Money and Guns, 20 January 1942

Continuing this Orwell Society series looking at Orwell’s writings in 1942: 

Money and Guns, Through Eastern Eyes, 20 January 1942, by Eric Blair.

Once again, we see in this essay – broadcast on the BBC Eastern Service on January 20, 1942 – that Orwell’s observations can begin with a relatively unremarkable act of spotting something available to any “man in the street”:

“Very often as you walk down the London streets you see side by side on a newspaper poster the news of a great battle in Russia or the Far East, and the news of a football match or a boxing contest. And maybe on a wall nearby you will see side by side a Government advertisement urging young women to join the ATS and another advertisement, generally rather grimy and tattered-looking, urging the public to buy beer or whisky. And perhaps that makes you stop to ask yourself – how can a people fighting for its life find time for football matches? Isn’t there something contradictory in urging people to give up their lives to their country’s service, and at the same time urging them to spend their money on luxuries? But this raises the question of recreation in wartime which is not quite so simple as it looks.”

This is good, clean broadcast writing – immediately posing a question, which sustains the item over the following 10 minutes. It’s hard, of course, not to detect prefigurings of Nineteen Eighty-Four in those frayed, fluttering posters with their news of “a great battle in Russia or the Far East” but it is the non-totalitarian aspect of what catches his eye – the harmless pursuits of the still-functioning democracy – that dominates his thinking: his interest lies in the mathematics of human application during wartime – why outgoing leisure might be more economically useful as well as more pleasurable than stay-indoors self-gratification. How the general need for escape can be met at a time of austerity and resource constraint is the practical issue he uses his reasoning powers, rather than any special research, to get to the root of:

“A people at war – and that means, as a rule, a people that is working harder and under more trying conditions than usual – cannot get on without rest and amusement. Probably these things are more necessary in wartime than at ordinary times. And yet when you are fighting you cannot afford to waste precious material on luxury goods, because this is primarily a war of machines, and every scrap of metal used in making gramophones, or every pound of silk used in making stockings, means less metal for guns and aeroplanes, or less silk for parachutes and barrage balloons. We laughed at Marshal Goering when he said, some years before the war, that Germany had to choose between guns and butter, but he was wrong in the sense that there was no need for Germany to prepare aggression against her neighbours and thus plunge the whole world into war. Once war has started, every nation has to choose between guns and butter. It is merely a question of proportion. How many guns do you need to defeat the enemy? And how much butter do you need to keep your home population healthy and contented?”

The following paragraph is interesting for what it says about spending power in particular – which has gone up, he suggests, counter to one’s basic assumption:

“Beyond a certain point you cannot lower the spending capacity of the population. As a result of taxation very large incomes have almost ceased to exist, and wages have not kept up with prices, but the spending power of the mass of the people has perhaps actually increased, because there is no longer any unemployment. Boys and girls of eighteen are now earning the wages of adults, and when they have paid for their board and lodging they still have something over every week. The question is, how are they to spend it without diverting much-needed labour to the manufacture of luxury goods? In the answer to this question one can see how the war is altering the habits and even the tastes of the British people.”

Here he begins to make approving noises of the sort we have already heard in previous broadcasts this year about the greater enforced simplicity and sophistication of public taste compared with that of the pre-war years:

“To make a rough division: the luxuries which have to be discarded in wartime are the more elaborate kinds of food and drink, fashionable clothes, cosmetics and scents – all of which either demand a great deal of labour or use up rare imported materials – personal service, and unnecessary journeys, which use up such precious imported things as rubber and petrol. The amusements which can be encouraged, on the other hand, are games, sports, music, the radio, dancing, literature and the arts generally. Most of these are things in which you create your amusement for yourself, rather than paying other people to create it for you. If you have two hours to spare, and if you spend it in walking, swimming, skating or playing football, according to the time of year, you have not used up any material or made any call on the nation’s labour power. On the other hand, if you use those two hours sitting in front of the fire and eating chocolates, you are using up coal which has to be dug out of the ground and carried to you by rail, and sugar and cocoa beans which have to be transported half across the world. In the cases of a good many unnecessary luxuries, the government diverted expenditure in the right direction by simply cutting off supplies. For nearly two years no one in Britain has seen a banana, for example, sugar is not too plentiful, oranges are seen only from time to time, matches are cut down to the point at which no one ever wastes a match, travelling is much restricted, clothes are rationed fairly strictly.”

Necessity being the mother of invention, the bonus of having less is that you feel free to do more with what you’ve got. Orwell’s paean to material deprivation sorts obviously enough with his temperament but – this piece was voiced by a presenter, remember – when lent the impersonality of a public lecture, the more universal argument about our capacity to thrive in adversity has a persuasive quality of objectivity that stands aloof from its author’s prejudices. It’s not that Orwell is bending the times to suit his socialist-minded ends, rather that the times have shifted the path of the people to converge with his own direction of travel:

“At the same time, people who are working all day cannot altogether create their amusements for themselves. It is desirable, therefore, that they should concentrate on the kind of recreation that can be enjoyed communally without much wastage of labour. That brings me back to the thing I mentioned a few minutes ago – the newspaper report of a football match side by side with the report of a battle. Is it not all wrong that ten thousand citizens of a nation at war should spend two hours in watching a football match? Not really, for the only labour they are monopolising is the labour of the twenty-two players. If it is an amateur football match, as it usually is nowadays – a match between the army and the RAF for instance – those players are not even being paid. And if it is a local match, the ten thousand spectators have not even wasted any coal or petrol in getting there. They have merely had two hours’ recreation, which they are probably in need of, almost without any expenditure of labour or material.”

Far from suggesting the war years were dull and depressed, with each cast into his own head of care, this broadcast paints a picture of communal creativity:

“You can see from this the way in which the mere necessity of war is bringing about in the English people a more creative attitude towards their amusements. Something symptomatic of this happened during the big air raids. The people who were penned up in the Tube shelters for hours together had nothing to do, and there were no ready-made amusements available. They had to amuse themselves, so they improvised amateur concerts, which were sometimes surprisingly good and successful.”

And now he returns to a theme that has fascinated him of late, the popular resurgence of literature, despite the paper shortages:

“But what is perhaps more significant than this is the greatly increased interest in literature that has appeared during the last two years. There has been an enormous increase in reading, partly owing to the great numbers of men who are in the army in lonely camps, where they have little or nothing to do in their spare time. Reading is one of the cheapest and least wasteful recreations in existence. An edition of tens of thousands of copies of a book does not use up as much paper or labour as a single day’s issue of one newspaper” [now there’s an interesting, and on reflection perfectly plausible, aside for you] “and each copy of the book may pass through hundreds of hands before it goes back to the pulping mill. But just because the habit of reading has vastly increased and people cannot read without educating themselves in the process, the average intellectual level of the books published has markedly risen. Great literature, no doubt, is not being produced, but the average book which the ordinary man reads is a better book than it would have been three years ago. One phenomenon of the war has been the enormous sale of Penguin Books, Pelican Books and other cheap editions, most of which would have been regarded by the general public as impossibly highbrow a few years back. And this in turn reacts on the newspapers, making them more serious and less sensational than they were before. It probably reacts also on the radio, and will react in time on the cinema.”

The argument ripples and widens with enthusiasm and intellectual optimism:

“Parallel with this is the revival of amateur sport and amateur theatricals in the armed forces, and of recreations, such as gardening, which are not only not wasteful, but actually productive. Though England is not primarily an agricultural country, the English people are fond of gardening, and since the war the government has done everything to encourage this. Allotments are available almost everywhere, even in the big towns, and thousands of men who might otherwise have spent their evenings playing darts in the pub, now spend them in growing vegetables for their families. Similarly, women who in peace time might have been sitting in the cinematograph are now sitting at home knitting socks and helmets for Russian soldiers.”

He concludes: “Before the war there was every incentive for the general public to be wasteful, at least so far as their means allowed. Everyone was trying to sell something to everyone else, and the successful man, so it was imagined was the man who sold the most goods and got the most money in return. We have learned now, however, that money is valueless in itself, and only goods count. In learning it we have had to simplify our lives and fall back more and more on the resources of our own minds instead of on synthetic pleasures manufactured for us in Hollywood or by the makers of silk stockings, alcohol and chocolates. And under the pressure of that necessity we are rediscovering the simple pleasures – reading, walking, gardening, swimming, dancing, singing – which we had half forgotten in the wasteful years before the war.”

If this forgotten essay was broadcast on the Today programme’s Thought for the Day, I suspect many listeners would find it more relevant to our own age of cut-backs and belt-tightening than anything else they’d heard in that slot all year.

Dominic Cavendish

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