1942: A Year Well Spent, pt 3 by Desmond Avery


A New Vantage Point

Autumn and Winter 1942


War poetry

Following his own attempt at it, Orwell made war poetry the subject of ‘Voice’ for that September. He got Herbert Read to read W. H. Auden’s poem ‘September 1, 1939’, followed by Empson reading one by George Sutherland Fraser of the ‘New Apocalypse’ group which made a brief appearance in the 1940s. If those were representative of the time, they show how unrepresentative Orwell’s about the Italian militiaman was. They express ambivalence, doubts and fears in complex formulations. Auden, physically safe in America but beleaguered, as he put it, by ‘negation and despair,’ prays for the ability to ‘show an affirming flame’. He sees himself and those with him along a bar in New York as

Lost in a haunted wood,

Children afraid of the night

Who have never been happy or good.[1]

Sutherland, then serving with the army in Egypt, also prays, reflecting on his feeling of weakness:

Let time forgive me if I fall apart.[2] 

Owning up to such states of mind may have sounded refreshingly honest against the bellicose shouting in the background, but something upbeat was needed as well, so they were followed by a stirring piece of prose, from T. E. Lawrence’s Revolt in the Desert.[3] Describing the blowing up and ambush of a Turkish troop train by Arab fighters, the reading included the ‘terrific roar’ of the explosion, the chatter of machine-guns, ‘the furious shower of bullets which stormed along the roofs of the carriages,’ sweeping off the soldiers positioned there, and the resolute Lewis gunners leaving the sand littered with the bodies of fleeing Turks. The thrill of successful action contrasted pleasantly with the sense of impotence that had been prevalent on the North Africa front for most of that year in the current war.

Then came Edmund Blunden, still aged only 46 although he seemed already to belong to the vanishing past with the Georgians, reading two of his poems about the First World War, ‘Rural Economy’ and ‘Report on Experience’. Bleak disillusionment about all that hideous destruction was their theme, but they stated it firmly and without complaining.

From there the script makes its way, via a stilted discussion between Empson, Orwell and Anand, to an enthusiastic war poem. It was intended to convey the idea, in Orwell’s words, ‘that war is not merely a disagreeable necessity, but that it is spiritually better than peace – the kind of peace you have in Vichy France, for instance.’ 

            ‘Anand:  What about an example?

            Orwell:  How about “The Isles of Greece”?

            Anand:  Of Course! That comes very near home nowadays.

            Orwell:  Here it is, then. “The Isles of Greece”, by Lord Byron.’[4]

Godfrey Kenton, a Shakespearean actor who had joined the BBC for the duration of the war, then read all sixteen of the six-line stanzas. He had ‘a beautiful voice with a very distinctive gravity in its tone,’[5] just right to bring the 25-minute programme to a sonorous finale with the words:

A land of slaves shall ne’er be mine –

Dash down yon cup of Samian wine![6]

Although the readings had covered the spectrum of emotions from abjection to exaltation, Orwell continued his search for effective war poetry till he was rewarded by a surprising find: Thomas Hardy’s long verse drama, The Dynasts, first published as one book in 1910. The insights it gave him were not the right kind for broadcasting so he wrote about it in Tribune instead, warming to ‘its grandiose and rather evil vision of armies marching and counter-marching through the mists, and men dying by hundreds of thousands in the Russian snows, and all for absolutely nothing.’[7] The atmosphere of collective insanity prefigured not only that of the current war but Nineteen Eighty-Four. ‘Of course,’ he says of Hardy, the idea of huge and meaningless suffering appeals deeply to him, and in the form chosen for The Dynasts his strange mystical pessimism gets a freer rein than it could get in a novel, where a certain amount of probability is needed. Hardy set free his genius by writing a drama which was definitely not meant to be acted, and quite unknowingly – for The Dynasts was written round about 1900 – produced something that would do as it stands for the script of a talkie.[8]

If that was so, Orwell’s own ‘strange mystical pessimism’ might yet find a genre that could give it a free rein. All his novels had suffered from lack of probability, and the realization that some kinds of narrative did not require much of it removed a major obstacle from his path. These thoughts led him to the conclusion that ‘even a half-lunatic view of life will do as a basis for literature provided it is sincerely held.’[9] For someone who had been at odds with the prevailing view of the world for most of his life and had never belonged to any set, group or clique, this must have been seriously encouraging. He never tried writing ‘a script for a talkie’, but the following year did adapt stories for radio drama. Heightened awareness of the sound of verbal compositions was enlivening his sensibility both as a reader and as a writer.

Moving on

If he had been nurturing any hopes of finding an outlet for his powers in radio, they were dashed, according to his diary, at the beginning of October, by a report on the uselessness of all his work:

Long talk with Brander, who is back after his 6 month tour in India. His conclusions so depressing that I can hardly bring myself to write them down. Briefly, affairs are much worse in India than anyone here is allowed to realise, the situation is in fact retrievable but won’t be retrieved because the government is determined to make no real concessions, hell will break loose when and if there is a Japanese invasion, and our broadcasts are utterly useless because nobody listens to them.[10]

Lawrence Brander wrote after the war that this did not diminish Orwell’s sense of responsibility, ‘for he knew how important radio propaganda could be, if intelligently organized, and he worked very hard on his own talks, which were always good and usually brilliant.’[11] The disheartening news could, however, have reduced any feeling of timidity his responsibilities may have given him. Furthermore, his voice was, according to the Controller of Overseas Services, ‘unattractive and really unsuited to the microphone.’[12] No recording of his voice appears to have survived but it was often said to be weak because of the damage done to his vocal cords by his bullet wound. This disadvantage would have helped him to resist any temptation he might have felt to take up broadcasting as a career. In the meantime, if his work was doing nothing to affect the outcome of the war, he was at least not in danger of doing much harm with it, and could concentrate instead on his own interests.

He went ahead a few days later with a novel-writing experiment he had set up, consisting of five weekly episodes each by a different author, the first one by himself starting: ‘It was a night in London in the late autumn of 1940. A bomb came whistling down, piercing the racket of the guns, and a man, a small shadowy figure, darted like a lizard…’[13] One can imagine him taking pleasure in this brief return to his old profession, even if only with the radio equivalent of a part of a short pot-boiler. When the war had started, he, like other novelists,[14] had felt unable to write another book at such a time, but until then he had still been thinking his next serious work would be ‘an enormous novel, a sort of saga (!) which will have to be published in three parts.’[15] Paper shortages, as well as new perspectives and other projects, put paid to that idea.

The other contributors to ‘Story by Five Authors’ were L. A. G. Strong, Inez Holden, Martin Armstrong and E. M. Forster. The weakest episode was that of Inez Holden, who instead of taking the story forward devoted most of her instalment to the dreams and interior monologue of the main character, who was based on Orwell himself. This may have been because of the intimacy between them. Forster salvaged the project in a masterful way, tying up all the loose ends that had accumulated by the time his turn came. If all the experiment did was steer Orwell away from the idea of writing another novel in the manner of his previous ones, it was well worthwhile.

In a self-portrait written in 1940 for an American dictionary of twentieth century authors,[16] he had numbered T. S. Eliot among the modern writers he cared most about, and the radio among the things he disliked (along with ‘big towns, noise, motor cars, tinned food, central heating and “modern” furniture’).[17]  By the time the dictionary came out, in 1942, he had learnt to live with the radio and to see Eliot in a sharply critical perspective. The poet, still growing in legendary stature, had published three of his Four Quartets by then, and Orwell discussed them in the September-October issue of Poetry. He continued to admire the ‘wonderful vitality and power’ of the earlier work such as Prufrock, but that made him all the more critical of ‘the gloomy mumblings of these three poems.’[18]

It was ‘glowing despair’ that gave the early poems their vitality, Orwell thought, and ‘melancholy faith’ that made the late ones dull:

… the trouble is that conscious futility is something only for the young. One cannot go on ‘despairing of life’ into ripe old age. One cannot go on and on being ‘decadent’ since decadence means falling and one can only be said to be falling if one is going to reach the bottom reasonably soon. Sooner or later one is obliged to adopt a positive attitude towards life and society.[19]

His own experience of that struggle had provided the main subject matter for his novels, The Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Eliot was 54 in 1942, even older than Stafford Cripps. His refuge from despair, as Orwell saw it, was the same as Cripps’s, and one he had considered in his down-and-out days for himself: the Anglican Church. Orwell had come to the conclusion that although it offered a kind of support system for a positive attitude, it was at an unacceptable cost:

In theory it is still possible to be an orthodox religious believer without being intellectually crippled in the process, but it is far from easy, and in practice books by orthodox believers usually show the same cramped, blinkered outlook as books by orthodox Stalinists or others who are mentally unfree.’[20]

This view goes with Orwell’s opposition to ‘all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls,’ as he had put it at the end of his essay on Dickens in 1939.[21]  There is no obvious hostility in his damning appraisal of Eliot’s current work, however, just a conviction that the old master could not be expected to meet present needs.

Eliot would have seen these comments in the October-November issue of Poetry, but, unlike H. G. Wells, he remained on civil terms with his lapsed admirer, and accepted his invitation to join the ‘Voice’ broadcast for December 1. The picture that often goes with Orwell’s BBC time shows Eliot sitting at the microphone between J. M. Tambimuttu and Una Marson, with Orwell, smart for once in a dark suit, standing behind, leaning forward to follow the text on the table with a benign smile on his face.[22] The scripts for these discussions seem quaint and ungainly now, but the man who wrote and presented them looks relaxed and intelligent, and the group as a whole lively enough for a genuine pursuit of enlightenment.

By this time Orwell gives the impression of having gone even more native in the sense that he could express his thoughts on the air in a way acceptable to his supervisors as fully as in writing for print or in his diary. This is particularly apparent in ‘an imaginary interview’ he conducted in November between himself and Jonathan Swift, author of the book which, he said, ‘has meant more to me than any other book ever written,’[23] Gulliver’s Travels. ‘There’s something in his way of writing that seems to tell you what his voice was like,’ he says in the introduction to the interview,[24] so he could have given expert coaching to the reader of Swift’s lines.[25] The interview device enabled him here to broadcast some of his favourite opinions, using the words of Swift to express them, some quoted from his works and some pastiche.

On hostility to intelligence: ‘When a true Genius appears in the world, you may know him by this infallible sign: that all the Dunces are in Confederacy against him.’[26]

On progress: ‘Whereas previously some petty tyrant was considered to have reached the highest point of human fame if he laid waste a single province and pillaged half a dozen towns [with ironic pleasure] your great men nowadays can devastate whole continents and condemn entire races of men to slavery.’[27] 

On the growth of London: ‘Many a green field where Pope and I used to stroll after dinner on Sunday evenings is now a warren of bricks and mortar for the kennelling of Yahoos.’[28]

On smells: ‘Tell me candidly,’ Orwell asks, ‘do we stink as we used to?’ Swift answers, ‘Certainly the smells are different,’ but without offering a view on whether they are any better or worse.[29] Orwell had scandalized readers of The Road to Wigan Pier by repeating the Edwardian upper class saying that ‘the working classes smell,’ and would have been naturally wary of doing it again, but the subject of smells never stopped preoccupying him.

Earlier in his life he had worked at memorizing passages from Swift and writing in his style, which helps to explain the sure-footedness of this piece.[30] A familiar combination of two other features makes it striking as well: its warm reverence for Swift’s genius at the beginning of the interview, and its cool dismissiveness at the end: 

He was a great man, and yet he was partially blind. He could only see one thing at a time. His vision of human society is so penetrating, and yet in the last analysis it’s false. He couldn’t see what the simplest person sees, that life is worth living, and human beings, even if they’re dirty and ridiculous, are mostly decent.’[31]

Keeping in view both the strengths and the weaknesses of a given author without ‘doublethink’ had become Orwell’s habitual approach. It was a way to learn from the masters he found congenial without being led astray by their failings. There is a note of sadness in this public parting with his oldest and favourite teacher, as if he felt he was on his own now.

However unwillingly, a heroic age

That imagined interview was on Friday 6 November. On Sunday, nine days later, he made the only entry in his diary for that month: ‘Church bells rung this morning – in celebration for the victory in Egypt. The first time that I have heard them in over two years.’[32] No one else in England had heard them during that time either (except once because of a false alarm): church-bell-ringing had stopped in 1940 because it was to be the signal that the German invasion had started. This was the last time Orwell wrote in his diary during the war. The habit had perhaps helped him to keep sane at the BBC and he could manage without it now. He did not take up diary-writing again till 1946, when he was on the island of Jura, struggling with tuberculosis and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In an article in Tribune that December, he laid to rest yet another of his exemplars – the sixth that year, after Kipling, Wells, Dickens, Eliot and Swift. ‘No more of any value will come out of Henry Miller,’ he announced to open his review of that author’s ‘latest pot-boiler’, The Colossus of Maroussi.[33] And to close it: ‘Tropic of Cancer has its place in the short list of twentieth-century novels that are worth reading.’[34] Giving a surprising twist to his conclusion, he explains the decline of Henry Miller in these terms: ‘He was at his best when writing about the unheroic, and we live in what is, however unwillingly, a heroic age.’[35] That age might not have felt heroic if the war had still been going badly, but now the sense of doom had lifted. The Russians were winning in Stalingrad, the Americans were winning in the Pacific, Montgomery had defeated Rommel at the Battle of El Alemein, Allied forces under Eisenhower had landed in Morocco and Algeria. Morale was high for the first time in years, and Orwell apparently could not help having the same collective feeling even if he knew there must be a catch in it.

The 1940s now look heroic in comparison to the times that followed as well.[36]  Orwell himself was a kind of hero to his boss at the BBC, L. F. Rushbrook Williams, who wrote on his annual staff report, ‘I have the highest opinion of his moral as well as his intellectual capacity. He is transparently honest, incapable of subterfuge, and, in early days, would have been either canonized – or burnt at the stake! Either fate he would have sustained with stoical courage.’[37] Others who admire Orwell do so because he was definitely not a saint. He also continues to be condemned by conservatives and socialists alike as a heretic.[38]

Be that as it may, a pleasant sense of virtue rewarded was in the air by the end of the year. Even the weekly news reviews had creative possibilities now, and Orwell used them to have fun examining the German attempts to break bad news in a positive way.

To read the German communiques of this moment you’d think that retreating was the whole art of war, and certainly some of their phrases are most ingenious. We have all heard of ‘strategic withdrawals’ and ‘elastic defence’ but the German commentators have thought of better ones than that. Their best phrase to describe a rapid retreat is ‘We have successfully increased the distance between ourselves and the enemy’; another is ‘We have compelled the British to advance westward’ – also, of course, that by choosing to retreat General Rommel ‘retains the initiative’. You will have noticed that when a dog is chasing a rabbit, the rabbit retains the initiative.[39]

A week later, on Boxing Day, for the last news review of the year, Orwell concluded: ‘There have been moments even during 1942 – especially during the middle of the summer – when things looked dark enough, but we can see now with certainty that the tide has turned.’[40]

The last edition of ‘Voice’ was ‘a special Christmas number’ which included a recording of Adeste Fideles to start with, a reading of the nativity story from the Gospel of St Matthew, a recording of a carol called ‘The Seven Joys of Mary,’ a recording of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ read by Eliot, and a reading by Empson of Robert Bridges’ ‘Christmas Eve 1913’. ‘We’ll have the poem, and then straight after it another carol to end up with. We’ll have in dulce jubilo, or as much of it as we’ve got time for.’[41] For a taste of the Bridges poem, this is the middle stanza:

                                     Now blessed be the tow’rs

                                    that crown England so fair

                                     That stand up strong in prayer

                                    unto God for our souls:

                                     Blessed be their founders

                                    (said I) an’ our country folk

                                   Who are ringing for Christ

                                    in the belfries tonight

                                   With arms lifted to clutch

                                    the rattling ropes that race

                                    Into the dark above

                                    and the mad romping din.[42]


The programme blended piety with patriotism in an enjoyably oldfashioned way, with Orwell benignly presiding. Before the war he had written:

A happy vicar I might have been

Two hundred years ago,

To preach upon eternal doom

And watch my walnuts grow;[43]

and now here he was, being just that, albeit briefly. Neither his own beliefs nor those of the Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist ones of his intended listeners were allowed to spoil the party. At that point he probably would not have felt that this was all a waste of time.

Desmond Avery

Part Two

[1] Works XIV, pp. 16-17.

[2] Ibid., p. 18.

[3] Ibid., p. 19. The reader was not designated in the script, and Peter Davison guessed that it was Orwell, but it would have made more sense for the actor Godfrey Kenton to read it, since he was there anyway to read the last poem, and his voice was strong whereas Orwell’s was weak.

[4] Ibid., p. 22.

[5] Richard Bebb, ‘Obituary: Godfrey Kenton’, Independent, 15 May 1998.

[6] Ibid., p. 24.

[7] Ibid., p. 45.

[8] Ibid., p. 43.

[9] Ibid., p. 45.

[10] Entry for 5 October 1942, Diaries, p. 366.

[11] Lawrence Brander, George Orwell. London: Longman, Green, 1954. Cited in Works XIV, p. 77.

[12] Clark, J. B. Memo dated 19 January 1943, BBC Archives, http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/orwell/7438.shtml accessed on 20 July 2011.

[13] Ibid., p. 89.

[14] Storm Jameson, President of the English Centre of International PEN, felt the same way: ‘In September 1939 it seemed highly unlikely, as well as slightly indecent, to think of earning a living as a novelist.’ In Valerie Holman, Print for Victory. London: British Library, 2008, p. 54.

[15] In a letter dated 4 July 1939 to his agent, Leonard Moore. Letters, p. 169.

[16] Stanley J, Kunitz, H. Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. New York: Wilson, 1942.

[17] Collected Essays 2, p. 40.

[18] Works XIV, p. 66.

[19] Works XIV, p. 65.

[20] Ibid 66.

[21] Essays 1, 504.

[22] Several photos of the ‘Voice’ gatherings have survived, and this one is used in D. J. Taylor’s Orwell – The Life, between pp. 306 and 307.

[23] Works XIV, p. 157.

[24] Ibid., 156.

[25] Probably Henry Wickham Steed (ibid., p. 156), who had been Editor of The Times from 1919 to 1922.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., p. 158.

[28] Ibid., p. 159.

[29] Ibid.

[30] A memory of Michael Sayers, Orwell’s flat-mate in 1935, told to Gordon Bowker in 2000 (Bowker, p. 176).

[31] Works XIV, p. 161.

[32] Diaries, p. 368.

[33] ‘The End of Henry Miller’. In Tribune, 4 December 1942, Works XIV, p. 217.

[34] Ibid., p. 219.

[35] Ibid., p. 218.

[36] See, for example, Marr, p. 355: ‘Heroism was distributed widely, embracing pensioners and firefighters, air-raid wardens and nursing mothers.’

[37] L. F. Rushbrook Williams, Annual Confidential Report for E. A. Blair, Eastern Service, 10 August 1943. BBC Archives, accessed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/orwell/7438.shtml on 20 July 2011.

[38] See Hitchens, Why Orwell Matters, for an entertaining discussion of the views on offer.

[39] News Commentary 52, 19 December, Works XIV, p. 243.

[40] News Commentary 53, 26 December, ibid. p. 259.

[41] ‘Voice’ 6, 29 December, ibid., p. 268.

[42] Ibid., p. 269.

[43] Written in 1935, quoted in ‘Why I write’, Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981, p. 185.


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