war effort and to placate foreign opinion, particularly that of the British and French governments.
Orwell went to the trenches in the Aragon front at Alcubierre. He was in the hills about two hundred miles west of Barcelona and on a salient in line about midway between Saragossa and Huesca. He was part of the ‘Rovira’ or 29th division and the neighbouring divisions were all composed of Anarchist militias. ‘I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.’ His centuria or battalion was commanded by an affable Belgian irregular, Georges Kopp, an ex-engineer who had manufactured arms in Brussels for the Spanish government until the embargo. McNair had to order two pairs of size twelve boots from England specifically for Orwell. The centuria was ‘an untrained mob composed mostly of boys in their teens’; he was made a cabo or corporal, in charge of a section of twelve men. It was a quiet part of the line, as he wrote: boredom and cold were the main enemies. He admitted to suffering bitterly from the cold, his winter bronchitis never left him: ‘Firewood was the one thing that really mattered’, and was in short supply — he risked snipers’ bullets to pull in branches of bushes from between the lines. It was as well that the Fascists were not active in that part of the line, for the POUM had little with which to resist them beyond enthusiasm and fifteen rounds of ammunition each. Every cartridge had to be separately tested in the breech to see if it would fit, for three different types of rifle were in use. Orwell’s was a Mauser of 1890 vintage — not a good year, he thought. Food, wine, candles, cigarettes and matches were in reasonable supply most of the time but ‘we had no tin hats, no bayonets, hardly any revolvers or pistols, and not more than one bomb between five or ten men... no range-finders, no telescopes, no periscopes, no field-glasses except a few privately owned pairs [like his own], no flares or Very lights, no armourers’ tools, hardly even any cleaning materials’. The list is poignant. They were left in the line, in badly constructed trenches, for debilitatingly long periods until their leave was due. No regular alternation of line and reserve was ever organized. In eighty days, he was able to get his clothes off only three times. Sanitary or medical services were poor to non-existent. Many of the recruits simply defecated in the trenches where they stood, neglecting or refusing to dig latrines. ‘One of the essential experiences of war is never being able to escape from disgusting smells of human origin.’ That January it was too cold as yet for lice, they came later in March. ‘The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae — every one of them,’ he reflected, ‘had lice crawling over his testicles’; but before the lice returned, rats and mice abounded. ‘The dirt never worried me. Dirt is a thing people make too much fuss about. It is astonishing how quickly you get used to doing without a handkerchief and to earing out of the tin pannikin in which you also wash.’ But dirt did worry him, whether among tramps, in the tripe shop or in the trenches; he used it as a symbol of oppression throughout his writings, and he deliberately forced himself to endure dirt in order better to understand, he thought, the condition of the poor and the oppressed.
Firing was not continuous, only spasmodic sniping, for both sides were short of ammunition. Orwell often crawled forward on patrol far into no-man’s-land to observe the Fascist lines — it relieved the boredom; but fighting patrols were not used. Both sides were simply holding the line in preparation for a possible big push. ‘Georges Kopp, on his periodical tours of inspection, was quite frank with us. “This is not a war,” he used to say, “it is a comic opera with an occasional death.’” The English contingent called the war ‘a bloody pantomime’. A friendship (which was to last) sprang up between Orwell and Kopp. Kopp had sent for him on being intrigued to see on the company roll ‘Eric Blair: grocer’. They had a similar sardonic humour and it helped to pass the time away. Orwell could well have written with the same tragic irony as the Communist poet, John Cornford, killed only the month before on the Cordoba front, ‘This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.’
The militia he was in, like the others, had been hurriedly raised in the early days of Franco’s revolt the previous year by trades unions or political parties, and the soldiers owed their allegiance to these more directly than to the central government. Indeed the POUM’s Marxists were as opposed to centralist state control in practice as the Anarchists were in theory. Both saw the Communists as a party corrupted by state power. La Batalla, the POUM’s newspaper, alone in Catalonia had denounced the Moscow trials of July 1936 and Stalin’s executions of the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ in August; indeed they claim it to have been the first paper anywhere to realize what was happening. The POUM militia was ‘in theory at any rate... a democracy and not a hierarchy’ as if every centuria was a soviet or commune. There were officers and NCOs, orders were given and were expected to be obeyed; but they were given by one comrade to another and had to be given for clear and obvious reasons, not just to test ‘blind obedience’. So ‘there was no military rank in the ordinary sense; no titles, no badges, no heel-clicking and no saluting’, Orwell recalled’. Everyone drew the same pay, had the same food, wore the same uniform, lived in the same quarters. ‘The essential point of the system was social equality between officers and men. Everyone... mingled on terms of complete equality... Of course there was not perfect equality, but there was a nearer approach to it than I had ever seen or than I would have thought conceivable in time of war.’ Describing his feelings three months later he said: ‘I was breathing the air of equality, and I was simple enough to imagine that it existed all over Spain. I did not realize that more or less by chance I was isolated among the most revolutionary section of the Spanish working class.’ And that June from hospital he was to write to Cyril Connolly: ‘I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before.’ Orwell did believe in socialism before, as The Road to Wigan Pier and reviews written at that time prove. But he did not ‘really believe’: it had been an intellectual matter and a moral compassion for other people’s sufferings. In Catalonia he experienced it for himself. He was no longer condescending, he was engulfed in comradeship. Nothing that happened later could ever take away that extraordinary experience. He personified it all in the opening paragraph of Homage to Catalonia where he described shaking hands with an unknown Italian militiaman, simple, candid and ferocious, whose language he could not even speak, and they only met for a moment — ‘Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger’; and in the last paragraphs of his essay of 1942, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, the verses he wrote in his memory express the same feeling:
But the thing that I saw in your face
No power can disinherit:
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit.
George Woodcock was to apply these last three words to Orwell himself.
Two Catalan writers include a section on Orwell in a recent life of Josep Rovira, the commander of the 29th Division in which Orwell (and one of themselves) fought. Some of it is simply commentary on Homage to Catalonia (the accuracy and authenticity of which they applaud, while distancing themselves from what they assume to be Orwell’s more moderate political position); but parts of it are based on talking to fellow Catalans who had either met him or met people who had:
You could immediately see in him a desire to observe like a curious child. His introverted stare was no impediment because immediately he could establish a warm and human relationship. The majority of the militiamen were young and playful, how he himself described them, and none of them suspected that the long-legged foreigner who always had to bend down when the others walked about in the trenches, was an intellectual, a writer who noted details of everything around him, including the psychological traits of the human beings whose life he shared in good and open comradeship...
Unlike other foreign volunteers associated with the militia.. .Orwell had come to take part in the fight, the outcome of which to him was quite uncertain and problematic, not as an adventurer looking for honours and distinctions. All the time he was at the front, he never moved from the trenches except once when he was wounded and another time for a short leave — that is to say, he never looked for contacts in the army hierarchy, nor with politicians or journalists, many of whom were attached to the divisions, more or less near the fighting line. Those who lived with him in the months he was in the firing line never saw him go near the column, brigade or divisional headquarters. If as he declared in his book he had come to Spain with the vague idea of writing newspaper articles, it would appear that once he got to know something of the reality of trench life and the human types with whom he shared it, the natural thing would have been to change his place and exchange the discomfort and dangers of the trenches for the relative comfort of being a journalist at staff headquarters.
Even if the psychological description of the first paragraph is a little idealized — some would doubt that he could establish ‘immediately... a warm and human relationship’ even in Catalonia at this time — yet the second paragraph makes an irrefutable and impressive moral point.
Towards the end of January, Orwell and a solitary Welsh working man, Robert Williams, were transferred a few miles further west to Monte Oscuro, overlooking the town of Saragossa. They joined the ILP contingent who had just come out from England and had finished their two weeks’ training in Barcelona. There were about thirty of them in all, commanded by Bob Edwards, an ILP Parliamentary candidate in the 1930S (Labour MP since 1955), who had visited Moscow and although without military experience had been made honorary colonel in the Red Army, an empty compliment which led to his being made a company commander in Spain. This dismayed a few old soldiers.
Edwards describes the first appearance of Orwell:
All six foot three of him was striding towards me and his clothing was grotesque to say the least. He wore corduroy riding breeches, khaki puttees and huge boots, I’ve never seen boots that were so large, clogged in mud. He had a yellow pigskin jerkin, a coffee coloured balaclava hat and he wore the longest scarf I’ve ever seen, khaki scarf wrapped round and round his neck right up to his ears, on his shoulder he carried an old-fashioned German rifle, I think it must have been fifty years old; and hanging to his belt were two hand grenades. Running beside him, trying to keep pace, were two youths of the Militia, similarly equipped; but what amused me most was that behind Orwell was a shaggy mongrel dog with the word POUM painted on its side.
And he notes Orwell’s eccentricity and courage:
He was absolutely fearless. About seven hundred yards from our lines and very close to a Fascist machine-gun post was a huge crop of potatoes. The war had interfered with the harvesting and there were these lovely potatoes. Orwell worked it out that a man, crawling on his stomach, could just not be hit by machine-gunners at that distance. With a sack — about three times a week, yes — he’d say, ‘I’m out for potatoes’ and I’d say ‘For goodness sake, you know, it’s not worth the risk.’ He said, ‘They can’t hit me, I’ve already proved it.’ And they shot at him, you know, every time he went out for potatoes, they were shooting all the time. But he’d worked it out that they just couldn’t hit a man at this distance, and he was quite right, they couldn’t.
As George walked along his section of the trenches, there were continual shouts of ‘Get your head down’. Because of his height he protruded above the parapet, drawing the enemy’s fire. But he claimed to have worked it out rationally that the range was too great, as with the potatoes, for anything but an accidental hit. He was more concerned with rats than with bullets: ‘If there is one thing I hate more than another it is a rat running over me in the darkness. However, I had the satisfaction of catching one of them a good punch that sent him flying.’ Bob Edwards made a bit more of this, or of a similar incident.
He had a phobia against rats. We got used to them. They used to gnaw at our boots during the night, but George just couldn’t get used to the presence of rats and one day late in the evening he caused us great embarrassment which resulted in the loss of some very valuable material and equipment. A particularly adventurous rat had annoyed George for some time and he got out his gun and shot it. But the explosion in the confines of his dug-out vibrated — it seemed throughout the whole front, and then the whole front and both sides went into action. The artillery started, we threw patrols out, machine-gun nests got going and after it all our valuable cookhouse had been destroyed and two buses that had brought up our reserves.
This sounds a tall tale, but others confirm it. Even if old veterans often gild the same lily, they all see it as very Orwell-like.
Edwards, indeed, portrayed Orwell as a slightly comic figure. He plainly disliked him, suspecting him, he later admitted, of being another ‘bloody scribbler’ getting colour for a book. Others remember his exact words as ‘a bloody middle-class little scribe’. Certainly Orwell wrote a great deal, sitting outside his dug-out when warm enough or inside by candlelight. (People have speculated about what he was writing and sending on to Eileen — ‘diaries’, it is said, but this is pure speculation and it is very unlikely that he got whatever it was out of Spain.) John (‘Paddy’) Donovan, a new recruit, remembered how they suffered in his dug-out through Orwell’s incessant smoking of cigarettes while he wrote, rolled from the strongest, coarsest black shag pipe tobacco. He kept a rope cigarette lighter hanging from his belt all the time. But he was always interuptable for a chat or an argument with anyone, and he ‘mucked in’ totally and efficiently. The youngest of them was Stafford Cottman, an 18-year-old who had moved into the Young Communist League from the Labour Party’s Guild of Youth, but who had none the less joined the POUM (the lines were not so tightly drawn at first). He now comments ‘how funny people are about Orwell, a much simpler person than he’s made out to be, so ordinary and decent’. Despite his ‘Eton accent’ he found him unaffected and straightforward, easy to get on with. Paddy Donovan, who had been in the First World War, a very unpolitical working man (perhaps there for the job and the scrap), remembered him in the same way. Certainly the ILP contingent respected his military competence, for when Bob Edwards left the unit at the end of March to attend the ILP annual conference, they promptly elected Orwell as their group representative or commander in his place (by the time Edwards had finished his business in England, he was advised not to try to return).
Years after, Orwell told the tale that, crawling close to the enemy trenches, he got a Fascist soldier in his sights who was holding up his trousers as he ran. Orwell could not pull the trigger: ‘I had come here to shoot at “Fascists”; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a “Fascist”, he is visibly a fellow creature.’ This was not opting out of the business of killing. In an account of the night raid on the enemy trenches, Orwell made clear that grenades that he threw almost certainly proved deadly. He had also tried to bayonet a man running away down a communication trench as he ran along the top, but could not catch up. Then came the counter-attack:
I had no bombs left except the Fascist ones and I was not certain how these worked. I shouted to the others to know if anyone had a bomb to spare. Douglas Moyle felt in his pocket and passed one across. I flung it and threw myself on my face. By one of those strokes of luck that happen about once in a year I had managed to drop the bomb almost exactly where the rifle had flashed. There was the roar of the explosion and then, instantly, a diabolical outcry of screams and groans. We had got one of them, anyway; I don’t know whether he was killed, but certainly he was badly hurt. Poor wretch, poor wretch! I felt a vague sorrow as I heard him screaming.
This account of the action is confirmed by a story printed shortly afterwards in the ILP ‘s journal, the New Leader, gleaned from letters sent to John McNair by members of the contingent. The main difference in the accounts is that his comrades singled out ‘Eric Blair’s’ personal bravery (the ILP editor made no attempt to exploit the writer’s name, probably had no idea who he was):
A Spanish comrade rose and rushed forward. ‘Pour ellos — Ariba!’ (For the others — charge!) ‘Charge!’ shouted Blair... In front of the parapet was Eric Blair’s tall figure coolly strolling forward through the storm of fire. He leapt at the parapet, then stumbled. Hell, had they got him? No, he was over, closely followed by Gross of Hammersmith, Frankfort of Hackney and Bob Smillie, with the others right after them.
The trench had been hastily evacuated. The last of the retreating Fascists, clothed only in a blanket, was thirty yards away. Blair gave chase, but the man knew the ground and got away. In a comer of a trench was one dead man; in a dugout was another body.
Frank Frankford [sic] remembers the man in the blanket and Orwell chasing him with his bayonet. In a more properly conducted war there might have been a medal, but such a ‘mention in despatches’ must have given the new socialist far more pleasure.
In mid-February, Eileen suddenly went to Spain to be near George and to work as secretary to McNair and the ILP office in Barcelona. She also began typing manuscripts or diaries for George, but whatever they were, they were lost in the troubles to come. Perhaps she came primarily to be nearer her man, but it showed a strong commitment to the cause on her side. She found him at Monflorite, attending a field hospital with a poisoned hand. ‘The doctor is quite ignorant and incredibly dirty,’ she wrote to her mother. It healed, however, in about ten days. Eileen could only spend three days with her husband near the front, and Georges Kopp drove her back to Barcelona. Orwell wrote to her just after she left: ‘Dearest, you really are a wonderful wife. When I saw the cigars my heart melted away.’ But there was, guardedly, more serious matter in the letter. He was due for leave in Barcelona at the end of the month, and wanted her at ‘some opportune moment’ before then to say something to McNair about ‘my wanting to go to Madrid, etc.’.
Madrid was the most active section of the line. But the Madrid front was the preserve of the International Brigade, mostly Communists, entirely under Communist control.
The ‘etc.’ in his letter to Eileen must refer to the political and military debate that was raging in the ILP contingent. The POUM and the Anarchist trades unions of the CNT held that the war could only be won by continuing the revolution that had been sparked off by the Fascist rebellion. They held that it must be, as in the days of Danton or of Trotsky, a revolutionary war: ‘We must go forward or we shall go back!’ was their slogan. The official Republican Government, backed by the powerful UGT unions and, above all, by the Communist Party (grown disproportionately powerful since Stalin was almost the only supplier of arms to the Republic) tried to contain, even to suppress, the revolutionary fervour. They feared that the call of the extreme Left for the expropriation of property would alienate both the middle classes and foreign investors: the war was to be fought simply to save the Republic. Middle-of-the-road parties took the same view, but so, tactically, did the Communists. Stalin had wanted to defeat German and Italian intervention in Spain without antagonizing the British and French governments, whom he still hoped would see the need for a European anti-Fascist defensive alliance, something just as important as lifting the arms embargo against Spain. And the Communists had been strengthened by the affiliation of the Socialist Youth Movement — a militarily important body, since its age limit reached up to 35. This is to put the case at its best; but also the Spanish Communist Party, under Russian orders, were after power and would stop at nothing to prevent the Anarchists and the ‘Trotskyites’ (that is, in their eyes, the POUM) from retaining their local dominance in Catalonia. Three days before Andres Nin had been expelled from the Catalan Government, Pravda itself on 16 December 1936 somewhat prematurely announced that ‘In Catalonia the elimination ofTrotskyites and Anarcho-Syndicalists has begun. It will be carried out with the same energy as it was carried out in the Soviet Union.’
Most of the ILP contingent were strongly anti-Communist even before they arrived in Spain. They shared the view of Nin (who was soon to be killed by Russian agents) that Stalin had betrayed the revolution and was even willing to connive in a purely nationalistic and imperialistic war against Germany, at least a war that would have nothing to do with advancing socialism. Orwell, while he did not share the Communists’ view that Fascism in Spain was the same as that in Germany and Italy (Franco, he shrewdly saw, wished more to restore feudalism than to impose modern fascism),[*] did share their tactical view of how the war should be run. He found socialism among the Catalan militia but he saw the practical international case for the Communist slogan, ‘The war first, the revolution afterwards’, a slogan derided by both POUM and the Anarchists. This seemed to him common sense, and he maintained this minority viewpoint in the long hours of debate with which the ILP contingent pursued continuous political education, or fought off boredom. He was firm enough in his own mind and tough enough in discussion to hear and accept all the POUM and the ILP denunciations of Stalin’s tyranny and yet to say that had nothing to do with the tactical situation in Spain. Two of his comrades remember this well, and he soon made no secret of his intention to transfer, during the coming leave, to the International Brigade. Others would have gone with him, because they too wanted to be with the real action and to have the modem weapons with which the Russians favoured their own. Again there is need to remember that, while he had criticized the Marxist mentality in The Road to Wigan Pier, he had had good personal relations with the Communists in the North of England, and had respected their practical activism. In Chapter 5 of Homage to Catalonia, when he came down strongly in favour of POUM’s revolutionary strategy, none the less he said quite plainly — what so many have ignored —
I do not want to suggest that in February I held all of the opinions that are implied in what I have said above... It is easy to see why, at this time, I preferred the Communist viewpoint to that of the POUM. The Communists had a definite practical policy, an obviously better policy from the point of view of the common sense which looks only a few months ahead... On the whole I accepted the Communist viewpoint, which boiled down to saying: ‘We can’t talk of revolution till we’ve won the war.’
Orwell’s views were far from eccentric. Willy Brandt (the future prime minister and SPD leader) was in Catalonia at this time (they only met very briefly) as a young German exile, and he expressed the dilemma thus:
The POUM in partial agreement with the Anarcho-syndicalists... supported the view that the revolution was the overriding concern. The Communists, in partial agreement with the ‘bourgeois’ Democrats, took the opposing view that the demands of the war took precedence. In trying to arrive at a view of my own I fell out with the revolutionaries, who seemed to me to have overshot the target by a wide margin, but I disagreed even more violently with those who sought to exploit the discipline which the military situation demanded by establishing a system of one-party rule.
But it was not the ‘debate in the trenches’ that was to move Orwell like Brandt against the Communist Party, while retaining his respect for the revolutionaries; his attitudes were to change when he took a spectacularly unrestful leave back in a changed Barcelona after one hundred and fifteen days in the trenches.
There were a few days of peace, however. Eileen wrote to her brother on i May: ‘George is here on leave. He arrived completely ragged, almost barefoot, a little lousy, dark brown and looking very well. In the previous twelve hours he had been in trains consuming anis, muscatel out of anis bottles, brandies and chocolate.’ So he was ill for two days, she related, and thus ‘still persuadable to having a quiet day’. In the same letter, she mentioned that he had actually applied for a discharge and planned to re-enlist with the International Brigade in Madrid.
About midday on 3 May a friend crossing the lounge of the hotel said casually: ‘There’s been some kind of trouble at the Telephone Exchange, I hear’. For some reason I paid no attention to it at the time.
That afternoon, between three and four, I was halfway down the Ramblas when I heard several rifle-shots behind me. I turned round and saw some youths, with rifles in their hands and the red and black handkerchiefs of the Anarchists round their throats, edging up a side-street that ran off the Ramblas northward. They were evidently exchanging shots with someone in a tall octagonal tower — a church, I think — that commanded the side-street. I thought instantly, ‘It’s started!’
No one would ever be sure why it happened or quite what happened, though trouble was in the air. It may have been the Anarchists behaving in a tactically undisciplined way. They, like the POUM militia, kept their own arms and ammunition dumps, defended their own localities, and were deeply suspicious of central civil or strategic military commands. The Anarchists may well have been tapping the phones. Some were anxious for a showdown in Catalonia with the Communists, and vice versa. In any case, they were not subject to much control by their leaders. The Anarchists believed to a man that the Communists provoked their people to riot in order to force the central government to suppress and disarm them. The Communist leaders spread the tale in Spain that the Anarchists and the POUM had been infiltrated by Fascist agents provocateurs who, indeed, long afterwards claimed credit — as such people will. Broue and Temime in their great study of the Communist role in the Civil War sanely comment: ‘Such a discussion is a complete waste of time: provocation by one, two or even ten agents is only effective if the situation lends itself to it. As we have seen, it did lend itself to it.’
The Communists spread the tale abroad that the POUM were secretly allied to the Fascists, even receiving arms from them across the lines at night, and that the Anarchists were ‘objectively Fascists’; and this canard was repeated without question by Left-wing and even by some Liberal newspapers in Britain, to Orwell’s great disgust and anger when copies reached him in Barcelona. By 9 May the Communist Party secretary, Jose Diaz, had established the line: ‘our principal enemies are the Fascists. However, these not only include the Fascists themselves, but also the agents who work for them... Some call themselves Trotskyites... If everyone knows this, if the government knows it, why doesn’t it treat them like Fascists and exterminate them pitilessly.’
As the fighting spread, Orwell could not get up the Ramblas to the Hotel Continental where Eileen was staying. It was situated on the corner of Plaza de Catalunya where the telephone exchange was, so he headed for the Hotel Falcon down the other end of the Ramblas, which was used by POUM militiamen on leave. Most of the ILP platoon gathered there. Confusion reigned. No one really knew what was happening. The Anarchist parliamentary leaders were publicly calling for a truce, but barricades had already gone up and local groups were heavily involved in street fighting. No one knew or could see if it was an Anarchist rising or a Government attempt to wipe them out. If it was a rising, it was most incompetently planned; but if it was a deliberate purge, that too was ill-prepared, spasmodic and halfhearted.
John McNair appeared that night with supplies of cigarettes and news. The following day Orwell, issued with a rifle and ammunition as well as tobacco, managed to work his way up the Ramblas, despite snipers’ bullets, to the Continental to find Eileen. He also found Georges Kopp. Kopp, a soldier of fortune in all things, was perhaps a little over-attentive to his comrade’s wife; he saw it as being equally fond of them both; but she kept him at a comradely distance. Kopp busied himself to prevent bloodshed in their block. Close to the Continental were the offices of the POUM. Next door was the Café Moka in which twenty to thirty ‘Civil Guards’, said Orwell, had barricaded themselves when the fighting started, more in fear than in offence. Some German POUM Shock Troopers were bowling hand-grenades down the pavement at the café. Kopp ordered them to stop. He then with a studied casualness strolled up to the café, to the alarm of his men, and reached a local cease-fire agreement with the Asaltos, restoring their confidence by swopping a crate of beer for a rifle they had lost. He ordered the POUM building to be defended against any attack, but otherwise there was to be no firing. Orwell was sent across the road into a small, ornamental conservatory or cupola on the roof of the Poliorama cinema. From there he guarded the approaches for three almost sleepless days and nights; but they were not attacked. Jon Kimche, visiting Spain as chairman of the ILP League of Youth, found Orwell there, ‘lounging in the cupola’, but there was little time to talk; or if so, of what they talked is forgotten — just as in the bookshop.
Elsewhere from all over the town sounds of machine-gun and rifle fire and of exploding hand-grenades came in spasmodic gusts, even the occasional crash of artillery. Orwell only fired once, to destroy an unexploded grenade on the pavement. By the time the unhappy Prime Minister had agreed with the Communists to send strong Government reinforcements to Barcelona and the Anarchists on 8 May had finally obeyed a desperate appeal by their leaders to take down the barricades and disperse, at least four hundred people had been killed and a thousand wounded. Orwell was to describe with impressive honesty and objectivity what happened to him and what he saw. At first the tone is dry:
I was in no danger. I suffered from nothing worse than hunger and boredom, yet it was one of the most unbearable periods of my whole life. I think few experiences could be more sickening, more disillusioning or, finally, more nerve-racking than those evil days of street warfare... Sometimes I was merely bored with the whole affair, paid no attention to the hellish noise, and spent hours reading a succession of Penguin Library books which, luckily, I had bought a few days earlier; sometimes I was very conscious of the armed men watching me fifty yards away. It was a little like being in the trenches again; several times I caught myself, from force of habit, speaking of the Civil Guards [sic] as ‘the Fascists’.
His tone became more angry, a cool hard anger, only in the next chapter of the book, where he discussed the reporting of all this in the Communist and international press. Two examples are enough. He quoted the Daily Worker of 11 May, an article that began, ‘The German and Italian agents, who poured into Barcelona ostensibly “to prepare” the notorious “Congress of the Fourth International”, had one big task’ which was to provoke so much bloodshed, ‘in co-operation with the local Trotskyists’, that the Germans and Italians would have an excuse for direct naval and military intervention on the Catalan coast. He also quoted the Liberal News Chronicle, whose foreign staff had been heavily penetrated by Communists (as when Arthur Koestler became a correspondent for them in Spain), a story that began’... This has not been an Anarchist uprising. It is a frustrated putsch of the “Trotskyist” POUM’; and cheerfully ended ‘Barcelona, the first city of Spain, was plunged into bloodshed by agents provocateurs using this subversive organization’. It is still hard to recall how vile, gross, and fabricated such propaganda was. Orwell saw before his own eyes not merely the distortion of evidence through differing perspectives but the sheer invention of history. One aspect of Nineteen Eighty-Four was already occurring.
Again Orwell admits that the lesson of these events took some time to sink in. ‘Orwell was affected less by the May fighting,’ the historian Raymond Carr has written, ‘than by the ruthless use the Communists made of a political post-mortem in order to destroy their enemies.’ Not knowing fully what the fighting was about, Orwell instinctively took up arms with his POUM comrades:
The poorer classes in Barcelona looked upon the Civil Guards [sic] as something rather resembling the Black and Tans, and it seemed to be taken for granted that they had started this attack on their own initiative. Once I had heard how things stood, I felt easier in my mind. The issue was clear enough. On one side, the CNT, on the other side the police. I have no particular love for the idealized ‘worker’ as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.
The Burma policeman who claimed to have struck servants with his fists had travelled a long way.
The outbreak of fighting could just have been a ghastly series of muddles and misunderstandings. Only after the fighting ended did Orwell become aware of what malignant lies and simplicities were being written in the Communist press. He says that rank-and-file Communists on the spot were unhappy at what they read but stuck to their own side none the less.
Our Communist friend approached me once again and asked me whether I would not transfer into the International Column.
I was rather surprised. ‘Your papers are saying I’m a Fascist,’ I said, ‘Surely I should be politically suspect, coming from the POUM.’
‘Oh, that doesn’t matter. After all, you were only acting under orders.’ I had to tell him that after this affair I could not join any Communist-controlled unit. Sooner or later it might mean being used against the Spanish working class. One could not tell when this kind of thing would break out again, and if I had to use my rifle at all in such an affair I would use it on the side of the working class and not against them. He was very decent about it. But from now on the whole atmosphere was changed.
Another pair of size twelve boots which he had ordered from a local cobbler the day before the fighting began were ready the day after it ended. On 10 May Orwell returned to the line near Huesca with the POUM, and was made lieutenant of the ILP platoon in Bob Edwards’ continued absence.
Only the year before, John Cornford had written for Margot Heinemann in the poem ‘Heart of the heartless world’ that ‘... if bad luck should lay my strength into the shallow grave...’ Orwell, in a grim way, had good luck. Ten days after returning to the front, at 5 in the morning on 20 May, ‘Eric was standing there talking to us, at dawn “Stand To”, telling us of his experiences in the brothels in Paris... then it got light’, remembers Frank Frankford, ‘and his tall head was right above the parapet and all of a sudden, down he goes, shot through the throat’. A single shot had rung out. A sniper, aiming well or damned lucky, had put a bullet right through his neck, just under the larynx. ‘Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion...’ Orwell recalled, ‘my first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well... The meaninglessness of it! To be bumped off, not even in battle, but in this stale corner of the trenches, thanks to a moment’s carelessness.’ Luckily he was hit, as recounted by Kopp, by a high velocity modern rifle from fairly close range: the speed and heat of the bullet left a clean and cauterized wound, there was little haemorrhaging and no infection set in.
The doctors told him that if the bullet had been but a millimetre to the left he would have been dead. They also told him, quite wrongly, that the vocal chord was broken and that he would never speak normally again. At the field hospital two of his comrades came, as was customary, to take the wounded man’s pistol, watch, torch and knife. Such things were common property, only privately possessed for public use. They found him very calm but they took it for granted that he would die. He was then jolted down to the divisional hospital at Barbastro. This was so horribly overcrowded that the very next morning, without further treatment, he was shipped down by train to Lerida. He drily commented that people with abdominal or internal wounds were usually killed by the jolting on the badly made and shell-scarred roads, so he was lucky to have gone by train.
Eileen and Georges Kopp found him at Lerida from where, after three or four days, he was sent on to Tarragona. He claimed this was a mistake and that it was meant to be Barcelona. After a week there, Eileen staying by him every minute, he was declared out of danger and ended up in a POUM convalescent hospital, Sanatorium Maurin, in a suburb of Barcelona (named after the famous POUM leader). His voice came back after electrotherapy, but low and hoarse: when he was fully recovered, he had a lasting. Hat tonelessness of speech. Eileen had sent a telegram to his father at Southwold only four days after the wound: ‘ERIC SLIGHTLY WOUNDED PROGRESS EXCELLENT SENDS LOVE NO NEED FOR ANXIETY EILEEN’. The Blairs would have read this as if he had got ‘a Blighty wound’ and that their strange son would soon be home. At that stage she must have been desperately worried herself, but probably feared that one of the ILP contingent might send a more alarming message. On 31 May, Eileen got Georges Kopp to send a full medical account to her surgeon brother, an eight-page description and narrative, requesting him to write to the Spanish specialist, anticipating that George would be leaving Spain for further treatment in England.
In the hospital, there were old comrades from the unit: Arthur Clinton, Robert Williams and Stafford Cottmann, the youngest of the ILP contingent. George could get into Barcelona in the afternoon on the tram to meet Eileen. But he realized that everything was turning sour. The military truce of the POUM and CNT with the police and civil authorities had been observed, but a vicious post-mortem filled the Communist and Government Press, ‘there was a peculiar evil feeling in the air, and veiled hatred’. The Communists had become the dominant power in the local administration. POUM members on leave felt themselves viewed with suspicion, discriminated against in small ways. On returning to the front from leave, Orwell had learned that another member of the ILP contingent, Bob Smillie (the grandson of the great Scottish miners’ leader), had been arrested after coming back to Spain from a propaganda tour in England. Smillie was in prison in Valencia (and he was to die there, though whether from acute appendicitis or murdered by the Communists has never been cleared up). It was known that Smillie had been carrying documents, so Cottman and Orwell anxiously destroyed pamphlets and maps, anything that could be regarded by hopeful Communists or ignorant police as incriminating. Somewhat disillusioned, unsure if the full use of his voice would ever return, very tired, Orwell applied for his discharge. It was readily given on medical grounds; but it had to be counter-signed by divisional military commanders back in the field, a measure introduced to guard against malingering and desertion. It took Orwell six days, from 14 June, to get his discharge, as he was shunted from one office and one town to another, hitch-hiking lifts on military vehicles. He was back in Barcelona on 20 June and walked into the Hotel Continental.
Eileen was waiting anxiously in the foyer. She immediately bustled him straight out again into the street, and told him that the police had begun a purge of Anarchist and POUM activists and their foreign supporters. The POUM had been declared illegal and the Anarchists had been disarmed by sudden raids. The news had been kept from the front for several days, so that POUM units returning on leave were either disarmed and disbanded or arrested. Her own room had been searched by the police a few nights before, but with typical Spanish manners neither her person nor the bed on which she was lying — in which she had concealed ILP documents. Eileen told him who had been caught and who not. McNair and Cottman were hiding out, but Georges Kopp, although a battalion commander now, had been arrested.
That night Orwell slept out, hiding in a ruined church. The next morning Eileen arranged that McNair, Cottman and he should all meet at the British Consulate. His two friends brought news that Smillie had died in prison and rumours, which soon proved true, that Andres Nin had been kidnapped and killed by Russian agents. The memory of the martyred Nin stayed with Orwell: he left a ‘testament’ too, like Goldstein in Nineteen Eighty-Four who is Nin quite as much as Trotsky.
That same afternoon, he and Eileen visited Kopp in prison. In the confusion of the mass arrests, ordinary prison rules, allowing a daily visit before trial, were still being observed: the political prisoners were not yet incommunicado. Kopp told them that he had been carrying an important letter from the Ministry of War to a colonel of Engineering on the eastern front which the police had confiscated. Orwell went straight to the War Department in Barcelona and, with difficulty, found the colonel’s office. He explained to the aide-de-camp that Major Kopp had been arrested by mistake while carrying an important letter to his colonel. The ADC was startled, if not scared, to learn what unit they were from, but he took Orwell with him straight to the office of the Chief of Police. After a fierce argument, the officer retrieved the letter. But for Kopp, he could do nothing: only promise that ‘proper inquiries’ would be made. The little ADC shook hands with Orwell in front of the police before they parted. Orwell thought that very brave of him. The whole episode shows the Orwells as incredibly brave too, almost foolhardy. They could do little or nothing to get their friend out of prison and yet had risked being rounded up themselves.
The men spent another night hiding and a day walking the boulevards as if they were tourists. Hotels had to report all guests to the police. They ran into several old comrades or acquaintances on the streets, also on the run or lying low — among them Willy Brandt. They tried to persuade Brandt to come with them to England but he refused. Cottman remembers Brandt then in a mood of despair at ‘working men killing working men’, pitying the poor among the Fascists, almost turning pacifist in his sadness at the sweet cause gone sour. In the evening Eileen, having got papers and passports together, and paid back personal money she was holding for various ILP members still at large, met them at the station at the last possible moment before the evening train left for France — which they then found, incredibly for Spain, had left early. So a third night was spent hiding out before the four of them got on the morning train together and sat confidently in the restaurant car, as if they were tourists or delegates returning from some conference. They crossed the frontier tensely but without incident. Orwell’s discharge papers had only the number of his regiment on it and the frontier guards had not yet been told that it was a POUM formation. The four of them grieved for Kopp and other friends, but McNair knew that they could all do more good raising the alarm outside — if anyone would listen.
At Perpignan on the French side of the frontier they ran into Fenner Brockway, the General Secretary of the ILP, coming into Spain again to try to get some of the others out. Brockway had met Orwell only once before, but now found him ‘far more mature as a socialist’. The five of them talked deep and anxiously into the night. They talked about Spain and discussed where articles and letters could be published to warn the other elements in the Popular Front of the Communists’ actions and to bring pressure for the release of their imprisoned comrades. They talked about the issues of international politics and readily agreed, according to Brockway, that the British Government was more interested in combating Communism and Socialism than Fascism, so that if war did come with Germany, it would be a purely imperialist and capitalist struggle for markets, nothing that should gain the support of genuine socialists. Orwell said that he intended to support the ILP strongly and practically. He also asked Brockway’s advice about a publisher for a book on Spain, since he already knew that Gollancz was ‘distressed’ at his POUM connection. Brockway suggested that Fredric Warburg was just the man, not afraid to publish books from the independent Left wing, like Brockway’s own The Workers’ Front. He was already nicknamed, very misleadingly, ‘The Trotskyite publisher’.[*]
In the morning Brockway departed for Barcelona, McNair and Cottman for Paris, and George and Eileen had three days’ rest at Banyuls. ‘Rest’, once again, is a relative term. He sent a telegram to the New Statesman and Nation offering an article, received an encouraging reply and began to write ‘Eyewitness in Barcelona’.
By the first week in July the Blairs were back in the house in Wallington, which Jack Common had been looking after for them. Orwell got down to Homage to Catalonia almost at once and Eileen got down to putting the house and garden in order. He must have been pleased to find on his return a copy of the News Chronicle for 10 June 1937 with a large photograph and long extract from The Road to Wigan Pier — as fourth of a series of five ‘giving the work of young writers already famous among critics, less well-known by the public’. The others were Arthur Calder-Marshall, Tom Harrisson, Stephen Spender, and — coupled together — W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. But his article for the New Statesman and Nation was rejected. He might growl and be suspicious as to their motives, but it was, after all, submitted on spec, not commissioned. So he published it in two parts in his old stand-by, the New English Weekly, on 29 July and 2 September. He told of the ‘reign of terror’ that the Government, backed by the Communist Party, had unleashed against ‘its own revolutionaries’; he said that the real struggle in Spain was between revolution and counter-revolution in the Government camp. He went so far as to accuse the Republican middle class of favouring a negotiated peace with Franco for fear that outright victory would mean the revolution. For good measure he argued that the British Government, by its fear of ‘communism’ (misplaced in this case) and sympathy with Spanish Fascism, had brought a new world war closer, but it would clearly not be fought as an anti-Fascist war, but simply as a capitalist and nationalist reaction to German military and commercial expansion. The Communist purge of the POUM had brought Orwell right round to the Anarchist, POUM, Trotskyite and ILP line that the Spanish War could only be won through a revolution, indeed that the future, impending and inevitable, European or world war could only be won by the elan and dedication of a people’s revolution, neither by phoney national coalition nor by popular front. The articles appear to have had no popular impact.
The New Statesman and Nation, however, sent him for review as a kind of softener Franz Borkenau’s Spanish Cockpit. ‘Dr Borkenau,’ wrote Orwell, ‘is a sociologist and not connected with any political party.’ Borkenau, in fact, had been an Austrian Communist who had worked for the Comintern in Moscow, lost his faith when he saw the megalomania of Stalin and the power hunger and cynicism of the bureaucrats; then he studied at Frankfurt under Adorno; was an exile in Panama and then Mexico, before going to Spain a few weeks after the outbreak of rebellion, and writing what is still a classic book on the war. His Spanish Cockpit both analyses the reasons for its outbreak and gives an eye-witness account of the revolution in Catalonia that, even before Orwell arrived in Spain, exposes the hostility and conspiracy of the Communists against their Left-wing rivals. He was imprisoned at Communist instigation and was lucky to get out. The experience took him to places and enabled him to see connections hidden to Orwell. But the argument was the same: the needs of Spain perverted and ruined by the dogmatic rigidity and the power hunger of Moscow. Borkenau had a deep influence on Orwell who reviewed equally enthusiastically two of his later books, The Communist International (1938) and The Totalitarian Enemy (1940). Borkenau, like Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler and George Orwell himself, had come to see that, however horrible and paradoxical it might be, Stalinism and Fascism had something in common both in style and methods. The word that Mussolini had used as a boast they used as an insight into the unique aspirations of some modern autocracies: ‘totalitarianism’.
Orwell’s review of Borkenau appeared, however, not in the New Statesman and Nation, but in Time and Tide (31 July 1937), for Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman and Nation had rejected it.
29 July 1937
Dear Mr Orwell,
I am sorry that it is not possible for us to use your review of The Spanish Cockpit. The reason is simply that it too far controverts the political policy of the paper. It is very uncompromisingly said and implies that our Spanish correspondents are all wrong. I have, in fact, done my best to present a balanced view of the Spanish situation and published an article taking much the same view as yours by Listen Oak, followed by two very judicial articles by Brailsford, who made this controversy one of his particular subjects of investigation while he was in Spain.
I should add that our reviewers are always left a good deal of latitude and there is free controversy in the correspondence columns, but it is no use publishing reviews that too directly contradict conclusions that have been very carefully reached in the first part of the paper.
We shall, of course, send you payment in the usual way.
The Literary Editor, Raymond Mortimer, claimed to have rejected the review for the different reason that it simply stated Orwell’s own view, not Borkenau’s (they were, in fact, very much the same); but he apologized profusely to Orwell the following year when he learned for the first time of Kingsley Martin’s letter. Martin never seemed to grasp the enormity of his action, particularly reprehensible as he never denied that Orwell’s facts were true, only that he believed that to publish them would damage the Popular Front. His biographer talks about a proper sense of expediency, but Orwell thought that such ‘expediency’ was toleration of ‘necessary murder’ and showed ‘the mentality of a whore’ — a willingness to string along at any price. Long before Orwell’s difficulties in getting Animal Farm accepted in 1944, there were objective reasons to believe that many prominent Left-wing intellectuals were not as dedicated to truth and liberty as they were to the illusion of being close to the future levers of power if they kept the company of the communists. Bertrand Russell accused them of worshipping the power as well as the sense of purpose of the Soviet Union. There is not the slightest ground for imputing persecution mania or paranoia to Orwell on this score. The socialist camp had gained as a recruit its most earnest and difficult free spirit.
Looking back in his essay ‘The Prevention of Literature’ of 1946 he said: ‘To write in plain, vigorous language, one has to think fearlessly and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.’ In ‘Why I Write’ of the same year he had stressed the primacy of ‘taking a stand’ and having something to say. But whether his heterodoxy led to the plain style or the plain style to the heterodoxy, it was in Spain that they fused in his character and in his craft and in Homage to Catalonia that they appeared in their fullest and most perfect expression — with the sole possible exception of Animal Farm.
For the next few years, public controversy and Orwell walked hand in hand. He had come back to England to read the reviewers’ warfare that had greeted The Road to Wigan Pier. It was internecine strife. The second half of the book had divided the Left. It was, indeed, wide open to criticism: he generalized about the psychology of the Left without so much as mentioning the Labour Party and the TUC, and he portrayed the Left’s ideas or rather ‘mentality’, for it was all from talk rather than from books, as if the whole world of socialist theory were composed either of official Marxists (the Communist Party) or provisional Marxists (the ILP). None the less, he made deep and shrewd criticisms. If he exaggerated the influence of intellectuals, yet the middle classes, especially the lower middle classes who needed to be won over, made the same mistake. He realized that ordinary people were more appalled by the apparent crankery of socialists than they were attracted or repelled by socialist doctrines. Orwell made a virtue of ordinariness and common decency; the Lord had not come into the world to save those who were righteous already. Some reviewers saw this, in whole or in part. Ethel Mannin had snorted in the ILP’s New Leader that it was ‘a great pity... he did not confine himself to facts and figures’. Harold Laski in the Left Book Club’s journal gave faint praise to the first half and damned the second half for ignorance of socialist theory. But Arthur Calder-Marshall wrote a very respectful review in Time and Tide in which, however, he pointed out two grave faults: that the stress on the squalor of the lodging house underestimates ‘the humanity of even the most poverty-stricken working-class homes’; and that of all the reasons both plausible and strange that Orwell gives for the disarray of the socialist movement, he fails to mention the most obvious: the lack of militant leadership by the Labour party and the TUC.
This sort of fair criticism did not suit Pollitt or Strachey. Pollitt himself reviewed the book in the Daily Worker — a sign of the importance he attached to it:
Here is George Orwell, a disillusioned little middle-class boy who, seeing through imperialism, decided to discover what Socialism has to offer... a late imperialist policeman... If ever snobbery had its hallmark placed upon it, it is by Mr Orwell... I gather that the chief thing that worries Mr Orwell is the ‘smell’ of the working-class, for smells seem to occupy the major portion of the book... One thing I am certain of, and it is this — if Mr Orwell could only hear what the Left Book circles will say about this book, then he would make a resolution never to write again on any subject that he does not understand.
The attack was repeated several times in the summer, an attack of such a kind that Orwell wrote to Gollancz. The letter is a characteristic mixture of honesty, straightforwardness, pugnacity and simplicity (or is the apparent naïveté ironical?)
The Stores, Wallington, Nr Baldock, Herts
Dear Mr Gollancz,
I do not expect you will have seen the enclosed cutting, as it does not refer to anything you published for me.
This (see underlined words) is the — I think — third reference in the ‘Daily Worker’ to my supposedly saying that the working classes ‘smell’. As you know I have never said anything of the kind, in fact have specifically said the opposite. What I said in Chapter VIII of ‘Wigan Pier’, as you may perhaps remember, is that middle-class people are brought up to believe that the working classes ‘smell’, which is simply a matter of observable fact. Numbers of the letters I received from readers of the book referred to this and congratulated me on pointing it out. The statement or implication that I think working people ‘smell’ is a deliberate lie aimed at people who have not read this or any other of my books, in order to give them the idea that I am a vulgar snob and thus indirectly hit at the political parties with which I have been associated. These attacks in the Worker only began after it became known to the Communist Party that I was serving with the POUM militia.
I have no connection with these people (the ‘Worker’ staff) and nothing I said would carry any weight with them, but you of course are in a different position. I am very sorry to trouble you about what is more or less my own personal affair, but I think perhaps it might be worth your while to intervene and stop attacks of this kind which will not, of course, do any good to the books you have published for me or may publish for me in the future. If therefore at any time you happen to be in touch with anyone in authority on the Worker staff, I should be very greatly obliged if you would tell them two things:
1. That if they repeat this lie about my saying the working classes ‘smell’ I shall publish a reply with the necessary quotations, and in it I shall include what John Strachey said to me on the subject just before I left for Spain (about December 20th). Strachey will no doubt remember it, and I don’t think the CP would care to see it in print.
2. This is a more serious matter. A campaign of organized libel is going on against people who were serving with the POUM in Spain. A comrade of mine,[*] a boy of eighteen whom I knew in the line, was recently not only expelled from his branch of the YCL for his association with the POUM, which was perhaps justifiable as the POUM and CP policies are quite incompatible, but was also described in a letter as ‘in the pay of Franco’. This latter statement is quite a different matter. I don’t know whether it is libellous within the meaning of the act, but I am taking counsel’s opinion, as, of course, the same thing (i.e. that I am in Fascist pay) is liable to be said about myself. Perhaps again, if you are speaking to anyone in authoritative position, you could tell them that in the case of anything actionable being said against me, I shall not hesitate to take a libel action immediately. I hate to take up this threatening attitude, and I should hate sail more to be involved in litigation, especially against members of another working-class party, but I think one has a right to defend oneself against these malignant personal attacks which, even if it is really the case that the CP is entirely right and the POUM and ILP entirely wrong, cannot in the long run do any good to the working-class cause. You see here (second passage underlined) the implied suggestion that I did not ‘pull my weight’ in the fight against the Fascists. From this it is only a short step to calling me a coward, a shirker etc., and I do not doubt these people would do so if they thought it was safe.
I am extremely sorry to put this kind of thing upon you, and I shall understand and not be in any way offended if you do not feel you can do anything about it. But I have ventured to approach you because you are my publisher and may, perhaps, feel that your good name is to some extent involved with mine.
Yours sincerely, Eric Blair
Gollancz replied to Orwell at once with unusual brevity, ‘Many thanks for your letter, which I am passing on to the proper quarter’; and to the proper quarter in King Street he wrote: ‘My dear Harry, you should see this letter from Orwell. I read it to John over the telephone and he assures me that he is quite certain that he said nothing whatever indiscreet. Yours ever, Victor.’ The attacks, for the moment, did cease. What Strachey said, alas, we will never know. He might actually have said something critical of the party line.
Sometimes the Communist movement, however, got its wires crossed badly. In May 1937 Orwell had received a letter from the Moscow periodical International Literature asking for a contribution and a copy of Wigan Pier. He sent the book, promised a contribution, but explained that he was recovering from a wound he had had while serving with the POUM militia. He received, at length, this remarkable reply:
Mr George Orwell
The Editorial Office of the International Literature has received your letter, in which you answer our letter dated May 31st. You are right to be frank with us, you are right to inform us of your service in the militia of the POUM. Our magazine, indeed, has nothing to do with POUM-members; this organization, as the long experience of the Spanish people’s struggle against insurgents and fascist interventions has shown, is a part of Franco’s ‘fifth column’ which is acting in the rear [of] the heroic army of Republican Spain.
As in the worlds of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the discredited rival is not just labelled ‘objectively Fascist’, he becomes perceived as Fascist.
That summer and autumn, into the next year in fact, anxious letters went to and fro trying to discover what had happened to missing members of the ILP contingent in Spain. One letter from a man just out of prison. Harry Wilton, said that he had heard that Georges Kopp had been moved to Madrid at the end of July and had been ‘knocked off’; and Eileen’s brother had been sent by Kopp a copy of an ultimatum he had presented to the Chief of Police in Barcelona at the beginning of that month threatening to go on hunger strike if not given a hearing — a letter which Eileen passed on to John McNair to publicize. Forgotten men are more easily killed. Some months later came a letter to Eileen from Robert Williams, who had spent longer in prison, informing ‘My dear Comrade Blair’ that Kopp was still alive. Yet in May 1938, she got a letter from Alexander Smillie, thanking her for sending him a copy of Homage to Catalonia, talking sadly of his dead son, George’s comrade, either killed by the Communists or allowed to die by neglect in prison, and linking ‘poor Kopp’ to his ‘poor Bob’ as among the ranks of the martyrs for the ‘good old cause’.
Not all men are made of the stuff of martyrs. On 14 September the Daily Worker carried a long statement alleged to have been signed by F. A. Frankfort who had been in prison in Barcelona (though for a civil, not a political charge — he says). The statement said that when the ILP contingent was near Alcubierre under Kopp’s command: ‘Every night at 11 p.m. the sentries heard the rattle of a cart’ and they could tell from its light that it came from the Fascist lines, and ‘we were ordered never to shoot at this light, and when we grew inquisitive about it we were forbidden to try to find anything out’. He implied that these arms were then used in the May riots. ‘In their political work, also, the POUM was similarly working for Fascism... Had my political education not been so backward, I should not have let myself be led so far. But my ignorance in May still so great,’ the statement went on, ‘that I committed the. crime of taking part in the armed rising of Fascists against the anti-Fascist Government.’ (Could this specifically, as well as the Moscow trials generally, have given Orwell the idea for the bizarre and pathetic confessions of the animals in Animal Farm?) Two days later the Daily Worker said that they had been asked by him to correct certain points: the spelling of his name, Frankford not Frankfort; that he had not been kept in the POUM by force; and that he was not certain that the carts actually crossed the line, nor had he himself actually seen Kopp returning from the Fascist lines.
First John McNair attacked Frankford in the ILP’s New Leader, and a week later Orwell wrote a precise and angry refutation of each of the charges which was signed by fourteen other members of the contingent, all those the editors could contact at short notice.[*] The heading stated that he was ‘not a member of the ILP’. Orwell speculated that ‘all these wild words... were put into Frankford’s mouth by Barcelona journalists, and that he chose to save his skin by assenting to them’. And Fenner Brockway asserts that a few days after the article ‘the boy’ came to London, saw McNair-and ‘broke down crying and begged forgiveness’. He too conjectures that he ‘had been imprisoned in Barcelona and presented with the document to sign as a condition of freedom’.
Both these suppositions seem reasonable, but Mr Frankford denies that he ever broke down or asked forgiveness; says that he never signed anything, but simply gave an interview to Sam Lessor of the Daily Worker which he embellished, and he sticks to his story that there was fraternization and crossing of the lines on occasion (which seems plausible), but he is ‘not sure’ whether he ever thought that guns rather than fruit and vegetables ever figured in such movements, though ‘there are things still to be explained’. (When I asked him if he was not angry at the Daily Worker for putting words into his mouth, Mr Frankford replied: ‘Quite legitimate in politics, I am a realist.’)
Such an incident not merely strengthened Orwell’s affection for the ILP but must also have set his mind working on the necessity of telling the truth in politics and the dangers of ideological approaches that deal only in ‘the truth’ or in ‘the objective truth’.
Orwell did not join the ILP until the following year, but he attended part of their summer school and various other activities. The summer school was in the first two weeks of August at St Christopher School, Letchworth. McNair, Cottman, Paddy Donovan, Douglas Moyle and Jock Braithwaite were there, as well as Fenner Brockway. Officials from the POUM and the CNT spoke. Among other speakers were George Padmore, Reginald Reynolds, and James Maxton. One evening was given over to a report from the contingent members. New Leader’s conference report only mentioned ‘There was Eric Blair, an intellectual, his voice still weak from a bullet wound in the throat,’ and that he spoke briefly. Others remember him making occasional brief and impressive interventions in other discussions, but that his voice was low and he was not always audible. Fenner Brockway walked with him on the lawns one evening and Orwell offered to write regularly for New Leader — an offer that was turned down, ‘to my everlasting regret’, says Lord Brockway. ‘I made one of the two great mistakes of my life. I turned him down because New Leader was a propaganda sheet for the factory floor, and it did not seem to me that this was his kind of writing.’ But he may also still have distrusted Orwell as a ‘literary man’ or a Johnnie-come-lately to Fenner’s stern version of the socialist camp.
The ILP had organized a camp that summer for refugee Basque children. They lived under canvas at Kelvedon in Essex while they were taught English and found families. A then 16-year-old member of the Barking Branch of the ILP Guild of Youth remembers Orwell. He must have gone down to help for at least one week, possibly several weekends as well. He helped them draw up their appeals for money. On her part, it was a case of calf-love at first sight. She did not realize that he was married. He did not volunteer the information, but nor did he take advantage of her, ‘he was so gentlemanly’. He was ‘so gentle, so wise, so well-informed and so dedicated’. Her Guild of Youth thought of themselves, she said, as a POUM group through his influence. Who was following whom is not clear, but both McNair and Cottman remember ‘the girl from Essex’ as being in the lorry when volunteers from the London area went to help organize a meeting at Bristol one weekend, and the lorry came off the road into a ditch. They both laughed, remembering George as being ‘shy with women’, for she seemed to want close comfort in the upset night, and he would only proffer a brotherly shoulder. Perhaps he was a little bit shy, but he was also a gentleman, defending the weak, not taking advantage of them.
Many ordinary people began to write to Orwell at this time about The Road to Wigan Pier, how it had brought them to socialism, or at least to the realization that something needed to be done about unemployment, poverty and the constraints and conceits of class. Some in the cause already pointed out in friendly criticisms that conditions in other parts of the country were very different from those in South Lancashire and the West Riding. Only a few of his replies survive, but enough to suggest that he replied patiently and at length to them all, rather humbly admitting the complexity and variety of poverty. (Sometimes one does learn something more about a subject after writing a book about it.)
Old friends were eager to talk about Spain. Connolly had visited Spain briefly before Orwell and Richard Rees had plunged in actively as an ambulance driver. His letters to old friends at this rime are among the fullest he ever wrote, but they largely anticipate or repeat the matter of Homage to Catalonia. He was also reviewing many books on Spain, now that far more political books came his way than novels. He could not afford to turn anything down, however: money was getting very tight again. One can see him working out ideas for the book, or that became part of the book, in letters and reviews. He always thought aloud, as it were, in minor book reviews about the major themes of his next book.
That autumn, he and Eileen stayed at Southwold for three weeks with his parents; they sowed more spring vegetables at Wallington, aiming to become self-sufficient, and they bought a dog whom they christened ‘Marx’ — a black poodle, but the manly, hunting-dog sort, not a lap-dog poodle. All in all, it is a wonder he was able to finish the book that year; but by the turn of the New Year, 1938, driving himself hard, it was done.
A letter to Geoffrey Gorer, however, showed more clearly than is explicit in the book how Orwell saw his Spanish experience in the perspective of the ILP, virtually the Trotskyist, theory of international relations. This involved an opposition both to Fascism and to preparation for war against Germany, a view-point which he held until September 1939.
The Popular Front boloney boils down to this: that when the war comes the Communists, labourites etc., instead of working to stop the war and overthrow the Government, will be on the side of the Government, provided that the Government is on the ‘right’ side, i.e. against Germany. But everyone with any imagination can foresee that Fascism, not of course called Fascism, will be imposed on us as soon as the war starts. So you will have Fascism with Communists participating in it, and, if we are in alliance with the USSR, taking a leading part in it. This is what has happened in Spain. After what I have seen in Spain I have come to the conclusion that it is futile to be ‘anti-Fascist’ while attempting to preserve capitalism. Fascism after all is only a development of capitalism, and the mildest democracy, so-called, is liable to turn into Fascism when the pinch comes. We like to think of England as a democratic country, but our rule in India, for instance, is just as bad as German Fascism, though outwardly it may be less irritating. I do not see how one can oppose Fascism except by working for the overthrow of capitalism, starting, of course, in one’s own country. If one collaborates with a capitalist-imperialist government in a struggle ‘against Fascism’, i.e. against a rival imperialism, one is simply letting Fascism in by the back door. The whole struggle in Spain, on the Government side, has turned upon this. The revolutionary parties, the Anarchists, POUM, etc. wanted to complete the revolution, the others wanted to fight the Fascists in the name of ‘democracy’, and of course, when they felt sure enough of their position and had tricked the workers into giving up their arms, re-introduce capitalism. The grotesque feature, which very few people outside Spain have yet grasped, is that the Communists stood furthest of all to the Right, and were more anxious even than the liberals to hunt down the revolutionaries and stamp out all revolutionary ideas.
The language is extreme: far to the Left of the ordinary Labour movement. If he was not yet a member of the ILP, he was certainly its fellow-traveller; and he shared the revolutionary socialism of its international section (perhaps so extreme because most of the ILP were stubbornly parochial and let the Fenner Brockways ‘get on with it’). But leaving the rhetoric aside, the basic policies and contradictions were also those of the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party at that time: opposition both to Hitler and to rearmament. That Orwell was not just trying out newly read ILP ideas on Gorer is suggested by Paddy Donovan’s memory that Orwell told him in Spain that a war between Britain and Germany would just be ‘one band of robbers against another’.
The Anarchists tried to woo Orwell. He had said in Homage to Catalonia that ‘As far as my purely personal preferences went I would have liked to join the Anarchists.’ And he called them ‘the main revolutionary force’. Emma Goldman wrote to Rudolf Rocker, ‘For the first time since the struggle began in 1936 someone outside our ranks has come forward to paint the Spanish anarchists as they really are.’ But he remained outside, although critically sympathetic. Emma Goldman did persuade him to join a kind of anarchist front organization, the International Anti-Fascist Solidarity Committee, which brought him into contact with such British libertarians as his fellow sponsors Ethel Mannin, Rebecca West, John Cowper Powys and Herbert Read who had been similarly influenced by Spain. And he met for the first time Vernon Richards, the writer and journalist, very active in the formal Anarchist movement.
Orwell’s love of literature did not diminish. He was beginning to see the connection between clarity of language and truth which was soon to bring his two great concerns together. He looked forward, however, to being able to begin work on ‘my next novel’, and he welcomed the chance of broadening his literary acquaintance, even in unlikely directions. ‘Yes,’ to Geoffrey Gorer, ‘I should like to meet Edith Sitwell very much, some time when I am in town’; and ‘thanks’ to Cyril Connolly, ‘I would like to come to lunch on Friday very much. I would also like to meet Stephen Spender if he is free. I’ve often said rude things about him in print etc.,[*] but I daresay he won’t know or won’t mind’. And some time later when he was ‘in town’ Connolly recalled:
I remember him coming to a cocktail party we gave in the Spanish wartime, and we had quite a lot of Right-wing friends, rather nice, jolly girls with lots of money who were unpolitical, and then there were one or two Left-wing political people, and poets... And he came along, looking gaunt and shaggy, shabby, aloof, and he had this extraordinary magical effect again on these women. They all wanted to meet him and started talking to him, and their fur coats shook with pleasure. They were totally unprepared for anyone like that and they responded to something... this sort of John the Baptist figure coming in from the wilderness and suddenly the women feel it doesn’t matter what his political views are, he’s a wonderful man.
Such excursions into the rarefied atmosphere of the world of Cyril Connolly were fairly rare. He spent most of his time amid the rural smells ofWallington actually writing; and it did matter very much what his politics were.
After the ordeals of Spain and writing the book about it, most of Orwell’s formative experiences were over. His finest writing, his best essays and his great fame lay ahead. From 1937 onwards he knew where he stood, what he was capable of doing and he was able to give out great riches from the store of his experience, he no longer needed to seek out new experiences even though, on two occasions at least, he sought to do so, but as if out of habit rather than for the necessities of writing. Before 1937 a confusion or fusion of autobiography, fiction and documentary was typical of his writing and has needed to be disentangled slowly and critically; but from now on there were to be fewer ambiguities of that kind in his major writings (with the notable exception of ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’) and they speak for themselves clearly, if they are read in the context of his entire production, including the political journalism as well as the literary essays. As he became more of a public figure, he assumed that people knew where he stood and what his presuppositions were; would have read his journalism and his essays as well as his novels. That was not always to be a sensible assumption.
1. CE I, p. 516. The tangled history ofAuden’s revisions to ‘Spain’ is at last made clear in Edward Mendelson’s The English Auden (Faber and Faber, London, 1977), pp. 424-5. Auden by 1940 had changed inter alia ‘in the necessary murder’ to ‘in the fact of murder’, and ‘deliberate increase...’ became ‘inevitable increase in the chances of death’. Mendelson points out that Auden’s revision was published a month before ‘Inside the Whale’ appeared, so that he could not have been reacting to Orwell’s criticism of the two stanzas as some critics have believed. But Orwell, as so often, had written an earlier and cruder version of the same thing. In ‘Political Reflections on the Crisis’, Adelphi, December 1938, p. 110, he had attacked ‘this utterly irresponsible intelligentsia’, the alliance of ‘the gangster and the pansy’, had referred to Auden by name, had neither mentioned ‘Spain’ explicitly nor quoted the two offending stanzas, but had misquoted ‘from Auden’, he said, ‘“the acceptance of guilt for the necessary murder’”. So the question remains open.[back]
2. CE I, pp. 317-I8.[back]
3. loc. cit.[back]
4. Alfred Perlès, My Friend Henry Miller (Neville Spearman, London, 1955), pp. 156-9; and Orwell, ‘Inside the Whale’, CE I, pp. 519-20.[back]
5. ‘As I Please’, Tribune, 15 Sept. 1944, p. 11.[back]
6. Victor Alba, El Marxisme a Catalunya, Vol. II, ‘Historia de POUM’ (Editorial Portic, Barcelona, 1974). I am grateful to Mr Miguel Berga for drawing my attention to this book and for translating passages for me from Catalan.[back]
7. John McNair, ‘George Orwell: The Man I Knew’, p. 10. This is a TS. dated March 1965, based on his MA Thesis, copies in University of Newcastle Library and Orwell Archive. The pages on Spain are from his memory and are authentic if not always fully accurate, but most of the thesis is purely secondary and discursive. His Spanish Diary, edited with a commentary by Don Bateman (Independent Labour Publications, Leeds, n.d.) is useful, but it is not a contemporary diary and the editing is uncritical.[back]
8. Victor Alba, El Marxisme a Catalunya, pp. 150 ff.[back]
9. Notes on interview with John McNair by Ian Angus and Macdonald Emslie, April 1964.[back]
10. Fredric Warburg, An Occupation for Gentlemen (Hutchinson, London, 1959), pp. 231-2. His account is circumstantial, he even remembers Orwell saying ‘I want to go to Spain and have a look at the fighting... write a book about it. Good chaps, those Spaniards, can’t let them down.’ And he remembers the advance paid. But Orwell only came to him after Spain, so memory has transposed one incident, invented the other and imagined the dialogue. See footnote on p. 339 above.[back]
11. Homage to Catalonia, p. 2, and a long letter to Frank Jellinek of 20 Dec. 1938, CE I, pp.363-7.[back]
12. McNair, op. cit., pp. 10 and 11-12.[back]
13. Homage to Catalonia, p. 111. Orwell’s accounts of military matters can be checked in Vicenc Guamer, El Front d’Aragó, Documents 15 (La Gaia Ciéncia, Barcelona, 1977). Again I thank Miguel Berga for the reference and translation.[back]
14. ibid., pp. 34-5.[back]
15. ‘Looking back on the Spanish War’ (written in 1942), CE II, p. 249.[back]
16. Homage to Catalonia, pp. 79 and 31.[back]
17. ibid., p. 32.[back]
18. From Cornford’s poem ‘A Letter from Aragon’, in Jonathan Galassi (ed.), Understand the Weapon, Understand the Wound: Selected Writings of John Cornford (Carcanet Press, Manchester, 1976), p. 41.[back]
19. Victor Alba, El Marxisms a Catalunya, pp. 150 ff.[back]
20. Homage to Catalonia, pp. 26-7 and 69-70; and letter to Cyril Connolly of 8 June 1937,CE I, p. 269.[back]
21. J. Coll and J. Pané, Josep Rovira: una vida al servei de Catalunya i del socialisms (Ariel, Barcelona, 1978), pp. 129-30 and pp. 128-41 generally on Homage to Catalonia.[back]
22. Bob Edwards speaking in ‘George Orwell: A Programme of Recorded Reminiscences’, arranged and narrated by Rayner Heppenstall, recorded on 20 August 1960 and first broadcast on 2 November 1960 (BBC Archives, Ref. No. TLO 24177). Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]
23. loc. cit.[back]
24. Bob Edwards, MP, ‘Introduction’, p. 8, to Homage to Catalonia (Folio Society, London, 1970). When I interviewed Mr Edwards (20 Jan. 1975) he insisted that Orwell had come out primarily not just to write a book rather than to fight, but also to report the war for Tribune. He sent me to prove this a photocopy of a reproduction in a book of Orwell’s NUJ card mentioning Tribune. But that card was only issued when Orwell joined Tribune in 1943; and he wrote nothing for it earlier than 1940 when it became its modern, independent Left-wing self.[back]
25. Interview by the author with Stafford Cottman, West Ruislip, 21 Aug. 1979.[back]
26. ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, CE II, p. 254.[back]
27. For Orwell’s account see Homage to Catalonia, pp. 91-107; the passage quoted is on p. 103.[back]
28. The ILP account is in ‘Night Attack on the Aragon Front’, The New Leader, 30 April 1937, p. 3.[back]
29. CE I, pp. 264-6.[back]
30. See Bumett Bolloten, The Grand Camouflage: The Spanish Civil War and the Revolution (Pall Mail, London, 1968), p. 115 and generally, for a scholarly study of Communist tactics in Spain which supports Orwell’s experience and conclusions.[back]
31. Alba, op. cit., p. 162, fn.[back]
* ‘Franco was not strictly comparable with Hitler and Mussolini’, his was not a revolution but a ‘military mutiny backed up by the aristocracy and the church... not so much to impose Fascism as to restore feudalism’ (Homage to Catalonia, p. 49). Interestingly this was the only passage that the censor (in Franco’s lifetime) deleted from the first Catalan translation in 1970 (see J. Coll and J. Pané, Josef Rovira: una vida at servei de Catalunya i del Socialisme (Ediciones Ariel, Barcelona, 1978), p. 135 and for Orwell’s views on Fascism see Chapter Nine, p. 293, note 30 above).[back]
32. Stafford Cottman and John (‘Paddy’) Donovan when interviewed by Ian Angus (28 July 1965 and 27 April 1967 respectively). Bob Edwards (op. cit.) confirms this, but he alone maintains that Orwell’s motive to leave for a more active sector was a matter of writing rather than fighting.[back]
33. Homage to Catalonia, pp. 59-60, 65 and 70.[back]
34. Willy Brandt, In Exile: Essays, Reflections and Letters 1933-47 (Oscar Wolff, London, 1977), p. 141.[back]
* Orwell appears to have confused the Civil Guard, the national armed gendarmerie, with the Guardia de Asaho, the Asaltos — an even tougher lot. These assault Guards had been founded in 1931 as a small corps d’ élite specifically for emergencies and for the ‘defence of the republic’. See Alberto Corazon, his Introduction to the first Spanish translation of Homage to Catalonia, Homanje a Cataluña (Ediciones Ariel, Barcelona, 1970), pp. 11-12.[back]
35. Homage to Catalonia, p. 129. Eileen’s letter is in the Orwell Archive.[back]
36. P. Broué and E. Témime, The Revolution and the Civil War (Faber and Faber, London, 1972), p. 286. Their account of the May riots and of ‘The Break Up of the Antifascist Coalition’ commands great respect and, incidentally, makes Hugh Thomas’ remark that Orwell’s account of the riots, ‘marvellously written though it is, is a better book about war itself than about the Spanish war’ seem ungenerous. (Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, 3rd edn revised and enlarged [Hamish Hamilton, London, 1977], p. 653.) Nothing in Orwell’s account is contradicted by Broué and Témime, nor by Jose Peirats, Los anarquistas en la crisis politico española (Buenos Aires, 1964) nor by Manuel Cruells, Mayo sangriento: Barcelona 1937 (Ariel, Barcelona, 1970), on both of whom Thomas relies heavily in his revised edition. Gabriel Jackson, The Spanish Republic ana the Civil War (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1965) is more just when he says that Orwell ‘gives a vivid, sympathetic picture of the situation as seen by the POUM militia, but the reader should bear in mind Orwell’s own honest statement that he knew very little about the political complexities of the struggle’ (p. 370).[back]
37. Quoted in Bumett Bolloten, ‘The Parties of the Left and the Civil War’ in Raymond Carr (ed.). The Republic and the Civil War in Spain (Macmillan, London, 1971), p. 144.[back]
38. Homage to Catalonia, pp. 139 and 141.[back]
39. ibid., pp. 171 and 179-80.[back]
40. Raymond Carr in Miriam Gross (ed.). The World of George Orwell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1971), p. 70.[back]
41. Homage to Catalonia, pp. 131-2.[back]
42. ibid., pp. 155-6.[back]
43. Interview by the author with Mr F. Frankford, Wells, 22 Dec. 1979.[back]
44. Homage to Catalonia, pp. 198 and 200.[back]
45. Both the telegram and the medical narrative are in the Orwell Archive.[back]
46. Among Orwell’s pamphlet collection, now in the British Library (BM 1899 SS 3 ), is a pamphlet by Bertram D. Wolfe, Civil War in Spain (Workers’ Age Publications, New York, 1937), which has as an appendix ‘The Thesis of Andres Nin’, a draft he prepared for discussion at the POUM’s planned Second Congress in Barcelona in 1937, which was suppressed. It was published on 5 April in Spain. Wolfe’s eulogy of Nin (pp. 92-3) has several obvious parallels to Nineteen Eighty-Four:
Few political papers, since the days when Lenin was at the head of the Communist International, have the revolutionary boldness, the insight, the luminous thought and vivid language that characterize this last important writing from the hands of Nin.
Let the reader compare it with the stale, sausage-machine theses of the ultra-left period and the fuzzy, unscrupulous and treacherous language of Comintern documents today, and he will understand why these preachers of confusion and outworn bourgeois catchwords could not tolerate the existence of a clear revolutionary voice which reminded them of their own past and of the true meaning of the ideals and doctrines in the name of which they profess to speak. That is the reason why Nin lies dead, why his body, like those of Liebknecht and Luxemburg under similar circumstances, was secretly buried in the dead of night in some ditch or sewer on the outskirts of Madrid, why his great voice is stilled and his clear brain had ceased to function in the cause of the working class.
Wolfe says that Nin also took the line that the slogan of ‘First win the war, then the revolution’ was a deliberate Russian betrayal of the actual working-class revolution in Spain. Another pamphlet or small book in Orwell’s collection for the same period takes this line and puts it into the broader context of the history of the Soviet Communist Party and of the blind Russophilia of Left-wing intellectuals: Max Eastman, The End of Socialism in Russia, was published by Secker & Warburg in May 1937, so Orwell could well have read it before writing Homage to Catalonia, and it would have refortified all he meant to say.
This is not to imply that the ideas of Homage to Catalonia are derived from either book directly, only to show that the ideas were common stock among the free Left. Orwell’s genius lay in relating these ideas to his direct experience, showing how they indeed arose from his experience: positively, the direct and simple style; and negatively, the avoidance of that theoretical introversion which is typical of the Eastmans and the Wolfes. (There were only brief extracts from Nin’s speeches in ILP Publications. A recent work in Catalan contains literary and political essays and a brief biography: Oriol Pi De Cabanyes, Que Va Dir Andreu Nin (Editorial Nova Terra, Barcelona, 1978). In English there is only a short pamphlet: Wilebaldo Solano, The Life of Andres Nin (Independent Labour Publications, Leeds, n.d.).[back]
47. The narrative in the preceding four paragraphs follows Orwell’s account in Homage to Catalonia, pp. 219-48, with some additional detail and complete corroboration from Ian Angus’ interviews with McNair (see note 9 above), McNair’s thesis (see note 7 above) and my interview with Cottman (see note 25 above).[back]
* Fredric Warburg in his autobiography, An Occupation for Gentlemen (Hutchinson, London, 1959), says that ‘Orwell came to see me in December 1936 to discuss a visit to Spain and a book on the Spanish War... “I want to go to Spain and have a look at the fighting”, he said, “write a book about it. Good chaps, those Spaniards, can’t let them down. Can probably give you the book a month or two after I get back.”’ (p. 231) And he also has an account of John McNair hiding the manuscript ‘when the police ransacked his flat during the Barcelona rising’ (p. 236) — which conflates the rising with the subsequent purge and credits Orwell with a superhuman speed of writing. Warburg’s memory must be at fault on both counts. Orwell had written to Gollancz from Barcelona as early as 9 May 1937, saying ‘I hope I shall get a chance to write the truth about what I have seen... I hope to have a book ready for you about the beginning of next year’ (The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. I, p. 267). But Gollancz must have rejected this offer, for Orwell told Rayner Heppenstall in a letter of 31 July 1937: ‘I am also having to change my publisher, at least for this book. Gollancz is, of course, part of the Communism-racket, and as soon as he heard I had been associated with the POUM and Anarchists and had seen the inside of the May riots in Barcelona, he said he did not think he would be able to publish my book, though not a word of it was written yet.’ And an unpublished letter to his agent of 1 September 1937 is conclusive: ‘Herewith the signed draft of the agreement, for which many thanks. I trust I shall get the book done by December 31st, as agreed. If Secker and Warburg want to know how it is getting on I could let them have some specimen chapters in a few weeks, providing they understand that this is the rough draft and I always alter a great deal in rewriting.’ (Whatever it was that McNair may have told Warburg that he hid from the police, it cannot have been the manuscript of Homage to Catalonia. Even if there was an earlier version, or notes towards one, it did not get out of Spain; their lives had depended on crossing the frontier with nothing incriminating on them.)[back]
48. Interview by the author with Lord Brockway, 15 March 1977, and his book Outside the Right (Alien & Unwin, London, 1963), p. 25.[back]
49. CE I, pp. 348-51 and CE II, pp. 24-6.[back]
50. Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]
51. See Orwell’s letter to Raymond Mortimer of 9 Feb. 1938, CE I, pp. 299-302, and the editors’ footnote on p. 299 about the incident. Mortimer’s two letters are in the Orwell Archive.[back]
52. Kingsley Martin, Editor (Hutchinson, London, 1968), pp. 215-19.[back]
53. C. H. Rolph, Kingsley (Gollancz, London, 1973), pp. 225-59; and Orwell’s remarks are quoted in Edward Hyams’ The New Statesman 1913-63 (Longman, London, 1963), p. 140. Hyams holds that Martin’s action ‘was really imposed on him by the logic of the situation’. The last phrase is a fine piece of bourgeois Marxist apologetic.[back]
54. New Leader, 12 March 1937.[back]
55. Left News, March 1937, pp. 275-6.[back]
56. Time and Tide, 20 March 1937.[back]
57. Daily Worker, 17 March 1937. Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]
* This was Stafford Cottman who said that his home was picketed on his return by local Communists denouncing him as a Fascist.[back]
58. In the papers of Victor Gollancz Ltd.[back]
59. loc. cit.[back]
60. Orwell Archive.[back]
61. Daily Worker, 14 and 16 Sept. 1937.[back]
* Their names were Bob Edwards, Charles Doran, John Donovan, Douglas Moyle, George Gross, Charles Justessen, Mike Milton, John Braithwaite, Stafford Cottman, Harry Thomas, Philip Hunter, Uriah Jones, Tom Coles and John Ritchie. Floreat semper eadem.[back]
62. John McNair, ‘The Daily Worker and F. A. Frankfort’, New Leader, 19 Sept. 1937; George Orwell, ‘That Mysterious Cart’, New Leader, 24 Sept. 1937; and Fenner Brockway, Inside the Left (Alien & Unwin, London, 1942), p-317.[back]
63. I did not interview Mr Frankford until 22 Dec. 1979 when this manuscript was virtually ready for the printer. Earlier I had failed to trace him, but then he simply wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph (21 Nov. 1979) to correct a statement by Anthony Powell that Orwell was shot by ‘one of the other Leftist groups’. Mr Frankford told me that he had never read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (despite having just taken an Open University degree in History). He has since re-read the Daily Worker piece in his name and McNair’s and Orwell’s attacks. He denies having written the statement or even having signed it, but does not repudiate it because there is ‘some hanky-panky’ yet to be explained. (Sam Lessor still works for the old firm but does not answer letters or calls from bourgeois professors.)
His attitude to Orwell contrasts vividly with that of Stafford Cottman and Paddy Donovan. He told me that in argument with Orwell:
Basically his attitude was Fascist, he didn’t like the workers... I don’t care what he says and what he’s written, when you spoke to him he didn’t like them, he despised them. That was why I could never understand what he was doing there. In fact we said to him that he was a man of the right and not of the left and that he had never thrown off his Burma police attitude. I’m sure he despised us all, which was why we disliked him... As far as he was concerned, we were a load of nits. We probably were a load of nits, but no need to have adopted that attitude.
If Mr Frankford did feel like this at the time, I suspect that one reason could be that Orwell’s Socratic manner, which had ruffled the miners at Barnsley after the Mosley meeting, unused to hearing their own assumptions speculatively criticized, could easily make him appear hostile, rather than both committed and probing.[back]
64. New Leader, 13 Aug. 1937.[back]
65. Interview by the author with Lord Brockway, 15 March 1977.[back]
66. Interview by the author with Miss M. Pritchard, South Croydon, Feb. 1977.[back]
67. CE I, pp. 284-5.[back]
68. I thank Nicolas Walter for these references, all in his excellent ‘Orwell and the Anarchists’, Freedom, Jan. 1981, pp. 9-12, written in response to my First Edition.[back]
* Not actually by name, but by genus: ‘Parlour Bolshevik’, ‘fashionable successful person’ and “Communist sympathizer’. See his letter to Spender (The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. I p. 313); or ‘The Nancy poets’ for whom the miners sweat their guts out (The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 35).[back]
69. CE I, pp. 285 and 290.[back]
70. Connolly speaking in a BBC television ‘Omnibus’ programme of 1970 on Orwell, ‘The Road to the Left’, produced by Melvyn Bragg (Post Production script No. 06349/1139, p. 33, BBC Archives). Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]
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Bernard Crick: ‘George Orwell: A Life’
Published: book ‘Penguin Books Ltd’. — 27 Wrights Lane, London w8 5TZ, England, 1992.
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‘George Orwell: A Life’
© 1980, 1982, 1992 Bernard Crick
Bernard Crick: 'George Orwell: A Life' [Index page]