1942 – A Well Spent Year by Desmond Avery

ORWELL’S NINETEEN FORTY-TWO: A WELL SPENT YEAR[1] 
By Desmond Avery

So hee with difficulty and labour hard

Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee,[2]

Introduction 

‘I have left the BBC after two wasted years in it and have become literary editor of the Tribune, a leftwing weekly which you may have seen. It leaves me a little spare time, which the BBC didn’t, so I have got another book under weigh [sic],’ George Orwell wrote from London to Philip Rahv in New York in December 1943.[3]

The book was Animal Farm. He could have started on it sooner if he had not been so busy organizing radio programmes, but then could he have done it quite so well, and with such perfect disillusionment? After that came Nineteen Eighty-Four, which drew so heavily on the BBC experience that it could not have been written at all without it. So Orwell’s opinion that those two years were wasted is questionable. He joined the staff on 18 August 1941 and left on 24 November 1943 and by that that time, one could argue, he had learnt what he needed to know to write the only two books of his that really mattered. To try for a more accurate idea of how he spent that part of his life I will focus on 1942 because it contains a full range of his work as well as his transition from beginner in broadcasting to seasoned practitioner. It was also the year in which he turned 39, the same age as Winston Smith in 1984, his imagined ‘last man in Europe’. Churchill’s book about the Second World War covering 1942 is called The Hinge of Fate because that year determined the outcome of the war. It can be seen as the hinge of Orwell’s fate as a writer as well.

His biographers take his word for it, and inform us that the BBC work was a waste of time. Bernard Crick writes in 1980: ‘Then for two precious years his talents were mainly wasted, his colleagues later agreed, in producing cultural programmes for intellectuals in India and South-East Asia, heard by few and unlikely to have influenced even them.’[4] D. J. Taylor sees it the same way in 2003: ‘There was no let-up in Orwell’s work-rate – the scripts for news commentaries, educational talks and drama adaptations continued to pour forth – but he was conscious that he was wasting his time.’[5] The fewness of his listeners and the lowness his audience approval ratings prove it, both authorities explain. It implies that if he had become a radio celebrity of that era, like J. B. Priestley for example, he would have been spending his time well, but that too is questionable.

In January 2011, however, Peter Davison, editor of the 20-volume Complete Works, argued that the BBC time was far from wasted, drawing attention to the many valuable programmes Orwell made, showing how listeners and the Corporation itself did in fact benefit from them much more than is usually assumed.[6] It is a point well worth making but still leaves intact the verdict of Crick and Taylor, and that of George Woodcock, Orwell’s anarchist friend, who said: ‘I know he managed to introduce one or two astonishing items in his broadcasts, but he soon found there was in fact little he could do, and he left the BBC in disgust.’[7]

If he had spent those two of his nine remaining years of life on ‘real writing’, we might still want to imagine, he could have gone even further, and perhaps fitted in another masterpiece or two before he died. That may be how he himself felt about it at the time, and saying so would have reassured his left-wing friends that he disapproved of the British establishment and its voice. But for us now to agree with him would be to leave unexamined the leap in quality from, say, Coming Up for Air in 1939, his most successful piece of fiction up till then, and the next one, Animal Farm, in 1945. The former, his best novel up to that time, was amusing and perhaps mildly disturbing at best, whereas the latter is a book which, to use Orwell’s own expression, changed the world.

A sudden surge in a writer’s power must always have some causes that cannot be known, but in this case there are quite a few that can be. From 1941 to 1943 the writer in question was acquiring mass communication skills in a medium that was new to him, keeping track of events and trying to influence them during a critical time in history, delving into the riches of English literature for an international audience, fitting in with other people’s plans and priorities, listening to the competition, making himself as interesting and convincing as he could for a sceptical audience, and in general getting cured of some of the comparatively ineffective writing habits he had had before. Writers with real ambitions would pay for such a drastic retraining regime. He was being paid to do it, at the starting rate of £640 a year with an annual increment of £40,[8] which made it worthwhile for him materially, as well as professionally.

His novels up till this watershed in his writing life expressed disgust at the status quo, frustration at the apparent impossibility of changing it, and consequent self-disgust. They heaped scorn on existing people and institutions in potentially actionable ways which routinely put his first publisher, Victor Gollancz, into a state of extreme anxiety. They were also weakly plotted and contained two-dimensional characters, unsolved problems and improbable events. Coming Up for Air, published in 1939, achieved a new kind of fluency by using the device of a ridiculous first-person narrator, but it failed to produce even one convincing character or any enduringly strong sensation or idea. It just stuck to the story he had told in all his novels, of an antihero who failed, with an insipid sense of futility and embarrassment rather than tragedy. Perhaps that was his version of the truth about life, and he never abandoned it, but at least later he acquired a much stronger sense of how unsatisfactory it was. None of his fiction was short of insights or emotions, but he never found a way to engage them fully in conventional novel-writing. More promising approaches did not occur to him until his wartime job disrupted these routines.

He set out his wartime hopes and plans at the beginning of 1940 in a letter to Geoffrey Gorer:

I have so far completely failed to serve HM. government in any capacity, though I want to, because it seems to me that now we are in this bloody war we have got to win it & I would like to lend a hand. They won’t have me in the army, at any rate at present, because of my lungs. Eileen has got a job in a government department, which as usual she got by knowing somebody who knew somebody, etc., etc. I also want a job because I want to lay off writing for a bit, I feel I have written myself out and ought to lie fallow. I am sort of incubating an enormous novel, the family saga sort of thing, only I don’t want to begin it before I’m all set.[9]

It’s hard to imagine what a successful enormous novel by Orwell could have been like, but his sense of the potential for improvement is a good sign. There was a new relaxed narrative ease in Coming up for Air, and a quite new depth of conviction in Homage to Catalonia. He must have been aware that the two could be combined somehow. Meanwhile, to keep earning a living, he took on as much freelance journalism as he could manage, which included some broadcasting. The latter led eventually to his joining the Eastern Service of the BBC’s Empire Department as a Talks Assistant – later ‘Producer, Indian Section’ – on 18 August 1941. With Japan’s abrupt entry and rapid progress in the war, the BBC was scrambling to build up its propaganda offensive in the East and keep the colonies on side.

Orwell had also joined the Home Guard as soon as it was formed, and served as platoon commander in the St John’s Wood Company where he was known as Sergeant Blair. In that role he struck his second publisher and fellow volunteer, Fredric Warburg, a First World War veteran, as ‘austere, resolute, implacably determined to destroy his enemies without fear or mercy, if only they came within his reach.’[10] His wife of six years, Eileen, worked in the Censorship Department at the Ministry of Information – ‘daily work of inconceivable dullness,’ she called it,[11] and transferred in the spring of 1942 to the Ministry of Food. It was an improvement but she continued to suffer from poor health and depression. At that time Orwell was known mainly for his socialist and patriotic beliefs as expressed in polemical journalism and essays, and as an interesting but patchy novelist.

His BBC responsibilities included writing at least one weekly news summary – a ten-minute account of what had happened in the war during the past week aimed at inspiring support for the Allied cause. It amounted to direct propaganda and was accompanied by indirect kinds in the form of cultural and educational programmes mainly on English literature. In addition, he continued to write articles for print, and kept a sporadic diary. His work during that time thus shows a full spectrum of his thinking, from publicly official to privately anti-official. His occasional articles for print probably received his most sustained intellectual engagement, but as he gets used to the job, we see his scripts for broadcasting getting to grips more and more with his real interests and feelings.

In addition to both having demanding jobs, Eric and Eileen Blair moved house three times during the war owing to bomb damage: from Baker Street to 111 Langford Court in St John’s Wood in 1941; from there, in the summer of 1942, to 10a Mortimer Crescent in Kilburn; and in October 1944, after three or four months at a friend’s flat near Baker Street, to 27b, Canonbury Square, Islington.[12] House moving, added to Home Guard duty at night, a full-time job during the week, at least one intermittent love affair while remaining mainly faithful to his wife, and gardening at the cottage in Wallington at weekends, kept Orwell fully occupied. His mother, Ida Blair, and his sister Avril, had moved from Southwold to London in 1941 and were living in a small flat in Hampstead.[13] Both of them were working to support the war effort, his mother as an assistant at Selfridges, Avril in a factory.

Ida was in poor health and died of heart failure precipitated by bronchitis at New End Hospital in Hampstead on 19 March 1943 with Orwell at her bedside. He had also been with his father when he died of cancer in Southwold in 1939. ‘All very painful and upsetting but I was glad when the poor old man went because he was 82 & had suffered a lot his last few months.’[14] All countries combined, the war killed over 20 million military personnel and from 30 to 55 million civilians.[15] In England 60,000 civilians were killed by German bombing raids,[16] and Eileen’s much loved brother, an army doctor, was killed at Dunkirk in 1940. Death, loss and fear were thus a pervasive part of the atmosphere. Although Orwell did not write much about how all this affected him personally, it helps to explain some of the heightened awareness that went into what he did write.

‘A writer’s work is not something he takes out of his brain like tins of soup out of a storeroom. He has to create it day by day out of his contact with people and things,’ he wrote in an article about Henry Miller towards the end of 1942.[17] His own work during that year shows him doing just that, in perhaps the busiest and most intensely social period of his life. During the spring of 1942 he reopened his diary to keep track of some of the thoughts that might not do for immediate public attention. It shows him trying to keep focused on his real concerns, and provides an outlet for his pessimism as things get worse in the summer. In the autumn the diary petered out, however, as more and more of his attention went into the BBC work. As the end of the year approaches and the war news improves, a new note of confidence begins to dominate his writings. All of this contributed significantly to what we now know as Orwell’s way of seeing things.[18]

 

[1] Dissertation submitted 31 August 2011 for UEA MA in Life Writing.

[2] Milton, Paradise Lost (Book II, 1021-22) – lines that Orwell says ‘sent shivers down my backbone’ when he was sixteen. ‘Why I Write’ (1947). In Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965; p. 182.

[3] Letter to Philip Rahv, 9 December 1943. In: Peter Davison, ed., The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. XVI, I Have Tried to Tell the Truth. London: Secker & Warburg, 1998; p. 22.

[4] Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life. London: Penguin, 1980, p. 413.

[5] D. J. Taylor, Orwell: The Life. London: Vintage, 2003, p. 323. Gordon Bowker, in George Orwell (London: Little Brown, 2003, pp. 291-2), is more tentative but does not explore the issue. 

[6] Peter Davison, ‘Two Wasted Years?’ Finlay Publisher – The Orwell Essay, 2011, January – March, accessed at www.finlay-publisher.com on 12 April 2011.

[7] Quoted by Crick, p. 418, from George Woodcock, The Writer and Politics. London: Porcupine Press, 1948.

[8] Contract dated 18 August 1941. Works, vol. XIII, All Propaganda is Lies, p. 4.

[9] Letter to Geoffrey Gorer, 10 January 1940. In Peter Davison, ed. Orwell: A Life in Letters. London: Harvill Secker, 2010; p. 174.

[10] Fredrick Warburg, All Authors are Equal. London: Hutchinson, 1973; p. 36.

[11] Letter from Eileen Blair to Norah Myles, March 1941. Included in Letters, p. 188.

[12] Chronology in Letters, 497-98.

[13] Bowker, p. 282.

[14] Letter to Gorer, loc. cit.

[15] Alan Axelrod, The Real History of World War II – A New Look at the Past. New York: Sterling, 2008, pp 354-5.

[16] Andrew Marr, The Making of Modern Britain. London: Macmillan, 2009; p. 354.

[17] ‘The End of Henry Miller.’Complete Works, vol. XIV, Keeping Our Little Corner Clean, p. 219.

[18] Christopher Hitchens defines the term ‘Orwellian’ as ‘crushing tyranny and fear and conformism’ when said of a state of affairs, and ‘unquenchable resistance to these terrors’ when said of a piece of writing. In Why Orwell Matters. New York: Basic Books, 2002; p. 5.

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One thought on “1942 – A Well Spent Year by Desmond Avery

  1. This is just the introduction to a study which follows the events of that year and Orwell’s work in roughly chronological order. It is an enthralling story and I hope the next episodes will appear in due course.

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