"Orwell Goes East", by Peter Davison

Orwell Goes East, by Peter Davison.

If one excludes his juvenilia, Orwell’s first published writing appeared in Paris where he lived from spring 1928 to late 1929. His subjects encapsulated in a remarkable way his later interests: the state of society (especially that of the poor), popular culture, literature (specifically John Galsworthy), and the East. He wrote six articles which were translated and published in French in left-wing journals, and one, on a French topic, the Parisian ‘farthing newspaper’, Ami du Peuple, financed by François Coty, founder of the famous perfumery business; that was published by G.K. Chesterton in his weekly periodical. One of the articles published in Paris, ‘How a Nation is Exploited: The British Empire in Burma’, was published in Le Progrès Civique on 4 May 1929. It was translated into French by Raoul Nicole. It provides a summary of the geography and history of Burma but devotes a major section to the politics of the occupied land. Orwell is, unsurprisingly, critical of what he found there – thus (in English translated back from the French – Orwell’s original has not survived): ‘Of course, Burma . . . has a parliament – always the show of democracy – but in reality its parliament has very little power. Nothing of consequence lies within its jurisdiction.  Most of the members are puppets of the government, which is not above using them to nip in the bud any Bill which seems untimely’ (Complete Works, X, p. 144).  Later, discussing the economy, he writes that the Burmese will discover ‘what they hardly suspect today, that the oil wells, the mines, the milling industry, the sale and cultivation of rice are all controlled by the British’ (p. 146). In his final section he sums up: ‘if Burma derives some incidental benefit from the English, she must pay dearly for it. . . . Their relationship with the British Empire is that of slave and master’ (p. 147).  Orwell’s writing on these topics was prescient even at this early stage of his career as a writer. It became much more sophisticated as he became more experienced but his interests did not waver. He was not the first to write on the problems thrown up by poverty but his documentary reportage in Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier set a new standard for the impact such writing might have. He addressed not only ‘the converted’ – indeed, the left-wing and especially the Communists were frequently hostile – but the middle classes and those who might be in a position, if driven, to effect change.  Here I am concerned only with the attention he paid to the East.

On 29 November 1919, when Orwell was sixteen, almost ten years before he went to live in Paris, Orwell contributed a story to an Eton College student publication, College Days. The title was drawn from that of a famous (and later infamously misinterpreted) poem by Kipling, ‘The White Man’s Burden’. Orwell’s story centres on a typical middle class dilemma – how to organise a tea-party – but it might reasonably be assumed that he understood the point Kipling was making in 1899: taking over another people following the American victories in Cuba and the Philippines left the victor with important responsibilities that must be fulfilled.

After leaving Eton, Orwell, then as Eric Blair, served as a police officer in Burma (October 1922 – December 1927).  There have survived from that time preliminaries to his novel, Burmese Days (1934) and one or two sketches and poems. As literature they are of no great moment but a couple of stanzas of one, ‘The Lesser Evil’ written whilst he was in Burma, indicate something of the darker side of his life there:

The house of sin was dark and mean,

With dying flowers round the door:

They spat their betel juice between

The rotten bamboos of the floor.


Why did I come, the woman cried,

So seldom to her bed of ease?

When I was not, her spirit died,

And would I give her ten rupees.

Two essays and a novel are what most of us remember of Orwell’s writing that sprang from his time in Burma: ‘A Hanging’ (published in August 1931); Burmese Days (1934); and ‘Shooting an Elephant’ (Autumn 1936). To modern sensibilities, ‘A Hanging’ is the most shocking of these three but two things about it should be borne in mind. First that when he wrote hanging was a common practice in England and its Empire. A Hausa Phrase Book published in 1924 – at the time Orwell was serving in Burma – intended for British District Officers in Nigeria has, in the section entitled ‘Duties of Constables and Warders’ (all native personnel), this grim instruction in the Hausa language: ‘Next Monday a hanging will take place: begin now to get everything ready, and arrange the details exactly as I showed you last time’. It was a routine with which Orwell, and all police and prison officers in the Empire, would have been familiar. Secondly, Orwell’s essay, with its grim details and personal touches – famously the moment when the doomed man ‘stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle in his path’, as if a wet foot might somehow affect his fate – was later used very effectively in the campaign to have the death penalty abandoned in the United Kingdom.

Burmese Days is, in some ways Orwell’s personal reaction to life in Burma; in some ways a counterpart to E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, and to a degree, Orwell’s indictment of ‘Empire’ coupled with his love for Burma’s forests and people.  This is not the place for a full study of the novel but some aspects are worth mentioning for they are often passed over. They encapsulate what lies behind Orwell’s response to his time in Burma and his attitude to Empire building. The novel is sometimes too lightly dismissed as being very much inferior to Forster’s, but it is, I believe, a much more interesting and more subtle novel than it is given credit for being.

First, a covert reference to a great Roman author whom Orwell had studied at Eton: Tacitus. In section 3 of the novel, Flory discusses the British in Burma with his friend Dr Veraswami.  Flory, in disgust, speaks of the British ‘Creeping round the world building prisons. They build a prison and call it progress’.   In response, the good doctor, so perversely  proud of the Empire, lists some of the achievements of the British, ‘They construct roads, they irrigate deserts . . .’ It is easy to see why ‘deserts’ are picked out when one reads the source of this passage. In the Agricola, Tacitus has the British leader inspire his troops before facing a Roman legion in battle: Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant:  ‘Where they make a desert they call it peace’ (II, p. 41).   Orwell here has the doctor taking, as it were, the part of the conqueror, though he is among the conquered. If one needs a confirmation of what Tacitus and Orwell were getting at there was a perfect example in the Daily Telegraph, 25 October 2006. A colour picture showed the then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, posing with what he seems to have believed was an ingratiating grin, with British soldiers in Iraq. And the caption?  ‘Creating a desert and calling it peace: Blair celebrates victory’.

References to colour are deeply embedded in Burmese Days and give it a subtle distinction. The novel opens not with Flory, the hero – or anti-hero, perhaps – but with the corrupt Magistrate, U Po Kyin. He recalls the terror he had felt when, as a small child, he saw ‘columns of great beef-fed men, red-faced and red-coated’, victors of the Third Burma War in 1885, marching into Mandalay.  Shortly after he recalls a ‘lucky stroke of blackmail’ (and note the ironic contrast between ‘lucky’ and ‘blackmail’) that launched him on his successful career as an agent of Government. In the libellous article in the Burmese Patriot, the Burmese sarcastically describe themselves as ‘we poor blacks’ – black hardly being a colour the Burmese would be expected to use of themselves. A little later U Po opines that ‘No European has any faith in a man with a black face’ – a truly telling and still significant remark (Burmese Days, pp. 1-2, 6, and 9).

 It is only after U Po Kyin has held court in the novel’s first section that Flory is described. He is a white man – but how white? His skin, which is ‘naturally sallow, was discoloured by the sun.   . . . his face was very haggard in spite of the sunburn’ but more telling is ‘a hideous birthmark stretching in a ragged crescent down his left cheek, from the eye to the corner of the mouth. Seen from the left side his face had a battered, woe-begone look, as though the birthmark had been a bruise – for  it was dark blue in colour. He was quite aware of its hideousness. At all times, when he was not alone, there was a sidelongness about his movements, as he manoeuvred constantly to keep the birthmark out of sight’ (pp. 13-14). Note Orwell’s use – indeed, invention – of ‘sidelongness’ to indicate Flory’s awareness of how shameful was his disfigurement. ‘Sidelongness’ is not included in the many-volume Oxford English Dictionary. It is as if the birthmark is so important to the story that Orwell has to invent a word to help describe its effect on Flory’s behaviour. Later, when he stops to shake hands with Elizabeth early in their acquaintance, he turns ‘a little sideways in the strong sunlight, hiding his birthmark’ (p. 90). It is only at the service to commemorate the death of  Maxwell, the Acting Divisional Forest Officer, that for the first time ‘he had ever risked sitting with his birthmark’ towards Elizabeth (p. 282). And we learn of the first appearance of his birthmark – in his mother’s womb, ‘when chance put the blue birthmark on his cheek’. Not long after, at school, when he was nine, his birthmark led to the insult, ‘Blueface’, being shouted after him, to be changed later to the scarcely less attractive ‘Monkey-bum’ (p. 64).

When Verrall arrives his colouring is also picked out. In marked contrast, his ‘fresh face was tanned to the exact shade that went with his light-coloured eyes’ which are pale blue in colour (p. 190). He is the elegant opposite of Flory. However, he over-hastily decamps, deserting Elizabeth, even forcing the stationmaster to despatch the train he is escaping by to leave ten minutes early. A white, fresh complexion, and pale-blue eyes are no guarantee of decent behaviour!

Colour plays a significant part in describing the setting of the novel. For example in sections IV, V, and VI (of the twenty-five sections), among the colours and passages mentioned are ‘bookshelves . .. riddled with silver fish’;  light raining down ‘like glistening white oil’, Ko S’la’s ‘black moustache’ (p. 49), Ma Hla May’s red-lacquered sandals, pale blue longyi from which gold lockets hang, and her black hair (p. 51); trees with leaves of dull olive-green, and the ragged brown birds (p. 55); slanting yellow light, white waxen flowers, and greenish water (p. 56); green pigeons, the great green dome of a tree, a tame dove with jade-green back with neck and breast of iridescent colours and legs like pink wax (p. 57); the planting of green seedlings of paddy (p. 66); red holly (p. 67); Flory becoming yellow, thin and drunken (p. 70); his servants with kindly brown faces (p. 71); the light of the cold weather ‘yellow and kind’ and an old Indian servant ‘the colour of earth’ (p. 72); sunlight ‘yellow as goldleaf’, four black-purple crows, his black beard, and the brick-red shade (p. 74); Flory’s rescuing of Elizabeth ‘an English girl, chalk-faced . . . cowering against a bush’ (p. 81) wearing a lilac-coloured cotton frock and sporting tortoise-shell spectacles (p. 83); yellow primrose-like flowers, zinnias like painted flowers, marigolds, and orchids ‘literally like gold’ (pp. 84-5);   Ko S’la in his best pink silk gaungbaung, gold trusses of blossoms, the yellow light, the yellow of the maidan, the gold mohur trees like blobs of crimson’, Elizabeth’s eyes a ‘very clear pale blue, paler than a harebell’, so very unlike the blue of Flory’s birthmark (p. 85); drinking white wine (p. 86); Elizabeth’s face turning ‘a little pink’ (p. 88); and finally in these sections, the wind  rustling through ‘the wide domes of the gold mohur trees’ (p. 90). This selection demonstrates the insistence on colour in the novel and the way that Orwell, with great skill, makes it an important motif in a story set in a country and a society dominated by the conflict between those of different colour.

Colour, through painting, is also subtly present a world away from Burma. Before Elizabeth appears on the scene, her life in Paris with her mother is described. The mother, after being widowed, moved with Elizabeth to Paris because it was then much cheaper than living in England (as Orwell had himself experienced).  She was a silly, ineffective woman who had intended ‘to dedicate herself wholly to Art’, after failing at everything else she had touched. As Orwell, a capable draughtsman, sardonically remarks, ‘Painting is the only art that can be practised without either talent or hard work’. Her studio in Montparnasse ‘relapsed at once into a state of squalid, muddling idleness’ and often Elizabeth did not even have enough to eat. Everywhere there were ‘tins of paint-fouled turpentine and pots full of cold black tea’. It was no more – and here Orwell uses another of his favourite unusual words – than ‘footling with paint brushes’ (pp. 91-6). Here, colour expresses all that is sordid and inadequate.

At the denouement of the novel, when Flory’s Burmese mistress exposes him (and, physically, herself) it is the changes of colour in Flory’s face that seize our attention:

Flory’s face was ghastly. . . . His face was as yellow as bone . . . his face rigid and so bloodless that the birthmark seemed to glow upon it like a streak of blue paint. . .  Elizabeth glanced across the aisle at him, and her revulsion made her almost physically sick. . . . His face appalled her, it was so ghastly, rigid and old. It was like a skull. Only the birthmark seemed alive in it. She hated him now for his birthmark. She had never known till this moment how dishonouring, how unforgivable a thing it was (pp. 285-6). 

The dreadful outcome of Flory’s exposure is his suicide and then colour plays its final and most telling role in the novel. As Dr Veraswami gently swathes his friend in a sheet, Orwell writes ‘With death, the birthmark had faded immediately, so that it was no more than a faint grey stain’  (p. 294).   In death, Flory has, symbolically, became a wholly white man again: he is no longer ‘coloured’: he can, as it were, be reconciled with his loutish colleagues of the White Man’s Club who had so reviled him for his sympathetic understanding of Burmans and, in particular, Dr Veraswami.  After all, ‘All Englishmen are virtuous when they are dead’ (p. 295).

In some ways Orwell’s later essay, ‘Shooting an Elephant’, is the more subtle critique of Empire. As with his witnessing a hanging, doubts have been expressed that Orwell actually saw a hanging or shot an elephant but Maung Htin Aung, who knew Orwell in Burma and was later Vice-Chancellor of Rangoon University, vouched for both as did one of his colleagues, George Stuart. The latter also maintained that the shooting of the elephant so angered Orwell’s commanding officer that he punished him by despatching him to the remote outpost of Katha. This Orwell would transform into Kyauktada, the setting for Burmese Days.  Curiously, not long before Orwell was transferred to Katha on 23 December 1926 a similar case of the shooting of an elephant was reported in the Rangoon Gazette for 22 March 1926.  This stated that a Major E.C. Kenny had shot a rogue elephant after it had killed a villager and caused great havoc in the plantation.  Kenny, unlike Orwell, was not punished. Indeed, on 13 September 1926 he was promoted to Deputy Commissioner of the Pakokku District (Lost Orwell, p. 166).  As ever in life, much depends on whom you know and how you are regarded. There is little doubt that Orwell was harshly treated for killing the elephant. Although it was suffering must (a form of madness to which elephants are prone) that seemed to have passed over. However, he had trampled on ‘a black Dravidian coolie’ – and note the stress on his colour: he is not simply a Dravidian coolie. In terms of Empire, a dead coolie might weigh light in the balance against a valuable elephant owned by one of the exploitation companies, but Orwell makes a point of describing the man’s suffering: ‘He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side.  His face was coated in mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony’ (X, 503). Note Orwell’s use of the word ‘crucified’.

What is, I think, of particular interest in this essay is the way the slow collapse of the elephant after Orwell has emptied his rifle into it. Its final agonies seem – perhaps unconsciously to Orwell – to foretell the end of empire:

A mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time – it might have been five seconds, I dare say – he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old  (X, p. 505).

This is an incredibly precise and moving description of the killing of a majestic beast. Note the shock to the reader of the paradoxical but telling ‘what seemed a long time’ and ‘it might have been five seconds’. This is, surely, a percipient description of the end of an empire with its politicians slobbering, the enormous senility of British institutions and, if not a thousand years old, an empire of upwards of half that age. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Orwell played a small part in the campaign in London for the ending of British rule in India and he was not averse to engaging as speakers those involved in the movement to free India, such as V.K. Narayana Menon, Dr N. Gangulee, and Mulk Raj Anand, who became a close friend.

It is, however, in his work for the BBC’s service to India from 18 August 1941 to 26 November 1943 that he made a truly notable contribution to the East and especially to India (which, at that time, encompassed Pakistan and Bangladesh).  He arranged an incredible number of broadcasts but I shall concentrate here on two aspects: his news commentaries and his innovative ‘distance learning’ broadcasts.

One of Orwell’s tasks was to write newsletters (also described as news reviews and news commentaries) summarising wartime events.  Although these were subject to scrutiny to ensure that policy and vital war information were not undermined he was allowed great freedom in choosing what he would say and how he would say it. Indeed, in his letter of resignation from the BBC of 24 September 1943 he went out of his way to say that he had been ‘allowed very great latitude’ and on no occasion had he been ‘compelled to say on the air anything that I would not have said as a private individual’ (XV, p. 251). A summary of what he wrote gives a good impression of how hard he worked and the contribution he made to the BBC’s work in India and several south-east Asian countries.  He wrote 56 newsletters in English to India; 30 in English to Malaya; and 19 in English to Indonesia. Of these, Orwell read 12 to India, 28 to Malaya and 16 to Indonesia.  But, in addition, he wrote newsletters for translation:  42 for broadcast in Gujarati; 15 for Marathi; 29 for Bengali; 29 for Tamil; and 1, and possibly more, for Hindustani translations.  Thus he composed some 221 newsletters. All this was but a small part of his work.

There has always been doubt as to how many people heard these broadcasts. From my own experience very shortly after the war working as a naval radio mechanic in Singapore, the quality and reliability of broadcasts over long distances (for example, from Singapore to London or Colombo, or Hong Kong) was very variable even with high-speed Morse, which is much easier to transmit successfully than speech. Broadcasting speech from London to India was fraught with difficulty. Interference was common and frequencies had often to be changed so that would-be listeners had to be pretty sharp to keep up with of broadcasting times. But there is some evidence that news commentaries were heard. Some years ago I bought with a batch of nondescript items a civilian prisoner’s diary kept by Albert Gentry in 1943 in a camp formed by fencing off a portion of the University of Moral and Political Science near Lumpini Park, Bangkok.  The civilian prisoners were allowed a degree of freedom and Gentry records, when being allowed to visit a Mr Knudtson 13 February 1943, ‘at 3 p.m. heard London on the radio. It was a real treat’.  It seems that broadcasts from London were heard fairly regularly at least in the Swedish and Swiss consulates. Gentry records items of news he has picked up (without saying wherefrom) such as those on 1 March 1943 that the Russians were 165 miles from Kiev and that round-the-clock bombing continued of Wilhemshaven, Nuremberg, The Ruhr, Brest, Le Havre, Boulogne, Taranto, Caglione, and Genoa; also that Burma had been heavily bombed and Rangoon was specifically mentioned.   (See Peter Davison, ‘Bangkok Days: Orwell and the Prisoner’s Diary’, Manuscript, vol XLI, no 4, Fall 1989, pp. 303-310.)

A charming post-war report suggests that Orwell was not only heard but offered welcome encouragement. In a letter to Tom Hopkinson of 17 September 1984, a WRAC officer, Barbara Rigby, described how a nun in Malaya, Sister Margaret, described to her how she and the Sisters risked their lives to listen to Orwell’s news broadcasts. They would then walk many miles through the jungle to take the news to others. The nuns, she said, had been cheered by Orwell’s broadcasts: ‘we used to bless that good man’ (XIV, p. 187).

Orwell worked incredibly hard arranging broadcasts by others and writing scripts which he broadcast.  Many were on the most mundane of topics such as ‘The Meaning of Scorched Earth’ and ‘Britain’s Rations and the Submarine War’. What, however, was remarkable about Orwell’s work for the BBC’s service to India was its cultural aspect. Propaganda for Orwell was Culture, even High Culture.  He arranged many programmes on literature and music (including a sort of Radio Literary Magazine with readings and discussions of literature).  He dramatized writings by Anatole France, Ignazio Silone, H.G. Wells and Hans Christian Andersen. He didn’t hesitate to launch series that the BBC might nowadays find politically doubtful – for example that on ‘Books that Changed the World’ which included The Koran, The Bible, The Upanishads, The Analects, The Bhagavat-Gita, and The New Testament, all titles which had a special resonance for people of the Near and Far East.

However, in many ways Orwell’s most imaginative venture was his series of programmes, six at a time, designed for students of Bombay and Calcutta Universities. This was ‘distance learning’ long before the Open University was founded in the United Kingdom or the Deutsches Institut für Fernstudien by the University of Tübingen.  In February 1942 there were at least two broadcasts – there may have been another four – in a first series on ‘Masterpieces of English Literature’.  These were on Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies and Browning’s ‘Abt Vogler’ both given by the distinguished poet and critic, Herbert Read. Neither topic is one that would strike today’s students – or teachers – as the most obvious way to introduce English literature to students but they were part of the Indian universities’ syllabuses.

The following month Orwell organised the first of his science series. It comprised six talks on the development of science – its birth, beginnings, experimental and applied characteristics, economic basis, ‘Science in the USSR’, and the future of science. The speakers Orwell recruited were of the very highest order: J.D. Bernal (two talks), James Needham, J.G. Crowther, Gordon Childe, and A.C.G. Egerton. Orwell had been fascinated by science since preparatory school and had permission at Eton to undertake experiments in the biology laboratory (for which he was given the key), sometimes with unfortunate results. Science, indeed, would be an important motivator for his writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four.  He went on to organise four more science series and one on psychology. The topics included malnutrition, soil erosion, plant and animal breeding, malaria, the house fly, and drinking water. Then, in November 1942, another series included talks on microfilms, plastics, and the dehydration of food;  in July 1943 there were talks on sulphonamides, chemotherapy, penicillin (given by one of the team that discovered it), plasma, anaesthetics, insulin and synthetic vitamins; and at the end of his time at the BBC he organised a psychology course.

One of the series of six talks he organised looked forward to what India might be like in the year 2000. The topics discussed were population problems, agriculture, the steel industry, education, industrialisation, and India’s cultural future. The talks do not survive for it would be especially interesting to see whether it was forecast that in the production of steel the roles of India and the United Kingdom would be completely reversed in the 21st century, India now owning much of what is left of the British steel industry.

Calcutta and Bombay’s syllabuses also gave Orwell the opportunity to arrange series of broadcasts on literature. There were seven such series in addition to the two programmes mentioned above: ‘Literature Between the Wars’, ‘Landmarks of American Literature’, ‘Masterpieces of English Literature’, ‘Modern English Verse’, ‘Modern Men of Letters’, and two series devoted to ‘Great Dramatists’. The speakers included those who made up a veritable roll-call of the great and famous, all of whom spoke for fees that were no more than pittances. They included, Stephen Spender, Herbert Read,  C.H. Waddington, Cyril Connolly, Arthur Calder-Marshall, T.S. Eliot (three times), Geoffrey Grigson, V.S. Pritchett, Rayner Heppenstall, E.M. Forster (twice), Edmund Blunden, David Nichol Smith, L.A.G. Strong, Lord David Cecil, John Lehmann, Desmond Hawkins, Raymond Mortimer, Ivor Brown, and Harold Laski (to give a deliberately socialist twist to Galsworthy’s important play, Strife). Orwell himself gave talks on Jack London, Arms and the Man, Macbeth, and Lady Windermere’s Fan. It is plain that what was being offered to listeners in the East was material of great significance delivered by speakers who, seventy years later are still recognised as of scientific and literary importance.

Another important contribution Orwell made to listeners in the East – in particular in the Indian sub-continent – was a series of discussions on dramatic presentation under the title, ‘Let’s Act It Ourselves’. These were led by the distinguished play producer, Norman Marshall, and involved Balraj Sahni and his wife, Damyanti. This experience bore remarkable fruit for the couple.  When the Sahnis returned to India after the war they worked at first with the Indian People’s Theatre touring widely and having nearly fifty new plays written for them. Damyanti, who had worked at Stratford with the Royal Shakespeare Company, died very young but her husband went on to become a famous actor and film director. When Orwell’s wife, Eileen, died, Balraj wrote a touching letter to Orwell expressing their regret but also gratitude for what he had done to help them and Indian drama. Orwell also presented a series of six Indian plays, so reintroducing India’s heritage to its homeland. These, given in abbreviated form, were: Mālati Mādhava, The Vision of Vasavadatta, The Post Office, The Jasmine Garland, The King of the Dark Chamber and the Sanskrit, Mrocchakatika (‘The Little Clay Cart’). When this last was presented in London forty years later it was advertised as ‘a first’ but it was Orwell who had been first by many years.

To follow-up his broadcasts for university students, Orwell arranged with Oxford University Press (Bombay) for the publication of two of the Calling All Students series to be reproduced in print: ‘Literature Between the Wars’ and ‘Landmarks of American Literature’. 

Orwell’s ‘line manager’, to use contemporary jargon, wrote of Orwell in his annual confidential report on 7 August 1943 that he had ‘the highest opinion of [Orwell’s] moral as well as his intellectual capacity. He is transparently honest, [and] incapable of subterfuge. . . . a mind, and a spirit, of real and distinguished worth’ (A Life in Letters, pp. 195-6). Orwell thought less highly of the BBC than Rushbrook-Williams thought of him. In his War-time Diary for 21 June 1942 he wrote:

The thing that strikes one in the BBC – and it is evidently the same in various of the other departments – is not so much the moral squalor and the ultimate futility of what we are doing, as the feeling of frustration, the impossibility of getting anything done, even any successful piece of scoundrelism.  Our policy is so ill-defined, the disorganisation so great, there are so many changes of plan, and the fear and hatred of intelligence are so all-pervading, that one cannot plan any sort of wireless campaign whatsoever. . . . One is constantly putting sheer rubbish on the air because of having talks which sounded too intelligent cancelled at the last moment. In addition the organisation is so overstaffed that numbers of people have almost literally nothing to do.

From the unlikely backwater of the Indian Service, there developed, according to Laurence Brander – a colleague at the BBC – something of which, even today, the BBC can be justly proud, especially in the midst of the dross it tends to purvey. Brander wrote in his biography of Orwell, (1954, pp. 8-9) that Orwell ‘was the inspiration of that rudimentary Third Programme which was sent out to the Indian student’, a service still with us as Radio Three.

Orwell was asked to review many books devoted to the East after leaving the BBC. In 1944 alone he reviewed no fewer than ten – Allenby in Egypt;  Burma Surgeon; India since Cripps; Burma Background;  Burma Setting; Buddhism in Burma; Ma Mya Sein’s Burma; Beverley Nichols’s Verdict on India; Singapore Goes Off the Air; and Sir Richard Winstedt’s Britain and Malaysia. Thereafter, the number of books reviewed in general and specifically about the East dropped off but he still found time and interest to review Shanghai Harvest in 1945 (in which year he also wrote an article for the Observer entitled ‘De Gaulle Intends to Keep Indo-China’ (XVII, pp. 91-2) – something the French notably failed to do); in 1948 he reviewed Lord Beveridge’s India Called Them ¬ (‘Them’ being his parents).

On 10 October 1948 Orwell reviewed in the Observer Louis Fischer’s Gandhi and Stalin.  He poses the question, ‘What would Gandhi do if he wasn’t given a shelf [of freedom by the British] to stand on?’ It is, he writes, ‘difficult to see how his strategy of fasting and civil disobedience could be applied to a country where political opponents simply disappear and the public never hears anything that the Government does not want it to hear’  (XIX, pp.452-3). 

The most significant of Orwell’s reviews that centred on India, and one that led to disagreement and even dispute was ‘Gandhi in Mayfair’ (September 1943). This examined at some length Lionel Fielden’s Beggar My Neighbour (XV, pp. 209-16).  Orwell’s attitude can be summed up so:

Mr Fielden . . . upholds the East against the West on the ground that the East is religious, artistic and indifferent to ‘progress’, while the West is materialistic, scientific, vulgar and warlike. The great crime of Britain is to have forced industrialization on India. (Actually, the great crime of Britain during the last thirty years has been to do the opposite.) . . . On the surface, Mr Fielden’s book is primarily a plea for ‘spirituality’ as against ‘materialism’. On the one hand a critical reverence for everything Oriental; on the other a hatred of the West generally, and Britain in particular, hatred of science and the machine, suspicion of Russia, contempt for the working-class conception of Socialism. The whole adds up to Parlour Anarchism – a plea for the simple life based on dividends.  (XV, pp. 211; 213-4)

Unsurprisingly, Mr Fielden was furious:

But, when all that is said, there remains in Mr. Orwell’s writing a rancour that is hard to explain. The labels which he himself fabricates, infuriate him. Can it be that, compromising between his principles and his bread-and-butter, he has a special envy of those who don’t or needn’t?  He tells us, bravely enough, that England must get off India’s back, that the Viceroy must go, the India Office be wound up: it is ‘the only decent gesture’.  But, he adds, this can’t be done because the Government (for which he himself does propaganda) won’t have it.  (XV, pp.221)

A more measured response came from Roy Walker who worked for the Peace Pledge Union from 1937-46. Orwell’s letter to him is lost but Walker writes:

I do think you are grossly unfair to Gandhi in your review, and that your defence of your attitude in your letter to me only underlines your bias towards him.  I would like to think that you will, if you have time, go into the question more thoroughly. You may come back with a more imposing indictment of Gandhi. I prefer to believe that that if you are really concerned to find the truth about him you will want to write again in Horizon or elsewhere and make him some amends (XV, pp.224).

Orwell seems to have responded to Roy Walker’s gentle remonstrance. It is probably what Walker wrote that led him to write with greater understanding of Gandhi in one of his last essays, ‘Reflections on Gandhi’, Partisan Review, January 1949 (XX, pp. 5-12).  This essay is, of course, well worth reading in full, but this may show how much Orwell was prepared to rethink his position on this and, indeed, any subject:

It seems doubtful whether civilization can stand another major war, and it is at least thinkable that the way out lies through non-violence [Gandhi’s approach, of course]. It is Gandhi’s virtue that he would have been ready to give honest consideration to the kind of question that I have raised above . . . One feels of him that there was much that he did not understand, but not that there was anything that he was frightened of saying or thinking.  I have never been able to feel much liking for Gandhi, but I do not feel sure that as a political thinker he was wrong in the main, nor do I believe that his life was a failure. It is curious that when he was assassinated, many of his warmest admirers exclaimed sorrowfully that he had lived long enough to see his life work in ruins, because India was engaged in a civil war which had always been foreseen as one of the by-products of the transfer of power [from Britain to India itself].  (XX, p. 10)

The East resonated in Orwell’s life long after he had left Burma. In The Road to Wigan Pier he starts Part II with, in the context of the Distressed Area of Wigan, a very curious reflection – a two-line first paragraph. ‘The road from Mandalay to Wigan is a long one and the reasons for taking it are not immediately clear’ (V, p. 113). Again, in Homage to Catalonia, as he prepares to take a train from Barbastro to Barcelona his mind goes back to Burma: ‘From Mandalay, in Upper Burma, you can travel by train to Maymyo . . . It is a rather queer experience’ (VI, p. 87), but surely not half as queer as his experiences on the Huesca front in Spain!  The East lived with Orwell throughout his adult life. Indeed, at his death he left drafts for a novella, ‘A Smoking-room Story’, set on a ship returning to England from Colombo (XX, pp. 189-200).  At the very end of his life part of his spirit was still in the East. 

This article is one of a number devoted to Orwell that appears in the Orwell Society newsletter, sent out to members. Join today.

2 thoughts on “"Orwell Goes East", by Peter Davison

  1. It’s good to finally see Peter’s terrific overview of Orwell’s time in the East on the Society website. I wonder how many people have read Shooting an Elephant without picking up on the author’s foretelling of the end of the British Empire??


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