New Year’s greetings from George Orwell

One of the boons of Orwell’s prolific output of journalism and letter-writing is that it enables one to step back in time and walk alongside him as he journeys through particular phases of his career and crucial chapters of the momentous times he lived through.

Were we to accompany Orwell in a dogged fashion across a notable year of his writing, what would we find out? Well, let’s just see, shall we, beginning at the most apt and obvious place, rewinding 70 years to his London Letter of 1 January 1942 (published in Partisan Review, March-April 1942)? This year finds him working at the BBC Eastern Service – Indian Section – as talks producer; it also sees his first contribution to The Observer and he resumes his War-time Diary in March.

To begin at the beginning, which is to say “in media res”, with the war in full wearying sprint and the Blitz one of the scarring memories of the year just gone, Orwell looks out across the city and describes the mood of the moment but firstly casts his gaze over the political landscape, attempting to detect murmurs, rustlings, whispers in the breeze that might betoken incoming clouds of contention and dark difficulty – aiming to catch, as he says, “certain currents of thought which are moving to and fro just under the surface”.

This “London Letter” – published in the Complete Works [All Propaganda is Lies, 1941-1942, edited by Peter Davison) and available to view in full online on the Canadian site (link here) is least satisfying, to my mind, in addressing that hazy theme, and there are points in the prose where, even allowing for the general reader’s inevitable difficulty in sifting through the (now historical) specifics Orwell trades in to pick out his argument, the writing seems rather groggy; as if the writer was contending with a New Year’s hang-over. “The pinks cannot admit that the German masses are behind Hitler any more than the blimps can admit that their class must be levered out of control if we are to win the war” – has a neatness to it which belies the convoluted nature of what Orwell is suggesting vis a vis the differences in right/left thinking about “the enemy”. You sense that in trying to condense a “controversy” that “has raged for four months or more in the correspondence columns of several papers”, Orwell is leaving those not up-to-speed with this ongoing squabble little the wiser.

What grabs one – or at least this reader – more as one proceeds through this wide-ranging 3700-word dispatch are indications of his cast of mind and intimations of later, greater writing, most obviously Nineteen Eighty-Four.

There are the simple but characteristically detailed-enough generalisations about what the British, in their various class-castes, think about the enemy. “Ordinary working people do not seem either to hate the Germans or to distinguish between Germans and Nazis. Here and there, there was a violent anti-German feeling at the time of the bad air-raids, but it has worn off. The terms “Hun” has not caught on with the working classes at this time. They call the Germans Jerries, which may have a mildly obscene meaning but is not unfriendly. All the blame for everything is placed on Hitler, even more than on the Kaiser during the last war. After an air raid one often used to hear people say “He was over again last night” – “he” – being Hitler….”

This is useful stuff, and stirring too: in evoking that phlegmatic, shoulder-shrugging wartime spirit. British fair-mindedness, Orwell is reminding his readers in America, has not been buried under the rubble. Of course one gets a whiff, too, of an over-easy, unreflective attitude – which he wafts towards us in the subsequent sentences with a cautionary nod, nudge and wink about how overly biddable and politically unengaged the ordinary civilian can be: “As to the smaller nations who are supposed to be at war with us, no one remembers which is which. The women who a year ago were busy knitting stockings for the Finns are now busy knitting them for the Russians, but there is no ill feeling.” Orwell takes wry pleasure in this matter-of-fact, make-do-and-mend approach to our friends and foes – and notes, with sly, dry understatement a striking symbol of the Soviets’ surprise victory over hearts and minds, thanks to its newfound steely resolve against the Nazis: “All that has happened is that Russia has become respectable. An enormous hammer and sickle flag flies daily over Selfridge’s, the biggest shop in London.”

As much as the material about British attitudes to America exerts equal fascination – and achieves similar moments of quiet comedy – it’s the popular readiness he observes to leave thinking about deeper ideological questions, motives and allegiances to another (always deferred) day that points us, with the wisdom of hindsight, towards the biddable proletarian masses of Nineteen Eighty-Four, where new enemies can be conjured out of thin air and old foes officially rehabilitated without any general blinking of disbelief.

Those premonitions of “double-think” can be detected in the crux of his argument about pacifism, where those who espouse peace and love can effectively endorse the embodiment of war and hate. “With the out-and-out, turn-the-other-cheek pacifists you come upon the much stranger phenomenon of people who have started by renouncing violence ending by championing Hitler… Not many English pacifists have the intellectual courage to think their thoughts down to the roots, and since there is no real answer to the charge that pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist, nearly all pacifist literature is forensic – ie specialises in avoiding awkward questions. …”

More of this particular debate about pacifism anon – it’s one of the most hotly debated of the subjects Orwell airs this year. In a way, though, he leaves the best to last, by simply turning away from the subject of apparently far-off troubles (“one never knows what obscure individual or half-lunatic theory may not become important”) to vistas near at hand. The self-rationed poet in Orwell comes to the fore in his parting paragraph, with a nice rueful gag to end on. Again, as-yet-unborn shades of his long-off masterpiece are just about detectable:

“The food situation is much as before. We had our puddings on Christmas day, but they were a little paler than usual. The tobacco situation has righted itself, but matches are very short. They are watering the beer again, the third time since re-armament. The blackout is gradually relaxing in the absence of air-raids. There are still people sleeping in the Tube stations, but only a handful at each station. The basements of demolished houses have been bricked up and turned into water tanks for use in case of fire. They look just like Roman baths and give the ruins an even more Pompeian look than they had before. The stopping of the air raids has had some queer results. During the worst of the blitz they set in hand huge schemes for levelling waste pieces of ground to make playgrounds, using bomb debris as a subsoil. All these have had to stop in the middle, no more bomb debris being available.”

Wishing you a happy New Year, and happy delving into 1942.

Dominic Cavendish, editor
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