laban.rsGeorge Orwell → A Life




Publication of a life of such a famous near contemporary has inevitably stimulated the offering of new evidence which I can now add in this revised edition. Andre Deutsch and George Mikes have given me important material on the publication of Animal Farm, Reg Groves on Orwell’s relations with British Trotskyism, Nicolas Walter on his relations with British anarchists and Dr Howard Nicholson on his last illness. And many helpful reviews and letters have led me to correct or clarify points of fact and to remedy infelicities of style. So additional thanks are particularly due to, among many who wrote to me: Sydney D. Bailey, Dr Ernest Colin-Ross, Dr John Field, Alaric Jacob, Betty O’Halloran, Andrew Roberts, Dr R. E. F. Smith, Robert D. Thornton and Iris Walkland.

In tribute to Orwell I decided seven years ago to deed the British hardback rights of this book to establish a ‘George Orwell Memorial Trust’ together with several of his old friends and admirers, notably David Astor.

April 1981


New matter continued to come in, especially stimulated by the great media non-event of ‘1984’. It is arguable whether any of it is important enough by itself to justify a new edition, but if the book is reprinted, as demand is still strong, then there is a strong cumulative case to enrich and get right essential detail. Almost all of the material that came to me directly, I passed on to the Orwell Archive and so it was available to Michael Shelden when working on his recent Orwell: the Authorised Biography, whether he was aware of the tainted source or not; as was material discovered by Dr Peter Davison while working on that masterpiece of editing, his Complete Works of George Orwell, still in progress.

Some interesting new material remained in my hands, however, largely because it was in the form of interview notes. I would have given all this to Michael Shelden had he approached me as one scholar to another, indeed approached me at all, as he should surely have done if the object is to write true history and not aggressive commercial rivalry. So I have decided to go beyond a reprint with its silent corrections of small errors and to add an Appendix of ‘Afterthoughts and Aftermatter’; but to leave the original text as it was written. None of the new evidence, both Shelden’s, Davison’s and mine, makes me want to change any essential interpretation, although in the Appendix I will amend my judgement about Nineteen Eighty-Four. The two earlier appendices, ‘The Nineteen Forty-Three Outline of Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘The Dating of “Such, Such Were the Joys”’, I have axed as of little interest to the general reader, while scholars can find them in the two earlier editions in libraries.

I must now thank the following for new material or corrections: Dr Victor Alba, Ian Angus, Dr Miguel Berga, Jock Braithwaite, Lord Bonham Carter, Dr R. F. Colquhoun, Professor Peter Davison (with special warmth), Dan Oc Del-Rivo, Owen Dudley Edwards, Arieh Eilan, Mrs Richard Finch, Clive Fleay, Jill Furlong, Bert Govaerts, the late Professor Lawrence Gowing, John Harris, Paul Harris, Jane Langdon-Davies, Andrew Hamilton Lee, Sally McEwan, Edith Marrison, Michael Meyer, Harry Milton, Douglas Moyle, Colin Murry, Raymond Parkes, John Pinder, Paul Roberts, Abha Sharma Rodrigues, W. B. Sefton, the late George Stuart, Kenneth Stuart, John Wall, Professor J. Williamson, Mrs A. R. Wilson and George Woodcock. Jill Furlong, of the Orwell Archive at University College, London, was as helpful and knowledgeable as her predecessor, indeed as anyone can possibly be.

November 1991


Orwell’s Achievement

What kind of biography have I tried to write, and about what kind of man? The questions are not wholly separable. It makes a difference, obviously, if one is writing about a statesman, a theologian, a scientist, an actor or a writer of a certain kind; one’s initial assumptions about one’s subject must affect the way one goes to work and the kind of evidence one looks for, even though working through the evidence inevitably modifies those assumptions. The reader is entitled to frankness about the author’s preconceptions (although frankness too can be a self-deception — straightaway, a typical Orwellian dilemma).

Eric Blair, with his odd combination of writing from experience, his autobiographical asides, his imagination as a writer (easy to underestimate), his common sense and common man honesty, the man’s love of privacy and yet the writer’s cultivation of a public image as George Orwell, raises unusual problems that seem to demand — or at least to excuse — some otherwise pretentious preliminaries before one presents what one has tried to do: simply to write as straightforward and informative a life as possible.

I saw and still see Orwell as someone who fully succeeded, despite his tragically early death, in the task he set himself in mid-career. He succeeded in such a way that he moved, even in his lifetime, from being a minor English writer to being a world figure, a name to set argument going wherever books are read. In 1946 he wrote in ‘Why I Write’: ‘What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art,’ adding that ‘looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.’

Orwell came to see himself as a ‘political writer’, and both words were of equal weight. He did not claim to be a political philosopher, nor simply a political polemicist: he was a writer, a general writer, author of novels, descriptive works that I will call ‘documentaries’, essays, poems and innumerable book reviews and newspaper columns. But if his best work was not always directly political in the subject matter, it always exhibited political consciousness. In that sense, he is the finest political writer in English since Swift, satirist, stylist, moralist and stirrer, who influenced him so much. The mature Orwell called Swift ‘a Tory anarchist’, forgetting that he had once used the phrase of himself when asked, as a young man, where he stood.

Orwell’s reputation and influence have increased since his death and show no sign of diminishing. The actual life of such a writer is, alas, only half the story. His greatest influence has been posthumous and has been for liberty and tolerance, but not as passive things to be enjoyed, rather as republican virtues to be exercised: the duty of speaking out boldly (‘the secret of liberty,’ said Pericles, ‘is courage’) and of tolerating rival opinions not out of indifference, but out of principle and because of their seriousness. And plain speaking always meant to him clear writing: communality, common sense, courage and a common style. He saw his literary and his political values as perfectly complementary to each other, he could not conceive of them being in contradiction — even if plain style sometimes limited the kind of literature he could enjoy as well as the development of his own more theoretical ideas. His own style became a cutting edge which, with much trial and error, by fits and starts, he slowly forged into a weapon of legendary strength. He made common words sharp, made them come to life again until under his spell one thinks twice before one uses any polysyllables, still less neologisms.

So in the term ‘political writer’ the second word is as important as the first. Obscure, pretentious or trendy language was to Orwell always a sign of indecision or of deceit, as much when used by private men as by party hacks. For though Orwell and Johnson have many characteristics in common, such as tenacity and pugnacity, an original affection for English letters and an abiding concern for the dignity and well-being of unfortunate writers in poverty, yet Orwell’s views on language would imply that Johnsonian ponderosities of style often masked a Tory mixture of deference and evasion.

He became a Socialist (somewhat later than people think) and denied fiercely, whether in reviewing a book by Professor Hayek or in the story of Animal Farm, that equality necessarily negates liberty. On the contrary, he stood in that lineage of English socialists who, through Morris, Blatchford, Tawney, Cole, Laski and Bevan, have argued that only in a more egalitarian and fraternal society can liberties flourish and abound for the common people.(1) It was a tradition that stressed the importance of freely held values, to which the structural arguments of Marxism were, at best, only marginal. Yet his influence has been to reprove backsliding socialists, to sustain democratic Socialists (he always capitalized it thus) and to win back Communist fellow-travellers rather than to convert non-socialists. Many liberals seem unimpressed by Orwell’s socialist values, taking what they want from him, admiring him rather abstractly as a political writer, but not wanting to come to terms with the content of his politics, with his actual views about the needs of humanity (always humanity, and not just Europeans) and the constraints of a capitalist, acquisitive society. Some either ignore his socialism or espouse a legend that by 1948 and in Nineteen Eighty-Four he had abandoned it — what one may call the Time-Life and Encounter view of Orwell. Part of his anger against the Communists was not only that they had become despots who squandered human life and despised liberty, but that they were also discrediting democratic Socialism. There is really no mystery about the general character of his politics. From 1936 onwards he was first a follower of the independent Labour Party and then a Tribune socialist; that is, he took his stand among those who were to the Left or on the left of the Labour Party: fiercely egalitarian, libertarian and democratic, but by Continental comparisons, surprisingly untheoretical, a congregation of secular evangelicals.

What was remarkable in Orwell was not his political position, which was common enough, but that he demanded publicly that his own side should live up to their principles, both in their lives and in their policies, should respect the liberty of others and tell the truth. Socialism could not come by seizure of power or by Act of Parliament, but only by convincing people in fair and open debate and by example. He would take no excuses and he mocked pretentious talk of ‘ideological necessity’. Truth to tell, he made rather a name as a journalist by his skill in rubbing the fur of his own cat backwards. At rimes he was like those loyal and vociferous football supporters who are at their best when hurling complaint, sarcasm and abuse at their own long-suffering side. Sometimes, of course, it is deserved; and it may always be said to keep them on their toes. Small wonder that some of Orwell’s fellow socialists have at times been tempted, like Raymond Williams in his Fontana Modern Masters study, Orwell, or like Isaac Deutscher in his polemic against Nineteen Eighty-Four, to doubt whether he should be on their terraces at all. But he chose to and he was, whether they like it or not or would prefer quieter spectators. At most rimes there was a touch of the true Jacobin about him rather than the John Stuart Millite.

Certainly to call Orwell a supreme political writer, both for what he said and how he said it, is to point only to his major talent and influence. There were other good things as well. He began as a novelist and was planning a new novel when he died. Later he repudiated his early novels, except Burmese Days and Coming Up For Air. A Clergyman’s Daughter has some good parts but, overall, is embarrassingly bad. Keep the Aspidistra Flying won some good critical notices and is still very readable, but it seemed an interesting and promising book, rather than integrated and fully successful. Both these books were selfconsciously ‘literary’: he was, indeed, ‘betrayed into purple passages’ when he ‘lacked a political purpose’. Burmese Days was written far more directly from experience and had a clear political purpose, anri-imperialist (though not necessarily socialist, as is commonly supposed — he was a late developer, both politically and artistically). Coming Up For Air was received by most reviewers much as Keep the Aspidistra Flying had been, but second opinions are now beginning to see greater depths in it, a true novelist’s craft, a greater detachment from his own person than appeared at first sight; and certainly it is a comic and satiric tour deforce not merely in the tradition of Dickens and Wells but as good as any but their very best.

He developed as an essayist. Much critical opinion now locates his genius in his essays. There is much to be said for this view, especially if Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Homage to Catalonia can be treated as long essays, since they are all as unusual a mixture of description and speculation as one of them is of fact and fiction. His best essays are by no means all political, though those on politics and literature, language and censorship have become classics of English prose, anthologized and translated throughout the world, even where they are not supposed to be read. A small history could be written of samizdat and illegal translations of such essays and of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four (read behind the Iron Curtain as angry satire rather than a pessimistic prophecy). ‘Shooting an Elephant’ and ‘A Hanging’ are similarly famous and must each year arouse political reflection for the first time in many new readers, who are often reading them in innocence simply for their good English in respectable language schools or cautious English classes throughout the world.

In his essays on ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, on violence (‘Raffles and Miss Blandish’) and on pornography (‘The Secret Life of Salvador Dali’), he was a moralist who made pioneering studies of unsophisticated, as well as of intellectual, literature to expose anti-humanitarian values. But in the same essays he also pointed to traditional decencies which he believed are more secure among the common people than among the power — and prestige-hungry intellectuals. And there are many short essays that appear simply to entertain, but also lead us by humour and irony to reflect upon, or simply to gain compassion and understanding for, tolerable human failings, oddities and imperfections. While angry at injustice and intolerance, he never seemed to ask too much of ordinary people: his anger centred on the intellectuals, precisely because they hold or influence power and should know better. His politics were Left-wing, but many of his prejudices were conservative. And he wrote about many positive values that have nothing directly to do with politics, love of nature above all: he did not wish to live in a world in which everything could be manipulated, even for the public good. He was capable of literary criticism of the highest order. No one who cares for Dickens and Swift can ignore these two essays; and ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’ is a brilliant reproof of one moralist by another for being monumentally silly, and defends the play of art such as Shakespeare’s from the Tolstoyan grumbles (so close to the Leninist) that Shakespeare ‘is boring and frivolous’ and ‘where does he really stand?’. Orwell championed and understood James Joyce’s Ulysses at a time when some traditional intellectuals denounced it as meaningless filth andlionest customs officers seized it to the applause of the Daily Mail and the Express, though his voice reached few people then. Far more effectively, he praised the art of Henry Miller whose cynicism and deliberate apoliticism he cordially detested. He made simple but bold distinctions between the artistic excellence of figures as diverse as T. S. Eliot and Rudyard Kipling and the inhumanity and bleak pessimism of their politics. It took rare courage and discernment to defend giving a prize to Ezra Pound while condemning him utterly as a person: a Fascist, a war-criminal and a most foul anti-Semite and racialist. Most critics still skirt around the double issue; Orwell waded in with both feet flying, and he was right, horrible old Ezra could sing. He defended with an essay, money and personal activity the gentle British anarchists when in 1944 the police picked on them and the National Council for Civil Liberties ignored them. (The NCCL was then Communist-dominated, no Orwellian paranoia that.)

Not merely was he, in his long and formal set-pieces, a great essayist; he was also a brilliant journalist. He was not outstanding as a reporter when the Observer sent him to report events and conditions in France and Germany at the end of the war, and to cover London in the General Election of 1945: he could not reproduce, as it were, the descriptive part of The Road to Wigan Pier in miniature — that needed more time and space. But he excelled in the short, characterful and speculative essay. He was a master of column journalism, knocking off quickly straight onto the typewriter three or four topics to a printed page, some serious and provocative, some quirky, comic or perverse. His seventy-six ‘As I Please’ contributions to Tribune — where he was a tribune indeed, protesting, denouncing, needling, nagging, mocking, teasing, and celebrating — became a model for young journalists for their mixture of profundity and humour, their range and variety, and for their plain, easy colloquial style. The model has not always been a fortunate one; it takes an Orwell to do it successfully, someone with a great store of reading and experience, amused and relaxed, working smoothly and fluently but at considerably less than full power, showing no signs of strain to achieve the effect or to fill the space. He made his column a continuing education for his readers, and I have met some old political activists who remember him for that alone and who never read his books.

Specific themes recurred throughout his journalism and essays: love of nature, love of books and literature, dislike of mass production, distrust of intellectuals, suspicion of government, contempt for and warnings against totalitarianism, advice on making, mending or growing things for yourself, anti-imperialism and anti-racialism, detestation of censorship, and praise of plain language, plain speaking, the good in the past, decency, fraternity, individuality, liberty, egalitarianism and patriotism. I list them in no particular order because, although a ‘characteristic’ and finite list (for instance he rarely discussed music, theatre, opera, art, schools, sport, travel, Whitehall, Westminster, political gossip, scandal, ‘Society’, or sex — some columnists today would wonder what was left), he never reduced them to any system and it is not always easy to see what they have in common; nor did he always seem aware of obvious contradictions that could arise.

His patriotism is important. He was almost alone among Left-wing intellectuals in stressing the naturalness and positive virtues of loving, not exclusively but none the less intensely and unashamedly, one’s native land. He held this view because of his rather old-fashioned radicalism that links his ‘Tory anarchist’ or individualist phase to his final socialist period. The whiff of Cromwellian powder or dust from Cobbett’s Rural Rides seems never far from his nostrils, like that hors of whom God boasted to Job: ‘He saith among the trumpets, Ha Ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains and the shouting.’ He was indeed, a ‘revolutionary patriot’. For he saw our heritage and the land itself as belonging to the common people, not to the gentry and the upper middle classes. It was their land because, as in the rhetoric of Wilkes, in the beliefs of the Chartists and in the philosophy of John Locke, they had mixed their labour with the land. He held this view before the War, even in his anti-militarist, quasi-pacifist mood: it was neither an overreaction to accepting the necessity of war in September 1939 nor a lapse back to Edwardian jingoism. Like Cobbett he fought against ‘the great Thing’, what Cobbett also called ‘the Establishment’, and part of his anger was that ‘they’ had tried to monopolize patriotism, so that, for instance, the greatest revolutionary hymn in the language, Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, could come to be sung at Tory conferences without perceived incongruity. But part of his anger was reserved for those intellectuals who had yielded the native field without a fight, departing for a shallow cosmopolitanism or, worse, staying at home to mock. He was intellectually but never socially intolerant of pacifists on this score. He rejected their policies but defended their principles and liked their company. He confessed to a liking for the ‘rather jingoistic’ ballad of ‘Admiral Benbow’ because there was, he said, a tradition that old Benbow had risen from the ranks and remained a friend of the common seaman.

Orwell was careful, amid all his diatribes, to distinguish between patriotism, as love of one’s own native land (so that anyone who grows into that love can be a patriot), and nationalism, as a claim to natural superiority over others (so that States must naturally consist of one nation and seek to exclude others). It is typical that he makes this distinction, which is of extraordinary importance, briefly and almost in passing, neither elaborating it theoretically nor exploring its implications. But it is clear, deliberate, and it is there in his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’ of 1945.

Certainly there was a gender patriotism in Orwell which preceded his socialism and stemmed from his love of English literature, customs and countryside. In many ways he remained socially conservative, or as his friend Cyril Connoliy put it in a famous aphorism, ‘a revolutionary who was in love with the 1900s’. Orwell said of himself in ‘Why I Write’ of 1946, the same essay that declared himself to be a political writer: ‘I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.’ He would tease the fierce readers of Tribune by writing a column on the beauty and longevity of a Woolworth sixpenny rosebush or an essay on the mating habits of the common toad. His socialism embraces both memory and nature.

He is a specifically English writer and a specifically English character, both in his seeming amateurism — sometimes truly amateurish — and in his eccentricities. He lived and dressed as simply as he came to write, and in some ways as oddly. But he was never insular. He was steeped in French and also in Russian literature through translation, though hardly at all in German. He knew more about European and colonial politics in the 1930s and 1940s than most of his literary contemporaries, or politicians for that matter. He followed contemporary American writing closely but knew little about American history and politics — had he known more he might have avoided misunderstandings when Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were published in America. His other best works came to be reprinted and translated well and widely. He had things to say which are still of universal significance, more so than those of some far more systematic philosophical and academic thinkers. And something of his characteristic style, discursiveness and colloquial ease, the buttonholing directness, the zeal to write for a broad, rather than a purely intellectual public, must come across even in translation, for his style has influenced a generation of young writers in Germany, Japan and Italy, for instance, who do not all read him in the original. Throughout the world ‘Orwellian’ means this English essayist’s manner as well as the quite different connotation that ‘Orwellian’ has gained from Nineteen Eighty-Four.

He is also, perhaps in the very security of his Englishness (it is Englishness, not Britishness, incidentally), a writer of historical stature on English national character. His Lion and the Unicorn and his later reworking of some of the same themes in The English People are among the few serious studies of the English national character, quite different from the celebratory banalities of Sir Arthur Bryant, Sir Winston Churchill, or even Dr A. L. Rowse. He did not merely write about the manners of the English, but attempted to assess the matter of Britain in the light of our history; who we were and what we should do as a people. He offered a moral and sociological stocktaking, both patriotic and radical, worrying about what was happening to England, the degradation and selfishness of its inhabitants and the despoliation of its landscape; but always having hope in the common sense of the common people and pleasure in their pastimes. American intellectuals have often, almost obsessively, at times masochistically, addressed themselves to the question of ‘what is an American?’. English intellectuals have kept well away from such speculation, offering little more than smug asides and rude jibes. Now, amid new uncertainties, not just psychological but directly political, such as doubts about the laws of citizenship and the unity of the United Kingdom, we are finding the need for such assessments. Those writing such books will have to start where Orwell left off.

Some literary friends in Orwell’s last years of fame never understood his politics nor accepted the importance he attached to politics in general. Cyril Connolly, for instance, often urged Orwell to get away from his political journalism and back to the writing of real novels. Such English intellectuals themselves represented that divorce of political and literary sensibility which Orwell’s life contradicted and which so many of his essays railed against. In France, Germany and in the United States it had long been more customary for intellectuals to be viewed as public figures and to make their views known on public questions, sometimes pompously and pretentiously, on occasion ignorantly, but it was both accepted and expected that they should do so. When English intellectuals did commit themselves, as did some but by no means all in the 1930s (legends grow and are fostered), they tended, Orwell considered, to go to extremes, to go overboard, to act with an irresponsible enthusiasm and ignorance like boy scouts on an afternoon’s outing, not as mature men journeying through life. In ‘Inside the Whale’ he struck savagely at W. H. Auden in those terms. The polemicist exaggerated and, as regards people, sometimes hit out crushingly at the wrong enemy. But he was basically right. Many English intellectuals who considered themselves political had, in fact, a divided sensibility and double standards. They tolerated, expected and practised a reckless and passionate sincerity and a crudeness of judgement in politics, even called for it, of a kind that they would not tolerate for one moment in literary writing or in literary criticism. Sense and sensibility were for art, and anger and authenticity were for politics. But Orwell developed a political sensibility of an ancient kind, if rare in the industrial modern, world, that without being precisely philosophical and analytical was reflective and conceptually imaginative as well as polemical and activist.(2) Whether he knew it or not he lay close to the Graeco-Roman republican roots of European civilization which assumed the indivisibility of citizenship and culture, whereas so many of his friends believed in separation and wasted many words rationalizing their own alienation from the public realm.

So as well as a political writer, Orwell was a political thinker of genuine stature. Nineteen Eighty-Four can be seen as a ‘development model’, of a kind familiar to economic historians and social scientists, challenging comparison, in its ironic logic and internal consistency, with Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, the masterpiece of English political philosophy. The governing régime is a wickedly clever and plausible synthesis ofStalinism and Nazism. Nineteen Eighty-Four is to the disorders of the twentieth century what Leviathan was to those of the seventeenth. Orwell chose to write in the form of a novel, not in the form of a philosophical tractatus. He would, indeed, have been incapable of writing a contemporary philosophical monograph, scarcely of understanding one. He was what Oxford dons sometimes call ‘an untrained mind’ (that is, untamed). He sailed boldly and skilfully, reached and explored some important destinations, but he had not the least idea of the theories of navigation or of naval architecture. To theorize about political developments in the form of a novel rather than as a treatise has advantages in reaching a wider public and for intuitive understanding, but disadvantages in credibility and explanatory precision.

Hobbes believed that a breakdown in good government would cause a return to a hypothetical state of nature, a condition of violent anarchy where the life of man is ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short’. Orwell believed that a breakdown in good government (by which he meant a breakdown in liberty, tolerance and welfare) could cause a leap forward into a hypothetical world order of one-party total power, a kind of State that the world had never seen before. He thought it would be unique in that the vestiges of genuine ideology, whether Communist or Fascist, would have withered away and yet merged in a single hierarchy of oppression and propaganda motivated by a desire for pure power: ‘If you want a picture of the future of humanity imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’ Memory would be abolished, history rewritten and language controlled.

Orwell had first formulated the concept of totalitarianism shortly after his escape from Spain. He argued that common factors were emerging in Stalinism and in Nazism concerned with the retention and extension of power by the inner party élite. These lead the state to mobilize all society as if for perpetual and total war, a common process more important than the vestigial and nominally antagonistic ideologies. Koesder, Borkenau, Silone, Malraux and Orwell all established this usage and began to develop the theory at about the same time, 1936 to 1940 (as far as I can discover, quite independently of each other). They were all political and literary intellectuals in ‘the continental manner’, as the Englishman Orwell was to say of the others. They set out this theory and acted upon it. It was to be a decade and a half before the scholars and the academics ‘invented’ or ‘discovered’ the totalitarian thesis and elaborated it at length, notably Hannah Arendt in her Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Carl Friederich and Zbigniew Brzezinski in their Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956). Arendt nowhere refers to Nineteen Eighty-Four although it anticipates many other conclusions.

If one takes the term ‘political writer’ in its broadest sense to include philosophers, statesmen, publicists and pamphleteers who might claim to be secure in the canon of English literature, three names seem indisputably pre-eminent: Thomas Hobbes, Jonathan Swift, and George Orwell. The intellectual historian might make some claims for Edmund Burke, J. S. Mill or William Morris, but Burke and Mill, while fine writers indeed, seem too narrow in their range, sonorous but pedestrian compared to the nominated three; and to read Morris after Swift and Orwell is to condemn him as being too consciously literary by far, however original and influential were many of his ideas. Hobbes was a philosopher, grinding and grounding every point, but also indulging in a vast polemical irony that makes Leviathan a masterpiece of baroque prose. Swift was a pamphleteer and the supreme satirist, able to satirize knowledgeably philosophy and theology as well as party politics, but not himself philosophical; and his style was a forceful blend of classical form and colloquial diction, so that Gulliver is a masterpiece of Augustan prose. Orwell in one work approached the importance and the scale of Hobbes, but he had none of his philosophical knowledge or disposition; and in many others of his works he learned consciously from Swift how colloquiality and formality can be mingled both for comic and polemic effect, and in so doing evolved his own flexible plain style which, while not the most beautiful modem English prose, is certainly the best model of English writing for a hundred and one different purposes. Orwell’s common style rested on the questionable assumption that all knowledge can be reduced to common sense. But if he did not have the philosophical sophistication of Hobbes, yet his common sense saved him from Swift’s bitter pessimism, at times hatred of humanity. For the thing about common sense is that one believes that other people, quite ordinary people, have it too.

The achievement is more important than the man. The main theme of a biography might therefore simply be how he came to hold the original and heterodox views of Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. But that would be too narrow, excluding not only a picture of the life he led but also the achievement of the writer. Many of the best essays would get lost. And the essays raise at once the peculiarly Orwellian problem of the image of the writer and the character of the man. The very image he came to exhibit or established is complex, for such a simple man (so it is said). To hold Orwellian views and to write in an Orwellian manner mean different things. How could the essayist Orwell, revelling in natural variety, produce the Orwellian vision of a totally machined society? The common-sense answer is that being a writer of great ability, he adopted another style and mode of writing when he wanted to warn against the possibility of something happening. But if one reads Nineteen Eighty-Four before any other book of Orwell’s or is told that it was his last testament, then one may well believe that it is a prophecy or forecast of the future, not simply an awful warning. Then there is, indeed, a contradiction between the two images of Orwell, and so people have presumed a change of character and of values in his last years. I examined this view very carefully, since it was commonly held and important, but I am bound to say that I found no evidence for it.

Some people still underestimate him as a writer. Why identify the final and utter pessimism and defeat of Winston Smith with the milder pessimism of the author? Why identify the shallow and imperceptive nostalgia of George Bowling in Coming Up For Air with George Orwell’s loving, but knowing and measured, even half-ironic nostalgia? Mere names mislead. With what other novelist would so many readers and critics so confidently identify characters with author? Is the man so simple or does his art lull or gull some of his readers into simplicity? Perhaps the trouble arises from the nature of the essayist who appears to talk about himself so much, about his experiences and his prejudices. How closely related is that ‘George Orwell’ to Eric Blair who became known as George Orwell? The art of the colloquial essayist, himself constantly and amusingly breaking the normal divide between fact and fiction, between the real person and the persona, this is well enough understood; but it can make things difficult when the same man is also a novelist; it can actually encourage critics and readers to think of Winston Smith as what Orwell thought he himself might become. Suppose there was, however, an Orwell mask that got stuck upon the private and modest person, Eric Blair? Does that diminish the performance?

‘Orwell’ sets many traps both for himself and for his readers. The question is only important, of course, if one is primarily concerned with the man. Some have said that the man is more important than his writings, meaning the example of the life he led. I do not share this view. A biographer should not, in any case, accept such absolute disjunctions between ‘character’, ‘circumstances’ and ‘works’. Also the view diminishes his works. I suspect that when his old friend. Sir Richard Rees (in his George Orwell: Fugitive from the Camp of Victory, Secker & Warburg, London, 1961), called him ‘almost saintly’, it was because he was never as happy with the content of Orwell’s writing as he hoped to be.

Some have found an easier solution to this problem of the literary Orwell and a real Orwell. But I have found no evidence that a man called Eric Blair changed character when he came to call himself for the publication of the first book, ‘George Orwell’. I have observed, however, a more subtle and gradual process, that Julian Symons first noted, by which Blair came to adopt the Orwell part of himself as an ideal image to be lived up to: an image of integrity, honesty, simplicity, egalitarian conviction, plain living, plain writing and plain speaking, in all a man with an almost reckless commitment to speaking out unwelcome truths: ‘liberty is what people do not want to hear.’ But a public image of Orwell grew up even in his lifetime which was like a vulgarized version of this somewhat ideal image. It presented Orwell as the corporal of the awkward squad, that perennial difficult fellow who speaks unwanted home truths out of order, asks embarrassing questions, pricks the bubbles of his own side’s occasional pomposity, who goes too far in all this, making the whole Labour movement sound like a swarm of pacifist, naturist, fruit-juice-drinking cranks, and loses his own sense of humour when he cannot appreciate that a pack of lies is ideological necessity, or that an election address is necessarily humbug. ‘If you look into your own mind, which are you,’ Orwell once asked, ‘Don Quixote or Sancho Panza?’ George Woodcock began his study of Orwell with that quotation.

But I must explain why I do not think that one can look into Orwell’s mind, or minds — or anyone else’s. The best that a biographer can do is to understand the relationship between the writer and the man, between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, by examining their journey together in detail, always remembering that what they did together and how they reacted to what happened along the way will tell us more than constantly analysing and reanalysing their ‘characters’ and the difference between them.

Biography and 'Character'

What kind of biography, then, have I tried to write about a man with this kind of achievement? I began with the naive idea that the main task would be to know the character of Orwell as well as humanly possible, while all the time working away at the facts, so that by knowing him, understanding his inwardness, entering into his mind, I could supply his motivations, perhaps even correcting his own later accounts of them, and make Sensitive suppositions (i.e., guess) at what was happening when documentation was lacking. But simultaneously reading a lot of ‘good biography’ and beginning to grapple with the evidence for this book, not in any rational order (as I had hoped) but simply as it came, dictated by ease of access to papers and the proximity or age of certain witnesses, I grew to be sceptical of much of the fine writing, balanced appraisal and psychological insight that is the hallmark of the English tradition of biography. It may be pleasant to read, but readers should realize that often they are being led by the nose, or that the biographer is fooling himself by an affable pretence of being able to enter into another person’s mind. All too often the literary virtues of the English biographical tradition give rise to characteristic vices: smoothing out or silently resolving contradictions in the evidence and bridging gaps by empathy and intuition (our famous English ‘good judgement of character’ which, compared to the French stress on formal criteria, lets us down so often); and this all done so elegantly that neither contradictions nor gaps in the evidence are apparent to any but scholarly eyes carefully reading the fnt_intro or cynically noting their lack. None of us can enter into another person’s mind; to believe so is fiction. We can only know actual persons by observing their behaviour in a variety of different situations and through different perspectives. Hence the great emphasis I found myself placing on reporting the views of his contemporaries at unusual length and in their own words, neither synthesizing nor always sensitively resolving them when they conflicted. Wyndham Lewis once remarked that good biographies are like novels. He did not intend to let the cat out of the bag.

Some good bad biographies appear to be, epistemologically speaking, novels indeed. That is the extreme of the empathetic fallacy. A contrary extreme is a purely empiricist presentation of the evidence, such as one can find in biographies written by professional historians. But they too deceive themselves if they think to avoid selectivity simply by offering a commentary on extracts from original archives. Rather than produce a symbolic distillation called ‘basic character’, they throw a cloud of dust — called facts — in our eyes. Common sense suggests that one can and must characterize Henry VIII, Wallenstein, Shaftesbury, Woodrow Wilson or Lloyd George, indeed offer rival contemporary characterizations too, but without abandoning the evidence and the chronicle of events for the seductive shortcuts and pseudo-certainries even of ‘empathy’, still less of literary psychoanalysis.

One has only the evidence that one can find. Which papers survive and which do not is largely accidental; there is no neat proportionality between the records and periods of Orwell’s life. His letters to his agent, for instance, survive and are a continuous series from 1930 to 1949, but his agent’s letters to him, which would add much to the tale, were foolishly destroyed. Orwell was not the kind of man to keep intimate diaries or to write long personal letters. For most of his career he was too strapped for cash, too hard pressed earning a living by book-reviewing and column journalism to have done so, even had he wished; and to say that he was careless about preserving copies of letters he did write would be to imply that he should have seen some point in doing so. Orwell’s ambitions as a writer were modest and what he valued was publication. He was not born to the literary purple of the Bloomsbury group, whose every scribbled note to ‘come to tea on Tuesday’ seem to contain phrases of wit, malice or insight written in the knowledge or hope that one day they would be published or be useful to some relative writing a biography. Which is the more valuable record of a state of mind, or interesting human document: a file of self-conscious literary letters carefully preserved by the sender, or a few hasty but argumentative letters sent without copies to a friend who happens not to destroy them? Gaps in the evidence are inevitable and should not be disguised either by expanding with surmise what we do not have, or by contracting, for the sake of balanced chapter lengths, what we do have.

Thus the texture of this biography is necessarily lumpy and uneven, both because I quote so much, to let Orwell and his contemporaries tell their own tales as far as possible, and because the sources are so uneven and bear no relationship to the relative importance of events in his life. Of course one tries to fill gaps, or to find other sources of evidence. Any scholar will know the ghastly disproportion of time one spends searching for people or papers that one is relatively unlikely to find compared to the speed and economy with which one assimilates an important section of a large and well-ordered correspondence in an archive. But when one does have to speculate, when a gap in the evidence seems crucial to the coherence of other parts of the record, one should simply say so clearly. I use words like ‘probably’ and ‘possibly’ and ‘might’ as little as possible, but do so when coherence dictates. A biographer has a duty to show how he reaches his conclusions, not to pretend to omniscience; and he should share things that are moot, problematic and uncertain with the reader.

The need to present conflicts in evidence rather than to resolve them all neatly is particularly acute because there is so much good writing about Orwell by famous men of letters who either only knew him in the last few years of his fame, or did not in fact pay much attention to him before. They are eye-witnesses of a few years but can only speculate about and offer hearsay evidence for the long formative years when he was struggling to succeed as a writer. As poets and novelists, they do not always make the distinction clear, so I have always sought and, when I could find it, preferred the direct evidence of people who knew him at the relevant times. A good memory has nothing to do with literary abilities. Indeed sometimes when people have published their memories of someone, their writings act as a block to any further memories and, when interviewed, they simply repeat and defend, consciously or unconsciously, their published position.

A reader has observed that my stress on externality, standing outside Orwell, noting his behaviour, noting contemporary characterizations of him but not claiming to be able to get inside him and to know his character, creates an alienation effect. Perhaps so, for the trouble with the empathetic approach to acting, Brecht argued, was that in trying to create the illusion of being someone else, the character is then fixed, frozen and unchallengeable. The audience loses any critical distance and must accept or reject totally the character as portrayed. But both human freedom and good art demand not a suspension of disbelief, but a critical awareness that an actor is acting and that the part could be played in other ways; more generally, that the world could be other than it was and is. So also with an actual human life and a biography. I interpret Orwell’s character while feeling acutely aware that other sensible people (who actually knew him) see him rather differently. And yet we cannot substitute ‘context’ for ‘character’. We may understand a person better by knowing more about their history and background, but however much we know there is no inevitable inference from these antecedent facts to what someone actually writes. Childhood experiences, for instance, may limit, but they do not determine. Freedom, imagination, will and chance are all at play throughout life, especially in someone as self-conscious as Orwell: we must be as much on our guard in biography against the danger of reducing everything that happened to character or psychology, as we should be that the need to establish a context does not produce a crude reduction of events to economic structures.

Interpretations about character can even be perceptive and correct, and yet misleading about the actual course of someone’s life. Sonia Orwell spoke for many of his friends when she said in the Introduction to The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters: ‘If political events had made less impact on him, he would have lived in the country, written a book — preferably a novel — a year, pursued his interest in the essay form and, when money was badly lacking, done straightforward book reviews which, he said, he enjoyed writing... War made him a political activist...’ But so it did and political events did have a great impact on him — or should one say it was not in his character to ignore them? If we are too confident in our judgements of character we end up by writing instead of history a kind of speculative teleology: what he should have done had he lived differently or longer.

Each of us may even speculate that we have a ‘true character’ which is not fully realized in our actual life. Orwell himself began a poem in 1935 ‘A happy vicar I might have been/Two hundred years ago’, but the poem goes on to point ironically to the impossibility of this when ‘... born, alas, in an evil rime’; and when he quotes this poem himself in his ‘Why I Write’ of 1946, it is to say that ‘the Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood’, that what ‘he most wanted to do’ was ‘to make political writing into an art’. Alas, indeed, the only life one can write about is the life someone actually led in reaction to actual events in a particular ‘evil time’, not about ‘true character’. Otherwise biography descends into psycho-drama, just as so many people in an ultra-individualistic culture can waste so much of their sensibility and frustrate so much of their life in wondering who they ‘really are’. Our human identity consists in relationships, not in inwardness.

I realize that the externality of my method runs the risk that I appear unsympathetic to Orwell, putting him in the box, as it were, under oath and treating his testimony critically. I would rather run this risk, however (liking him very much, but admitting, not surprisingly, that the works are greater than the man), than pontificate about character and states of mind. Sympathy must be present in a biographer — otherwise one would grow sour living for so long with someone one disliked; but sympathy is not, once again, a reliable short cut to establishing, so far as is possible, what actually happened at the time. An honest biographer must be more dull than he could be, must repress proud inclinations to ‘recreate a life’ or to imagine too often what someone ‘really felt’ on some crucial occasion.

If not on ‘states of mind’ and ‘character’, then on what threads have I come to hang this biography? Basically I found that I was looking more and more at his occupations, what he was doing to stay alive, and at his bibliography. Once he was determined to be a writer, everything seems secondary to the production of his books and essays. With someone else, circles of friends might be the thread, but not with Orwell: he was grudging with his time, had developed solitary habits in school and Burma, kept different circles well apart; they were all secondary to his passion to write. The main tale must be of how his books and essays came to be written and of how they were published.

This again swung me away from internality towards externality, from the British tradition of the inward eye and what Dr Johnson called ‘domestic privacies’ (when he virtually invented biography as an English literary mode), towards something closer, I discovered, to the French tradition of literary biography: an account of a subject’s public life and of the impact of his works. Certainly this shift has some surprising consequences. What of childhood and the time before works are published? I believe that many English biographers have unnecessarily perplexed themselves by trying to demonstrate that the child is always father to the literary man, when on any cool appraisal of first publications we must often be as astonished at the unpredictable discontinuities from childhood as with the few slender analogues. We have not yet emancipated ourselves either from literary Freudianism or from the cultural belief of the English upper middle classes that school-days are necessarily crucial, whether for good or ill (sometimes this belief amounts to a cult of permanent adolescence). However I discover to my surprise that the amount of space I have actually given to his childhood is greater than I had intended. The difficulty is that there have been so many theories about his mature work based upon thinly supported surmises about his childhood and particularly his schooling, that I have had to spend a disproportionate amount of time in order to reach an essentially negative conclusion. Truth often has to deal in dull negations, unlike the glittering results of intuition and characterology.

This volume is not, however, a ‘Life and Times’ either: such a formula, unless a man has a great effect on events, is mainly padding. I am worried enough that people sometimes treat a full biography as an introduction to the subject’s writings, but to think that a biography could also provide a political and social history of the twentieth century is absurd. I have written as briefly as possible, thinking of the general reader but assuming that he has read some Orwell already and has at least a background knowledge of the political and literary history of our times. Yet it is not literary criticism either, not ‘Life and Works’. This distinction is not crucial, however — only a self-denying ordinance to prevent elephantiasis. How the books came to be written and published is the central theme of the’ biography of any writer, but not necessarily a full appreciation of the books themselves, seen as texts and symbolic structures. The line is not always easy to draw, it depends on the nature of the writings: none of Orwell’s works raise the same problems for a biographer as do the major works of Joyce or Proust. So I have only discussed the texts when strictly relevant to biography — which, in fact, is often. None the less a biography must have limited aims.

Right from the beginning I realized how complex was the relationship between Orwell’s life and his writings. All of his books except the last two are obviously based upon his own experiences, and it is clear that he deliberately went out to gain experiences in order to write about them. This is customary and raises no problems in writers of travel books. But Orwell was primarily a traveller through his own land, through his own society and his own memories. As V. S. Pritchett said, he was ‘a writer who has "gone native" in his own country’. Even beyond that double relationship, however, I soon saw that if the autobiographical quality of his novels became a commonplace of criticism from shortly after his death, it has been less often grasped how extraordinarily creative and imaginative were his ‘documentaries’. Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Homage to Catalonia, as well as essays like ‘A Hanging’, ‘Shooting an Elephant’, and ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, his essay on prep school, raise similar problems — indeed the latter is the most puzzling of all his works to locate accurately between fiction and non-fiction. Each of his documentaries is on a different footing and will be looked at separately. Do we think of documentaries as necessarily conveying the literal truth about the ‘I’ who pretends to be what the author must know he never can be, ‘a camera’? Should we rather not try to gain some critical distance from the documentary technique by exploring the author’s intentions biographically as well as by examining the literary result. (Otherwise, we may, like that humble sea-captain, write to the author demanding to be shown where Lilliput is upon the map. Did Orwell witness a hanging and shoot an elephant?) Intentions and results are not always the same. I will seek to show, for instance, that there is little reasonable doubt what effects he intended to achieve in both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four about which, for works written in such clear and simple English, interpretations have varied so greatly.

‘Though he invented nothing, he altered everything,’ was George Painter’s conclusion about the relationship of A la Recherche du temps perdu to Proust’s own life. Reading this remark crystallized my feelings that a biography of Orwell was needed, despite the seeming straightforwardness of his own autobiographical passages and the chronological progression of the four volumes of The Collected Essays, journalism and Letters, precisely in order to understand his literary achievement better. For Orwell had said in The Road to Wigan Pier of his earlier Down and Out in Paris and London that ‘Nearly all the incidents described there actually happened, but they have been rearranged’. I cannot entirely agree with Sonia Orwell when she said in her influential Introduction to The Collected Essays that all his novels except Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘contain Straight descriptions of himself or that ‘a whole chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier suddenly turns into straight autobiography’ (my italics). Some critics, particularly when commenting on ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ have not distinguished between the rare autobiographical ‘I’ and the more common storyteller’s ‘I’. (‘Were you really present when all those events occurred at Simla, Mr Kipling? "Plain Tales" indeed!’) To question the literal truth or straight forwardness of some of his writings is not to question his honesty and his integrity, but is rather to notice how his skill as a writer and his persona as a public figure have made some of us willing to accept his partly imagined worlds as literally true. It is easy to underestimate the literary achievement of his ‘documentaries’(3) and to confuse his straightforwardness as a person (the first and last impression he made on so many people) with the seeming-simplicity of his major writings.

One of his oldest friends fell into this trap. The late Sir Richard Rees, his first literary executor, wrote to Sonia Orwell (28 January 1950) advising against publication of ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’: is such a bad piece of writing, far below G’s standard. If one knows, as I do, that he was already past his best when he wrote it, one does not allow it to shake one’s confidence in his ability as a reporter of his own experiences. But if one did not know that, one might well wonder after reading it whether what he reports in Down and Out in Paris and London and Wigan Pier, and Catalonia, should be taken seriously.

If he had not dismissed it as a bad piece of writing and made a questionable assumption about when it was written, he might have been led to wonder whether he was right simply to praise his friend for ‘ability as a reporter of his own experiences’. Not all reporters write so well and raise moral issues. On Rees’ line of reasoning. Down and Out would have been a greater work of art but Orwell a worse man if it could be proved that he had never been to Paris. Orwell’s documentaries were all far more subtle and difficult to allocate between the Fiction and the Non-Fiction shelves than Rees appreciated. Rees had his friend somewhat patronizingly typecast, a kind of Douanier Rousseau of English Letters.

The problem of genre and truth is important in reading ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ as evidence of what happened at his prep school and of how he reacted to it at the time. The problem is even more acute because some have read into the essay a direct relationship with Nineteen Eighty-Four, have reduced the novel to a self-dramatization of trauma at his prep school, strengthening this case by assuming, from the chronological position in which it is printed in The Collected Essays, that he wrote the essay immediately before the fatal writing of his last great book. If this were so, the end is indeed in the beginning and an orderly chronological narrative becomes impossible. Nineteen Eighty-Four is then evidence on the character of his formative years and St Cyprian’s is the key to understanding the government and psychology of Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four. This thesis lies like a booby-trapped road-block across any progress towards a sensible understanding of Orwell’s life and achievement, so I have to devote virtually the whole of a chapter to clearing up these confusions. A short preliminary chapter draws attention to the ambivalence of his memories of childhood. I have learned in these researches to have a great scepticism about the accuracy of memory, about both states of mind and facts, unless supported by some external evidence.

To move from the achievements to the man is also to remember that the man expressed a wish in his will that a biography should not be written. Such a wish is bound to be forlorn, as the executors of Hardy and Kipling found. Attempts to enforce such wishes only lead to biographies being written without proper access to sources. Why did he make such a wish, however? Perhaps he simply disliked those sensation-mongering kinds of biography of which he had read and reviewed so many. But he once wrote to John Atkins, his predecessor as Literary Editor of Tribune, that he thought that a truthful biography was impossible ‘because every life viewed from the inside would be a series of defeats too humiliating and disgraceful to contemplate’. This suggests that he thought of biography as trying to view ‘from the inside’, as primarily concerned with Samuel Johnson’s ‘domestic privacies’. These ‘privacies’ were once noble and pathetic, advantages or obstacles to be overcome on the road to authorship and fame; since Lytton Strachey they have become the exposure of personal inadequacies, warping or shaping future writing. But whichever mode of privacies was to be pursued, the ancient or the modem, or to put it crudely (and precisely) in Orwell-like terms, whether an official life or a hatchet job, his objection would be the same: its irrelevance to what he valued, his writings, not himself. He had no great secrets to hide, he simply valued his privacy and despised irrelevant effort. At times he almost literally cared for his writing more than his life, certainly more than his comfort and physical well-being. He was both a brave man and one who drove himself hard, for the sake, first, of ‘writing’ and then more and more for an integrated sense of what he had to write.

He might, of course, have withdrawn his objection had he known that with the passage of time some of his writings could be badly misunderstood because of mistaken beliefs about the nature of his life. And he might have objected less to a way of writing biography that looks at the writer’s position as a public figure: ‘in France a far more classical, mandarin, Eliotesque idea has prevailed, emphasizing... the clericatwe of the writer’, as lan Willison has put it: ‘This implies an indifference to domestic privacies in themselves on the part not only of the author but of the serious reader as well.’(4) Orwell with his vivid attacks on ‘intellectuals’, but with his high-minded view of the political and moral responsibilities of men of letters, deserves to be treated in this manner rather than in the Johnsonian. But the disjunction between English and French biography is one of emphasis, tempered by fact, not a total separation. If the domestic privacies are relevant to understanding the writings or the public role of an author, then they must be fully treated and not ignored; but if they are not relevant, they need not be examined and therefore, for the sake of clarity and economy, should not be examined. In fact I explore domestic privacies a great deal, but only because of the kind of writer that Orwell was: not simply a novelist, but an essayist and a journalist who dealt with private morals in an autobiographical vein quite as much as he dealt with public issues. Mild disparities between personal conduct and public preachment are sometimes revealed, but not of a kind that should discredit a man — unless foolish claims are made to saintliness or to total honesty and openness on all occasions. It is always easy simply to drop the preachments and to lead a life of full and empty acquisitive zeal and material comfort. Prying into his ‘domestic privacies’, discovering the full measure of the pain and difficulties that he underwent, have heightened my initial respect for the man as well as for, above all else, the writer.

Orwell was unusually reticent to his friends about his background and his life, his openness was all in print for literary or moral effect; he tried to keep his small circles of good friends well apart — people are still surprised to learn who else at the time he knew; he did not confide in people easily, nor talk about his emotions — even to women with whom he was close; he was not fully integrated as a person, not quite comfortable within his own skin, until late in his life — and he was many-faceted, not a simple man at all. So for all these reasons the famous honest and straightforward man, George Woodcock’s ‘crystal spirit’, appears as enigmatic, and has positively challenged and provoked his contemporaries to attempt, both in his own brief years of fame and in some remarkable obituaries and posthumous essays, to characterize him. There has been astonishing agreement either that the man was more interesting than much of his work or else that the work could only be understood by accurately characterizing the man. There are many such characterizations, nearly all beautifully written, but they differ significantly.

What I have come to believe through this work is simply this: that one can say less that is meaningful about the real character of the man than is usually assumed in the English biographical tradition and yet more that is true about the kind of life he led than is often supposed. The labour of writing a biography, like the education of a child, involves a prolonged and strange mixture of love and critical distance, of commitment and restraint.


1) A. W. Wright names Orwell in this company in his recent G. D. H. Colt and Socialist Democracy (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1979), p. 263. [back]

2) Two of Orwell’s friends have understood and written well about the precise quality of his political writing as political sensibility: George Woodcock in The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell (London, 1967) reprinted by Minerva Press, New York; and Julian Symons, ‘Orwell, a Reminiscence’, London Magazine, September 1963, pp. 35-49, and ‘An Appreciation’, being a postscript to the Heron Books (London, 1970) edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, pp. 317-45. [back]

3) No one has written a scholarly study of the documentary as a fashionable genre between the two wars, its conventions about fact and fiction and its links both with social research and the realistic novel. [back]

4) I am grateful to lan Willison for showing me his ‘Authors and their Publishing Histories: the Case of George Orwell’, to appear in a forthcoming number of Publishing History. I take from him the point about Johnson and the contrasting French tradition. [back]



What kind of childhood did he think he had? In the brief days of his fame and towards what proved to be the end of his life, George Orwell grew a little less cagey and more mellow about the past than hitherto. The last book review that he wrote in 1948 for the Adelphi, which had published his first book review of 1930, was of the third volume of Sir Osbert Sitwell’s autobiography. As unpredictable as a good essayist should be, he praised this account of aristocratic life. Sitwell ‘has never pretended to be other than he is,’ unlike, as Orwell’s regular readers would now almost expect him to say, ‘a whole literary generation... pretending to be proletarians’.

There is now a widespread idea that nostalgic feelings about the past are inherently vicious. One ought apparently to live in a continuous present, a minute-to-minute cancellation of memory, and if one thinks of the past at all it should merely be in order to thank God that we are so much better than we used to be. This seems to me a sort of intellectual face-lifting, the motive behind which is a snobbish terror of growing old. One ought to realize that a human being cannot continue developing indefinitely, and that a writer in particular is throwing away his heritage if he repudiates the experience of his early life. In many ways it is a grave handicap to remember that lost paradise ‘before the War’ — that is, before the other war. In other ways it is an advantage... One is likelier to make a good book by sticking to one’s early-acquired vision than by a futile effort to ‘keep up’. The great thing is to be your age, which includes being honest about your social origins.[1]

In the same year Orwell, writing from his bed in Hairmyres Hospital, East Kilbride, to his friend Julian Symons, reflected on children and childhood with a kind of cheerful gloominess, very much the mark of the man:

They’re awful fun in spite of the nuisance, and as they develop one has one’s own childhood over again. I suppose one thing one has to guard against is imposing one’s own childhood on the child, but I do think it relatively easy to give a child a decent time nowadays and allow it to escape the quite unnecessary torments that I for instance went through. I’m not sure either that one ought to trouble too much about bringing a child into a world of atomic bombs, because those born now will never have known anything except wars, rationing, etc. and can probably be quite happy against that background if they’ve had a good psychological start.[2]

Many times George Orwell referred to the torments of his childhood. Most people writing about him have accepted that he had a uniformly unhappy childhood, and some have built upon it. The posthumously published account of his prep school days, ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, is so unhappy and so horrific a picture of institutional despotism that some have seen it, rather than the political events in Europe of the 1930s and 1940s, as the origins of Nineteen Eighty-Four.[3] Notice, however, that Orwell in the letter to Julian Symons uses the plural, ‘quite unnecessary torments’, as if to stress different events and incidents, whereas use of the singular would have implied a general process or a permanent condition, whether physical or psychological.

One close childhood friend actually called him ‘a specially happy child’, and chides the mature artist for retouching, indeed distorting, his own childhood to give depth to his later, as she sees them, morbid political preoccupations.[4] ‘Specially happy’ is a large and dubious claim, except perhaps for the vacations from prep school. Yet experience is not always all of one piece, particularly for children who have little control over their immediate environment; and nor is behaviour. In some situations a child is happy, in others regularly unhappy; and it is a commonplace that he or she ‘behaves quite differently here than at home’. Other things that Orwell wrote about his childhood carry connotations explicitly more mixed, torment and happiness, shame and nostalgia.

Odd things triggered his memory. ‘The other night a barmaid informed me that to dip your moustache into your beer... turns it Hat,’ which led the Literary Editor of Tribune in 1944 to tell his readers that he had a notebook with a long list of fallacies that were taught to him in childhood as if they were scientific fact. He gave them a few examples. Here is the full list, for he did have such a notebook.[5]

That you will be struck dead if you go into church with your hat on.

That you can be had up for putting a stamp on a letter upside down.

That if you make a face and the wind changes, you will be stuck like that.

That if you wash your hands in the water that eggs have been boiled in, you will get warts.

That there is a reward of £50 for spending a night in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s.

That bats get into women’s hair, after which the women’s heads have to be shaved.

That if you cut yourself between the thumb and forefinger, you get lockjaw.

That powdered glass is poisonous.

That bulls are enraged at the sight of red.

That swans can break your leg with a blow of a wing.

That if you tell a lie, you get a spot on your tongue.

That people who have a touch of the tarbrush can be detected by their finger-nails.

That orientals are not subject to sunstroke.

That dogs are good judges of character.

That all toadstools are poisonous.

That pigs cannot swim because if they do they cut their throats with their trotters.

Thus in a traditional country like England even the middle classes have their folklore: most of these will be familiar to English readers. But even if all such recall is induced memory tainted by later events, the picture of childhood he evoked by his list has humour and pleasure in it as well as pain; or at least — another Orwellian trademark — the bizarre and the ordinary intermingle as he looked at his own country as if he were a traveller from afar. Also he had an acute sense both of how fragmentary is an adult’s recall of childhood and of how fragmented are the perceptions of a child.

In the same notebook of 1943 or 1944 (which also contained an early outline of Nineteen Eighty-Four) he began some notes about the fragmented nature of children’s sexual beliefs. It is unclear whether they are notes towards a story or whether they are simply autobiographical, but the theme, while mainly condemnatory, also carries notes of sad comedy and willing nostalgia.

Very early in life they believed that the doctor brought the baby with him in his black bag, but at 8 or 9 (or perhaps somewhat later) they had learned that it had something to do with the man’s and the woman’s sexual organs. They nevertheless had to rediscover this knowledge after having more or less possessed it and then passed through a period of ignorance. Thus at the age of six, B. had played with the plumber’s children up the road, until his mother found out and stopped him, and their play was largely sexual. They played at ‘doctors’, and also at ‘mothers and fathers’ (coming from a more crowded home the plumber’s children were more precocious in this) and both boys and girls inspected each other’s sexual organs with great interest. Yet at about 9 years of age B. seemed to have forgotten all about this and had to have it explained to him by a schoolfellow of the same age. The schoolfellow’s explanation was: ‘You know those two balls you have — well, you know. Well, somehow one of them gets up into the woman’s body, and then it grows into a baby.’ This remained the sum of B.’s knowledge for several years. The whole subject made him feel so sick that he disliked thinking about it. In order to be a daredevil and impress younger boys, he used the two words ‘bugger’ and ‘fuck’, but attached no concrete meaning to them. But at about 13 he thought more frequently about sexual intercourse, chiefly because of the constant references to it in classical literature and the Bible, but it still disgusted him. As his practical knowledge of the subject was derived from rabbits, he believed up to the age of 15, or nearly 16, that human beings do it in the same attitude as animals. At 15 he suddenly discovered that sex was attractive after all, and began masturbating; but he had no lifelike image of sexual intercourse for a year or more after this. Till the age of 16 he continued to believe that babies were born through the navel, and he only learned of menstruation at the age of 18. For several years after beginning to masturbate, he believed that this would lead to insanity, but this did nothing towards curing him of the habit.

Such ignorance and repression were, indeed, typical of an Edwardian child. Yet the interpretation, the boy feeling so sick that he disliked thinking about it, is the reflection not merely of a grown man but of a writer possibly beginning in his notebooks to shape a character, largely or partly autobiographical. To argue from this kind of evidence that there was a ‘hidden wound’[6] which later damaged him is both to assume that there was damage — the reader will have to judge — that calls for such an explanation, and to underestimate how much a writer can re-imagine and re-interpret his past in order to establish the right mood for his next major piece of writing. How terrible was the mental damage caused to many by Victorian and Edwardian sexual repression and hypocrisy, but also how heartening that so many grew out of it relatively unscathed. (We must neither judge by ideal standards nor make psychological bricks from wisps of biographical straw.)

A few years later he again remembered ‘the plumber’s daughter’ in some fragments of an unfinished poem in the same ‘hospital notebook’ that he used in 1948 to make some final notes towards the revision of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

’Twas on a Tuesday morning
When the pants hung on the line,
The month was April or it might be May
And the year was nineteen-nine.

We played the games that all have played,
Though most remember not,
And the plumber’s daughter, who might be seven,
She showed me all she’d got...

Round as a pudding was my face
That now is lean/worn and sad

How long did that idyll last?
Not even as long as spring
I think the May was still in bloom
When I did the deathly thing.

I met those children on the road

But I said it, yes, I said it,
‘I mustn’t play with you any more,
My mother says you’re common.’

still as uncommon
As any in the land;
As solid as Gibraltar Rock
My aitches still do stand

But since that day I have never loved
Save those who loved me not

Now what is the moral of this tale?

I would swing the great wheel back
On my finger has not The enemy in the
Nor faltered on the trigger looking glass
But let it be written
The world’s decline
The skies were bluer and seas were greener
The stickleback had a rosier breast
A bluer egg than now a sharper joy
When good King Edward ruled the land
And I was a chubby boy.

A sick and solitary man amuses himself by recalling his childhood and, despite the obvious irony of sky, stickleback and egg all being brighter, this is far from gloomy memory. There is no hint of sexual shame even, for it is quite clear that the ‘deathly thing’ is not his sexual encounter with, but his social rejection of the plumber’s daughter: ‘My mother says you’re common.’ Otherwise they simply ‘played the games that all have played/Though most remember not.’ He was, indeed, a revolutionary in love with the Edwardian era. Certainly the verses refer to a time before he went to prep school as recounted in ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’; but both accounts come from a mature man and are different perspectives on his own childhood. Who can say which was his dominant view, still less which was true? But it is likely that both happiness and misery were present.

This prelude on memory is only a warning that we all resurrect and reinterpret our past according to our present perspectives; Orwell is no exception. Memory unsupported by documentation is not to be trusted, though it has to be used when other evidence is lacking, but carefully and critically.

____ § ____

Eric Arthur Blair[7] was born at Motihari in Bengal on 25 June 1903, five years after his sister Marjorie, who was born at Tehta in Bihar. His father, Richard Walmesley Blair, was in the Opium Department of the Government of India. The opium trade with China had been legalized as a government monopoly from 1860. Richard had joined it at the age of 18 and The History of Services of Gazetted and other Officers Serving under the Government of Bengal showed in the bare lists of its subservient second volume, ‘Medical, Police, Educational and Miscellaneous Departments’ (The ‘also rans’), that the poor gentleman had been on the move nearly every year from post to post from when he joined the Service in 1875, first as Assistant Sub-Deputy Opium Agent, then as Sub-Deputy Opium Agent, until he retired at the age of 55. For nearly twenty years he moved posts annually, and they were not good postings. Once he did six years at Tehta in the 1890s, but the only other long spell in one place was at Monghyr, a posting that lasted from a year after his son’s birth until his retirement.

Life had not dealt Richard Blair, as he might have put it, particularly good cards. His great-grandfather Charles Blair (1743-1820) had been a rich man, an owner of plantations and slaves in Jamaica, who had married into the aristocracy; but his fortune had dwindled away by the time his tenth and last son was born. So Eric’s grandfather, though a godson and cousin of the Earl of Westmorland, was under the disagreeable obligation of having, as that last child, to earn his living. After one year only at Pembroke College, Cambridge, Eric Blair’s grandfather left for the Empire, being ordained a deacon in the Church of England in Calcutta in 1839 and a priest in Tasmania in 1843 — very much the period of Cobbett’s gibe that the Empire was a system of out-door relief for the indigent sons of the British aristocracy. There is a family tradition that he stopped off at the Cape on his way home to England on leave, got to know a family called Hare and actually became engaged to one of the older sisters. Returning from leave, he stopped off intending to marry the girl but found that she had already married someone else. ‘So he said,’ related Eric’s sister Avril, ‘“Oh well, if Emily’s married it doesn’t matter — I’ll have Fanny”, and Fanny at that time was 15.1 believe they played with dolls after her marriage.’

In 1854 Eric’s grandfather returned to England to become Vicar of Milborne St Andrew in Dorset, probably the last aristocratic patronage that his branch of the family was to enjoy. Thus his son Richard had to fend for himself from the age of 18. He chose ‘the Service’ — as the alien administration of the huge Indian sub-continent called itself — and not the Church, but without public school or university advantages (one of twelve children, he had been educated at home for economy), he could not get into a favoured or fashionable branch of the Service, nor did he rise particularly fast in the humble Opium Department, to judge by those postings and gradings. He retired on his pension with no family inheritance beyond some monogrammed silver and a few pieces of furniture.

Perhaps the best bit of luck that Richard Blair had was his marriage. He married in 1896, at the age of 39, Ida Mabel Limouzin who was 21. She had been born in Penge near London, then a semi-rural, new residential suburb (as painted by Camille Pissarro). Her mother was English and her father French, and she had lived most other life until marriage in Moulmein, Burma, where her father kept up a business, founded by his father, as teak merchant and boat-builder, but later lost much of his money speculating in rice. Her mother, a woman of strong character and considerable intelligence, was still very much alive when her grandson, Eric Blair, went to Burma in 1922. Ida Blair, eighteen years younger than her husband, was a more lively, unconventional, widely read and in every way a more interesting person (all her grandchildren agree). Why did they marry? The evidence is lacking; no papers or letters of either of them survive relating to that period. The opportunities for marriage were very limited in the small British communities in the minor postings, or were somewhat now-or-never, frantic and hasty affairs (by home standards) in the summer hill stations. The situation and views of ‘Mrs Lakersteen’ and her daughter in Orwell’s Burmese Days may reflect something of his mother’s situation, perhaps even of two contrary poles in her character: the vaguely artistic, as in Mrs Lakersteen, trying to lead a Bohemian life in Paris; and the resignedly conventional, as in Elizabeth herself, hating poverty, her mother’s fads, set on marriage, respectability and security.

Ida Limouzin was a realist who could make light of, even be merry in, difficult circumstances. Incompatibilities of age and temperament were taken for granted in those days as part of the institution of holy matrimony. Eric’s parents can hardly have been actively happy together but if it had been asked of either of them in the language of the day, ‘Were they happily married?’, the genuine answer would have been ‘Yes’. He was plainly a tolerant and easy-going man, no martinet or domestic tyrant to crush a young girl’s spirit. A woman could have done far worse. Perhaps he did not approve of all her opinions, but then in the tradition of the Opium Department itself he would have extended to her the kind of official tolerance for indigenous deviations which he exercised in his administrative capacity — within, of course, the well-known institutional limits of matrimonial propriety and power.

Ida Blair took their two young children back to England, as was then quite common, some time in 1904.[*] They settled temporarily in a house called Ermadale in Vicarage Road, Henley-on-Thames, in Oxfordshire, leaving it in April 1905 for another, slightly larger, rented home, The Nutshell, Western Road. Richard Blair did not see them again until 1907, when he was given three months’ leave on his final promotion from Sub-Deputy Opium Agent, second grade, to Sub-Deputy Opium Agent, first grade. Avril was conceived at this time. He returned to Monghyr before she was born and did not rejoin his family until his retirement, four years later. This arrangement would not have been thought of as anything extraordinary. Nearly all the ‘Anglo-Indians’ (the British in India) saw the advantages of bringing up even younger children in England despite, it was a commonplace to note, the inevitable fall in the standard of living and of services, the perennial servant problem. From now on Ida Blair kept house with a non-resident daily, neither a cook nor a parlour-maid even, thus doing much of the work herself, an arrangement that she perhaps thought a fair price to pay for the greater liberty of being ‘home’ (if nowhere in particular) at last. Such years of separation enabled Ida to prepare a good home for her husband’s eventual retirement. Perhaps there were also specific worries about Eric’s health that kept Mrs Blair in England.

No letters or papers of his mother’s survive from Eric’s early childhood, except her diary for 1905 when he was 2 years old.[8] The entries consist of five- or six-word notes, ten or a dozen at most, on what she did each day; though often there are none. It throws some light, none the less, on her character and on Eric’s health. She seems to have had a lot of visitors, both French and English relatives including her sister Nellie and her brother Charles, and new friends; and she went off on small visits frequently. She walked, played bridge and tennis, and took up photography and developed her own plates.

Monday, 6 February: Baby not at all well, so I sent for the doctor who said that he had bronchitis...

Thursday, 9 February: Baby improving every day now.

Saturday, 11 February: Baby much better. Calling things ‘beastly’.

Who, one may well ask, had been calling things ‘beastly’ so that a not-quite 2-year-old repeats it? Admittedly the weather was bad.

Sunday, 26 February: Horrid day, didn’t go out at all.

And only on 6 March, ‘Baby went out for the first time today for more than a month.’ In June Baby Eric was Hexing his muscles, for his latest ‘feat’ was to climb into the garden from the drawing-room window. And his mother went off visiting friends, to play a round of bridge and tennis in Tunbridge Wells, but also ‘went to tea with Mrs Cruikshank at the prison’ at Winchester. Was she just playing the tourist, or possibly visiting a Suffragette friend other sister Nellie, who was active in the movement? Ida was no more than a sympathizer. In London she watched Wimbledon tennis, also heard a lecture by the Lord Chief Justice at the Mansion House, saw Sarah Bernhardt (‘“Angels”, simply splendid’), and went to ‘Paddington Baths’ (Porchester Hall, presumably) with her sister Nellie. But on 29 July ‘got a wire from Kate saying Baby was ill, got the wire at 8.30, while bathing and I was in the train at 9.10.’ All was well, but there was an undercurrent of nervousness about Baby’s health throughout. In August, at Frinton-on-Sea, he paddled for the first time and enjoyed it, but became ill and was taken to the doctor immediately on returning home. And again in November.

So worries about Eric Blair’s chest condition, which was to harry him all his days, began early. His mother appears to have been, in the very nicest sense, a bit of a gadabout. The diary gives the impression of a woman who could be very protective towards her children, but not ever present, perhaps over-compensating when at home. Certainly at that time, when Richard Blair must have been sending back much of his pay, they were not hard up, even if they were not well off. Orwell’s own monody in The Road to Wigan Pier on the horrors of genteel poverty will need to be taken with a pinch of salt. It cannot be accepted as primary evidence about his childhood feelings, only as evidence of how the writer could skilfully shape his memories for literary and polemical effect.

He claimed no memories whatever, of course, of life in India. The earliest memory he recalled or admitted to is in his essay ‘Why I Write’ of 1946:

I wrote my first poem at the age of four or five, my mother taking it down to dictation. I cannot remember anything about it except that it was about a tiger and the tiger had ‘chair-like teeth’ — a good enough phrase, but I fancy the poem was a plagiarism of Blake's ‘Tiger, Tiger’.[9]

A good mother for a writer, indeed, to take dictation and to read William Blake to a child so early; but, of course, that is the kind of first memory one would have in writing such an essay. The essay went on, however, to take a more general view of his formative influences:

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my school-days. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feelings of being isolated and undervalued.

(The name of his ‘familiar’, his sister Avril remembered, was ‘Fronky’, and she was often told what he had said to Eric.) His next sentence, however, is much more obviously coloured by his experiences in the late 1920s and early 1930s: ‘I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.’ Whatever sense of failure, rather than simply of inadequacy, that he may have had as a small boy, was a very different thing from the acute sense of failure of the unsuccessful writer of the 1930s.

At the age of 5 he was sent, like his sister Marjorie before and sister Avril after him, to a small Anglican convent school in Henley. He never referred to it, but he must have done very well for them to recommend him for a scholarship to a crack prep school. Avril was taught to read and write by a Marjorie Dakin whose brother Humphrey was later to marry Marjorie Blair. The Dakins and the Blairs remained close to each other.

A few odd memories of early childhood appear incidentally in George Orwell’s essays. ‘The earliest song I can remember, which must have been in 1907 or 1908, was “Rhoda Had a Pagoda”. It was an inconceivably silly song, but it was certainly popular.’[10] Also he remembered searching in a cupboard at about that rime and finding a bustle; they had to tell him what it was, since it was already antique.[11] And at 6, there was ‘the plumber’s daughter’, already lightly touched upon, recalled so fully in her erotic glory in his unpublished notebooks, but also more guardedly in ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ and in the autobiographical chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier where he relates that he was separated from her by his mother because she was ‘common’. Again this is a selective use of memory. In his notebooks he admits both charges, the sexual and the social — for the context seems to be that of making notes towards future novels; but in The Road to Wigan Pier the context is severely political, so only the social charge is mentioned. The account in ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ is subtly different yet again.

At this time I was in an almost sexless state, which is normal, or at any rate common, in boys of that age; I was therefore in the position of simultaneously knowing and not knowing what used to be called the Facts of Life. At five or six, like many children I had passed through a phase of sexuality. My friends were the plumber’s children up the road, and we used sometimes to play games of a vaguely erotic kind. One was called ‘playing at doctors’, and I remember getting a faint but definitely pleasant thrill from holding a toy trumpet, which was supposed to be a stethoscope, against a little girl’s belly. About the same time I fell deeply in love, a far more worshipping kind of love than I have ever felt for anyone since, with a girl named Elsie at the convent school which I attended. She seemed to me grown up, so I suppose she must have been fifteen. After that, as so often happens, all sexual feelings seemed to go out of me for many years.[12]

But if the advertisement for ‘Sunnylands’ in the local newspaper is to be relied upon, the Anglican nuns only took children from ‘five to eleven years old’. Children are not very good at estimating ages. She may have been more of the age of the village girl paid a few pence to take Eric for walks on holidays or weekend afternoons. On the other hand, the novelist George Orwell became adept, he thought, at disguising his use of real people by slight shifts of age, name or locale (as the minimum necessary for decency’s sake).

Another little-known autobiographical fragment also refers to himself at 6 years old and again shows the pointed use he made of memory. In a review of Arturo Barea’s The Forge, he wrote:

When I read that last phrase, ‘the civil guards never attack the gentry’, there came back to me a memory which is perhaps out of place in a review, but which illustrates the difference of social atmosphere in a country like England and a country like Spain. I am 6 years old, and I am walking along a street in our little town with my mother and a wealthy local brewer, who is also a magistrate. The tarred fence is covered with chalk drawings, some of which I have made myself. The magistrate stops, points disapprovingly with his stick and says, ‘We are going to catch the boys who draw on these walls, and we are going to order them Six Strokes of the Birch Rod.’ (It was all in capitals in my mind.) My knees knock together, my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth, and at the earliest possible moment I sneak away to spread the dreadful intelligence. In a little while, all the way down the fence, there is a long line of terror-stricken children, all spitting on their handkerchiefs and trying to rub out the drawings. But the interesting thing is that not till many years later, perhaps 20 years, did it occur to me that my fears had been groundless. No magistrate would have condemned me to Six Strokes of the Birch Rod, even if I had been caught drawing on the wall. Such punishment was reserved for the Lower Orders. The Civil Guards charge, but they never attack the gentry.[13]

The ‘long line of terror-stricken children’ sounds like stretching a good tale too far. But there was indeed a brewer, called Simmons, who was a magistrate and also a friend of his mother’s; Ida Blair’s diary has his girls coming to tea and Avril remembered them too. Such a tale was not likely to be pure invention and had probably been told or retold to him by his mother, before his subsequent national and class-comparative literary embellishments.

In The Road to Wigan Pier (which was his road) he gave an account of the class prejudices instilled into a middle-class child: that the working classes were stupid, coarse, crude, violent and ‘... it is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood. The words were: The lower classes smell.’ His account of the special peculiarity of the ‘lower-upper-middle’ class rings true:

People in this class owned no land, but they felt that they were landowners in the sight of God and kept up a semi-aristocratic outlook by going into the professions and the fighting services rather than into trade... Theoretically you knew all about servants and how to tip them, although in practice you had one, or at most two, resident servants. Theoretically, you knew how to wear your clothes and how to order a dinner, although in practice you could never afford to go to a decent tailor or a decent restaurant. Theoretically, you knew how to shoot and ride, although in practice you had no horses to ride and not an inch of ground to shoot over.[14]

However, while it may have been sociologically true for him to say ‘In the kind of shabby-genteel family that I am talking about there is far more consciousness of poverty than in any working-class family above the level of the dole’, yet ‘shabby-genteel’ was not an accurate description of his own home in the 1910s and 1920s with his father on a pension of £438 10s per annum. And the famous ‘a shabby-genteel family is in much the same position as a family of “poor whites” living in a street where everyone else is a negro’[15] would be ludicrous if he were talking about the Blairs. His identification with the shabby-genteel was an imaginative device by the writer of a documentary, those years later, intended to convince working-class readers that he too could feel, equally authentically, class-consciousness, indeed could perceive through it the grim comedy of false-consciousness. Not to be rich enough to be a landowner or to adopt an aristocratic way of life was not to imply a necessary shabby-gentility (unless everything else was shabby by way of contrast and relative deprivation): the Blairs were comfortably in the middle. Mrs Blair did not seem to mind, but perhaps Mr Blair had lingering aristocratic pretensions noticeable by his son.

Eric’s basic memories were real and intense but the use he made of them should not deter us from taking a commonsensical view of what his early childhood, while still going to the local school, was probably like. Generally it was more ordinary and pleasant than he would later allow. In 1940 he reported that the earliest political slogan he could remember was ‘We want eight and we won’t wait’ (eight Dreadnoughts) and that at ‘seven years old I was a member of the Navy League and wore a sailor suit with “HMS. Invincible” on my cap.’[16] Being a ‘member’ may have meant no more than putting pennies in a collection-tin and wearing a flag; and middle-class children wore sailor suits simply as a convenient and hard-wearing fashion. Some connections with a pride about sea power, certainly; but to associate every child who ever wore a sailor suit with the Navy League may only be what was called in those times ‘artistic licence’.

We know also that he was greatly fond of animals and that dogs, cats, rabbits and guinea pigs abounded. Wherever he settled in later life small menageries appeared, though rationalized, as it were, by utilitarian function. The 1905 diary makes clear, by the social comings and goings for teas, walks and parties of his then 7-year-old sister Marjorie, that he would not have lacked for human company either when he reached her age, even if he was, as some evidence suggests, of a shy and solitary disposition long before going to prep school. The Blairs were a family for outings. If his mother dashed off for short visits, the daily help, his mother’s relatives or friends, his older sister, or a local girl, would take him out for walks, rough walks, veritable expeditions of exploration through woods or down the riverbank. When his mother returned, she would arrange more ambitious outings: everything by the season, blackberrying, hazelnut-gathering, picking wild fruits and flowers for wine-making and preserves; or boating on the River Thames. And at some epochal moment, the Dakin boys (whose father was the family doctor) began to take him fishing with them. They were older than him, but they did it for Marjorie’s sake: no Eric, no Marjorie. All his life he retained the boyish pleasure and skill of coarse fishing, and the symbolisms of fish and fishing were to surface in his novel Coming Up For Air. The nostalgia of George Bowling for a happy Edwardian childhood in the opening pages of Part II of Coming Up For Air can be seen as very much George Orwell’s own. ‘Lower Binfield’ is recognizably Henley. ‘If I shut my eyes and think of Lower Binfield any time before I was, say, eight, it’s always in summer weather that I remember it... Most sweets were four ounces a penny, and there was even some stuff called Paradise Mixture, mostly broken sweets from other bottles, which was six. There were Farthing Everlastings, which were a yard long and couldn’t be finished inside half an hour. Sugar mice and sugar pigs were eight a penny... A whole lot of the kinds of sweets we had in those days have gone out.’[17] And, thinking of sugar and spice and all things nice, could ‘Katie’ in the same book, whom ‘when we were very small mother used to pay... eighteen pence a week to take us out for walks in the afternoon’ have been ‘Elsie’ of the convent school with whom ‘I fell deeply in love’? He calls her ‘Katie Simmons’ in the book, saying indeed that her father worked at a brewery. The name of the real owner of the brewery in Henley in the igoos had been Simmons — whose close friendship with their mother, Avril hinted much later, neither she nor Eric liked. Some infant intuition or jealousy? Orwell’s memory of Lower Binfield/Henley before the age of 8 ‘always in summer weather’ was almost as much a symbol of the good society or ‘the golden country’ as was that one day that Rousseau tells us of in his Confessions (the only perfect day) when he picked apples in complete contentment and innocence with two young girls.

Orwell attributed his feelings of being lonely and out of it, despite all the other children and the outings, because of the five-year gaps between himself and the other two children, to being ‘the middle child’. Five years is a big gap, indeed, between children, especially an older boy and a younger sister; even though an older sister tends to cross the gap by playing Mother vigorously, sometimes whether the young boy wants it or not. Marjorie seems to have done no more but no less than was usual. Note that he spoke of ‘two children’ rather than (more precisely and concretely as became his style) ‘two girls’. He did grow up until 8 entirely among women, having seen his father only for three months when he was 4. He remained deeply fond, if very undemonstratively, of his mother and his two sisters all his life; but there may have been some ambivalence in his attitude. In appearance and manners he might seem a military or colonial gentleman-bachelor, but all his life he made friends more readily with women than with men; and the friendships were usually returned, although there is some lack ofpercepriveness in his treatment of women, both as novelist and person. There may have been a feeling of some smothering of the very boyish boy at home; and then a sense of betrayal when pitched out so young to the brutal male world of boarding school.

In the last year of his life he was to write an isolated passage in a notebook, which could be simple reminiscence or it could be drawing from memory towards some story shaping in his mind:

The conversations he overheard as a small boy, between his Mother, his aunt, his elder sister and their feminist friends. The way in which, without ever hearing any direct statement to that effect, and without having more than a very dim idea of the relationship between the sexes, he derived a firm impression that women did not like men, that they looked upon them as a sort of large, ugly, smelly and ridiculous animal, who maltreated women in every way, above all by forcing their attentions upon them. It was pressed deep into his consciousness, to remain there until he was about 20, that sexual intercourse gives pleasure only to the man, not to the woman. He knew that sexual intercourse has something to do with the man getting on top of the woman, and the picture of it in his mind was of a man pursuing a woman, forcing her down and jumping on top of her, as he had often seen a cock do to a hen. All this was derived, not from any remark having direct sexual reference — or what he recognized as a sexual reference — but from such overheard remarks as ‘It just shows what beasts men are.’ ‘My dear, I think she’s behaving like a perfect fool, the way she gives in to him.’ ‘Of course, she’s far too good for him.’ And the like. Somehow, by the mere tone of these conversations — the hatefulness — above all the physical unattractiveness — of men in women’s eyes seemed to be established. It was not till he was about 30 that it struck him that he had in fact been his mother’s favourite child. It had seemed natural to him that, as he was a boy, the two girls should be preferred.

The least this passage suggests is that some of his guilt feelings and complex about being an ugly and smelly child pre-date his experiences at prep school; and that there may have been some basic ambivalence towards his mother, feeling over-protected and smothered but also, as man child, unwanted.

Certainly one of his nieces saw something that may have been a little worrying, at least to a boy, in her grandmother Ida Blair, as well as something good. She talks of Ida in Southwold in the late 1920s but it is recognizably the same woman, half emancipated, half artistic, and the same kind of household as in Henley in the 1910s:

We [Blairs and Dakins] always feel rather up in arms about this image of Eric living his early life under ‘shabby genteel’ conditions. Shabby, perhaps, genteel, never.

My impressions of my Grandmother Blair’s house in Southwold are of an extremely comfortable, well-run establishment. Quite small but rather exotic. The furniture was mostly mahogany, perhaps second hand but everything blended. Rainbow silky curtains, masses of embroidered stools, bags, cushions, pin cushions done by my grandmother, interesting mahogany or ivory boxes full of sequins, beads, miniature tracts, wooden needle-cases, amber beads, cornelian and ivory, small boxes from India and Burma. Fascinating for children.

Most of the work of the house was done by my grandmother with the able assistance of Mrs May, a tiny Suffolk woman... Mrs May arrived after breakfast which my grandmother and Aunt Avril took in bed, one at the head, one at the foot. Earl Grey tea, toast and Patum Peperium. The dachshunds usually sat on the bed, which delighted and scandalized us... Mrs Blair was so very much younger than her husband, and was so very much more intelligent and on the spot, that she more or less discounted him, at any rate when he was at Southwold. They had separate rooms and separate interests but got along quite amiably. He was always considered at meals and his favourite foods, especially puddings, were provided. Otherwise he was rather out of things. He was a very sweet-tempered man but not a patch on Mrs B.

She usually referred to men as ‘those brutes’. ‘Do you know what those brutes have done?’ re dustmen, butchers, etc.

So that the children were rather self-reliant and undemonstrative emotionally, with a boarding-school term and a fairly reserved holiday. Of course I only knew Mrs B. as a grandmother and she may have been different as a young woman.[18]

There is little doubt from whom Baby Eric learned his first recorded word, ‘beastly’. ‘Those brutes’ is mainly a contemporary faqon de purler, yet there is some ground for thinking that in his early childhood he might have suffered some tension from being pulled two ways between the over-protecriveness of a conventional mother and the up-and-away over-practicality of the woman on her own who might have quite liked to have been almost a femme libre. Some balance seems wanting which may perhaps account both for his ambivalence towards his childhood and for his odd mixture of aloofness and gregariousness. Always we have to allow that, for the purposes of mature writing in adult life, he skilfully stressed and polarized idyllic or oppressive images as the subject matter demanded. His niece made another remark that fortifies the belief that social, not sexual, guilt, the desertion of ‘Elsie’, dominates the childhood reminiscences of his notebooks.

Class was a greater problem... I think a lot of Eric’s hang-ups came from the fact that he thought he ought to love all his fellow-men; and he couldn’t even talk to them easily. My father was the same sort of age and background and he could never speak of anyone without first placing them classwise...[19]


1. CE IV, pp. 445-6.[back]

2. CE IV, p. 415.[back]

3. The locus classicus of this argument is in a review by Anthony West of the first American edition of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying in 1954, reprinted in his essays Principles and Persuasions (Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1958), pp. 157-9: ‘In Nineteen Eighty-Four... the whole pattern of society shapes up along the lines of fear laid down in ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ until the final point of the dread summons to the headmaster’s study for the inevitable beating. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the study becomes Room 101... As these parallels fall into place... it is possible to see how Orwell’s unconscious mind was working. Whether he knew it or not, what he did in Nineteen Eighty-Four was to send everybody in England to an enormous Crossgates [St Cyprian’s] to be as miserable as he had been... Only the existence of a hidden wound can account for such a remorseless pessimism.’ The reader must judge for himself whether the pessimism was ‘remorseless’ and the result of a ‘hidden wound’; and whether claims to know how another’s unconscious mind is working are the ‘only’ possible explanation of such pessimism, compared, say, to the actual misery and devastation in the external world caused by Stalinism and Nazism and the Hiroshima bomb. West also assumes that the essay was written immediately prior to the book, but see Appendix B, ‘The Daring of...’ in my first edition.

Jeffrey Meyers, A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell (Thames and Hudson, London, 1975), follows West, see pp. 30, 46 and 144-54, in both his psychological reduction of Orwell’s argument and his acceptance of the assumed date. T. R. Fyvel, who knew Orwell quite well, had more tentatively suggested links between some aspects of Nineteen Eighty-Four and both Orwell’s illness and his childhood experiences, in his inHuential ‘A Writer’s Life’, World Review, June 1950, pp. 7-20.[back]

4. Jacintha Buddicom talking to the author at Bognor Regis, June 1972. See also her ‘The Young Eric’, in Miriam Gross (ed.). The World of George Orwell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1971) and her far fuller account Eric and Us (Leslie Frewin, London, 1974).[back]

5. ‘As I Please’, 28 Jan. 1944, CE III, p. 85.[back]

6. Anthony West, op. cit., p. 159.[back]

7. The family history is taken from family papers in the Orwell Archive, interviews with Avril Dunn, Orwell’s sister, 21 Aug. 1972, 15 April 1974, 6-7 Sept. 1976, and from Ian Angus’ notes on conversations with her and her husband, 16-19 April 1964.[back]

[*] Not in 1907, as both Peter Stansky and William Abrahams say in their The Unknown Orwell (Constable, 1972), p. 12, and Ian Angus in the Chronology to The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Secker & Warburg, 1968), Vol. I, p. 543. Jeffrey Meyers in The Reader's Guide to George Orwell (Thames & Hudson, 1975) goes on about the effect on Eric Blair of his nonexistent first four years in India, following T. R. Fyvel in his seminal essay, 'A Writer's World', World Review, June 1950. The evidence to the contrary is a diary of Ida Blair's for 1905 in the possession of a niece and the photograph of Eric at about three in an English suburban garden. They were all misled by Avril Blair, reminiscing confidently of a time before she was born.[back]

8. The original diary is in the possession of Mrs Jane Morgan (nee Dakin) of Jamaica, a niece of Orwell’s. Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]

9. CE I, p. 1.[back]

10. ‘Songs We Used to Sing’, Evening Standard, 19 Jan. 1946, p. 6.[back]

11. In a review of the film of H. G. Wells’ Kipps in Time and Tide, 17 May 1941. p. 402.[back]

12. CE IV, p. 352.[back]

13. Horizon, Sept. 1941, p. 216.[back]

14. The Road to Wigan Pier, pp. 129 and 125.[back]

15. ibid., p. 127.[back]

16. ‘My Country Right or Left’, CE I, p. 538.[back]

17. Coming Up For Air, p. 40.[back]

18. Letters of 25 Sept. 1976 and 15 Jan. 1977 from Mrs Jane Morgan to the author.[back]

19. loc. cit.[back]



At no more than 8 years old the time came when every upper-upper-middle-class boy was sent away to school, even the sons of what Orwell called his own class, the ‘lower-upper-middle class’. He defined the ‘lower-upper’ as being the upper-middle class short of money, not really hard up, no discomfort, but not able from their own resources to play the full role expected of them by themselves and others, both from the education they received and the status (hey still enjoyed. Thus education was an investment as well as a mark of status. For colonial civil servants without either property or — in Richard Walmesley Blair’s case — family patronage, education was especially important, it was not just the ‘ladder of advancement’, it had to be climbed even to stay still in the same place. Entry to all the careers, the Church, the Army, and the Civil Service, and of course the professions, depended on having had ‘a good education’, to the end of school at 18, though at that time not necessarily university. It was ‘school’ that counted, and school was the private secondary institution from the ages of 13 or 14 to 18. To get boys into the ‘right school’ was the business of preparatory schools. Under the competitive pressure of the children of the growing professional classes, the so-called public schools had in the last decades of the nineteenth century raised their entrance standards appreciably, as if to bring status and achievement somewhat more into alignment. Even the sons of the landed aristocracy now commonly had to go through a prep school. So these preparatory schools were recent foundations; and even though they aped the ways of the more ancient foundations which they sought to supply, they were frankly utilitarian in character. They tried to be useful and their recruitment of fee-paying boys depended on their success (‘reputation’ was the customary word) in getting their little charges into ‘good schools’.

This led to them being eager to get some bright children as a leaven to the merely wealthy or the well-connected. Best that a child had all these attributes, of course, but the world was imperfect. A balance had to be struck. All their products would get somewhere if they could pay, for the supply of ancient and ancient-looking public school foundations was also increasing to meet the demand. The prep schools would attract ‘the better sort of pupil’ if they could get a few children a year into the ‘great schools’, among which Eton College and Harrow School stood at the top of the educational and social hierarchy. These figured prominently in the head master’s report in the school magazine, a document much scrutinized by parents and potential customers. Indeed, half-holidays would be given to the boys to celebrate scholarships to the great schools, so hundreds of letters home would spread the glad news widely and quickly.

Eric, strongly recommended by his local convent school, was taken on at half-fees by St Cyprian’s, one of the newest but most successful preparatory schools. He was to stay until he was 13. Mrs Blair must have made the application in the spring of 1911, interviewing and being interviewed by the head master and owner of the school, Mr Vaughan Wilkes, and the real power behind the throne, Mrs Wilkes. Could the Blairs have afforded it without the scholarship? Mr Blair was soon to retire and return home on a pension of £438 10s per year. Eric’s full fees would have been, £180. (By way of comparison, consider that in 1913-14 the average annual wage of a skilled manual worker was about £100, of a clerk about the same, of a manager about £200, and of the higher professions about £330.)[1] Marjorie and Avril were both sent away at a later stage, at the age of n, to a girls’ boarding school at Oxford, a decent enough place but by no means famous or front rank. So Eric’s scholarship of £90 per year must have turned ‘extraordinarily difficult’ into ‘just possible’ and may have made the difference between his younger sister being sent away at all rather than educated locally. The scholarship was confidential and was kept secret even from Eric. His contemporaries did not know. But as he got near his public-school exams, Mr Wilkes told him, perhaps to shame him into working even harder.

The school was only twelve years old in 1911-and already had a reputation for getting scholarships and places at Harrow or other leading public schools. The fees of £180 a year were high, yet with only about a hundred boys in the school, spread over four or five years, with ten teaching staff as well as a matron, a drill sergeant and the Wilkes themselves, both of whom taught, value for money was plainly given in terms of very small classes and intensive teaching. However mechanical the teaching, and it was very mechanical, small numbers made up for a lot. St Cyprian’s was just outside Eastbourne in Sussex, a fashionable and very respectable south-coast summer resort, and even then a town favoured for retirement among the prosperous middle class. The school occupied two large, late-Victorian William Morris-style houses, in extensive grounds very near to Beachy Head, the beautifully smooth chalk down and the steep cliff overlooking the English Channel.

St Cyprian’s had a good sprinkling of aristocracy as well as of upper middle and professional middle classes. Some ‘old boys’ strongly deny that there was any snobbery either in the school or in the attitudes of the Wilkes. Henry Longhurst (the famous amateur golfer and commentator) claimed in his memoirs ‘to have grown up absolutely “classless”’, citing as proof that the Wilkes ‘cheerfully accepted the rather uncouth offspring of a modest, though worthy, retail house furnisher’. Longhurst recalls with pleasure that among his particular school chums were Lord Mildmay, ‘among the last of the Corinthians of steeplechasing’, and ‘Reggie’, Viscount Maiden, heir to the 8th Earl of Essex.[2] Also a contemporary at St Cyprian’s, Cyril Connolly recalls ‘an awful lot of nobility’ as well as a Siamese prince and some sons of South American millionaires.[3] The school was hardly ‘classless’ so much as a good mixer of the complicated top section of the English, Scottish and Anglo-Irish class system and their wealthy foreign clients. The facts of social composition are not in question; only subsequent opinions are in fierce and irritable contradiction about what opinions and attitudes the boys had back then. On one thing, however, all accounts agree: the food was awful and inadequate, as was the heating and the sanitation. The code, of course, was an austere one and, to make matters worse, it was soon to be wartime. Hard conditions were accepted as part of ‘the building of character’, the official ideology through which even the oppressors themselves came to believe in the self-sacrificing altruism of this most unlikely form of commercial enterprise — as did their pupils when they went out to govern the Empire or to ‘help the family’ by taking a job in the City. Henry Longhurst actually meant to defend the old school against ‘abuse’ like Orwell’s and Connolly’s when he ended his chapter on St Cyprian’s ‘on a lighter note’. He relates with pride as well as superficial irony that a contemporary had just written to him: ‘It may amuse you to know that my brother attributes the fact that he emerged absolutely sane and fit from five years as a prisoner of war solely to having been at St Cyprian’s.’[4]

Orwell’s own testimony survives in two forms: the famous and virulent ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ (of uncertain date[*]) and some twenty-two simple boyish letters to his mother, all but one written in his first fifteen months at St Cyprian’s, all that remain of the required weekly letter home during his four years there. Both sets of evidence need careful handling: the essay is a polemical essay intended, like ‘A Hanging’ or ‘How the Poor Die’, to have a direct effect on the reader — one cannot assume that it is all literally true; and the letters were censored or ‘gone through’ by an adult hand, nominally to correct errors of fact and spelling, and were written in that knowledge. Here are his letters from the first term.

September 14 [1911]

Dear Mother, I hope you are quite well, thanks for that letter you sent me I havent read it yet. I supose you want to know what schools like, its alright we have fun in the morning. When we are in bed. from E. Blair.

‘Supose’ is corrected in the adult hand — they did not always bother, but it showed both parent and child that (as Orwell taught us to say) big brother was watching.

October 8 1911 Sunday

My dear Mother,

I hope you are quite well. I am top in arithmetic, and I have been moved up in Latin. I cannot quite read your letters yet, but I can read Margies. How is Togo, [a terrier], we had a magick lantern the other day. It is Kirkpatricks birthday today he is eight years old, Last time we played football I shot seven goals.

from E. Blair

P. S. I forgot to tell you I had a letter from Margie and I will write to her soon.

Togo was the family dog and Colin Kirkpatrick became a banker and businessman, who finally settled in Rhodesia.

Nov. 5

My dear Mother

Thank you very much for that shilling you sent me and my album. We had the thee Matches yesterday we won two and lost one, while the Matches went on we went for a lovely walk on the Downs, and called Smallman picked up ten shillings on the road.

On Sunday it is halfterm. Will you please send me Margerys adress. Next time you write to Auntie Hay and ask her to send me stamps.

lots of love from E. Blair

Thank you for the I/- you sent me

Nov. 12

My dear Mother

What kind of weather are you having? We are having lots of rain, but it is not raining this morning, but it is very dull. Will yoou please send me one of one or two of the new penny stamps for I have not got one yet.

The swimg races were on Monday, and a boy called Murray started last in a race and won by a good deal. I was third in the race, I had a rathe tight bathing dress on and could not swim a bit fast.

I am second, in Arithmetic, and this week I am first in Latin. And I am 8th in French.

We are breaking up on the 20 Dec: that is on a Vensday. Give my love to Avril, and to Father.

Much love from
E. Blair

‘First’ is corrected by the adult hand to read ‘second in Latin’. They were evidently given weekly placings. Notice how scores and placings in lessons and games are all mixed in together, seemingly of equal importance. This weird synthesis of team spirit and of individual competitiveness could truly be said to epitomize the blending of a capitalist and an aristocratic ethic, so typical of these schools.

[no date. November 19?]

My dear Mother

I hope you are quite well, please send my stamp album as soon as you can. We played 3 Malches yesterday, and lost all.

It is a lovely day quite warm.

Give my love to Avril

Much love from you son.
Eric Blair xxxxx

[no date. Nov. 26?]

My dear Mother

I hope you are quite well. I am second in Latin and first in arithmatick and third in history.

Iits raining like mad this morning and at about five aclock this morning and the house rattled like paper with the wind.

There is an aufly naughty boy hear called Lesly Cohen he has only just had his seventh birthday. We have had severi nice games of football this week.


from your loving son
E. Blair

He was more sportive than he later made out, though he did have recurrent bronchitis even then and ‘a stomach cough’, but they told him that it was ‘nothing’ and that he could ‘run it ofF, like getting a second wind after a stitch. He said later that he had loathed football, but had quite liked cricket and swimming, adding typically that ‘these had no prestige value’.[5]

Dec. 2

My dear Mother, I hope you are alright.

It was Mrs: Wilkes birthday yesterday, we had aufel fun after tea and played games all over the house. We all went for a walk to Beachy-Head.

I am third in Arithmatick.

‘Its’ very dull today, and dosent look as if its going to be very warm. Thank you for your letter.

It is getting very near the end of the term, there are only eighteen days more. On Saturday evening we have dncing, and I am going to say a piece of poetry, some of the boys sing.

Give my love to Father and Avril. Is Togo alright. We had the Oxford and Cambridge Matches yesterday. Cambridge won in the first and third, and the second did not have a Match. I am very glad Colonel Hall has given me some stamps, he said he wold last year but I thought had had forgotten. Its a beastly wet day today all rain and cold.

I am very sorry to hear we had those beastly freaks of smelly white mice back. I hope these arnt smelly one. If they arnt I shall like them.

From your loveing son, E. A. Blair.

This letter was heavily corrected. One of the trade-marks of George Orwell was to be, according to one’s judgement, either an obsessive or a salutary frankness about the most neglected of our five senses, smell. From his earliest days he grew to associate smell with oppression.

These letters have no literary merit. So there would have been little point in printing them in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. But if they had been, then there might have been some second thoughts about accepting as literal rather than as figurative truth Orwell’s later account of the great terror of first term at prep school. There is no evidence of disturbance in these letters. Granted that one would not expect anything critical of the school, even of the food, in letters that the child knew were read by the Wilkes; but a child in terror would write more briefly and in safe and easy stock phrases, not so chattily and spontaneously.

The only real evidence of any trauma at being torn out of the comfort of the womanish home into the barbaric and totally un-private boys’ world of corridors, cubicles, caning and cramming is provided by what Orwell himself was to say in ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’: ‘Your home might be far from perfect, but at least it was a place ruled by love rather than by fear... At eight years old you were suddenly taken out of this warm nest and flung into a world of force and fraud and secrecy, like a gold-fish into a tank full of pike.’[6] Confident assertions that there was a trauma that marked and warped him for life, somehow explaining (often explaining away) the most uncomfortable parts of his future writing, have become a commonplace of critical writing on Orwell; but they are highly speculative, often attempts to use psychological explanations to short-cut a slow and detailed examination of his adult experiences, some of which may have affected his adult beliefs. Those who are confident that they can find a psychological ‘hidden wound’ in the young Eric and then locate Nineteen Eighty-Four on the map as a version of St Cyprian’s, as if the vision of totalitarianism arose from prep-school terror and sufferings, may be disguising their own lack of perception of the political horrors that Orwell said were under their own noses, far more dangerous, dramatic and objective, in their shared contemporary world of the 1930s and 1940s.[7]

Boys of his class expected to go away to school and can have been under no illusions, unless there was no talk with other children, that it was anything other than a pretty rough, uncomfortable and often painful experience; but on the other hand, lots of fun and games were to be expected, lots of other boys, sport, heroes, and lots of books to be read. He appears to have been a great reader before ever he went to St Cyprian’s. This by itself may have alienated him more from many of his contemporaries, as it did Cyril Connolly, than hypothetical traumas (which then, ex hypothesi, every boy would have suffered). The school authorities needed scholarship fodder but the mass of brute boys would mock and harry ‘the swots’ and ‘the bookish’.

His mother had given Eric on his eighth birthday Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. This was one of the most important introductions he ever had. He remembered finding the parcel the night before his birthday and being so eager to read it for himself that he began secretly then and there. It must have been an expurgated child’s edition, for precocious though he was, his parents would not have given him the original, even if he could have understood it. In the days of his fame, when he was being freely compared to Swift, he was to claim that ‘From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer.’[8] George Orwell was to say to Dean Swift in an ‘Imaginary Interview’ (a wartime broadcast) that Gulliver has ‘lived with me ever since so that I suppose a year has never passed without my re-reading at least part of it. And yet I can’t help feeling that you have laid it on a bit too thick. You were too hard on humanity, and on your own country.’[9]

The same problem of laying it on too thick arises with Orwell’s own essay, ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, which he described to his publisher as being ‘autobiographical’ (certainly so libellous that it could not be published in Great Britain until after Mrs Wilkes’ death in 1967 aged 92).[10] Swift could well have replied, ‘Tu quoque, Sir’. Was he too hard on his teachers and on himself? Did St Cyprian’s really lead him to believe that by their ‘law I was damned. I had no money, I was weak, I was ugly, I was unpopular, I had a chronic cough, I was cowardly, I smelt’?[11] How much was the essay pure autobiography and how much a polemical short story written in the first person and drawn from experience? None of Orwell’s novels and documentaries is entirely clear as to its genre. The reader must either lower his guard completely or constantly be on guard against assuming too readily that he is faced with either undiluted ‘fact’ or undiluted ‘fiction’. The problem arises, in part at least, because Orwell’s talent as a writer grew slowly and relatively late. He fed on his own early experiences but in so doing he changed them creatively. ‘I base these generalizations on what I can recall of my own childhood outlook. Treacherous though memory is,’ he himself warned at the end of the essay, ‘it seems to me the chief means we have of discovering how a child’s mind works. Only by resurrecting our own memories can we realize how incredibly distorted is the child’s vision of the world.’ The animus of ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ cannot be rejected as evidence of what actually happened and of what his feelings were back then at prep school as distinct from the time of writing; but the piece cannot be accepted fully either. It must be handled both emphatically and critically.

The title came from a line in ‘The Echoing Green’, one of Blake’s Songs of Innocence, some of which his mother had read to him when a young child.

Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls and boys,
In our youth time were seen,
On the Echoing Green.

As the mature Orwell fully realized, an echoing green is a more complex metaphor for the relationship between artistic and literal truth than, say, ‘holding a mirror up to nature’, or any delusion of ‘I am a camera’. If he mocked myths of childhood joy unbounded, he was surely well aware that by using such a quotation as the tide of his essay he was drawing attention to the fact that the author was creator, not remembrancer. Echoes both repeat and distort.

Certainly he came to blame the place (and such places) greatly. In 1938, he wrote to Cyril Connolly: ‘I’m always meaning one of these days to write a book about St Cyprian’s. I’ve always held that the public schools aren’t so bad, but people are wrecked by those filthy private schools long before they get to public school age.’[12] And he told readers of Tribune two years later, in reviewing a novel of Stephen Spender’s, The Backward Son:

It is about a ‘prep school’, one of those (on the whole) nasty little schools at which small boys are prepared for the public school entrance examination. Incidentally these schools with their money-grubbing proprietors and their staffs of underpaid hacks, are responsible for a lot of the harm that it is usual to blame on the public schools. A majority of middle-class boys have their minds permanently lamed by them before they are thirteen years old.[13]

Did he include himself for once among the hypothetical ‘majority of middle-class boys’ whose minds were ‘wrecked’ or ‘permanently lamed’? Certainly in the period between Burma and Spain he suffered from feelings of failure and of guilt, but it is not clear that he himself attributed this to prep school more than to imperial service and, even if he did, it is doubtful if this was the full story. Other things were to happen, and not to happen, later. Only a narrower point is crystal clear: that he loathed the anti-intellectualism of learning by rote. He saw the bad methods of St Cyprian’s as intellectually stultifying and oppressive.

Certainly Cyril Connolly regarded ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ as the ‘key to his [Orwell’s] formation’.[14] Biographical evidence from Orwell’s novels can also support Connolly’s judgement. Some of Eric Blair’s experiences must have gone into the character of Gordon Comstock, the poor and bitter anti-hero of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying written in 1935:

Even at the third-rate schools to which Gordon was sent nearly all the boys were richer than himself. They soon found out his poverty, of course, and gave him hell because of it. Probably the greatest cruelty one can inflict on a child is to send it to school among children richer than itself. A child conscious of poverty will suffer snobbish agonies such as a grown-up person can scarcely even imagine.[15]

‘Money’ was to worry him, like Gordon Comstock, all the days of his life, until the success of Animal Farm. He too despised a world ‘infected with the mania of owning things’ and gone ‘money mad’: but also he realized that independence for a writer depended on earning some. Fear of exposure of his dependence on the secret scholarship, with which Mr Wilkes threatened him, would indeed, at every stage of his schoolboy and most of his adult life, have been agony. And it was an agony that he never forgot, but he put it to good use to understand the psychology of the poor and the oppressed in his early writings and, later on, to champion their causes.

The very first sentence of ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ began the symbolic anecdote from which all the other themes of the essay (cruelty, favouritism, snobbery and wealth, bad teaching, filth and bullying) radiated. It is about bed-wetting. ‘Soon after I arrived at St Cyprian’s (not immediately, but after a week or two, just when I began to be settling into the routine of school life) I began wetting my bed.’ And after two or three such hideous offences, he tells us, he was warned that he would be caned. The warning took place in a curiously roundabout way. Mrs Wilkes called him back from leaving tea to where she was sitting with a lady visitor, ‘an intimidating, masculine-looking person wearing a riding habit’, as if to introduce him.

‘Here is a little boy,’ said Flip, indicating me to the strange lady, ‘who wets his bed every night. Do you know what I am going to do if you wet your bed again?’ she added, turning to me. ‘I am going to get the Sixth Form to beat you.’

The strange lady put on an air of being’ inexpressibly shocked, and exclaimed, ‘I-should-think-so!’ And here there occurred one of those wild, almost lunatic misunderstandings which are part of the daily experience of childhood. The Sixth Form was a group of older boys who were selected as having ‘character’ and were empowered to beat smaller boys. I had not yet learned of their existence, and I mis-heard the phrase ‘the Sixth Form’ as ‘Mrs Form’. I took it as referring to the strange lady — I thought, that is, that her name was Mrs Form. It was an improbable name, but a child has no judgement in such matters. I imagined, therefore, that it was she who was to be deputed to beat me. It did not strike me as strange that this job should be turned over to a casual visitor in no way connected with the school. I merely assumed that ‘Mrs Form’ was a stem disciplinarian who enjoyed beating people (somehow her appearance seemed to bear this out) and I had an immediate terrifying vision of her arriving for the occasion in full riding kit and armed with a hunting-whip. To this day I can feel myself almost swooning with shame as I stood, a very small, round-faced boy in short corduroy knickers, before the two women. I could not speak. I felt that I should die if Mrs Form were to beat me. But my dominant feeling was not fear or even resentment: it was simply shame because one more person, and ‘that a woman, had been told of my disgusting offence.[16]

He then wet his bed again, was denounced by the matron and beaten by Mr Wilkes. Does this sound plausible? Surely the general points do, to which he reverts several times: both the cruelty and the ‘almost lunatic misunderstandings which are part of the daily experience of childhood’. It is a telling, sad and comic instance of ‘how incredibly distorted is the child’s version of the world’. But, as he said to Swift, ‘I can’t help feeling that you laid it on a bit thick.’ Something like that must have happened; but misheard as ‘Mrs Form’ and with a fantasy riding-whip? ‘Mrs Form’ sounds like a stock figure in Victorian and Edwardian pornographic novelettes. But no such lady can be found in such literature.[17] There is no reason to doubt that he was beaten for bed-wetting, which is barbarous enough, but the trimmings may belong more to a story in the first person, a polemic against the folly of inducing a sense of guilt about nameless (natural) things, and against the general harshness that could lead to disturbances far worse than bed-wetting: these are the point of the essay, not the most un-Orwellian (as we will see) gratuitous self-revelation. There is, however, one other piece of evidence on the bed-wetting and the beating. A very eminent Old St Cyprianite whose memory seems excellent has annotated the margins of an earlier published account of Eric Blair’s life at St Cyprian’s. His notes are full of fierce denials and disagreements, particularly where the account follows Orwell closely, for he defends the old school passionately and uncritically. Even so, twice he admits that there was a bed-wetter who was publicly beaten; but it was not Blair, he asserts, it was another little boy who later became a colonel in the British Army and a holder of the Victoria Cross.[18] Several boys, of course, could have been beaten for this same offence of nature. But whatever the literal truth, why should not a polemical essayist transpose events for dramatic effect?

Cruelty was certainly a characteristic of the school, particularly in relation to the arbitrariness and uncertainty of punishment, as illustrated by the beating for bed-wetting, to whomever it occurred. The head master, nicknamed ‘Sambo’, ‘a round-shouldered, curiously oafish-looking man, not large but shambling in gait, with a chubby face which was like that of an overgrown baby, and which was capable of good humour’, beat him, said Orwell, with ‘a riding-crop’, intoning as he did so, ‘you dir-ty lit-tle boy’, keeping time with the blows. But it was a mild, first beating, so he cockily told the others in the corridor as he came out. But ‘Flip’, as Mrs Wilkes was nicknamed, heard him and ordered him back. ‘This time Sambo laid on in real earnest. He continued for a length of time that frightened and astonished me — about five minutes it seemed, ending up by breaking the riding-crop. The bone handle went flying across the room. “Look what you’ve made me do!” he said furiously, holding up the broken crop.’[19]

Again this somewhat suspicious riding-crop. In those days an ordinary bamboo cane was, as children’s comics still testify, almost always held in the teacher’s hand or left lying prominently on his desk, even when not much used, a symbol of power and authority, much like an army officer’s dress-sword. When the earlier account paraphrases this, my marginal commentator comments, ‘NOT TRUE! You sod!!! LIBEL!’ And he means not merely that it was not Blair who was beaten, but that riding-crops were never the chosen medium of chastisement. Also, to push common sense to a point of absurdity, consider the ‘about five minutes’. Intoning Mr Wilkes’ phrase for rhythm, going as slowly and heavily as one can with a stick, it is hard to achieve a slower rate of fire than twelve strokes to the minute. ‘Six of the best’, as Orwell would have known, was traditionally reckoned the maximum punishment, enough to raise weals, often to break the skin bloodily. Five minutes would have been as bad as a naval flogging at the Nore or Spithead, and would have put the victim in the’ infirmary for days. Orwell’s actual words, however, were ‘about five minutes — it seemed’. Perhaps a beating could seem that long, but the innocent reader need not accept as gospel what is more likely to be either semi-fictional polemic against such real abuses of authority, or else in part a fantasy.

The school was harsh and Blair was caned from time to time, as caning was then common; he hated the place deeply for those cruelties, particularly for the arbitrariness and injustice of them. The terse ‘Not True’ of the marginal annotator against any passage that speaks of general unhappiness of small boys at prep school, particularly one of this kind, is unconvincing; although, of course, small boys can be ‘up’ one minute — and ‘down’ the next. Indeed, the whole rhythm of boarding-school life was somewhat manic-depressive, collective exultation alternated with collective gloom. Head masters at morning assembly would one day extol some scholastic, athletic or even national victory, and the next day condemn sin and corruption enough to depress anyone. Small boys would think, after masturbation or nocturnal emission, of suicide one day and of winning a race and becoming a hero on the next. Some writers truly have a point when they claim that boarding schools commonly institutionalized, as it were, both manic-depressive and sado-masochistic impulses. Yet individuals react differently: such broad terms never explain an individual’s ‘character’.

Consider the passage in Orwell’s essay that follows the episode of the second beating. He says that for the first and only time this beating reduced him to tears. Not because of the pain but:

...because of a deeper grief which is peculiar to childhood and not easy to convey: a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of being locked up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them.

He knew that bed-wetting was ‘wicked’ but also that it was ‘outside my control’.

Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you. I do not want to claim that this idea flashed into my mind as a complete novelty at this very moment, under the blows of Sambo’s cane: I must have had glimpses of it even before I left home, for my early childhood had been not altogether happy. But at any rate this was the great abiding lesson of my boyhood: that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good.[20]

This is, indeed, the world of a totalitarian state, truly of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it is also the reflection of a mature writer. Was it possible for any boy of eight to have thought that? Could Orwell really have thought that he thought it then? Which is more plausible: that he is here untypically exposing the roots of his own psychology, or that he is transfiguring imaginatively aspects of his early experiences into what was soon to become the helplessness of Winston Smith?

Favouritism was rampant. The boys spoke of being ‘in or out of favour’ with ‘Mum’ Wilkes. Orwell disliked her so much that he asserts that the habit of addressing her as ‘Mum’ was ‘Probably a corruption of the “Ma’am” used by public schoolboys to their housemasters’ wives’,[21] as if not wanting to recognize the far more obvious derivation, or to sully the sacred name of ‘Mother’. To be officially ‘Mum’ was plainly part other bag of tricks: to be matriarch with all the boys ‘under her thumb’ and also have them as ‘one of the family’. She liked to be both stem schoolmistress cramming them for her beloved Harrow History Essay Prize — an infectiously enthusiastic teacher, one Old Boy has said — and, on occasion, woman: comforting, indulgent, and understanding. In other words, she was capricious, vain, volatile and inconsistent as well as genuinely caring for her charges. As Cyril Connolly put it: ‘On all the boys who went through this Elizabeth and Essex relationship she had a remarkable effect, hotting them up like little Alfa-Romeos for the Brooklands of life.’[22] Later Connolly polished yet more wicked epigrams about her.

Both Orwell and I were dominated by the head mistress of our private school; it was this remarkable woman who dished out rewards and punishments, who quoted Kipling and inculcated patriotism, who exalted .character and moral courage and Scottish chieftains in kilts. We learnt the father values from a mother, we bit the hand that fed us, that tweaked the short hairs above the ear. But it was a woman’s hand whose husband’s cane was merely the secular arm. Agonizing ambivalence![23]

Above all, her capriciousness: ‘even the nickname “Flip” suggested some primitive goddess of fortune.’[24] But it also suggests ‘flip-Hop’; and though Connolly ignores or does not notice the vulgarism, Gavin Maxwell has roundly stated that: ‘She was a stout woman in middle age, with a well-developed bust from which her nickname was derived... “Here comes Flip”, someone would say,”... flapping nicely, eighty to the minute, everything in clockwork order.”’[25]

‘I conclude that St Cyprian’s was a very good school indeed,’ wrote Henry Longhurst despite the fact, he added, that three celebrated contemporaries (Connolly, Orwell and Maxwell) ‘have written so vitri-olically about it as to make one wonder whether we are writing of the same institution’.

It is true that Mum Wilkes’ dominant and sometimes emotional character caused one’s whole existence to depend on whether one was ‘in favour’ or otherwise, and indeed the expression became a normal part of one’s daily life without, so to speak, the inverted commas. If you were in favour, life could be bliss: if you weren’t it was hell, and no doubt this should be chalked up on the debit side. On the other hand it taught you the hard way one of the lessons of life — if you don’t ‘look after Number One’, no one else will.[26]

With friends like that, what need had Mrs Wilkes of such a trio of detractors?

Gavin Maxwell, in fact, only spent a year at the school and that ten years later; but it was much the same. He read and relished Connolly’s Elizabeth and Essex metaphor: ‘Flip would have liked to have kept me in favour but I was just too much of an oddity for a busy woman to cope with.’[27] He might have all the blood of the border barons in him, Percys and Maxwells, but he was a very nervous and distraught little boy. He took it hard when on one occasion, being out of favour. Flip bellowed publicly, ‘Matron, I think Maxwell is working that cold of his to death, he can start football again today and cold baths again tomorrow.’

Because I was as over-sensitive as a hermit crab without a shell, these thrusts hurt far more than I believe Flip ever intended them to; she was, I think, basically a kindly person and certainly an extremely efficient one. But she was using her standard technique on very unstandard material and instead of my being hotted up by [St Cyprian’s] I was slowly reduced to a jelly.[28]

He summed it all up by saying that he had been ‘through a prison sentence that ended in escape, however ignominious’.[29] Certainly it is not unreasonable to suppose that some never escaped from such an experience. Both Cyril Connolly and Colin Kirkpatrick remember Eric Blair as being generally out of favour, confirming his own account.

The experience of snobbery and wealth furnished another battleground between old boys of St Cyprian’s. ‘St Cyprian’s was an expensive and snobbish school which was in the process of becoming more snobbish,’ wrote Orwell, ‘and, I imagine, more expensive.’[30] ‘Snobbery,’ writes a contemporary, ‘we didn’t know what the word meant.’ ‘One of the charges levelled against the Wilkes family by the critics I have mentioned was that of “snobbery”,’ writes Henry Longhurst, ‘in that they liked to have in the school the offspring of the aristocracy, and indeed I think they did, but for the life of me I cannot see why they shouldn’t.’ Of course, one may reply to the anonymous contemporary, that it is not a question of acting in a way you then called ‘snobbish’, but of acting in a way that others could reasonably call snobbish. Yet one must concede, as Orwell did by lack of complaint against Eton, that sometimes right at the top, in high status schools, clubs, regiments and colleges, there is an almost republican equality among the elite: high status in English society can bridge wide variations of income. At its best, St Cyprian’s was probably like that, but surely too new, uncertain, arriviste and pushy a place to be secure? Orwell asserted that ‘the rich boys had milk and biscuits in the middle of the morning’, and that there were differentials in the very small amounts of pocket money doled out by the Wilkes and charged on the bill. No one else can remember this, even those who broadly agree with Orwell. But his account of the boys quizzing each other and boasting about their parents’ incomes rings true; at least none of the surviving contemporaries denies that it ‘sometimes’ went on. But Orwell’s ‘I doubt whether Sambo ever caned any boy whose father’s income was much above £2,000 a year’ is less likely to be descriptive sociology than the arresting pseudo-precision of the skilled essayist.

The Wilkes themselves played the money card in two obnoxious ways. First, Mr Wilkes revealed to Eric that he was on reduced fees (‘You are living on my bounty’) to spur him to work harder for a good scholarship; and second, he told him that if he didn’t win this scholarship, he must leave the school at 14 ‘and become, in Sambo’s favourite phrase, “a little office boy at forty pounds a year”’ — the ultimate horror of falling among the poverty-stricken genteel, the world of Gordon Comstock and his sister indeed. But this fear probably arose only in his last year in the school. There is little doubt, however, that even if the boys were reasonably egalitarian among themselves at most times, the Wilkes, for the survival and expansion of the school, had to work pretty hard at pleasing the kind of well-off and well-connected parent whose example would be followed in where to get the male offspring crammed and prepared for public school. Their task was made easier because most of the parents would have regarded spartan conditions, strict discipline and stoic behaviour as essential parts of the building of character; indeed, of Empire too. Eric Blair certainly suffered inwardly, even if not from outward abuse, at knowing how marginal he was in this strange world that tried to blend competitive careerism with the ethic of an unambitious English gentleman batting at number eight in a village cricket match.

Filth as a characteristic of the school impressed itself on his adult mind.

Whoever writes about his childhood must beware of exaggeration and self-pity. I do not want to claim that I was a martyr or that St Cyprian’s was a sort of Dotheboys Hall. But I should be falsifying my own memories if I did not record that they are largely memories of disgust. The overcrowded, underfed, underwashed life that we led was disgusting, as I recall it. If I shut my eyes and say ‘school’, it is of course the physical surroundings that first come back to me: the flat playing field with its cricket pavilion and the little shed by the rifle range, the draughty dormitories, the dusty splintery passages, the square of asphalt in front of the gymnasium, the raw-looking pinewood chapel at the back. And at almost every point some filthy detail obtrudes itself. For example, there were the pewter bowls out of which we had our porridge. They had overhanging rims, and under the rims there were accumulations of sour porridge, which could be flaked off in long strips. The porridge itself, too, contained more lumps, hairs and unexplained black things than one would have thought possible, unless someone were putting them there on purpose. It was never safe to start on that porridge without investigating it first. And there was the slimy water of the plunge bath — it was twelve or fifteen feet long, the whole school was supposed to go into it every morning, and I doubt whether the water was changed all that frequently — and the always-damp towels with their cheesy smell; and on occasional visits in the winter, the murky sea-water of the local Baths, which came straight in from the beach and on which I once saw floating a human turd. And the sweaty smell of the changing-room with its greasy basins and, giving on this, the row of filthy, dilapidated lavatories which had no fastenings of any kind on the doors, so that whenever you were sitting there someone was sure to come crashing in. It is not easy for me to think of my school-days without seeming to breathe in a whiff of something cold and evil-smelling — a sort of compound of sweaty stockings, dirty towels, faecal smells blowing along corridors, forks with old food between the prongs, neck of mutton stew, and the banging of doors of the lavatories and the echoing chamber-pots in the dormitories.[31]

That Orwell warns us, so honestly, against ‘exaggeration and self-pity’, is not to conjure that possibility away. Again the evidence conflicts. Connolly concurs: ‘blue with cold, haunting the radiators and the lavatories, and waking up every morning with the accumulated misery of the mornings before.’[32] The contemporary disagrees, saying that the baths in question were both clean and modem. ‘Murky sea-water’ coming ‘straight in from the beach’ — but could anything have been fresher in those days before widespread pollution? To picture the sea itself being filthy or corrupted by one random turd is laying it on a bit thick. It is reminiscent of the polluted ponds and rivers of his novel, Coming Up For Air (1939), which symbolizes a whole civilization gone sour and decadent. As to the foul food, again the most fervid defender of the school against Orwell, Connolly and Maxwell has this to say:

At that age you don’t ask many questions. You take life for what it is, and on the whole, by today’s standards, it was pretty spartan, not only from the point of view of washing in very cold water and having to do a length of the swimming-pool every morning, followed by P.T., which put me off every form of artificial physical exercise for life, but also because the food rationing was far less expertly managed in the First War than in the Second... It is one of the more merciful dispensations of providence that one tends to forget the hard times and remember the good... Some of the scars remain, but not many. Among them I should put the cold pewter bowls of porridge with the thick slimy lumps, into which I was actually sick one day and made to stand at a side-table and eat it up, the liquified orange-coloured maize pudding with the coarse husks floating on the top...[33]

Henry Longhurst surely kicks a decisive own-goal: nothing in Orwell’s account is as horrible as that. Orwell may have laid it on thick, but there is little doubt that his identification of filth with oppression and squalor with tyranny began so early, and so plausibly.

Bullying was rife. Orwell tells of being constantly bullied by a boy in the top form and of resolving to sneak up on him and hit him hard by surprise. He did, bloodying his mouth. The boy then challenged him to fight and Eric kept on refusing, out of fear he said, and feeling doubly guilty that he was breaking ‘rules’ both against surprise attack and against refusing legitimate challenges. To his surprise, the boy did not attack him out of hand, indeed thereafter left him alone. He said it then took him twenty years to realize that ‘the weak in a world governed by the strong’ must ‘break the rules, or perish... have the right to make a different set of rules for themselves.’ Although the story sounds almost too good to be true — old George making out that young Eric was an effective anti-hero — his admission that he drew the moral much later is impressive: he does not pretend that this is a first step on the road to his believing in a socialist revolution. Something like it must have happened. Sardonic about it all though he became, he was not a purely passive resister. This incident would have been in his penultimate year in school. But before that too he had been a target for bullying. Sir John Grotrian, a year behind him at school, has written:

My memories of Blair are of a time when he was an unhappy little boy at prep school. Both my brother and he, as intellectuals, were not infrequently ‘mobbed’ by the school’s gang of philistines and, in great fear, were reduced to tears and then laughed at; and I as an onlooker, to my everlasting shame, had not the guts to attempt to defend them. What would have been the use I argued. Outnumbered by twenty or thirty to one, how could I have quelled the mob?

And poor Blair didn’t only suffer physically from his contemporaries. Mrs Wilkes herself, frequently in a rage of impatience while teaching the children, was not above resorting to violence. She used to reach out and pull the boys’ hair, as though that would be any kind of an aid to learning or remembering. For that reason, Blair told us, he kept his hair very well greased so that the teacher’s fingers would slip off! His hair was quite straight and butter coloured, his complexion cream. His face was moon shaped and all too often streaked with tears.[34]

This is poignant and impressive evidence, especially as Grotrian had not read anything of Orwell’s and had never heard of’Such, Such Were the Joys’, nor yet Connolly’s Enemies of Promise. It is confirmed in some notes that the contemporary (a year senior to Blair) prepared:

To be absolutely frank, he was NOT popular among the majority of our ‘little hooligans’!!! Nevertheless I always liked Eric and I believe he liked me... He was very UNordinary. He seemed to think about things in a much more sophisticated and mature manner than we did. I think he appreciated that I thought of him like this. He had a temper which could be very easily aroused by ‘little hooligans’ — but I remember that on several occasions I — as head boy — stood and drove the hooligans off. NO, he was not popular, but neither was he generally disliked. I think it was just a matter of him seeming to be years ahead of the rest of all of us — mentally. I think he was ‘bullied’ by the younger ones and this probably infuriated and affected him. I don’t know about his private family life — but may be because his mother remained at home while his father returned to India, had something to do with it.[35]

The ‘it’ is his general view that ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ was a monstrously unfair and unbalanced attack on the school. And he plainly thinks that Eric should have put up with the bullying and not taken such a belated revenge, even on the assumption that it was Eric himself who was flogged for bed-wetting. Nevertheless, if the attitudes are different in these two accounts, the facts are much the same and are equally damning. But again the essential ‘offence’ of Eric seems to have been, not as George makes out, lack of money and social insecurity, but of being intellectual, bookish, a swot, mentally superior. It is a wonder these Philistines did not kill Cyril Connolly.

What Orwell most disliked was simply the bad teaching. All the barbarity and psychological stress could have been forgiven if not forgotten if the Wilkes had valued learning for its own sake and not, as he constantly stresses, for its cash value. ‘Over a period of two or three years the scholarship boys were crammed with learning as cynically as a goose is crammed for Christmas.’ But ‘with what learning!’ he says. The whole ‘evil’ process was ‘frankly a preparation for a sort of confidence trick. Your job was to learn exactly those things that would give an examiner the impression that you knew more than you did know, and... to avoid burdening your brain with anything else.’ They were prepared in the classics in a ‘flashy, unsound way’, never reading a book through, only the kind of passages that might come up in the exam as an ‘unseen translation’. He then used, and kept, Entick’s English-Latin Dictionary — in which he wrote his name in Greek — published in 1820 and unrevised.

History was taught ‘as a series of unrelated, unintelligible but — in some way that was never explained to us — important facts with resounding phrases attached to them’. He recalled ‘positive orgies of dates, with the keener boys leaping up and down in their places in their eagerness to shout out the right answers, and at the same time not feeling the faintest interest in the meaning of the mysterious events they were naming’.[36] He felt strongly enough to tell the — possibly indifferent — Indian listeners to the BBC’s wartime Eastern Service all about this: ‘I used to think of history as a sort of long scroll with thick black lines ruled across it at intervals. Each of these lines marked the end of what was called “a period”, and you were given to understand that what came afterwards was completely different from what had gone before.’[37] He also regaled the readers of Tribune in 1947 with an account of how bad history teaching is in private schools.[38]

Gavin Maxwell’s account confirms the factualist frenzy: ‘a young master... loped up to the blackboard and wrote his first question, “Who beat De Gras?” This struck me as a funny and naive simplification of the issue... it was one of my first recognitions of weakness, woolliness.’ Maxwell suffered particularly because they expected him to have instant recall of every date in Scottish and border history, his ancestors having been in on so much of it.[39]

All in all, the school seems to have been a pretty despicable place. Orwell’s description of it seems truthful, but it is not literally accurate, and his account of his own relationship with it, of its effect on him, is either semi-fictional or heavily overdrawn. He was able to keep a greater distance than the essay suggests, as if even in those days he had developed both a tendency to be against authority and an ability to preserve himself from its influence. Some of Orwell’s later rage at the school may have been due to a puritanical feeling of time so badly wasted — brutality and strain without intellectual compensation; and, at that period, the sheer disappointment of a small boy who naively and genuinely liked books. Much of his rage was highly rational. ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ was no Émile, but it was a considerable tract on what education should not be. Fifty years later it so stung a distinguished Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, old Andrew Gow, who had been Blair’s tutor at Eton, that he wrote to Sonia Orwell:

I did not know that you were collecting his works, but I hope, if so, that you do not intend to reprint that essay about his private [prep] school... It shocked me profoundly. I knew the Wilkes’s and the school quite well... and the essay is monstrously unfair. It was quite a good school: Mr W., though a rather stupid and probably idle man, was genuinely keen on it and his boys; Mrs W., capable, energetic, and motherly, probably really ran it... No doubt G. (and Cyril Connolly) being rebels, resented being mothered, and G. seems from the essay to have acquired an inferiority complex because he was taken at a reduced fee. I could understand his having written thus venomously just after leaving but if the date on the essay is correct it was written long afterwards and I was horrified at his having nursed his rancour so long. I cannot believe that he would ever have published it himself aad think it would be a disservice both to him and to the W.’s to resurrect it.[40]

And when, a few years before, David Farrer, the partner of Fredric Warburg, Orwell’s final and most faithful publisher, had actually visited Mrs Wilkes to explore the possibility of publishing the obviously libellous piece, he reported: ‘I am bound to say that she produced ample evidence in the form of letters, testimonials, etc., to substantiate her denunciation of the story, which I suspect is a gross distortion of what actually took place.’[41] Gross distortion?

What finally emerges from ‘the Echoing Green’, that is, the highly complex relationship between moral truths of his adult ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ and the facts of his actual career at St Cyprian’s (does not the full quotation warn of such complexity?), is the common ground of the two experiences of brutality, injustice and oppression. But the oppression of St Cyprian’s was not in a totalitarian mode — completely unenvisaged by anyone in the 1910s and Orwell recognized it, though among the very first, only after 1936 — but rather in an old-fashioned autocratic mode. Autocracy was shock enough in what was supposed to be a cultivated school in a civilized parliamentary democracy. Under autocracy inner dissent can be maintained beneath the cover of politic conformity; but his picture of totalitarianism was of a world in which all privacy was denied and which had to be resisted if individualism was to survive. Such a distinction was important to Orwell in his last years. His experiences at prep school prepared him to reject imperialism when he went to Burma and to side with the underdog, for ever afterwards, with empathy and understanding. But they did not directly form the imaginative roots of Nineteen Eighty-Four, even though some time just before writing that book, his least autobiographical novel, he wrote or revised an apparently autobiographical essay, as if to get the feeling for Winston Smith in his world of no escape from doing evil. The essay exploited and reinterpreted his own past for both literary and polemical effort, in the light of later knowledge.

Jacintha Buddicom, the author of Cat Poems, knew him well in his teens and wrote a book about their childhood friendship in which she actually claimed that ‘he was a specially happy child’. She cast shrewd doubts on the literal accuracy of the great polemic against prep schools.[42] A reviewer in the New Statesman had represented her as saying that the essay was ‘a pack of lies’. In her reply, which was not published, she wrote,

Orwell’s ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ is not a pack of lies! It is a story in the form of an autobiographical sketch written in the first person: a story so brilliantly told that it is popularly believed to have happened word for word — as some incidents undoubtedly did.[43]

She is probably right; but it is simply impossible to be sure. All that is clear is that if he intended it to be literally truthful, then memory played him some curious tricks, but that none the less it was a brilliant polemic — not entirely about the past.


1. For Richard Blair’s pension see the Civil Pension Books, 1912-31, Accountant General’s Records, India Office Library (the pension remains the same for the whole period covered by these records); and for the comparisons of income see Guy Routh, Occupational Pay in Great Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1965), p. 104.[back]

2. Henry Longhurst, My Life and Soft Times (Cassell, London, 1972), p. 32.[back]

3. Cyril Connolly, ‘George Orwell’, in his The Evening Colonnade (David Bruce & Watson, London, 1973), p. 373.[back]

4. Longhurst, op. cit., p. 37.[back]

[*] Commonly thought to have been written in 1947 just before he began to write Nineteen Eighty-Four, but all that is certain is that he sent it to his publishers then. Several factors point strongly to an earlier composition. See Appendix B.[back]

5. ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, CE IV, p. 359.[back]

6. ibid., p. 349.[back]

7. Anthony West, ‘George Orwell’, in his Principles and Persuasions (Eyre & Spotriswoode, London, 1958), pp. 150-59.[back]

8. CE I, p. 1.[back]

9. BBC Eastern Service, 2 Nov. 1942 (BBC Archives). Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]

10. First published with some changes of names in Partisan Review, Sept.-Oct. 1952, then not in Great Britain until the CE of 1968. Anthony West (op. cit.) and others jumped to the conclusion that it was written close to the composition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but this is highly speculative, it was probably written earlier. See Appendix B.[back]

11. CE IV, pp. 360-61.[back]

12. CE I, p. 363.[back]

13. Review of Stephen Spender, The Backward Son, Tribune, 24 May 1941.[back]

14. Cyril Connolly, Previous Convictions (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1963), p. 318.[back]

15. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, p. 53.[back]

16. CE IV, p. 332.[back]

17. ‘Mrs Form’ would presumably run a ‘finishing school’ and offer correction on ‘the form’ in the ‘school room’ - all terms of the trade in Victorian flagellant establishments and some less specialized brothels, see lan Gibson, The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After (Duckworth, London, 1978) passim. But lan Gibson tells me that in his extensive reading, he has never come across a Mrs Form and doubts her existence: names of fictional and pseudonyms of real Madames were much more explicit. Perusal of material mentioned in Ronald Pearsall, The Worm in the Bud: the World of Victorian Sexuality (Weidenfeld, London, 1969) and in Cyril Pearl, The Girl With the Swansdown Seat (Frederick Muller, London, 1955) also reaches a reassuringly negative conclusion. Orwell’s account of his beating, however, is so close to the theme of Freud’s classic psychoanalytical essay, ‘A Child is Being Beaten’, that it is possible either that he knew this essay or that elements of an unconscious punishment fantasy of ‘the terrible mother, the phallic mother of childhood’, intruded on his genuine conscious memories. (See Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians (Weidenfeld, London, 1966), chapter 6, for a sane discussion of beating fantasies.)[back]

18. Colin Kirkpatrick, of Salisbury, Rhodesia, who was an exact contemporary of Eric Blair’s at St Cyprian’s, annotated for this author the margins of Peter Stansky and William Abraham’s account of Blair at prep school in their The Unknown Orwell (Constable, London, 1972). His criticisms all arise from their following Orwell literally in his ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. The claim that it was another boy who was beaten for bed-wetting is repeated in a letter from Mr Kirkpatrick to the author of 9 Jan. 1973.[back]

19. CE IV, p. 333.[back]

20. ibid., p. 334.[back]

21. ibid., p. 331.[back]

22. Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1938), p. 210.[back]

23. Connolly, Previous Convictions, p. 318.[back]

24. Connolly, Enemies of Promise, p. 212.[back]

25. Gavin Maxwell, The House of Elrig (Longman, London, 1965).[back]

26. Longhurst, op. cit., p. 30.[back]

27. Maxwell, op. cit., p. 71.[back]

28. ibid., p. 87.[back]

29. ibid., p. 85.[back]

30. CE IV, p. 335.[back]

31. ibid., pp. 347-8.[back]

32. Connolly, Enemies of Promise, p. 208.[back]

33. Longhurst, op. cit., p. 26.[back]

34. Letter of Nov. 1972 from Sir John Grotrian to author.[back]

35. ‘Notes for Professor Bernard Crick’ written by Colin Kirkpatrick, Jan. 1973.[back]

36. ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, CE IV, pp. 36-7.[back]

37. ‘Rediscovery of Europe’, first published in the Listener, 19 March 1942, then in CE II, p. 197.[back]

38. ‘As I Please’, Tribune, 14 March 1947, then in CE IV, p. 306, though the incident refers to the time when he himself was teaching in 1932.[back]

39. Maxwell, op. cit., p. 77.[back]

40. Letter of i May 1967 from Andrew Gow to Sonia Orwell, Orwell Archive.[back]

41. Letter from David Farrer to Cyrus Brooks of A. M. Heath (the literary agents of the Orwell Estate) of 12 March 1953, Orwell Archive, Papers of Sonia Orwell.[back]

42. Jacintha Buddicom, Eric and Us (Leslie Frewin, London, 1974).[back]

43. Letter of 29 May 1974 in Jacintha Buddicom’s possession.[back]



His real prep-school days, though he disliked the experience and detested such a broiler-house of a school, may thus have been less terrible and have had less lasting effect on his character than long afterwards he made out. The English upper classes tend to exaggerate the effect of their school-days, whether for better or for worse. And they did not fill his whole life. The experience was of an autocratic, not of a total, institution. This distinction became very important to the mature man. Letters home, for instance, were important, and if necessary the censorship could be avoided simply by posting a letter in town. Gavin Maxwell sent a desperate letter to his mother to take him away; she did. Long afterwards Lord dark’s son wrote home similarly, and was moved on. Holidays, after all, were long and were almost wholly enjoyable. There were glad moments of peace and solitude remembered, at school as well as at home, when he was alone with his books: ‘the joy of waking early on summer mornings and getting in an hour’s undisturbed reading (Ian Hay, Thackeray, Kipling and H. G. Wells were the favourite authors of my boyhood).’[1]

His weekly letters home only survive to just beyond his ninth birthday. There are the same remorseless weekly listings of position in class, always near the top, of football scores and anxious inquiries about the dog, cats, guinea pigs and the humble white mice at home. Spelling slowly improves. 4 February 1912: ‘I have been in the sickroom again because I got an aufel cold. Yesday of course everything iced and boys went and skated, but I was stuffed up in the sickroom and I couldent get a bit of peace to read for Leslie Cohen kept on worrying and in the end I had to go and read to him.’ On 11 February he asks for draughts to be sent and ‘some of those peas that were left over frome the bags because theres a boy here who’s got a kind of cannon that has to have those peas to shoot... I am second in everything in my lessons.’ And on 18 February, anxiously, ‘If there are any tadpoles in the rain tub please dont let any leeches in, because I certainly dont want to come home and find that all the tadpoles are eaten up by the beasts of leeches.’

3 March brings the usual placings and animal inquiries but also a dramatic account of being in goal with a first accidental touch of Orwellian style: ‘I had to be jolly quick to pick them up and kick them, because most of the chaps the other side were in aufel rats and they were runing at me like angry dogs. From you loving son, E. A. Blair.’ And on 17 March ‘The was a fairly big ship wrecked some way out, and you can see the masts sticking up.’ May brings long walks over the Downs which he says, even in ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, brought back ‘good memories ofSt Cyprian’s amid a horde of bad ones’. 2 June brings a request: ‘a gunmetal watch for my birthday’ and ‘shall soon be wanting my bathing dress soon if you send me one of my old pairs dont send those beastsley things that come all over my body’. Further cricket scores follow in the middle of the month and then his last two letters of the school year.

30th of June 1912

My darling Mother,

I hope you are alright.

Thank you very much for the ripping little watch you sent and the Little Paper, thank Father for the book for me and some one sent me a knife and someone else a box oftofly and someone else a cake that looks as if it is a seed one. I am 2nd in Latin and 4th in English and 6th in History and Geography and gth in French and nth in Arith.

With lots of love from Eric Blair.

21 st July

My darling Mother,

I hope you are alright. Will you please ask to the tobaconest to sell you some cigarette cards he will give you a good many for about four-pence. We had two matches yesterday in the ist we lost, in the II we won they made 52 and we mad 246, one of our boys mad 90. With lots of love from

Eric Blair. P.S. I send my love to everybody at home and give Guissy [Avril’s piebald guinea pig] my love.

‘There were wonderful midsummer evenings,’ he recalls even in the essay, ‘when, as a special treat, we were not driven off to bed as usual but allowed to wander about the grounds in the long twilight, ending up with a plunge into the swimming bath at about nine o’clock’ (it cannot always have been icy and filthy).

Then the contented school holidays, family holidays, back to school, but only three of the next term’s letters survive (and then, indeed, only one more at all from St Cyprian’s). Two are routine but the third is full of high matters:

My darling Mother,

I hope you are quite well. We have had a Magic Lantern Lecture on Thursday and a Fancy Dress Dance on Friday, I went to the dance as a footman with a red velvet coat, and a white silk flowered waist-coat, and red silk trousers, and black stockings and a lace frill, and a wig.

One of the boys went as a priate, three as revelutionests, one went as a sun flower, and one as Puss in Boots, another as a frog, and one as the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, and a lot of other things. I am 2nd in Latin this week, and 2nd in one of my English forms, and 3rd in Arithmetic, 7th in French and my other English form. We played four matches yesterday and won in them all. I hope Marjorie is quite well now, and that everybody likes the house in Shiplake. please give Avril my love and Guissy as well, and pleas write to me when you are not too busy and tell me all about the new house.

With lots of love from
Eric Blair

‘Three revelutionests’ indeed, and the costumes would have come from the school: one imagines black cloaks, black beards, round black bombs with fuses, a red scarf or handkerchief, a box of matches and Russian accents? And after the summer holidays, his family, his father now home, had moved into a larger house at Shiplake, ‘Roselawn’ in Station Road, but only two miles from the former house at Henley.

____ § ____

Before 1914 and the Great War, the summer holidays were spent in Cornwall, either at Looe or at Polperro. An old Mrs Perrycoste of Polperro had been brought up by Richard Blair’s mother, Eric’s grandmother, who survived her husband by many years. He had died in 1867, over thirty years before Richard Blair had had his first child at 41; and Eric’s grandfather had been bom in 1802, a hundred and one years before Eric (how extraordinary the life-spans and successions of children with old fathers). Mrs Perrycoste’s children, Honor and Bernard, played with Marjorie, Avril and Eric. ‘We used to have a lovely time down there, bathing,’ Avril reminisced in a BBC programme in 1960, ‘we had some friends down there with children who were almost cousins really, and we used to go rock-climbing and all the sort of usual pursuits and he always seemed perfectly happy.’ She remembered Eric, the Perrycoste children and herself going down a lane at Polperro where a headless ghost was said to lurk; and as a precaution they carried sprigs of rowan and a leaf from the Prayer Book. Eric was always interested in ghost stories. Jacintha Buddicom has said that she is surprised that he never edited an anthology of them. Apart from these Cornish visits, said Avril:.

We never really played much together as children because five years’ difference in age does make a great difference at that time of life, but I do remember interminable games of French cricket when he always seemed to be in and we were always vainly trying to get him out. But it has been said that he had an unhappy childhood and I don’t really think this was in the least true, although I must admit that he did give out that impression himself.[2]

Avril Dunn’s .testimony carries conviction when she herself reminds us of the age gap. He would not have talked to her about the dark side of St Cyprian’s, but plainly no disturbances carried over into his behaviour to mar the holiday pleasures, no aggressive tantrums such as one would expect ifSt Cyprian’s had been a total hell, quite as black as he later painted it, or, even if so, if he had not been able to cope with it.

The school year of 1913-14 brought that new boy to St Cyprian’s who was to be such a welcome ally or solace against ‘the philistines’ and ‘the hooligans’, who was to follow him to Eton, and then to resume a friendly and helpful acquaintance in the mid-Thirties which would last until Orwell’s death: Cyril Connolly. If there are some tensions between ‘Eric Blair’ and ‘George Orwell’, Cyril Connolly was, right from his first appearance on the prep-school scene, all surviving contemporaries agree, Cyril Connolly. Connolly saw himself as standing for aestheticism and romanticism and Orwell for independence and ‘an alternative to character, Intelligence’: Cecil Beaton ‘showed me another, Sensibility... from Orwell I leamt about literature, from Cecil I learnt about art,’ he wrote in Enemies of Promise — the school being one such enemy. How much, indeed, children leam for themselves and get from their friends, not the learning facts by rote but the love of ideas, problems and curious things. Cyril and Eric both wrote poetry and exchanged their poems: ‘I would compare [my poems] with Orwell’s and be critical about his, while he was polite about mine.’[3]

Miss Buddicom thinks that Orwell in his essay was simply trying ‘to go one better’ than Connolly’s disparagement of the school in his chapter. Connolly’s chapter is indeed almost as cruel a tract as Orwell’s essay. The time-scale of it is, however, unreliable, for he attributes views to 9- and 10-year-old boys only plausible in precocious 12- and 13-year-olds. He reads back into early days what they were like when they were at Eton.

The remarkable thing about Orwell was that he alone among the boys was an intellectual, and not a parrot, for he thought for himself, read Shaw and Samuel Butler, and rejected not only [St Cyprian’s] but the war, the Empire, Kipling, Success and Character.[4]

Certainly he did not reject the War, Empire and Kipling in 1914. On the contrary, the War led to his first attempt at publication, in the Henley and, South Oxfordshire Standard in that September when aged n. They published his submission promptly — he was not always to be so lucky with manuscripts — on 2 October 1914.


Oh! give me the strength of the Lion
The wisdom of Reynard the Fox
And then I’ll hurl troops at the Germans
And give them the hardest of knocks.

Oh! think of the War lord’s mailed fist,
That is striking at England today:
And think of the lives that our soldiers
Are fearlessly throwing away.

Awake! Oh you young men of England,
For if when your country’s in need,
You do not enlist by the thousand,
You truly are cowards indeed.

The metre owes a debt to Robert Service even if the language is sub-Kipling at his wartime worst. The last letter of his from St Cyprian’s which survives asks for copies of this poem.


Darling Mums,

Thanks for your letter. Today there was a whole holiday, and we took our dinner out to East Dean, and went to have tea at Jevington. The tea was unspeakably horrible, though it did cost 1/6. Thanks most frightfully for the two bob you sent me: it will be especially useful in one way; because you see, when I’m given my money at the end of term, I shall probably be given a crisp, crackling, and dirty ten-shilling note, so that I can put it and your postal order into a letter and send them straight off to Gamages. Then I’ll get the things in about a week, I hope. If I do go and get mumps, which is quite probable, it will muck up things considerably. However, let’s hope I won’t. Do you think they’ll have these things in stock at Gamages? Because I found them in the Christinas catalogue. I do hope poor little Roy [a pet dog] will live through all right: I’ve a sort of presentiment that he will. By the way, do you think you could send 2 copies of the paper they’ve offered to take my poem in? It doesn’t matter much if you don’t, but still I should like it. It was ripping on the picnic we went today, — I’ve never drunk water from a bucket drawn straight up from a well before. We did this at a farm where six of us went with a master to buy milk. By the way, I have 3 catterpillars now, as my partner made over his stock to me. They’re called Savonarola, Paul, and Barnabas. Please give my love to Father and Avril and everyone.

Your loving son Eric

When copies of the newspaper arrived, Mrs Wilkes read the poem aloud to the whole school: he was suddenly in favour. If the ‘little hooligans’ and the Philistines had gone for him that night, who would have blamed them? They were a patriotic mob, however. But either he was not a good courtier, or luck deserted him. For despite the poem and his winning the prize ‘for the best list of books taken out of the library’, when he and Connolly were caught reading either something of Somerset Maugham’s or Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street (two separate incidents seem to have got conflated in memory), they fell from favour just as suddenly — Blair never to recover it, said Connolly.

Could Shaw and Butler have been read before Eton? Connolly’s memory tended to push things back. ‘“Of course you realize, Connolly,” said Orwell, “that, whoever wins this war, we shall emerge a second-rate nation”’[5] was more probably said, Connolly later considered, at Eton rather than St Cyprian’s. Yet they were both reading books beyond their years. It is at least possible that he tackled them then. Orwell recalled in a letter to Julian Symons in 1948 his great admiration for H. G. Wells as a writer:

...he was a very early influence on me. I think I was ten or eleven when Cyril Connolly and I got hold of a copy ofWells’s The Country of the Blind (short stories) and were so fascinated by it that we kept stealing it from one another. I can still remember at 4 o’clock on a midsummer morning, with the school fast asleep and the sun slanting through the window, creeping down a passage to Connolly’s dormitory where I knew the book would be beside his bed. We also got into severe trouble (and I think a caning — I forget) for having a copy of Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street.[6]

But despite this stronger diet, his patriotism broke into print once more in the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard on 21 July 1916. Mrs Wilkes had set the theme of ‘Kitchener’ for a poetry exercise or competition to mark the death of the War Lord when the Hampshire sank on his secret journey to Russia. (Connolly’s offering was also modelled on Gray’s ‘Elegy’.)


No stone is set to mark his nation’s loss
No stately tomb enshrines his noble breast;
Not e’en the tribute of a wooden cross
Can mark his hero’s rest.

He needs them not, his name untarnished stands,
Remindful of the mighty deeds he worked,
Footprints of one, upon time’s changeful sands,
Who ne’er his duty shirked.

Who follows in his steps no danger shuns,
Nor stoops to conquer by shameful deed,
An honest and and unselfish race he runs,
From fear and malice freed.

This was to be his last publication for twelve years. And could this possibly have been youthful cynicism, simply to get back into favour or into print again? Unlikely, but possible. His sardonic, odd-man-out attitudes were certainly established and apparent by his last two years in prep school. And yet patriotism does strange things to a fellow, particularly the higher patriotism aware of death and sacrifice, when contrasted with the more vulgar jingoism moved only by revenge and paltry pride.

Certainly his 1914 poem rings completely true. His sister’s first memory of him

...was at the beginning of the First World War, in fact I think it was actually the day war broke out and he would have been about eleven then and I suppose I was six and he was sitting cross-legged on the floor of my mother’s bedroom talking about it in a grown-up manner and I was knitting him a school scarf...[7]

Later he professed to have been unmoved by 1914. ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ hardly mentions the War. And in ‘My Country, Right or Left’ (1940) he claimed that ‘nothing in the whole war moved me so deeply as the loss of the Titanic had done a few years earlier’.

Of the outbreak of war I have three vivid memories which, being petty and irrelevant, are uninfluenced by anything that has come later. One is of the cartoon of the ‘German Emperor’ (I believe the hated name ‘Kaiser’ was not popularized till a little later) that appeared in the last days of July... Another is of the time when the Army commandeered all the horses in our little country town, and a cabman burst into tears in the market-place when his horse, which had worked for him for years, was taken away from him. And another is of a mob of young men. at the railway station, scrambling for the evening papers that had just arrived on the London train. And I remember the pile of peagreen papers... the high collars, the tightish trousers and the bowler hats, far better than I can remember the names of the terrific battles that were already raging on the French frontier.[8]

He would be oddly forgetful if his first publication was not among his vivid memories. More likely that by 1940 he was being deliberately and skilfully selective, to deflate vulgar patriotism before stating a case for a kind of common-sense, populist patriotism. Back then, however, it was the voice of Kipling, not yet rejected, that spoke through the child.

Towards the end of the summer holidays in 1914, just after the outbreak of War in August and when Eric was n, a fortunate event occurred for Orwell biography. Jacintha Buddicom (aged 13), her sister Guiny (n), and brother Prosper (10), were playing French cricket at the bottom of their garden when they saw, close to the fence in a neighbouring field, a boy standing on his head. As this was a feat they had not seen before, one of them, polite but curious, asked, ‘Why are you standing on your head?’ The boy replied, ‘You are noticed more if you stand on your head than if you are right way up.’[9] They all became friends on the spot, though the right way up: not a holiday passed, until Eric left Eton in 1921, without their seeing each other almost daily and they frequently went away on holiday together. Mrs Buddicom got to know Mr and Mrs Blair quite well, particularly Mrs Blair. Mr Buddicom, an Oxford science graduate who had lectured at the London Hospital and Birkbeck College and who dabbled in a wide range of pursuits from Egyptology to market gardening, deserted his family in 1915 to start a new life in Australia. Jacintha Buddicom’s account of her friendship with the Blairs creates the impression that she came to rely on Eric for a lot of talk about books and learning that she would have liked to have got from her father. Her book, Eric and Us, may be florid and sentimental to some literary tastes, but it is a convincingly detailed account of their childhood. If its perspective is rosetinted and its vision somewhat myopic (for it was always holiday), yet it is no more so than ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ is deliberately depressive. Even if her personal comments on his subsequent career and books (they never met again after 1921) are obiter dicta, irrelevant to her genuine biographical evidence, yet they too have in them a bustling common sense and a good feel for the customs of the period. Only early in 1949 did she realize that the George Orwell of Animal Farm which she had read and enjoyed was Eric Blair, her vanished childhood friend; and when she wrote to him, he replied at length from his sickbed, warmly and nostalgically — clearly the relationship had been close and real.

Her account, moreover, is well-documented from family letters, photographs and diaries, and the manuscript other book was read by Avril who thought it ‘a very fair assessment of Eric’s childhood’. Yet Avril, of course, also only saw the holiday Eric, and neither she nor Jacintha were inclined to take ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ too seriously, perhaps not seriously enough. If he was not as desperately unhappy at St Cyprian’s as he made out, it was more horrible than either his sister or Jacintha ever supposed. Either he kept a stiff upper lip — as school indeed taught him to, or he was simply unable or unwilling even as a boy to communicate his private griefs easily.

The Buddicom children found Mr Blair a tired, reserved and rather forbidding man, though they liked his wife. They always addressed them formally as Mr or Mrs Blair, never as ‘Uncle Richard’ or ‘Auntie Ida’ as was the custom for young children with parents of close friends. They seldom played in the Blairs’ garden, but nearly every day with Eric and Avril in their own. Theirs was a much larger garden with a wild end and a croquet lawn, on which bicycle polo took place as well as more orthodox ways of using the croquet balls and mallets. ‘The Blairs’ was a much more conventional laid-out garden, with a potent if unwritten notice: Keep off the flowerbeds.’[10] Mr Blair became the secretary of the local golf club, a post that carried a small stipend, and spent a lot of time playing, possibly the one thing that he had in common with his wife’s brother, Charles.

‘The Blairs, though certainly not demonstrative, were nevertheless a united family, and their home seemed to us to be a happy one. I do not think Eric was fond of his father,’ writes Miss Buddicom, ‘although he respected and obeyed him, but without any doubt he was genuinely fond of his Mother and sisters, especially Avril.’ In the years to come he never lost touch with his mother and Avril, even though he never confided in them. Miss Buddicom notes perceptively that when in 1944 Eric was to name his adopted son Richard — after Richard Rees, in fact, not his father — ‘he did not avoid the name’. ‘He did not like his own name Eric,’ she wrote, for it reminded him of the prig in Eric, or Little by Little, the Victorian boys’ story, ‘a book he deplored’.

Miss Buddicom remembered him as ‘a naturally reserved and rather self-contained boy’ and Avril remembered him as ‘an aloof, undemonstrative person’ — and added quickly ‘which doesn’t necessarily mean to say that he had a blighted childhood and developed a “death wish” as so many big biographers seem to think’.[11] Yet not so aloof or reserved that he couldn’t stand on his head when he wanted to attract attention and make friends.

What Eric and Jacintha had in common were bookish, literary tastes. While the others looked after young livestock — both households seemed to have been teeming with fecund pets — they played a game together which they called ‘Set Piece Poetry’. A subject was chosen by them in turn, sometimes specific words, chosen at random, were to be included, and sometimes a specified form or metre and a maximum length was set. In each contest, ‘undictionary’ words could be obligatory, optional or forbidden. Eric was particularly good at coining undictionary words and was more prolific and prolix than she.[12] Poetry was, indeed, to be important in the aspirations of both the boy and the man.[13]

All the children together played many different pencil-and-paper word-games, like ‘Ladders’ and ‘Hangman’, and lots of card-games, particularly Rummy and Cheat, as well as the tireless, timeless Ludo, Snakes and Ladders and Halma. Chess was thought too serious. Of all indoor pastimes and educative games typical of that time, nothing musical is mentioned. Eric seems to have been as good as tone-deaf and like the rest of the family to have had neither ability nor interest in music. All the children were collectors, in their season and fashion, of stamps, coins, cigarette cards, birds’ eggs (the code was never to take more than one and then only if there were several), and pond life. Eric also collected in an album seaside picture-postcards purchased at Eastbourne, largely of ladies with big bottoms; but he also had a manilla envelope with cards judged too vulgar for the eyes of the Buddicom girls. (He may have still had this collection in 1941 when he wrote ‘The Art of Donald McGill’, the classic critique and appreciation of vulgar postcards as folk art.)

The only timeJacintha and Eric quarrelled was when he and Prosper killed *a beautiful hedgehog’ and attempted to bake it in clay as they had heard the gipsies did. The Buddicom cook was not happy when she found the corpse in the oven, and she actually gave notice when they set up on top of the kitchen stove an amateur ‘whisky-still’ which blew up while she was having her afternoon rest.[14] Eric and Prosper were fond of ‘chemical experiments’. They made gunpowder. They put some in a bonfire in the garden which didn’t ignite. So Eric went up and gave it a questing poke and it did. They escaped with singed eyebrows, blackened hands, faces and clothes, and parental wrath. Carpentry was then a common pursuit but Eric and Prosper did not indulge in it: Eric’s later do-it-yourself enthusiasms and practicality plainly had no early, formal basis. They all went fishing, although only the boys were serious about it, essaying flies on occasion rather than worms or bread. ‘Where are the English coarse fish now?’ complained George Bowling in Coming Up For Air. ‘When I was a kid every pond and stream had fish in it. Now all the ponds are drained, and when the streams aren’t poisoned with chemicals from factories they’re full of rusty tins and motor-bike tyres.[15] They went shooting for rabbits over common land or fields belonging to neighbouring farms. Eric loved the countryside and the simple country pursuits.

Orwell was to write in 1945 in the Evening Standard a light, nostalgic essay on toys with the somewhat gloomy title, ‘Bare Christmas for the Children’. It was a wise and gentle polemic against manufactured toys in favour of playing with real things and making one’s own toys. But somewhat inconsistently, two manufactured items — anything but do-it-yourself — were also commended:

One of the greatest joys of my own childhood were those little brass cannons on wooden gun-carriages... The smallest had barrels the size of your little finger, the largest were six or eight inches long, cost ten shillings and went off with a noise like the Day of Judgement. To fire them, you needed gunpowder, which the shops sometimes refused to sell you, but a resourceful boy could make gunpowder for himself if he took the precaution of buying the ingredients from three different chemists.

And an even more surprising sentiment for a war-weary Christmas followed from reckless Uncle George:

One of the advantages of being a child thirty years ago, was the light-hearted attitude that then prevailed towards firearms. Up till not long before the other war you could walk into any bicycle shop and buy a revolver, and even when the authorities began to take an interest in revolvers, you could still buy for 7s. 6d. a fairly lethal weapon known as a Saloon rifle. I bought my first Saloon rifle at the age often, with no questions asked.[16]

The rifle was a .22 calibre. He would have already used such a gun in the St Cyprian’s cadet corps under the instruction of the school sergeant (old army men sometimes found cosier niches, then and now, in prep or public schools than as theatre commissionaires). Boys would have gone into the all but compulsory Officers Training Corps (the OTC) in their public school already able to shoot at both fixed and moving targets.

Jacintha remembers no great financial stress around the Blairs, and chides Eric for harping on this theme:

His parents’ finances were doubtless straitened when Mr Blair retired and Marjorie’s school fees had to be found as well as Eric’s; but when we knew the family they did not seem drastically impoverished. The children had the usual little treats that we had, and Eric had enough pocket-money to buy quantities of books for me as well as for himself. He had a gun, a fishing rod and a bicycle, like Prosper and his contemporaries, and the Blairs went for seaside holidays...

There was no harping on inferiority and poverty by Eric then... The picture painted of a wretched little neurotic, snivelling miserably before a swarm of swanking bullies, suspecting that he ‘smelt’, just was not Eric at all.[17]

She has remarked that she finds the ‘I’ of his essay much closer to the anti-hero of Keep the aspidistra Flying than to the Eric Blair she knew. He would imitate and mimic the masters at school, but she caught no note of bitterness, only of facetious rudeness, perhaps of a slightly cocky superiority. ‘He used to tell hilarious anecdotes in the holidays,’ she remarked, ‘and laughed at the school heads for being prune-and-prism snobs.’ He seemed to have no other friends around Shiplake and Henley, nor did school friends come to stay with him in the holidays nor he with them, as was often the custom. But in talking about books, he occasionally and appreciatively quoted the dicta of a friend whom he never named but referred to as ‘C.C.’. Even in the relative garrulity of youth, the habit was growing in Eric of keeping his different worlds and different friends apart.

Above all they talked about books, read books, bought, borrowed and swapped books incessantly. ‘He said that reading was good preparation for writing: any book could teach you something, if only how to write one. Of course, Eric was always going to write: not merely as an author, always a FAMOUS AUTHOR, in capitals.[18] Wells was one of his favourite authors. In the Buddicom house there was a copy of A Modern Utopia which had been owned byJacintha’s runaway father, who had met H. G. Wells. Eric borrowed it so often and admired it so much that eventually it was given to him. He liked ghost stories and detective stories, admired Homung, Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, and thought it ‘a good thing’ that Holmes and Raffles should be in the same family. Swift, Thackeray, Dickens, Charles Reade, lan Hay and Kipling were much read, as was Shakespeare. Later, but more probably during Eton days, he read Butler, Sterne, the whole of Wells, and Shaw — professing disappointment at the latter; but he may have begun these secularist readings even at prep school in his last year. Jacintha remembers that among short stories he took particular pleasure in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Premature Burial’, James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’, Kipling’s ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ and Wells’ ‘Slip under the Microscope’ and ‘The Country of the Blind’. And ‘though Eric and I were far too old for it,’ they liked Beatrix Potter’s Pigling Bland, her sister’s book: he read it to her twice over to cheer her up when she had a cold.[19]

Not merely was Eric devoted to reading Shakespeare:

Eric used to write him, constantly concocting long historical dramas in blank verse, which he was to read aloud to me with different voices for the different parts. Gruff and manly for the heroes: alternatively ultra-plebeian or mincing la-di-dah for the villains... And a squealing falsetto for the female characters... which often dissolved us both into such helpless giggles that Eric was unable to continue his recital. I once suggested that I should ‘do the ladies’ but Eric declined this well-meant offer: he would not allow his sacred screeds out of his own hands. I never saw these Masterpieces — he only read them to me.[20]

This all confirms his account in ‘Why I Write’ (1946) of his early facility.

Apart from school work, I wrote vers d’occasion, semi-comic poems which I could turn out at what now seems to me astonishing speed — at fourteen I wrote a whole rhyming play, in imitation of Aristophanes, in about a week... But side by side with all this, for fifteen years or more, I was carrying out a literary exercise of a quite different kind: this was the making up of a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind. I believe this is a common habit of children and adolescents. As a very small child I used to imagine that I was, say, Robin Hood, and picture myself as the hero of thrilling adventures, but quite soon my ‘story’ ceased to be narcissistic in a crude way and became more and more a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw. For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: ‘He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a matchbox, half open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window...’ This habit continued till I was about twenty-five, right through my non-literary years. Although I had to search, and did search, for the right words, I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside. The ‘story’ must, I suppose, have reflected the styles of the various writers I admired at different ages, but so far as I remember it always had the same meticulous descriptive quality.[21]

In 1915 the Blairs moved back into Henley, to 36 St Mark’s Road, a smaller, semi-detached house, easier to run in wartime conditions, with Marjorie itching to get away to war work, old Blair trying to get into the Army, and domestic help hard to find. (But two miles’ distance made little difference to the children’s meetings, thanks to bicycles. Indeed, after he left prep school, wartime conditions threw them together even more in the vacations.) Just before the move, the Buddicom girls remember Mr Blair often interrupting their play to call Eric to finish his special holiday task in time to catch the last post. For his last two years in school he was receiving special tuition, even by post in the holidays. to try for a scholarship. He did the work without grumbling, conscientiously, and came when he was called. He never told them, however, that Mr Wilkes had goaded him with reminders that he was at St Cyprian’s on reduced rates. He loyally supported the hopes of his parents, so far at least.

____ § ____

The last two years at St Cyprian’s he worked, and was worked, harder than ever. With so much that he himself wanted to read, quite apart from the scholarship fodder, his lifelong habit of hard and constant work was being established. He must have felt that he would betray his parents and possibly the Wilkes if he slacked off on the scholarship grind, but would betray himself if it stopped his general reading. So he probably worked and read twice as hard as a normal child. These two years were, also, the first two years of the Great War. The lack of any real reference to the War in his essay on St Cyprian’s is surely conclusive that its ‘meticulous descriptive quality’ was a literary realism, not unvarnished autobiography. For school-life changed in many ways: drilling took up a lot of games-time; the boys visited army hospitals competing with old ladies to give Woodbine cigarettes and small comforts to wounded Tommies; and the lower forms were taught en masse to knit balaclava helmets, trench-comforters and (like Sister Susie of the song) socks for seamen. Shortage of food and coal must have made the winters specially hellish. Neither Connolly’s nor Orwell’s accounts allow for this. They can hardly not have noticed the reality of the War, for the slow litany of the names of dead former pupils began to be read in the chapel on Sunday nights; but they were probably repelled by the way all such occasions and incidents would have been, if things ran true to form, seized on almost with relish as yet more, indeed supreme and god-given, ‘tests of character’. But within all this, it was ‘business as usual’ — the great Asquithian war slogan — as regards preparation for public-school scholarship examinations.

The Wilkes thought that Blair was possible material for the highest mutual prize of all, a scholarship to Eton. But knowing the competition was both plentiful and fierce, they hedged their bets by entering him for Wellington College, which was possibly marginally easier than their usual main target, Harrow. In February 1916 he sat the Wellington scholarship exam successfully. None the less, he went to Eton in the spring, accompanied by Mr Wilkes himself (so important these matters were — like a young athlete with his coach), to sit their two-and-a-half-day examination. A contemporary remembers that the death of Kitchener was actually announced during the middle of one of the examinations! The results were published in June.

Now Eton was a curious place. The scholarship boys, the King’s Scholars, no more than seventy in number, constituted ‘College’, an intellectual elite living in some of the oldest buildings of the school. Each annual entry was ‘an election’ to College, usually ten to thirteen boys, depending on how many ofthe seventy left that year. Blair came i4th in the competitive examination, not high enough to ensure a place that autumn for the Election of 1916. But it was reasonable to think that there would be room after Christmas if he held on, particularly since boys were leaving early for the army as the blood-letting reached its intensity and the supply of ‘suitable officer material’ diminished rapidly. Wilkes was confident enough to proclaim a full day’s holiday in his honour to celebrate the success (and thus to advertise it to other parents). Blair stayed on at St Cyprian’s until December 1916, waiting for Eton. He must have been somewhat in favour at that time, for his poem on the death of Kitchener was published in July and found its way to Mrs Wilkes’ scrap-book.

One wonders what he did that last term, whether they let him read much on his own, or if they carried on the hated cramming exercises out of habit or lack of alternative — like the offensives of Haig and Foch. This could have marked the beginning of that slackening-orfin schoolwork, the resting on his oars, which was to become so apparent at Eton. For it was to Eton he eventually went; although as nothing came up at Christmas, he took up the Wellington offer which was still open, and spent nine weeks ofthe first term of 1917 there.

He did not like Wellington at all. He found the militaristic spirit of this famous army school abhorrent. He had looked forward to more privacy, but had to live in the Blucher dormitory whose cubicles had low sides and thin walls, noisy and insecure. He was placed only 13th out of 31 boys in his class after these weeks. All he later remembered with any pleasure was skating on the lake. So when a letter came from Eton, telling his father that there was now room for him to join the Election of 1916, he immediately accepted. And almost certainly the Eton scholarship was, from his father’s point of view, a better one financially. So just before his fourteenth birthday in May 1917, Eric Blair joined Eton College.

Farewell to St Cyprian’s, but not for ever, since he was to write about it. But let Cyril Connolly now have his last afterthought, writing in 1972 in a review of The Unknown Orwell, by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams:

When I read this account of Orwell’s school days, drawn so largely from his and mine, I was at first enchanted as by anything which recalls one’s youth but when I went to verify some references from my old reports and letters I was nearly sick... In the case of St Cyprian’s and the Wilkes whom I had so blithely mocked I feel an emotional disturbance. I received a letter of bitter reproach from Mrs Wilkes after Enemies of Promise which I have never dared to re-read and when, after the death of my own parents, their papers descended to me I found evidence of the immense trouble she had taken to help me win my scholarship to Eton despite the misgivings of my father which had to be overcome. The Wilkes were true friends and I had caricatured their mannerisms... and read mercenary motives into much that was just enthusiasm.[22]

So affected was he, that he had actually attended her funeral in 1967, which was conducted by her son: ‘Nobody spoke to me.’ Indeed in 1968 he had written (reviewing The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters):

I have reported... a certain softening in my own attitude to St Cyprian’s. This was due to getting possession of my school reports and Headmaster’s letters to my father, and some of my own letters home. They revealed a considerable distortion between my picture of the proprietors and their own unremitting care to bring me on. At this point I hear Orwell’s wheezy chuckle, ‘Of course, they knew they were on to a good thing. What do you think our propaganda value to them was as winners of Eton scholarships — almost as good as being an “Hon”’... and perhaps... Mrs Wilkes... used too much physical violence and emotional blackmail, and... vented some personal bitterness on the boys. Yet she was warm-hearted and an inspired teacher. The worldliness and snobbery of the Wilkes which Orwell so much condemns was characteristic of the competitive middle class of the period, not a singular aberration.

None the less, he concluded the review:

It has been suggested by Mr Gow [who taught them at Eton] that Orwell and I were rebels who would be bound to criticize any educational institutions; but this is to underrate the voodoo-like quality of St Cyprian’s. Gavin Maxwell found it unchanged ten years later and I have heard of old boys who taught their children to shake their fists at the now deserted playing fields, as they drove past.[23]

What effect did all this have on Orwell’s character which, Connolly had said, ‘was already formed by the time he had arrived at Eton’?[24] He summed up Eric Blair’s young life:

Something that does come out throughout... that he enjoyed every moment of it, he liked fives and football at school, he liked walking and ‘natural history’, he liked reading, arguing and debunking, his eyes were made to glitter with amusement, his mouth for teasing, his schoolboy chubbiness persisted until his face grew cavernous from two pneumonias. And he was emotionally independent with the egotism of all natural writers; his friendships were constant but seldom close.[25]

Indeed by the time Eric Blair left St Cyprian’s, ‘George Orwell’ is only discernible in him (with much hindsight) as someone already solitary and reserved. Possibly he was ‘emotionally independent’ even before he reached the school. Except in the essay, only very rarely would he admit that it had influenced and affected him (as some sad people talk about almost nothing else) in some small ways. Most of his childhood memories in talks to his friends were about books, ideas and interesting and odd external things. If at prep school he was not perhaps altogether without religion or religious feeling, yet he was already an instinctive rationalist and anti-romantic. He had become very tight and secretive too. These latter traits, which stayed with him all his life, may well have been an instant reaction to the hostile world of prep school compared to the easy informality and comfort of his mother’s home. Yet as a small boy, virtually without a father, among women — and those women somewhat hostile about men — he may have already found the world regarding him as an odd man out and have learned to keep himself within himself even before going away to school.

The main point, however, is that taking holidays as well as school, freedom as well as constraint, no terrible harm seems to have been done, as he himself claimed; or if some harm there was, it was not as black as he painted it, and the world and he might have been the poorer without it.


1. ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, CE IV, p. 344.[back]

2. Avril Dunn speaking in ‘George Orwell: A Programme of Recorded Reminiscences’, arranged and narrated by Rayner Heppenstall, recorded on 20 Aug. 1960 and first broadcast on 2 Nov. 1960 (BBC Archives, Ref. No. TLO 24177). Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]

3. Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1938), p. 213.[back]

4. ibid., pp. 212-13.[back]

5. ibid., p. 213.[back]

6. 10 May 1948, in CE IV, p. 422.[back]

7. Avril Dunn in ‘George Orwell’, BBC (see note 2 above).[back]

8. CE I, p. 536.[back]

9. Jacintha Buddicom, ‘The Young Eric’, in Miriam Gross (ed.). The World of George Orwell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1971), p. 2.[back]

10. Jacintha Buddicom, Eric and Us (Leslie Frewin, London, 1974), p. 16.[back]

11. ibid., p. 19.[back]

12. ibid., pp. 35-6.[back]

13. Few of his poems, even from the published sources, are included in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters.[back]

14. Buddicom, ‘The Young Eric’, in Gross, op. cit., p. 2.[back]

15. Coming Up for Air, p. 76.[back]

16. Evening Standard, 1 Dec. 1945, p. 6.[back]

17. The first paragraph is from Buddicom, ‘The Young Eric’, in Gross, op. cit., p. 6, and the second is from Buddicom, Eric and Us, p. 53.[back]

18. Buddicom, Eric and Us, p. 38.[back]

19. ibid., pp. 38-40.[back]

20. ibid., p. 41.[back]

21. CE I, p. 2.[back]

22. Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, The Unknown Orwell (Constable, London, 1972), reviewed by Cyril Connolly, The Evening Colonnade (David Bruce & Watson, London, 1973), p. 372.[back]

23. ibid., pp. 381-2.[back]

24. Cyril Connolly, Previous Convictions (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1963), P. 318.[back]

25. Connolly, The Evening Colonnade, p. 374.[back]



It is a truth universally acknowledged that going to Eton ‘marks a man for life’. Etonians and non-Etonians at least agree on this. One suspects deliberate perversity in Orwell’s own terse entry of 1942 for Twentieth Century Authors: ‘I had been lucky enough to win a scholarship, but I did no work there and learned very little, and I don’t feel that Eton has been much of a formative inHuence in my life.’[1] Much of the evidence, however, points Orwell’s way. There are contrary opinions to relate and the evidence can be interpreted differently; even if Eton did not have a ‘formative influence’ there is more evidence about what he was like while at Eton than there is either for St Cyprian’s or Burma. But to say a great deal about Eton is not necessarily to say much about Orwell.[2]

When Sonia Orwell once remarked to Anthony Powell that George was not a typical Etonian, Powell replied that, on the contrary, he was; that what she found missing in Orwell was Oxford and this was what made all the Etonians who went up to Oxford so different from Orwell. But what did Powell mean by ‘a typical Etonian’? True answers may lie in negatives: a typical Etonian was not the accepted picture of the typical public-school man, ostentatiously conceited and conformist. Secure and unrivalled at the very top of the English social hierarchy, Eton permitted tolerance and eccentricity to thrive more than in other public schools. Orwell wrote no essay on Eton, only a few glancing references; but they are relatively favourable, even though they stress its snobbery and money-consciousness. In 1948 he reviewed a book on Eton for the Observer, typically not mentioning that it had been his own school:

Whatever may happen to the great public schools when our educational system is reorganized, it is almost impossible that Eton should survive in anything like its present form, because the training it offers was originally intended for a landowning aristocracy and had become an anachronism long before 1939...

It also has one great virtue ... and that is a tolerant and civilized atmosphere which gives each boy a fair chance of developing his own individuality. The reason is perhaps that, being a very rich school, it can afford a large staff, which means that the masters are not overworked ...[3]

Several times he was to condemn the prep schools as being worse than the public schools.[4] That ‘one great virtue’ of tolerance was, however, more plausible in relation to College than to the School as a whole. An entry had been made in the ‘College Annals’ in 1902 by Ronald Knox (later the famous wit and Catholic priest) which was often quoted by Blair’s contemporaries: ‘College shows a healthy spirit of anti-nomianism — the surest proof of internal soundness.’

College was, indeed, a very different place from the rest of the School. Seventy scholars enjoyed endowments founded by Henry VI: the new State had needed new servants outside the old aristocracy. The rest of the School numbered some nine hundred boys called the Oppidans. The Collegers were all King’s Scholars receiving tuition, board and lodging and recreational facilities for £25 a year each (‘exorbitant’, Blair told his friend, Denys King-Fallow) compared to the £100 paid by the Oppidans.[5] College was thus an intellectual elite thrust into the heart of a social elite. Institutional prestige attached to College; they lived in the oldest Tudor buildings of the Foundation under the Master in College, while the rest of the School lived in Houses of less antiquity, scattered around the town of Eton. Furthermore, the Captain of the School was always a Colleger. The Collegers tended to look down on the Oppidans as aristocratic Philistines and athletic hearties, and the Oppidans looked down on the ‘Tugs’ as being middle-class ‘Saps’ (Etonian for swots) living in villas in Tooting. In fact, within the Oppidans there was plutocracy as well as aristocracy and brains as well as brawn; and within College there would have been no one whose parents could not have afforded to have sent him to the kind of prep schools which prepared him in Latin and Greek for the scholarship examinations; and there would have been quite a few from the upper classes who had won scholarships. Not all the blood had run thin. The boys knew that they were stereotyping each other; but the stereotypes none the less were pursued with tribal relish. Oppidans and Collegers, however, were united by what even Christopher Hollis, MP, was to call ‘a childish arrogance’ towards the outside world — even if they made it less evident to others than did more insecure public schools.[6] The exclusions bred a feeling of equality and fraternity among themselves.

The basic social unit was the Election, not graded classes but all those who entered in the same year — it was somewhat the same form of social organization as a Zulu impi. They lived together, ate together, were mildly oppressed or positively persecuted by the Election above, did the same in turn to those below them, and, being few in numbers, knew each other well. Denys King-Farlow was in Blair’s Election:

Blair ... had a large, rather fat face, with big jowls, a bit like a hamster. Best feature, I suppose, about him was he had slightly protruding, light china-blue eyes. I asked him how he’d liked Wellington, what he’d thought of switching over to Eton. He immediately said, ‘Well, it can’t be worse than Wellington. That really was perfectly bloody.’ That struck me as not quite the right way to talk. His mother used to come down from time to time to school and afterwards he would run her down very much and also run down his rather sticky old father. He thought his mother was a frivolous person who wasn’t interested in any of the sort of things that he thought people should be interested in and his father wasn’t apparently interested in anything. He’d been the first person I personally had ever heard running down his own father and mother. Even more outrageous had been the jeering comments that he would cheerfully offer in public on the appearance and get-up of the parents of other boys when they visited the school.[7]

The antinomian spirit needed little encouragement in Eric Blair. Perhaps he was making it his character ‘not to be easily impressed’, as each strove to establish a character, as growing boys will, to show their mettle in a world of elders. He made plain that he was not impressed by Eton and most of his contemporaries were not much impressed by anything else about him. His criticism of his parents was real enough and unusual enough to excite comment; but if he implied that he was breaking from family loyalties, that was only his boyish pose. This facetious aggression did reflect some feelings of being socially margin al, something carried over from prep school, even if there were other boys in the College whose parents’ sense of social status also ran a bit ahead of the cash How available.

Something of his scepticism towards authority was shared by most of his Election. College always ‘rather prided itself on a good crop of loners and odd ones’, but right from its beginning the Election of 1916 had a revulsion against corporal punishment. ‘No practical action could be taken but the strength of viewpoint was clear,’ said another member of the same Election. ‘A good deal of the punishments handed out by Sixth Form depended on people expecting them and accepting them, but we made clear from the beginning that we didn’t like it and thought times were changing.’[8] Such liberal ideas were in the air even before the 1914 War, were crystallized by the hard conditions of war-time, and were precipitated into action immediately after the War.

As a latecomer, it must have taken more time for Blair to establish his ‘character’ in a characterful Election; but on the other hand, he could benefit by their collective experience, already veterans of two halves (at Eton, three halves make a year) of defensive warfare against their seniors; and he could count himself lucky to have missed two-thirds of the year when fagging, the doing of errands and other small tasks, was required for ‘Sixth Form’ (the top ten boys in College, in scholastic order, and effectively the house prefects). Each boy in his first year had a partitioned cubicle off a common hall, ‘Chamber’ (thereafter a room of his own), so some privacy was possible. There were initiation rites but these were mild: Blair had to do no more than stand on a table and sing — he sang ‘Coming Down from Bangor’, an old American student comic song; and he sang it not well but tolerably, enough to avoid being pelted with books, apples or whatever was to hand.[9] There was some bullying, but far less than at St Cyprian’s and less in College than in some of the Oppidan houses. He was not an obvious target: his half-withdrawn, sardonic character or pose was recognized early and respected.

Sir Roger Mynors (later Professor of Latin at Cambridge and then Oxford) remembers him conveying from the start that he knew a lot already, did not care much to be taught, vaguely ‘thought it all a racket’ and was ‘against authority the whole time’, but without in any way being either especially or pathologically solitary or a leader of dissent. Such attitudes ‘were not uncommon’. ‘What was odd and interesting about Blair was his slightly aggressive attitude ... and the entertaining way he argued.’ Mynors remembers that when they were first introduced to Plato’s Dialogues’ talk quite unlike anything else they had ever encountered, all the endless distinguishing, describing and arguing’ he found that just like Blair: ‘he would argue about anything all night.’[10] Another contemporary made the same Socratic comparison: ‘He was a strong arguer, he put different sides of the case; there was his habit of worrying whether he had seen all sides of a case that distinguished him from many others then.’[11] Mynors suggests that Blair ‘was prominent in bringing into College the solvent represented by Wells, Shaw and Samuel Butler, and before that. Gibbon and Sterne’. Sir Steven Runciman (later the historian of the Byzantine Empire) confirms that Blair right from his first year was the spokes-man of this sceptical, rationalist tradition; and although most of them were to read Shaw, Wells and Butler for themselves, none that he knew appeared to have known about them before coming up to Eton. Bright boys educate themselves. The system was still religious, the new Head Master of Eton in 1916 (C. A. Alington) was in Orders, and social conventions as well as the rigid curriculum made it difficult for masters to introduce ‘new’ and critical ideas. Cyril Connolly was once rebuked by a master for reading Tristram Shandy because ‘Sterne talks smut against his own mother’.

Memories recall much talk and its style and intensity, but who can remember precisely what was said sixty years ago or more, in Chamber at night, or while waiting to bat, or while lying in the hay by the then unpolluted Thames at ‘Athens’, a favoured spot, after swimming? Swimming was Blair’s favourite ‘activity’, though never a competitive ‘sport’. Yet two firm if random memories are interesting. King-Farlow remembers that ‘he was an awful bore about money’, or perhaps an embarrassing realist already; and Runciman remembers that right from the beginning (and he was probably closer to Blair than anyone during their first two years at Eton) he talked about wanting to go East one day. Perhaps his mother had fired his imagination about her youth in Mandalay. And two tales are revealing. Christopher Hollis has related one of them at length, but others think he gilded the lily (he was two Elections ahead of Blair, so really not close at all). In essence it is that Blair made an image in soap, not in wax as Hollis says, of an older boy to whom he took an irrational dislike; and that as the soap washed away, disasters struck the unfortunate elder.’[12] A pretty odd thing to happen and a pretty odd thing to do, was the general feeling. The trap that Blair laid for Sixth Form was ingenious if obvious: should they punish him for insolence, they would be mocked for superstition. The other tale of his first year is that he killed a jackdaw, with a catapult. Jackdaws are not common birds, no humble sparrow they. Mynors was with him at the time and says, ‘He was the only person I knew who might have done such a shocking thing.’ They dissected it together and split the gall-bladder which splashed all over them: Mynors was never to forget the smell. So, unlike the case of the soap effigy, the hidden powers were to revenge themselves on the sceptic Blair, already especially sensitive to smells.

After that one term or ‘half at Eton, he gave the Buddicom children ‘very favourable accounts’, certainly compared with ‘beastly Wellington’, when he came home for the summer holidays in 1917.’[13] Jacintha thought that he seemed interested and happy. ‘Interested’, certainly, but in the school as an activity, in the people he was meeting and the books, once again, that he could read for himself; not so much, if at all, in the official offerings of the Classics curriculum. His learned and distinguished contemporaries would agree with her girlhood memory: ‘Once he was safely installed at Eton he had rather given up working: he said he deserved a rest after the intensive effort at St Cyprian’s.’[14] That was his tutor’s judgement and memory. A. S. F. Gow (1886-1978), later a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, when an old man would strongly deny that he ever saw anything special in Orwell, indeed remembered him as ‘always a bit of a slacker and a dodger’.

____ § ____

If school was now ‘O.K.’, ‘tolerable’, ‘all right’, holidays became golden. Removed from the necessity of cramming half the day, he filled them with reading and country activities. There is no longer any need to doubt Jacintha Buddicom’s shocking dictum that ‘Eric was a specially happy child’ — at least in the holidays. The friendship with the Buddicom children continued to be close. Eric and Avril spent part of the Easter holidays and much of the summer with them at their aunt’s house, Ticklerton Court, a small estate with half a dozen farms near Church Stretton in Shropshire, that most beautiful and varied of the shires. Close to the Welsh border, the Long Mynd (Welsh for mountain) above Church Stretton, is high, bare, ridge-broken moorland, with many sudden and steep descents into wooded valleys. Looking east, the whole of the Midlands, industrial Wolverhampton and Birmingham, are visible on dear days, and often by the red glow of furnaces at night. Shropshire has green valley after valley, farm after farm, villages, ancient churches, fortified houses and castles; and only fifteen miles from Church Stretton lie Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale, the ruined cradle of iron manufacture and the Industrial Revolution. This is speculation, of course, but it is possible that this peculiar physical mixture of moorland, pasture and industry, and this social mixture of ‘county’ England (almost nowhere is more famed for huntin’, fishin’ and shootin’ than Shropshire) and industrial England, had some effect on Eric Blair’s imagination and George Orwell’s later concerns with the antithesis between industry as progress and welfare and the countryside as tranquillity and felicity. Shropshire was Hous-man country. By the time he was seventeen, Blair knew by heart most of the poems in A Shropshire Lad. His own literary name was to carry both a geographical association with unspoiled rural beauty and a verbal association with the very basis of industry.

The children remember Aunt Lilian Buddicom as ‘very knowledgeable in both natural and ordinary history, archaeology and botany, and the byways and bygones of Shropshire in general’. And if she did not know the answer to a question, she asked her friend, Miss Henrietta Auden (the poet’s aunt, though no childhood meeting between Eric and Wystan is recorded). A letter from Aunt Lilian to Jacmtha’s mother in August 1917 tells of ‘Ted’, the house’s or estate’s general handyman, taking out Prosper and Eric for their first rabbit shoot: ‘A single-barrelled gun, so there is not the risk of a boy firing off a second barrel while the other is running forward to pick up the game, and Ted keeps the cartridges in his pocket, only handing out one at a time.’ A reassuring letter for a mother about part of a gentleman’s education. She liked having all the children there, ‘they seem such great friends’, but also ‘Eric has a bit of a cough. He says it is chronic. Is this really the case? I don’t remember it before.’[15] And Eric and Prosper fished for perch.

They liked the journeys to and from Shropshire. The train stopped at Banbury where an attendant sold Banbury cakes on the platform. Eric could show a high-spirited facetiousness. Jacintha remembers him once asking Prosper very loudly ‘whether his spots had come out?’

When this tactic had failed to get them a compartment to themselves, he swung from the luggage rack, scratching himself and declaring that he was an orangoutang; but the supernumerary lady passenger kept her nerve and threatened to ‘call the guard if you don’t get down at once, you naughty boy!’[16] Stock tales or gospel truth? The spots routine is in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat that many of us read in childhood, so perhaps reading the story gave Eric the idea. But whether Eric actually swung from the rack or not, the tale is in character. But there may have been another side to railway journeys for ‘the upper middle classes without money’:

Once when I was thirteen, I was in a train coming from a market town, and the third-class carriage was packed full of shepherds and pig-men who had been selling their beasts. Somebody produced a quart bottle of beer and passed it round; it travelled from mouth to mouth to mouth, everyone taking a swig. I cannot describe the horror I felt as that bottle worked its way towards me. If I drank from it after all those lower-class male mouths I felt certain I should vomit; on the other hand, if they offered it to me I dared not refuse for fear of offending them — you see here how the middle-class squeamishness works both ways.[17]

Shortly after Eric returned to Eton in September 1917, now with a room of his own, there were big changes on the Blairs’ home front. They were on the move again, for Mr Blair had joined the Army and Mrs Blair took a clerical job in the Ministry of Pensions in London. She let the house at Henley and found rooms for herself and Marjorie in London at 23 Cromwell Crescent, Earls Court. At 60 years old, Richard Blair was thought by his family to be the oldest second lieutenant in the British Army. He was put in charge of the mules in a camp and depot near Marseilles. The Opium Service can have had little to do with mules: if his posting had any relevance to his experience, it would be that Marseilles was a staging-post for troop movements inward from India and outward to the Balkans, Mesopotamia and Palestine. None of Eric’s contemporaries at Eton can remember him mentioning that he had a father in the Army. By now habitually reticent about his family, he may have found his father’s posting ludicrous and his age embarrassing. When George Bowling in Orwell’s novel Coming Up For Air (1939) became a second lieutenant, he was given eleven tins of bully beef to guard in a forgotten military dump on the north coast of remote Cornwall. Parents can embarrass their children while doing the very things they sometimes hope will most impress them.

Being at school in that ‘Great War’ must have been a peculiar experience. Orwell later made only the most glancing references to it, even amid the very few references he makes to his period at Eton. Boys of course do take things in their stride and have no experience with which to compare the normal and the abnormal. Runciman remembers learning that boys whom he had known by sight, who had left school promptly at 18, had been killed. ‘There was an unreality which made us all, I think, unwilling to look ahead.’ There was the growing roll call in Chapel of the dead: of the 5,687 Etonians who served in the War, i, 160 were killed and 1,467 wounded, an extraordinarily high proportion of dead both in relation to the wounded and to the total number who served: such officers went in at the head of their men. On the other hand, school life continued much as before. Food was awful and monotonous, but never totally inadequate; old masters stayed or came back as young ones left for Flanders; but cricket and football, Classics and Confirmation instruction, rivalry and friendship, went on much as before, dominated far more by school tradition and the nature of boys than by ‘the great events outside’.

At the beginning of the Second World War, Orwell reminisced:

... If you were alive during that war, and if you disentangle your real memories from their later accretions, you find that it was not usually the big events that stirred you at the time. I don’t believe that the Battle of the Mame, for instance, had for the general public the melodramatic quality that it was afterwards given ...

Of the middle years of the war, I remember chiefly the square shoulders, bulging calves and jingling spurs of the artillerymen, whose uniform I much preferred to that of the infantry. As for the final period, if you ask me to say truthfully what is my chief memory, I must answer simply — margarine. It is an instance of the horrible selfishness of children that by 1917 the war had almost ceased to affect us, except through our stomachs.[18]

He said that they simply did not realize at the time that the little red flags that they moved backwards and forwards on the large map in a school-room represented great pyramids of corpses.

The War did demand, however, that more school time be given to the Officers’ Training Corps. While OTC was in practice compulsory, Orwell remembered it thus: ‘Among the very young the pacifist reaction had set in long before the war ended. To be as slack as you dared on OTC parades, and to take no interest in the war, was considered a mark of enlightenment.’[19] But this essay of 1939 was a polemic against pacifism, reflecting his own recent change of mind. And he may be confusing the wartime period with post-war reaction. At the time he would hardly have seen the ‘reaction’ as pacifist, but simply as teasing those in authority, nor seen lack of interest in the war as ‘a mark of enlightenment’; rather that it did not impinge that much on the immediate and egocentric world of boyhood in boarding-school. His contemporaries do not remember any pacifism. Christopher Eastwood mainly recalled ‘Eric as a most unwilling member of the OTC’, as he was himself. So ‘I followed his example in getting in the Signal Section, which was the refuge of the lazy and the inefficient. It had the particular advantage that as there was a certain amount of equipment one didn’t have to march on field days.’ Later he said that Blair ‘didn’t stand out as a strong dissenter, except in not doing things: there were a lot of strong dissenters, but Blair’s way was to put the puttees on crooked, not to polish the brass, to look sardonic rather than to act.’[20] Others, however, give Blair a more positive although certainly sardonic liking for the OTC. One says, ‘nature made him poor material for the OTC and he was delighted to exploit it — the anarchist in him came out.’ Another remembers him liking the OTC for the camping, excursions, field-craft, map-reading and rifle-firing, and thought that Blair shared the same view as himself: a dislike of the attitudes implicit in OTC, but a liking for the activities. King-Farlow recalls that while Blair enjoyed ‘playing the lone wolf, he discovered with surprise that he was ‘an admirable stablemate under dripping canvas’ and commended ‘the excellence of his military mucking-in’. The anarchic discipline of the Corps appealed to him. As he rose. in the school he entered and then took charge of the Signals Section, which allowed for initiative and thus constant uncertainty about where they were, or ought to be. Once, when Blair decided it was too hot to be in uniform, he led his section behind a distant hay-stack and in shirtsleeves read them Eric, or Little by Little, whose ethic he detested so cordially, read it with mock seriousness for the whole of a long and undisturbed summer afternoon.[21]

He also preferred the disciplined anarchy of the river to the competitiveness of the cricket field, so he became, in Eton parlance, a ‘wet-bob’ rather than a ‘dry-bob’. He was strong but not skilled, both in rowing and swimming. As he began to grow tall (at 16 he was five feet eight, and by 18 was six feet one), some of his fellows thought that he had to resort to deliberate incompetence to avoid the risk of being drafted into any of the school crews. His idea of being a wet-bob was to lie in the sweet hay at Athens, watch the river flow on, ‘reading, conversing about Life, trying to memorize Theocritus or Gibbon’. Five or six of his Election shared these tastes: ‘... also our self-appointed jester, Cyril Connolly, whom we had, disregarding a strict College custom, taken up from our junior election year. Blair, knowing Connolly from preparatory school... warned we could expect to hear plenty about a “Connolly’s (probably no family connection) marrying in 1758 the second Duke of Richmond’s third daughter”. We did.’[22]

He was actually photographed at Athens in school clothes aggressively smoking a cigarette: that was offering a reckless hazard to fortune. And he caught pike from the Jordan (a small tributary) and cooked them himself — ‘quite legal but somehow challenging and far from the done thing’.

Odd scraps of conversation have lingered in a contemporary’s memory. ‘You know, Wansbrough, my uncle says that a good way to score off someone is to nail a dead fish underneath a table; very difficult to find.’ ‘You know, Wansbrough, my uncle says that there’s need to develop a circular piece of paper for lavatory seats in order to avoid the risk of the accidental contraction of VD.’ If Uncle Charles’ proposal was at least a generation ahead of its American conception, the unreal problem it was trying to solve was already part of the lore of adolescent boys. Perhaps this myth was necessary as an alternative explanation to the family if VD was caught — at a time when desire for a first experience was .unhealthily balanced by belief in almost certain infection: another piece of false physiology frequently inserted into depressive sermons at boarding-schools.

The shadowy Uncle Charles Limouzin seems to have played the part of’man of the world’ for his nephew. By then, separated from his wife, he was secretary of a golf club near Bournemouth, and Eric and Avril would sometimes spend a few days of their holidays with him. The Christmas holidays of 1917 found them with nowhere to go. Sub-tenants at the Henley house had not vacated in time for the holidays, as they had promised, and the flat at Earls Court was too small. Mrs Blair wrote to Mrs Buddicom asking her to have Eric and Avril with her for Christmas, ‘most dreadfully cool of me asking you this, but these are such extraordinary times that one is forced to do out-of-the-way things’. A pound a week each was settled upon, and the same thing happened the following Christmas.

The school year continued. Days were full and hard. There was ‘Early School’ at half-past seven, a class before breakfast, then three hours of lessons and an hour with, or doing work set by, their tutor. Three afternoons a week began with organized games followed by two more hours of classes or preparations; and three afternoons were called half-holidays, in fact devoted to sport but this was not compulsory if the boy was not in a team or if he adopted some approved alternative activity. As regards lessons, the official offerings interested Eric far less than his outside readings. In his first year he was a Classical Specialist, as were most of College; this meant, typically, seven lessons a week of Latin, six of Greek, three of French, three of Mathematics, three of Science, two of English and one of Divinity. He came low in all the class lists. In the Summer Half of 1918, he moved up a form, but changed from Classical Specialist, the class of the potential Oxford and Cambridge scholarship winners, to the less demanding Classical General. Collegers moved up a form each year, never, like some Oppidans, repeating a year, but they were taught in divisions graded by ability subject by subject, together with .the rest of the school. So he soon found himself mainly among Oppidans during the teaching hours, being outpaced by the rest of his Election, save one. The classes were small, so even the laziest boys were worked hard and there were preparations to do every evening; but, to judge by results, Eric must have practised a sullen or sardonic passive resistance to enforced learning — albeit with tantalizing and short-lived fits and starts of interest and performance. None of his termly reports survive. One imagines that there must have been a lot of heartfelt, not banal or stock, ‘Could do better if he tried’ comments. His cynicism towards the official offerings must have been obvious, for when Connolly got bad reports speaking of his laziness and cynicism, his parents were inclined to blame it on Blair’s influence. This must have been a hangover from prep school, for ‘now I hardly saw him’ and ‘Orwell was rather aloof, and they soon moved in quite different circles in Eton as Connolly skilfully climbed the social heights.[23]

Somehow rime was found for literary activity. Jacintha Buddicom insists that at this time he always had a ‘quiet but absolute determination on his own ultimate career. It was always “When I am a Famous Author”’ and they discussed the best bindings for a collected edition.[24] There is no reason to doubt that such holiday-fantasizing took place, but who can be sure whose fantasies they were and whether or not some irony in him, even then, escaped her? But ‘he would not have talked like that to friends at Eton, and certainly the Election Times (Mynors as editor, King-Farlow as art editor, and Blair as business manager) gave no evidence of genius. It was a handwritten set of pages to be lent for reading at a cost of one penny; or copies could be furnished for sixpence (there were no takers, mercifully, for that part of the service).[25] Only one issue of this erratic occasional publication survives, that of Monday 3 June 1918, with three contributions almost certainly by Eric Blair: a comic poem, ‘The Wounded Cricketer’, which tells of a wet-bob forced to play cricket, struck on the head by the ball, then resting contentedly in the grass; a comic, sentimental, indeed slightly sententious story, ‘The Slack-Bob’, about a boy who pretends to be in the Rowing Eight to impress some sisters and, when they invite themselves down on Open Day, has to pretend to be injured — it ends, ‘Moral: honesty is the best policy’; and a laboured parody of Sherlock Holmes, with Lestrade as the villain, ‘The Adventure of the Lost Meat Card’. These stories are no worse, but certainly no better, than one might expect from any educated boy of not quite 16 — clever, quite well-written, but no touch of character or distinctive style, indeed slightly out of character, nothing in the least agin-authority, sardonic or Swiftian, rather as if the ugly fairy ‘Literature’ had grasped the adolescent rebel’s hand when he reached for a pen. And perhaps not yet so much of a rebel, anyway: all that is clear from these literary remains is that their author indulged in a mild mockery — almost ‘affectionate mockery’ — of the system, and, from what his contemporaries remember, that he was a willing and paid-up member of the Awkward Squad rather than an apprentice to the Revolution.

____ § ____

Just before Blair went back to school in September 1918, Jacintha Buddicom remembers a long conversation they had while picking mushrooms in the woods near Henley. She had recently been sent as a boarder to Oxford High School, but entered very late and imperfectly prepared. None the less, she was full of enthusiasm for Oxford University and claims, ‘I had fired him with my own enthusiasm.’ He admitted that he had ‘rather given up working’ and felt he ‘deserved a rest’ after the intensive effort at St Cyprian’s, ‘but that he was more than willing to reapply himself to his studies given an incentive, and intended to start a campaign for parental permission’.[26] How marvellous it would be to be at the University at the same time, for she would need at least an extra year at school to catch up on Latin and Greek of which, alas, she had nothing. Again, there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of this account. A florid style does not infallibly mean a pretending heart, nor does a plain style always certificate the literal accuracy of an honest soul. But a different construction could be put on her account: that she had fallen in love with Oxford as a place, was very serious and yet totally unrealistic about university entrance, while he was affably joining in her game. He might occasionally have shown a little resolve to do something about it himself, but not much — which would account for the observed disparity between his potential’and his performance. Yet it seems unlikely that he ‘intended to start a campain for parental permission’. That sounds like the author Miss Buddicom preparing the ground for her passionately held view that in 1920-21 only old Mr Blair prevented Eric from going to university. In fact, he prevented it himself, if he ever really intended to try to get there rather than just talking of Oxford as part of an adolescent game of make-believe.

Not that Jacintha was ‘all dreams’. In some ways she must have been a tough-minded girl. For instance, she took over her father’s religion, or rather turned his agnosticism into pantheism, telling a shocked and incredulous house mistress that she was willing to worship the Christian god for a week or two, so long as they could also pay honour to some others. This explains the title of a poem that Eric sent her at Oxford from Eton that autumn.


So here are you, and here am I,
Where we may think our gods to be;
Above the earth, beneath the sky,
Naked souls alive and free.
The autumn wind goes rustling by
And stirs the stubble at our feet;
Out of the west it whispering blows,
Stops to caress and onward goes,
Bringing its earthy odours sweet.
See with what pride the setting sun
Kinglike in gold and purple dies,
And like a robe of rainbow spun
Tinges the earth with shades divine.
That mystic light is in your eyes
And ever in your heart will shine.

She replied to this literary tribute with a calm and prudently technical discussion of the rhyming scheme, together with a few suggested amendments.

When I wrote back I suggested it should have been unarmoured souls, not naked souls — it was our minds, our hopes, our dreams, that were confided so freely and so guilelessly: we were not cavorting around in the altogether. And I would have preferred veil to robe which is too man-made for a natural phenomenon. He agreed with those amendments, and later wrote them into my copy — with the original two words crossed out. He said that would make it ‘more authentic’ than re-writing the whole poem; more like ‘more trouble-saving’.[27]

Remember that she was two years older than he, and that there were four children in the relationship. However important literature was to her, and as a bond between them, who is to weigh and on what scales its relative importance compared to the rabbit-shooting, fishing and pyrotechnics with her brother Prosper? In 1918 both a romantic and a common-sense boy alternately appeared: it would be many years before these aspects of him fused creatively.

Yet on return to school in his third year at Eton, he did try to change direction, even if the results were no better. For a year he tried Science, mainly Biology. The grounds can only have been negative, since he was in the lowest possible set for Mathematics, but perhaps he felt it was a chance to make a fresh start. This meant a change of tutor, from Andrew Gow to John Christie (then school-mastering to prove that he could work before entering into his inheritance, Glyndebourne, which he transformed into the opera house). As he did no better, Blair changed back the following year.

By this third year his character in his Election was fully established. He appears as ‘Cynicus’ in a contemporary’s literary diary in 1918-19, though only as one of the ‘Stoa’, the lookerson: he does not figure in the pretentious dialogues at all.[28] It would be during this time that he interviewed each member of the new Election (earlier he would not have been senior enough, later he would have compromised his dignity). As Christopher Hollis related:

Mr Noel Blakiston, who was a few years Orwell’s junior in College, has told me of his first meeting with him ... in a cricket match. Orwell came up to him with a paper and pencil in his hand. ‘I’m collecting the religions of the new boys’ said Orwell. ‘Are you Cyrenaic, Sceptic, Epicurean, Cynic, Neo-platonist, Confucian or Zoroastrian?’

‘I’m a Christian,’ said Blakiston.

‘Oh,’ said Orwell, ‘we haven’t had that before.’[29]

This was the year in which he was prepared for confirmation in ‘the Church by law established’. He was confirmed. It was almost as conventionally compulsory as OTC (only a clear religious antipathy from a parent could get them out of it), though it is fair to say that religious belief with most adolescents then was as deep as patriotism; and they were as capable of distinguishing between religion and the ludicrous aspects of the Church, especially compulsory chapel, as they were between patriotism and military stupidity. Despite his youthful cynicism and lifelong anti-Catholicism, throughout his life he was to like traditional hymns and the language of the Anglican rituals: certainly he set his last friends a problem they had not anticipated by asking in his Will to be buried according to the rites of the Church of England and not to be cremated.

His mother went up to see him confirmed, one Saturday at the end of November 1918, by the Rt Revd Charles Gore, then Bishop of Oxford.[30] Normally boys were prepared by their tutors, but as neither Gow nor Christie was in holy orders (nor especially holy), Eric was prepared by John Crace, the Master in College.

The ‘Master in College’ at that time had neither the status nor the authority of the house masters. To have a master living in College at all was a comparatively recent innovation (Collegers had traditionally been very much a law to themselves) and Crace was a somewhat in-effectual representative. The tutors often ignored Crace, and Sixth Form thought they needed no help from him to look after discipline. Certainly Blair’s respect for Crace and even for Gow could have been greater. King-Farlow remembers Blair disparaging ‘Granny Gow’s’ love of Homer as sentimentality and his erudition in Italian painting (he later became a trustee of the National Gallery) as ‘escapist posing’; he also remembers Blair making up a ribald song which referred to some of ‘m’tutor’s’ physical characteristics, noticeably tufts on his cheek in the naval manner and a ‘characteristically cautious’ way of sitting down.

Then up waddled Wog and he squeaked in Greek:
”I’ve grown another hair on my cheek.’
Crace replied in Latin with his toadlike smile:
’And I hope you’ve grown a lovely new pile.
With a loud deep fart from the bottom of my heart!
How d’you like Venetian art?[31]

Which at least is better as verse than ‘The Pagan’ is as poetry.

He had it in for Crace. Andrew Gow said that Blair ‘made himself as big a nuisance as he could’ and ‘was a very unattractive boy’:

There is one thing I remember vividly. Blair left about in his hurry [desk] an empty cigarette carton. Crace, the Master in College, saw it. Crace was a man of high principles. He refused to pick it up himself. He sent for Blair to pick it up, and found it was a dummy. Angry, Crace complained and sent him to me. I said there was no rule against having empty cigarette cartons; but sent for Blair none the less and ticked him off as being a bloody nuisance.[32]

Nearly sixty years later, Gow still showed some pleasure at Crace having met his match in officiousness. Hollis tells the tale of Crace saying to Blair, ‘Things can’t go on like this. Either you or I will have to go.’ ‘I’m afraid it will have to be you, Sir,’ answered the boy. King-Farlow doubts very much if this is true. Others had heard the tale, but it is, again, a stock tale both in schools and in the armed forces. Such things got attributed to Blair. But King-Farlow attests to the truth of a far more dangerous and slightly unsavoury attack on Crace somewhat later. John (or ‘Jan’) Crace had a tendency to be overfond of some boys. So King-Farlow and Blair smuggled into the Personal Column of another school magazine. College Days, on i April 1920, the advertisement ‘A.R.D. — After rooms — Janney’. ‘A.R.D.’ was plainly recognizable as the boy in favour at that moment.[33] Again, though Crace was furious, it was a baited hook, for to punish the slanderer would be to broadcast the accusation.

One oddity of the schoolroom, Runoman remembers, was that he and Blair were taught French by Aldous Huxley. He filled in for a year (as the first chapter of Antic Hay witnesses) for one of the twenty masters away on active service. ‘He taught us rare and strange words in a rather reflective way. Orwell and J enjoyed him, although he was an incompetent, a hopeless teacher. He couldn’t keep discipline and was so blind that he couldn’t see what was happening, so was hopelessly ragged. Blair didn’t like that, he found it cruel. Perhaps that’s going a bit far. Blair, though he always had wit and irony, was lacking in lightness of humour, anything that savoured of frivolity.’ Yet they learned something from Huxley:

At first we thought his voice affected, but soon some of us were trying to copy it. Above all it was his use of words that entranced us. Eric Blair ... would in particular make us note Aldous’s phraseology. ‘That is a word we must remember,’ we used to say to each other ... The taste for words and their accurate and significant use remained. We owe him a great debt for it.[34]

In the autumn of 1918, as Blair shot up in height, he was pressed into the extraordinarily complex Eton games of Foot-Ball, weird enough when played ‘in the Field’, incredible as well as violent ‘at the Wall’ — a brick wall 120 yards long with a playing-area alongside it only 7 yards wide, which made goal-scoring difficult (‘shies’ could and would be scored commonly). The manuscript book ‘The Annals of Lower College Foot-Ball’, Volume 13, first mentions him on 28 September 1918: ‘Soon after, owing to a gross mistake by our goal [Blair], the ball was kicked just behind our calx line... Blair was conspicuously bad.’ 2 October, ‘Blair did not kick it out with any success.’ 5 October, ‘Blair was very slack.’ 15 October, ‘Blair was not at all energetic.’ 26 October, ‘Blair was good in the first half, bad, very bad in the second’ ... ‘Blair did poorly behind’ ... ‘Blair must play harder’ ... ‘Johnstone[*] and Blair were very bad.’ Then he vanishes from the records for a month, a bare note that he played on 6 December; and the rest is silence. He had made his point, it seems, for that year at least.

Christmas was again spent with the Buddicoms at Quarry House, Henley. Ida Blair in the spring of 1918 had moved into a small flat at 23 Mall Chambers, Netting Hill Gate, in London, visiting Avril on Saturdays at her boarding-school in Ealing and occasionally having Marjorie for weekend leaves. Marjorie had become a dispatch rider (motorbikes) for the Women’s Legion, stationed at Warminster at an Australian Army headquarters. Mrs Blair wrote to Mrs Buddicom affectionately of’her chicks’ but seems to have done little to find them a nest all together for Christmas and, still more surprisingly, neglected even to visit them. She declined Mrs Buddicom’s invitation to visit on Boxing Day, ‘we are to go to my sister’s for that day’, and on 21 December she sent Christmas presents by post and hoped to see Eric one Saturday before the end of the holidays. Yet on 10 January she wrote: ‘I won’t be able to see the children this week after all ... my husband is coming home today, and as the Hat is so tiny we could not possibly all squeeze in, so will you keep the children to the end of the holidays?’[35] There is something very odd here. Since Henley was only an hour by train from London, why did she not even visit them one weekend afternoon, or would it not have been possible in the circumstances for the Buddicoms or neighbours to have put her up too? She had got back from London quickly enough years before when Baby Eric was ill.

Eric and Avril must have felt neglected. It is almost as if she did not wish to see them. Eric had told King-Farlow that his mother was a ‘frivolous person’, meaning ‘not serious’. But was that all he meant? One can only speculate. Could she have had a secret friend in Netting Hill? Or was she just being convivially selfish and enjoying the company other lively sister’s circle more than her own children in the few precious days’ leave at Christmas from the Ministry of Pensions? Certainly she seemed to age rapidly after her husband’s return at the end of the War and their move to a coastal retirement town, as if she too was retiring. Avril would never admit that there was any oddity about this Christmas spent apart. But she was only twelve then and was loyal to her mother later, remaining at home all the long, and for her rather empty, 1920s and 1930s. In those years she blamed her brother for wasting his chances and not repairing the family fortune; and she never blamed her mother for anything, even when after his death she read his books, grew to understand them, grew far more appreciative of him, and could talk about the family with a degree of dispassion. Marjorie appears to have married her childhood friend, Humphrey Dakin, as quickly as she could and left home with no ambitions to do other than that, though the break from home was a natural one and visits took place. Humphrey Dakin’s father was attracted to Mrs BIair, but she seems to have kept him at a distance, or so his grandchildren believe.

That Christmas, Eric was stirred to romantic passions once again. He gave Jacintha a special poem with some pomp and circumstance at the first opportunity of’adequate privacy’.

Our minds are married, but we are too young
For wedlock by the customs of this age
When parent homes pen each in separate cage
And only supper-earning songs are sung.

Times past, when medieval woods were green,
Babes were betrothed, and that betrothal brief
Remember Romeo in love and grief —
Those star-crossed lovers — Juliet was fourteen.

Times past, the caveman by his new-found fire
Rested beside his mate in woodsmoke’s scent,
By our own fireside we shall rest content
Fifty years hence keep troth with heart’s desire.

We shall remember, when our hair is white,
These clouded days revealed in radiant light.

That seems to have been going too far, or were they soil only playing their old game of poems for all occasions? She tells her readers firmly:

But that was Eric’s idea, which was unfortunately and regrettably never mine. He was a perfect companion and I was very fond of him — as literary guide-philosopher-and-friend. But I had no romantic emotion for him. The two years between a girl of seventeen and a boy of fifteen, as a beginning, are just the wrong two years. At fifteen, he was certainly too young to be married: but at seventeen I might have been marriageable to someone older.[36]

‘Eric’s idea’ seems, reading the poem closely, real enough, especially since far from ‘parent homes’ penning ‘each in separate cage’, his mother’s scatty or flighty arrangements for the holidays penned them in the same gilded cage. And did he see himself as having, even there, just as at St Cyprian’s and Eton, ‘to sing for his supper’ — or is that fourth line only a desperate search for a suitable rhyme for ‘young’? Either at Easter or Christmas 1918, Eric saw Shaw’s Arms and the Man:

... the theatre was full of soldiers fresh from the front in France. They saw the point of it, because their experiences had taught them the same thing. There is a passage early in the play where Bluntschli is telling Raina what a cavalry charge is really like. ‘It is,’ he says, ‘like slinging a handful of peas against a window pane: first one comes; then two or three close behind him; and then all the rest in a lump.’ Raina, thinking ofSergius, her lover, charging at the head of his regiment, clasps her hands ecstatically and says: ‘Yes, first comes One! The bravest of the brave!’

‘Ah,’ says Bluntschli, ‘but you should see the poor devil pulling at his horse!’ At this line the audience of simple soldiers burst into a laugh which almost lifted the roof off.[37]

And he added (broadcasting in 1943) that he saw it acted a second time in 1935, at an experimental theatre before a highbrow audience who did not laugh at all at Bluntschli’s line: ‘War was far away and very few people in the audience knew what it was like to have to face bullets’ (as he himself was soon to learn in Spain). Shaw was one of his mentors, but Blair’s scepticism came to see a shallowness in Shaw and allowed no demigods in a humanist cosmology.

His copy of Plays, Pleasant and Unpleasant (1906) survives and the margin is peppered with sarcasms, not from any clear political position, but cynically to prick bubbles in the great man’s rhetoric.[38] Said Shaw, ‘... modern Italy had, as far as I could see, no more connection with Giotto than Port Said had with Ptolemy.’ ‘True’ said Eric. ‘I am no believer in the worth of any “taste” for art that cannot produce what it professes to appreciate’ — ‘nonsense’ said Eric. When Pshaw sees Ibsen leading ‘the unsatisfied younger generations’ towards ‘unspeakably giddy’ heights, Cynicus primly demands, ‘Higher than Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Plato?’ And when the old performer says: ‘Bad theatres are as mischievous as bad schools or bad churches: for modern civilization is rapidly multiplying the class to which the theatre is both school and church,’ BIair coldly inquires ‘Do you approve of this?’ When the revolutionary argues for theatre subsidy, that ‘commercial limits should be over-stepped’ to keep ‘the public in constant touch with the highest achievements of dramatic art,’ Eric, with a whiff of Tory scepticism, adds, ‘and the drains and the universities and the hospitals and the golf links’ ‘I see plenty of good in the world working itself out as fast as the idealists will allow it’ elicits a scathing ‘Indeed?’;[*]... we should all get along much better and faster’ attracts ‘Where to?’; and the peroration that we should move from imagination and passion to ‘a genuinely scientific natural history’ is sunk by that short ‘Ah!’ which plainly connotes the sarcastic discovery of folly revealed. Nothing shows more clearly how much Blair was agin authority than this mocking of the mocker, irreverence to the great Irreverent Shaw, but from a standpoint not as close to socialism as he later suggested, however familiar he was with socialist ideas, however many of their arrows he borrowed to fire off against ‘authority’. Yet he was no mere sceptic: a sense of justice and of individual rights — perhaps of ‘individualistic’ rights would be better — comes across from memoria of him at school. He was ‘more of a republican than a liberal,’ Sir Steven Runriman recalled. At least the Classics teachers had had that effect: they went into the Augustan era for its literature but their moral values were all those of the Republic.

Orwell vividly remembered the ‘so-called peace celebration in 1919’:

Our elders had decided for us that we should celebrate peace in the traditional manner by whooping over the fallen foe. We were to march into the school-yard, carrying torches, and singing jingo songs of the type of’Rule, Britannia’. The boys — to their honour, I think — guyed the whole proceeding and sang blasphemous and seditious words to the tunes provided.

Others confirm this account, indeed go further and speak of it as a riot to demand the resignation of the officer in charge of the OTC that spread into the streets of the town. Some bitterness against ‘the authorities’ was involved, but mainly it was a facetious rag, hardly an example of ‘the queer revolutionary feeling of that time’, as Orwell makes it, looking back from i937.[39]

That Easter, 1919, Aunt Lilian Buddicom wrote to her sister: ‘I had better not ask Eric ...’ Servant problems. ‘I am afraid even if we have a house parlour-maid three young people would be too much for Mrs Butler’, the good cook they were desperately trying to keep.[40] And that summer the Blairs went down to Polperro again and only Prosper Buddicom came with them. Perhaps there was a deliberate cooling-off period between the amorous Eric and the apprehensive Jacintha. Richard Blair was demobilized, they got the tenants out and opened up the house at Henley again, although for a while they kept on the flat in Netting Hill for Aunt Nellie Limouzin and Marjorie to use.

____ § ____

September 1919 saw the beginning of his fourth year at Eton. Science had proved no more interesting to him than Classics, so he retreated back into the so-called General Division, taking Ancient History, French (his best subject), Geography, Latin, Divinity and Shakespeare — a general education for the non-university streams. At the end of the school year he lay i i7th down on the form list of 140 boys. Only one of his Election in College did worse.

Gow became his tutor again. There comes a small but curious conflict of testimony. King-Farlow in his written reminiscence says: ‘Gow recognized in the stubborn, wilfully unattractive embryo-Orwell qualities for which most other masters had no time, finding him indolent and often “dumb insolent”. He set out to encourage and make Blair compose, not the weekly essays exacted by most tutors, but fables, short stories, accounts of things liked and detested.’[41] Stansky and Abrahams, following King-Farlow, have Gow perceiving ‘under the shyness and surliness ... an authentic intelligence’ (‘I didn’t’, says Gow); Blair as being ‘privately ... fond of Gow’ (‘I doubt very much’); and moreover keeping in touch with him ‘over the years’ (‘Not true’). Also they have it that ‘It was the custom for four or five boys in the Election to gather in Gow’s room on Sunday evenings, bringing with them to read aloud essays, poems or stories of their own’ (‘Untrue. Rubbish. I cannot imagine how they got this’). ‘In fact I saw them for Sunday private [group tutorials],’ said Gow, ‘and in the mornings too — didn’t read essays but a book together. I remember doing the whole of Paradise Lost with ‘em and even miraculously getting into Paradise Regained’. In 1976 he still seemed angry with Orwell for ‘wasting time’ and ‘slacking’, but above all for having written and sought publication for ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. All the same, two years after Gow went to Trinity, Orwell visited him in 1927 on his return from Burma; but only that once. And Gow was to visit Orwell once also, on his deathbed at University College Hospital in 1950 — though Gow claims that this was accidental: ‘I was visiting a pupil of mine and heard that Orwell was there, and I occasionally believe in being charitable.’[42] Perhaps more than occasionally, for when he became a Fellow of Trinity he soon established an undergraduate literary circle, somewhat in the manner ofLowes Dickinson.[43] Perhaps he did once have some hopes for Blair, but if so he kept them very well concealed: the old sceptic, crippled in everything but mind and memory, still felt and showed bitterness that Eric Blair had wasted his own chances and Gow’s time and had ‘written thus venomously’ about St Cyprian’s.

Yet whether Andrew Gow had once basked in a literary circle of admiring youths (as he was to do when he went to Cambridge) or simply gave a stem tutorial, the reading of Paradise Lost had impressed and inHuenced his rotten apple. In ‘Why I Write’, Orwell recounted:

When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e. the sounds and associations of words. The lines from Paradise Lost,

So hee with difficulty and labour hard

Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee.
which do not now seem to me so very wonderful, sent shivers down my back-bone; and the spelling ‘hee’ was an added pleasure.[44]

When Eve considers whether or not to tell Adam other new knowledge, she thinks that withholding it will ‘render me more equal, and perhaps/ A thing not undesirable, sometime Superior’ (IX 823-5). Orwell was to put this thought more pithily in Animal Farm, ‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others’, so something must have stuck in his mind from the Sunday morning periods with Gow.[45]

Another favourite book of this time, to judge by his marginal annotations, is also somewhat Miltonic, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound.

On a battle-trumpet’s blast
I fled hither, fast, fast, fast,
‘Mid the darkness upward cast.
From the dust of creeds outworn,
From the tyrant’s banner torn,
Gathering ‘round me, onward borne ...

has in the margin ‘Courage, even in defeat’.

...I alit
On a great ship lightning-split,
And speeded hither on the sigh
Of one who gave an enemy
His plank, then plunged aside to die.

Self-sacrifice only possible through suffering’ annotates Eric, relishing the lost fight and integrity amid the losing side. His marginalia on Shelley are in the same hand and of the same period as his comments on Shaw, but rather different attitudes are shown, assumed or tried: romantic not cynical.

Suffering was resumed both in the Field and at the Wall, but not excessive self-sacrifice. ‘The Annals of Foot-Ball’ for that Michaelmas Half had ‘Blair did nothing much but cool, which is rather a general fault... Blair only sneaked and cornered ... Blair was better at long than he has hitherto been elsewhere ... Blair did not help his other walls enough ...’ (‘To sneak’ was merely to be offside.)

In the Christmas holidays the Blairs were all together again back in St Mark’s Road, Henley-on-Thames, his father resuming his part-time job as secretary of the local golf club. Several times Eric bicycled over to tea at the Buddicoms at Shiplake and Jacintha visited the Blairs more frequently, she remembers, than the year before. Two teenagers talking about literature together, even if they looked a bit sweet on each other, were less nuisance to Mr Blair than when five younger children had played noisy games. Eric gave her Dracula as a Christmas present, together with a crucifix (‘he knew I would not be likely to have one’) and a clove of garlic, both of which vampires dislike. And in the Easter vacation both families were again near each other. A diary of Prosper’s (then at Harrow) for 1920 shows that out of twenty-six days of the holiday, Eric was with them for twenty-one. But the actual entries are all about shooting expeditions, which were not Jacintha’s cup of tea, except for some games of roulette, two visits to the cinema in Reading, and a successful bomb-making. One would hardly expect his diary to record his sister’s talks with Eric on literature, but it at least shows that he and Eric had an independent time-consuming friendship based on quite other grounds.[46]

Years later, Orwell in Tribune recalled having seen (it must have been one of those Christmas vacations) both Marie Lloyd and Little Titch, legendary figures of the music-hall. He tried to outboast Mr Harold Nicolson who had recalled in the Spectator having seen the Czar.

One day I was walking past Windsor Castle [near Eton] when a sort of electric shock seemed to go through the street. People were taking their hats off, soldiers springing to attention. And then, clattering over the cobbles, there came a huge, plum-coloured open carriage drawn by four horses with postilions. I believe it was the first and last time in my life that I have seen a postilion. On the rear seat, with his back to the carriage, another groom sat stiffly upright, with his arms folded. The groom who sat at the back used to be called the tiger. I hardly noticed the Queen [Queen Mary], my eyes were fixed on that strange, archaic figure at the back, immobile as a waxwork, with his white breeches that looked as though he had been poured into them, and the cockade on his top-hat. Even at that date (1920 or thereabouts) it gave me a wonderful feeling of looking backwards through a window into the ninetenth century.[47]

(And so might the postilion have thought if he had looked at the Eton boy.)

He must have gone up to London, logged up in the traditional tails and waistcoat, to attend the Eton-Harrow cricket match at Lord’s Cricket Ground in July that year. King-Farlow claims that he and Blair netted £86 at the match by publishing a special issue of College Days, in content much like the Election Times (even re-using some old material), but printed and therefore able to solicit snob-appeal advertisements from big firms.[48] Jacintha came to the match too, chaperoned by an uncle who was a member of the MCC. Aunt Lilian wrote to her complaining that she had neglected her patient and paying uncle in favour of flirting with Eric. And he had watched the Henley Regatta in June from the Buddicoms’ punt, enjoying a general Regatta exeat, on the passing excuse of watching the Eton Eight all swing, swing together.[49] Dissenter though he was and self-conscious about lack of money among Oppidans, this did not stop Blair from observing the great social occasions as he got nearer the top of the school.

A more Orwell-like occasion occurred after the annual OTC camp at the end of July on Salisbury Plain. He headed straight for Polperro in Cornwall to join his family on holiday. The letter describing his adventure has been reprinted in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, but it became so characteristic that it is worth recalling here.

My dear Runciman

I have a little spare time, & I feel I must tell you about my first adventure as an amateur tramp. Like most tramps, I was driven to it. When I got to a wretched little place in Devonshire, — Seaton Junction, — Mynors, who had to change there, came to my carriage & said that a beastly Oppidan who had been perpetually plaguing me to travel in the same compartment as him was asking for me. As I was among strangers, I got out to go to him whereupon the train started off. You need two hands to enter a moving train, & I, what with kit-bag, belt etc. had only one. To be brief, I was left behind. I despatched a telegram to say I would be late (it arrived next day) & about 2½ hours later I got a train: at Plymouth, North Rd, I found there were no more trains to Looe that night. It was too late to telephone, as the post offices were shut. I then made a consultation of my financial position. I had enough for my remaining fare & 7½d over. I could therefore either sleep at the YMCA place, price 6d, & starve, or have something to eat but nowhere to sleep. I chose the latter. I put my kit-bag in the cloak-room & got 12 buns for 6d: half-past-nine found me sneaking into some fanner’s field, — there were a few fields wedged in among rows of shimmy houses. In that light I of course looked like a soldier strolling round, — on my way I had been asked whether I was demobilized yet, & I finally came to anchor in the corner of a field near some allotments. I then began to remember that people frequently got fourteen days for sleeping in somebody else’s field & ‘having no visible means of support’, particularly as every dog in the neighbourhood barked if I even so much as moved. The comer had a large tree for a shelter, & bushes for concealment, but it was unendurably cold; I had no covering, my cap was my pillow, I lay ‘with my martial cloak (rolled cape) around me’. I only dozed & shivered till about 10c, when I readjusted my puttees, & managed to sleep long enough to miss the first train, at 4.20 by about an hour, & to have to wait till 7.45 for another. My teeth were still chattering when I awoke. When I got to Looe I was forced to walk 4 miles in the hot sun; I am very proud of this adventure, but I would not repeat it.[50]

He was to repeat it, however, and to write about it in a style recognizably based on the same technique of detailed description, granted that it was more mature and flowing. Note that he could have stopped at the YMCA. Not quite as in Jack London’s The People of the Abyss which he knew well, but it was a good enough first shot at ‘tramping’.

He spent with his family the first part of the holiday but saw a good deal of Prosper in mid-August when they returned to the Thames Valley, although Jacintha was away visiting an uncle. There may have been mild parental concern. She says she saw little of him that holiday. Prosper’s diary records the usual successful shooting and merciful failures when ‘the nitro-Glycerin would not precipitate’. Jacintha re-turned and Eric went with the Buddicoms to Ticklerton in Shropshire for ten days over the end of August and the beginning of September. Again, Prosper’s diary fills the days with shooting and fishing. ‘While they shot,’ wrote Jacintha, ‘I usually led a Social Life with Auntie Lilian, visiting various neighbours.’[51] She and Eric probably blew a little hot and cold. She certainly disapproved strongly of shooting wild animals. She may have been somewhat jealous of Eric spending so much time with her brother and the gun rather than talking literature with her; but then, on the other hand, he may have been apt to grow too warm in his advances. Like most ages, theirs was seen as a specially dangerous age.

____ § ____

In the Michaelmas Half of 1920, he still followed his General Course, concentrating on History and Classics. His work was no better. What interested him most was still not found in the curriculum. English literature, for instance, was not a major subject; he only took a few periods of English lower down the school and much of that was grammar, although there had been one course of Shakespeare. This does not mean that the school thought that there were no other great writers of English: it was assumed partly that a cultivated English gentleman would and should read such things in his leisure time, and partly that English would be introduced by Classics teachers for frequent translation of difficult passages into Greek and Latin. (Boys learned to write good English through the easier task of translating from the Classics.) Some familiarity with English literature was thus induced as well as assumed, and even the assumption was not unrealistic. College was a cultivated place and there were intellectuals even among the Oppidans. There were two or three spare hours each evening and two or three half-days each week, if boys were not fanatical about sport. Before the blessings of radio and television there were fewer distractions from a sheer bulk of constant reading.

The rapes and adulteries of the Greek gods and the violence and madness of Roman Emperors were part of ‘Classics’, not of life, and there might have been nervousness about officially teaching much of English literature, certainly favourites ofBlair’s like Swift and Steme, in case literature got confused with life. The morals of the pagan world were studied coldly by Christian masters — was this cultural schizo-phrenia or true scholarship? Habits of precise and dispassionate observation resulted; and perhaps it was more rewarding to discover much of one’s native literature, both ancient and modem, by and for one-self.

At the age of seventeen or eighteen, I was both a snob and a revolutionary. I was against all authority,’ wrote Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, ‘I had read and re-read the entire published works of Shaw, Wells and Galsworthy (at that time still regarded as “dangerously advanced” writers) and I loosely described myself as a Socialist.’ He said that he ‘had not much grasp of what Socialism meant’ and ‘no notion that the working class were human beings’. He could ‘agonize over their sufferings’ through the medium of books: ‘Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, for instance’ — but ‘I still hated them and despised them when I came anywhere near them. I was still revolted by their accents and infuriated by their habitual rudeness.’ Orwell also said, looking back at this period: ‘I seem to have spent half the time in denouncing the capitalist system and the other half in raging over the insolence of bus-conductors.’[52] But these references to socialism are a deliberate and considerable exaggeration, designed to fit the events of 1937 rather than to be an accurate memory of 1918. And the anti-hero’s moan in Keep the Aspidistra Flying that ‘Every intelligent boy of sixteen is a Socialist. At that age one does not see the hook sticking out of the rather stodgy bait ...’[53] might also be drawn from experience, but experience reinterpreted for a purpose, not simply re-called.

He remembers that year being set a general knowledge paper in school of, which one question was, ‘Whom do you consider the ten greatest men now living?’ And as an example of that same alleged ‘queer revolutionary feeling of that time’ as the Peace Celebration or OTC riot, he recalls that fifteen out of sixteen in the class included Lenin in their list.[54] But with ten votes each in 1920, even Etonians could not ignore Lenin. From their Classics they would not read ‘great man’ as necessarily meaning ‘good man’. The memories of five contemporaries are that Blair was ‘against authority’ but did not then claim to be a socialist. He used socialist ideas, on occasion, but as a way of annoying authority, not standing behind them solidly for the Cause. When he finally found where he stood politically in 1936 he tended to re-read or rather re-write parts of his own past.

Some of the books he was reading around 1918 must have been still in his mind thirty years later in 1948/1984. In H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau the animal slaves chant of their surgeon-maker-torturer:

His is the House of Pain.
His is the Hand that makes,
His is the Hand that wounds,
His is the Hand that heals.

And in Jack London’s The Iron Heel, the captured revolutionary is told by ‘the Boss’ the same bleak secret that O’Brien was to reveal to Winston Smith:

We will not reply ... in words. Our reply shall be couched in terms of lead. We are in power. Nobody will deny it. By virtue of that power we shall remain in power ... This, then, is our answer. We have no words to waste on you. When you reach out your vaunted strong hands for our palaces and purpled ease, we will show you what strength is. In roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine-guns will our answer be couched. We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces ... As for the host of labour ... in the dirt it shall remain so long as I and mine and those that come after us have the power. There is the word. It is the king of words — Power. Not God, not Mammon, but Power. Pour it over your tongue till it tingles with it. Power.[55]

Wells and London stayed with him all his life, both for what they wrote and for whom they wrote: socialists trying to reach the middle class, not intellectuals or literary men writing for their fellows.

Blair, back in 1920, was tall and weighty and even though now he was eighteen and near the top of the school, he had not the power to avoid going to the Wall again. And to the Field Game: ‘The Annals of Foot-Ball’ of Eton College begin familiarly enough on 22 September, ‘Blair did not overwork himself, and 27 September: ‘The behinds, especially Blair, kicked out too much’; but on 6 October ‘The feature of the first half was a superb goal neatly shot by Blair from the halfway line ...’ And from then on he did not look back, having probably decided that it was more trouble to play badly than to play well. ‘For them, Blair, Turner... were best’,’... Then the keeper scored off a good penalty kick by Blair ... Meynell, at short, aptly backed up by Blair ...’ ‘Blair was competent’ ... ‘Blair kicked very well’ ... and ‘Blair kicked and kept competently under considerable pressure’. Also, to round off his sporting career, he enjoyed playing Fives — and he must have learned to play squash (on the two College courts), for we hear of him playing squash in Mandalay, as well as football in Moulmein.

____ § ____

In the first part of the Christmas holidays, Eric joined his family, at first at Henley but then also at Netting Hill. Prosper’s diary for 20 December notes that ‘we went up to town to Natural History Museum and Olympia Fair with Eric’. On 24 December 1920, Mrs Buddicom remarried at the Henley Register Office, so presumably it was not the best time for one of Eric’s usual visits. Yet on 28 December, Eric wrote to Prosper accepting an invitation to come to Quarry House from 17 January to the end of the school holidays; but Prosper fell ill and the visit had to be cancelled. In his letter, Eric noted chattily that ‘we are going to the Blue Lagoon this afternoon and the Beggar’s Opera[56] — everyone at Eton seemed to have been talking about Nigel Playfair’s famous revival of John Gay at the Lyric, Hammersmith. This production’s mixture of harsh satire and nostalgia suited the post-war mood; and it was apt to the budding Orwell, both romantic and cynical. He went to stay with cousins of his father in Suffolk. One of them remembers finding him ‘a very quiet boy, difficult to entertain, who didn’t seem interested in anything’.[57] Curious and unexplained, his being parked out, when normally the parents of boarding-school children ‘make up for it’ in the vacations. But he did find something to interest him, as an undated letter sent to Prosper towards the end of that holiday tells:

Thanks for your letter. It was most awfully good your shooting the two snipe & the woodcock. You ought to get at least one of them stuffed, I think. I have bought one of those big cage-rat traps. This place is overrun with rats. It is rather good sport to catch a rat & then let it out & shoot it as it runs. If it gets away I think one ought to let it go & not chase it. If they are threshing the corn while you are there, I should advise you to go — it is well worth it. The rats come out in dozens. It is also rather sport to go at night to a corn-stack with an acetylene bicycle lamp & you can dazzle the rats that are running along the side & whack at them — or shoot them with a rifle. I rather wish I had my rifle here, as there are no rabbits ...[58]

Thus Blair bought the cage that eventually was thrust at the face of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And the rat seems to be the devil to be striven against in a child’s own created world of domestic animals.

Prosper’s illness turned out to be serious, a bad attack of chicken-pox that affected his heart. Eric visited his friend at Shiplake during the Easter holidays when Prosper was convalescing. Jacintha neither recorded nor remembered events or incidents concerning Eric, literary or ballistic. Perhaps she felt that her brother had taken him over.

They were together again at the Eton-Harrow match in the Summer Half, when Eric and King-Farlow made such a huge second killing with commercial advertisements for their magazine College Days (King-Farlow claims that they netted £128) that the authorities declared against the profit motive. There was to be no more exploitation of the sacred event. The standard of the publication (apart from the offending advertisements) was not high, no sign of literary genius in Blair’s several contributions, only of cheerful endeavour. The year before he had contributed, inter alia, ‘The Photographer’ which began:

Not a breath is heard, not a moving of lip,
As his hand stays posed on the shutter.
And only the gnat on the neck gives a nip,
As we think of the words we mayn’t utter.

And in 1921 came an ‘Ode to Field Days’, which began:

Hills we have climbed and bogs that we have sat in,
Pools where we drenched our feet in mid-December,
Trains we have packed, woods we have lost our hat in,
When you are past and gone, we will remember.

And which continued for several more verses.

____ § ____

That summer trouble came to a head between the senior Election and the rest of College led by Blair’s Election, who were now themselves about to enter Sixth Form. Cyril Connolly claims that Blair was beaten by Sixth Form when he was 18, nominally for being late for prayers, but in fact for being ‘uppish’. He and King-Farlow were beaten ‘on the most flimsy pretexts’. King-Farlow has denied this strongly. He said that he even threatened Connolly with a libel action in the 1930s for repeating the tale.[59] He was working in America at the time and thought it would be damaging for anyone to think that virtually a grown man would allow himself to be treated in such a degrading manner. No one else can remember it, though Blair had been beaten lower down the School, as had most of his Election, both individually and as part of collective punishment. Connolly’s memory must be at fault for, by his eighteenth birthday, Blair was in Sixth Form and capable of administering canings himself; or perhaps he transposed an incident.[*] There is no doubt, however, that the Election of 1915 had been remarkably traditional, reactionary even, about matters of discipline and Sixth Form privilege, while Blair’s Election of 1916 was far more liberal and relaxed, used the cane very little, and almost dismantled the privileges of Sixth Form and College Pop (not to be confused with the prestigious and powerful institution of the Eton Society, ‘Pop’). The Election below them went so far in liberalism as to create, as people saw it at the time, ‘an inevitable reaction’ later. That particular reaction was led, equally inevitably, by Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham.

Connolly relates a shocking tale. When the customary votes of thanks were moved at the end of term to those members of College Pop who were leaving, including the President, Treasurer and Secretary, the Keepers of College Wall and Field, the Cadet Officer of the OTC, and the Captain of the School himself, ‘name after name was read out, proposed and seconded, the ballot box passed ... blackballs extracted, and the transaction noted down in “Annals” — not one of the previous years’ officers received a vote of thanks’ (a solitary black ball was enough to negate such a vote).[60] Connolly makes it sound a great event in the records of College. Mynors says that he does not remember it, that if it did take place (and the notes in the Minute Book are said to be clear, and Eton is careful about access to its records) ‘it must have been a storm in a tea-cup’. Others remember ‘something of the kind’, less precisely than Connolly.

A feature of’College Annals’ is a ‘Retrospect’ written by the Captain of the School. Perhaps the blackballing explains why no Retrospect was written for 1920-21, but the Captain’s entry for 1921 — 2, when Orwell entered Sixth Form for his last term, throws some light on the troubles of the times:

The past year has been conspicuous more for alterations in the general tone of College than for any remarkable achievements. It has always been the hope of my own Election to destroy the inter-election enmity, as it existed a few years ago, to abolish the scandals of College Rag, to reduce the numbers of beatings to a minimum, and generally to substitute a more harmonious system of government for the old methods of repression and spite. All but one of the ancien regime Election left last summer, and we were given an almost free hand ... It is too early to judge the success of these experiments, and the inward predictions of the ‘old man’ may be verified, but I can at least honestly record that the College has been in every way happier this year than at any time in the last six years. The Master in College, though disapproving in many ways of our ‘lack of discipline’ has been very helpful and tactful...

Two years later, his successor wrote:

The whole reaction from the over-severe discipline of six years ago has gone too far, as reactions do ... We should have been more careful that in casting out this one devil we did not make way for seven worse devils — for in-discipline and anarchy ...[61]

And this young ‘old man’ went on to deplore that there had been ‘two parties’ in Sixth Form leading to ‘the destruction of discipline in the College’. ‘Polities’ then became a regular feature of the ‘Annals’, and the issues were those of discipline and corporal punishment.

The Glorious Fourth’ is for Eton the Fourth of June, King George III’s birthday, not the Fourth of July. It is a kind of Open Day. Sixth Form (ten Collegers and ten Oppidans in toto), stuffed into court dress with knee-breeches, silver buckles and silk stockings, gave the ‘Speeches’, readings in fact. Blair read a morbid passage from ‘The Suicide Club’ stories in Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights. Stansky and Abrahams see this, together with his colours for the Wall Game and election to College Pop, as ‘not contemptible items in an Eton dossier’.[62] But contemporaries, reading what they say, despite their careful use of a negative, think they exaggerate. Sixth Form was small, so everyone had to orate. It was not a chosen honour. College Pop was still a debating society with a reasonably open membership. And historically the Wall Game was very much a College-dominated affair in which height and weight would help determine the composition of the team — Blair did develop skill, but that was a bonus; the ‘Colour’ was for being, not becoming. Academically, he was near the bottom of the lists, placed 138th out of 167 in the Eton July examinations.

There was no denying that it had been an undistinguished career, but also, despite what he said later about Eton being such a snobbish place, one that he had rather enjoyed. As Osbert Sitwell once claimed in Who’s Who that he was educated at home from Eton during the holidays, so Orwell — who only made Who’s Who in the year of his death — could well have claimed that he had educated himself outside the school rooms while at Eton.

The time for boyhood pastimes and lack of care about earning a living was rapidly drawing to a close: one last vacation before one last term.

In the summer of 1921, the Blair family gave up the house at Henley. Richard Blair stayed with relatives in Suffolk while house-hunting for a final retirement place that he could afford — assuming that no more wars called for his services. The Buddicoms, too, had given up their house to live in Harrow, so that Prosper, with his weakened heart, could enjoy the milder regime of a dayboy. The two families combined to rent a house for the summer, Glencroft in Rickmansworth outside London. It was a hot summer. A tennis court went with the house, and there were bicycles and a gramophone. A nearby reservoir gave good fishing, and there was a billiards hall in the village (‘Men Only’) into which Eric and Prosper often retreated. There was a last exchange offender poetry between Jacintha and Eric. He wrote:

Friendship and love are closely intertwined,
My heart belongs to your befriending mind:
But chilling sunlit fields, cloud-shadows fall —
My love can’t reach your heedless heart at all.

And she replied:

By light
Too bright
Are dazzled eyes betrayed:
It’s best
To rest
Content in tranquil shade.[63]

There was a last burst of Buddicom pressure that ‘Eric should go to Oxford’ which both his father, whose heart was not set on such things, and Eric, whose heart was not set on them enough to want to swot, knew was impossible without his winning a scholarship. Jacintha relates:

So when Mrs BIair sided with Eric in a desperate last-minute stand for a final last-minute chance of Oxford, our mother backed them up in some vigorous correspondence with old Mr Blair, strongly advocating that Oxford was ‘the proper thing’ for a boy. She told them that ‘at whatever sacrifice’ she was determined that Prosper should be given the opportunity. But Mr Blair was adamant: nothing could alter his own equal determination that Eric should not. Eric frequently sat in on these discussions, especially whenever an episde from Mr Blair was read out, when he was not engaged in outdoor pursuits with the others.[64]

But Eric almost certainly did not, in later years certainly did not, share Jacintha’s enthusiasm. Some time during this period the idea of simply following in his father’s footsteps must have occurred, which was then, after all, a most ordinary thing to happen, in any class or condition whether the boy welcomed it or not.

In the new Michaelmas Half, Richard Blair went to Eton to talk to Gow about possible careers for bis son. Andrew Gow remembered Mr Blair telling him that Eric could not go to Oxford without a scholar-ship; and that he told Mr Blair that Eric ‘did not stand the slightest chance of getting a scholarship’ — which settled the matter. And sixty years later Gow fumed that Eric would have brought ‘disgrace on College’ had they even put him forward for a scholarship examination, since he had done ‘absolutely no work for five years’.[65] He volunteered further that he thought Miss Buddicom’s account ‘of his wanting to go and being able to go but his father stopping him’ was ‘rubbish’.[66]

Eric must have known the score, even if his friend was still hoping, and Jacintha still thinks that he missed something. If he felt any sense of loss, he never said so to anyone who can remember it, nor wrote about it; and, after all, only a minority from Eton as a whole in those days went on to university, though a majority of boys from College did. To have been to Eton at all was a good enough beginning for most careers. The idea of serving in India or Burma would have come up quite naturally and from the family, especially with his maternal grand-mother still in Mandalay. Gow was sure that the school did not recommend the police; certainly he did not. The Indian Police was a poor service, already tainted in the liberal press with hangings and floggings; but for the Imperial Civil Service itself one needed university-level qualifications, and of the lesser services the Police would seem more interesting than, say, Forestry, Public Health, Roads or the wretched Opium Department. Such a choice does not demand psychological speculation. Runciman remembered him saying even before he entered Sixth Form that he did not want to go to university, he wanted ‘to go back’ to the East. Uncertain where he belonged, it was as if he wanted to go back to where he was born, even before his memory.

There is a lot of Orwell himself in his character of the failed and bitter writer, Gordon Comstock, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Comstock curses a rejection slip: ‘Why be so bloody mealy-mouthed about it? Why not say outright, “We don’t want your bloody poems. We only take poems from chaps we were at Cambridge with ...” The bloody hypocritical sods!’[67] This has been read by some literary critics as a proof of jealousy and of regret that he did not go to Oxford. But critics forget that such accusations are often true, that Orwell is right to attack nepotism; and also there is a lot that is not autobiographical in Gordon Comstock. Orwell may never have felt that bitter, but he was Comstock enough in condition and thought to know how a Comstock would feel. ‘Probably the greatest cruelty one can inflict on a child,’ muses Comstock, ‘is to send it to a school among children richer than itself. A child conscious of poverty will suffer snobbish agonies such as a grown-up person can scarcely even imagine.’[68] If this cap, indeed, fitted Orwell tightly, it did so at St Cyprian’s more than at Eton. There is no sign or complaint of Us being similarly unhappy and constrained at Eton. College was an intellectual aristocracy, not a plutocracy. He did go on a bit about money, as King-Farlow remembers, but it was largely a good middle-class rant about ‘not getting value for money’. Yet compared to most of his fellows, he was abnormally aware for his age of the difference that money makes to a person’s life. All in all, however, if his career at Eton had been unsuccessful by College standards, he had got a lot out of it, in terms of reading and self-confidence. And he had not been un-happy; he had simply stood aside from official enthusiasm and had, indeed, flexed his muscles in practical scepticism of authority. He emerged with all the ‘wrong attitudes’, precisely those that were so good for a social critic to have; and his peculiar genius as a writer might well have been damaged by going on to university — certainly to Oxford or Cambridge.

He was one of the awkward squad, but a proud member. There was no sign then, however, that when the last great game is played at the Wall or in the Field with the courtiers, the careerists, the imperialists, the parlour creeps, the backstair crawlers, the arse-lickers, the toadies, the money-grubbers, the City men, the complacent and sleekly successful (all words to be used by Orwell), against God’s great awkward squad of unorthodox, dissident Englishmen, that Eric Blair as George Orwell would have had a place in that team, not at the top of the list, but turning out none the less with Skelton, Lilbume, Swift, Defoe, Sam Johnson, Hazlitt, Cobbett, Dickens, William Morris and Bertrand Russell.

The last term in school must have been somewhat unreal once a decision had been made about his future career. He was in Sixth Form but it was not an Election for throwing its weight about. He seems never to have used the cane. He did have a fag, but made little use of him, let him off lightly. Sir Anthony Wagner (later Garter King of Arms) remembered him as ‘kind and nice, very withdrawn, a very pleasant, kind and decent fagmaster’.[69] He saw him only as a rather dim figure, at the bottom of the academic list of seniority in a brilliant Election, ‘else someone more interesting might have picked me up; I didn’t think of him as particularly interesting’. ‘I must be careful not to remember more than I can remember,’ added Sir Anthony with professional rectitude. All he can clearly remember Blair saying to him was, rather shyly, ‘Come and work in my room if ever you like, if you find things too noisy in Chamber.’ He too confirms that Blair’s Election had a very relaxed attitude to discipline, they inaugurated a libertarian phase: ‘This was all very well in most ways, but in other ways it led to bullying they didn’t know about by relaxing their grip on the College.’ The paradox of imperial power was present even then. And when Blair left, he gave Wagner as a farewell present Robert Service’s Rhymes for a Rolling Stone.

Before Blair left, he did one memorable riling. In a match at the Wall he passed the ball long and accurately for Bobbie Longden to score a goal. John Lehmann arrived at Eton only just in time to witness — in what he thought was (and set down in his memoirs as) the great St Andrew’s Day game against the Oppidans: ‘that extremely rare event, a goal scored in the Wall Game, and to make it more exciting for me it had been scored by my fag-master, Bobbie Longden, with the aid of George Orwell. “Wasn’t it wonderful?” I wrote in the same letter, and added, as if to make sure my parents assented in the same view of the matter, “It was perfectly splendid ...”’ But, alas for the fallibility of human memory, Lehmann was wrong: the records show that it was only a practice match.[70]

Eric Blair must have been mildly pleased to show that he could if he would but mostly he had shown that he would be damned if he would if told he had to.


1. CE II, p. 23.[back]

2. Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, in The Unknown Orwell (Constable, London, 1972), devote about a third of the book to a fascinating and fascinated account of Eton. The implication is that it must have had a formative effect on Orwell’s character, but the point is never demonstrated and he remains tangential to the narrative.[back]

3. Review ofB. J. W. Hill’s Eton Medley in the Observer, i Aug. 1948.[back]

4. For instance in a letter to Cyril Connolly, CE I, p. 363 (see p. 587); and in a letter to Julian Symons of Oct. 1948, ‘I am not going to let him go to a boarding school before he is ten, and I would like him to start off at the elementary school’ (CE IV, p. 451).[back]

5. Denys King-Farlow, ‘College Days with George Orwell’, MS. circa 1967 (five typed pages in Orwell Archive, Reminiscences).[back]

6. Christopher Hollis, A Study of George Orwell (Hollis & Carter, London, 1956), p. 20. See also his Eton: A History (Hollis & Carter, London, 1960), p. 299 ff.[back]

7. Denys King-Farlow speaking in ‘George Orwell: A Programme of Recorded Reminiscences’, arranged and narrated by Rayner Heppenstall, recorded on 20 Aug. 1960 and first broadcast on 2 Nov. 1960 (BBC Archives, Ref. No. TLO 24177). Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]

8. Interview by the author with George Wansbrough at Winchester, 18 Nov. 1976.[back]

9. Hollis, A Study of George Orwell, p. 15.[back]

10. Interview by the author with Sir Roger Mynors at St Weonard’s, 17 Aug. 1976.[back]

11. George Wansbrough (see note 8 above).[back]

12. Hollis, A Study of George Orwell, pp. 13-14.[back]

13. Jacintha Buddicom, Eric and Us (Leslie Frewin, London, 1974), p. 58.[back]

14. ibid., p. 74.[back]

15. ibid., pp. 50-60.[back]

16. ibid., p. 58.[back]

17. The Road to Wigan Pier, pp. 132-3.[back]

18. CE I, pp. 536-7.[back]

19. loc. cit.[back]

20. Letter of Christopher Eastwood to Sonia Orwell, 17 April 1964, in Orwell Archive; and interview with the author, 17 Nov. 1976.[back]

21. Stansky and Abrahams, op. cit., p. 107.[back]

22. King-Farlow, ‘College Days with George Orwell’.[back]

23. Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1938), p. 244.[back]

24. Buddicom, op. cit., p. 76.[back]

25. Interview with Denys King-Farlow by Ian Angus, 20 April 1967.[back]

26. Buddicom, op. cit., p. 74.[back]

27. ibid., p. 71.[back]

28. Cited by Cyril Connolly, op. cit., p. 267.[back]

29. Hollis, A Study of George Orwell, p. 15.[back]

30. Buddicom, op. cit., p. 79; and see Orwell’s letter to Eleanor Jaques, 19 Sept. 1932, CE I, p. 102.[back]

31. King-Farlow, ‘College Days with George Orwell’.[back]

32. Interview by the author with Andrew Gow at Cambridge, 18 Dec. 1976.[back]

33. Hollis, A Study of George Orwell, p. 17.[back]

34. Interview by the author with Sir Steven Runciman in London, 19 Oct. 1976, and Runciman quoted in Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (Chatto & Windus, London, 1973), Vol. i, p. 92.[back]

35. Buddicom, op. cit., pp. 77-8 and 90.[back]

36. ibid., p. 87.[back]

37. ‘Bernard Shaw’ by George Orwell, broadcast in the Eastern Service of the BBC, 22 Jan. 1943, ‘Calling all Students’ No. 5 (BBC Archives). Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]

38. Orwell Archive.[back]

* That Johnstone, Kenneth Johnstone, who remarked in 1976, ‘Who on earth would have thought that Blair would have turned into Orwell? Wouldn’t have picked him out as someone likely to set the world on fire.’[back]

39. The Road to Wigan Pier, pp. 140-41.[back]

40. Buddicom, op cit., p. 91.[back]

41. King-Farlow, ‘College Days with George Orwell’.[back]

42. When I interviewed Gow in December 19761 left Stansky and Abrahams’ The Unknown Orwell with him, which he had not read, though they had interviewed him. When I called on him on i Feb. 1977, he asked me to read the passages that mentioned him. I wrote down his comments in the margin and read them back to him to check.[back]

43. Letter of i May 1967 from Andrew Gow to Sonia Orwell (Orwell Archive, Papers of Sonia Orwell).[back]

44. CE I, p. 2.[back]

45. This parallel of ‘more equal’ with Animal Farm was pointed out by Mr P. M. Nixon of St Peter’s School, York, in a letter to The Times, 24 Nov. 1973.[back]

46. Buddicom, op. cit., pp. 96-102.[back]

47. CE IV, pp. 274-5.[back]

48. King-Farlow, ‘College Days with George Orwell’.[back]

49. Buddicom, op. cit., pp. 102-4.[back]

50. CE I, pp. 11-12; and see The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 142, which claims that he had read Jack London’s account of tramping, The People of the Abyss, while still at school.[back]

51. Buddicom, op. cit., pp. 105-8.[back]

52. The Road to Wigan Pier, pp. 141-3.[back]

53. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, p. 55.[back]

54. The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 141.[back]

55. Jack London, The Iron Heel (Sagamore Press, New York, reprinted 1957), pp. 82-3. William Steinhoff draws attention both to this and the passage from H. G. Wells, ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’, amid many other sources of the imagery in Nineteen Eighty-Four in Orwell’s early reading. See his The Road to 1984 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1975).[back]

56. Buddicom, op. cit., p. 109.[back]

57. Letter to author from Mrs Noreen Bagnall ofHockham Lodge, Shropham, Norfolk, 20 Oct. 1972.[back]

58. Buddicom, op. cit., pp. 110-11.[back]

59. Connolly, op. cit., p. 263; and King-Farlow criticized this account when interviewed by Ian Angus, 20 April 1967.[back]

* I have deliberately made as little use as possible for Eton of Enemies of Promise, Connolly’s small masterpiece explaining why he never produced a great one. It raises the same problems as Orwell’s ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ in respect of literal, historical accuracy. His scholarly contemporaries view the accuracy of his memories with sceptical eyes.[back]

60. Connolly, op. cit., p. 264.[back]

61. Quoted in Eric Parker, College at Eton (Macmillan, London, 1933), pp. 209-11. For him to have quoted the manuscript ‘College Annals’ in print caused such a stir among Old Etonians, one prominent stirrer being Qyintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham), that ever since then strangers have not been allowed to examine the records. The sporting records I quote were extracted from the registers and written down for me by a Captain of School, whom I thank.[back]

62. Stansky and Abrahams, op. cit., p. 112.[back]

63. Buddicom, op. cit., pp. 112-14 and 117.[back]

64. ibid., p. 117.[back]

65. Gow’s remarks to me are virtually the same as he wrote to Jeffrey Meyers on i Jan. 1969 which Meyers quotes in his A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell (Thames & Hudson, London, 1975), p. 33.[back]

66. ibid.[back]

67. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, p. 96.[back]

68. ibid., p. 53.[back]

69. Interview by the author with Sir Anthony Wagner, Garter King of Arms, 29 June 1977.[back]

70. John Lehmann, The Whispering Gallery (Longman, London, 1955), p. 95. The Vice-Provost of Eton, Mr F. J. R. Coleridge, and the Captain of School searched the records for me in March 1978 and while the account of that St Andrew’s Day match survives, there was, as usual, no score.[back]



Not even an old Etonian could simply waltz in and join the Imperial Indian Police. The public examination marked the bureaucratic phase of imperialism. ‘Off to the crammers with him’ was a general parental cry among the competitive middle classes. In December 1921, the same month that Eric left Eton, his parents moved yet again, Mrs Blair’s sixth move since leaving India in 1904. This time it was to Southwold, in Suffolk, on the east coast. The family stayed there until the Second World War, though with several changes of house. So it was to a crammer in Southwold that Eric went in January 1922, six months’ hard labour to prepare for several papers of the India Office’s examinations at the establishment of Mr P. Hope, MA (‘late scholar of King’s College Cambridge and for many years Sixth Form Master at Dulwich College’).

Southwold is a small, modest resort town. It had little then of the wealth of Eastbourne, Bournemouth and other favoured south-coast resort-cum-retirement towns, but it was becoming popular with Anglo-Indian families, wanting somewhere cheap but decent and comely — perhaps genteel is the right word — to retire to. So it already boasted a crammer that could specialize in the India Office exams. From old Blair’s point of view, this must have been yet another damned expense, albeit a necessary investment in a secure and respectable future. To him, it would seem natural, a proper end to the preparation that had begun at St Cyprian’s and to which Eton was probably an irrelevance — any public school would have done; but it might have been a disappointment nonetheless that Eric had not done well enough at Eton for a university scholarship.

Southwold had been recommended to the Blairs by the parents of Kathleen O’Hara who was a friend of Ruth Fitter (the future poet), whom Ida Blair and Marjorie had got to know while living at Mall Chambers, Netting Hill. Ruth Fitter remembers Eric when he was still a schoolboy of 17 at Eton. ‘I knew at once he was an interesting person. He looked at me with his very keen look, his eyes were an exact pair. He told me afterwards with all the impudence of Eton — Eton for ever when it comes to impudence, he was only 17 and I was 22 — “I wonder if that girl would be hard to get.” No, he told me afterwards. He would not have dared to say that at the age of 17.’[1] Eric, in fact, grew to dislike Southwold because of its many elderly and Anglo-Indian inhabitants, but he kept on returning to it — so strong was the family link. He met many young people of his own age, notably Eleanor Jaques (1906-62), the daughter of the family next door who had come from Canada (with whom he was to have, some years later, a brief affair), and Dennis Collings, who was to marry Eleanor. (Collings, born in 1905, was a friend of Eric’s from 1921 when his father became the Blairs’ family doctor. He was later an anthropologist and went East in the Colonial Service.)

A fellow student at the crammer, who used to play tennis with Avril, remembers that ‘A very beautiful young lady became very attracted to Blair and they saw a lot of each other, but he was very shy and I think she became a bit too much for him.’ Also ‘Blair and a rather wild young man who had, I think been expelled from Malvern somehow fell foul of the Borough Surveyor’; they found out the date of his birthday and ‘by way of a present they sent him a dead rat with birthday greetings and signing their names’.[2] Mr Hope promptly expelled them from his academy, but it was near the end of term and Blair had already sat his examination.

The India Office’s examinations consisted of compulsory two-hour papers in English, English History, Mathematics, French and three options. Eric chose Latin, Greek and Drawing. And if these hurdles were crossed, there was a medical and a practical test in horse-riding. No letters, reports, or administrative papers from his Burmese days survive, all that is left for history is bare files of entry forms and examination results.[3] Crace sent a formal reference from Eton, with a tinge of donnish sarcasm in it: ‘I do not know at all what is required by the authorities for candidates in the Indian police. I send a formal certificate which is probably all that is necessary.’ Evidently few if any Etonians, certainly none from College, had trod the road to Mandalay before. His father gave his formal permission and signed the usual undertaking to meet the cost of Eric’s uniform.

The exams took about a week in all and were highly competitive. From the questions asked it appears that their standard, however, was closer to an ‘Ordinary Level’ in England today rather than the ‘A’ or Advanced Level: certainly not an equivalent to university-entrance standard. In the English paper, for instance, he was asked to ‘Write a character sketch of an old gamekeeper, or a retired colonel, or an old farmer’; a letter to a relative about a trip to the theatre; a 250-word precis of a passage on the battle of Sedgemoor; to name and describe three members of the Cabinet, and several similar snippets. The History paper included questions on ‘Who was the greatest Prime Minister since Pitt?’ and (more imaginatively) ‘If Nelson had lost Trafalgar?’ And in Drawing the candidates were asked to copy a picture so that it would be ‘useful to an officer’, and to draw from memory ‘a chair at an angle, a hut or a bucket’. Twenty-six candidates went forward to the medical and riding test, Blair being placed seventh on the examination list; but after the riding test, he was ranked twenty-first from a successful twenty-three. Practical necessities of getting round their districts were, after all, weighed more heavily than knowledge.

He had listed his choices in order of preference as Burma, United Provinces, Bombay, Madras and the Punjab. He gave as reasons that he had relatives in Burma and that his father had served in United Provinces. He was one of three assigned to Burma: it did not rank high in the pecking order of the India hands. They regarded its problems as peripheral to those of the great sub-continent, even though they resisted claims to give it administrative autonomy.

On 27 October 1922, Blair sailed for the East on SS Herefordshire, from Birkenhead to Rangoon. New arrivals and departures are the set pieces of biographies, but so often it all has to be made up: there is no way of knowing what frame of mind he was in or quite what burden, if any, he thought he was carrying, this difficult, interesting, independent-minded, self-contained 19-year-old, committed only to scepticism towards authority and a love of literature but hardly of learning. Was he leaning over the rail, watching old England recede behind him, et cetera, in a Kiplingesque spirit of adventure, excitement and dedication?

Take up the White Man’s burden —
Send forth the best ye breed —
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild —
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Or was he doggedly doing the only thing that then seemed possible, dutifully following his father, but brooding morbidly that he probably wouldn’t like it? Quite possibly both sets of ideas were competing in his mind. His feelings may well have swung between such poles. What is implausible is that he went out placidly as if it were the natural thing to do and a normal culmination of his education. Some sense of ‘service’ was probably in his mind, but more likely as a role to be played, whether sadly, gladly or sourly — something not quite in character. Hindsight must be avoided. It is sheer speculation to picture him as masochistically sacrificing his promise to a poor Service to atone for guilt about privilege, or to punish his father for pushing him through such ambitious, competitive and socially condescending schools. For one thing, there was no sign of particular promise, despite an exceptionally well-developed ironic eye. None the less, he probably had a greater sense than his father of entering into a career that would be an incongruous end to his education. Most of the education of George Orwell, in fact, still lay ahead of him.

Long years afterwards he remembered two incidents from the voyage out which, he claimed, influenced him. Notice that they are both memories of observing and watching, not of discussion or direct involvement. He was to tell hungry readers of Tribune in 1947 about meals of ‘the stupendous kind’ they had ‘nearly a quarter of a century ago’ when ‘I was travelling on a liner to Burma ... ships of this line were mostly manned by Indians, but apart from the officers and the stewards they carried four European quartermasters whose job was to take the wheel’. As a young man, he looked up to them ‘as godlike beings on a par with the officers’. One day he came up from lunch early and saw a quartermaster ‘scurrying like a rat along the side of the deck-houses’ with a half-eaten custard pudding from the passengers’ table ‘partially concealed between his monstrous hands’.

Across more than twenty years I can still faintly feel the shock of astonishment... this sudden revelation of the gap between function and reward — the revelation that a highly-skilled craftsman, who might literally hold all our lives in his hands, was glad to steal scraps of food from our table — taught me more than I could have learned from half a dozen Socialist pamphlets.[4]

The memory and the shock sound genuine, but it took him another ten years at least to see it in such a specifically socialist perspective. He also added to the other memory a good anti-racialist moral.

When the other day I read Dr Ley’s statement that ‘inferior races, such as Poles and Jews’ do not need so much to eat as Germans, I was suddenly reminded of the first sight I saw when I set foot on the soil of Asia — or rather, just before setting foot there. The liner I was travelling in was docking at Colombo, and the usual swarm of coolies had come aboard to deal with the luggage. Some policemen, including a white sergeant, were superintending them. One of the coolies had got hold of a long tin uniform-case and was carrying it so clumsily as to endanger people’s heads. Someone cursed at him for his carelessness. The police sergeant looked round, saw what the man was doing, and caught him a terrific kick on the bottom that sent him staggering across the deck. Several passengers, including women, murmured their approval.[5]

He reached Rangoon in November, the steamer coming right up the wide, mud-coloured but deep Irrawaddy river, past the oddly contrasting black smokestacks of the Burmah Oil Company’s refinery and the tall gold spire of the Shwe Dagon pagoda, one of the oldest and most holy of Buddhist shrines. He and another trainee who had travelled out with him spent a few days in Rangoon on the customary round of courtesy calls to high officials; and they then took the train to Mandalay, a sixteen-hour journey, north-bound for the Burma Provincial Police Training School. Since ‘the pacification’ of Burma in the 1880s, the railway had replaced the old river route of Kipling’s lines:

On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we
went to Mandalay!

They were met at the station by Roger Beadon, the third successful Burma Police candidate that year, who had come out ahead of the others to meet his father. (Beadon was the same age as Blair and lived to tell his tales until 1975.) He took them to the Police Mess which was adjacent to the Training School/The Police Mess was reckoned to be the best of the regimental and administrative clubs in Mandalay. The ground floor was a large club-house, and above were six bedrooms, three reserved for the probationary A S Ps (Assistant Superintendents of Police). The Police School was primarily for the training of Cadet Sub-Inspectors, mostly native Burmese school graduates (but including some Shans, Karens and Arkanese, as well as a few Indians and Chinese).

The English probationary ASPs led a life apart, with only a small amount of instruction in common. They polished up their own drill privately — they had already done it to a high standard in their school OTCs; but then practised taking command and drilling on the native cadets. ‘We had one pip and thought ourselves very important,’ Beadon remembered — though he defended fiercely the whole system against ‘the slurs’ and ‘malice’ of Orwell in his novel, Burmese Days (Beadon had read this when still in Burma).

[Blair] didn’t speak very much about his past, I mean, he was very quiet... He always looked as if his clothes would never hang on him properly, he was long and thin and I always felt rather lugubrious, very tall for his age; and as I say, his clothes just sort of fell on him, you couldn’t make him tidy however hard you tried. And he was a very pleasant fellow to know, but he kept very much to himself. I was very fond of going down to the club and playing snooker and dancing and what have you, but this didn’t seem to appeal to him at all, he wasn’t what I would call a socialite in any way, in fact I don’t think he went to the club very much ... I think he mosdy read ... or stayed up in his room.[6]

Others confirm that he was not disliked, did nothing provocative at the Training School, but was an unclubbable man, a solitary and therefore ‘an eccentric’. This was plainly so, but again there were material as well as psychological factors: the Mess was terribly expensive. ‘We all left the school heavily in debt,’ said one senior officer. And the time was to come when probationers without private means could not afford to join the club.[7] Whatever the causes, a vicious circle could set in: unclubbable men got poor and lonely postings, which could increase their eccentricity, unsociability or ‘melancholy’ — think of the strange quotation from As You Like It that Orwell used as a legend to Burmese Days:’... this desert inaccessible/Under the shade of melancholy boughs.’

One of his mildest later remarks on Burma was ‘five boring years within the sound of bugles’ — a sound which must have saddened him like Housman rather than filled him with elation like Philip Sidney. The bugles, in fact, would only have been in the first year, while he was living in the cantonment in Mandalay. The days consisted of cramming in the morning, drilling in the afternoon, and drinking at night. Blair substituted reading for drinking.

He had come to Burma at an interesting time. Until the Great War, relations “between educated Burmese and the British authorities had generally been quiet. Nationalist sentiments began to spread during the War mainly through Buddhist monks and a body called the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, which was moving away from its early, westernizing intent to copy the YMCA movement. Discontent and national sentiments flared up, though still far short of claiming independence. In 1919, Burma, although administratively a province of India, had been specifically excluded from the reforms of the Government of India Act. This measure was to introduce to India, following the Montagu-Chelmsford proposals, a system of dual government or ‘Dyarchy’ by which Indians were given representation in elected assemblies as well as having higher posts in the civil service open to them. Important areas of government and financial control were still reserved to the occupying power, yet it was considered a great step forward in India, the beginning of a process of deliberate education towards eventual self-rule — perhaps by the end of the century; and its absence in Burma was bitterly resented. A former Lieutenant-Governor of Burma, Sir Herbert White, had in 1913 condemned as ‘pernicious cant’ the view that ‘our mission in Burma is the political education of the masses’; we are there, he said, to bring ‘law and order to parts of barbary and to maintain them there’. At best the political ideas of English imperialists were as Professor Stokes was to characterize them: ‘the belief that political power tended constantly to deposit itself in the hands of a natural aristocracy, that power so deposited was morally valid, and that it was not to be tamely surrendered before the claims of abstract democratic ideals, but was to be asserted and exercised with justice and mercy.’[8] (Blair would at first have shared this theory in principle, while in practice coming to think as an ex-Etonian that the type of Englishman and Scot who came to Burma did not constitute a ‘natural aristocracy’ who would govern with ‘justice and mercy’.)

Burmese resentment took the form of a boycott of British goods. Young Buddhist monks plunged into politics, going round with small canes with which they beat anyone breaking the boycott. In 1920, Rangoon College was raised to the status of a full university; but an effective student strike took place, spreading to the schools, when it became clear it was intended to teach, above all else, obedience and loyalty. The new university was to be tightly controlled to prevent it becoming anything like the University of Calcutta, thought to be the cradle and hotbed of Indian nationalism. By 1923, however, the British Government had given way, with its usual shrewd conservative practicality, and the Indian reforms were extended to Burma; but the damage had been done. Rebellion and civil disobedience were avoided until the 1930s, but the old mutual trust had broken down. Unrest was endemic; as so often licensed freedom made things worse.

There was no real fear of violence, however, and British police and civilian administrators still rode or trudged around the country with only a few native escorts, sometimes almost alone. The military presence was small (two battalions of British and ten of Indian infantry). All the same, there was a general atmosphere of hostility. Orwell gave a careful and far from exaggerated picture of it in his essay of 1936, ‘Shooting an Elephant’. There is no record of Blair making friends among any of the young nationalists. Many of the British old hands were, of course, upset and intolerant of the Burmese because of their seeming ingratitude at ‘all that was done for them’ and the granting of Dyarchy. And many of the old and new hands had been coarsened and rendered impatient — as with the Black and Tans in Ireland — by their experiences in the Great War. Flory, the ‘hero’ of Burmese Days, rants on to himself:

In the end the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to right of you, Pink’un to left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists should be boiled in oil. You hear your Oriental friends called ‘greasy little babus’, and you admit, dutifully, that they are greasy little babus. You see louts fresh from school kicking greyhaired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. And in this there is nothing honourable, hardly even any sincerity... You are a creature of the despotism, a pukka sahib, tied tighter than a monk or a savage by an unbreakable system of tabus.[9]

Did Blair initially have such intense feelings of hidden revolt against being ‘a cog in the wheels of despotism’, as he later wrote?

At least one different thought may have run through his mind in the early days at the Police School. A group photograph has survived with thirteen men and one dog in it, including one Burmese: all with topees, Sam Browne belts and swagger sticks. Their names and ages survive. All, except Beadon and Blair, were of an age to have served in the Great War. Blair had at first ‘written off* 1914-18 as ‘a meaningless slaughter’:

But the dead men had their revenge after all. As the war fell back into the past, my particular generation, those who had been ‘just too young’, became conscious of the vastness of the experience they had missed. You felt yourself a little less than a man, because you had missed it. I spent the years 1922-27 mostly among men a little older than myself who had been through the war. They talked about it unceasingly, with horror, of course, but also with a steadily-growing nostalgia.’[10]

He came to reject imperialism while in Burma, but probably not at once, only gradually; meanwhile he did his duty with distaste. For his anti-imperialism would never imply anti-patriotism. At first he must have half-admired these men with their campaign ribbons and decorations, however little he shared their values and their tastes. And the British Army, and colonial services, were used to and reasonably toleraqt of solitary eccentrics who read books. Sometimes in lonely posts it was the only thing to do if you were not to ruin yourself with drink, women or — the deepest fear of all out East — opium. Many a military man or civilian even has wished that he was a bit more bookish.

An Assistant Superintendent of Police would spend ‘nine months at the.., Police Training School during which time he will be instructed in law, languages and police accounts and procedure’.[11] They then plunged straight into field postings, although on probation for a further fifteen months.

We saw each other every day [said Roger Beadon], we attended instructions in law, Burmese and Hindustani, and we used to have to do an hour’s Burmese and then switch right over to Hindustani... but what shattered me more than anything else was that whereas I found it very difficult, it didn’t seem to worry him [Blair] at all, I mean when I, we, should be attending class, he was probably up in bed reading, so whether he had a flair... for Eastern languages I don’t know, but he certainly could speak it extremely well for I’m told that before he left Burma, he was able to go into a Hpongyi Kyaung, which is one of these Burmese temples, and converse in a very high-flown Burmese with the Hpongyis, or priests, and you’ve got to be able to speak Burmese very well to be able to do that.’[12]

Two odd tales also stuck in Beadon’s mind. He had taught Blair to ride a motorbike and Blair purchased a huge American machine, very close to the ground, so that when he, six foot three, sat on it, his knees came up to his chin. Once they headed for one of the gates of Fort Dufferin, each on their own machine, but Beadon suddenly realized that it was not open. He shouted a warning ‘but it didn’t react on him and he didn’t quite know what to do, he wasn’t very mechanically minded I think, so he just stood up and the bike went straight on between his legs and hit the thing and came down ...’ Also Beadon once suggested ‘a tiger-shoot’. He had a Luger Parabellum automatic pistol and Blair borrowed the Principal’s shotgun. They went out fifteen miles on their motorbikes, then roused a villager to drive them about all night in a bullock cart (presumably the bullock doubled up as bait). They sat in the back with cocked guns. ‘We didn’t see a tiger and somehow I don’t think the gentleman in charge of the bullock cart ever intended that we should. I think if we had that possibly Mr Blair or Mr Orwell would not have existed ...’ No wonder the old India hands doubted that their compatriots in Burma were pukka sahibs. ‘Tiger shooting on a motorbike with a pistol!’ It was only a grander version of killing a jackdaw with a catapult at Eton.

They completed their exams successfully enough in January 1924 and got their first postings. Only one piece of ‘practical’ training had interrupted this course of law and languages. They were posted for a month to a British regiment up-country at Maymyo. The second autobiographical chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) was to recall in a curious context one incident from this month: that of class prejudice and smell. He said that he had been brought up to believe that ‘the lower classes smell’,[13] but that he felt towards the Burmese none of the prejudice that he did towards ‘the lower classes at home’. ‘When you have a lot of servants you soon get into lazy habits, and I habitually allowed myself, for instance, to be dressed and undressed by my Burmese boy. This was because he was a Burman and undisgusting:

I could not have endured to let an English man-servant handle me in that intimate manner. I felt towards a Burman almost as I felt towards a woman.’ (In Burmese Days, of course, the body-servant was a woman, as was very common in the outposts.) This led him to remember that:

When I was not much past twenty I was attached for a short time to a British regiment. Of course I admired and liked the private soldiers as any youth of twenty would admire and like hefty, cheery youths five years older than himself with the medals of the Great War on their chests. And yet, after all, they faintly repelled me; they were ‘common people’ and I did not care to be too close to them. In the hot roomings when the company marched down the road, myself in the rear with one of the junior subalterns, the steam of those hundred sweating bodies in front made my stomach turn. And this, you observe, was pure prejudice. For a soldier is probably as inoffensive, physically, as it is possible for a male white person to be. He is generally young, he is nearly always healthy from fresh air and exercise, and a rigorous discipline compels him to be clean. But I could not see it like that. All I knew was that it was lower-class sweat that I was smelling, and the thought of it made me sick.[14]

He certainly had no illusions about the British soldier in Burma:

They develop an attitude towards “the niggers” which is far more brutal than that of the officials or business men. In Burma I was constantly struck by the fact that the common soldiers were the best-hated section of the white community, and judged simply by their behavior, they certainly deserved to be.’[15] Perhaps this was just counter-propaganda to the assumed popularity of Tommy Atkins in those four lines of verse that everyone knew (if they knew little else) about Burma:

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
‘Come you back you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay.’

____ § ____

His first posting took him far from Mandalay, to Myaungmya, a small and primitive town in the alluvial Irrawaddy Delta, a grim contrast to Mandalay and with a notoriously difficult Superintendent of Police. There is general agreement among his surviving contemporaries that it was a rotten first posting, and indeed that none of his subsequent five postings, except one close to Rangoon, was brilliant. The duties were demanding for a still fairly green 20-year-old. He was expected to run the office at the district headquarters; to supervise all stores and records; to organize the training school of locally-recruited constables; to oversee the headquarters staff (between thirty and fifty men); to arrange escorts for hearings and trials, night patrols, and generally to take charge when his superior was touring the sub-divisional headquarters, away for days on end. Blair cannot have made a great success of it — or more likely he got on badly with his superior officer — for although it was regarded as a temporary training post, he was transferred in less than three months, which was exceptional.

Since there was an American Baptist Missionary College nearby, it was probably there that the small incident occurred which he describes in The Road to Wigan Pier as leading to a large doubt. An American missionary was watching one ofBlair’s native sub-inspectors bullying a suspect. ‘Like most Nonconformist missionaries he was a complete ass but quite a good fellow ...’ He turned to Blair and said, ‘I wouldn’t care to have your job.’ ‘It made me horribly ashamed. So that was the kind of job I had! Even an ass of an American missionary, a tee-total cock-virgin from the middle West, had the right to look down on me and pity me.’ He recalled the misery of the prisoners, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboo sticks and the howling of women and children as their menfolk were led away under arrest: ‘Things like these are beyond bearing when you are in any way directly responsible for them. I watched a man hanged once; it seemed to me worse than a thousand murders. I never went into a jail without feeling ... that my place was on the other side of the bars.’[16]

Again, there could be some hindsight here. It took him some time to realize on which side of the bars both head and heart lay. The mature Orwell would have known Voltaire’s dictum that ‘when one man is imprisoned unjustly, the only place for a just man is in prison’. But his own remark went far beyond that: he was not talking about the personal guilt or innocence of the imprisoned and down-trodden Burmese, but of their needless suffering under a system of despotism and alien rule. Plainly, however, even at the time many things were shaking and worrying the conventional side of the convictions of Eric Blair.

The first piece of writing that shows the distinctive style and powers of Orwell, the essay, ‘A Hanging’, describes one of these. It was written before he took a pseudonym, was published in the Adelphi in August 1931, and was signed Eric A. Blair. It has the terror of a Goya coupled with the precise, mundane observation of a Sickert, showing how men can turn even violent death into routine and habit. Even the victim turns aside to avoid splashing his feet in a puddle a few yards from the rope.

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive.[17]

When did he witness it? None of the few surviving contemporaries can remember such an incident, but then the very point of his narrative was the ordinariness of the unnatural act. It could have been any one of the 116 hangings in 1923, the 145 in 1924, the 162 in 1925, or the 191 in 1927. No administrative records survive, only aggregate statistics.[18] Did he witness a hanging at all? The old hands feel fairly certain it would not have been part of a young ASP’s duties; but he could have watched a hanging if he had asked. The tale does not make clear what the narrator is doing. Orwell told a friend, Mabel Fierz, sometime in the early 1930s, and also told his housekeeper, Susan Watson, in 1946, that ‘it was only a story’ — this after they had praised it and tried to get him to talk about it. And a year later he said the same to his sister. Yet not only did he write in The Road to Wigan Pier that ‘I watched a man hanged once; it seemed to me worse than a thousand murders’, but he repeated this to readers of Tribune in 1944: ‘I watched a man hanged once. There was no question that everybody concerned knew this to be a dreadful, unnatural action.’[19] There could have been another hanging which he witnessed and ‘A Hanging’ could be, indeed, a brilliantly artful short story.[*] His denials could have been simply to stop unwelcome and morbid conversations, for he disliked talking about his work, even his past work.

None of his letters home from Burma survive. He wrote three letters to Jacintha Buddicom but she lost them. All she can remember was that ‘The first was a long one, in the strain “you could never understand how awful it is if you hadn’t been here” — very disconsolate but unspecific.’ He did not explain how and why, and she wrote back suggesting he should leave if it was that awful. He replied that he couldn’t leave, then wrote a final letter at greater length ‘but it seemed guardedly. I got the impression that perhaps correspondence might be censored.’[20]

His next posting, for the second half of 1924, was to Twante, further east in the Delta. There might have been two or at the most three other Europeans there. He spent most of the time on tour in the villages, inspecting sub-stations, checking with and on village headmen who exercised minor police powers, constantly on the move with a small retinue of housemen, cook, orderly and two or more constables.[21] Even AS Ps had powers of summary jurisdiction, so he settled minor problems on the spot, while larger matters called for his decision whether to send them in front of a magistrate. Blair spent long hours listening to bizarre and wholly partisan evidence, sometimes translated, sometimes in the vernacular; always trying to keep things to the point, trying to simplify wildly complex divergent and digressive issues and evidence — in other words, he was sent out to exercise rough and patient justice.

Take up the White Man’s burden —
In patience to abide, To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.

‘By open speech and simple’: could Kipling’s words, or rather the situation they describe — speaking with patient clarity in another language or slowly for translation — have begun to create his characteristic style?

Blair attended the village churches of the Karens. A contemporary thought this odd, for although converts to Christianity by the American Baptist Mission, the Karens conducted their services in their own language. He may have learned Karen, some of his contemporaries think he did. He had a greater interest in and facility with languages compared to his contemporaries in the Police. (‘In my life, I have learned seven foreign languages, including two dead ones.’[22])

Twante, like both Myaungmya and his next posting, Syriam, was on the alluvial plain: Hat, featureless, with mangrove swamps, paddy fields, mosquito-infested and stinking of oil. It was nothing like the lush jungle vegetation of mid and upper Burma which he described so warmly and excitedly in Burmese Days, as if to comprehend that exotic landscape was to understand the Burmese character. It must have been these depressing delta landscapes which he had in mind in The Road to Wigan Pier:

I find that anything outrageously strange generally ends by fascinating me even when I abominate it. The landscapes of Burma, which, when I was among them, so appalled me as to assume the qualities of a nightmare, afterwards stayed so hauntingly in my mind that I was obliged to write a novel about them to get rid of them. (In all novels about the East the scenery is the real subject-matter.)[23]

This is an interesting instance of how the writer picks one typical landscape, from a variety of landscapes, to suit the purpose and the mood of what he is writing at the time.

A more senior officer who visited him while in Twante found him ‘tall, good-looking, pleasant to talk to, easy of manner’; but ‘he did not give the impression of being in any way remarkable’. Another found him ‘a shy, diffident young man ... obviously odd man out with other police officers, but longing, I think, to be able to fit in.’ He would visit a colleague in a neighbouring post on his motorbike, along roads ‘only fit for bullock carts’ but his only interest appeared to be in shooting imperial pigeons.[24] The main problem for anyone in these posts arose from isolation and loneliness. While in Mandalay in 1923 Blair be-friended a sad and interesting character. Captain H. R. Robinson, who had been seconded from the Indian Army to the Burma Police, where ‘he was axed in 1925,’ wrote Orwell much later, ‘and settled down ... in Mandalay, where he devoted himself almost exclusively to smoking opium, though he did have a brief interlude as a Buddhist monk and made unsuccessful efforts to float a gold mine and run a car-hiring business.’[25] After blinding himself in an unsuccessful attempt to blow his brains out (in March 1925) this pioneer hippie drop-out lived to write a book about it. Orwell could find no certain explanation in Robinson’s account of why ‘a young, healthy and apparently happy man’ should give himself up to such a debilitating habit, but ‘the clue is possibly to be found in the earlier part of the book which describes [his] adventures as a frontier magistrate among little-known tribes in the north-east corner of Burma’. What one finds is an account of total isolation amid constant — not threat precisely, but uncertainty and pressure. ‘Rather lonely,’ said Captain Robinson.[26] Every policeman had this experience to some degree. Alcohol was the socially acceptable anodyne, even if as harmful as opium. Blair, incidentally, could have earned no bonus marks for knowing such a man as Robinson.

Twante was not, in fact, all that far from Rangoon, twelve or so miles, a slow journey down a canal. Plainly Blair had very little time off, but on at least one afternoon he did get into Rangoon, for a curious incident occurred. Maung Htin Aung, who was until recently Vice-Chancellor of the University of Rangoon, recalls:

It was November 1924. I was a freshman at University College, Rangoon, and Blair was serving at a small town across the river from Rangoon. One afternoon, at about 4 p.m., the suburban railway station of Pagoda Road was crowded with schoolboys and undergraduates, and Blair came down the stairs to take the train to the Mission Road station, where the exclusive Gymkhana Club was situated. One of the boys, fooling about with his friends, accidentally bumped against the tall and gaunt Englishman, who fell heavily down the stairs. Blair was furious and raised the heavy cane which he was carrying, to hit the boy on the head, but checked himself, and struck him on the back instead. The boys protested, and some undergraduates, including myself, surrounded the angry Englishman. Although undergraduates, we were not much older than the schoolboys, for the age of admission to the university was sixteen. The train drew in and Blair boarded a first-class carriage. But in Burma, unlike India, first-class carriages were never taboo to natives, and some of us had first-class season tickets. The argument between Blair and the undergraduates continued. Fortunately, the train reached Mission Road station without further incident, and Blair left the train. He must often have pondered on the tragic consequences that could have followed had he not controlled himself. Blair was, of course, merely renecting the general attitude of his English contemporaries towards Burmese students, especially those from the National Schools.[27]

The Vice-Chancellor speculates that Orwell must have based on this the incident in Burmese Days when the choleric Ellis lashes out with a stick at jeering boys, blinding one of them and provoking a dangerous riot.

Need one draw quite the same moral from this little incident, however, as Maung Htin Aung, who sees it as proving the propensity of Europeans to lash out with sticks at natives? Tooling about’, ‘accidentally’ bumping into the Englishman ‘who fell heavily down the stairs’. Which of us, having a stick, would not then —? And if there was a sadistic streak in Blair, he ‘checked himself. Would a railway station in Rangoon not have had a police constable, or officials who could have been summoned? Para. 357 of The Burma Police Manual for 1899 states that ‘One policeman is usually posted at smaller railway stations.’ It seems very Orwell-like for Blair not to have summoned help and, instead, to have carried on arguing with the students in a railway compartment. Not quite the typical behaviour of the pukka sahib. Certainly he himself later recalled his ‘bad conscience’ at the remembered faces of ‘servants and coolies I had hit with my fist in moments of rage (nearly everyone does these things in the East, at any rate occasionally)’.[28] The parenthetical generalization is more likely to be literally true than the ‘I’ of George Orwell’s narrator. Perhaps he did not hit natives with his fist but certainly he saw a lot of it done and felt it painfully, as if every time he had done it himself.

____ § ____

His third and longest posting, which was to last for nine months, until October 1925, was at Syriam. This was even more awful, for although it had a good number of European residents, it was the site of the Burmah Oil Company’s refinery: the fumes and the smell were everywhere and vegetation was poisoned for miles around. His job was dull and routine, that of being responsible for the security of the refinery. Again he had a difficult and probably bullying superior, one who sneered at him for having been to Eton. Old Etonians were rare birds in that comer of Empire. Orwell later commented that in Burma ‘the all-important thing was not whether you had been to one of the right schools but whether your skin was technically white. As a matter of fact most of the white men in Burma were not the type who in England would be called “gentlemen”’, although they lived like gentlemen, ‘had servants, that is, and called their evening meal “dinner”’.[29]

A civilian chemist at the refinery, L. W. Marrison, put up Blair and his superior, De Vine, for a few nights while their dak (bungalow) was being repaired. He remembers De Vine introducing Blair as ‘a highly educated sort of chap, ha, yes; Blair was eaten and bought up, ha, ha, sorry, brought up at Eton.’ Blair took this with the sort of blank expression which indicated that he had heard it all before. Marrison imagined that Blair and De Vine, although obviously incompatible, got on reasonably well, for ‘De Vine seemed to me no worse than rather insensitive’. It seems more likely that they did not get on very well. Marrison remembers that five of them sat on the veranda after dinner in their pyjamas, drinking and singing and that he thinks the singing was started by Blair (perhaps in self-defence against conversation or by way of satire), who sang ‘Zipping Zyder through a straw-haw-haw’. ‘One remark of Blair’s I do remember distinctly: he deplored the fact that “there weren’t any good bawdy songs about nowadays”. He did give me the impression that he was a very typical public school boy (I am Grammar School and London University), devoid of snobbery but with a slight pose of nonchalance under all circumstances, deprecating enthusiasm.’ ‘Pose’ or not, Orwell’s nonchalance is noted again and again: under fire, in air-raids, in a whirlpool, and expressionless but patiently interested in the wildest of unlikely company. Marrison and Blair had some revolver practice together — ‘he wasn’t a very good shot’ — and Marrison told him that he had been reading Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow and Leda, and had been much impressed. ‘We discovered,’ he wrote home to his parents, ‘that we were the only people in Burma who ever read books.’ But Blair made no literary judgements that he remembered, nor ‘betrayed any desire or determination to write himself, only ‘he told me two facts I didn’t know — that Huxley had been a master at Eton and that he had been nearly blind’.[30] Even on meeting in such a wilderness a man of literary tastes, Blair was not the kind of person to unburden himself or even to talk intellectually; but courteous enough, mark, to offer two odd and evidently interesting facts.

Much of the company was, indeed, very coarse. An old Burma hand of the Irrawaddy Navigation Company, who knew Mrs Limouzin (Eric’s grandmother in Moulmein), recalls that at about that time the Governor’s wife had decreed throughout Burma (unofficially but authoritatively) that white officials and residents were to marry their Burman ‘keeps’ or concubines or cast them out. The habit was wide-spread, as with Flory and his Ma Hia May in Burmese Days. ‘But the American oil men at Syriam, a tough and gambling lot,’ said my ageing informant (as soon as his sister had left the room), ‘when they had heard the news simply sent a telegram unsigned and en clair to Government House, saying, “No cunt, no oil”.’ He remembers Blair only vaguely as standing quietly in the background in bars and messes, ‘a tall, thin and rather nervous-looking young man’.[31]

Syriam had two great advantages, however: the work was far less demanding than in Twante and it was located only ten miles by river from Rangoon. Blair could get there easily for an evening, an occasional weekend, even for the afternoon, to visit restaurants, acquaintances and, above all. Smart and Mookerdum’s Bookshop, to which each P. & 0. liner brought the latest books and even literary periodicals from England. He later told his friend, Richard Rees, the proprietor of the Adelphi, that he knew the journal then, but thought it a ‘damned rag’ and used it for revolver practice in his bungalow garden. Orwell may have been teasing him or claiming the credit of a converted Philistine as well as of an ex-imperialist: for he certainly bought and read it then. He mentioned nothing in his writings of what else he was reading, and Smart and Mookerdum’s ledgers of customers’ accounts vanished during the Japanese occupation. There is only a later reference to the state of his lifelong love-hate relationship with Kipling. ‘I worshipped Kipling at thirteen, loathed him at seventeen, enjoyed him at twenty, despised him at twenty-five, and now again rather admire him.’[32] So he enjoyed him when he was in Burma and despised him when he left; but it seems that he kept on reading him. His friend, Captain Robinson, the opium addict and failed suicide, wrote: ‘I found myself repeating [as he squeezed the trigger] some lines of Kipling — “Just roll on yer rifle and blow out yer brains/And go to yer Gawd like a soldier”.’[33]

Blair too had read Kipling a lot and Kipling could be all things to all men. Obviously Blair had brooded on the antithesis between Kipling the annalist of and apologist for imperialism and the Kipling with almost a Brechtian feeling for the hard lot of the common soldier and his empathy for those who were officially his inferiors or enemies — Gunga Din, even Fuzzy-Wuzzy: ‘You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man.’

Consider the Plain Tales from the Hills and other imaginative stories in the first person, drawn from the author’s own experiences. Consider also the Kipling who wanted to be H. G. Wells, writing about modem inventions; from that technocratic Rudyard, Orwell drew much for the many and complex sources of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Kipling’s story for instance, ‘As Easy as A.B.C.’ (1912), has: ‘The A.B.C., that semi-elected, semi-nominated body of a few score persons controls the planet. “Transportation is civilization” our motto runs. Theoretically we do what we please, so long as we do not interfere with the traffic and all it implies.’ A tale which ends with MacDonough’s song:

Whether the state can loose and bind
In heaven as well as on earth;
If it be wiser to kill mankind
before or after the birth —
These are matters of high concern
where state-kept schoolmen are;
But Holy State (we have lived to leam)
endeth in Holy War.

Once there was The People, Terror gave it birth;
Once there was The People and it made a Hell of Earth...

Orwell was to write a very derivative poem about the end of Empire (see p. 170). Kipling’s ‘With the Nightmail’ (‘a story of 2,000 A.D.’) is also about ‘the A.B.C. and a world technological and bureaucratic despotism’. Even among the oeuvres of the Puckish, rural Kipling an early story of the 1890s, ‘A Walking Delegate’, concerns ‘a yellow horse’ from the West trying to stir up rebellion among farm animals in Vermont against ‘the Oppressor’, man, although his ingrate overtures are turned down. The yellow horse is rejected as a work-shy trouble-maker.[34] Animal Farm is that world turned upside down.

The imperial, Kiplingesque side of Blair came out that summer in Rangoon when he met Christopher Hollis, who had been two years ahead of him at Eton.[35] Hollis passed through Rangoon on his way home from an Oxford Union debating tour of Australia and New Zealand and heard that Blair was there from a friend who had played squash with him.

We had a long talk and argument. In the side of him which he revealed to me at that rime there was no trace of liberal opinions. He was at pains to be the imperial policeman, explaining that these theories of no punishment and no beating were all very well at public schools but that they did not work with the Burmese — in fact that

‘Libbaty’s a kind o’ thing
Thet don’t agree with niggers.’

He had an especial hatred ... for the Buddhist priests, against whom he thought violence especially desirable — and that not for any theological reason but because of their sniggering insolence ... If I had never heard or read of Orwell after that evening, I should certainly have dismissed him as an example of that common type which has a phase of liberal opinion at school, when life is as yet untouched by reality and responsibility, but relapses easily after into conventional reaction.[36]

Hollis comments that afterwards he realized, when he had read ‘Shooting an Elephant’ and Burmese Days, that there had been a struggle of two minds going on of which he only saw one that evening. Perhaps, but Blair may have been partly playing a role and partly pulling Hollis’ leg, thinking him a glib and priggish liberal, Oxford Union to boot; so that he probably gave him the ‘realist’ line, half from the divided heart but half from the satiric tongue in cheek. Even at Eton Blair had shown an almost Dr Johnson-like pleasure in pugnaciously defending an improbable position in argument. The squash-playing mutual friend (E. F. Seeley [1901-75]) ‘whom Blair insisted on befriending’, turned out to be an old Etonian, although Hollis discreetly concealed this from his readers, for he was ‘greatly cold-shouldered by Rangoon society for having married an Indian lady’.[37]

Seeley years later told two American scholars that Blair had frequented the waterfront brothels.[38] This could be confirmed by a conversation which Harold Acton had with Orwell in Paris in 1945: ‘I prompted him to reminisce about his life in Burma, and his sad, earnest eyes lit up with pleasure when he spoke of the sweetness of Burmese women ... He was more enthusiastic about the beauties of Morocco, and this cadaverous ascetic, whom one scarcely connected with fleshly gratification, admitted that he had seldom tasted such bliss as with certain Moroccan girls ...’[39] This evidence is very hard to handle. Blair’s confession to the old Etonian in Rangoon may have been braggadocio, a shy young man keeping his end up; but on the other hand, his friend Captain Robinson wrote about visits to brothels, not naming his companions, particularly to the house of a poor Indian schoolteacher who had set up shop with three of her sixth form. Acton’s remarks could well be spiced with malice against a rather normal heterosexual and by then married man whose moral seriousness discomforted him. The Moroccan admission, even if actually said, is unlikely — and Orwell knew whom he was talking to and may have been trying to embarrass him. (Even Dr Johnson once debated whether intercourse with a Duchess would give, in principle, more pleasure than with her serving maid.)

When Roger Beadon visited Blair briefly at his next Burma posting, ‘as for female company, I don’t honestly think I ever saw him with one, he certainly was not like me — I had an eye for anything that was going’.[40] This is hardly conclusive, and Ma Hia May in Burmese Days is a convincing character, if lightly drawn. It really would be surprising if he had not known women — either in the brothels or with a concubine or ‘keep’ in his bungalows, as was so common.

He wrote two poems, either at the time or shortly after he left Burma (for they are both improperly on Burma Government writing paper), which may throw some light on this matter. The first seeks to be profound and the second to be cynical.


Empty as death and slow as pain
The days went by on leaden feet;
And parson’s week had come again
As I walked down the little street.

Without, the weary doves were calling,
The sun burned on the banks of mud;
Within, old maids were caterwauling
A dismal tale of thorns and blood.

I thought of all the church bells ringing
In towns that Christian folks were in;
I heard the godly maidens singing;
I turned into the house of sin.

The house of sin was dark and mean,
With dying flowers round the doors;
They spat the betel juice between
The rotten bamboo of the floors.

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.

The weeks went by, and many a day
That black-haired woman did implore
Me as I hurried on my way
To come more often than before.

The days went by like dead leaves falling,
And parson’s week came round again.
Once more devout old maids were bawling
Their ugly rhymes of death and pain.

The woman waited for me there
As down the little street I trod,
And musing on her oily hair,
I turned into the house of God.

This raises the same problems as his love poems to Jacintha Buddicom. How literally are they to be taken? Or how purely conventional are they? The second, if equally wicked, is less guilt-ridden.


When I was young and had no sense
In far-off Mandalay
I lost my heart to a Burmese girl
As lovely as the day.

Her skin was gold, her hair was jet,
Her teeth were ivory;
I said ‘For twenty silver pieces,
Maiden, sleep with me.’

She looked at me, so pure, so sad,
The loveliest thing alive,
And in her lisping, virgin voice,
Stood out for twenty-five.

The ambiguity of the young man’s humorous cynicism is how we must leave it. In any case, first experiences are not always as important in real life as in the conventions of modern autobiography and biography.

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple bells are callin’, an’ it’s there I would be —
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea.

At the end of September 1925 he was posted on to Insein, still close to Rangoon, but now ten miles north, amid lush vegetation — very different from the bleakness of the Delta. There was a sizeable European community there and a club. Blair was Assistant Superintendent at quite a large police headquarters. After the boredom of guarding the oil refinery, he was back on the real job that he now knew well, mostly in headquarters, but quite often touring the outposts. The district had the second biggest prison in Burma, so this could have been the scene for ‘A Hanging’. The snag about Insein, however, Beadon recalls, was that the Superintendent had the reputation of being a bully and probably was. Beadon thinks that it is this that may have ‘turned Orwell against Government service’ — almost certainly, by now, far too narrow a view of his smouldering discontents. This post (where he served for six months) and his next two merge together in the club and town Orwell imagined and reconstructed in Burmese Days.

Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time [declaims Flory]... the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them ... We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.[41]

A fellow had to put in an appearance at the club each evening, whether civilian or official; but Blair remained unclubbable and was firmly labelled ‘eccentric’. Roger Beadon visited him there — what proved to be their last meeting: ‘he had goats, geese, ducks, and all sorts of things floating about downstairs, whereas I kept rather a nice house — it rather shattered me, but apparently he liked that — and that was his sort of idea of ... it didn’t worry him what the house looked like.’[42]

‘His idea of what?’ I later asked Roger Beadon.

Oh, of living naturally, as some people call it, I suppose I meant to say. Not going native, mind. I don’t mean that; more “bohemian”. Didn’t seem to give a damn. Thought it “practical”, I suppose. Seemed a ruddy mess to me.’[43]

Blair remembered things that Beadon would not:

In Burma I have listened to racial theories which were less brutal than Hitler’s theories about the Jews, but certainly not less idiotic ... I have often heard it asserted, for instance, that no white man can sit on his heels in the same attitude as an oriental — the attitude, incidentally, in which coal-miners sit when they eat their dinners in the pit.[44]

He describes the character Ellis in Burmese Days: ‘Any hint of friendly feeling towards an Oriental seemed to him a terrible perversity. He was an intelligent man and an able servant of his firm, but he was one of those Englishmen — common, unfortunately — who should never be allowed to set foot in the East.’ And he has Ellis ranting:

Sitting down at table with him as though he was a white man, and drinking out of glasses his filthy black lips have slobbered over — it makes me spew to think of it... Here we are, supposed to be governing a set of damn black swine who’ve been slaves since the beginning of history, and instead of riding them in the only way they understand, we go and treat them as equals. And all you silly b—s take it for granted. There’s Flory, makes his best pal of a black babu who calls himself a doctor because he’s done two years at an Indian so-called university. And you, Westfield, proud as Punch of your knock-kneed, bribe-taking cowards of policemen...[45]

The last remark implies that the Burma Police were seen by some of the civilians as not being tough enough. Certainly Blair would have been torn almost daily between his sense of justice and his knowledge of European opinion; and then there was the growing element, very clear in Burmese Days, of exasperation at crooked Burmese, particularly when educated officials let their own side down in front of his unpleasant countrymen. When, years later, he reviewed Maurice Collis’ almost classic Trials in Burma, he said that: ‘it brings out with unusual clearness the dilemma that faces every official in an empire like our own ... in theory he is administering an impartial system of justice; in practice he is part of a huge machine that exists to protect British interests, and he has often got to choose between sacrificing his integrity and damaging his career.’[46] We do not know whether there were such specific incidents that occurred during Blair’s duties, or whether all his duties began to take on this colour in a systematic way. Whether or not he had close Indian or Burmese friends, like Flory’s Dr Veraswami in the novel, who were forbidden the club, we simply do not know.

At that time, the Governor had ordered all the ordinary clubs to open their doors to some, at least, senior native officials, but there must have been foot-dragging in the outposts and even ostracism in the Mandalay, Rangoon and Moulmein clubs. A famous incident arose from all this, which may have suggested the very different one in Burmese Days. The Gymkhana Club at Rangoon stood outside such edicts. They fielded a Rugby team. There was only one snag: they had only one opponent, the garrison in Rangoon. And in 1924 even the garrison could not find fifteen good men and true, fit and white. So they fielded U Tin Tut (the brother of Maung Htin Aung who had had the scuffle with Blair at the railway station). He was a civil servant who had been commissioned in the Army during the Great War and was a member of the English Bar. More to the point, he had played Rugby for Dulwich College and Cambridge University. He was the best player present. But after the game, he was refused the use of the showers and told that only Europeans could use the club house. This caused a greater stir among Burmese officials and journalists than many a casual act of discrimination towards their poorer fellow country-men.[47]

____ § ____

In April 1926, Blair moved to Moulmein. This was the third largest town in Burma, an. important port and trading centre with a large European and Eurasian community. He was ASP at Police Head-quarters, No. 2 again. There must have been some congenial company, but by that rime his dislike of the Service was hardening into hatred.

He felt himself ground between the hatred of his fellow-English and Burmese hatred of him. He begins his famous essay, ‘Shooting an Elephant’:

In Moulmein in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Bunnan) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.[48]

It was indeed a case of:

Take up the White Man’s burden —
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard.

The story tells how against his better judgement he shot an elephant that had killed a man but was a perfectly quiet, docile and recoverable investment by the time he came on the scene. He shot it because the huge crowd expected him to and he had ‘to impress’ the natives: ‘seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind me. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.’ That is a profound moral epigram, and whether ‘this moment’ was 1925 or 1936 hardly matters. Even if it was 1925, the same story gives a second motive for shooting the poor brute beast: ‘to avoid looking a fool’. He had the thought in his mind that if something went wrong and the elephant turned on him, trampled him to death, some of them would laugh and ‘that would never do’. Once leaders are laughed at, their authority is gone. He was protecting not just his own skin but the whole mystique of white domination.[*]

The hatred must have got harder and harder to endure, even if it only took the physical form of tripping and spitting — particularly if he liked playing football and talking to Buddhist priests. ‘When I went round Moulmein in 1935 after reading Burmese Days,’ recalls Maung Htin Aung, ‘I found that only a handful of people could recollect anything about him, and they remembered him merely as a sporting and skilful centre-forward who scored many goals for the Moulmein police team.’[49] There is something disparaging in this, something a trifle suspect in his anecdotes, for he was upset that Burmese Days appeared to score off his fellow-countrymen. He does not seem to have recognized that in Burmese Days Orwell showed the British putting the ball into their own net. Orwell’s way of overcoming prejudice and championing the Burmese was not to idealize them but to say, like Mark Twain, ‘God damn the Jews, they are as bad as the rest of us!’

His grandmother, Mrs Limouzin, was living in Moulmein as well as an aunt who was married to a high official in the Forestry Service. He must have visited them before, but he never mentioned them in any of his later references to Burma; nor did he admit their existence when he talked to friends about Burma in later years. Indeed none of his later references to Burma are autobiographical: they are all in a polemical context, a context in which personal safe-havens or family obligations are not relevant. But it is odd that none of his subsequent friends, to some of whom he did talk about Burma, remember him mentioning the Limouzins. He only once referred to his grandmother in correspondence, and then derogatorily. He did make it appear, on several occasions in his life, as if he was more isolated than was in fact the case. Also he had a habit of keeping different groups of friends very much apart. Often in later years people were astonished to discover who else he knew. Perhaps he learned this habit in Burma: the Roger Beadons, the Captain Robinsons, and the old Etonians with Indian wives would hardly mix either with each other or with his grandmother. Also the habit of the observer, apparent even in school-days, was growing stronger: he could observe people better in their own habitat by not mixing them. It might have spoiled the effect of his own literary first-person character if the reader knew that there was, for instance, a grandmother in Moulmein, or a favourite aunt in Paris, or that the employers at the Hampstead bookshop were close friends of that same aunt, Nellie.

In Burma Blair was isolated, lonely and desperate — to a deliberate degree; and this also became his later literary trademark and was perhaps also his self-image at the time. If he was still telling stories to himself, but had for the moment given up young dreams of being a writer, he may yet have been thinking what he would have written if he were ‘a writer’ rather than a duty-ridden policeman.

The Limouzin family had been in Moulmein in the teak and timber business since the earliest days of the colony. Moulmein had been ceded to the British as early as 1826. Eric’s grandmother was English, though her husband was French. She had been educated in France, though born in Burma, and had grown up bilingual — even if she spoke, to Eric’s disgust, not a word of Burman. The family had once been very wealthy, but had lost money in rice speculation. By Eric’s time in Burma they were comfortable, well-off, not rich but affluent enough to entertain a lot: ‘At Homes’ for tea twice a week, dances and tennis parties. Mrs Limouzin was a leading figure in the British community, an intelligent, talkative, slightly eccentric lady, given to wearing the colourful and loose-fitting Burmese robes. She is well-remembered by those she entertained as having a zest for mixing slightly unlikely types: ranks, orders and ages, officers, officials and civilians — a few Indians and Burmese even. But no one can be found or survives who knew her well. Several people remember being introduced to her grandson, but hard as they try, cannot honestly remember much about him; only a shy, tall young man, very much in the background, not fully at ease.

One officer, seven years older than Blair, remembers meeting him with two ladies at a sports meeting, and the elder (almost certainly Mrs Limouzin) asking his advice about Eric, as if it was common knowledge that he was unhappy in the Service.[50] He remembers simply replying that he should get out while he was still young enough to take up another profession. There may have been more to it than that. A distant cousin of Blair’s said that her aunts, whose families had all served in the East, used to keep in touch with family news in the old days. ‘Reports came back about Eric’s odd behaviour, but I cannot remember any details, but it all upset the various relations.’[51] ‘Odd behaviour’ implies more than solitariness, but it may have been no more than refusing to take up invitations, snubbing ‘useful people’ to whom his grandmother would obviously introduce him, in the way most careers were advanced. The urge to fail may have been growing, but there is no reason to see it at that time as any more specific than unhappiness with the Burma policeman’s lot. Success or promotion might have made inner withdrawal or actual resignation more difficult.

Knowing how close to life were not only characters but also names in Orwell’s first novels — to the terror of his publishers and their lawyers, particularly over Burmese Days — ‘Mrs Lackersteen’ of the novel (the snobbish Elizabeth’s mother) and Mrs Limouzin of life are too close to be coincidence. Mrs Lackersteen has tried, pathetically and unsuccessfully, to lead an artistic (or arty) life in Paris. She dies and her daughter is taken in by her brother and her sister-in-law, also called Mrs Lackersteen, who as proper Memsahib devotes herself to marrying off her sister’s child. Eric may well have seen an unresolved ambivalence between the bohemian and the conventional in his own mother; and it might have been even more apparent in his grand-mother. If there is anything of Mrs Limouzin in the two Mrs Lackers-teens, he plainly did not like her, seeing her as domineering and pretentious. (‘Superficial’ is perhaps’ another adjective that might be applied, for ‘lacquer-sheen’ is a Joycean type of pun; and we know that he had read Ulysses before writing his first two published novels.) ‘My grandmother lived forty years in Burma and at the end could not speak a word of Burmese — typical of the ordinary Englishwoman’s attitude,’ he told a correspondent twenty years later, and linked this to the ‘disgusting social behaviour of the British’.[52]

‘How comforting to think Eric is near Mother,’ or ‘At least that sensible sister of yours can keep an eye on him,’ his parents may have said. But young Eric may not have seen it quite that way.

His last post was at Katha which he reached two days before Christmas 1926. It was in Upper Burma, luxuriant jungle, open hills and river meadows, exotic with Howers and vegetation, and a dry, not too hot, atmosphere — very different from the steamy Delta. Katha was undoubtedly the landscape of Burmese Days, although the characters had been picked up all along the road from Mandalay and the heat had been intensified. His work was much as before, but by now it seems that he had had enough. Blair had come morally to reject the system of alien rule, not merely to say, as Balfour murmured, ‘Better self-government than good government’, but to see the corrupting effect on his fellow Englishmen of exercising autocratic government, with racial prejudice redoubling old class prejudice.

There is no knowing when this incident occurred or even if it definitely did occur, as he relates it in The Road to Wigan Pier.

I remember a night I spent on the train with a man in the Educational Service, a stranger to myself whose name I never discovered. It was too hot to sleep and we spent the night in talking. Half an hour’s cautious questioning decided each of us that the other was ‘safe’, and then for hours, while the train jolted slowly through the pitch-black night, sitting up in our bunks with bottles of beer handy, we damned the British Empire — damned it from the inside, intelligently and intimately. It did us both good. But we had been speaking forbidden things, and in the haggard morning light when the train crawled into Mandalay, we parted as guiltily as any adulterous couple.[53]

His specific feeling of a breaking point must have come like Flory’s in the novel:

Flory pushed back his chair and stood up. It must not, it could not — no, it simply should not go on any longer! He must get out of this room quickly, before something happened inside his head and he began to smash the furniture and throw bottles at the pictures. Dull, boozing witless porkers! Was it possible that they could go on week after week, year after year, repeating word for word the same evil-minded drivel, like a parody of a fifth-rate story in Blackwood’s? Would none of them ever think of anything new to say? Oh, what a place, what people! What a civilization is this of ours — this godless civilization founded on whisky, Blackwood’s and the ‘Bonzo’ pictures! God have mercy on us, for all of us are part of it.[54]

Flory, of course, did stand it longer — until his suicide. Blair went home on leave that summer probably still uncertain whether to resign or stick it out, but leaning, amid turbulent wave and counter-wave of feeling, towards resignation. Even to resign could have induced guilt feelings. He had a strong sense of duty. A man with a protestant conscience in that sort of situation fears that his replacement will be worse for the natives than he. Besides, what alternative career did he have?

He rejected the system so much that he imagined with lurid relish its total collapse. This awful poem was composed either just before he left or just after, for it is again, fittingly, written on Burma Government paper.

When the Franks have lost their sway
And the soldiers are slain or fled,
When the ravisher has his way
And the slayer’s sword is red;
When the last lone Englishman dies
In the painted Hindu towers,
Beneath ten thousand burning eyes
In a rain of bloody flowers, again
Moving more westward to the lands we know
When the people have won their dreams,
And the tyrant’s flag is down,
When the blood is running in streams
Through the gutters of London town:
When the air is burst with the thunder
And crash of the falling thrones,
And the crack of the empires torn asunder ...
Is it not dreadful for us to contemplate
These mighty ills that will beset the world
When we are dead and won’t be bothered with them?
Do not these future woes transcend our own?

Dear Friend: allow me for a little while
To speak without those high and starry lies ...
Not all the screams of twenty thousand victims
Broken on the wheel or plunged in boiling oil
Could pain me like one tooth in my own head;
And secondly, I do not care what comes
When I am gone, though kings or peoples rot...
I care not if ten myriad blazing stars
Rain on the earth and burn it dead as stone;
I care not if God dies. And all because
Frankly, and look at it which way you will,
This life, this earth, this time will see me out,
And that is about all I care about.

The distance between the apocalyptic first part and the second, young man as cynical writer (Somerset Maugham?) part, is both extraordinary and incongruous. But part of the genius of Orwell was to be this ability to be both a European Jeremiah, a stern and condemnatory prophet, and an English Montaigne, a humorous and humanist annalist of local oddities.

When he recalled in ‘Why I Write’ that his childhood habit of making up a ‘continuous “story” about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind’ continued ‘rill I was about twenty-five, right through my non-literary years’,[55] he was obviously counting Burma as part of that ‘non-literary’ period, despite the two highly unpublishable poems.

Having served for five years, he would be due for leave that November. He applied to go earlier on medical grounds, though what they were was not stated. So he was given leave for five months and twenty days out of India from 12 July 1927. ‘He resigned ... chiefly because,’ said the dust-jacket of the American edition of Burmese Days, ‘he disliked putting people in prison for doing the same things which he should have done in the circumstances.’[56] This precise sentence must surely have come from Orwell himself. Notice ‘should’ instead of an expected ‘would’: thoughts of rebellion, but no acts of rebellion. ‘I gave it up,’ he was to write in an author’s guide, ‘partly because the climate had ruined my health, partly because I already had vague ideas of writing books, but mainly because I could not go on any longer serving an imperialism which I had come to regard as very largely a racket.’[57]

Did Burma ruin his health? There is no knowing. On the one hand, there is his football at Moulmein, and centre-forward at that; and on the other, his unspecified sick leave. His one good posting to Katha could have been for its mild, dry climate. When he went into a sanatorium in Kent in 1938 for several months, he wrote to Cyril Connolly, ‘There isn’t really anything very wrong, evidently an old TB lesion which has partly healed itself and which I must have had ten years or more.’[58] Unless he is referring to 1929, when he was in hospital in Paris, a haemorrhage could have occurred while he was in Burma. He was not well on his return, but nobody thought that his health was ‘ruined’, and a contemporary photograph still shows a somewhat full face, no longer ‘chubby’, but markedly different from the narrowed, lean face of the mid-i930s onwards. Something may have happened, but ‘the climate ruined my health’ could be exaggeration, symbolic-of what imperialism does to you, or a measure of his hatred of it as ‘a racket’. In The Road to Wigan Pier he had a bit more to say about this aspect of his resignation — which, even allowing for hindsight, surely gives a fair picture of how he must have felt on the voyage back home:

I had reduced everything to the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong: a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being one of the oppressors yourself. I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants.[59]

During his leave in England, Blair resigned, and there is a flurry of correspondence in an India Office Services & General Department file because he gave no reason, even though his request to resign was supported by ‘the local office’ of the Government of India. The Department saw no reason to refuse his request, nothing discreditable was known about him, he was not leaving the Service, in order to avoid prosecution in Burma. But on 17 March 1928, a Mr P. H. Dumbell signed a Minute on behalf of the Secretary of State saying that, arising from the Blair case, reasons, when known, should be stated in future cases.[60] The file was closed (only to be reopened briefly for a security vetting in 1938).

Let Blair have the last word on why he resigned. In 1929 a small, French radical journal, Le Progrès civique, asked ‘our contributor, E. A. Blair, whose inquiries into “the miseries of the British worker” our readers have already been able to appreciate’ to say something on the causes of the troubles in recent years in the British Indo-Chinese territories. His article, although flat and descriptive, and translated back from a French translation, is none the less worth quoting from at some length — as his contemporary view of his Burmese experience, or as close to it as we have, without the artistic shaping of his later development.

(4 May 1929)

... The government of all the subject Indian provinces is necessarily despotic because only by a certain amount of sabre-rattling can the British Empire hope to hold on to a population of many millions of subjects. But such despotism is hidden. It clothes itself in a mask of democracy. The first motto of the English, when called upon to govern an oriental people, is, ‘Never let a European do what an Oriental is able to do’ ... In this way peace is maintained with the certain cooperation of the educated, or semi-educated, classes, from whom there might have been the risk of revolutionary leaders emerging. One does not have to live in Burma for long to see that Britain is complete master of the country. The Burmese, like some of the Indian provinces, have a parliament — always the show of democracy — but this parliament in reality does not hold any power ... At the same time, while showing that the British government rules the Burmese in a despotic fashion, it should be bome in mind that it does not mean they are unpopular. The English have constructed roads and canals — in their own interests, sure enough, but the Burmese have profited from them — they have built hospitals, opened schools, and maintained national order and security.

It should be remembered that the Burmese are simple peasants, busy working on their land. They have not yet reached the intellectual level necessary for nationalistic activity. Their village is their world, and inasmuch as they are left to till their fields, they don’t care too much whether their rulers are black or white ...

Now, as in the rest of the Orient, contact with Europeans is creating the need, not known before, for manufactured goods. The English have stolen from the Burmese in two ways:

Firstly, they have taken the natural resources. Second, they have taken upon themselves the exclusive right to sell them manufactured goods which they are not able to make themselves. And the Burmese are also, little by little, being taken into an era of industrial capitalism without ever being able to become capitalists themselves ...

To sum up, if the English have rendered any service to Burma, it has had to pay for it very dear. Up until now, they have not too much inflamed the Burmese, because they do not yet feel the need. They are still at the beginning of a period of transition when they are changing from peasants to industrial workers...

They ... find themselves placed under the protection of a despotism which offers them protection, but which would abandon them instantly should the need arise. Their relation to the British Empire is that of slave to master. Is the master good or bad? That is not the point: enough to state that his authority is despotic and, let us say the word, self-interested.[61]

So at the end of his Burmese days a specific hatred of imperialism is clear which he soon turned into a general critique of autocracy of any kind. His solitary condition in Burma strengthened what was already there from school-days, solitary but highly individualistic characteristics and strong psychological distrust of authority of any kind. The passages from Le Progrès civique show that he was familiar with socialist ideas and used them. This may appear to contradict what he said immediately after ‘the simple theory that the oppressed are always right’ passage in The Road to Wigan Pier: ‘On the other hand I had at that time no interest in Socialism or any other economic theory.’ He exaggerates. He was familiar with socialist ideas and interested in them, but this does not mean he had as yet espoused them. He used them for political effect but his own standpoint was still individualistic. To read the Le Progrès civique article and Burmese Days carefully, without hindsight, is to find simply and splendidly an individualist protest against alien rule and autocracy. The protest is compatible with libertarian socialism, with Millite liberalism or even with Tory anti-imperialism (of the ‘little Englander’ persuasion) — or with no developed political position at all. In those far-off days plenty ofTories still disliked exploitative capitalism.

Rayner Heppenstall remembers that when Eric Blair first presented himself to the Adelphi offices in 1930, he ‘described himself as a Tory anarchist, but admitted the Adelphi’s socialist case on moral grounds’.[62] Orwell was to use the same phrase of Swift (‘a Tory anarchist like Swift’), and Richard Rees, who knew Orwell well and helped him much in the 1930s, was to use the phrase directly of Orwell himself. This does not argue that politically he was Tory, only that the Burma experience as such did not turn him socialist; and that there was in Blair a tolerant respect for indigenous cultures, coupled with a cynicism about the (largely liberal) civilizing mission, which was typical of that rare but interesting bird, the Tory anti-imperialist: ‘live and let live’, or ‘if govern we must don’t rationalize it by interfering with their culture’.[63]

Of the voyage home nothing is known, except that he got off the P & 0 liner at Marseilles and returned to London via Paris, as was quite common. Almost certainly he visited Aunt Nellie, the one aunt, intellectual and bohemian, he had always liked. She was living in Paris with a prominent Esperantist. We know Blair was in Marseilles a few days before 23 August 1927 because:

A few days before Sacco and Vanzetti [the Boston anarchists] were executed I was standing on the steps of one of the English banks in Marseilles, talking to the clerks, while an immense procession of working people streamed past, bearing banners inscribed, ‘Sauvons Sacco et Vanzettif etc. It was the kind of thing one might have seen in England in the eighteen forties, but surely never in the nineteen twenties. All these people — tens of thousands of them — were genuinely indignant over a piece of injustice, and thought it quite natural to lose a day’s wages in order to say so. It was instructive to hear the clerks (English) saying ‘Oh, well, you’ve got to hang these blasted anarchists’, and to see their half-shocked surprise when one asked whether Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty of the crime for which they had been condemned.[64]

A symbolic return to Europe indeed. The Sacco and Vanzetti case raised just the same issues as had many a humble trial in Burma.


1. Interview by the author with Ruth Fitter (tape-recorded) at Long Crendon, Bucks, 10 Nov. 1974.[back]

2. Two letters to the author from Mr R. G. Sharp of Poole, Dorset, 29 Oct. and 7 Nov. 1972.[back]

3. India Office Records, Judicial and Public File 6079, 1922.[back]

4. CE IV, pp. 265-6.[back]

5. ‘Notes on the Way’, Time and Tide, 30 March 1940.[back]

6. Roger Beadon interviewed by Pamela Howe, BBC transcript, 5 Dec. 1969 at Bristol (BBC Archives, YBS.47.WJ.455.W).[back]

7. R. G. B. Lawson in Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, The Unknown Orwell (Constable, London, 1972), p. 135. Their description of service life in Burma is excellent and they were able to interview or correspond with several of Orwell’s contemporaries who were dead by the time I began work. There are discrepancies throughout, however, in the datings of his various postings. I have taken mine from History of the services of gazetted and other officers serving under the government of Burma, corrected up to 1 July 1928. Vol. i part 1. Services of gazetted officers (Government of India Publications, 1928). (A copy is in the India Office Library.) They give no source for their dates.[back]

8. See Sir Herbert White, A Civil Servant in Burma (Edward Arnold, London, 1913), p. 153; and Eric Stokes, The English Utilitarians and India (Oxford University Press, 1959).[back]

9. Burmese Days, p. 69.[back]

10. ‘My Country Right or Left’, Folios of New Writing, Autumn 1940, and CE I, pp. 537-78.[back]

11. The Burma Police Manual, 4th edn (Government Printing Office, Rangoon, 1926), para. 25. A copy is in the State Paper Room of the British Library.[back]

12. Beadon, BBC interview (see note 6 above).[back]

13. The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 129.[back]

14. ibid., pp. 143-5.[back]

15. ‘Democracy in the British Army’, Left Forum No. 36, Sept. 1939, p. 236, reprinted in CE I, p. 403.[back]

16. The Road to Wigan Pier, pp. 147-8.[back]

17. CE I, p. 45.[back]

18. Report on the Prison Administration of Burma for the Year ... (Government Printing Office, Rangoon, an annual). The volume for 1926 is missing from both the British Library and the India Office Library.[back]

19. CE III, p. 267.[back]

* ’I watched a man hanged once.’ Is this repetition simply coincidental with the metre of Eliot’s Sweeney declaiming, ‘I left her there in a bath’ — a poem he was to praise several times for its attempt to find a popular style, for example. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. ii, pp. 198 and 334? There is also an echo of Swift in A Tale of a Tub: ‘Last week I saw a Woman flay’d, and you will hardly believe, how much it altered her Person for the worse.’[back]

20. Jacintha Buddicom, Eric and Us (Leslie Frewin, London, 1974), pp. 143-4.[back]

21. See letters quoted in Stansky and Abrahams, op. cit., p. 151.[back]

22. CE III, p. 86.[back]

23. The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 110.[back]

24. Stansky and Abrahams, op. cit., pp. 152-3; and letter from R. C. Chorley, who was at a neighbouring post, to this author, 6 Dec. 1972.[back]

25. ‘Portrait of an Addict’, a review by Orwell ofH. R. Robinson, A Modem De Qyincey (Harrap, London, 1942), in the Observer, 13 Sept. 1942.[back]

26. Robinson, A Modern De Qyincey, p. 24.[back]

27. Maung Htin Aung, ‘George Orwell and Burma’, in Miriam Gross (ed.), The World of George Orwell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1971), p. 24.[back]

28. The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 149.[back]

29. ibid., p. 143.[back]

30. Letters of L. W. Marrison of Battle, Sussex to author, 24 Oct. 1972 and 13 Nov. 1978.[back]

31. Interview by the author with Mr James Brodie of Greenock, n Feb. 1974. But Marrison says the Americans were all at Yerangyaung.[back]

32. In the New English Weekly, 23 Jan. 1936, on the occasion of Kipling’s death, reprinted in CE I, pp. 159-60.[back]

33. Robinson, A Modem De Qyincey, p. 142. He quoted from Kipling’s ‘The Young British Soldier’ accurately.[back]

34. See William Steinhoff, The Road to 1984 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1975), passim for these references.[back]

35. Christopher Hollis, A Study of George Orwell (Hollis & Carter, London, 1956) is unfortunately a poor book, hasty, inaccurate, pretentious and claiming special knowledge of Orwell, though Hollis was two years ahead of him in Eton and scarcely knew him. As a prominent Catholic intelle.ctual as well as a Conservative Member of Parliament, he argued that Orwell’s thought could be turned towards God and away from socialism. But they did meet in Burma.[back]

36. ibid., pp. 27-8.[back]

37. loc-cit.[back]

38. Stansky and Abrahams, op. cit., p. 158. They give the late E. R. Seeley the pseudonym of’Lawrence’.[back]

39. Harold Acton, More Memoirs of an Aesthete (Methuen, London, 1970), pp. 152-3.[back]

40. Beadon, BBC interview (see note 6 above).[back]

41. Burmese Days, p. 39.[back]

42. Beadon, BBC interview (see note 6 above).[back]

43. Interview by the author with Roger Beadon at Bristol, 22 Nov. 1972.[back]

44. Time and Tide, 30 March 1940.[back]

45. Burmese Days, pp. 24-5.[back]

46. Listener, 9 March 1938.[back]

47. Maung Htin Aung, ‘George Orwell and Burma’, in Gross, op. cit., pp. 26-7.[back]

48. ‘Shooting an Elephant’, first published in New Writing, No. 2, Autumn 1936; also in CE I, pp. 235-42.[back]

* Whether he actually shot an elephant or not does not seem quite so important as whether he saw a hanging, or was flogged for bed-wetting. One old Burma hand, R. C. Chorley, with whom he went pigeon-shooting in Twante, thinks he remembers reading in the Rangoon Gazette that Blair had been called in to shoot a rogue elephant; but he also thinks that he may have read ‘Shooting an Elephant’. The files of that paper have been searched but are incomplete, so this cannot be verified. It is worth recalling that the essay or story proudly headed Penguin New Writing in 1940, edited by John Lehmann, who had first published it in 1936 when it was written. Twelve of the fourteen 1940 contributors wrote in a similar, ambiguous, first-person descriptive vein, a then fashionable genre which blurred any clear line between fiction and autobiography — truthful to experiences but not necessarily to fact. It even included Isherwood’s ‘A Berlin Diary’, with its famous, influential and absurd ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.’[back]

49. Maung Htin Aung, ‘George Orwell and Burma’, in Gross, op. cit., p. 29.[back]

50. Stansky and Abrahams, op. cit., p. 166.[back]

51. Letter to author from Mrs Noreen BagnaII ofHockham Lodge, Shropham, Norfolk, 20 Oct., 1972.[back]

52. CE IV, p. 114.[back]

53. The Road to Wigan Pier, pp. 146-7.[back]

54. Burmese Days, p. 33.[back]

55. CE I, p. 2.[back]

56. Orwell Archive.[back]

57. CE II, p.23.[back]

58. CE I, p.329.[back]

59. The Road to Wigan Pier, pp. 149-50.[back]

60. India Office Records, Services and General Department File 5368/27. Blair’s letter is of 26 Nov. 1927 requesting permission to resign from i Jan. 1928. For the security vetting in 1938, see pp. 345-7 above.[back]

61. E. A. Blair, ‘L’Empire britannique en Birmanie’, Le Progrès civique, 4 May 1929, pp. 22-4. Copy in Orwell Archive. The original English no longer exists. This is retranslated from the French by Audrey Coppard.[back]

62. Rayner Heppenstall, Four Absentees (Barrie and Rockcliff, London, 1960), p. 32.[back]

63. The anti-imperialist Tories, like the ‘Little Englanders’, are now a largely forgotten breed whom Left-wing thought finds it hard to comprehend, but once they were of some importance. In the early days in India they were commonly more tolerant of native customs than liberal administrators with their rational predilections towards uniformity and efficiency. See Stokes, The English Utilitarians and India.[back]

64. In a review of E. R. Currius, The Civilization of France in The Adelphi, May 1932, p. 554.[back]



Writing for an American reference book during the Second World War, Orwell summed up his life in the next few years thus: ‘When I came back to Europe I lived for about a year and a half in Paris, writing novels and short stories which no one would publish. After my money came to an end I had several years of fairly severe poverty during which I was, among other things, a dishwasher, a private tutor and a teacher in cheap private schools.[1] He told Ukrainians in a Preface to Animal Farm slightly more than he saw fit to remind Americans: ‘I sometimes lived for months on end amongst the poor and half criminal elements who inhabit the worst parts of the poorer quarters, or take to the streets, begging and stealing. At that time I associated with them through lack of money, but later their way of life interested me very much for its own sake.’[2]

To begin with, though, he had to tell his father and mother not only that he was resigning from the Service, which to them, if catastrophic, was at least understandable, but also that he was determined to become a writer. Just how one earned a living from that was by no means clear, nor could any evidence be seen of any ability in that direction. They only noticed that he had left for Burma a boy but come back a man: more mature in every way, with a moustache and with darker hair. He talked warmly of the landscape and the jungle, but let it be known that he disliked the people in Burma. He appeared untidy, smoked and dropped cigarette ash all over the place, as if he was still amid servants and bamboo floors. His sister Avril remembers her mother being ‘rather horrified in a way’, which is Blair understatement. After all, her own family had been in Burma for three generations. Eric was their only son and a lot of hopes had been put into his career. There is little doubt that his father, easygoing as he appeared, must have been as angry as he was astounded. Had he not spent his whole life doing what had to be done, even joining the Army at 6o? Now this son of his says he does not like it, and wants to write. Eric later complained to a friend that his father neither understood nor appreciated him; but his friend thinks that he was none the less anxious, for the rest of his father’s life, to impress and please him in every respect except that of giving up his ambition ‘to be a writer’.[3]

Eric followed his family down to Polperro in Cornwall only a few days after his return from Burma. Some of the tension may have been eased in a holiday atmosphere, perhaps by the presence of other relatives; and perhaps even by illness. His sister Marjorie’s daughter Jane was with them, then aged 6. She has a distinct and vivid memory of her uncle Eric in bed, seeming to be very ill and being nursed by her grandmother. Whatever happened, he soon recovered and there was no lasting dispute between Eric and his parents. In spite of professing dislike for Southwold, his parents’ house there became his main base camp for the next few years.

There was little emotional warmth between any of the Blairs, but the loyalties were great. At least, he assured his parents, he would be no charge on them. He would have had five months’ salary as well as some savings, having largely steered clear of the clubs in Burma; and he meant to live cheaply until his first writings were published. Before he embarked on his new career, Blair went up to Cambridge to ask advice (somewhat surprisingly, for he had never written to him all the long years in Burma) from his old tutor, Andrew Gow, now a Fellow of Trinity College. Gow remembered little about the visit, except that Blair came to tell him that he had resigned from the Burma Police, was thinking of pursuing a literary career, but wanted to take advice first. ‘I seem to remember,’ Gow said, ‘that as he seemed fairly determined and had nothing else in mind, I said in a rather noncommittal way that he might as well have a try.’ He stayed the night in College and Gow remembers that he sat him next to A. E. Housman at High Table, who asked him about Burma.[4] It is hard to interpret this incident, except to say that Blair must have felt respect or affection for Gow. He can hardly have hoped, however, for a deep colloquy about what to do with one’s life, that was out of character for both men. He may have sought reassurance to bolster up his father, some slight support, or at least not a complete condemnation of the idea of ‘writing’. The meeting does show that he did not reject Eton utterly and in principle. There are also vague memories from two of his Election that he attended a small reunion dinner that autumn, said next to nothing, conveyed that he did not care much for Burma, but gave no hint of resignation from the Service. He never seems to have attended any other Eton function, nor sought Gow’s advice again.

There was another backward glance. A fortnight was spent in Shopshire, visiting Ticklerton as a guest of Aunt Lilian at the same time as Prosper Buddicom. ‘Completely unavoidable circumstances prevented me from joining the party,’ wrote Jacintha.[5] Their break had probably already taken place. ‘You were such a tender-hearted girl, always full of pity for the creatures we others shot and killed,’ he wrote from hospital in 1949. ‘But you were not so tender-hearted to me when you abandoned me to Burma with all hope denied.’[6] The tone is part teasing, as of calf-love recalled; but Jacintha did not join the party in Shropshire, and neither of them made any attempt to look each other up until, in 1949, she belatedly realized who ‘George Orwell’ was. They never saw each other again after 1922. In any case, Eric’s visit to Shopshire suggests that he had been as much of a friend to Prosper as to Jacintha.

The problem arose of where he was to live while he wrote. He sent a letter, quite out of the blue, to Ruth Fitter, a family acquaintance whom he had met only once. She and her friend Kathleen O’Hara had lived in Mall Chambers, Netting Hill after the War and had got to know Ida and Marjorie Blair then; but now they were living in the Portobello Road.

To my surprise, I had a letter from him at this time, asking if I remembered him. He wanted us to find him a cheap lodging. We found a bedroom in a poor street, next door to a house our employers used as an arts and crafts work-shop. I have a clear picture in my mind of Orwell lugging some heavy suitcases into our workshop house; no doubt to sort out the contents more easily than he could have done in the cramped bedroom next door. He was now a very tall man; he had the same rather formidable, perhaps defensive, look; and the very wide terai hat he was still wearing made him look still more imposing. He was far from well, even then. I don’t think the tropics suited him, but I think he was also sick with rage. He was convinced that we had no business to be in Burma, no right to dominate other nations. He would have ended the British Raj then and there.

That winter was very cold. Orwell had very little money indeed. I think he must have suffered in that unheated room, after the climate of Burma, though we did, rather belatedly, lend him an oil-stove. He said afterwards that he used to light a candle to try and warm his hands when they were too numbed to write. Oh yes, he was already writing. Trying to write, that is — it didn’t come easily. At this time I don’t think any of his friends believed he would ever write well. Indeed, I think he was unusually inept. We tried not to be discouraging, but we used to laugh till we cried at some of the bits he showed us. You must remember that we were hard-working women, older than he. To us, at that time, he was a wrong-headed young man who had thrown away a good career, and was vain enough to think he could be an author. But the formidable look was not there for nothing. He had the gift, he had the courage, he had the persistence to go on in spite of failure, sickness, poverty, and opposition, until he became an acknowledged master of English prose.[7]

What is remarkable is that having determined to become a writer, Eric Blair did not just begin to lead the life of a ‘writer’: he actually sat down and started to write. Here was the first sign of great tenacity in his character — unless his sticking it out in Burma so long or refusing to succeed at Eton were earlier instances. But as for the writing itself, Ruth Fitter remembers:

He wrote so badly. He had to teach himself writing. He was like a cow with a musket. A cow with a musket. He became a master of English, but it was sheer hard grind. He used to put in a fair number of rude words in those days and we had to correct the spelling. I would have thought an Old Etonian knew every word there was and a few more. He certainly couldn’t spell the London rude words.

We lent him an old oil-stove and he wrote a story about two young girls who lent an old man an oil stove ... I remember one story that never saw the light of day ... it began ‘Inside the park, the crocuses were out...’ Oh dear, I’m afraid we did laugh, but we knew he was kind, because he was so good to our old sick cat. We used to ask him for a meal now and then. I’ve often thought lately, God forgive us, why didn’t we ask him oftener.[8]

Only one fragment clearly of this period survives, written on his dwindling stock of Burma Government paper. It is a scenario and a few trial pages of dialogue for a play.

Scene I A mean and poverty-stricken room which is painted on a curtain half-way down the stage. In the middle is a small bed with a pale child lying on it flat on its back and apparently asleep. There is a low table beside the bed on which are half a loaf of bread, a medicine bottle and a ragged picture paper. To the right of the stage is a double bed with ragged sheets ... Facing up to the table is a dilapidated armchair in which FRANCIS STONE sits opening letters. His wife, LUCY STONE, leans over the head of the bed. STONE announces that the letters are all bills, amounting to nearly £40, while all the money he has is ys.4d ...

STONE is a man of about 33, good looking, but with a weak and rather cynical expression. His voice is dreary. He is obviously much his wife’s intellectual superior, and this makes for misunderstandings between them ... The clothes of both are good but battered. Their shoes are very old.

Baby will die if they don’t get money for ‘a very expensive operation’, but Francis will be damned before he’ll write advertising copy for Tereira’s Surefire Lung Balm’ (premonitions of Keep the Aspidistra Flying) because the firm are swindling crooks, the substance is noxious, and, besides, he’s got his artistic integrity to consider. When his wife reminds him of Baby’s needs, he suggests that for her to prostitute herself would be no worse than the job she wants him to take. Then the scenario turns abruptly from naturalism to expressionism (premonitions of A Clergyman’s Daughter). ‘Everything goes dark, there is a sound like the roaring of waters. What actually happens is that the furniture is removed’; and we are in a timeless prison cell, in something like the French Revolution, with POET, POET’S WIFE and CHRISTIAN who ‘sits ... reading a large book. He has a placard inscribed DEAF round his neck.’[9] It is only a fragment. The laughter of the girls, if they read that, is understandable. (Only one more play was ever attempted, indeed completed and performed, and that was for a very special occasion.) There is, however, only one way to begin to write and that is to begin to write. But to write about what?

He had the ‘courage and the persistence’, says Ruth Fitter; and she meant both in sticking to his writing and in seeking out and physically involving himself in a new subject-matter. The relationship between his writing and his concern with poverty and degradation is complicated. Let us consider carefully what he himself said about this period in The Road to Wigan Pier (with all the warnings, once again, that he was writing in 1936 and for 1936):

I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate. I suppose that sounds exaggerated; but if you do for five years a job that you thoroughly disapprove of, you will probably feel the same ... I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed; to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants. And, chiefly because I had had to think everything out in solitude, I had carried my hatred of oppression to extraordinary lengths. At that time failure seemed to me to be the only virtue. Every suspicion of self-advancement, even to ‘succeed’ in life to the extent of making a few hundreds a year, seemed to me spiritually ugly, a species of bullying.[10]

The ‘guilt’ is real enough but there is no reason, no clear evidence from his childhood indeed, to warrant a wholly psychological rather than a political and social interpretation; for it is bad to oppress other men and arbitrary power and privileges do corrupt; and to write about the condition of the poor and oppressed it is sensible to share it, even if only for a time, not simply-to observe it. He could reinterpret and reinforce what he had seen and experienced in his early school-days in the light of what he had seen in Burma, but that was still not enough. He had to share a sense of failure, not just opt out. His suspicion of success and his cult of failure contained, however, some commonsensical reservations. He did want to succeed as a writer, to prove himself a success to his family, to his father particularly (his younger sister was convinced); and money was important, even just to keep alive. He had no other support and was too proud to be dependent on his family (though not too alienated to stay with them quite often); and knowing their sole dependence on his father’s pension, he probably wanted to make some contribution to the expenses of the home, which he was never able to do. Success ‘as a writer’ did not for a long time appear to lie in concentrating on political and social themes. Yet Richard Rees, who knew him well in the 1930s and published most of his early essays, reviews and poems in the Adelphi, had ‘Fugitive From the Camp of Victory’ as the sub-title of his book, George Orwell. He obviously saw much of Orwell in Gordon Comstock and ‘the cult of failure’: that any kind of success in capitalist civilization means selling out both on others and on oneself (though Gordon mainly feared selling out on himself and Orwell mainly feared selling out on others). Orwell certainly held these views for a while, but backdates them, only coming to hold them after continued failure to get major works published. His hatred of oppression did not necessarily mean joining the oppressed, only finding out more about them. But in order to find out one has to be with them.

The word ‘unemployment’ was on everyone’s lips. That was more or less new to me, after Burma, but the drivel which the middle classes were still talking (‘These unemployed are all unemployables’, etc, etc) failed to deceive me. I wonder whether that kind of stuff deceives even the fools who utter it. On the other hand I had at that time no interest in Socialism or any other economic theory. It seemed to me then — it sometimes seems to me now, for that matter — that economic injustice will stop the moment we want it to stop, and no sooner, and if we genuinely want it to stop the method adopted hardly matters.[11]

Again, there is a little bit of retouching here. As the Progres civique article (already quoted on p. 173 above) on Burma shows, he may not have been a socialist, but it was untrue that ‘I had at that time no interest in Socialism or any other economic theory’ (my italics). He was claiming credit in 1936, Salvation Army style, for the dramatic virtues of a recent convert from sin, rather than for a commitment that, in fact, followed a long period both of rational consideration and of inward fear that ‘to go political’ would destroy, rather than in his odd case enhance, his artistic ambitions.

He himself said in The Road, to Wigan Pier of his down and out days that to move from a concern with unemployment to living from time to time among tramps was far from wholly sensible (several critics drive this blow home, never noticing that he made the point himself, the mature man of 1936 smiling at the sincere muddles of the youth of 1927).

I knew nothing about working-class conditions. I had read the unemployment figures but I had no notion of what they implied; above all, I did not know the essential fact that ‘respectable’ poverty is always the worst. The frightful doom of a decent working man suddenly thrown on the streets after a lifetime of steady work, his agonized struggles against economic laws which he does not understand, the disintegration of families, the corroding sense of shame — all this was outside the range of my experience. When I thought of poverty, I thought of it in terms of brute starvation. Therefore my mind turned immediately towards the extreme cases, the social outcasts: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes. These were ‘the lowest of the low’, and these were the people with whom I wanted to get into contact. What I profoundly wanted, at that time, was to find some way of getting out of the respectable world altogether.[12]

So finally he sallied out one winter evening from Netting Hill to Limehouse Causeway’ and, having to screw up his courage greatly, entered a ‘Good Beds for Single Men’ common lodging-house, probably Lew Levy’s ‘kip’. A drunken young stevedore lurched towards him, Eric thought he was in for trouble, but: ‘ “Ave a cup of tea, chum!, Ave a cup of tea” ... It was a kind of baptism.’[13]

A few weeks later, having picked up a certain amount of information about the habits of destitute people, he went on the road for the first time. The conscience of the scrupulous and fastidious man forced him to move into a world of dirt and squalor, but he did so with keen and stimulated discernment, even humour, not pain all the way. All this was to emerge in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). He began his tramping experimentally and voluntarily before becoming genuinely ‘down and out’ eighteen months later in Paris, contrary to what he said in his own short summary. When he submerged, he knew that he could always surface again, and he always did; but while he was submerged he shared the life of tramps and destitutes totally, without compromise. The experience that went into ‘The Spike’, his first characteristic and important essay to be published, his account of a night in a casual ward or hostel for tramps, occurred during this period at Netting Hill.[14]

In exploring the East End, Blair was following in Jack London’s footsteps, quite literally. In 1902 Jack London, already a famous writer, had spent a similar first night when he submerged himself in the slums of East London to write The People of the Abyss, a book that Blair had read at school and which obviously inHuenced his choice of how and where to find his ‘lowest of the low’ (Jack London’s very phrase). Several precedents existed of writers or social investigators submerging themselves for a while in the East End[15] (indeed, Jack London nervously broke his cover on his first night in the underworld, and said, when asked who he was, that he was a social investigator). None, however, had been more likely to go native than Eric Blair, so hard up and unestablished, even though with no clear purpose in mind. Obviously he knew that somehow he would use these experiences for his writing, but one should not assume that the desire to write pre-dominated over his feelings of guilt and his plain desire to be — if not of — at least with and among the oppressed. He may have thought of his Rangoon friend Captain Robinson attempting to lead the life of a mendicant Buddhist monk. As part of his education as a social moralist, now clearly beginning, it was an admirable step to move among tramps, outcasts and the wretched of the earth; but as a sociology of unemployment and poverty it was, as he came to see, misleading, even slightly ridiculous. At first he was to carry over some of the attitudes of patronage as well as of pity with which he had viewed the Burmese poor. For a while he ‘went native in his own country’ and carried the cross of class as heavily as he had done that of race. Only a sense of common purpose can create true fraternity, neither pity, guilt, conscious humiliation nor a writer’s curiosity.

Blair’s experiences were real and were more intense, various and sustained than those of Jack London in his English sojourn. But two years later, when he came to write about them, several literary borrowings from London were used to express experiences common to them both. Each man had begun by going into a poor second-hand shop and buying, with some difficulty, a set of ragged old clothes:

No sooner was I out on the streets [wrote London] than I was impressed by the difference in status effected by my clothes. All civility vanished from the demeanour of the common people with whom I came into contact. Presto! in the twinkling of an eye, so to say, I had become one of them. My frayed and out-at-elbow jacket was the badge and advertisement of my class, which was their class. It made me of like kind, and in place of the fawning and too-respectful attention I had hitherto received, I now shared with them a comradeship. The man in corduroy and dirty neckerchief no longer addressed me as ‘sir’ or ‘governor’. It was ‘mate’, now — and a fine and hearty word, with a tingle to it, and a warmth and gladness which the other term does not possess. Governor! It smacks of mastery and power ...[16]

Dressed as I was [wrote Orwell], I was half afraid that the police might arrest me as a vagabond, and I dared not speak to anyone, imagining that they must notice a disparity between my accent and my clothes. (Later I discovered that this never happened.) My new clothes had put me instantly into a new world. Everyone’s demeanour seemed to have changed abruptly. I helped a hawker pick up a barrow that he had upset. ‘Thanks, mate,’ he said with a grin. No one had called me mate before in my life — it was the clothes that had done it.[17]

The borrowing is obvious, but so is Orwell’s improvement of the anecdote: the greater sharpness and precision of his style, his tying of the accolade ‘mate’ to a precise incident (which shows him, indeed, as ‘mate’, not just observer). And the style is more honed down to the subject, apart from the old-fashioned, somewhat literary word both men use: ‘demeanour’.

If his choice of tramps as guides into the underworld of poverty had a literary induction, yet in following that road so far he showed courage, tenacity and originality.

Ruth Fitter recalls he was in poor health when he came back from Burma, and he had a bad foot, some kind of infection, that his land-lady dressed for him. But this did not stop his East End ventures and tramping; and he dressed like the tramps, no concessions, even in the coldest weeks of winter. She remembers (though this is possibly an occasion after he returned from Paris, because she says that by then he had had several bouts of pneumonia):

... one perfectly horrible winter day with melting snow on the ground and an icy wind. Orwell had no proper overcoat, no hat, gloves, or muffler. I felt quite sure he was in what is called the pre-tubercular condition. And here he was, exposing himself to such weather in totally inadequate clothing... I made an open attack on him, trying to get him to take proper advice and attend to his health. All in vain. He would never face the facts. On one occasion he was tested for TB, but the result proved negative, or so he said. He never had proper treatment until it was too late.[18]

Some time that winter he decided to go to Paris to write and in the Spring of 1928 he did. If he discussed his motives with friends or relatives, none remembers it now. The narrative of Down and Out plunges straight in, with no explanation of how the author or the ‘I’ character got there or who he is, and the autobiographical section of The Road to Wigan Pier leaves out the Paris period completely. This section of the book was, of course, about the author’s attempt to overcome his class prejudice and to assuage the twin guilt of class privilege and imperial domination. It also leaves out his equally determined attempt to be a writer. It is as if having climbed the ladder, he kicked it away.

A young man in Paris at that time could take on, it can be fairly surmised, one of two romantic roles: dissipation and joie de vivre, or the life of a poor writer. With Eric Blair, no doubt it was the latter — though perhaps he hoped for a dash of the former. Certainly, ten years later, he was to admire the craft of Henry Miller who combined them both with princely plenitude, and was to enjoy meeting him, even putting up with being teased about taking all the burdens of the world upon his shoulders. Almost certainly Blair went in an earnest frame of mind. But with no literary contacts in Paris and with the economic recession already under way, he could not have chosen a worse time to go than 1928.

In Paris he wrote a lot but earned very little. He only sold a few pot-boiling articles to minor journals in Paris and London: he had no luck with his real writing, short stories and novels. In the autumn of 1929 Blair ran out of money and was reduced to taking a job as a dish-washer for a few weeks in a fashionable hotel on the rue de Rivoli. He was writing a great deal in Paris, work that neither got published nor has survived. Evidence of what else he did is sadly lacking. No one who knew him can now be found and only one reminiscent letter survives from a friend of his Paris days. If occasionally he sat in the literary cafes of St-Germain-des-Pres, there is no sign that he sought the company of other writers, established or apprentice; and he must have lived, even before he became destitute, a very quiet, simple and solitary life,

Apart from Down and Out itself, all he published on his Paris days was an introduction in 1935 to the French edition (called La Vache enragée) and in 1946 most of one of his finest essays, ‘How the Poor Die’. Like ‘A Hanging’ and ‘Shooting an Elephant’, this was a documentary short story, the merit of which does not depend on its factual, historical veracity. The essay or story begins: ‘In the year 1929 I spent several weeks in Hôpital X, in the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris’ — one of the few facts that can be confirmed, even though the stay was only for two weeks (7-22 March) according to the register of the Hôpital Cochin.[19] Orwell explained to readers of La Vache enragée the motives for his retreat from Burma and advance on Paris:

It was a job for which I was totally unsuited: ... I gave in my resignation in the hopes of being able to earn my living by writing. I did just about as well at it as do most young people who take up a literary career — that is to say, none at all. My literary efforts in the first year barely brought me in twenty pounds.

His motivations were made out to be as purely literary as for the different purposes of The Road to Wigan Pier they were presented as purely political. He continued:

I set off for Paris so as to live cheaply while writing two novels — which I regret to say were never published — and also to learn French. One of my Parisian friends found me a room in a cheap hotel in a working-class district which I have described briefly in the first chapter of this book ... During the summer of 1929 I had written my two novels, which the publishers left on my hands, to find myself almost penniless and in urgent need of work ... So I stayed on in Paris and the events which I describe in this book took place towards the end of the autumn of 1929.[20]

The actual period covered by Down and Out can be no more than ten weeks of his eighteen months in Paris; and of the rest of that time practically nothing is known.

Down and Out raises by now familiar problems. How much can it be read as literal autobiography?’ ‘Nearly all the incidents described there actually happened, though they have been rearranged,’ he was to write in the autobiographical chapters of The Road to Wigan Pier.[21] This is close to the mingled claim and disclaimer of Robert Tressell in the Preface to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (‘which has always seemed to me a wonderful book’[22]): ‘I have invented nothing. There are no scenes or incidents in the story that I have not either witnessed myself or had conclusive evidence of.’ And again, in the introduction to La Vache enragée Orwell said: ‘As for the truth of my story, I think I can say that I have exaggerated nothing except in so far as all writers exaggerate by selecting. I did not feel that I had to describe events in the exact order in which they happened, but everything I have described did take place at one time or another.’[23] He immediately added that he refrained, as far as possible, from drawing individual portraits of particular people. ‘All the characters I have described in both parts of the book are intended more as representative types ... than as individuals.’ Since much of the interest of the Parisian section of Down and Out is meant to be sustained by his gallery ofDickensian or Gogolesque characters, this disclaimer somewhat contradicts the ‘everything ... did take place’ of La Vache enragée and strengthens the ‘nearly all’ of The Road to Wigan Pier. In 1944 Orwell remarked on how much the American chapters in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit are a mixture of the travel book and the novel: ‘a good example of Dickens’ habit of telling small lies in order to emphasize what he regards as a big truth.’[24] Down and Out can perhaps best be read in that light. Few other writers would have worried about it so much.

The true critical response is not to use words like ‘lies’ and ‘truth’ at all (even if the author does), but simply to appreciate the processes of a growing creative imagination. But Blair’s and Orwell’s own pre-occupation with claiming as much for literal truth as he honestly, decently could, shows how much he intended his writings to be social, or ‘political’ in a broad sense, even before he became clearly a ‘political writer’. For the reader of a ‘political’ work is suspicious that ‘the facts’ may be made up: and it is then crucial whether they are or not. The confusion arises because it seems (from the evidence of the kind of writing he was attempting) that his motives in coming to Paris were primarily literary, but that his successes, when they came, arose from looking back over this period in a more political manner.

To follow the account in La Vache enragée ‘... one of my Parisian friends found me a room in a cheap hotel in a working-class district.’ This was 6 rue du Pot de Fer, which figures as ‘rue du Coq d’Or’. (This closeness and euphony between real and invented names was to worry his future publishers greatly.) It was undoubtedly working-class, but Hemingway had earlier described it as ‘the best part of the Latin Quarter’, meaning the most typical. ‘It was quite a representative slum’, said Orwell in Down and Out — which was an exaggeration, certainly if it were compared with Belleville, Ivry or La Villette, the classic Paris slums, or with Whitechapel, Limehouse and Vauxhall in London, which he had already begun to explore.[25] ‘Quite a representative slum’ was consistent with the narrative of Down and Out, but not with the predominantly literary motives with which he went to Paris.

Orwell peopled his hotel with ‘eccentric characters’. He saw poverty as producing eccentricity: ‘there are plenty of other people who lived lives just as eccentric as these’ in ‘our quarter’. Some of the characters ring true, like Henri who has retreated into the sewers and dumbness after his girl, for whom he went to prison, was unfaithful; but others seem to be stock figures, like Charlie, ‘a youth of family and education’, who for five whole pages is allowed to recount the hoary old fantasy of raping a procured virgin in a luxurious room, furnished totally in red, hidden among decrepit, rat-infested cellars. The story is incongruous among the simpler tales of poverty that Orwell told so well, almost as if he were trying as a desperate plunge to make that book sexually sensational as well as socially serious. He pictured ‘the cheap hotel’ simply as a slum boarding-house. Perhaps it was. Certainly it was the very cheapest kind of hotel possible. Eric Blair would have heard, through the ‘walls as thin as matchwood’, some such things as George Orwell was to relate: the fighting, the weeping, the whoring, the drunken singing, the pissing and soft shuffle of rent defaulters tying to get in and out without being spotted by the concierge. Inhabitants of such places were in constant terror of not being able to pay the rent and in continual debate about which pawnshop gave the least bad rates. Yet most of the characters drawn or mentioned in Down and Out have come down in the world from the middle classes: they are not representative, ordinary French working men and women. They are Russians, Algerians, immigrants, transients and drop-outs of all kinds, even including an Englishman who lives in the hotel on a remittance for half of each year, drinking four litres of wine a day, and the other six months living respectably with his parents in Putney. So to call it a ‘representative slum’ is either an exaggeration or a relative term. Paris like St Cyprian’s is an ‘echoing green’. ‘Poverty is what I am writing about, and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum.’[26] This is not autobiographically true. This is the fictional voice of George Orwell: it is more dramatic for the hero not to be prepared for what he encounters when his money runs out. Eric Blair however already knew poverty from London and was writing about ‘The Spike’ in Whitechapel while in the cheap hotel in Paris.

Who was the friend who found him the room? In none of the narratives or conversations remembered by his friends did he mention that Aunt Nellie was in Paris — his favourite relation, the bohemian of the family. What is more likely than that she found it for him (as she was to find him a job four years later in a bookshop in Hampstead)? As a bohemian but sensible lady, sadly expert in making a little money go a long way, she would have found him precisely this type of cheap room in a cheap hotel in a poor and cosmopolitan quarter but not in a slum. (He could, of course, have moved deliberately from a better place that was found for him into a far worse place that he found for himself — as he later did in Wigan.) Nellie Limouzin had moved back to Paris from England to live with and to care for her lover, Eugène Adam, a stalwart of the Esperanto movement. He had founded the Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda (the Workers Esperanto Association of the World) some time in 1928. He was born in Brittany but would neither write nor speak French, only Esperanto. If everyone spoke one tongue, the curse of Babel would be at an end, there would be no more conflict between nations, no more war, hence inevitable and lasting universal peace. He had been a Communist, but had turned Socialist after a visit to Moscow.[27] Orwell told a friend in his last years that as a young man he had gone to Paris partly to improve his French, but had to leave his first lodgings because the landlord and his wife only spoke Esperanto — and it was an ideology, not just a language.

Eric must have seen a good deal of his aunt and her lover, even if he did not stay with them for long and was too proud to sponge off them when he went broke; or perhaps they were as hard up themselves. Fellow Esperantists described them as living in a small top flat in a poor building in a middling district. Here is once again Blair’s early trait of tightness or caginess about his friends and his sources. In part, this was already deep in his character, a consequence perhaps of being the odd man out at school and of having parents who were not emotionally demonstrative. However, this secretiveness may well have been strengthened by the kind of writing which was beginning to turn Blair into Orwell, the documentary essay (ambiguously fact or fiction), which could so easily portray (and betray) friends and acquaintances. This must have worried him because all the time he seemed to believe that he was short of material, so that he was under pressure to use almost everything that was at hand. He underestimated his own artistry and creative powers of imaginative invention. He was as yet naive enough as a writer to have felt as guilty about using friends as he would about ‘making up’ characters in a ‘true narrative’.

Another important and obvious possibility in ‘the suppression’ of Aunt Nellie and Eugène Adam from all later accounts of Paris is that they were, if not full-blown cranks, certainly crankish. And when George Orwell emerged from Eric Blair, he wore the clothes of common sense. By 1936 he came to believe that the main business of political writing and practical politics was to catch the ear of the lower middle classes whom he believed should be the natural leaders of the people, and who were equally victims of capitalist exploitation and illusion. So in The Road to Wigan Pier there is the magnificently comic and violent tirade against the pollution of Socialism by ‘cranks’ (as good as anything in the early novels ofH. G. Wells); but all this earlier time, indeed all the early years before his great fame, he had mixed a lot with such people, liking their individuality and tolerant eccentricity.

He was then more than a little bohemian himself, despite his moral earnestness. Later he made no mention of such people, even though he was exposed to their ideas (without fully sharing them) earlier than is usually thought and than he would ever admit; precisely the ideas, in this case, if the speculation is correct of a Left-wing anti-Communism, posing hopefully as the nucleus of a popular mass movement, but in fact small if vastly intellectual, and with a dash of anarchism. The bookshop proprietors in Hampstead that he was later to work for were also Esperantists of the same political persuasion as their friends, Nellie Limouzin and Eugène Adam. And Orwell was to have a passing phase of interest in Basic English, seen as a rival to Esperanto but to serve the same great pacific purpose.[28]

What was he writing? Possibly some character sketches from the world of tramps and beggars, but mainly he pursued conventional literary ambitions of short stories and novels. His first publication, however, since the schoolboy poems was a pot-boiler: on ‘La Censure en Angleterre’ in Henri Barbusse’s short-lived Communist weekly Monde. He described in a competent but unoriginal way some of the anomalies of contemporary censorship, particularly of the stage, and the robustness of many of the classics. He ended, however, on what was to prove a more characteristic and strongly libertarian note (though of the style we can say nothing for the original English is lost):

What conclusions can we draw? We can only say that this casual and arbitrary censorship that England suffers today is the result of a prudery which would suppress (except for the snobbish fear of a great reputation) Chaucer, and Shakespeare, as well as James Joyce. The reason for this prudery can be found in the strong English puritanism which does not find filth repugnant but which fears sexuality and detests beauty. Nowadays it is illegal to print a swear word and even to swear, but no race is more wont to swear than the English. At the same time, however, every serious play on prostitution is likely to be banned from the English stage just as every prostitute is likely to be prosecuted. And yet it is a known fact that prostitution is as widespread in England as elsewhere. There are signs that this state of affairs will not last for ever. One can already perceive a little more freedom in writing than there was fifty years ago. If a government dared abolish a literary censorship we would find that we have been misled for several decades by a small minority and a century after its abandonment we can be sure that this strange institution, moral censorship in literature, would seem as remote and as fantastic as the marriage customs of central Africa.[29]

On 29 December 1928 his first English publication appeared: ‘A Farthing Newspaper’, in G. K.’s Weekly (G. K. Chesterton), an ironic account of a French Right-wing attempt to produce a nearly-free news-paper. It was also signed ‘E. A. Blair’. It is an ephemeral piece, but crisply and colloquially written:

And supposing that this sort of thing is found to pay in France, why should it not be tried elsewhere? Why should we not have our farthing, or at least half-penny newspaper in London? While the journalist exists merely as the publicity agent of big business, a large circulation, got by fair means or foul, is a newspaper’s one and only aim. Till recently various of our newspapers achieved the desired level of ‘net sales’ by the simple method of giving away a few thousand pounds now and again in football competition prizes. Now the football competitions have been stopped by law, and doubtless some of the circulations have come down with an ugly bump. Here, then, is a worthy example for our English Press magnates. Let them imitate the Ami du Peuple and sell their newspapers at a farthing. Even if it does no other good whatever, at any rate the poor devils of the public will at last feel that they are getting the correct value for their money.[30]

The pithy use of ordinary phrases like ‘fair means or foul’, ‘ugly bump’ and ‘poor devils’; the irony of the last sentence; and even the pseudo-precision of ‘doubtless some of the circulations have come down’, these are the devices found frequently in his famous essays. His first journalism was thus closer to his mature style than were his early novels. It seems as if he then regarded his journalistic style as merely workmanlike and still strove to achieve a ‘literary style’. It took him some years to discover that he already possessed something much finer than what he thought he was still seeking. The style is distinctively radical, but again not necessarily socialist: the populist stylistic devices and the political contempt for ‘big business’ were quite at home precisely where he published them, in the militantly individualistic pages of G. K.’s Weekly.

Two or three other slight articles appeared in French for the small Radical journal, Le Progrès civique, including the political one on Burma. Two letters from a Monsieur Pierre Yrondy of Le Mont-Parnasse thanked him for ‘votre “ballade”’ (‘c’était extrêmement amusante’) and for ‘des articles d’humourAYANT TOUJOURS TRAIT AUQUARTIERMONTPARNASSE”’ and hoping that he would be a regular contributor ‘when the resources of the journal allow’. They may never have allowed, indeed it may never have been launched, for no trace of the article or of the journal can be found.

His income from such journalisnuvas not nearly enough to live on. He did some private English teaching, but clients were hard to find and keep, he said in Down and Out.

All we know about his literary aspirations is from three letters from a literary agent, the McClure Newspaper Syndicate of New York and London.

19 February 1929

Dear Mr Blair

I received your letter of the lyth inst., and I would very much like to see the proposed new book when it is typed. It seems to me that a better judgement could be made after perusal of the whole. Have these stories ever been serialized at all? — possibly their length would be against this.

I should not be sanguine about the Tramps and Beggars book, but one never knows. Maybe at some future time you will shoot it across to me, though of course if it is political, that would be rather against it.

Our charge is 10% (Ten Percent) for all of your work placed. I will let you know when I am next in Paris, and then we three can probably meet.”

Yours very truly,
L. I. Bailey[31]

The reference to a book on ‘Tramps and Beggars’ is important, for it shows that he was already either at work on or thinking of such a book based purely on his English experience, even before his real period of destitution in Paris and specifically his experience of the hotel which probably moved him to write a whole book on Paris — certainly it is the most vivid and original part of the eventual manuscript. He did, indeed, write his essay, ‘The Spike’, or at least a version of it, while in Paris. He sent it to Max Plowman at the Adelphi in August 1929 (though it did not appear until April 1931, a few months before the first of his great essays, ‘A Hanging’).[32] The second letter reads:

23rd April 1929

Dear Mr Blair,

It’s too bad that I have not written earlier regarding the stories you sent me. Since my little jaunt I have been inundated with work, and that must serve as the excuse for my apparent neglect. I have just got through the Mss., and in parts am enormously impressed.

Allow me to start at the bad end!

THE SEA GOD’ I found to be immature and unsatisfactory. It was difficult to believe that the end of the story had been reached. I think, too, that you deal with sex too much in your writings. Subjects a little less worldly would have a greater appeal!

THE PETITION CROWN’ You have very good powers of description, but this power becomes tedious when a page of description could be much more effective in a few brief sentences. Stories of action will much more readily find a market than slow-moving, descriptive (no matter how beautiful) ones will. Sex here again ad lib!

THE MAN IN KID GLOVES’ impressed me very much, and I consider it an extremely clever story. It holds the attention of the reader and strikes a crisp note.

I think these writings would stand a greater chance if they were published in a book than serialization would afford. However, I want to try one, if not more, on an Editor friend of mine and get his views.

Do not be angry with me for my, perhaps, too frank criticisms, but you wished for this, and there it is!

It was nice to meet you in Paris, and I enjoyed our little chat tremendously.

I trust you are keeping fit.

With kind regards,
Yours sincerely,
L. I. Bailey

PS Very best regards to Miss Limouzin.

Bailey presumably knew that he had not been ‘keeping fit’, that earlier that year he had been in Hôpital Cochin in the rue Faubourg Saint-Jacques with pneumonia, a terrible experience of human degradation, even allowing for any possible exaggeration in his essay of 1946, ‘How the Poor Die’.

Bailey’s last letter was in June, reporting failure to place ‘The Man in Kid Gloves’. This still leaves it unclear what the ‘two novels’ were about to which Orwell refers in the Preface to La Vache enragée. From the letter of 19 February, there seems to have been a finished ‘new book’ about to be typed and a proposal for one on tramps and beggars. The letter of April discussed a number of short stories. Could they have been ‘the book’? Could ‘tramps and beggars’ have been first thought of as a novel — just as A Clergyman’s Daughter was to reuse some of the tramping material? Perhaps one or other of the novels remained in his head, or Orwell may have been simplifying a more complicated programme. Ruth Fitter remembers that he had written a lot which he destroyed that previous winter in London. It is conceivable, so hard did Blair work, that in eighteen months, even allowing for the two weeks in hospital and the ten weeks as plongeur (dish-washer), he had finished two novels as well as all the other work mentioned in the letters. What is clear, however, even from the rides of the short stories, is that he did not then see himself as predominantly a political writer and was thrashing around for themes. He wanted to be a writer but was unsure what to write about. Had these early works been published he might well have remained both in a literal and an intellectual sense merely Eric Blair.

One of the two novels projected could have been something that grew into his first published fiction, Burmese Days. Twenty-one pages of manuscript survive which, by handwriting and paper, were either written in the winter of 1927-8 in London or during 1928-9 in Paris, and are either part of a longer, missing manuscript or a trial run for sections of ‘The Tale of John Flory’. It is in the first person and ‘the author’, John Flory, seems to be writing his autobiography in prison, awaiting execution indeed, as a cautionary tale or final confession. It begins, in fine black humour, with ‘My Epitaph’:

Goodness knows where they will bury me, — in their own graveyard I suppose, two feet deep in a painted coffin. There will be no mourners, and no rejoicers either, which seems sadder still; for the Burmese celebration of a funeral with music and gambling is nicer than our beastly mummeries. But if there were anyone here whose hand could form the letters, I would like him to carve this on the bark of some great peepul tree above my head.

John Flory
Born   1890
Died of Drink   1927

Here lie the bones of poor John Flory
His story is the old, old story.
Money, women, cards and gin
Were the four things that did him in.

He has spent sweat enough to swim in
Making love to married stupid women;
He has known misery past thinking
In the dismal art of drinking.

O stranger, as you voyage here
And read this welcome, shed no tear;
But take the single gift I give,
And learn from me how not to live.

So the prime villain is drink. Had he in mind the old Hints on the Preservation of Health for Officers in Burma? It must have been, indeed, as the manuscript conveys, no joke: tongues loosened by alcohol, drinking to reduce tension, spewing out racial prejudice. The effects of alcohol addiction on lonely and frustrated men were quite as bad as those of opium addiction. The first paragraph of the rest of the manuscript gives the flavour of the writing:

For awhile I abandon autobiography & commence fiction writer [sic] That is for the main facts of the story here told are known to me, & I have supplied the rest out of my imagination. I take so much trouble because this chain of events led to my downfall; not however by any real poetic justice, but simply through coincidence. Nevertheless I am, after all, here in Nyauglebiu through my own fault, for if this mischance had not come my way, there was bound to have been some other. My own temperament & way of living had made sure that I would fall into any trap of this kind that fortune laid me.[34]

Flory appears to have been mixing too freely with Burmans, plying them and being plied with drink; and he seduces the wives of his friends, notably the wife of his best friend, Lackersteen. Adultery arises from convention and boredom rather than from affection and passion. Flory also remembers his childhood, a remote father whom he did not see much of until he was about nine, though a solitary man of bookish tastes (as it were old Blair recast). Faced with these twenty pages, a publisher’s reader would want to see much more before proceeding to contract: the writing is heavy-handed, though there are some fluent passages and the tone is notably more experimental and ambitious (as a book about a book being written) than was the happily more conventional final version.

He wrote without any success as regards his literary aspirations and with only a very limited success in the journalism that he counted on to keep him going. He must have hoped to get work on a regular basis with Le Progrès civique after they had carried two or three of his articles between December and May, but it did not happen. When he collapsed with pneumonia in February 1929, probably brought on by cold, undernourishment and overwork, he even tried to keep on writing from hospital (since he gave that address in writing to an editor) despite the pain, the noise, the filth and the bureaucratic callousness, all so precisely set down in ‘How the Poor Die’. He did a bit of English tutoring when he came out of hospital, but that was spasmodic and un-reliable. Rejection slips must have piled up — much as Gordon Comstock relates in Keep the Aspidistra Flying: every time you eat, terrible decisions have to be made; buying the cheapest things, you always feel cheated; buying always small quantities, you are cheated; and you sit waiting for the letters that never come — you begin to get obsessed about money, both hating your dependence on it and desiring it desperately. ‘A letter, please God, a letter! More footsteps. Ascending or descending? They were coming nearer, surely! Ah, no, no! The sound grew fainter.’[35] Even a stamp costs two bread rolls.

6 rue du Pot de Fer
Paris 5
22 September 1929

Dear Sir,

During August I sent you an article describing a day in a casual ward. As a month has now gone by, I should be glad to hear from you about it. I have no other copy of the article, and I want to submit it elsewhere if it is no use to you.

Yours faithfully
E. A. Blair

There must have been many more such letters. Max Plowman at the Adelphi eventually took the piece and began to send Blair books to review, but only after he had left Paris.

In all his letters and essays there are only two most casual references to incidents in his Paris days. He told readers of Tribune in 1947 that he had been at Foch’s funeral in 1928 and that the appearance of Petain had caused a great stir in the crowd: ‘His appearance impressed me so much that I dimly felt, in spite of his considerable age, that he might still have some kind of distinguished future ahead of him.’[36] Most readers would not have given the columnist credit for such forethought, nor would he expect them to: it was a nice piece of deliberate hindsight to create a dramatic irony at a moment when Petain of Vichy was ending his distinguished life in prison. Somewhat more revealing of how he spent his time other than attending funerals, he was to tell a friend that he remembered the Deux Magots, the famous literary cafe in St-Germain-des-Pres: ‘I think I saw James Joyce there in 1928, but I’ve never been able to swear to that because J was not of very distinctive appearance.’[37] Here he cannot be accused of stretching a tale and he was far too shy and proper a young man to force himself on anyone famous. And yet he did go to the cafe.

A glimpse of a reasonably normal young writer’s life in Paris can be gained from the only surviving letter from an acquaintance of those days, that reached him during his final illness:

I can hardly expect you to remember me after more than twenty years, but I have always enjoyed recalling those Saturday evenings in Paris, when we took turns about the dinner, and the hours of good talk later in my little cluttered place in Rue de la Chaumiere.

You showed me sketches then of your experiences — some of the material I recognized when Down and Out in Paris and London came out. Perhaps I was your first critic ... I believe your Aunt, Mrs Adam, went back to England? I treasure the memories of my years there, including the very good talk of a tall young man in a wide brimmed pair of Breton hats, who was as kind as he was keen of mind.[38]

Leading ‘the writers’ life’ came to an end one day when his money ran out and his last slender store was stolen. There are two versions of this theft. In Down and Out, a young Italian compositor, who is made to pay a week’s rent in advance because Madame does not like the look of him, manages to prepare some duplicate keys; and on the last night ‘he robbed a dozen rooms including mine. Luckily he did not find the money that was in my pockets, so I was not left penniless. I was left with just forty-seven francs — that is seven and tenpence.’

The other version is what he told a friend, Mabel Fierz, as she was to relate it in a broadcast:

In fact, on the question of girls, he once said that of all the girls he’d known before he met his wife, the one he loved best was a little trollop he’d picked up in a cafe in Paris. She was beautiful, and had a figure like a boy, an Eton crop and in every way desirable. Anyway, he had a relationship with this girl for some time and came a point one day he came back to his room, and this paragon had decamped with everything he possessed. All his luggage and his money and everything.[39]

Whichever version of Blair’s misfortunes is the more creditable (and Orwell may have favoured the Italian over the girl not to upset his family too much), the theft does lead him to give us in Down and Out an exact accounting.[40]

Before the theft he had 450 francs left and was earning 36 francs a week from English lessons. There were then 6 francs to the shilling or 120 to the pound. He had paid 200 francs in advance, fortunately, for a month’s rent and reckoned that with the other 450 francs plus English lessons ‘I could live a month’ (that is, continue writing for a month), during which time he could find some work, as a guide or an interpreter (that is,’ he was still reasonably well-dressed and presentable). After the robbery, he had to cut his expenditure down to 6 francs, or a shilling a day, to last out a month, rather than the expected 13 francs a day. He got caught in a vicious circle. Not finding work, he had to pawn his good clothes; and having pawned them, he could only apply for the lowest jobs of all. ‘Boris’, with his hopes to be head waiter and to take Blair with him if a fellow emigre’s awful restaurant ever opened, may or may not have existed. But Blair did end up as plongeur — working thirteen hours a day, probably through October, November and the first part of December 1929 in a grand hotel. There is not the slightest doubt about this, and the account rings all too true. He could have pulled out earlier. Aunt Nellie was in Paris and his family were not short of five pounds to get him home. But he stuck it, probably both out of pride and for the experience of poverty and almost his only experience of work as the working class understand the term. The first version, indeed, of Down and Out that he submitted for publication was noted in Faber and Faber’s register for 14 December 1931 as ‘A Scullion’s Diary’.

He was to defend the accuracy of his account of the hotel kitchen in a letter to The Times of 11 February 1933 against a Monsieur Possena, ‘restaurateur and hotelier of 40 years’ experience’.[41] And there is a bizarre confirmation of the nature and servility of his job in, of all un-likely places. Grace and Favour: The Memoirs of Loelia, Duchess of Westminster.

We often stopped for a day or two in Paris — a town Benny much preferred to London. Looking back I think that Benny must have had a permanent suite in the Hotel Lotti, as we always had the same rooms. The staff bowed before him and hastened to gratify his slightest whim.

Years later, at a party, I met a frail-looking man who said, ‘You won’t remember me, but I have a very vivid recollection of you and your husband.’ He then told me that he had worked at the Hotel Lotti. Late one night Benny had rung the bell for the floor waiter and asked for a peach. It turned out that there was not a peach in the hotel so my friend, who was an apprentice waiter, was sent out into the streets and, under threat of instant dismissal, told not to return without at least one peach. Of course all the shops were shut, so he wandered forlornly about (I tell the story as he told it to me) until he saw a small greengrocer’s with a basket of peaches in the window. Desperately he rattled the door, pounded on it, but all in vain. He dared not go back empty handed, so, as the street was quite deserted, he picked up a cobble stone from a heap where the road was being mended, smashed the window, seized a peach and dashed back to the Lotti, happy to think that he had kept his job. However, soon after that he gave up trying to be a waiter and became a writer. His name? George Orwell.[42]

One wonders if she was aware that, like her Benny, Orwell was an old Etonian.

By the end of the year he returned home. In Down and Out he says that a friend ‘B’ had written that he could get a job for him, looking after a ‘congenital imbecile’ and he then sent him a fiver to get his clothes out of pawn and a ticket home. This sounds contrived. There was to be such a job for a short while near Southwold, though simply with a backward boy, which means that the offer would, more likely, have come from family or their friends in Southwold. Certainly he would have been hard pressed to have saved the fare from his plongeur’s salary — 750 francs a month (about £6).

On the face of it, Paris was an abject failure. None of his literary work found publishers and he must have had so little confidence in it, on re-reading it, that he destroyed nearly everything shortly after-wards. When he found a good agent, two years later, none of the titles in the McClure Newspaper Syndicate correspondence recurs. But there were some competent pieces of journalism which, though mere pot-boilers in motive, did begin to show that colloquial, easy, plain style that became his genius; and to show it more obviously than in many rather overwritten passages that occur in his first two published novels. There was at least the first version of ‘The Spike’ in which the journalism is undoubtedly literature. And, as was to happen again, from his very ill luck or lack of luck, good was to come. Somehow he was to capitalize sensibly on all his misfortunes. The experience in the hotel gave him the germ of the idea that led to Down and Out as his first published book. He seems at first to have dropped the idea of an English book on ‘Tramps and Tramping’, although he revived it, tacking it on rather awkwardly to the French material, when he got the opinion from Cape’s that ‘A Scullion’s Diary’ was interesting but a bit thin. Even so, Down and Out has a lot of padding, all those long florid anecdotes told by one of the characters, like the scarlet brothel story and the equally stock, rather nasty, indeed positively anti-Semitic anecdotes about the swindling Jew who is himself swindled over the facepowder that looks like cocaine. But there was enough, more than enough, in a different style to show an unusual and unusually honest sensibility. He wrote very directly, not theoretically, about poverty, and with a mixture of compassion and anger — however uncertain it is what derived from experience and what from imagination. The style of Down and Out was not, however, what Blair had intended when he determined to be a writer, and he did not give up the more conventional literary ambitions and manner easily and all at once: but that workmanlike style was to become the man.

This is to anticipate, for when he returned to England, in rime for Christmas 1929, he at first seemed to resume his former life of spells of writing between spells of tramping, but with a few odd jobs between, as if nothing had happened; and perhaps he thought that nothing had happened except a period of failure.

____ § ____

The Christmas of 1929 can hardly have been a jolly occasion at the Blairs’ home in Southwold. Return home was a defeat for Eric, his tall presence, if not quite a disgrace, was more a misfortune to the family than a blessing. Their friends commiserated with them. The prodigal had returned, but empty-handed. Rationally he must have known that success does not come overnight, but he must also have wished to return with something to show for his time in Paris, apart from pneumonia, a pile of rejection slips, a little journalism and lots of experience (the name, as Oscar Wilde remarked, that we give to our mistakes). He had returned home, once again, and home was not a long-loved family house, as the Buddicoms or his friends at Eton had, but a small, rented house in an out-of-the-way seaside town, the retirement home of his 73-year-old father and his 55-year-old mother. A grown man of 26 at home and virtually jobless was hardly comfort or support to such a quiet and by now wholly conventional household. Moreover, it was a town which he specifically disliked, his sister Avril remembered, for the presence of so many Anglo-Indian families with the kind of racial prejudices that had appalled him in Burma. And Avril, though only 21, was already carrying (later conversations with her would suggest) a stern and reproachful air of seeing Eric as loafing around, trying to write while life was passing her by, she thinking of what she could have done with his opportunities instead of having to work in a tea-shop (though a very nice and modestly profitable one, incidentally, quite unlike the wretched situation of the hero’s sister in Keep the Aspidistra Flying).

Perhaps it is surprising that he returned home at all. Ties of family, however, are not always those of positive pleasure or affection. If they were ‘worrying about him’, he might have felt guilty at not going home unless he had a positive reason to be elsewhere — even if he felt still more guilty when he was at home. While still consumed by the guilt and curiosity that was to drive him back, time and time again in the next two years to live among the tramps, he nevertheless returned home each time simply because it was difficult, almost impossible, to write while on the road. Being at home at least gave him the time to write up his experiences. Besides, he was not simply loafing about. Someone had indeed found him a job tutoring a backward boy in Walberswick, just across the river by chain ferry from Southwold. He held this job until the spring, then became vacation tutor-companion to the three Peters boys, sons of neighbours, in three successive vacations. Their father was in India; their mother knew what Eric had been doing, but thought him a gentle, harmless, if misguided ‘Bolshie’ soul.[43]

All in all, he felt uncertain of himself, guilt-ridden and gloomy. He let it be known that he was writing a book about his experiences in Paris. Everyone had to understand that. He finished the first version of Down and Out in October 1930 and called it ‘A Scullion’s Diary’ so it must have been solely on Paris.[44] On the strength of the Adelphi accepting ‘The Spike’ (though it was not published until a year later), and two pieces on English tramps for French journals, Blair wanted to be thought of as studying English low life in a serious fashion. This enabled him to slip away without subterfuge; and if his parents did not like the thought of him being on the road, they accepted it. Also his pride, though not his pocket, was sustained by a few book reviews which came his way from Max Plowman who was literary editor of what was now called the New Adelphi, after Richard Rees took over the editorship, though not ownership, from Middleton Murry whose platform essentially it was (it soon, however, reverted to its shorter name).

The New Adelphi sent him Lewis Mumford’s Herman Melville to review, and he put a lot into it:

We see him as an overworked man of genius, living among people to whom he was hardly more than a tiresome, incomprehensible failure. We are shown how poverty, which threatened even when he was writing Moby Dick, infected him through nearly forty years with such loneliness and bitterness as to cripple his talents almost completely.

He put into it more than he intended. But any biographical biter is soon bit by Blair’s next remark: ‘The criticism which sets out to interpret — to be at the deepest meaning and cause of every act — is very well when applied to a man, but it is a dangerous method of approaching a work of art. Done with absolute thoroughness, it could cause art itself to vanish.’[45]

His next review offered praise of Edith Sitwell’s study, Alexander Pope, but with a stem warning that love of musicality in poetry should not excuse lack of sense or positive banality; and even more boldly his next review took on J. B. Priestley’s Angel Pavement as being heavily written, fatuously optimistic, and pleasant enough overall but nowhere near the standard of Dickens, to whom Priestley was being compared. How much better, says Blair, would Bennett, Conrad, Hardy or Wells have tackled the same theme. ‘Mr Priestley’s work is written altogether too easily, not laboured upon as good fiction must be — not, in the good sense of the phrase, worked out.’ Blair did not intend to make the same mistake, but if Priestley had noticed his early novels, he could well have thrown the same review (apart from the optimism) back at Blair. Yet this is the writing of a man who was no flincher, no respecter of persons, who would take on lions and lionesses of any shape or size, although he was as yet showing more ability in critical than in imaginative writing.

Jack Common from Tyneside, one of the few authentic English proletarian writers, was in 1930 27 years old and working as ‘circulation pusher’ for the New Adelphi. He recalls his first meeting with Blair:

One name that interested me much was that of ‘E. A. Blair’. He wrote no-nonsense reviews and vivid pieces that looked like sections from a coming book. Already a legend was shaping about him. He was not as other Bloomsbury souls, they said, he was an outsider, a rebel, a tramp, he lived and wrote in the bottom-most underworld of poverty. A man to look out for then, a man to meet.

He was sitting in Katherine Mansfield’s armchair one dusky afternoon (late in 1930) talking to Max Plowman and Sir Richard Rees, our editors, and like that, seen at that low level from which one took in first the scrub of hair and curiously ravaged face, he looked the real thing: outcast, gifted pauper, kicker against authority, perhaps near-criminal. But he rose to acknowledge the introduction with a hand-shake. Right away, manners — and more than manners, the process euphemistically called ‘breeding’ — showed through. A sheep in wolfs clothing, I thought, taking in the height and stance, accent and cool built-in superiority of the public school presence. Of course the effects of social drilling that showed on him were to some extent libellous. He was, an Eton man, I learned later, one of a kind that often stray into contexts not their own to become the catalysts of change, extra consciences to the ‘movement’, whatever it is. All the same this man Blair was a letdown to me that day.

Our next encounter was not so negative. It was just before Christmas I remember. I happened to be alone in the office, which must have been disappointing for him, but I offered the traditional Bloomsbury hospitality of the cup of tea and cigarette, the seat before the gas-fire where seventeen asbestos columns glowed like the thrones of wicked emperors flaming eternally in Hell. I think we probably talked about Christmas, the curse of it, that is, to people who are poor enough already without having the extra burden of celebration. Anyway it is certain that he was tempted to launch out with one of the statements he loved to use for shock value and which made him appear like an over-long enfant terrible in decay. ‘I would like to spend Christmas in gaol,’ he said.

Later on when he was Orwell, one would have agreed that was the ideal festive season setting for him. But in this far-off, callow 1930 he devalued the suggestion for me by his follow-up. He had thought of starting a bonfire in Trafalgar Square.

Now this was just the trifling, undergrad sort of stunt which irritated me because it mocked the rebellions of the truly destitute. Was Eric just a phoney then? Or anyway an amateur pauper?[46]

There followed a hostile and suspicious conversation, both men doubtless hoping that someone more interesting and congenial would drop in; but an odd reply to a banal question charmed working-class Gruff into instant appreciation of lower-upper-middle-class Grum:

But how did he come to write for the Adelphi? He was in Burma, he said, up against petty minds and starved for intellectual debate. The Adelphi was one of the periodicals he subscribed to. Not that he was a loyal supporter of the Murry crusades and outlook. Often the magazine disgusted him. Then he’d prop it up against a tree and fire his rifle at it till the copy was a ruin.[47]

Such direct lit. crit. appealed to Common, and he and Blair remained good friends for many years. Blair provocatively described himself then to the Adelphi circle (that is, to those who tried to keep up with, or at least follow, Middleton Murry’s syntheses of aesthericism, post-Impressionism, Nietzsche, D. H. Lawrence and socialism) as ‘a Tory anarchist’.[48] Blair and Rees became friendly through the Adelphi — they had been at Eton at the same time, but Rees was an Oppidan and had not known Blair at all. Rees was already a painter, author and critic of modest reputation, but most of all he was a keen seeker for new ideas and a kindly helper, both by his editing and from his own income, to many young writers of the time.

Edouard Roditi, the novelist and poet, met Orwell at this time through Jack Common and describes contributors to the Adelphi as:

... a curiously composed group, closely knit though we had few real ideas or beliefs in common ... all still rather confused, more distrustful of traditional beliefs than yet converted to any new beliefs. Some of us had some knowledge of Marxist literature; others, some acquaintance with Freudian theory, others again, some awareness ofDADA and Surrealism. But nothing had jelled yet in our minds, so that we could still discuss new ideas quite freely as none of us had yet adopted a firm stand on anything, though some of us were already moving towards the ideology of the Independent Labour Party.[49]

From April 1930 Blair resumed his tramping. He had various ‘drops’ in London where he would leave his better clothes and don his rags, sallying out sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a week or two. The only ‘drops’ known about for sure are Ruth Fitter’s studio, later Mabel Fierz’s house in Hampstead Garden Suburb, and Sir Richard Rees’ elegant flat in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.

Ruth Fitter remembers laughing at Blair as he changed in and out of character, with him ‘looking daggers at us, daring us not to laugh, but we did’. Her sister called him ‘your dirty beau’. But most of all she remembers his poverty. They would occasionally go out for a cheap meal together, just good friends — as they were — but the slightest miscalculation could bring great embarrassment. ‘You know, he would go out and hadn’t enough money, and fit to die with chagrin when I put my hand in my pocket and put money in his hand. He hated it, poor soul.’ As he did when her legs gave out and she insisted on paying for a bus, rather than always agreeing that she ‘enjoyed walking’ and would ‘walk everywhere for preference’.

His wanderings took him beyond the slums of London. He got down into Kent and out into Bedfordshire and Essex, even a short venture into Suffolk — dangerously near home ground. He lived rough, exactly as the tramps did, and never carried more than a few shillings on him, indeed did not possess in all more than a few pounds. Only once do we hear of him surfacing while on a ‘trip’ or tramp. Brenda Salkeld was the same age as Eric and gym mistress at a girls’ school near Southwold. They had met in 1928 through Avril Blair, and became close if independent-minded friends. She admired his intelligence and enjoyed talking to him, almost being tutored about modern literature. Yet she was impatient at his tramping. Miss Salkeld says that she always objected that it was not real tramping because he could get out of it at any time. He was trying to be with tramps but was not really a tramp. She told him he was being silly. He dropped in at her family’s home in Bedfordshire when he was tramping, and they sent him straight upstairs to have a bath. Her mother said that it was very funny behaviour: if he wished to be a tramp then he could not call on respectable families; and if he called on respectable families, he could not be a tramp.[50] And after his death a legend was to grow among the young that Orwell had joined the tramps ‘back then’ much as Count Tolstoy had joined the peasants. But all this was a misunderstanding. He never claimed to have become a tramp, only to have been among tramps and in so doing have freed himself from certain prejudices, particularly those class prejudices relating to physical contact and dirt.

Tramps are not really very dirty as English people go, but they have the name for being dirty, and when you have shared a bed with a tramp and drunk tea out of the same snuff-tin, you feel that you have seen the worst and the worst has no terrors for you.[51]

The understatement does not conceal the terror, revulsion and disgust that he steeled himself to contain if not overcome. But to overcome class prejudice is not, he himself argued, to become classless.

Some time that spring or early summer of 1930 he spent a month or two in Leeds with his elder sister Marjorie, and her husband Humphrey Dakin — the same Dakin who long ago had taken young Eric fishing in Henley. His reception of this penniless, jobless and, in his eyes, work-shy failure of a brother-in-law had a similar cold tolerance about it; indeed, there seems to have been some positive dislike. Perhaps it stemmed from his memory that when he Was sweet on Marjorie as a boy, she always felt it her duty to bring, he loved to recall, ‘stinking little Eric’ along with her, who ‘was a sneak, full of “nobody loves me” and torrents of tears at the age of five or six’. Dakin enjoyed rattling on in later years about the impracticality of his late brother-in-law and his alleged lack of knowledge and concern for working people in the early 1930s. He would claim that when he took Eric out with him to pubs in Bramley, the working-class suburb of Leeds in which they then lived, he was a ‘skeleton at the feast’, did not know how to pass the time of day with anyone and that one publican had said:

‘Don’t bring that bugger in here again.’ But he paid a grudging tribute to his brother-in-law’s obsessiveness with writing.[52] Eric would finish supper, chat stiffly for a few moments, then go upstairs to a small room and type away, often throughout the night. He was working on the first version of Down and Out.

Blair’s nephew and two nieces remember ‘Uncle Eric’ from when he was a frequent visitor in the early 1930S. Their mother’s fondness for her brother was evident. He did not talk down to the children, so did not embarrass them like many adults; indeed he treated them very much like adults — in all kindly but rather remote. He did not play with them much since ‘he appeared to be always busy’, but when he did, he joined in just as if he were another child, neither ‘showing them’ nor dominating them.[53] They, too, remember the typewriter going on and on, ‘tap, tap, tappety tap’, said one of the nieces (which is curiously a line of a tramp’s song that Orwell mentions in an essay).[54]

His niece, Jane, remembers an almost legendary family journey for a weekend in a cottage on the Yorkshire moors. They had a goat. She thinks it was because her sister had difficulty retaining food as a baby, and somebody thought goat’s milk would help. (Before tubercular-tested milk became common, some people took to goat’s milk if they feared TB or thought that it was in the family. Orwell kept goats in Wallington in the late 1930s.)

In the front of the car sat my mother with Lucy on her knee, in the back seat sat my brother aged about 4, myself aged about 7-8, our pug dog Taurus, our cat ... two or three guinea pigs and a kid goat called Blanche in a straw fish-basket with her head sticking out. Rugs and food baskets and the usual clamour. And behind the driver, on the back seat, sat Eric, quite unruffled and amiable, although disassociated from any responsibility, with his knees up near his ears, reading French poetry.[55]

How different from the menage of a Woolf, a Murry, an Orage or a Lawrence.

Her father went further than a humorous ‘disassociated from any responsibility’. He saw Eric Blair as almost fecklessly inept in practicalities, either shirking his share of domestic tasks or somehow getting them wrong — as for example actually double-trenching Humphrey Dakin’s allotment to get the clay out on top, when he had been asked merely to turn over the top soil lightly. He claimed to have given Eric ten shillings a week on these visits, and to have expected him at least to be useful about the house.

Such bitterness on small things thirty years later suggests some jealousy and that either these visits had been a source of tension between him and his wife, or that a major row between him and Eric occurred some time later. His reactions were not confined to comments within the family. Years later he was prepared to air his views on the BBC:

I often wondered what the clue to Eric’s character was. Rather diffidently I put forward the theory that he disliked his fellow men. Intellectually. He forced himself to think of his fellow men with compassion. And put on an excellent act, you know, of being a friend of the poor; but I think he was partly ashamed and partly angry about having to put up with being so hard up. He was the last man in the world who would ever scrounge or do anything dishonourable ... But I think that he wanted money in order to lead a more pleasant life and get away from poverty.[56]

The producer cut all of these recorded impieties out of the final broad-cast.

One of the three boys whom Blair tutored in Southwold made a far more favourable and favoured offering to the BBC. Professor Richard Peters’ (Professor of Philosophy at The Institute of Education, London) reminiscences were broadcast, and they are worth quoting at length. Mature critical judgement obviously filters his memory of childhood, but his elder brother (a senior civil servant) gave much the same account.

We gathered that Eric Blair ... was rather a strange fellow but very nice. He was very kind to his mother and helped her with the washing up; but he had given up a very good job with the Burmese Police and had chosen to do a year’s trip as a tramp without any subsidy from home ... and now he was writing a book all about it. You can imagine that we felt a bit apprehensive ... I vividly remember the first impression of him as he came up the garden path... a tall spindly young man with a great mop of hair on top of a huge head, swinging along with loose, effortless strides and a knobbly stick made of some queer Scandinavian wood. He captivated us completely within five minutes. He had a slow disarming sort of smile which made us feel that he was interested in us yet amused by us in a detached impersonal sort of way. He would discuss anything with interest, yet objectively and without prejudice. We knew nothing of politics and cared less. I have only the vague impression that he thought most politicians wicked people and that making money entered into it rather a lot. But his remarks on these subjects were without rancour. He commented on the actions of politicians in the same sort of way as he commented on the behaviour of stoats, or the habits of the heron.

He was a mine of information on birds, animals, and the heroes of boys’ magazines. Yet he never made us feel that he knew our world better than we knew it ourselves ... He entered unobtrusively ... into our world and illuminated it in a dry, discursive, sort of way without in any way disturbing it. He never condescended; he never preached; he never intruded. I remember him saying that he would have sided with the Cavaliers rather than with the Roundheads because the Roundheads were such depressing people. And I can now understand what he meant. For temperamentally he was a Cavalier, lacking the fervour and fanaticism of the Puritan ... He was never noisy and lacked the dogmatism of the insecure. I can only remember him getting indignant on one occasion when he told us how he thrashed a boy whom he caught blowing up a frog with a bicycle pump.

His attitude to animals and birds was rather like his attitude to children. He was at home with them. He seemed to know everything about them and found them amusing and interesting. Perhaps he thought of them like children as uncorrupted by the pursuit of power and riches, living for the moment and caring little for organized exploitation of each other. He infused interest and adventure into everything we did with him just because of his own interest in it. Walking can be just a means of getting from A to B; but with him it was like a voyage with Jules Veme beneath the ocean. He had of course, nothing of the hearty technique of the adolescent scoutmaster or the burning mission of the enthusiast. Neither had he the attitude of the guide on a conducted tour. A walk was a mixture of energy, adventure, and matter of fact. The world, we felt, was just like this ...

These walks had often a definite purpose. Perhaps we would walk along to a nearby broad to attempt to get near a swan’s nest or to find plovers’ nests on the hillside ... We went fishing in the mill-pool at Walberswick ... He also told us how he used to kill eels by firing at them with a 12 bore shot gun ... We helped him, too, to dig a couple of tumuli in the search of prehistoric remains, though I think that all we found was a soldier’s button ...

But of all the activities which we indulged in with him, the one that stands out in my memory most is the making of bombs. We used to call him by the somewhat irreverent tide of ‘Blarry Boy’ and we coined a kind of war-cry ...: ‘Blarry Boy for Bolshie Bombs’ would echo through the house and my poor mother would look anxiously out of the window to see which part of the garden was going to disappear next. My grandmother, I remember, nearly had a stroke when a grassy mound blew up just by the sitting-room window. George Orwell taught us a very special way of making gunpowder ... the same energy and detached interest went to making and firing a bomb as to looking for a redshank’s nest. We had to get every detail just right; we must not hurry; we must get into a really safe place before we pulled on the cotton. Nature was intriguing but predictable; we had to leam the way she worked or we would suffer.

We had another game in which he would also join with quiet nonchalance. We would stalk each other in the sand-dunes armed with small sand-bags. His calm precision was formidable. This was our world and it also seemed to be his. He was merely the boy who played the game with his head.

I suppose the nerve and quiet confidence with which he played this and other games was the quality in him which we admired most... The picture I shall always carry of him is of a tall loveable man striding nonchalantly across a girder about 18 inches wide on which the old disused railway bridge at Walberswick was suspended. I must confess that I was pretty frightened just jumping from sleeper to sleeper with the river [Biythe] swirling through the mudbanks about 30 feet below. But there was he walking as calmly as you like up to the apex of this girder miles above our heads. He told us that he had often wheeled a bicycle across ...[57]

Professor Peters’ reminiscences leave no doubt that Blair was a man among boys, but was he — Dakin doubts — a man among men? Dakin’s view is suspect as motivated by personal dislike and jealousy. But his children, who liked their uncle Eric very much, also pointed to his ineptness and his withdrawal from domestic obligations and practicalities, a view also in sharp contrast to that of the Peters brothers.

But probably there was truth on both sides. Blair could behave very differently to different people. He had a typical public-school self-sufficiency which could make him appear cold and aloof, could lead to a certain lack of empathy with people, though not with ideas; but on other occasions, he was sweet and gregarious — when the situation was created on his own terms. Emotionally he did find it difficult to relate to strangers, however bravely and hard he forced himself to do so, as with tramps and derelicts, both morally and intellectually. His habit of keeping his different circles of friends apart and telling them little about each other was growing. He could appear almost a different man in different circumstances. From the earliest days, even when his fame was at its most modest, people seemed challenged to describe his character: there are some fine characterizations, and they can differ remarkably.

Richard Peters’ comments on Eric Blair’s politics, or lack of them, are also interesting, as is his favouring the Cavalier over the Roundhead. It strengthens the view that at this stage, despite the quasi-Marxist article on Burma in Le Progres nviyue, his anti-authoritarianism and anti-imperialism took a ‘Tory anarchist’ form, rather than anythingSpecifically or even latently socialist.

____ § ____

In the summer of 1930, while sketching on the beach at South-wold, Blair met Mabel Fierz, who was to do him a considerable service: both saving the manuscript of Down and Out and finding it a publisher. Her husband, Francis Fierz, was an engineer, and they had a nice house in Hampstead Garden Suburb, a four-rooms-up and three-down kind of place, as arty and intellectual-looking as they themselves. Mabel was a seeker and an enthusiast, a natural subscriber to A. R. Orage’s New Age, which had moved from socialism to mysticism through Social Credit, and to Middleton Murry’s Adelphi, attending the Summer Schools in the 1930S as his circle tried to keep up with his latest complete answers to the greatest Questions — if only the questions had not changed so often too. In the eyes of the world she might appear as a wee bit of a crank, of the genus Orwell railed against in The Road to Wigan Pier as discrediting socialism; but her enthusiasm was good for him and she was inclined to help him. When she positively decided to help him, as she had helped other young writers in a modest way, she would not be denied since all her geese were swans: she bullied friends for introductions, she bullied editors of small journals, gave a meal and a bath at almost any time, searched for cheap digs, and offered the spare room for short visits — a Garsington of Golders Green. She was to bring two particularly difficult geese together, George Orwell and Rayner Heppenstall.[58]

The immediate result of this meeting was, however, only that he received and accepted invitations to stay in Golders Green. He made use of this quite a lot in 1931, both as a base camp for his tramping and to spend some time in London, living reasonably conventionally, to extend his acquaintance with Richard Rees, Max Plowman, Edouard Roditi and Jack Common. It was the custom at the Adelphi to send books to reviewers, but also for young would be reviewers like Blair to call, like commercial travellers, to see what the literary editor had on his shelves. ‘You ask what kind of thing I like reviewing,’ he replied to a note from Max Plowman. ‘If you ever get any book (fiction or travel stuff) on India, or on low life in London, or on Villon, Swift, Smollett, Poe, Mark Twain, Zola, Anatole France or Conrad, or anything by M. P. Shiel or W. Somerset Maugham, I should enjoy reviewing it. Please excuse a post office pen.’[59] But this was hardly to push himself. In spite of a stiff and awkward manner with ordinary working people (there is no reason to discard all of Humphrey Dakin’s testimony) and having to force himself to muck in with the tramps (who would not? but who would do it at all?), Blair made no attempt to use Old Etonian connections to further his literary career. He did not, as many unknown young men determined to make a career of letters, Orage in the igoos and Middleton Murry a little later, seek to draw himself to the attention of great names. He knew none of the Blooms-bury group nor the Garsington Manor circle, and did not try to; he came to know Richard Rees simply through submitting his manuscripts to the magazine. When Cyril Connolly resumed their boyhood friendship in the mid-1930s, Orwell was, if still hard up, already a writer with a small reputation of his own. His famous literary friends came in the days of his fame, not in the days of struggle. If anyone can claim, besides Richard Rees (who, gentle man, never claimed any such thing), to have been his patron, it was Mabel Fierz. Above all, she radiated absolute confidence in what he was writing. She was the only Lady Ottoline Morrell he ever had.

The other Southwold friends, Brenda Salkeld, Dennis Ceilings and Eleanor Jaques were each closer and more natural friends, admiring Eric’s intellectuality, talking earnestly but with open minds, yet pursuing their own interests and careers. While liking him very much as a person, they probably did not think Eric had much hope as a writer and in any case, there was nothing they could do to help his new career as a writer.

Edouard Roditi saw a good deal of Blair in 1931. They shared a taste for taking a cheap Chinese meal in Limehouse and then wandering around London together watching people and often talking to them at coffee-stalls. On several occasions they walked all the way back from the East End to Ebury Street in Pimlico where Roditi lived.

Often ... we stopped in Trafalgar Square and listened to people there. I can remember Orwell repeating phrases he had heard there so as to memorize them. I was with him when we first met the original of Mrs Wayne [in A Clergyman’s Daughter] and he subsequently discussed at great length with me her insistence on having seen better days as a straw of respectability to which she desperately clung. He remarked that such people could never become revolutionaries ... Orwell and I were both equally shocked by the apparent indifference of the middle and upper classes to the dreadful phenomenon of unemployment and sheer destitution. In the busy crowds of daytime London, this phenomenon was less striking.[60]

Orwell, he remembers, admired George Gissing’s realistic novels and put him on to that poor man’s The Odd Women especially. (A Clergyman’s Daughter was beginning to stir in the writer’s mind.)

By October 1930 he had finished ‘A Scullion’s Diary’ and began or resumed work on Burmese Days. The original manuscript on Paris, which has not survived, was in the form of a diary and shorter than what we now know, only about 35,000 words. He submitted it to Jonathan Cape (whose chief reader at that time was Edward Garnett) and they told him that it was too short and fragmentary, so Blair set to work expanding it.[61] Perhaps the original was only about his time as plongeur and he added material on the inhabitants of the cheap hotel where he lived. In any case, he made the additions, and re-submitted;

but it was fumed down by Cape again. He must have put a lot of work into the revisions, for it did not go to a second publisher until 14 December 1931, when ‘A Scullion’s Diary’ appeared in Faber and Faber’s register. It is entered as rejected by 25 February 1932. Sir Richard Rees had commended it to T. S. Eliot but Eliot took the same view as Cape’s reader — though his letter did not close the door completely:

February 19th 1932
Eric Blair Esq.
Westminster Chambers
Westminster Bridge Road

Dear Mr Blair,

I am sorry to have kept your manuscript. We did find it of very great interest, but I regret to say that it does not appear to me possible as a publishing venture. It is decidedly too short, and particularly for a book of such length it seems to me too loosely constructed, as the French and English episodes fall into two parts with very little to connect them.

I should think, however, that you should have enough material from your experience to make a very interesting book on down-and-out life in England alone.

With many thanks for letting me see the manuscript.

I am,
Yours faithfully
T. S. Eliot[62]

None of the readers’ reports survive, nor internal memoranda at Cape’s, so it is not clear when the book became, in form at least, ‘comparative’, quite when the English material was added let alone expanded. The two sections do not, indeed, fit together as a narrative and neither is it all of a piece stylistically. The Paris half has passages both of purple literary Blair and of plain-style Orwell. The London passages both hang together better and are plain style throughout, hence probably written later. It obviously underwent great changes in the year or more between its first submission to Cape and its rejection by Eliot. But the version that earned Eliot’s pernickety rejection must have been substantially the same as that which Victor Gollancz so shrewdly was to accept.

Getting so near to acceptance, not once but twice, may account for his dejection. Otherwise it seems a bit arrogant or depressive virtually to abandon a manuscript after it had only been turned down twice — and by the two most distinguished literary publishers of the day. (When the same two firms did the same thing in 1944, Orwell just kept on trying with Animal Farm.) Did he send it to them out of confidence or naivete? He abandoned the manuscript, but fortunately at Mabel Fierz’s house, telling her to destroy it, to keep the paper clips, or do what she liked with it. She did. She bore it in person to a good literary agent, Leonard Moore of Christy and Moore, and seems to have fairly stood over him until he promised to read it. Moore cleverly saw that it would appeal to the new, radical and ambitious, somewhat brash and challenging house of Gollancz. This is to anticipate. What is interesting at this stage, however, is that his most sustained period of tramping, to and from the hopfields of Kent in August and September 1931, came after the submission of the Down and Out or ‘The Scullion’s Diary’ manuscript to Cape.[*] He did not tramp to Kent for the book.

The hop-picking trip, however, was not a sudden impulse. Some time in the summer, Blair wrote a letter to Brenda Salkeld to arrange a meeting — nominally a teasing, but perhaps a somewhat edgy, sarcastic letter:

I don’t know what condition I shall be in. I suppose you won’t object to a three day beard? I will promise to have no lice anyway. What fun if we could go hopping together. But I suppose your exaggerated fear of dirt would deter you. It is a great mistake to be too afraid of dirt.

Best Love,


He wrote to Dennis Collings from Mabel Fierz’s house on 16 August to tell him about a ghost he had seen in Walberswick churchyard (a figure that just disappeared — ‘presumably a hallucination’). He went on to say that ‘I haven’t anything of great interest to report yet about the Lower Classes’; but announced that he had made arrangements to go hop-picking. And a letter of 12 October contained ‘Hop-Picking’, an essay written in diary form, not published in his lifetime.[64]

He started off at Lew Levy’s kip in Westminster Bridge Road again. ‘It is exactly as it was three years ago, except that nearly all the beds are now a shilling instead of ninepence. This is due to interference by the LCC [London County Council] who have enacted (in the interests of hygiene, as usual) that beds in lodging houses must be further apart.’

The sturdy individualist favours the tramps against the municipal bureaucrats. Blair spent the next night with the ‘hundred to two hundred’ tramps and destitutes in Trafalgar Square. This becomes, with a simple change of sex, Dorothy’s foul ordeal in Chapter 3 of A Clergyman’s Daughter. He spent one night in another kip, a dirt-cheap sevenpenny one in Southwark, and there he met ‘young Ginger’, also bound for the hop-fields of Kent, and they worked and returned to London together. Ginger is plainly ‘Nobby’ of A Clergyman’s Daughter. The adventure began on 25 August. He and Ginger were several days on the road before beginning picking from 2 to 19 September. Blair noted that the pickers were of three types: East Enders (mostly costermongers) in families, having a working holiday, gipsies, and ‘itinerant agricultural workers with a sprinkling of tramps’. But he did not describe them much further, limiting most of his observations to the conditions of work as they affected himself and Ginger/Nobby. He did not mention or was not aware that 1931 was the worst year in memory for low prices, unemployment and bankruptcy in the hop-picking industry, exacerbated by ruinously bad weather.[65] His was a tramp’s eye view of’ ‘opping’. But he noted that being tramps they got a fair amount of sympathy, ‘especially among the fairly well-to-do people’. He told of a costermonger and his wife being like father and mother to him. ‘They were the kind of people who are generally drunk on Saturday nights and who tack a “fucking” on to every noun, yet I have never seen anything that exceeded their kindness and delicacy.’ For they offered him food which they pretended, not to make it seem like charity, would otherwise be thrown away.

Thus Blair had had some brief contact with the genuine working class, not just the eccentric sub-culture of the tramps. The image of ‘the proles’ had been born (also a Jack London word), even with their cheerful songs.

Our lousy hops!
Our lousy hops!
When the measurer he comes round.
Pick ‘em up, pick ‘em up off the ground!
When he comes to measure
He never knows where to stop;
Ay, ay, get in the bin
And take the fucking lot!

On 19 September Blair and Ginger headed back to London, having made twenty-six shillings for eighteen days’ work. Until 8 October he stopped in another of Lew Levy’s kips, that in Tooley Street. Several mornings he and Ginger earned a few more shillings by helping the porters at Billingsgate fish market; and he spent the rest of his time in Bermondsey Public Library writing up the narrative of his experiences. ‘The dormitory was ... disgusting, with the perpetual din of coughing and spitting — everyone in a lodging house has a chronic cough, no doubt from the foul air. I had got to write some articles, which could not be done in such surroundings, so I wrote home for money and took a room in Windsor Street near the Harrow Road.’

From Windsor Street, a poor street in West London, swept away by the bulldozers in the i96os, he resumed the literary life. Even before sending the manuscript of the book to T. S. Eliot at Faber’s, Blair had written two letters to Eliot ‘as Richard Rees tells me that he has spoken to you on my behalf, asking if he could translate a French novel for them, Jacques Roberti’s A la belle de nuit, the story of a prostitute. Not optimistic, Blair asked if they had any other French books to be translated: ‘I am anxious to get hold of some work of this kind.’[66] In fact he was becoming anxious to get work of almost any kind — compatible with getting some writing done.

‘Before poverty drove him to take a job, Blair made one last foray into the underworld. He tried to carry out the festive wish he had expressed to Jack Common on their first meeting: to spend Christmas in prison. A week or two before the Christmas of 1931 he went down the Mile End Road in East London one Saturday afternoon in his tramp’s clothing and with four or five shillings in his pocket. As soon as the pubs opened, he spent all but twopence on filling himself up with beer and whisky. The tall man was soon picked up by the police as he reeled along the pavements of Whitechapel, wide though they are — another ruined gentleman drowning his sorrows in drink. Getting arrested on a Saturday ensured spending Sunday in the crowded cell, observing and remembering, before being brought before the Bench on Monday. As ‘Edward Burton’ he was fined six shillings, which he could not pay (having been careful not to have money on him), so he settled down to enjoy a few sociologically interesting days ‘inside’. But to his great annoyance he was thrown out at the end of the afternoon. Whatever the beaks might say, the coppers plainly had a better use for their cell, or perhaps they saw that he was not, after all, their usual type of customer and suspected a spy from some philanthropic body. Not satisfied, Blair spent some money and headed for the Casual Ward or ‘Spike’ at Edmonton in North London. He reckoned that by turning up there when drunk and thus committing a specific offence under the Vagrancy Act he would get a more stern sentence. ‘The porter, however, treated me with great consideration, evidently feeling that a (ramp with enough money to buy drink ought to be respected.’

During the next few days Blair made several more attempts to get arrested, this time by begging under the noses of the police; ‘but I seemed to bear a charmed life — no one took any notice of me.’ Perhaps the spirit of Christmas had entered into the police. So, not wanting to do anything serious enough to lead to an inquiry into his identity, Blair gave up.[67] He never said how successful he was as a beggar. The tension must have been great. It was one thing to move among tramps as a ruined gent, quite another all on one’s own to have to wheedle food and small coins out of ordinary people in the street.

He never published his memoir on his brief imprisonment, except to take one image from it for the prison scene in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and then similarly in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a man defaecating in a small crowded cell into the WC, the flush of which did not work.[68] The stench symbolizes both despotism and degradation. The memoir reads like a companion piece to ‘The Spike’, which was then ready for publication. Perhaps some of the language was too strong, or perhaps the attitudes to the police coupled with the language put the fear of prosecution into Richard Rees. For instance, scrawled on the wall of the Black Maria was, Orwell reports, the couplet ‘Detective Smith knows how to gee, Tell him he’s a cunt from me’. (To gee is to be a stalking horse or agent provocateur, often in relation to sexual offences.)

From Windsor Street there was sent a would be comic, but in result a somewhat morbid and self-pitying, letter to Brenda Salkeld about the epitaphs in the vast Kensal Green Cemetery nearby: ‘The thought entered my mind that all those tombstones and epitaphs are, after all, a last attempt on the part of the corpse to get himself noticed.’[69]

Blair, with his money running out again, must have begun to feel that he was turning into a tombstone just sitting there writing and waiting. The last straw may have been when a ‘poisonous, but one must live’ new magazine. Modern Youth, for which he had had two short stories accepted, not merely failed either to appear or to pay up but had all its copy seized by the printers when their bill was not met. So he even lost the stories.[70] Mabel Fierz had already persuaded him to try an agent, and he realized in the new year of 1932 that something had to be done. He had seen enough of utter poverty to realize that to surrender to it would destroy him both as a man and as a writer. He had been close to the edge of the abyss. He had lived hard among the very poor and had morally identified himself with gaining understanding and justice for the underdog; but to surrender to any nascent death-wish or desire for secular martyrdom — there was a morbid streak in his character — would be both self-defeating and contrary to the common-sense streak that was also in his character. Besides, as a shrewd friend of later years judged: ‘His crucial experience... was his struggle to turn himself into a writer, one which led through long periods of poverty, failure and humiliation, and about which he has written almost nothing directly. The sweat and agony were less in the slum-life than in the effort to turn the experience into literature.’[71]

So he had to find a job. But it had to be a job that left some time for writing. The outcome, as for most other needy young writers, was almost inevitable: the bathos of private school-teaching. Mabel Fierz claims to have found him the job, probably through a scholastic agency. It was to give him a new model for autocracy; and to revive such memories of prep school.


1. His autobiographical note written for Stanley J. Kunitz and H. Haycraft (eds.), Twentieth Century Authors (W. H. Wilson, New York, 1942), reprinted in CE II, pp. 23-4.[back]

2. ‘Author’s Preface to the Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm’, written in 1947, reprinted and translated (the original English version no longer exists) in CE III, p. 402.[back]

3. Interview by the author with Ruth Fitter (tape-recorded) at Long Crendon, Bucks, 10 Nov. 1974.[back]

4. Interview by the author with Andrew Gow at Cambridge, 18 Dec. 1976.[back]

5. Jacintha Buddicom, Eric and Us (Leslie Frewin, London, 1974), p. 145.[back]

6. Letter of 15 Feb. 1949, in Buddicom, op. cit., p. 152.[back]

7. Ruth Fitter in BBC Overseas Service broadcast on 3 Jan. 1956 (script no. DOX 36610, BBC Archives). Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]

8. Interview by the author with Ruth Fitter (see note 3 above). Stansky and Abrahams had earlier interviewed her, so by the time I saw her she had read their account in The Unknown Orwell (Constable, London, 1972), pp. 183-90. She said that they wrote to her ‘that they had dolled it up a bit’. She objected to the impression they give that Orwell and she saw more of each other, were generally closer to each other, than in fact they were. ‘One doesn’t object to a man touching up his own story,’ she told me, ‘but one does object to historians or biographers, because it was so constantly done in the past. It is one of the few things we do better now. Only the truth is interesting, and a cosmetic biography is a very great pity.’[back]

9. Orwell Archive, Manuscripts and Typescripts.[back]

10. The Road to Wigan Pier, pp. 149-50.[back]

11. ibid., pp. 150-51.[back]

12. ibid., p. 151.[back]

13. ibid., p. 153.[back]

14. First published in the Adelphi, April 1931 and reprinted in CE I, pp. 36-43.[back]

15. Stansky and Abrahams, op. cit., p. 191.[back]

16. Philip Foner (ed.), Jack London, American Rebel: A Collection of His Social Writings ... (Citadel Press, New York, 1947), p. 372 (an extract from The People of the Abyss). And they both may have drawn from Robert Louis Stevenson’s chapter ‘Personal Experience and Review’ in his The Amateur Immigrant.[back]

17. Down and Out in Paris and London, p. 129.[back]

18. Ruth Fitter, BBC script (see note 7 above).[back]

19. Letter of 25 Nov. 1971 to Sonia Orwell from Groupe Hopitalier Cochin, Paris. Orwell Archive.[back]

20. CE I, pp. 113-14.[back]

21. The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 153 (my emphasis).[back]

22. CE II, p. 39; and Orwell also had ‘Gordon Comstock’ in Keep the Aspidistra Flying come across the book and ‘read about the starving carpenter who pawns everything but sticks to his aspidistra’ (p. 56).[back]

23. CE I, p. 114.[back]

24. CE III, p. 94.[back]

25. See Richard Mayne, ‘A Note on Orwell’s Paris’, in Miriam Gross (ed.), The World of George Orwell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1971), p. 41.[back]

26. Down and Out in Paris and London, p. 9.[back]

27. Interview with officers of the Esperanto Association, 140 Holland Park Avenue, London Wi i, June 1978.[back]

28. During the latter years of the war, see CE III, pp. 25, 85-6, and 210.[back]

29. ‘La Censure en Angleterre’, Le Monde, 6 Oct. 1928, p. 5. The original English no longer exists. This is rendered back from the French translation.[back]

30. CE I, pp. 14-15.[back]

31. Orwell Archive.[back]

32. CE I, pp. 36-43, and the letter to Plowman is in CE I, p. 15.[back]

33. Orwell Archive.[back]

34. Orwell Archive, Manuscripts and Typescripts.[back]

35. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, p. 44.[back]

36. CE IV, p. 274.[back]

37. ibid., p. 402.[back]

38. Letter from Ruth E. Graves of New York City to Eric Blair, 23 July 1949. Orwell Archive.[back]

39. Mabel Fierz speaking in a BBC television ‘Omnibus’ programme of 1970 on Orwell, ‘The Road to the Left’, produced by Melvyn Bragg (Post Production script No. 06349/1139, pp. 12-13, BBC Archives). Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]

40. Down and Out in Paris and London, pp. 15-16.[back]

41. CE I, p. 115.[back]

42. Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, Grace and Favour (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1961), p. 225.[back]

43. Interview by the author with Captain Maurice Peters, Dec. 1973.[back]

44. The Register of Faber and Faber notes ‘A Scullion’s Diary’ by E. Blair as received on 14 Dec. 1931 and rejected on 25 Feb. 1932. I am grateful to their archivist, Miss Constance Cruickshank, for this information.[back]

45. CE I, p. 19.[back]

46. From an unpublished TS. in the Jack Common Collection in the University of Newcastle Library. I am grateful to Mrs Common for permission to reproduce this and to Dr Eileen Aird of the English Department.[back]

47. loc. cit.[back]

48. loc. cit.; and both Richard Rees, George Orwell: Fugitive from the Camp of Victory (Secker & Warburg, London, 1961), and Rayner Heppenstall, Four Absentees (Barrie and Rockcliff, London, 1960) use the same phrase of Orwell.[back]

49. Letter ofEdouard Roditi to Sonia Orwell, u Nov. 1970. Orwell Archive, Papers of Sonia Orwell.[back]

50. Brenda Salkeld speaking in ‘George Orwell: A Programme of Recorded Reminiscences’, arranged and narrated by Rayner Heppenstall, recorded on 20 Aug. 1960 and first broadcast on 2 Nov. 1960 (BBC Archives, Ref. No. TLO 24177). Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]

51. The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 133.[back]

52. Interview with Humphrey Dakin by Ian Angus, 23-25 April 1965.[back]

53. Interview with Mrs Lucy Bestley, 13 Sept. 1976, and letters of Mrs Jane Morgan to author, 25 Sept. 1976 and 15 Jan. 1979.[back]

54. CE I, p. 92. Orwell says that ‘tapping’ means begging, so it does; but he is naive not to see the crude double-meaning in the song he quotes.[back]

55. From a letter of Jane Morgan to the author of 25 Sept. 1976.[back]

56. Humphrey Dakin interviewed and transcribed (though not broadcast) for Melvyn Bragg’s BBC ‘Omnibus’ programme of 1970 (roll 14/6; see note 39 above).[back]

57. ‘Through the Eyes of a Boy: An Impression of George Orwell’ by Professor R. S. Peters, a six-page script prepared for a BBC broadcast given on 9 Sept. 1955 (BBC Archives). The memories of Professor Peters and of Captain Peters appear to be identical; they certainly confirm each other’s accounts.[back]

58. See Mabel Fierz in Melvyn Bragg’s BBC ‘Omnibus’ programme (see note 39 above) and interviews by Ian Angus 3 Dec. 1963 and 7 Oct. 1967; and by this author 19 Jan. 1973.[back]

59. CE I, p. 33.[back]

60. Letter ofEdouard Roditi to Sonia Orwell (see note 49 above).[back]

61. Letter to Leonard Moore of 26 April 1932, CE I, p. 77.[back]

62. Orwell Archive.[back]

* It is extraordinary how many people know of Orwell’s hop-picking yet think that Dawn and Out contains an account of it, rather than part of A Clergyman’s Daughter and the essay or memoir on which part of it was based, but only published after his death (see The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. I, pp. 52-71).[back]

63. Letter in the possession of Brenda Salkeld.[back]

64. CE I, pp. 51-71.[back]

65. See Medway Fitzmoran (ed.), George Orwell in Kent: Hop-picking (Bridge Books, Wateringbury, Kent, 1970).[back]

66. CE I, pp. 72-3.[back]

67. See his essay ‘The Clink’, written in August 1932 but first published in CE I, pp. 86-94.[back]

68. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, p. 224, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 240.[back]

69. From an unpublished letter to Miss Brenda Salkeld, in her possession.[back]

70. Letter to Dennis Collings of 12 (?) Oct. 1931, CE I, p. 51.[back]

71. T. R. Fyvel, ‘A Case for George Orwell?’, Twentieth Century, Sept. 1956, pp. 257-8.[back]



The decision to seek a job did not mean that Eric was throwing in the sponge in the struggle to become a writer. It was a reasonable response to the realization that his book was not going to rescue him from poverty in time. How poor he was is shown by his move some time around Christmas 1931 from Windsor Street, Paddington, a poor but clean and decent lodging, to ‘Westminster Chambers, S.E.I’, slum properties on the wrong side of the river from Westminster. This was the model for the bug-ridden ‘frowsy attic’ in the ‘filthy kip’ by Lambeth Cut to which Gordon Comstock sinks in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

There it was that he received T. S. Eliot’s final letter of rejection from Faber’s on 19 February 1932. This must have plunged him into depths of Comstock-like dejection. The place, anyway, was too foul to work in. And he, unlike Gordon Comstock, had no ‘Rosemary’ to come down and drag him back by her pregnancy into a salutary or ironic compromise with ‘the money god’. Eleanor, by then torn between Dennis Collings and Blair, did not play that part. Perhaps he sat hoping that she would, but she did not. Eric had to and could save himself.

He made one more slightly ignominious retreat before taking up his teaching job, which was to begin after Easter. He went back up to Leeds to resume tap-tapping away with his welcoming and indulgent older sister, but also to endure his brother-in-law nagging away at him about the need to have some pride in himself and to get a proper job. The local branch librarian in Leeds remembered Blair, because he used the library a lot during this visit. The librarian recalled him as a ‘compelling personality’, though looking ‘thin and ill’, with nervous movements: ‘not... very communicative, and it seemed that he was, not exactly confused, but in the process of rearranging himself A librarian might draw a clear distinction between ‘rearranging’ and ‘restocking’. Eric used the library mostly to read newspapers and magazines, but he browsed among the fiction shelves. The librarian introduced him to Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and obtained for him Aldous Huxley’s recently published Brave New World. Blair advised the librarian to read Madame Bovary. He has not yet done so.[1]

On 26 April 1932, Blair wrote to Leonard Moore from The Hawthorns, Station Road, Hayes, Middlesex, where he was to teach until Christmas 1933. (The address changed after i July 1932 to Church Road, Hayes, but it is still the same comer house.) In this letter he gave an account of the misfortunes that had befallen ‘Days in London and Paris’; he asked Moore if by any chance he were to get it accepted to ‘please see that it is published pseudonymously, as I am not proud of it’; told him of a novel he had begun several months before, and ‘shall go on with next holidays’ (plainly Burmese Days), asked to exclude from their agreement any articles or book reviews, though he promised (or threatened) ‘a long poem describing a day in London which I am doing’; and sadly asked if he could get him any more translation work from the French — ‘I could also translate old French, at least anything since 1400 A.D.’[2] And he said he was very busy.

He was very busy. For he was ‘head master’ of the school, The Hawthorns, which consisted of fourteen or sixteen boys between the ages of 10 and 16. There was only one other master, also as new and as unqualified as Blair. Legends grow. A recent biographical study of Orwell rashly imagined a ‘prep school ... like St Cyprian’s in its academic objective — to prepare boys for public schools — though a day school and less grand in its social pretension’.[3] And a recent play inflates it still further into a boarding prep school complete with a Victorian Gothic chapel and masters sitting in book-lined studies.[4] In truth it was not preparatory but terminal: it took boys who had nowhere else to go, who could not get into grammar school and whose lower-middle-class parents could not afford even a minor public school, but whose concept of being middle class at all depended on keeping their children out of the local authority schools, however poor the local private school. The Hawthorns did not prepare the pupils for university matriculation but for the examination of the Senior College of-Preceptors (acceptable in commercial offices for salaried and pensionable clerical work). It was originally a pair of Edwardian small houses, The Briars and The Hawthorns. They were turned into one house during the First World War as The Rectory, but then became two again when the new Rectory was built: The Hawthorns became the school, ‘Hawthorns High School for Boys’, some six or seven rooms standing amid early nineteen-twenties, cruder, pseudo-Tudor ribbon-development houses. Two of the rooms were used for teaching and the rest for the family of the proprietor and Blair as head teacher and lodger. The proprietor, Mr Derek Eunson, was too uneducated to do the teaching himself but ran the school precariously as a small business and also had a job at the HMV gramophone factory. If Uxbridge, like Illyria, had been on the sea-coast, it would have been a cheap hotel, not a school. The previous head teacher had just been removed for some minor financial fraud. As one of the boys remembers, ‘the school was a proper hoodwink’. (When Orwell came to write about Dorothy’s school-teaching experience in A Clergyman’s Daughter, this became heightened into ‘the dirty swindle... called practical school-teaching’.)

He was certainly an odd fellow and one who lived almost entirely within himself. It was obvious that his head was full of interesting and amusing thoughts and not infrequently these would get the better of him and his face would be creased with irrepressible smiles. Rarely, however, did he reveal the details to those in his company.

He was a great nature lover and took delight in taking some of us lads (after school hours) to search for Puss Moth caterpillars eggs on the Black Poplar or to collect marsh gas from some stagnant pond. He taught me the rudiments of oil painting and gilding. In fact, he had wide interests which he delighted to share with anyone who cared ... He wrote a school play and produced it in full hand-made costume with modest success in a local Hall at the end of the school year.[5]

He remembered Blair’s ‘inward laughter’. Blair gave the boys a lot of his spare time. He mixed with them unselfconsciously. Mr Stevens recalls a remarkable man ‘who seemed to think of the boys as friends — when he was trying to get an answer out of someone he would poke him gently in the stomach with a ruler’. He kept a large stick by his desk which ‘he used fairly often’. Mr Stevens had a taste of it: ‘I couldn’t sit down afterwards and had bad bruises for a week. He really hit hard.’ If there was a sadistic streak in Blair, the cane was a very ordinary part of school life in those happy days. ‘Nobody bore any ill will,’ the pupil concluded. Blair once offered sixpence from his own pocket as a prize for anyone who could spot a ludicrous misspelling in a local laundry window. ‘He was always doing little things like that.’

Apart from Blair using the cane to keep the natives in order, the picture presented is much the same as that by the Peters brothers in Southwold: of a kindly man who shared his thoughts with the boys and, punishments apart, treated them more as equals than any adult they had known. Mr Stevens is emphatic in his memory that Blair told the proprietor’s son, who also attended the school, that he was working on a book about tramps and his experiences of being poor in Paris. This might have gone over well with the boys, but to admit that he had lived among tramps could have scared the parents greatly — particularly after what had happened to his predecessor (he must have known). Perhaps he was being naively honest, or perhaps it was part of the ‘inward laughter’ that he was imagining the parents weighing ‘tramp’ in the scales against the new head master being an ‘Old Etonian’, a Colleger too — if they could have understood such things. Etonians were rarely tramps.

The reference to working again on Down and Out dates and confirms Mr Stevens’ memory. Good news had come from Leonard Moore. Gollancz would publish it, subject to certain revisions being made.

Victor Gollancz had had an enthusiastic report from his reader, Gerald Gould:

This is an extraordinarily forceful and socially important document, and I think it most certainly ought to be published ... I know nothing about the author but I am absolutely convinced of his genuineness. Nobody could have made up the experiences which he describes. He may, of course, have embroidered a little here and there, but substantially this is a true picture of conditions which most people ignore and ought not to be allowed to ignore ... The picture is convincing and personally, although I found it utterly disgusting, as of course it is meant to be, I also found that it held my attention far more closely than the ordinary novel ...[6]

He warned strongly, however, about obscenity, blasphemy and libel. But Gould pointed to what would appeal to Gollancz: an important and genuine document that people should not be allowed to ignore.

Gould’s report is dated 16 June 1932. Gollancz wrote to his solicitor, Harold Rubinstein, the very next day. (Rubinstein was of the family firm that were to achieve such prominence in publishing law.)


My dear Harold,


This is an extraordinary and important book. It is also full of possibilities of libel, running to thousands of pounds. Do you see any way in which it can be made watertight from that point of view? The obscenity can, I think, be satisfactorily dealt with.

Yours ever,

Rubinstein responded quickly, full of sympathy with the book, but insisted that every name be changed and checked with the author, and that all f— blanks became simple blanks; and warned that even references to the filthiness of unnamed coffee-stalls and unspecified Salvation Army hostels could be perilous. Blair went to see Gollancz as soon as he had heard from his agent, Moore, and he ‘gave me a full account of the alterations he wants made in the book. Names are to be changed, swearwords etc, cut out.’[8] He got to work in his room at The Hawthorns on yet another, but now the last and minor, revision of the manuscript. He made no protest at the cuts and was thoroughly businesslike and practical in correspondence. Gollancz did not like ‘Days in London and Paris’ as a title. Blair wrote back to suggest ‘Lady Poverty’, and he added: ‘I think, if it is all the same to everybody I would prefer the book to be published pseudonymously. I have no reputation that is lost by doing this and if the book has any kind of success I can always use the same pseudonym again.’[9]

This seemed a sensible decision to make, and there is no great mystery associated with his change of name nor yet any change of style, belief or personality. He did not have much confidence in the book, the parts are, indeed, so much better than the whole; and he took this view of all his writings in the 1930s (except for Homage to Catalonia), and only Animal Farm ever lived up to his own high standards and intentions. While his parents had known about his tramping and knew vaguely what he was writing about, he could by using a pseudonym shield them somewhat if they found his book upsetting, or if it was denounced by the reviewers as scandalous. Knowing that his next book would be on Burma, the need to spare and protect the family was even greater. If the books failed, he could continue his literary career by still using ‘Eric Blair’ for the reviews and articles which were now appearing not only in the Adelphi but in the New English Weekly and the New Statesman and Nation too. Also he did not like his own name, particularly ‘Eric’. Certainly when the name ‘George Orwell’ began to be well known, it acted as a kind of ideal image to himself and he grew late in life towards a more balanced, integrated and yet public personality, somewhat different from the more contradictory and prickly young man. But though some critics have made much of his change of name, have implied a contemporary change of personality, and have pointed to ‘the deeper and less easily defined forces at work’,[10] there is no evidence at all for these psychological speculations and what cannot be ‘easily defined’ had best be ignored.

He told Moore and was to tell Eleanor Jacques that he ‘was not proud’ of the book; he probably felt that he had revised it too much so that the freshness and immediacy had been lost. Also he had hoped that his first major publication would be a novel: he was in two minds whether Down and Out was journalism or literature. It was long before he realized that his documentaries were better than most of his novels. Also Blair was uncertain where he stood, indeed uncertain whether to make a stand, and if so whether it should be politically, morally or aesthetically (he had still had a hope that he would turn out, after all, to be really a poet). The Adelphi was exposing him to new ideas and new uncertainties. Middleton Murry threshed around, looking for answers and redefining ‘the questions’ (relieved by now of editorial work by both the spasmodic energy and the steady cash of Sir Richard Rees). The librarian in Leeds had been shrewd to notice that ‘he was, not exactly confused, but in the process of rearranging himself. Acceptance of the manuscript did not lift a general cloud of gloomy conviction, such as diffused all of his novels, that he was bound to fail. He shared at least some of the thoughts of his future character, Gordon Comstock, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying who ‘liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal. That was where he wished to be, down in the ghost-kingdom, below ambition.’ This was not just simple pessimism; he genuinely valued art more than success.

An odd episode occurred in this rime of intellectual uncertainty while Blair was at The Hawthorns: he began to attend church. This may have been a false start at ‘rearranging himself or simply because, as he told Eleanor Jaques:

Hayes ... is one of the most godforsaken places I have ever struck. The population seems to be entirely nude up of clerks who frequent tin-roofed chapels on Sundays and for the rest bolt themselves within doors. My sole friend is the curate — High Anglican but not a creeping Jesus and a very good fellow. Of course it means that I have to go to Church, which is an arduous job here, as the service is so popish that I don’t know my way about it and feel an awful BF when I see everyone bowing and crossing themselves all around me and can’t follow suit.[11]

He makes a joke of it in his letters of June and July to Eleanor, who was firmly Humanist. These letters, though full and friendly, are signed, ‘Yours, Eric A. Blair’; and he keeps up the joke even in October, after the summer vacation in Southwold, when their relationship changed.

I take in the Church Times regularly now and like it more every week. I do so like to see that there is life in the old dog yet — I mean in the poor old C. of E. I shall have to go to Holy Communion soon, hypocritical tho’ it is, because my curate friend is bound to think it funny if I always go to Church but never communicate.[12]

But which friend was he deceiving? Or was he uncertain himself?

The curate’s widow, Mrs Madge Parker, remembered Blair well and was shocked at the idea that he was not in Communion. He served for her husband at Mass, as they firmly called it, twice a week. He attended Sunday services and on several occasions went ahead to prepare the sick to receive the sacraments.[13] Blair went fairly far if he was just obliging friends. He washed up after Church Guild meetings and often took tea or supper with them in their kitchen, helping with domestic tasks for the church, chopping wood and filling coal-buckets: ‘you know, the kind of person who fits into a kitchen and helps you with everything in your own house, didn’t stand on ceremony.’ She remembers him as giving a lot of time to the boys out of school hours, and Mr Stevens remembers Eric bringing church ornaments into school for them to paint and gild (which thus confirms Mrs Parker’s memory). Eric observed that the crown of the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was tarnished, sought permission and successfully cleaned her in onion water — which alarmed and impressed them. He gave Eleanor a much funnier version of the same story — also gilded: ‘promised to paint one of the church idols, a quite skittish-looking BVM ... and I shall try and make her look as much like one of the illustrations in La vie parisienne as possible.’[14]

Mrs Parker is indignant at the idea that he was not a genuine believer. She argues that her husband looked him over very carefully indeed (in view of what had happened to the previous head teacher — one of her sons had been a witness) when he tried to get the names of the local clergy back on the school prospectus. On the other hand, they had other concerns that drew them together. The Parkers had started in a working-class parish in Birmingham, and the curate was to spend the rest of his life in industrial chaplaincies. They were deeply concerned with the plight of the unemployed. The Hayes and Uxbridge area had exceptionally high unemployment in that bleakest of years. Blair asked them a lot about industrial conditions and told them a lot about his journeys among tramps and destitutes. Mrs Parker remembers that he made one short tramping trip while at Hayes. The three of them had seen and remembered the United Dairies pouring fresh milk down the drain because nobody could afford to buy it. If they were not fully socialists at that rime — her memory is uncertain — she is none the less sure that they were each to become so soon. And she and her husband were, like Eric himself, serious without being solemn: they kept in their garden ‘the Holy Goat’, which they taught Eric to milk.

All this could have been reason enough for friendship and therefore for his church attendance. Yet he contributed an unsigned review that June to New English Weekly on Karl Adam’s The Spirit of Catholicism, which he praised as being more informative than most English Catholic polemic, ‘free from silly-cleverness’, while he warns that the Catholic Church must be taken seriously, for its ‘dogmatic intolerance’ is a more proper target for anti-clerical feeling than ‘the poor, unoffending old Church of England’.

The reviewer is thus determined to show that there are good grounds to be anri-Cafholic, but also that he is fair to individual thoughtful, non-polemical Catholics. He is not anti-religious. He studiously reserves his own position. This may be a case of the dog that did not bark. In a letter he mocks a ‘moribund hag who stinks of mothballs and gin’ who has to be helped to the altar to take communion ‘lest the Devil should happen to slip in at some moment when she is in mortal sin’ (so close to Dorothy’s thoughts in A Clergyman’s Daughter); but in the same letter to Eleanor, one of the passionate phase, he says casually that he is ‘reading a book called Belief in God by Bishop Gore — late Bishop of Oxford, who confirmed me, and seemingly quite sound in doctrine tho’ an Anglican’.[15] Gore was a Christian Socialist.

A poem published in March 1933 in the Adelphi, though obviously written in 1932, wavers somewhere between the psychologically pessimistic and the existentially religious. The first two verses are conventionally Georgian both in tone and content:

Sometimes in the middle autumn days,
The windless days when the swallows have flown,
And the sere elms brood in the mist,
Each tree a being, rapt, alone,

I know, not as in barren thought,
But wordlessly, as the bones know,
What quenching of my brain, what numbness,
Wait in the dark grave where I go.

The third and fourth verses take on something of the tone and deeper sentiments of T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land, while the language is reminiscent of Anglican hymns:

And I see the people thronging the street,
The death-marked people, they and I
Goalless, rootless, like leaves drifting,
Blind to the earth and to the sky;

Nothing believing, nothing loving,
Not in joy nor in pain, not heeding the stream
Of precious life that flows within us,
But fighting, toiling as in a dream.

And the eighth and last verse:

So shall we in the rout of life
Some thought, some faith, some meaning save,
And speak it once before we go
In silence to the silent grave ...[16]

is indeed, enigmatic and ambivalent, ‘some faith’ but ‘a silent grave’.

Whatever was happening, or did not quite happen, none of these themes occur again explicitly anywhere else in his writings or letters. ‘George Orwell’ was to be a clear Humanist, even a Rationalist with a pronounced anti-Catholicism, even though one with an ironic attachment to the liturgy, the humane political compromises and the traditions of the Church of England.

Religion was not his main preoccupation that summer in Southwold. Dennis Collings, certainly Eric’s ‘best friend in Southwold’, best male friend that is, was courting Eleanor Jaques at the time, though working in Cambridge. The three of them often went walking together when at home. Brenda Salkeld occasionally joined them, though as Eric’s friend — she was not so close to the other two as they were to each other and to Eric. Some time that summer Eleanor and Eric grew very much closer.

36 High Street
18 August 1932

Dearest Eleanor,

Do not forget, Tuesday, 2.15 by Smith’s bookshop. And, as you love me, do not change your mind before then. If you are at church on Sunday, pray for good weather on Tuesday. If it does rain, can you meet me same time and place after all, and we will go somewhere or other. Till then, all my love,


p.s. Please send me a line to reassure me that you have not changed your mind.[17]

Eric was soon to enjoy what may have been his first serious affaire. It was not without its difficulties, geographical and economic as well as the need to avoid hurting his friend Dennis Collings.

Much of that summer he and Avril camped out together in Montague House, a property in the High Street that Ida Blair had just bought with a small family legacy on her mother’s death. Eric never called it ‘Montague House’, putting ‘36 High Street’ on his letters, unlike the rest of the family. His parents had let their old house in Queen Street to summer visitors and were staying with Marjorie. ‘Eric and I’ wrote Avril, ‘moved into Montague House ...’

It had very little furniture in it, because most of our furniture was in the other house. Eric was writing away hard all day, and I was out. I was at that time working in a tea-shop in the town and came back pretty late at night. For some unknown reason, we only had two electric-light bulbs. I don’t know why we didn’t buy any more, but we each had one, and we used to take them round from room to room plugging them in wherever we wanted them.

When he wasn’t writing, Eric was trying to distil some black treacle and water and make rum. He’d fermented this black treacle and water and was busily boiling it up in a kettle. Out of the spout of the kettle, or fixed on the spout of the kettle, there was yards and yards of rubber tubing, crisscrossed across the kitchen, slung up on chairs and draped over the sink. Every time you had to move from the gas-stove to a cupboard or to a table, it was a sort of hurdle. Eventually the stuff did come out distilled at the other end as pure alcohol. When we tasted it, it had the most frightful taste of rubber tubing.[18]

Even if his sense of propriety towards his parents’ property had allowed, he could hardly have enticed Eleanor into all that mess. And Avril would not have stood for it either, neighbours described her at this time as ‘a bitter pill’ (‘wickedly amusing at the expense of other people’). He had to conceal his brief love affair from his sister.

In September he was back at the school and Eleanor was in Southwold. He wrote to her in October that he was going up to town for a night or two to see how the sleepers on the embankment got on at that time of year. He mentioned the food riots in Lambeth, believing that some of his old friends would have been involved. Dennis Ceilings had asked him up to Cambridge for half-term, but he could not get away: he did not want to tell Dennis that there were ‘two or three people at Cambridge whom I’m not anxious to meet’. (More likely it was Dennis himself.) They exchanged gossip from Southwold: he ‘was sorry to hear about poor old Crick’, the proprietor of the local cinema at which Mr Richard Blair attended every new film — having run into some trouble over income tax — ‘another sign of the bad times of course.’ He recalled the summer: ‘It was so nice of you to say that you looked back to your days with me with pleasure. I hope you will let me make love to you again sometime, but if you don’t it doesn’t matter, I shall always be grateful to you for your kindness to me.’[19]

The tone is stilted and restrained, he was plainly not at ease writing about sexual and personal matters. The ‘doesn’t matter’ and ‘always be grateful’ can be read two ways: as either a kindly, decent fairness, or as conveying self-pity, perhaps even veiled reproach — as if to suggest that she thought he was not good enough for her and was only doing it out of kindness.

Their letters that autumn and into the next year are full of frustrated attempts to meet. They did meet in London for a matinee of Macbeth at the Old Vie. He hoped she would be able to get a job in London; she did; but Hayes was still fifteen miles from the centre of the city. ‘If we had even passable weather, how would it be to go out some Sunday into the country, where we could go out for a long walk and then have lunch in a pub? London is depressing when one has no money ... When we were together you didn’t say whether you were going to let me be your lover again. Of course you can’t if Dennis is in Southwold, but otherwise? You mustn’t if you don’t want to, but I hope you will. Write soon .. .’[20] He was plainly humiliated by his penury in trying to conduct a love affair over a long distance. But he pursued her even into December for a walk from Uxbridge and lunch at Denham in Buckinghamshire. ‘Letting you pay for my meals,’ Gordon Comstock was to exclaim. ‘A man pays for a woman, a woman doesn’t pay for a man.’[21] The planning and the topography in the letters are very close to that of the sad excursion in Keep the Aspidistra Flying when Gordon Comstock does succeed, more or less, in making love in the woods to his reluctant Rosemary, but then is caught out by the price of a set tea in a pretentious hotel and is humiliated by having to borrow the bus fare home. If these incidents in the novel came as close to what he actually did as the topography undoubtedly does to where he actually walked, they would have taken place the following summer. ‘I think it would be nicest if we went somewhere where there are woods, seeing what the weather is like, e.g. to Burnham Beeches,’ he wrote to Eleanor on 6 June 1933.[22]

School kept him busy. Successive letters tell the tale: ‘I have managed to put in an hour or two at my own work, also frantically busy with a play the boys are to act at the end of term ... I’ve done no other writing, except part of a mucky play the boys are to act later... Besides all the usual school work, I have had to write and produce a play — am now in the throes of rehearsing it — and what is worst of all, have had to make most of the suits of armour etc. for the boys to act in.’[23] He made them in the evenings out of glue and brown paper, just as the heroine of A Clergyman’s Daughter was to do. One of the young actors so liked the play that he preserved the script lovingly. It is a school play.


Scene: an inn near Worcester. It is the evening of the battle of Worcester, 1661 [sic]. Present in the Inn are the landlord, Mr Giles, the oldest inhabitant of the village, his granddaughter, Lucy, and George Burton, a labourer.

MR GILES (setting down his mug): You’ve been a-watering that beer again, landlord.


MR GILES It don’t taste as it did when I were a boy.

I mind the time, in good Queen Bess’s reign (a booming noise.

All except Mr G look towards the window).

BURTON Hark! Did you hear that? The guns!

A Mr Burton, it will be remembered, was last heard of being thrown out of Whitechapel Police Station despite his refusal to pay the six shilling fine for being drunk and disorderly. The play ends:

MESSENGER Sir! Sir! The king’s escaped!

His ship has left the harbour. They fired that shot as they crossed the bar. The soldiers arrived there just a minute too late.

CAPTAIN CHAMBERS Ten thousand curses ...

SIR JAMES DIGBY Good people all, this is a joyous time

When our good king, long in most dangerous plight
Is safe at sea and bound for friendly France.
We’ll honour it with song, and silver too
Sir Edward here and I will give you all
To drink good health unto his majesty.
Long may he Hourish, and soon come the day
When the usurper Cromwell ends his sway;
Peace, freedom and prosperity shall reign
When England has her own true king again!
Come, sir, if you’ve a song, let’s hear it.[24]

Private school teachers had to commit such jolly atrocities to keep their jobs. A Christmas play in the Church Hall was the school’s main public advertisement. If the school could not attract more boys, it would soon be done for. What is interesting, however, is that Blair took the Royalist side against, so the play implies, the miserable, narrow-minded, kill-joy, life-baring Puritans. That this was not tongue in cheek to please the royalism of the suburbs is suggested by Richard Peters’ memory that Blair told them that he would have favoured the Cavaliers against the Roundheads. In A Clergyman’s Daughter the school play also involves Charles II and Oliver Cromwell, who is made to sound ridiculous in the children’s words and accents. (‘ ’Alt! I ’old a pistol in my ‘and.’) On the edge of socialism though he was, there was still something to his joke — was it? — to the Adelphi staff that he was a ‘Tory anarchist’. Richard Rees was to use the phrase of him, and Orwell was to use it of Swift.

Private school teaching must have been a bit like life in the Burma Police: periods of taxing over-activity followed by spells of utter boredom and a constant doubt as to whether one was doing any good at all. In September Blair gave Brenda Salkeld a vivid description of the English Suburban Sunday entre deux guerres:

I am writing as I promised, but can’t guarantee an even coherent letter, for a female downstairs is making the house uninhabitable by playing hymn tunes on the piano, which, in combination with the rain outside and a dog yapping somewhere down the road, is rapidly qualifying me for the mental home.

I have spent a most dismal day, first in going to Church, then in reading the Sunday Times, which grows duller and duller, then in trying to write a poem which won’t go beyond the first stanza, then in reading through the rough draft of my novel [Burmese Days] which depresses me horribly. I really don’t know which is the more stinking, the Sunday Times or The Observer. I go from one to the other like an invalid turning from side to side in bed and getting no comfort whichever way he turns.[25]

Some things have changed very little.

Though publication of Down and Out was planned by Gollancz for the first week in January and proofs (needing a lot of correction, for libel was still worrying everyone concerned) reached Blair by mid-November, yet the title and the pseudonym were still not decided. Gollancz favoured ‘The Confessions of a Down and Out’, but Blair protested that ‘I don’t answer to the name of down and out, but I will let it go if he thinks seriously that it is a taking title.’[26] He favoured ‘The Confessions of a Dishwasher’. Very much as a compromise, Gollancz decided on ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, a decision made so late that the first edition was printed with ‘Confessions of a Down and Out’ as the running title on the pages. He let Blair retain a line from Chaucer as a legend: ‘O scathful harm, condition of poverte.’ ‘As to a pseudonym, a name I always use when tramping etc. is P. S. Burton,’[*] he wrote to Moore, ‘but if you don’t think this sounds a probable kind of name, what about Kenneth Miles, George Orwell, H. Lewis Allways. I rather favour George Orwell.’[27] And so did Victor Gollancz.

Thus was born ‘George Orwell’, luckily not ‘H. Lewis Allways’. The Orwell was a river that he knew and liked, the whole name had a manly, English, indeed country-sounding, ring to it with perhaps an under-current of industry in the buried ore. Certainly one of his characteristic themes became the price of progress: that the elimination of poverty can threaten nature and tradition. Be that as it may, he continued to review and write articles under his real name for two more years. To his old friends, he remained Eric Blair; but gradually he became ‘George Orwell’ and George to new friends. He didn’t reserve Orwell for a public face: he was happy to be George. Before long he was answering to both and signing himself by either name according to how he was addressed. But Eric Blair remained the name he used in all legal and domestic contexts — signing cheques, leases, contracts, and getting married.

____ § ____

Advance copies of Down and Out reached George Orwell three days before Christmas 1932. Somewhat naively he asked Moore ‘What does “a recommendation of the Book Society” on the cover mean?’ and humbly and unnecessarily asked that ‘one copy should be sent for review to the Adelphi? They know me and I write for them sometimes, so they would give it a sympathetic review, I expect.’[28] He carried copies with him up to Southwold where he had agreed to spend Christmas — rather than, as the year before, trying to get into prison. He met Eleanor Jaques at Liverpool Street Station to travel back together.

The book was published at 8s 6d on 9 January 1933 and got good notices. Orwell wrote to Moore and said he would leave one hundred pages of his novel (Burmese Days) in his office when on the way back to school from Southwold and added: ‘I have seen a number of notices about the other book, and they were very much better than I had expected, particularly those in the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail. I believe there was a good one in the Morning Post... No libel actions hitherto, I hope? The book was listed in this week’s Sunday Express among “best sellers of the week”. Does that mean anything definite. I suppose it will go some weeks before you can tell whether it is selling or not?’[29]

At first it looked hopeful. After a modest first printing of 1,500, there was a second impression of 500 that January, and then a further 1,000 printed, probably in February. But then it stuck. A similar thing happened with the American edition published by Harper Brothers in June: they printed 1,750 but by February 1934 had remaindered it, selling off the remaining 383 copies cheap. There was to be a French edition by Gallimard in 1935 (5,500 copies — not exhausted by 1953), and a Czech translation that same year.[30] Its great fame came only in 1940 when Penguin printed 55,000 sixpenny copies, classifying it both on the cover and in their trade list as ‘Fiction’. (No records survive either at Penguin Books or in Orwell’s papers that throw any light on this misclassification — for in subsequent reprints it appeared on the non-fiction list and in the non-fiction colours.)

Not too bad, in fact, for a first book. Gollancz must have hoped for better, but he realized that he had good growth stock on his hands if not an instant success. For though he made no attempt to cultivate Orwell personally as he tended to do his star authors, yet he kept pressing Moore for news of Orwell’s next writings.

The money problem was not solved. The most Orwell could have made out of the book, spread over two years, was between £150 and £200: not enough to give up ‘foul teaching’. Yet the notices heartened him. W. H. Davies, the poet and sometime tramp, said in the New Statesman and Nation for 18 March 1933: ‘This is the kind of book I like to read, where I get the truth in chapters of real life ... his book is packed with unique and strange information.’ C. Day Lewis, the poet soon to join the Communist Party, told readers of the Adelphi: ‘Orwell’s book is a tour of the underworld, conducted without hysteria or prejudice... a model of clarity and good sense... The facts he reveals should shake the complacence of twentieth century civilization, if anything could; they are “sensational”, yet presented without sensationalism’ (February 1933). The Manchester Guardian saw the moral aptness of the style. ‘M. H.’ commented: ‘He has ... so much to say in that quiet, level voice of his that he has written a book which might work a revolution in the minds of those who are totally unable to look on down-and-outs as other than something entirely unlike themselves’ (January 1933). The Times Literary Supplement thought well of it as ‘a vivid picture of an apparently mad world’.[31] The dust-jacket of the first American edition could quote J. B. Priestley saying: ‘Uncommonly good reading. An excellent book and a valuable social document’; and Compton Mackenzie wrote: ‘A clearly genuine human document which at the same time is written with so much simple force that in spite of the squalor and degradation thus unfolded, the result is curiously beautiful with the beauty of an accomplished etching on copper.’

Only the anonymous reviewer of the New English Weekly had doubts and wanted to know more about the author and if it all really happened to him: ‘This book ... is forcefully written and is very readable. Yet it fails to carry conviction. We wonder if the author was really down and out. Down certainly, but out?... A most interesting book, which does not, however, bear comparison with one or two recent publications of the same kind’ (16 February 1933).

The older generation at Southwold must have received the book with considerable reserve. A friend and neighbour remembers that Ida Blair was puzzled by it and said that it was not the Eric she knew. Richard and Ida Blair were glad that their son was writing under a pseudonym. They would have been still more grateful had they known about his novel on Burma. Avril remembered that ‘they were rather surprised at the outspokenness of the language’ but were ‘not in any way shocked’ (or if so, they did not show it, she probably meant). The Blairs were not a family to discuss such things. One suspects some careful understatement when she says:

In his relations with his family, my brother had always been detached and one almost might say impersonal. There was never any discussion of sex or his love affairs or anything of that nature at all. So when all those matters came out in his book, it almost seemed as if it had been written by a different person. Although there was this element of surprise about Down and Out when we read it, it didn’t mean that there was ever any estrangement in the family...[32]

His Southwold friends, Dennis, Eleanor and Brenda, however, were enthusiastic about the book, and Dennis even wanted to write to The Times when a hotelier ‘of forty years experience’ challenged Down and Oaf’s authenticity. Perhaps Eleanor restrained him. By now the triangle may have been vibrating somewhat.

Back in Hayes, Orwell wrote in triumph to Eleanor to say that Moore was ‘very pleased with the hundred pages of the novel I sent to him and harries me to get on with it’.[33] Years later he was to recall: ‘I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which words were used partly for the sake of their sound. And in fact my first completed novel, Burmese Days, which I wrote when I was thirty but projected much earlier, is rather that kind of book.’[34] He is too self-deprecating. Some have seen it as among his very best books. If the characters are two-dimensional, yet they are vivid portrayals of characteristic types and they carry the plot precisely and economically; the sense of time and place is profound and brooding, a rare sociological if not a psychological imagination is at work, and the descriptions of nature are magnificent in their own right and stand symbolically in contrast to both the frailty and the beastliness of man — imperial man at least — and to those he corrupts. But the writing did not come easily. He worked hard. By 7 July he wrote to Eleanor that ‘My novel will be about finished by the end of this term, but I don’t like large sections of it and am going to spend some months revising it ... God send I’ll be able to drop this foul teaching after next year.’[35]

Eleanor had left the job in London that had given them some chance of being together, and that spring and summer they seem to have had only one meeting and walk in the country, to Burnham Beeches. He told her that he was taking a new job at a similar school in the autumn, but that they wanted him to do some vacation teaching, so he would not be back for as long as usual in Southwold. By 30 July, ‘I have finished my novel, but there are wads of it that I simply hate, and am going to change.’[36]

What happened that summer in Southwold? Eric told his agent that he was only down for two or three weeks in August. If there were any more letters from him to Eleanor after July they have not survived; and none at all from her to him. All that is certain is that in August of the following year, the Southwold Recorder noted the engagement of Hubert Dennis Collings and Eleanor Violet Mary Jaques, and in September their marriage took place at Cambridge. The paper noted that Mr Collings would be leaving for an important post in Singapore (he had left his research post in Cambridge and joined the Colonial Office). How close the true relationship was between Eric and Eleanor is unclear. If she ever thought seriously of marrying him, did she reject the idea because he was poor and seldom with her, whereas her other suitor was closer to hand, and promised to be successful? There is now no way of telling. But two years later, when he came to write Keep the Aspidistra Flying, he was able to convey with extraordinary success the rage and self-pity of someone who thinks he is not able to pursue a normal courtship or love life because of lack of money. The hero’s degrading poverty and hopelessness as a breadwinner holds him back and nearly spoils everything — until the lady herself. Rosemary, intervenes, brushes him up, and drags him back into the world of commercial employment whether he likes it or not. If there was anything of Eleanor in Rosemary, as there was much of Eric or George in Gordon, she does not appear to have attempted any dragging, even if he did some wretched waiting.

Meanwhile another correspondence had increased in volume and intensity, that with Brenda Salkeld. The gym mistress and Eric became good friends in the early 1930s and remained in touch with each other all his life. The letters are deeply revealing about his literary tastes and development: that is the side of him that interested her. Nearly all his letters to her that survive are in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. Miss Salkeld has inadvertently created an unnecessary mystery about them since at her request they each appear labelled ‘extract’ and carry no salutations or farewells. In fact they are, apart from some trivialities, full texts, only the salutations are missing, which are mainly mild endearments of a kind common among good friends. A few are stronger but have no relation to the content of the letters themselves, and thus seem almost mocking in tone. Possibly he was a little importunate with her, but she would have nothing of him but friendship, so that he, occasionally, like many a lonely and sexually underemployed young man, tried to make her feel guilty and then rudely mocked her. Her letters to him do not survive, but their friendship did all their life.

She must have moved among Shavians, for he turned loose a fine polemic against’... any more of your friends who worship Bernard Shaw? Tell them that Shaw is Carlyle and water, that he ought to have been a Quaker (cocoa and commercial dishonesty), that he has squandered what talents he may have had back in the ‘80s ... that he suffers from an inferiority complex towards Shakespeare ...’ ‘Do you ever see the New English Weekly? he asked in another letter. ‘It is the leading Social Credit paper. As a monetary scheme Social Credit is probably sound, but its promoters seem to think that they are going to take the main weapon out of the hands of the governing classes without a fight, which is an illusion.’ And he went on to say that a few years ago he had thought it ‘rather fun’ to reflect that our civilization is doomed, but now it ‘fills me above all else with boredom to think of the horrors that will be happening within ten years’. It would either be ‘some appalling calamity, with revolution and famine’, he said, ‘or else all-round trustification and Fordificarion’ in the hands of the bankers.[37] (So Orwell can imagine such a stage towards Nineteen Eighty-Four long before he had read James Bumham’s Managerial Revolution.)

He had obviously been reading the New English Weekly very closely. It was the platform of those of Orage’s disciples who had stayed true to the relative sanity of his Social Credit period (under the influence of Major Douglas) before Orage had surrendered himself to slavery under the teacher and mystic, Gurdjieff.[38] Major Douglas was forever attacking ‘the trusts’. Dislike of big business was no monopoly of socialists. Ezra Pound, for instance, shared such views, as did American populists; and so did Tory anarchists, presumably.

‘Have you read Ulysses yet? It sums up better than any book I know the fearful despair that is almost normal in modern times. You get the same kind of things, though only just touched upon, in Eliot’s poems. With E, however, there is also a certain sniffish “I told you so” implication ... as the spoilt darling of the Church Times.’[39] He had managed to borrow a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses which was only published in Paris, and was being watched out for eagerly by those custodians of public morality. His Majesty’s Inspectors of Customs and Excise. And in December Eric wrote Brenda a huge letter, almost two thousand words, answering her ‘What do you think Joyce is after?’. It could have been printed almost as it stood, a highly perceptive and interesting piece of critical writing. The book moved him deeply.

[to answer your question] one has got to decide what a novel normally sets out to do. I should say that it sets out first... to display or create a character, secondly to make a kind of pattern or design which any good story contains, and, thirdly, if the novelist is up to it, to produce good writing which can exist almost as it were in vacuo and independent of subject... I think Ulysses follows this scheme fairly closely, but the queer and original thing about it is that instead of taking as his material the conventional and highly simplified version of life presented in most novels, Joyce attempts to present life more or less as it is lived. Of course he is not trying merely to represent life. When Ulysses first came out one heard it said on every side that it was an attempt to describe a day in somebody’s life, leaving nothing out, etc. etc. It is not that. If one thinks, a complete description of a day, or even of an hour, would be simply an enormous omnium gatherum, quite formless and probably not at all interesting, and in any case would not convey the impression of life at all. Art implies selection and there is as much selection in Ulysses as in Pride and Prejudice. Only Joyce is attempting to select and represent events and thoughts as they occur in life and not as they occur in fiction.[40]

Orwell shared Joyce’s scorn for those who write novels through reading other novels. He appreciated the formal structure of Ulysses more than most (many could not see it at all) and yet ‘quite apart from the different styles used to represent different manners of thought, the observation is in places marvellous.’ Some of the passages ‘have haunted me ever since reading them. If you read them aloud you will see that most of them are essentially verse.’

This Ulysses letter, while mainly it shows an enthusiast trying to define and convey his growing absorption in the mechanics and craft of fiction, yet also shows a potentiality for real critical ability — as came later in the great essays on Swift, Dickens and Henry Miller. But Ulysses proved nearly fatal to his own development as a novelist. Self-consciously and mechanically he wrote A Clergyman’s Daughter with ‘different styles used to represent different manners of thought’; and there are still elements of this, though less gross, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A year later he confided to Brenda:

I managed to get my copy of Ulysses through safely this time. I rather wish I had never read it. It gives me an inferiority complex. When I read a book like that and then come back to my own work, I feel like a eunuch who has taken a course in voice production ... but if you listen closely you can hear the good old squeak just the same as ever.[41]

The novel he was working on at that time which ‘instead of going forward goes backward with the most alarming speed’ was A Clergyman’s Daughter. Joyce stimulated Orwell as a critic but could have been disastrous to him as a writer, if his documentary plain style had not already emerged in Down and Out and was there to fall back upon, even to extend and still further purify.

That autumn of 1933 he had had a poem of real quality published in the Adelphi:

A dressed man and a naked man
Stood by the kip-house fire,
Watching the sooty cooking-pots
That bubble on the wire;
And bidding tanners up and down,
Bargaining for a deal,
Naked skin for empty skin
Clothes against a meal...[42]

The tale was as simple as the diction. The bargain is struck, the one gets the clothes, the other a meal, the positions are reversed; but the unstated implication is that both are still in a hopeless and pitiable condition. It is far better than the literary and contrived pessimism of the earlier, somewhat religious poem. The following April, the Adelphi printed another poem, which was to be included in The Best Poems of 1934, published by Jonathan Cape and selected by Thomas Moult. This was ‘On a Ruined Farm Near the His Master’s Voice Gramophone Factory’ (which was at Hayes). He contrasts the ruined countryside:

As I stand at the lichened gate
With warring worlds on either hand


The factory-towers, white and clear
Like distant, glittering cities seen From a ship’s rail...

and which seem to generate their own

Faith, and accepted destiny;
But none to me as I stand here
Between two countries, both-ways torn,
And moveless still, like Buridan’s donkey
Between the water and the corn.[43]

A close friend in 1945 was to talk affectionately, thinking of Benjamin in Animal Farm, of ‘donkey George’. He was already torn between what were to be important themes in The Road to Wigan Pier, Coming Up For Air and The Lion and the Unicorn: progress which could abolish the horrors of poverty and progress which could destroy traditional decencies of an England still close to the country-side — the machine versus nature. But we need both.

By early December he had retyped his revision of Burmese Days, after having lent most of the manuscript to Brenda Salkeld to read and comment upon. He had moved that September to Frays College, Harefield Road, Uxbridge, near to Hayes, a far larger and more respectable establishment with about one hundred and eighty pupils, thirty of whom were boarders. The Hawthorns had run into financial difficulties and the proprietor had sold the school to a somewhat larger local establishment, whose head master was soon afterwards arrested and served six years for indecent assault.

Fellow teachers at Frays remember him well. He was popular with the pupils and cordial enough but ‘somewhat aloof with his colleagues, though they remember his courage as a new master in persisting in smoking at the staff table, a practice frowned upon. He did not linger in the Common Room in the evenings but went to his room and typed solidly. H. S. K. Stapley, then a young master there, later to be head master, remembers that he brought a second-hand motor-bike which he rode on Sundays dressed only in his old sports coat and grey flannel trousers, no protective clothing whatever. On one ride in the middle of December he got caught in an icy rainstorm. He went down with a chill.[44]

He did not have to endure the new school long, for the chill developed into pneumonia and he was rushed into Uxbridge Cottage Hospital. For a few days there was real anxiety. ‘My mother was sent for,’ wrote Avril, ‘and I drove her down’:

He was very ill indeed, but the crisis had passed then, and he was re-covering. He was very worried about money, so the nurse told us. He’d been delirious, and he’d been talking the whole time about his money. We re-assured him that everything was all right, and he needn’t worry about money. It turned out that it wasn’t actually his situation in life as regards money that he was worrying about, but it was actual cash: he felt that he wanted cash sort of under his pillow.[45]

In his tramping days he must have slept with his money under his pillow. If you lost your last ten shillings in those circumstances you might be submerged for ever, not able to reach the next Spike or, in his case, get back to friends or home. However, worry over his actual situation, his miserable job and the disappointing sales of his book might have shown through when his guard was down.

He was still in hospital on 28 December when he wrote to thank Moore for several visits, and said that when he got out in about a week’s time, ‘I am going straight down to Southwold. Of course I can’t go back to school at the beginning of the term, so I am going to chuck teaching, at least for the while. It is perhaps rather imprudent, but my people are anxious that I should do so, as they are concerned about my health, and of course I shall be able to write my next novel in 6 months or so if I haven’t got to be teaching at the same time.’[46]

Hospital records of this stay have long been destroyed. One can only surmise that he brought the illness on by overwork, sitting upright typing for hour after hour into the night when already tired. Following the attack of pneumonia, did he perhaps suspect that he had tuberculosis, not simply occasional chronic bronchitis?

This return to Southwold may have been an easier one than his return from Burma. Home is, after all, where you try to be when you are ill. He had published a book, he was reviewing regularly, and having lived on his school master’s salary, still had some of the Down and Out advance and royalties. He wrote to Moore at the end of January 1934, ‘I am much stronger, and have begun doing a little work. By the way, I know that Harper’s owe me a few royalties — not much, I am afraid, but about £20 or £30. Do you think it would be possible to get anything out of them say next month? It doesn’t matter now, but I may be getting rather hard up in a month or two.’[47]

He seemed to get on better with his father, for they were often seen taking short walks together and working diligently but ineptly, by local working-class standards, on an allotment. What he grew on it, I don’t know, but he and Eric knew nothing about gardening. They were always coming across to borrow a rake or a shovel or ask what to do. They didn’t have a clue — and owning an allotment was an odd thing for a man in his walk of life to do, none of the other retired civil servants did.’ Such was the opinion of Mr Percy Girling, whose father owned a pub and rented the Blairs the allotment. When asked what he thought their ‘walk of life’ was, he replied: ‘They were people who had missed their way somewhere, they weren’t quite right, do you see? For instance, the allotment. And old man Blair looking so scruffy and lost. There was money there, there had been money there, you could tell from the furniture. Lovely carpets, good Georgian furniture. Lovely dining room they had. But they didn’t have enough money then ...’[48]

Perhaps the allotment was Eric’s idea, but it gave Mr Blair an additional interest to attending the cinema and his club, the Biythe Club, the gentlemen’s club, a cut above the Constitutional Club where those in trade gathered. Blair did not care for his wife’s bridge parties and whist drives which went on as regularly as before, earning her much affection and acquaintanceship, though the Blair parents do not seem to have made close friends in Southwold. Avril had gone into partnership with a local woman, whose mother ran a sweet shop, to run a ‘good class’, they said, tea-shop, inevitably called ‘The Copper Kettle’. Social paradoxes abounded. Orwell already wore his famous shaggy uniform of sports jacket and grey flannel trousers; but Mr Denny the local tailor remembers that ‘they were always beautifully cut and made to measure [by Mr Denny’s father]. He was a difficult man to fit off-the-peg, being tall and thin.’[49]

Yet there were tensions in Southwold. A neighbour remembers a ‘stand-up row’ between Humphrey Dakin and Ida Blair about Down and Out, Dakin roaring that Eric knew nothing about the working man, he knew far more and could get on better with them in any pub than Eric. Mrs Blair defended her tall son indignantly, but not perhaps very enthusiastically. What could she have cared whether he understood the working man or not? The neighbour thought that neither of the brothers-in-law were obvious candidates for possession of the common touch, although Eric was always courteous and gentle. She also remembers that some of Ida Blair’s friends at this time found Eric ‘very outré and were very condescending: “how terrible for Mrs Blair to have a son like that, he looks as though he never washes”.’[50] They would have been positively shocked had they known what he was working away at so hard: A Clergyman’s Daughter, and highly alarmed, especially as so many of them had connections in India, had they known what he had just completed and was trying, with little success, to get published: Burmese Days. As V. S. Pritchettwas to write long after-wards: ‘A scathing and vivid novel with the amusingly old-fashioned title of “Burmese Days”: many an Anglo-Indian must have thought it a collection out of Blackwood’s and must have had a shock when he read it.’ His description is hard to better:

His pictures of the white man have a contempt mingled with pity. On the other hand the Burmese are not pictured as saints. Orwell is in fact not the usual minority man who turns against the British Empire and who makes heroes of the oppressed simply because they are oppressed. Orwell is far subtler and far more honest than that. He is really an active moralist, a preacher who sees that oppression creates hypocrisy, and that hypocrisy corrupts. He scents the decay in civilization with an almost fanatical nose. He detests the decay yet he has too much detachment to be a fanatic. There is a note of flat tiredness too, a note of the wearied saint. This Burmese novel is written on the raw; its realm is as distinct as anything in Kipling or E. M. Forster. It used to be said after the fall of Singapore that the novels of Somerset Maugham had indirectly prophesied it; Orwell went further than Maugham; Orwell’s prophecy was savage and direct. And yet, all the time he is interested, more and more absorbed by the dejection of the life he describes. And he writes with a bitter humour and wit, punctuated by sudden bouts of sympathy and pity for the people he has attacked.[51]

Yet that glory was for later. At the time it was a case of:

12 February 1934

My dear Moore,


I have thought this over again, and I feel that I would really sooner not go further with it. I can’t face the sleepless nights.

Yours sincerely,
Victor Gollancz[52]

Gollancz must already have said ‘no’ once, for Orwell’s letter to Moore of 29 January expressed disappointment that Heinemann had turned it down also for fear of libel. The publishing houses moved quickly in those days, or perhaps that was what a good agent could do for a new writer: get a quick decision. Fortunately Eugene Saxton was in London then, the chief editor of Harper Brothers of New York. He saw Orwell and was impressed by the man and the manuscript, despite the disappointing sales of Down and Out in America. He proceeded cautiously, but after obtaining some alterations from Orwell, making the very real risk of libel less likely (it was, after all, a bitter attack on ‘fictional’ individuals, both Burmese and British, in a fully contemporary setting), Saxton agreed to publish it. The book appeared on 25 October in New York. ‘My novel is due to come out in New York tomorrow ...’, he wrote to Brenda Salkeld. ‘Please pray for its success, by which I mean not less than 4,000 copies. I understand that the prayers of clergyman’s daughters get special attention in heaven.’[53] The prayers of the rationalist, ex-clergyman’s daughter were not quite answered. Harper printed 2,000, there was a second printing (probably of fewer copies), and then it was remaindered in February 1935 with 976 copies unsold.[54] Once again, the sales were out of line with a respectable number of respectful critical notices. Publishing novels in the 1930s (as still today) was highly speculative, either they did well quickly or they were dropped at once, it was simply not worth carrying small stocks to sell in pennyweights over the years.

That same October, Orwell wrote to Moore, saying that he had met Jonathan Cape and had asked him to read Burmese Days when they got copies from Harper. He was not optimistic, he said, because Cape used the same solicitor as Gollancz. Nearly all of the publishers did, in fact, because Rubinstein’s judgement on libel was excellent, and successful actions could destroy publishers and authors alike, quite apart from the cost of litigation.[55] Gollancz, however, kept the book in mind. When he saw that no one from Burma had tried to make his fortune in the Manhattan courts at Harper’s expense, he wrote to Orwell again.

1 February 1935

Dear Mr Blair,

It occurs to me that it might be worth while to consider the Burmese novel exhaustively from the point of view of libel. We could take our time over it and it might be that the points could be cleared up. With this end in view, would you send me the typescript?

Yours sincerely,
Victor Gollancz[56]

By then Orwell no longer had a copy, so Moore had to send him the already amended American edition. This text was followed when the English edition appeared in June 1935, apart from still further changes in name. Lackersteen became Latimer, for instance — seemingly more dangerous as a more common name, unless Orwell had owned up to having an aunt called Limouzin; and all the Burmese and Indian names were mangled into nonsense: Gollancz’s fear seems to have been that some Babu, more than some Sahib, would pop up in London to take out a writ because his name had been ‘used, or so he would claim. The Penguin edition of 1944 still followed the American version and has become the established English text, since the original manuscript is lost.

Amid all these visions of gain and loss, he was still hard up. He made several more attempts to obtain translation work — all unsuccessful; and through Eugene Saxton he tried to interest Chatto and Windus in commissioning a short biography of Mark Twain. The paradox of the humorist who was also a bitter pessimist must have stirred a chord of empathy in Orwell — perhaps he saw Mark Twain as the Yankee Swift or hoped that ‘George Orwell’ could become the English Mark Twain.

Brenda Salkeld was teaching away from Southwold most of this rime, so meetings got fewer. His letters continued in the same fond vein, however: ‘How I wish you were here! I am so miserable, struggling in the entrails of that dreadful book and never getting any further, and loathing the sight of what I have done. Never start writing novels, if you wish to preserve your happiness.’[57]

Some time in August, Eric told her that as soon as he finished the present book, he was going to live in London. A friend had offered him part of a Hat in Bayswater, but it would ‘choke me to live in Bays-water’: he wanted to live ‘somewhere in the slums for choice’. She must have ticked him off smartly for ‘eating worms’, for in another letter he denied that he meant living in a slum, only in a slummy part; he did not like ‘respectable’ areas; ‘they make me sick.’ He was generally depressed:

I have practically no friends here now, because now that Dennis and Eleanor are married and Dennis has gone to Singapore, it has deprived me of two friends at a single stroke. Everything is going badly. My novel about Burma made me spew when I saw it in print, and I would have rewritten large chunks of it, only that costs money and means delay as well. As for the novel I am now completing, it makes me spew even worse, and yet there are some decent passages in it. I don’t know how it is, I can write decent passages but I can’t put them together ... I nearly died of cold the other day when bathing ...

This age makes me so sick that sometimes I am almost impelled to stop at a comer and start calling down curses from Heaven like Jeremiah or Ezra or somebody — ‘Woe upon thee, 0 Israel, for thy adulteries with the Egyptians’ etc etc. The hedgehogs keep coming into the house, and last night we found in the bathroom a little tiny hedgehog no bigger than an orange ...[58]

The image of Jeremiah caring for a baby hedgehog is characteristic and beautiful.

He professed to dislike London. Why he planned to go there is not clear. Probably he went mainly to get away from Southwold, but perhaps also because he thought he could get more reviewing work if he were on the spot. He may have wanted to see more of Richard Rees and the young writers whom Rees encouraged to drop in for tea round the gas fire in the Adelphi’s humble office, or whom he occasionally asked to his Hat in Chelsea.

He sent Moore the completed manuscript of A Clergyman’s Daughter on 3 October 1934 with the rather gloomy comment: ‘It was a good idea, but I am afraid I have made a muck of it — however, it is as good as I can do for the present. There are bits of it that I don’t dislike, but I am afraid it is very disconnected as a whole, and rather unreal.”[59] He told Brenda at the same time that he was only staying in Southwold long enough to rough out an idea for his next novel. So although a lot of the locale of Keep the Aspidistra Flying is Hampstead, the mood and themes surrounding Gordon (Jeremiah) Comstock (‘I don’t know — perhaps I’d sooner sink than rise’) must predate his next move. When Orwell wrote to Moore next, saying that he ‘knew there would be trouble’ over A Clergyman’s Daughter, the letter was dated 14 November 1934; and the address was 3 Warwick Mansions, Pond Street, Hampstead, London N.W.3 — above the bookshop where he had just found, or rather been found, a part-time job.[60]


1. Letter of Mr F. M. Gardner CBE, of Luton, to author of 26 Oct. 1972.[back]

2. CE I, pp. 77-8.[back]

3. Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, The Unknown Orwell (Constable, London, 1972), pp. 248-9. They even have him obtaining the job through Truman and Knightley Associates, the rivals to Gabbitas-Thring as employment agents for private schools. But it seems very unlikely that such an agency would deal with such a school. Bernard Bergonzi repeats this in good faith in his excellent Reading the Thirties (Macmillan, London, 1978), pp. 30-31, which shows how legends grow. In their second volume, Orwell: The Transformation (Constable, London, 1979), Stansky and Abrahams compound the error further. They have now identified the school as ‘Evelyn’s School’ (pp. 10-33 passim) and have Blair ‘coughing and hacking in the damp gloom of the Hawthorns’ (p. 22) which they call ‘that genteel rooming-house’ (p. 19). There was, indeed, an Evelyn’s School (a prep school complete with chapel, etc.) but it had closed by Sept. 1931, the year before Blair came to the area, to move and to amalgamate with Famborough School in Hampshire. Stansky and Abrahams have even conjured up a ‘poor Mr Evelyn’ (p. 32) and a ‘hapless Mr Evelyn’ (p. 33) telling his staff that the school was collapsing. But the school never had a head master of that name — its founder in 1872 was a G. T. Worsley, whose son was christened Evelyn and became head master, but was killed in France in 1916. (See Middlesex Advertiser and Gazette, n Sept. 1931, for a long retrospective article, ‘The Passing of Evelyns’.) I am indebted to Mr B. T. White, the chairman of the Hayes and Harlington Local History Society, and to Mary Pearce, the Local Studies Librarian at Uxbridge Library, for leading me to this information.[back]

4. Robert Holman’s Outside the Whale as performed at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, in 1976 and at the Bush Theatre, London, in 1978.[back]

5. Interview by the author with Mr Geoffrey W. Stevens of Hayes, Middlesex on 18 Dec. 1972.[back]

6. In the possession of Victor Gollancz Ltd, quoted by kind permission of Livia Gollancz.[back]

7. loc. cit.[back]

8. CE I, p. 84.[back]

9. ibid., pp. 84-5.[back]

10. Keith Alldritt, The Making of George Orwell (Edward Arnold, London, 1969), p. 55. See also, for the same thesis or concern, Stansky and Abrahams, The Unknown Orwell; John Atkins, George Orwell (Calder & Boyars, London, 1954); and T. R. Fyvel, ‘George Orwell and Eric Blair: Glimpses of a Dual Life’, Encounter, July 1959, and more speculatively in his contribution to the special number on Orwell in World Review, June 1950.[back]

11. CE I, p. 81.[back]

12. ibid., p. 103.[back]

13. Interview by the author and correspondence with Mrs Madge Parker of North Petherton, Somerset, in July 1975.[back]

14. CE I, p. 82.[back]

15. ibid., pp. 79-81, 101-2.[back]

16. ibid., p. 118.[back]

17. Orwell Archive.[back]

18. Avril Dunn, ‘My Brother, George Orwell’, Twentieth Century, March 1961, pp. 257-8.[back]

19. Orwell Archive. The two passages I quote are not in the shortened version of this letter in CE I, pp. 102-4.[back]

20. Orwell Archive. Most of this letter is reprinted in CE I, pp. 107-8, but not the last four sentences.[back]

21. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, p. 146.[back]

22. Unpublished letter of 6 June 1933. Orwell Archive.[back]

23. CE I, pp. 102, 103 and 105.[back]

24. Copy in Orwell Archive, Manuscripts and Typescripts. A copy of the play was preserved by Mr Geoffrey Stevens who was a pupil of Orwell’s and who acted in the play.[back]

25. CE I, p. 100.[back]

26. ibid., p. 105.[back]

* Not always, he had been ‘Edward Burton’ to the Whitechapel magistrates. (Some echo of Burton the explorer who went native to reach Mecca?)[back]

27. ibid., p. 106.[back]

28. ibid., p. 109.[back]

29. Unpublished letter of 17 Jan. 1933. Berg Collection, New York Public Library.[back]

30. I. R. Willison, ‘George Orwell: Some Materials for a Bibliography’, submitted to the School ofLibrarianship and Archives, University of London, for the Diploma in Librarianship (Part III), May 1953, pp. 1-5. Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]

31. These reviews are all from files in Orwell Archive.[back]

32. Avril Dunn, ‘My Brother, George Orwell’, Twentieth Century, March 1961, p. 258.[back]

33. Unpublished letter of 18 Feb. 1933. Orwell Archive.[back]

34. ‘Why I Write’, CE I, p. 3.[back]

35. CE I, p. 122. I have reversed the order of these two separate sentences.[back]

36. ibid., p. 123.[back]

37. ibid., pp. 119 and 120-21.[back]

38. See John Carswell, Lives and Letters (Faber and Faber, London, 1978) for a masterly study of Orage and his circle.[back]

39. CE I, p. 121.[back]

40. ibid., p. 126.[back]

41. ibid., p. 139.[back]

42. ibid., pp. 123-4.[back]

43. ibid., pp. 134-5.[back]

44. Author’s correspondence with Mr H. S. K. Stapley in Jan. 1973; and see Stansky and Abrahams, Orwell: The Transformation, pp. 34-8. After reading their fuller account, from which I draw in the above paragraph, I regret not having interviewed Mr Stapley back then, as they did. The school is now closed and he cannot be traced to comment on the accuracy of our accounts. But this time they have got the right school and produced some interesting evidence.[back]

45. Avril Dunn, ‘My Brother, George Orwell’, Twentieth Century, March 1961, p. 257.[back]

46. CE I, p.129.[back]

47. ibid., p. 133.[back]

48. Interview by Audrey Coppard with Mr Percy Girling, Southwold, 27 Dec. 1974.[back]

49. Interview by Audrey Coppard with Mr Denny, Southwold, 28 Dec. 1974.[back]

50. Interview by Ian Angus with Mrs Vera Buckler, Southwold, 28 June 1965.[back]

51. V. S. Pritchett on ‘George Orwell’, in Gilbert Phelps (ed.), Living Writers: Being Critical Studies Broadcast in the BBC Third Programme (Sylvan Press, London, 1949), p. 109.[back]

52. In the possession of Victor Gollancz Ltd, quoted by kind permission of Livia Gollancz.[back]

53. From an unpublished letter to Brenda Salkeld, undated, headed ‘Tuesday night’, probably 20 Oct. 1934. Orwell Archive (under seal).[back]

54. I. R. Willison, op. cit., p. 7.[back]

55. Letter of 25 Sept. 1934 in Berg Collection, New York Public Library.[back]

56. In the possession of Victor Gollancz Ltd.[back]

57. CE I, p. 136.[back]

58. ibid., pp. 137-40, a conflation of two letters.[back]

59. ibid., p. 141.[back]

60. ibid., p. 142.[back]



Booklovers’ corner was owned by Francis and Myfanwy Westrope. It is now the Prompt Comer, a chess players’ cafe on the comer of South End Green, Hampstead, but it remained a bookshop until the mid-1950s. South End Green marks the beginning of Hampstead ‘proper’ when approached up the hill from Kentish Town, a working-class and heavily Irish district. It was social borderland (and boarderland). In Orwell’s day a tram route from the City brought crowds up to the famous Hampstead Heath fairs on Bank Holidays, and brought East Enders for Sunday outings. Hampstead was, and is, a place for intellectuals (both real and pretend) to live; and in the 1930S there were still many houses with cheap bedsitters, a favourite area for young writers and artists on the make or on the mend, as well as for the established who could afford small Georgian or ample Victorian houses.

Hampstead and Chelsea were thought to be, indeed to a large extent were, London’s artistic inner suburbs, only yielding intellectual precedence to Bloomsbury. Unlike Bloomsbury, however, Hampstead possessed a broad middle class, less extreme in its social divisions than upper-middle-class true Bloomsbury and declasse sub-Bloomsbury. Booklovers’ Comer sold a range of second-hand books that reflected the broader Hampstead range, and matched the description in the opening pages of Keep the Aspidistra Flying: ‘There were high brow, middle brow and low brow books, new and second-hand all jostling together, as befitted this intellectual and social borderland.’ I bought books there as a student just after the War and it was still just such an extraordinary diversity. Gordon’s caustic comments on the merits of the types of books, authors and customers may be taken as Orwell’s satiric exaggeration of his own general attitude to contemporary writing: ‘dead stars above, damp squibs below. Shall we ever again get a writer worth reading?’ Lawrence was ‘all right’, and Joyce ‘even better before he went off his coconut’.[1] Above all he railed at the ‘snooty, refined books ... by those moneyed young beasts who slide so gracefully from Eton to Cambridge and from Cambridge to the literary reviews’.[2] ‘Beasts’ and ‘beastly’ are somewhat overworked words by Orwell at this time.

The bookshop fortified Orwell’s interest in popular culture. Even though Gordon Comstock mocks, George had read and understood emphatically a good deal more of the sources of popular taste than most other intellectuals. So many seemed over-concerned to break with the past, whether seen as the English literary heritage or their own youthful readings, whereas Orwell liked the best of both worlds, Dickens and Wells as well as Joyce and Miller. His main motive, however, in coming to London, to which he was not particularly attached, must have been to enjoy the company of other writers, perhaps of intellectuals generally. He had been through a long period of isolation, thinking a great deal but rarely discussing books and ideas; indeed, there had been few literary friends in his life since his school-days, apart from walks, talks and letters with Eleanor Jaques and Brenda Salkeld. Neither as Blair nor even as Orwell did he like to talk about his current writing. He believed that those who talked about their writing rarely wrote, but in this period in his life he showed the need to talk about other related problems, literary, social or political; and Hampstead was a good place to meet young writers and radicals with whom he could argue as an equal.

Orwell did see more of Richard Rees and others of the Adelphi circle. Rees became deeply fond of Orwell. Just before he died, Rees told Melvyn Bragg that he respected Orwell as a writer for not being ‘trendy’ or for trying to be ‘with it’ (Rees kept up with new idioms to the last). He was always reliable in a good old-fashioned way, both as a friend and as a contributor.[3] Rees had already noted sadly that there were ‘Left Intellectuals who criticized the Adelphi for its “rotten Liberal reformism” or its “muddleheaded mystical idealism” ...’ and that ‘apart from George Orwell’ he had met very few ‘literary equalitarian of whom it is quite certain that their equalitarianism is even, in the ordinary and simple sense of the word, sincere’. Orwell, Rees asserted, ‘had an essentially simple mind ... and was only able to see one point at a time.’[4] If that was so, it had been a rare quality indeed in the kaleidoscopic world ofMiddleton Murry and Rees in the Adelphi days. But perhaps Orwell’s mind was neither so simple nor so uncritically friendly, if we assume that ‘Ravelston’ in Keep the Aspidistra Flying is even in part modelled on Sir Richard Rees. Ravelston, the rich socialist editor, masochisrically enjoys guilt feelings about the un-employed as he tucks into a thick and bloody steak:

Ravelston lived on the first floor and the editorial offices of Antichrist were downstairs. Antichrist was a middle-to-high-brow monthly, Socialist in a vehement but ill-defined way. In general, it gave the impression of being edited by an ardent Nonconformist who had transferred his allegiance from God to Marx, and in doing so had got mixed up with a gang of vers libre poets. This was not really Ravelston’s character; merely he was softer-hearted than an editor ought to be, and consequently was at the mercy of his contributors. Practically anything got printed in Antichrist if Ravelston suspected that its author was starving.[5]

If Rees recognized himself in this, he may have blushed a little, but he took no offence. Perhaps in his good Christian heart he expected each fallen mouth he fed to bite his hand a little, and he not merely forgave them but revelled in their independence and, occasionally, success. Others were to say that Orwell was equally soft-hearted when he became literary editor of Tribune.

Orwell developed circles of his own in Hampstead partly through the bookshop and partly through Mabel Fierz. Though he made it out to be extravagantly boring, even a bit shoddy and dishonest, his job in fact interested him; and into the shop came some genuinely interesting people, not just as Comstock declaims ‘poseurs, bores and lunatics’.[6] Over cups of strong tea, poor coffee or mugs of bottled beer, he would sit with his friends in their rented rooms (he never entertained himself at the Westropes’), talking things over, setting the world aright and damning fashionable reputations. Almost all these friends were younger men, for his years in Burma had made him at 31 older than most of those beginning to make their way as writers.

With the fine scorn of the unpublished, Gordon knocked down reputation after reputation. Shaw, Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Huxley, Lewis, Hemingway — each with a careless phrase or two was shovelled into the dustbin.’[7] Either Gordon or George was not wholly consistent about Joyce. Edwin Muir, the Scots poet, who lived in Downshire Hill, described in his autobiography this time as when ‘Hampstead was filled with writing people and haunted by young poets despairing over the poor and the world, but despairing together, in a sad but comforting communion’.[8] Orwell was about ready for this limited form of sociability.

For his first six months in Hampstead, Orwell lived in the Westropes’ own flat in Warwick Mansions, above the bookshop. Jon Kimche (later to become editor of Tribune, then of the Jewish Observer and Middle East Review) also lodged in the same flat, where he had arrived a month or two before Orwell to work in the shop during the mornings in return, like Orwell, for a rent-free room. So Orwell had the mornings and evenings to write, serving in the shop for the afternoon. He occasionally went out to buy books for the proprietor from private houses, so he must have shown some aptitude in the trade beyond a love of books.

Orwell wrote to Brenda Salkeld about his ‘employer’s wife’ being ill (though according to Kimche it was her husband who was ailing)[9] but he comments quite favourably other that:

My present landlady is the non-interfering sort, which is so rare among London landladies. When I came she asked me what I particularly wanted, and I said ‘The thing I most want is freedom’. So she said, ‘Do you want to have women up here all night?’ I said, ‘No,’ of course, whereat she said, ‘I only meant that I didn’t mind whether you do or not.’[10]

Apart from being a motherly, pleasant and helpful type, his ‘employer’s wife’ may well have been so indulgent since she was, in fact, a good friend of his Aunt Nellie Limouzin who had written to her on 23 September 1934 from Paris:

I had a letter from Eric yesterday ... He intends finishing his third novel [sic] by the end of this month and will then go up to London and ‘stay some months’. I shall give him your address and hope you will be able to see him. I shall advise him to write to you first, for no doubt you are both very busy with the shop, the house and I L P work. He may possibly be staying in Golders Green for I know he has a friend there, and, if so, would be ‘contagious’ to you.[11]

Kimche knew the Westropes through their activities in the Independent Labour Party (Left-wing, egalitarian, a strange English mixture of secularized evangelism and non-Communist Marxism) and assumed that Orwell had met them by the same route. Even though they lived in the same house and talked to each other a lot, Kimche did not know that Orwell had met the Westropes through a family connection rather than through I L P meetings at the Conway Hall. And Orwell did not tell Brenda Salkeld either. She can only remember him grumbling, when they met either at Southwold one weekend or in London some time that year, about ‘his remote and gradgrind employers’ — rather as Comstock does in the novel. When in an essay the following year he actually referred to ‘my employer’s kindness to me’, he still said ‘employer’, not ‘friend’.

Orwell did like to keep his small worlds apart. Perhaps in his distortion of the kindly, unworldly and basically poor Westropes, he was trying to act out the hero (or the anti-hero) of his coming novel, suppressing the more benign and mundane real world. Gordon Comstock’s life in the bookshop is an imaginative projection of what things could have been if Orwell had had no friends or had not, at last, got his first two books published and a third in the press. If the physical descriptions both of people and places in Keep the Aspidistra Flying are transparently Hampstead (Willowbed Road for Willoughby Road and Coleridge Grove for Keats Grove, for instance), most of the acute sense of personal failure and pessimism that permeates the novel must refer back to the four or five previous years of Orwell’s life.

The first effect of poverty is that it kills thought. He grasped, as though it were a new discovery, that you do not escape from money merely by being moneyless, [p. 63]

Life on two quid a week ceases to be a heroic gesture and becomes a dingy habit. Failure is as great a swindle as success, [p. 72]

For the rest, in two whole years he had produced nothing except a handful of short poems — perhaps a score in all. It was so rarely that he could attain the peace of mind in which poetry, or prose for that matter, has got to be written. The times when he ‘could not’ work grew commoner and commoner. Of all types of human being, only the artist takes it upon him to say that he ‘cannot’ work. But it is quite true; there are times when one cannot work. [p. 41]

Gordon Comstock’s character, vivid though it is and one of the best, Angry Young Men in English literature before John Osbome’s Jimmy Porter, yet exhibits somewhat contradictory traits: many of his diatribes seem intended to satirize self-pity, but others show the author’s own lingering self-pity. A gloomy man mocks a morbid man. By 1935 Orwell had achieved enough success, self-confidence and hope of living decently by his pen to be ironical about Gordon and his old self, but had not distanced himself enough to take out all auto-biography.

The Westropes’ precise political orientation is highly significant and was concealed equally from old and later friends by Orwell. For dramatic effect, as has been shown already, he talked in both The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia as if he entered the socialist camp, and in the particular Left-wing but anti-Communist way he did, as a direct and immediate consequence of the events he describes. In fact, without committing himself, he had been brooding over such a socialism for a long time. Almost certainly the Westropes and their friends influenced him politically, just as it is certain that he found it congenial to work for people whose political convictions he was coming to share. Kimche does not remember him as talking much about politics then, except that he held forth a great deal about the iniquities of the Roman Catholic Church; he thought of him ‘as a kind of intellectual anarchist’. Orwell’s individualism, his ‘Tory anarchism’, would not allow him to come near the organized Communist Party; the Labour Party would have appeared in those days of the National Government as both discredited and too milk and water; but he knew a lot more about Marxism than readers of the second section of The Road to Wigan Pier might suppose — the I L P Marxists whom he met in Spain all agree on that. Perhaps St Paul had for a long time been ambivalent and broodingly tortured about Christianity but had found his final commitment both easier to explain and more convincing to others if he expressed it in terms of sudden illumination on the road to Damascus.

Mary Myfanwy Westrope had been a member of the I L P since 1905 and by 1935 was a veteran of the women’s rights movement. It seems her pacifism kept her out of the militant Pankhurst suffragettes. Francis Westrope was imprisoned as a conscientious objector in the First World War, where he met the pianist Frank Merrick and Fenner Brockway. Merrick says that Westrope and he became interested in Esperanto by accident while in prison: a grammar was the only mind-stretching book available, apart from theological works. Perhaps there was some accident about Westrope’s interest, but Esperanto had an ideology of brotherhood of man and international fraternity about it that must have appealed: the tower of Babel, not Mammon or Eve’s apple, was to him the primal curse. Given one language, there would be perpetual peace. But the Esperantist cause was nothing if not eclectic and ecumenical: it could sail alongside or take up on board many another great cause or small crankery — including vegetarianism in the Westropes’ case. Esperanto led them to meet Nellie Limouzin and Eugene Adam. Like Adam, Myfanwy Westrope had visited the Soviet Union (in 1931), and she too had returned profoundly disillusioned, not with socialism but with what she saw there. She plunged into I L P activity even more heartily on her return.[12]

The I L P was a striking mixture of optimism and pessimism, of heavens and of hells. Domestically, the capitalist system was breaking down, a revolution would occur — it need not be forced — but it would be resisted by counter-revolutionary forces, so these forces had to be anticipated. However, the socialist movement must maintain both internal party democracy and extend to all, not destroy, what the Communist Party called ‘mere bourgeois liberty’. The I L P was divided on the Hitler question, whether he was a witness to the last days and death-throes of capitalism or a new autonomous force to be actively resisted by arms. But internationally, most of the I L P saw war as both imminent and as a purely nationalist, capitalist occurrence, a phenomenon of the final era of a capitalism tearing itself apart. This would provoke, after terrible devastation, an international general strike of working men. And in all this, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its affiliates had become little better than the new Fascist regimes: an historically specific form of state monopoly capitalism. While not strictly pacifist, the I L P’s anti-militarism made working alliances with pacifists easy; and while declaring itself revolutionary, the I L P appealed to Left-wing activists in the existing British Labour movement, still picking itself up slowly after its betrayal by Ramsay MacDonald.

The ‘friend in Golders Green’ referred to in Nellie Limouzin’s letter was of course Mabel Fierz, who herself knew the Westropes. So twice in his early career Orwell was exposed to broadly the same range of ideas that he was to meet, but much more vividly, among the Spanish socialists and anarchists; and exposed indeed to the same association of socialism and assorted crankeries that he was to attack in The Road to Wigan Pier. To Brenda Salkeld, if not to Mabel Fierz, he was keeping up his pose of’Tory anarchist’ as late as May 1935, when he told her that he had called on Richard Rees to borrow money, having forgotten it was a Bank Holiday:’... but he was at some sort of Socialist meeting and they asked me in and I spent three hours with seven or. eight socialists harrying me, including a South Wales miner who told me — quite good-naturedly — that if he were dictator, he, would have me shot immediately.’[13] All that can be certain is his proximity at that time to Left-wing socialist ideas, but not yet his full commitment. Mosley’s Blackshirts were also very active on the periphery of Hampstead and could have been a powerful negative influence in putting him on the road to Catalonia.

If the political Orwell is beginning to emerge, the literary Orwell was enduring typical difficulties. Gollancz was driven to commission three lengthy opinions. A Clergyman’s Daughter was a curate’s egg — everyone who read it agreed that it was ‘good in parts’. Gerald Gould, his chief reader (and a regular novel reviewer for the Observer), said that it was ‘an extraordinary book’, was ‘very original’, and ‘on literary merit I think it certainly ought to be published’; but drew attention to ‘snags and difficulties’. These included, again, the fear of libel, since ‘the author is so particular and exact in his geographical indications’. The terrible school where Dorothy teaches is said, for instance, to be ‘at Southbridge, about twelve miles from London’ (as is Uxbridge where Blair had taught). This fear of libel is a good measure of how autobiographical readers assumed the book to be. Despite that, however, Gould found the school-teaching scenes completely implausible and ‘quite ludicrous as a representation of what could possibly go on today’ (which Orwell was firmly to deny — indeed to show a sardonic delight in the fact that Gollancz and his advisers found it implausible). Gould thought the night scene in Trafalgar Square, when Dorothy loses her memory among tramps, ‘extremely powerful’ and ‘a mixture of James Joyce in the ULYSSES period and O’Casey in his latest mood’. But he saw its ‘change of mood and manner’ as ‘a distinct artistic mistake’.

As usual, Gollancz’s solicitor, Harold Rubinstein, to whom it was sent straight away, gave more than legal advice. The difficulties of libel raised by Gould could, he thought, be quite easily overcome; but not those of structure. He said that the book fell into five distinct and far too loosely related sections: (a) Dorothy’s life as a drudge for the church and housekeeper for her bigoted and incompetent father; (b) her life as a hop-picker when her memory fails and, following the attempted seduction by the literary gentleman, she runs away; (c) her night in Trafalgar Square with the tramps and down-and-outs; (d) her life as a schoolmistress under the ignorant and despotic proprietor; and (e) her return, somehow defeated, somehow resolute, to the routines of the old parish life. Rubinstein briskly called the first section ‘good’, the second ‘much better’, the third ‘magnificent’, the fourth ‘puerile’ and the fifth ‘unconvincing’. He concluded that the ‘fine qualities’ of the book would be hopelessly prejudiced if it went out without drastic revision.

Gollancz was in a quandary. He had great faith in Orwell, perhaps not in A Clergyman’s Daughter, but then a publisher has to keep a new author going, setting his sights on future successes so long as actual loss can be avoided in the present. So he asked for a formal opinion from Norman Collins, his young fellow-director. Collins wrote to him on New Year’s Day 1935 to say that it was in many ways the oddest manuscript he had ever read. He agreed wholeheartedly with the solicitor’s excellent literary criticism, saw that drastic changes to the structure would improve it, possibly it should be three different books rather than one. But how would the author react?

His reply to such suggestions would, I am convinced, be precisely what O’Casey’s reply was to the Abbey Theatre when they turned down his play — and that was a perfectly plain and unequivocal ‘Go to hell’. I think then that it is up to us to publish the book, making a ballyhoo of the fact that in many respects this is perhaps the most remarkable novel that we have ever published, etc, etc.

I know nothing of Orwell, but it is perfectly clear (to adopt a convenient phraseology) that he has been through hell, and that he is probably still there. He would certainly be a plum for a practising psycho-analyst. There is in his work, either latent or fully revealed, almost every one of the major aberrations ... The whole of this report adds up to this, I should certainly publish it as it stands rather than let it go, but I would certainly put it up to the author that he makes the sort of alterations which I have suggested ... rather than publish in its present form.[14]

However, Gollancz meanwhile made up his mind to publish with only minor revisions, perhaps fearing that Orwell would prove as difficult as O’Casey.[*] But Orwell, in a letter to Moore six weeks before Collins wrote his report, had already said that he would be willing to do ‘a little toning down’ of the school scene to meet Gollancz’s incredulity; and he had assured him that questions of libel and obscenity were but ‘a small matter’ to be put right ‘by a few strokes of the pen’.[15] By 22 January 1935 Orwell thanked Moore for getting such good terms from Gollancz for the book, asked that a reference to Burmese Days be included, and cheerfully remarked ‘I am afraid he is going to lose money this rime, all right.’[16] He at least did not lose. Four thousand copies were printed and, though the type was distributed, none was remaindered: a good, modest piece of estimating on Gollancz’s part. The reviews were very mixed, indeed most reviewers did not know how to place the book, rather like the reports made for Gollancz. Orwell himself had had such doubts when he had told Moore with half-gloomy and half-cheerful frankness, ‘It was a good idea, but I am afraid I have made a muck of it.’[17] When he presented a copy to Brenda Salkeld he said that it was ‘tripe’, apart from the Trafalgar Square night-scene.[18] This was endearingly modest and honest but also obsessively perfectionist. He was to say such things again about his other writings, with far less cause.

Years later when Orwell was putting his affairs in order, he renounced it entirely. He left instructions that it was not to be translated or reprinted, and wrote to a friend that it was a book he was ashamed of and that: ‘This was written simply as an exercise and I oughtn’t to have published it, but I was desperate for money, ditto when I wrote Keep the A. At that time I simply hadn’t a book in me, but I was half starved and had to turn out something to bring in a £100 or so.’[19] But his contemporary letters to Brenda Salkeld make clear that he was writing it for publication and that, while certainly an experiment in seeing whether different styles and perspectives could be combined in one narrative as Joyce had done, it was not a mere exercise. He had already had plenty of exercise in producing writing that did not get published. Also he was not ‘half-starved’, even if still very hard up, at the time he was writing either A Clergyman’s Daughter in Southwold or Keep the Aspidistra Flying in Hampstead. His worst times had been in the immediately preceding years. He wanted to make money with these books, if not enough to live on then almost enough, so he drove himself hard, and far from ‘not having a book’ in him, he moved from one to another with great speed and determination. At this stage in his life he lacked time, tranquillity and security, certainly, which money would help provide; but he did not lack ideas.

A Clergyman’s Daughter may not be consistently excellent, but it is better, in parts, than many, including Orwell himself, were to believe. The central character of Dorothy, slaving for her useless father, is a real type and the description of her claustrophobic life rings true, the sociological detail of middle-class poverty and pretension is fascinating, even if psychologically the character remains shallow; but he was simply not that kind of novelist, and there is this other kind of novel. The breakdown following an attempted seduction that moves her into the company of tramps and the hop-picking fields is absurdly arbitrary and implausible; but once established in another closed world, the description is rich, vivid and compelling. The night scene, written as dialogue between the tramps in Trafalgar Square, is, in its own right, astoundingly awful and, as a straight crib from Joyce’s Ulysses (fully deserving O’Casey’s abuse), embarrassing; it is only interesting for picaresque detail better placed in his essays and documentaries. Then her life as a schoolmistress, when she surfaces again, is another compelling creation of a closed world, the remorseless detail of which was drawn, like the tramping scenes, directly from his own experience. Someone else must have furnished the details of life in a poor vicarage, for his own home had nothing of such poverty and despair. But the three good chapters out of five, all studies in closed societies, have no real relationship to each other and could just as well have been separate short stories. The final chapter, when Dorothy’s father allows her home again, is as unresolved and ambiguous as the ending of Keep the Aspidistra Flying was to be. She simply forsakes any hope of freedom and resumes the old life, just as Gordon Comstock was to go back to the advertising agency and forsake his poetry. Material circumstances defeat them both. We leave her making cheap costumes once again for the school play:

The problem of faith and no faith had utterly vanished from her mind. It was beginning to get dark, but, too busy to stop and light the lamp, she worked on, pasting strip after strip of paper into place, with absorbed, with pious concentration, in the penetrating smell of the gluepot.

But is she defeated (as Gordon could be said to be) by the Money God, or is she (as Gordon could be said to be) reconciled to what is at least the ‘best of all possible worlds’? Is the final tone sardonic mockery or sardonic pity? The author seems undecided. Orwell himself seems unresolved. If mockery, he can only be the spectator, however good a writer; but if pity, then something should be done about it, while remaining a true writer.

Yet if there was no sign of political commitment in the book, the very first paragraph contained symbols and concepts strangely prescient of his very last great work.

As the alarm clock on the chest of drawers exploded like a horrid little bomb of bell metal, Dorothy, wrenched from the depths of some complex, troubling dream, woke with a start and lay on her back looking into the darkness in extreme exhaustion.

Whatever Orwell revealed about himself in A Clergyman’s Daughter (and Norman Collins plainly read too much into it-had he met Orwell he would have been astonished at how ordinary and commonsensical he appeared), he did not reveal his politics.

Orwell had a girlfriend in Hampstead, who was a member of the Labour League of Youth, but she remembers that he talked very little about politics except to curse the Empire and ‘the Scots by whom he appeared to imagine it dominated’. He had several friends at this period with whom he was on occasional ‘walking out together’ terms, but there were two ‘steady’ or ‘regular’ girls. ‘Sally’ (a pseudonym) seems to have been, like Rosemary in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a commercial artist; but unlike Rosemary she kept the real George more or less at arm’s length. She gave way, with some overlap, to Kay,[20] who worked in a secretarial agency near Russell Square. Kay was someone of literary tastes, who liked to do typing for writers and therefore meet them and mingle with their lives. Orwell met her in the late autumn of 1934 when she came into the shop. She lived very close and knew the Westropes. She was both more down to earth and political than the lesser lights, who seemed to Geoffrey Gorer — in a rather suspect collective memory — to be ‘arty’ types: ‘candles and sandals’, given to wearing dirndl skirts and carrying the New Statesman and Nation like a talisman. Eric liked the role of a kindly, wiser, older brother, a young girl’s guide to literature. He must have been pleased to have a girl both serious and merry to talk to, to walk with, and occasionally when luck and circumstances permitted (for it was always ‘to leave by midnight’ in those dark days beyond recall), go to bed with. He told her to read Dickens and Conrad and to repair lack of knowledge of the great tradition before tackling the modems, like Lawrence and Joyce.[21] But Kay needed little such advice: she was already widely read and used to splitting her votes between the ancient and the moderns. A contemporary described her as ‘a jolly, smiling, warm-hearted, open, marvellously calm lady’.

Orwell did not even talk to Kay about his writing. He was, in fact, somewhat secretive. Making love was nice enough, but it stirred no great warmth in him, no confessions or soul-baring. Somehow a story grew that he carefully closed a big notebook before sharing his bed one night and, on another occasion, placed a tea-towel modestly over a pile of manuscript. Kay did leam that he was writing a verse epic of the history of the English from the times of Chaucer and in a Chaucerian manner. His aspiration to be a poet still lingered. No trace of this epic survives. The only echoes of this in Orwell’s work are the title-page device from Chaucer to Down and Out — ‘O scathful harm, condition of poverte’ — and a snatch of dialogue in Keep the Aspidistra Flying:

Have you read Chaucer’s Man of Lawe’s Tale?’

“The Man of Lawe’s Tale? Not that I remember. What’s it about?’

‘I forget. I was thinking of the first six stanzas. Where he talks about poverty. The way it gives everyone the right to stamp on you ...’[22]

Orwell talked to Kay mainly about literature or else volubly and knowledgeably about birds as they walked Hampstead Heath together. He loved birds and he also loved cats. He grumbled to her about cats killing birds: he could not accept this contradiction in nature. She can only remember discussions about politics in the company of other friends: it was clear he was strongly ‘pacifist’, she said, or more likely anti-militarist, and strongly anti-colonialist; but she has no memory of any specific socialism.

By early March Orwell was well into his new novel, and due to the illness of Myfanwy Westrope, he said (Jon Kimche remembered it as Frank Westrope), he had to find rooms outside. The ever-active Mabel Fierz found him a room in a first-floor flat at 77 Parliament Hill, the last house in the road right on the edge of Hampstead Heath: Parliament Hill itself, on which young and old still fly kites, was framed in his window. The flat was owned by a psychologist of Jungian persuasion, Mrs Rosalind Obermeyer (later Mrs Henschel), who was taking the postgraduate psychology course at University College, London. She let out two rooms, the other to a medical student, Janet Grimpson; and the three of them shared the sitting-room. Rosalind Obermeyer had met him briefly a few years before when Orwell was staying at the Fierzs. Now Mabel asked her friend to let Orwell have the room specifically because it would give him fresh air from the Heath that he badly needed for his weak chest. Neither Jon Kimche nor Kay realized that he had a weak chest. ‘Just a bit of a cough sometimes, a bit chesty, you know’ — people remember Orwell saying things like that, part confiding, part forbidding inquiry and sympathy. Two new friends were only aware that Orwell had bronchitis ‘each winter’.

He brought Kay to his room at Parliament Hill to meet these two new friends, Rayner Heppenstall and Michael Sayers. Heppenstall, new to London after reading English at Leeds University, was beginning to write for the Adelphi. He became a novelist and a poet, and later a famous producer on the BBC’s Third Programme in its early days. One evening earlier that spring, Richard Rees had asked Heppenstall to join him for dinner at Bertorelli’s restaurant in Charlotte Street to meet a fellow contributor — George Orwell. Heppenstall brought another writer with him, whose poems were beginning to appear in the Adelphi, Dylan Thomas. Both he and Thomas, Heppenstall relates, were ‘already pretty well stoked up on Henekey’s cider’, and ‘There was a good deal of nonsense that evening ... but nothing which casts much light upon either Dylan or “George Orwell”’.[23] Almost immediately, Heppenstall and Orwell met again at the house ofT. Sturge Moore, a white-bearded poet in a skull cap who was the original of A. E. Housman’s much-travelled remark, ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’. Through Heppenstall Orwell met Michael Sayers, poet, writer and Communist fellow-traveller who later emigrated to the United States. He asked them both to dinner, cooked a good steak for them on his newly-purchased ‘Bachelor Griller’, and they drank beer out of wooden ‘tree pattern’ mugs that he was then collecting (as Heppenstall states, but Kay is very firm that he collected pewter tankards, and only had one such arty ‘tree pattern’, that she had given him as a joke).

‘Curious,’ wrote George to Brenda Salkeld on 7th March,

... that you should mention that review ofJoad’s book, because Heppenstall, the man who wrote it, stayed at my place the night before last — in fact he was having breakfast with me when I was reading your letter. I did not tell him what you said about ‘second-rate highbrows’. As a matter of fact, he is very nice — a Yorkshireman, very young, twenty-four or five, I would say, and passionately interested in the ballet... I cannot tell you how I am looking forward to coming down next weekend. I do hope it won’t fall through.[24]

He also introduced Rayner to Mabel Fierz, who delightedly took him under her wing as a young hopeful, as she had taken Eric some years before.

George and Rayner were welcome, Kay remembers, at literary ‘At Homes’ given by such as Edwin Muir and his wife, Willa. Orwell refused to go, indeed he crossed the street rather than pass the Muirs, so strong was his irrational dislike, they all noted, of the Scots. (In fact the Muirs came from Orkney and Shetland.) He railed against ‘the whisky-swilling Scottish drunks’ who misgoverned and maltreated the Burmese; and perhaps some hate lingered from the time when Mrs Wilkes favoured the kilted Scottish lordlings in St Cyprian’s days. More speculatively, an obsessively long incident, six whole pages, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying might furnish a more specific reason. Gordon, invited to a party by ‘Paul Doring’ and his wife in ‘Coleridge Grove’ (Keats Grove is next to Downshire Hill) finds, on his arrival, that the house is empty. He may have got the wrong night but they may have done it to him deliberately.

Otherwise, Orwell seemed to be in a mood for company. He sometimes dined at small restaurants in Soho on half-crown set meals; so even if money was very right, he was no longer precisely poverty-stricken. At one such dinner, Rayner Heppenstall was impressed by George sending back a bottle of red wine to have the chill taken off. He joked that the experience of the Paris plongeur was socially one up on his own student days in Leeds or in provincial France. Nevertheless, without ever quite discussing it, Heppenstall and Sayers thought that Orwell was only half-educated compared with their own fine selves.[*] Any university degree was better than none, and they were certainly in highbrow mood, Heppenstall attending and writing about ballet and chasing ballet girls, and Sayers leading what he held to be a poet’s life. Heppenstall was to claim (something that no one else can remember) that all Orwell’s women at that rime were ugly, as if there were more than one, and imputes some kind of masochism to his amatory forays. Sayers and he saw something a little comic in Eric, ‘a nice old thing, and kindly eccentric’, going on and on about Dickens, Samuel Butler and Gissing, and something odd in his collection of comic postcards. Also Orwell was found reading the Magnet and the Gem,[25] children’s comics. Plainly culture had to be defended against the masses, even in a Marxist mode, whereas Orwell was beginning to show signs of actually appreciating what Herbert Read was to mean by saying, in the title of a once-famous essay, ‘To Hell With Culture’; and his interest in popular culture had something anthropological about it (anticipating the great days of Picture Post).

This attitude received reinforcement from a long friendship that followed an unexpected letter from Geoffrey Gorer, the social anthropologist. He had read Burmese Days and wrote to its author:

Will you allow me to tell you how very much indeed I admire your novel Burmese Days: it seems to me an absolutely admirable statement of fact told as vividly and with as little bitterness as possible. It is difficult to praise with-out being impertinent; it seems to me that you have done a necessary and important piece of work as well as it could be done. I wonder if you intend your stricture on the Burmese sahib-log who are ‘living a lie the whole time’ to apply to their domestic counterparts; it seems to me to work admirably.

My most sincere congratulations.

Geoffrey Gorer[26]

This soon led to a meeting (when Orwell cooked him liver and bacon, to his distaste). Years later Gorer recalled:

I found he was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known. I was never bored in his company. He was interested in nearly everything. And his attitudes were original. He didn’t take accepted ideas ... I would have said he was an unhappy man. He was too big for himself. I suppose if he’d been younger you would have said ‘coltish’. He was awfully likely to knock things off tables, to trip over things. I mean, he was a gangling, physically badly coordinated young man. I think his feelings that even the inanimate world was against him which he did have at some times, I mean any gas stove he had would go wrong, any radio would break down ... He was a lonely man — until he met Eileen, a very lonely man. He was fairly well convinced that nobody would like him, which made him prickly.[27]

Burmese Days was reviewed by Cyril Connolly in the New Statesman and Nation. The prep-school friends had drifted apart at Eton, and there had been no contact since.

Burmese Days is an admirable novel. It is a crisp, fierce and almost boisterous attack on the Anglo-Indian. The author loves Burma, he goes to great lengths to describe the vices of the Burmese and the horror of the climate, but he loves it, and nothing can palliate, for him, the presence of a handful of inefficient, complacent public school types who make their living there. The ... vigour and rapidity of (his extremely biased book ... His novel might have been better had he tolled down the ferocious partiality of the Lawrence-Aldington school, but personally I liked it and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a spate of efficient indignation, graphic description, excellent narrative, excitement, and irony tempered with vitriol.[28]

This led to an invitation to dinner, ‘a “bifteck aux pommes” cooked by himself Connolly remembered. Later he was to admit, with rare empathy, that it was quite natural for their renewed acquaintance to have been so delayed: ‘when Orwell came back from Burma he did not care for Oxford and Cambridge intellectuals, the easy livers, “the Pansy Left” as he called them.’[29] ‘His greeting was typical, a long but not unfriendly stare and his characteristic wheezy laugh, “Well, Connolly, I can see that you’ve worn a good deal better than I have”. I could say nothing, for I was appalled by the ravaged grooves that ran down from cheek to chin. My fat cigar-smoking persona must have been a surprise to him.’[30] From then on,[*] Connolly bestirred himself to introduce Orwell to people and, particularly during the War, to encourage and publish his essays. Theirs was a friendship of unlike characters. They must have looked at each other like two strange, noble beasts of different species, happening to share the same waterhole, not hostile but generically remote. Connolly admired Orwell for his integrity, authenticity, and eccentricity; but was faintly condescending about his wasting time over the social question rather than concentrating on high literature, while Orwell admired Connolly for his erudition, his knowingness and sociability, but was faintly condescending about his wasting time with Part pour Fart rather than advancing the good old cause. Both seem to have thought that they were patronizing the other by renewing and pursuing (after thirteen years) their ironical but warm friendship. They each had secondary characteristics, however, which were close to the other’s dominant one: Connolly then shared the fashionable Left-trending views, as shown by his enthusiastic account of a brief visit to revolutionary Barcelona the following year (which he republished in The Condemned Playground); and Orwell had hoped, in A Clergyman’s Daughter, to write a novel as an exercise in style. None the less, what Connolly would repeat years after his friend’s death sums it up well enough: ‘I was a stage rebel, Orwell was a true one.’

A lot of things happened at once. Through Connolly, Orwell was to meet the wife of his last days, but through his landlady he now met the wife of his great creative period. With all these new friends, sociability almost went to the solitary man’s head. He decided to give a small party. This meant asking his landlady to let him use some of her space, so it was agreed they would give one together.

After about three months in which we rarely met (I engrossed in my studies, he often writing his latest novel), he asked me one day, could we not give a joint party as his bedsitter was too small. I know he said one of the people he would invite was Richard Rees and was it Heppenstall? As far as I can remember, he had not invited any women friends, but I remember clearly inviting Eileen O’Shaughnessy, a fellow student at University College, and a lay psychotherapist, Dr Jennings White, who was on the Committee of the Institute for the psychological treatment of delinquency, where I had obtained work as a social worker, and I invited also one or two men students also in the Psychology Department of University College.

When our very pleasant evening ended, I remember Eric accompanied the guests to the nearby buses and trains at the bottom of the hill — on his return he came into my sitting-room, I had noticed that he had paid a good bit of attention to Eileen and Eric said, ‘Now that is the kind of girl I would like to marry!’ I was delighted to hear this, as I, too, felt they had much to give each other. She was a very attractive, very feminine Irish woman, with lively interests and a gay, infectious laugh. So I replied, ‘Fine! I’ll invite her when I see her again in two days’ time, and you tell me which evenings would suit you, and both come and have dinner with me.’

At College I saw she Was already reading Burmese Days (perhaps he had lent it to her). Our small dinner party two days after was a very gay affair. I left them quite soon (after the meal) in my sitting-room and went out to nearby friends.[31]

Soon after, George took Eileen horse-riding on Blackheath — some old habits die hard — close to where she lived at Greenwich. Two or three weeks later she told another student who had been at the party, Lydia Jackson,[*] that he had as good as proposed to her. She had not said yes, but she had not said no.[32]

Eileen Maud O’Shaughnessy was of Irish stock, bom in 1905 and brought up in Sunderiand on Wearside. She had won a scholarship to St Hugh’s College, Oxford, from where she graduated in 1927 with a Second Class Honours degree in English. She tried teaching in a girls’ boarding-school but could not stand it, held various odd jobs, including reading to the aged Dame Elizabeth Cadbury and some social work, but then took a secretarial course, eventually taking over some-time in 1931 a small firm herself, ‘Murrells Typing Agency’ in Victoria Street, London, SW i. The office junior, or ‘the oil rag’, then 15 years old, remembers her well as a ‘vivid personality’, happy but unbusinesslike. Instead of copy-typing the thesis of a White Russian emigre, she rewrote it: the office thought that she should have got the doctorate. Eileen tried to educate young ‘oil rag’ and prepare her for university, but the girl’s mother would have none of it.[33]

Eileen became interested in psychology, sold the agency and entered University College, London in 1934, passing a qualifying examination for the MA in Psychology. In 1935-6 she completed the course work for the degree, though she was never to finish her thesis (something to do with measuring imagination in school children, undertaken on the advice of the Professor, Cyril Burt). She also acted as secretary during this time to her brother, a surgeon and chest specialist. A fellow student and her experimental partner (it was the high court of scientific and experimental method, allegedly), John Cohen (later Professor of Psychology at Manchester), remembers her as ‘rather stiff and austere’, but also bright, argumentative and provocative. Her great concern for her brother’s work was also evident.[34]

Eileen was socialist in her convictions, but did not belong to any organizations or political parries. Indeed, like her future husband, she distrusted parties even if she was prepared to espouse ideologies. The closest she came to activism was teaching two short courses in Psychology for the Workers’ Educational Association while at University College. In appearance, Eileen was small, dark and fine-boned. No one called her ‘beautiful’ but everyone remembers her as either remarkably ‘pretty’ or ‘handsome’ — even Rayner Heppenstall admitted this, allowed her to be an exception to his dubious generalization that George only cared for ugly girls. However, Eileen did not care too much how she dressed, usually in shabby and unbrushed but ‘good’ black suits. Cyril Connolly remembered her as ‘very charming... intelligent ... and she loved him, and she was independent, and although she didn’t wear make-up or anything like that, she was very pretty, and totally worthy of him as a wife; he was very proud other.’[35] Her friends are vehement that she understood people far better than George, and that her range of interests was almost as wide. They were not to be perfect together, but always a good match. She fought his fights and looked after him as well as he would allow — although she was a woman careless of creature comforts herself. She indulged, even enjoyed, his eccentricities. Brenda Salkeld thought well of her, believed her to be the kind of woman George needed. Some ofEileen’s friends, however, were not so sure that George was the right man for her, and were puzzled that such an emancipated and forceful woman was so willing to play second fiddle to what appeared to be a rather self-absorbed and gawky minor novelist.

Eileen gave George a new optimism. So unsure of himself with people, he found it marvellous to be loved by a woman like this who did not nag him to look for a steady job, not try to change his bohemian habits. He is likely to have viewed marriage rather conventionally. Having lived alone for so long, he saw the institution of marriage as partly a surrender of liberty in return for security. He did not think that two ‘free souls’ such as theirs would, in uniting, make a marriage of a unique kind; rather that marriage was a bit of a compromise, forcing the partners to take on many bourgeois conventions.

Perhaps Eileen’s arrival in his life could account for the sudden, strange and rather ambivalent ‘happy ending’ of Gordon Comstock’s odyssey — when he decides to take the soul- or poetry-destroying job in the advertising agency and marry Rosemary. Luckily Orwell did not himself do anything so drastic as look for a full-time job again.

Our civilization is founded on greed and fear, but in the lives of common men the greed and fear are mysteriously transmuted into something nobler. The lower-middle-class people in there, behind their lace curtains, with their children and their scraps of furniture and their aspidistras — they lived by the money code, sure enough, and yet they contrived to keep their decency. The money-code as they interpreted it was not merely cynical and hoggish. They had their standards, their inviolable points of honour. They ‘kept themselves respectable’ — kept the aspidistra flying. Besides, they were alive. They were bound up in the bundle of life. They begot children which is what the saints and the soul-savers never by any chance do.[36]

He wanted children very much, more so than Eileen. But he told Heppenstall one thick night three years later, on a rare occasion when his tongue was loosened by trying to keep up with his Alcibiadian companion, that he believed himself to be sterile (which is confirmed, at least his belief is confirmed, by Eileen telling a friend the same thing).[37] Why he believed this to be true is unclear. Perhaps it was simply that, as he told a woman friend ten years later, they had tried to have children and failed. But odd that he should shoulder the blame so self-critically: it takes two to make a child.

Some time in September 1935 Orwell was to write to Heppenstall, ‘You are right about Eileen. She is the nicest person I have met for a long time. However, at present alas! I can’t afford a ring, except perhaps a Woolworth’s one.’ And in October he told him that ‘Eileen says she won’t marry me as yet’ until she had finished her course and was earning some money. ‘Perhaps I shall be earning more next year,’ he said vaguely. ‘On the other hand by next year we may all have been blown sky-high. I was down at Greenwich the other day and looking at the river I thought what wonders a few bombs would work among the shipping.’[38]

Keep the Aspidistra Flying was nearing completion when he wrote these cheerful words which make Comstock and Orwell sound so very close to each other. The work as a whole is not political, the diatribe against the ‘money god’ is not put in socialist terms but seeks to show the damage done to individual (almost individualist) artistic impulse by both commercialism and sheer lack of money (the two perspectives do not always focus together). But there is a definite recurrent theme which, while it is unrelated to the plot, is an extension of the hero’s ‘apocalyptic relish’; bombing. Even before the Spanish War many novels and poems worked in the theme of the coming of bombing planes, either in straightforward fear or as a desperate hope for the collapse and purgation of a rotten civilization, as well as odd bits of Futurist servility to anything metallic, shiny and inhuman.[39] But Orwell’s concern with bombing reflects some of the specific concerns of the immediate company he kept. By 1935 Orwell, through friends like Michael Sayers and the Westropes, was being introduced more and more to advanced Left-wing thinking. Mrs Westrope’s younger brother had even introduced him to the abrasive Reg Groves, one of the first British Trotskyists, who had been Orwell’s immediate predecessor in the bookshop.[40] Orwell pretended to Brenda Salkeld that he was keeping his distance from these socialists, who would like to see him shot, but he was not convincing, either to her or to Kay, whom he told that ‘what England needed was to follow the kind of policies in Chesterton’s G. K.’s Weekly’ (a kind of anti-capitalist, agrarian ‘Merrie England’ medievalism). Orwell knew that such retreats were impossible precisely because of the likelihood of a new and specific kind of war.

And the reverberations of future wars. Enemy aeroplanes flying over London; the deep threatening hum of the propellers, the shattering thunder of the bombs, [pp. 23-4]

Gordon squinted up at the leaden sky. Those aeroplanes are coming. In imagination he saw them coming now; squadron after squadron, innumerable, darkening the sky like clouds of gnats. With his tongue not quite against his teeth he made a buzzing blue-bottle-on-the-window-pane sound to represent the humming of aeroplanes. It was a sound which, at the moment, he ardently desired to hear. [p. 29]

You can’t look at it without thinking of French letters and machine-guns. Do you know that the other day I was actually wishing war would break out? I was longing for it — praying for it, almost, [p. 106]

The electric drills in our streets presage the rattle of machine guns. Only a little while before the aeroplanes come. Zoom — bang! A few tons of TNT to send our civilization back to hell where it belongs, [p. 282]

In part this imagery of bombing is no more than, once again, that ‘this age makes me so sick that sometimes I am almost impelled to stop at a comer and start calling down curses from heaven like Jeremiah’.[41] Indeed, his Burma poem had already called down a violent doom, part retributive and part sadistic, not merely on the Empire but on England herself. The specific images in Keep the Aspidistra Flying not only make a remarkably good prophecy put forward in 1935 of events in 1939-45 but also offer a clear anticipation of some of the precise imagery and the general intensity of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The anti-militarist and pacifist rhetoric in the novel, however, shows the specific kind of discussions going on in the left-wing circles in which Orwell moved. They all believed, as did many military theorists, that the bombing aeroplane would be utterly, drastically and quickly decisive in any future war. And that from the bombed-out ruins of capitalist civilization, an organized working-class movement would spontaneously arise (to the I L P aerial war, not mass poverty, would mark the breakdown of capitalism). If a Guernica did not occur quite on that scale, all ‘thinking people’ expected it to happen before it did. The imagery of bombing gives some measure of how much Orwell in 1935 was already penetrated by one other great political theme of his time, war as well as unemployment and poverty.

The main literary consciousness of the mid-1930s was gradually, under the pressure of external events, in danger of becoming wholly or overly politicized. Some writers felt the need, as when Yeats in his poem ‘Polities’ mocked Thomas Mann, to defend the very existence and irrelevance of poetry (much as Mann himself in the 1920s had defended the ‘ivory tower’ against his brother’s advocacy of descent into the political arena). Jack Common reminisced:

After Down and Out ... Orwell was well and truly launched as a novelist. That is he was always well-reviewed and could count on a faithful readership likely to grow. The danger was, this being the Thirties, that [his novels] might come to seem irrelevant. It was typical of the way things were going that the Adelphi, formerly a monthly ivory tower sheltering or gathering together the devotees of truth-beauty, beauty-truth in writing, was now a political light-house in which doughty polemicists argued about which way to direct the beam.[42]

Along with his immersion in cultural and political pessimism (which was as a tendency quite as evident in contemporary literature as ‘commitment’), Orwell remained positive and tender towards nature and the traditions of the common people — in all, an almost pietistic exaltation in the texture of everyday life, aspidistras and all. He was also brooding on themes that we would now call ‘environmentalist’, looking back with horror at the suburban sprawl over the countryside around such places as Uxbridge. Apart from one poem, these themes did not appear in print until 1939 in Coming Up For Air. There was a three-year gap until his next novel (indeed last true novel) during which time the subject matter of his writing became dominated (whether against his natural inclination or not) by his moral reaction to political events; but not before.

That August he began to write regularly for the New English Weekly which A. R. Orage had founded in 1932. It is doubtful if Orwell ever met Orage, who died in 1934. It was his successor, Philip Mairet, whom Orwell principally wrote for, two years of a gruelling ‘Some Recent Novels’ column, appearing about once a month. Mairet knew Orwell well. (Orwell only ceased to write for his weekly when, in 1940, it stuck to a pacifist line and Orwell changed to support for the war.) The New English Weekly paid almost nothing, but it was a good way to obtain books. Orwell wrote his column conscientiously, obviously reading all the books carefully. If he was harsh to bad (and especially to pretentious) authors, it was clear that he had suffered in reading their work, not just snatched at the jacket and a few random pages. In December 1935 he made a revealing comment in a brief review of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer — it showed the general effect he was trying to achieve in Keep the Aspidistra Flying — ‘Man is not a Yahoo, but he is rather like a Yahoo and needs to be reminded of it from time to time.’[43]

He had moved house in August, perhaps to gain more privacy. Grateful though he must have been to Rosalind Obermeyer for introducing him to Eileen, there were difficulties in having his fiancee’s fellow-student as landlady. He was still seeing Kay, who had accepted her secondary role, but perhaps he wanted, nevertheless, to put space between himself and her. But the move was precipitated by Mabel Fierz and Rayner Heppenstall. Rayner had lost his digs because of an intolerant landlady, and rucksack on back had fled to Golders Green and Mabel. She had suggested that the three of them, Heppenstall, Sayers and Orwell, find a flat together — to be her ‘junior republic’, she said, a joke none of them found very funny. They found a flat at 50 Lawford Road, a working-class area just off Kentish Town High Street, so only twenty minutes away from the bookshop where Orwell continued to work each afternoon. The house was small, a yellow-brick early Victorian semi-detached villa, and their flat of three rooms and a kitchen was on the first floor. On the ground floor there was a tram-driver and his wife, and in the basement a plumber. George took a weekly bath in the public baths, Rayner went up to Mabel’s at weekends for his; and Michael only used the flat for assignations.[44]

Part of that summer Heppenstall had been away at the first of the Adelphi summer schools at Caerleon, when Middleton Murry, then in mystical Marxist or Christian-Socialist phase,[*] decided that a ‘fellowship’ should be founded; and then Heppenstall went to stay with Middleton Murry in Norfolk. George had been driven over to Norfolk from Southwold by his sister Avril (the Blairs could run a small motor-car), and had taken Brenda Salkeld for the ride. Almost as soon as Rayner returned to London that August the thought took him to become a Catholic. He actually went to Oxford for instruction under Father D’Arcy. He soon gave it up. Michael Sayers, as the winds blew him, either veered towards or away from the Communist Party. They made a most unlikely pair of flat-mates for a man who was already anti-Catholic and anti-Communist. The presence of Rayner and Michael may prove that friendship knows no barriers, or on the other hand it may have been a sign of his slow ferment in trying to place himself politically and morally. The three of them got on, at first, reasonably well. Heppenstall later admitted that they rather exploited ‘old Eric’. The rent-book was in Orwell’s name and Michael was forgetful about the rent, though he always paid up in the end; but Rayner often had no money by the end of the week. George was first up each morning. He had a certain dignity and formality: unlike Rayner, he would not attempt any serious writing while unshaven and in his dressing-gown. It was George who cooked breakfast, washed up, did most of the cooking; and Rayner stretched himself to fetch the beer for dinner each evening in a jug from the Duke of Cambridge pub on the corner. He and Michael did not seem to take George too seriously; they continued to think of him as ‘a nice old thing’. He was ten years older, indeed, than Sayers and eight than Heppenstall. His time-out in Burma had made him older than most of the young writers still leading this kind of ‘floating life’; but it also gave him an emotional detachment from them and immunized him from fashion.

Eileen came to see George on Sundays, and George and she would head off by train or Green Line bus for walks in the country. On one such Sunday they set off for Epsom, George carrying a shooting-stick. Rayner himself (he later wrote in self-deprecatory comic vein) went to the Ballet Club at Netting Hill Gate. The business manager was aware of his over-attentiveness to one of the girls and had been told off to ply him with whisky to divert his attention until the girl had had a chance to dress and depart. On his way home to Kentish Town, Rayner passed out twice and made the final ascent up the stairs on his hands and knees. Orwell was waiting up for him.

‘... Bit thick you know... This time of night... Wake up the whole street... I can put up with a lot... A bit of consideration ... After all...’ All exemplary sentiments, but somehow at the time they seemed inappropriate.

‘Eric,’ I said, ‘do shut up and go away.’

‘... Time of night... Put up with a lot... Bit thick ... the neighbours ... I do think ...’

‘Eric,’ I said, ‘go away. If you don’t go away, I shall hit you.’[45]

Eric did not go away. Rayner swung at him feebly and relates that he came to ten minutes later on the floor with a bloodied nose. Unable to clean the blood off his floor, he crawled into the absent Michael’s room and bed. Orwell then locked him in. Rayner started to kick the door; and when Orwell opened it, Rayner saw that he was armed with his shooting stick.

I pushed it [the stick] aside and sprang at him. He fetched me a dreadful crack across the legs and then raised the shooting-stick over his head. I looked at his face. Through my private mist I saw in it a curious blend of fear and sadistic exultation. I moved sideways, caught up Michael’s chair. I had raised it sufficiently to receive on it the first crash of the descending metal-fitted stick.[46]

‘Sadistic exaltation’ is, of course, meant to demolish more of Orwell’s achievements than his lack of Adelphi Quaker-Marxist virtues in dealing with a difficult friend. Heppenstall was not alone in pointing to this dark side of Orwell’s character, even if he may have exaggerated it. The account written some twenty years later raises the same kind of problems as Orwell’s own autobiographical writings. The incident certainly occurred, as Mabel Fierz confirms, to whom the battered Rayner retreated the next morning — but she puts it down simply to his ‘silly behaviour’.[47] It is more reasonable to infer from it that when Heppenstall wrote this account, he had come to think that Orwell’s writings were grossly overestimated or that he intended his account to be a symbolic criticism of Orwell’s character, rather than to believe that he saw the incident in just such terms at the time.[*]

The ‘junior republic’ broke up, but Orwell and Heppenstall met again, perfectly amicably, the following summer when Orwell went to lecture at Middleton Murry’s new Adelphi centre in Essex. Heppenstall took the chair for him. They retired afterwards to a pub together, ‘with perfect contentment’, for Rayner to tell George personal news of an old friend of Hampstead days, days already behind them both. Orwell was by then married, settled in the country, and had returned from a crucial journey. They remained friends, albeit not close friends, and Rayner Heppenstall was a constant visitor in the last days. ‘His friendships were constant, but seldom close,’ as Cyril Connolly remarked.[48]


1. Keep the aspidistra Flying, pp. 18-19.[back]

2. ibid., p. 14.[back]

3. Richard Rees interviewed and transcribed (though this part not broadcast) for a BBC television ‘Omnibus’ programme of 1970 on Orwell, ‘The Road to the Left’, produced by Melvyn Bragg (Post Production Script no. 06349/1139, BBC Archives). Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]

4. Richard Rees, A Theory of My Time (Secker & Warburg, London, 1963), pp. 72, 201 and 180.[back]

5. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, p. 100.[back]

6. Compare Keep the Aspidistra Flying, chapter i, with his essay ‘Bookshop Memories’, CE I, pp. 242-6.[back]

7. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, pp. 197-8.[back]

8. Quoted in Mavis and lan Nome (eds), The Book of Hampstead (High Hill Books, London, 1960), p. 103.[back]

9. Interview and correspondence with Jon Kimche, Nov. 1979.[back]

10. Letter of 16 Feb. 1935. Orwell Archive. This passage is not included in the CE text of the letter, CE I, pp. 147-8.[back]

11. This extract from a letter from Elaine Limouzin was included in a letter to this author from Myfanwy Westrope of 21 Oct. 1972. Unhappily Mrs Westrope died before I was able to meet her.[back]

12. I am indebted to Professor John Saville of the University of Hull, for information about the Westropes and their ILP connections.[back]

13. Unpublished letter to Brenda Salkeld. Orwell Archive (under seal).[back]

14. In the possession of Victor Gollancz Ltd.[back]

* The mention of Sean O’Casey’s name was to give Gollancz an idea. He sent him a proof copy asking him for a puff for the jacket — a tactic V. G. so often pursued. He must have said something about the Trafalgar Square scene being in the manner of Joyce, for O’Casey replied that ‘Orwell had as much chance of reaching the stature of Joyce as a tit has of reaching that of an eagle.’ And for fair measure he says that he called it ‘a bastard ballet of lamentation’; but by the time he wrote that (in Sunset anil Evening Star, London, 1954, pp. 133—5), he was working off old scores against Orwell from a book review. (Orwell, to complete the tale, had reviewed his Drums Under the Windows in 1945: ‘W. B. Yeats once said that a dog does not praise its fleas, but this is somewhat contradicted by the special status enjoyed in this country by Irish nationalist writers... the basic reason is probably England’s bad conscience. It is difficult to object to Irish nationalism without seeming to condone centuries of English tyranny and exploitation ... So literary judgement is perverted by political sympathy and Mr O’Casey and others like him are able to remain almost immune from criticism’ — almost (The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. iv pp. 13-15).[back]

15. CE I, pp. 142-3.[back]

16. ibid., p. 147.[back]

17. ibid., p. 141.[back]

18. ibid., p. 150.[back]

19. CE IV, p. 205.[back]

20. Peter Stansky and William Abrahams were evidently able to interview ‘Sally’, of whom they give a full and interesting account, see their Orwell: The Transformation (Constable, London, 1979), pp. 63-5.[back]

21. Interview with and letters from Mrs Kay Eke vail in Dec. 1973 and May to July 1979.[back]

22. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, p. 114.[back]

23. Rayner Heppenstall, Four Absentees (Barrie and Rockcliff, London, 1960), p. 46.[back]

24. Letter of 7 March of Miss Salkeld. Orwell Archive (under seal). The passage quoted is not in the extract from the same letter in CE I, pp. 150-51.[back]

* Michael Sayers’ attitude emerges in this sting in the tail of his double review of Burmese Days and A Clergyman’s Daughter. ‘One feels he has ideas about the novel, and that his future work is going to be unusually interesting. At present Mr Orwell seems to be most concerned with presenting his material in the clearest and honestest way. Being a man of considerable and diverse experience this problem naturally comes to him before any aesthetic consideration ...’ (Adelphi, August 1935, p. 316).[back]

25. Heppenstall, op. cit., pp. 59-60.[back]

26. Letter from Geoffrey Gorer of 16 July 1935. Orwell Archive.[back]

27. Gorer recorded for Melvyn Bragg’s BBC ‘Omnibus’ production (see note 3 above).[back]

28. Cyril Connolly in the New Statesman and Nation, 6 July 1935.[back]

29. Cyril Connolly, The Evening Colonnade (David Bruce and Watson, London, 1973), p. 375.[back]

30. Recalled by Connolly in a headnote to some letters of Orwell to him published in Encounter, Jan. 1962. In that headnote, however, Connolly speaks of the meeting taking place ‘at his rooms in Islington’. Orwell was not in Islington until 1944. Connolly always gave vivid detail in his reminiscences, but much of it is, alas, unreliable, especially regarding time and place.[back]

* Denys King-Farlow said to the editors of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters that Orwell had told him that ‘Without Connolly’s help I don’t think I would have got started as a writer when I came back from Burma.’ (Vol. i, p. 162) But King-Farlow’s memory must have been at fault. On Connolly’s own testimony, they did not meet until 1935 when Orwell already had two books out, a good publisher, a small reputation and a known character.[back]

31. Letter of 12 Nov. 1974 to the author from Mrs Rosalind Henschel (formerly Obermeyer) of Eastbourne.[back]

* Her pen name was Elizaveta Fen. She was bom in Russia in 1899, coming to England in 1925 and meeting Eileen at University College, London in 1934. She remained a close friend of them both.[back]

32. Elisaveta Fen, ‘George Orwell’s First Wife’, Twentieth Century, Aug. 1960, pp. 115-16.[back]

33. Letter of Edna D. Bussey to Ian Angus, 19 Sept. 1968.[back]

34. Letter of Professor John Cohen to the author, 5 Dec. 1979; and see also Stansky and Abrahams, op. cit., p. 96.[back]

35. Melvyn Bragg’s BBC ‘Omnibus’ production (see note 3 above), para. 3423.[back]

36. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, p. 293.[back]

37. Rayner Heppenstall, ‘Orwell Intermittent’, Twentieth Century, May 1955, p. 473; interview with Lettice Cooper in June 1976; and Orwell also told Anne Popham in a letter in 1945 that he thought he was sterile, see p. 336 above. However to state categorically on this evidence ‘that Eric was sterile’ (as do Stansky and Abrahams, op. cit., p. 166) seems unwarranted.[back]

38. CE I, pp. 153 and 154.[back]

39. ‘Apocalyptic relish’ is Bernard Bergonzi’s phrase in his treatment of the bombing theme in literature in his Reading the Thirties (Macmillan, London, 1978), pp. 102-10.[back]

40. Reg Groves, agitator and author, had been active in the ‘Balham succession’ from the Communist Party which was the beginning of Trotskyism in Britain. (See his The Balham Group, Pluto Press, London, 1975.) He only knew Orwell ‘vaguely’ in the bookshop days, but remembers that the Westropes had a wide circle of’genuine revolutionary socialists’ and ‘all sorts of odd cranks’. (Interview by author with Mr Reg Groves, Wandsworth, 15 April 1981.)[back]

41. CE I, p. 140.[back]

42. From an unpublished MS. of Jack Common’s, ‘Orwell at Wallington’, in the Jack Common Collection, University of Newcastle. I am grateful to Mrs Common for permission to reproduce this, and to Dr Eileen Aird.[back]

43. CE I, p. 155.[back]

44. Heppenstall, op. cit., p. 57.[back]

* Murry had concluded a few years before that Marx was essentially a religious teacher: ‘... Communism is the enemy of all “religions”, because it is itself the one religion’ (The Necessity of Communism, [Cape, 1932], p. in, a book that Orwell almost certainly had read). ‘Murry believed in a change of heart,’ wrote Rayner Heppenstall long afterwards: ‘He believed in the class war, but insisted that it should be waged without hatred.’ (Four Absentees [Barrie and Rockcliff, 1960] p. 33).[back]

45. Heppenstall, ‘The Shooting Stick’, Twentieth Century, April 1955, p. 370. There is a similar account in his Four Absentees.[back]

46. Heppenstall, Four Absentees, pp. 85-6.[back]

47. Interview by author with Mabel Fierz at Surbiton, 19 Jan. 1973.[back]

* re-reading my first edition, grateful that some critics reacted well to my deliberately avoiding the overly psychological kind of biography, but noting that some think I have overdone it, that there is a ‘sado-masochistic’ streak in Orwell that is only implicit in my narrative, I look at this passage again. Heppenstall’s account is well known, so I could not ignore it although my scepticism is obvious. But perhaps the fairer criticism is that he appears to me to crystallize, like the accomplished novelist he is, a complicated and recurring matter into a single significant anecdote of seemingly instant illumination.

The complicated matter is surely evident throughout this work, but I may not anywhere have been explicit enough. Orwell certainly from very early days liked to push himself into extreme situations: tramping, the tripe shop in Wigan and the trenches of Catalonia to come, possibly the Burma Police, as well as many small incidents, un-popular stands and difficult ways of doing ordinary things; and all despite his ill health. These can all be rationalized as the needed explorations of a genuine and profound political writer. And Orwell’s sense of what was ordinary is not to be judged by the home life of Hampstead and Chelsea literary intellectuals. But none the less, however usefully channelled and exploited from his writing, something odd and disturbing remains. I only say that it is inexplicable, except from stock and a priori psycho-analytical positions, and that it is to be rejected as an overall ‘explanation’ or ‘reduction’ of his literary and moral achievements. I do not mean to imply that it does not exist.

Victor Pritchett’s remark, which I quote more than once, that ‘he might be described as a writer who has “gone native” in his own country’ may have a deeper implication. Orwell was an explorer of ‘the lower depths’, but like some of the great explorers of Africa or of the Arabian deserts, as well as discovery there was a constant self-testing and a self-mortification, some hang-over of how some great individualists had played their version of the Imperial system’s ‘great game’: to see how much a man could take in extreme situations, self-discovery as well as geographical or, in his case, social and political discovery.[back]

48. Cyril Connolly, The Evening Colonnade (David Bruce & Watson, London, 1973), p. 374.[back]



Not available.



In March 1940 Orwell published with Gollancz Inside the Whale, a book of essays, in which the tide essay looked back over the debate about artists and political commitment in the 1930S. He criticized two famous stanzas from the original 1937 version of W. H. Auden’s poem ‘Spain’, to be much revised and finally disowned.

Tomorrow for the young poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the winter of perfect communion;
Tomorrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings: but to-day the struggle.

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death;
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

Orwell said that he had seen bodies of murdered men, ‘I don’t mean killed in battle’ and ‘To me, murder is something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person. The Hitlers and the Stalins find murder necessary, but they don’t advertise their callousness.’ So they didn’t call it murder, only ‘liquidation’ or ‘elimination’ or ‘some other soothing phrase. Mr Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled. So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.’ The general point is just, but Orwell may have belaboured Auden with the wrong end of the stick, for the poet probably did mean (though the whole poem is astonishingly ambiguous and ambivalent compared to its reputation) merely ‘killed in battle’ when he says ‘necessary murder’. Auden revised the deterministic ‘necessary murder’ that so angered Orwell into the more existential (and evasive) ‘fact of murder’; and he did so after Orwell’s first criticism had appeared.[1]

Orwell himself was not a squeamish liberal when it came to ‘necessary murder’, he was more like an old Roman Republican or (at last) a Cromwellian Puritan (for the guilt was there too); but he discovered that the simple duty of defeating Fascism and of atoning for his complicity in class oppression by taking up arms was befouled by the acceptance of murder within the republican camp. Not that he took a simple view of Fascism: he was one of the very few on the Left who saw it not as ‘advanced capitalism’ but as a grim perversion of Socialism, a genuine mass movement with an elitist philosophy but a popular appeal. He knew about the Moscow trials before going to Spain and shared the views of the ILP Press that these were political murders; but he did not yet think that the whole international Communist movement was involved in or would condone these aberrant Russian terrors and follies; and still less did he suspect that Fascism and Bolshevism could have anything in common.

Being misinformed that people entering Spain to fight needed papers from some Left-wing organization, he had applied to John Strachey (whom he had met through Richard Rees) who took him to see Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary of the British Communist Party. Pollitt would have known of Orwell because the row with Gollancz was already on, unbeknown to Orwell, about how or whether to publish The Road to Wigan Pier; and Strachey, as the most active selector for the Left Book Club, cleared all difficulties with Pollitt. ‘Pollitt after questioning me’, said Orwell, ‘evidently decided that I was politically unreliable and refused to help me, also tried to frighten me out of going by talking a lot about Anarchist terrorism.’ When asked if he would join the International Brigade, Orwell replied that he wanted to see for himself what was happening first. Pollitt then refused to help, says Orwell, but ‘advised me to get a safe-conduct from the Spanish Embassy in Paris, which I did’.[2] This was not entirely unhelpful of Pollitt; it was naive of Orwell to have gone to him — even though his mind was more open at this stage about the practical effectiveness of the Communist effort in Spain than has usually been supposed. So Orwell ‘rang up the ILP, with which I had some slight connections, mainly personal, and asked them to give me some kind of recommendation’.[3] Fenner Brockway gave him letters to their representative in Barcelona. He made contact with the official ILP contingent who were then gathering in London, meeting in pubs and cafés near the ILP Headquarters in the Farringdon Road, spending their time collecting funds and organizing public meetings. But impatient to be off, he went on ahead of them, alone.

Orwell left London about 22 December and was in Barcelona by the 26th (the Blairs rarely seem to have celebrated Christmas as a family reunion), two weeks ahead of the ILP main contingent. He only stopped a day in Paris, just long enough to collect Spanish travel documents. But he found time in the afternoon, before catching the midnight express to the Spanish border, to pay a call, perhaps a little incongruously in the circumstances, on Henry Miller.

For Miller not merely took no interest in the Spanish War whatever, he genially told Orwell that it was the act of an idiot to go to Spain, that anyone who went from a sense of obligation was plain stupid: all those ideas about defending democracy, etc., were ‘baloney’. They discussed ‘liberty’. To Miller, it was something entirely personal, to be defended against whimsical beliefs in public obligations and responsibilities, and civilization was, in any case, doomed to take a nasty turn for the far worse whatever brave boy scouts like Orwell did about it. To Orwell, liberty and democracy went together and, among other things, guaranteed the freedom of the artist; the present capitalist civilization was corrupt, but Fascism would be morally calamitous. Political argument drew them apart, but there was sufficient sympathy between them as writers for Orwell to confide to Miller his feeling of guilt at having served in Burma (though he was to say this publicly in The Road to Wigan Pier); and for Miller boldly but sympathetically to ask Orwell, feeling for him and admiring his Down and Out, whether he had not punished himself enough already. Such psychological probing brought ‘the classic reply’, recounts Alfred Perles, Miller’s Boswell, ‘that... where the rights and very existence of a whole people are at stake, there could be no thought of avoiding self-sacrifice. He spoke his convictions so earnestly and humbly that Miller desisted from further argument and promptly gave him his blessing.’

Since Orwell was wearing a blue suit, presumably to look respectable at the Consulate, the blessing took the form of the gift of a corduroy jacket which, though not bullet-proof, Miller avowed to be warm and to be his contribution to the republican cause: ‘Henry discreetly refrained from adding that Orwell would have been welcome to the jacket even had he chosen to fight for the opposite side.’[4] A man who travels light often gathers strange burdens.

Visiting Miller he was upset by an absurd quarrel with a taxi-driver who got aggressive and abusive on being asked by Orwell, in innocence and ignorance, to drive him a very short distance and then presented with a large banknote which he could not change. Orwell reminisced that he must have appeared to the taxi-driver as ‘a symbol of the idle, patronizing foreign tourists who had done their best to turn France into something midway between a museum and a brothel’. He was to contrast this incident to what happened when he boarded the train for Spain that night, virtually a troop-train full of tired Czech, German and French volunteers, and to the following morning when ‘as we crawled across southern France, every peasant working in the fields turned round, stood solemnly upright and gave the anti-Fascist salute’. He concluded that the motives of the ‘polyglot army... of the peasants with raised fists... my own motive in going to Spain, and the motive of the old taxi-driver in insulting me, were at the bottom all the same’, all part of ‘the wave of revolutionary feeling’. Writing in 1944, he may have predated his own revolutionary feelings as distinct from a fierce commitment to the defence of the republic.[5]

Orwell carried letters of introduction to John McNair (1887-1968), a Tynesider who had worked in France for twenty-five years, but otherwise devoted his life to the socialist cause (he became General Secretary of the Independent Labour Party from 1939-55). He ran the ILP office in Barcelona where he coordinated the money, materials and men raised in England by the ILP for the benefit of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificatión Marxista, the United Marxist Workers’ Party), whom they regarded as their sister party. The POUM had its own militia, though they were the smallest of the political militias. So did the Communists who, thanks to Russian aid, were the best equipped. The largest of the militias were those controlled by the official trades union federation, the CNT-UGT, an alliance of two federations, the anarcho-syndicalist Confederatión National de Trabajadores and the socialist Unión General de Trabajadores.

Communists would join the UGT and POUM members would join the CNT. As the CNT had led the revolution in Catalonia, its alliance there with the cautious UGT worked badly. The CNT anarchists in Catalonia had their own militia, but some preferred to enlist with the POUM militia, which was a slightly more disciplined body and must have been one of the most politically conscious militias ever. The Communists helpfully simplified the situation by calling everyone in the POUM and their militias ‘Trotskyites’. Some had been, like their leader Andres Nin, and a few still were in spirit; but Nin had broken with Trotsky long before, finding him too egocentric and dogmatic, and had not been in correspondence with him since 1934. In 1936 Nin argued, however, that Catalonia should offer Trotsky political asylum; but that was to be an act of compassion, not to seek his leadership: the POUM was an independent Marxist force.[6] They were the ILP’s ideal self image.

John McNair wrote towards the end of his life that one late December afternoon the POUM sentry at his door said, ‘There’s a great big English-man who wants to see you.’

A moment later Orwell followed him in. He drawled in a distinctly bourgeois accent, ‘I’m looking for a chap named McNair, I’ve got a couple of letters for him.’ At first his accent repelled my Tyneside prejudices and I curtly replied, ‘A’am the lad ye’re looking for.’ He handed me his two letters, one from Fenner Brockway, the other from HN Brailsford, both personal friends of mine. I realized that my visitor was none other than George Orwell, two of whose books I had read and greatly admired... I asked him what I could do to help and he replied, ‘I have come to Spain to join the militia to fight against Fascism.’ I asked him if he had ever been a soldier and he mentioned that he had been a police officer in Burma and could handle a rifle. I told him that I remembered this from Burmese Days. For the first time he smiled and the atmosphere became friendly...

He took careful note of my description of the militia bodies and then added that he would like to write about the situation and endeavour to stir working-class opinion in Britain and France. I suggested the best thing he could do would be to use my office as his headquarters, get the atmosphere by going to Madrid, Valencia, and the Aragon front where the POUM forces were stationed and then get down to the writing of his book. He then said that dlis was quite secondary and his main reason for coming was to fight against Fascism.[7]

So McNair, taking Orwell at his word, took him straight along to the POUM barracks and he signed up on the spot. Victor Alba, who has written a history of POUM, was then a young journalist of 20 and he was asked, because he spoke French, to show Orwell round Barcelona. He remembers him as a ‘silent, taciturn, not a good humoured man’, giving no impression of being an interesting person; but he noted that he had enlisted voluntarily, that he was not simply paying a visit, as were so many English and French intellectuals.[8]

When McNair was interviewed, however, at about the same time as his written account, he did not even say ‘book’; but simply that Orwell had talked about doing ‘some articles’ for the New Statesman and Nation.[9] That accords with the memories of two others. But what is reasonably clear is that for Orwell at that time writing was, indeed, a quite secondary motive for coming to Spain; and it is quite certain that Fred Warburg was mistaken when he claimed in his autobiography that Orwell came to him to discuss Homage to Catalonia before going to Spain.[10] When the book began to take shape in Orwell’s mind months later he offered it to Gollancz who, knowing what it would say and probably anxious to placate Strachey and Pollitt, turned it down sight unseen.

Each of Orwell’s documentary books and his essay or story ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ have posed a problem for the biographer. As with ‘Shooting an Elephant’ and ‘A Hanging’, they are a compound of fact and fiction, honest in intent, true to experience, but not necessarily truthful in detail. Down and Out was far from a literal record of ‘what actually happened’, and The Road to Wigan Pier was less a straight documentary than often supposed. Homage to Catalonia is, however, closer to a literal record than anything he wrote; for in order to controvert the many existing false accounts (he was not breaking new ground, only in the way he wrote) he had to get the facts right and give himself no artistic licence. It poses no general problem of genre, only lesser problems of some particular questionable judgements; and while he warns his readers that Catalonia was not the whole of Republican Spain, he did not always take his own advice. His account of his own motives both contains some hindsight and a reversal of cause and effect once again for dramatic effect: ‘I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because... in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.’ And he was to admit to having written somewhat uncritically about the POUM because they had been so slandered and vilified in the international Press.[11] But the purpose of the book, to expose Communist folly and wickedness and to cry to the conscience of mankind to save the Republic, demanded that nothing in it could be faulted as fact, even if it was also ‘art’. The names he gave of his comrades in the line and back in Barcelona are real names, and survivors have confirmed all of the main incidents he describes, whether of trench warfare or street-fighting.

His humility, fine simplicity and courage in Joining the POUM militia irradiate his book. What does not emerge is that from the beginning he both assumed and had thrust on him positions of minor leadership, and that in a militia where commands had to be persuasive rather than arbitrary. He tells of ‘what was comically called instruction’ but not of his own instructing. This was by virtue both of his own training and of his character. The Burma Police had been, after all, a kind of militia. Part of his job had been the training of native constables in small arms, drill, hygiene and field movements as well as in police routines. When McNair went round to the Lenin Barracks three days after Orwell had enlisted (as ‘Eric Blair’, of course) to see how he was getting on:

...there was George forcing about fifty young, enthusiastic but undisciplined Catalonians to learn the rudiments of military drill. He made them run and jump, taught them to form threes, showed them how to use the only rifle available, an old Mauser, by taking it to pieces and explaining it. Gone was the drawling ex-Etonian, in his place was an ardent young man of action in complete control of the situation. When the two hours drill was over, he chased the lads off to the bathing pool, jumped in first himself and they all followed him.

Good officer stuff, but working with anarchists and socialists: Orwell was in his element. McNair asked him how he had succeeded in establishing this ascendancy and twenty-eight years later claimed to remember ‘practically word for word’ his reply:

‘When I got here four nights ago they seemed to think I was a bit of a curiosity. They had hardly ever seen a foreigner. After our meal I noticed they were whispering behind my back. I just rolled a cigarette, sipped my wine and waited... I tumbled to their game, they were going to make the big Englishman drunk. They tried very hard. Bottle after bottle of the rough Spanish wine came up and we all kept on drinking. They did not know that I had worked for a year and a half in Paris in hotels and pubs and know all about cheap red wine which the French call “Gratte-gorge” (throat-scraper). One by one they began dropping out and stumbled away to their bunks. We were only three or four left so I said quietly, “Well, boys, we’ve had a nice friendly drink so I’ll just toddle off if you’ll show me where I sleep.” They understood my French. I managed, but only just, to get to bed quietly... A strange commentary on life that I was only able to obtain their respect because I could drink most of them under the table.’

‘Next morning they all had a hang-over so I decided to jump in. My Catalonian being inadequate I got the man in charge to translate from my French. “Now, young fellows, we had a jolly good night but we’re not here to booze, we’re here to smash the fascists. You will now all drill under my orders and follow what I do.” To my surprise and joy they all agreed, they soon got over their hangovers, and since then they think I’m somebody and treat me with comradeship and respect.’[12]

‘Comradeship and respect’ is what Orwell found everyone showing each other in Barcelona. The bourgeoisie seemed to have vanished. It was a working-class town, no one ‘well dressed’ and everyone addressing each other as ‘Comrade’, and using the second-person familiar ‘thou’ in place of the distancing ‘you’. He did not realize, in fact, that the revolutionary phase of the red Hags or the anarchist red and black Hags was nearly over — republican normality was about to be restored by the central government for the sake of a united war effort and to placate foreign opinion, particularly that of the British and French governments.

Orwell went to the trenches in the Aragon front at Alcubierre. He was in the hills about two hundred miles west of Barcelona and on a salient in line about midway between Saragossa and Huesca. He was part of the ‘Rovira’ or 29th division and the neighbouring divisions were all composed of Anarchist militias. ‘I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.’[13] His centuria or battalion was commanded by an affable Belgian irregular, Georges Kopp, an ex-engineer who had manufactured arms in Brussels for the Spanish government until the embargo. McNair had to order two pairs of size twelve boots from England specifically for Orwell. The centuria was ‘an untrained mob composed mostly of boys in their teens’; he was made a cabo or corporal, in charge of a section of twelve men. It was a quiet part of the line, as he wrote: boredom and cold were the main enemies. He admitted to suffering bitterly from the cold, his winter bronchitis never left him: ‘Firewood was the one thing that really mattered’, and was in short supply — he risked snipers’ bullets to pull in branches of bushes from between the lines. It was as well that the Fascists were not active in that part of the line, for the POUM had little with which to resist them beyond enthusiasm and fifteen rounds of ammunition each. Every cartridge had to be separately tested in the breech to see if it would fit, for three different types of rifle were in use. Orwell’s was a Mauser of 1890 vintage — not a good year, he thought. Food, wine, candles, cigarettes and matches were in reasonable supply most of the time but ‘we had no tin hats, no bayonets, hardly any revolvers or pistols, and not more than one bomb between five or ten men... no range-finders, no telescopes, no periscopes, no field-glasses except a few privately owned pairs [like his own], no flares or Very lights, no armourers’ tools, hardly even any cleaning materials’.[14] The list is poignant. They were left in the line, in badly constructed trenches, for debilitatingly long periods until their leave was due. No regular alternation of line and reserve was ever organized. In eighty days, he was able to get his clothes off only three times. Sanitary or medical services were poor to non-existent. Many of the recruits simply defecated in the trenches where they stood, neglecting or refusing to dig latrines. ‘One of the essential experiences of war is never being able to escape from disgusting smells of human origin.’[15] That January it was too cold as yet for lice, they came later in March. ‘The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae — every one of them,’ he reflected, ‘had lice crawling over his testicles’; but before the lice returned, rats and mice abounded. ‘The dirt never worried me. Dirt is a thing people make too much fuss about. It is astonishing how quickly you get used to doing without a handkerchief and to earing out of the tin pannikin in which you also wash.’[16] But dirt did worry him, whether among tramps, in the tripe shop or in the trenches; he used it as a symbol of oppression throughout his writings, and he deliberately forced himself to endure dirt in order better to understand, he thought, the condition of the poor and the oppressed.

Firing was not continuous, only spasmodic sniping, for both sides were short of ammunition. Orwell often crawled forward on patrol far into no-man’s-land to observe the Fascist lines — it relieved the boredom; but fighting patrols were not used. Both sides were simply holding the line in preparation for a possible big push. ‘Georges Kopp, on his periodical tours of inspection, was quite frank with us. “This is not a war,” he used to say, “it is a comic opera with an occasional death.’”[17] The English contingent called the war ‘a bloody pantomime’. A friendship (which was to last) sprang up between Orwell and Kopp. Kopp had sent for him on being intrigued to see on the company roll ‘Eric Blair: grocer’. They had a similar sardonic humour and it helped to pass the time away. Orwell could well have written with the same tragic irony as the Communist poet, John Cornford, killed only the month before on the Cordoba front, ‘This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.’[18]

The militia he was in, like the others, had been hurriedly raised in the early days of Franco’s revolt the previous year by trades unions or political parties, and the soldiers owed their allegiance to these more directly than to the central government. Indeed the POUM’s Marxists were as opposed to centralist state control in practice as the Anarchists were in theory. Both saw the Communists as a party corrupted by state power. La Batalla, the POUM’s newspaper, alone in Catalonia had denounced the Moscow trials of July 1936 and Stalin’s executions of the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ in August; indeed they claim it to have been the first paper anywhere to realize what was happening.[19] The POUM militia was ‘in theory at any rate... a democracy and not a hierarchy’ as if every centuria was a soviet or commune. There were officers and NCOs, orders were given and were expected to be obeyed; but they were given by one comrade to another and had to be given for clear and obvious reasons, not just to test ‘blind obedience’. So ‘there was no military rank in the ordinary sense; no titles, no badges, no heel-clicking and no saluting’, Orwell recalled’. Everyone drew the same pay, had the same food, wore the same uniform, lived in the same quarters. ‘The essential point of the system was social equality between officers and men. Everyone... mingled on terms of complete equality... Of course there was not perfect equality, but there was a nearer approach to it than I had ever seen or than I would have thought conceivable in time of war.’ Describing his feelings three months later he said: ‘I was breathing the air of equality, and I was simple enough to imagine that it existed all over Spain. I did not realize that more or less by chance I was isolated among the most revolutionary section of the Spanish working class.’ And that June from hospital he was to write to Cyril Connolly: ‘I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before.’[20] Orwell did believe in socialism before, as The Road to Wigan Pier and reviews written at that time prove. But he did not ‘really believe’: it had been an intellectual matter and a moral compassion for other people’s sufferings. In Catalonia he experienced it for himself. He was no longer condescending, he was engulfed in comradeship. Nothing that happened later could ever take away that extraordinary experience. He personified it all in the opening paragraph of Homage to Catalonia where he described shaking hands with an unknown Italian militiaman, simple, candid and ferocious, whose language he could not even speak, and they only met for a moment — ‘Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger’; and in the last paragraphs of his essay of 1942, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, the verses he wrote in his memory express the same feeling:

But the thing that I saw in your face
No power can disinherit:
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit.

George Woodcock was to apply these last three words to Orwell himself.

Two Catalan writers include a section on Orwell in a recent life of Josep Rovira, the commander of the 29th Division in which Orwell (and one of themselves) fought. Some of it is simply commentary on Homage to Catalonia (the accuracy and authenticity of which they applaud, while distancing themselves from what they assume to be Orwell’s more moderate political position); but parts of it are based on talking to fellow Catalans who had either met him or met people who had:

You could immediately see in him a desire to observe like a curious child. His introverted stare was no impediment because immediately he could establish a warm and human relationship. The majority of the militiamen were young and playful, how he himself described them, and none of them suspected that the long-legged foreigner who always had to bend down when the others walked about in the trenches, was an intellectual, a writer who noted details of everything around him, including the psychological traits of the human beings whose life he shared in good and open comradeship...

Unlike other foreign volunteers associated with the militia.. .Orwell had come to take part in the fight, the outcome of which to him was quite uncertain and problematic, not as an adventurer looking for honours and distinctions. All the time he was at the front, he never moved from the trenches except once when he was wounded and another time for a short leave — that is to say, he never looked for contacts in the army hierarchy, nor with politicians or journalists, many of whom were attached to the divisions, more or less near the fighting line. Those who lived with him in the months he was in the firing line never saw him go near the column, brigade or divisional headquarters. If as he declared in his book he had come to Spain with the vague idea of writing newspaper articles, it would appear that once he got to know something of the reality of trench life and the human types with whom he shared it, the natural thing would have been to change his place and exchange the discomfort and dangers of the trenches for the relative comfort of being a journalist at staff headquarters.[21]

Even if the psychological description of the first paragraph is a little idealized — some would doubt that he could establish ‘immediately... a warm and human relationship’ even in Catalonia at this time — yet the second paragraph makes an irrefutable and impressive moral point.

Towards the end of January, Orwell and a solitary Welsh working man, Robert Williams, were transferred a few miles further west to Monte Oscuro, overlooking the town of Saragossa. They joined the ILP contingent who had just come out from England and had finished their two weeks’ training in Barcelona. There were about thirty of them in all, commanded by Bob Edwards, an ILP Parliamentary candidate in the 1930S (Labour MP since 1955), who had visited Moscow and although without military experience had been made honorary colonel in the Red Army, an empty compliment which led to his being made a company commander in Spain. This dismayed a few old soldiers.

Edwards describes the first appearance of Orwell:

All six foot three of him was striding towards me and his clothing was grotesque to say the least. He wore corduroy riding breeches, khaki puttees and huge boots, I’ve never seen boots that were so large, clogged in mud. He had a yellow pigskin jerkin, a coffee coloured balaclava hat and he wore the longest scarf I’ve ever seen, khaki scarf wrapped round and round his neck right up to his ears, on his shoulder he carried an old-fashioned German rifle, I think it must have been fifty years old; and hanging to his belt were two hand grenades. Running beside him, trying to keep pace, were two youths of the Militia, similarly equipped; but what amused me most was that behind Orwell was a shaggy mongrel dog with the word POUM painted on its side.

And he notes Orwell’s eccentricity and courage:

He was absolutely fearless. About seven hundred yards from our lines and very close to a Fascist machine-gun post was a huge crop of potatoes. The war had interfered with the harvesting and there were these lovely potatoes. Orwell worked it out that a man, crawling on his stomach, could just not be hit by machine-gunners at that distance. With a sack — about three times a week, yes — he’d say, ‘I’m out for potatoes’ and I’d say ‘For goodness sake, you know, it’s not worth the risk.’ He said, ‘They can’t hit me, I’ve already proved it.’ And they shot at him, you know, every time he went out for potatoes, they were shooting all the time. But he’d worked it out that they just couldn’t hit a man at this distance, and he was quite right, they couldn’t.[22]

As George walked along his section of the trenches, there were continual shouts of ‘Get your head down’. Because of his height he protruded above the parapet, drawing the enemy’s fire. But he claimed to have worked it out rationally that the range was too great, as with the potatoes, for anything but an accidental hit. He was more concerned with rats than with bullets: ‘If there is one thing I hate more than another it is a rat running over me in the darkness. However, I had the satisfaction of catching one of them a good punch that sent him flying.’ Bob Edwards made a bit more of this, or of a similar incident.

He had a phobia against rats. We got used to them. They used to gnaw at our boots during the night, but George just couldn’t get used to the presence of rats and one day late in the evening he caused us great embarrassment which resulted in the loss of some very valuable material and equipment. A particularly adventurous rat had annoyed George for some time and he got out his gun and shot it. But the explosion in the confines of his dug-out vibrated — it seemed throughout the whole front, and then the whole front and both sides went into action. The artillery started, we threw patrols out, machine-gun nests got going and after it all our valuable cookhouse had been destroyed and two buses that had brought up our reserves.[23]

This sounds a tall tale, but others confirm it. Even if old veterans often gild the same lily, they all see it as very Orwell-like.

Edwards, indeed, portrayed Orwell as a slightly comic figure. He plainly disliked him, suspecting him, he later admitted, of being another ‘bloody scribbler’ getting colour for a book.[24] Others remember his exact words as ‘a bloody middle-class little scribe’. Certainly Orwell wrote a great deal, sitting outside his dug-out when warm enough or inside by candlelight. (People have speculated about what he was writing and sending on to Eileen — ‘diaries’, it is said, but this is pure speculation and it is very unlikely that he got whatever it was out of Spain.) John (‘Paddy’) Donovan, a new recruit, remembered how they suffered in his dug-out through Orwell’s incessant smoking of cigarettes while he wrote, rolled from the strongest, coarsest black shag pipe tobacco. He kept a rope cigarette lighter hanging from his belt all the time. But he was always interuptable for a chat or an argument with anyone, and he ‘mucked in’ totally and efficiently. The youngest of them was Stafford Cottman, an 18-year-old who had moved into the Young Communist League from the Labour Party’s Guild of Youth, but who had none the less joined the POUM (the lines were not so tightly drawn at first). He now comments ‘how funny people are about Orwell, a much simpler person than he’s made out to be, so ordinary and decent’.[25] Despite his ‘Eton accent’ he found him unaffected and straightforward, easy to get on with. Paddy Donovan, who had been in the First World War, a very unpolitical working man (perhaps there for the job and the scrap), remembered him in the same way. Certainly the ILP contingent respected his military competence, for when Bob Edwards left the unit at the end of March to attend the ILP annual conference, they promptly elected Orwell as their group representative or commander in his place (by the time Edwards had finished his business in England, he was advised not to try to return).

Years after, Orwell told the tale that, crawling close to the enemy trenches, he got a Fascist soldier in his sights who was holding up his trousers as he ran. Orwell could not pull the trigger: ‘I had come here to shoot at “Fascists”; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a “Fascist”, he is visibly a fellow creature.’[26] This was not opting out of the business of killing. In an account of the night raid on the enemy trenches, Orwell made clear that grenades that he threw almost certainly proved deadly. He had also tried to bayonet a man running away down a communication trench as he ran along the top, but could not catch up. Then came the counter-attack:

I had no bombs left except the Fascist ones and I was not certain how these worked. I shouted to the others to know if anyone had a bomb to spare. Douglas Moyle felt in his pocket and passed one across. I flung it and threw myself on my face. By one of those strokes of luck that happen about once in a year I had managed to drop the bomb almost exactly where the rifle had flashed. There was the roar of the explosion and then, instantly, a diabolical outcry of screams and groans. We had got one of them, anyway; I don’t know whether he was killed, but certainly he was badly hurt. Poor wretch, poor wretch! I felt a vague sorrow as I heard him screaming.[27]

This account of the action is confirmed by a story printed shortly afterwards in the ILP ‘s journal, the New Leader, gleaned from letters sent to John McNair by members of the contingent. The main difference in the accounts is that his comrades singled out ‘Eric Blair’s’ personal bravery (the ILP editor made no attempt to exploit the writer’s name, probably had no idea who he was):

A Spanish comrade rose and rushed forward. ‘Pour ellos — Ariba!’ (For the others — charge!) ‘Charge!’ shouted Blair... In front of the parapet was Eric Blair’s tall figure coolly strolling forward through the storm of fire. He leapt at the parapet, then stumbled. Hell, had they got him? No, he was over, closely followed by Gross of Hammersmith, Frankfort of Hackney and Bob Smillie, with the others right after them.

The trench had been hastily evacuated. The last of the retreating Fascists, clothed only in a blanket, was thirty yards away. Blair gave chase, but the man knew the ground and got away. In a comer of a trench was one dead man; in a dugout was another body.[28]

Frank Frankford [sic] remembers the man in the blanket and Orwell chasing him with his bayonet. In a more properly conducted war there might have been a medal, but such a ‘mention in despatches’ must have given the new socialist far more pleasure.

In mid-February, Eileen suddenly went to Spain to be near George and to work as secretary to McNair and the ILP office in Barcelona. She also began typing manuscripts or diaries for George, but whatever they were, they were lost in the troubles to come. Perhaps she came primarily to be nearer her man, but it showed a strong commitment to the cause on her side. She found him at Monflorite, attending a field hospital with a poisoned hand. ‘The doctor is quite ignorant and incredibly dirty,’ she wrote to her mother. It healed, however, in about ten days. Eileen could only spend three days with her husband near the front, and Georges Kopp drove her back to Barcelona. Orwell wrote to her just after she left: ‘Dearest, you really are a wonderful wife. When I saw the cigars my heart melted away.’ But there was, guardedly, more serious matter in the letter. He was due for leave in Barcelona at the end of the month, and wanted her at ‘some opportune moment’ before then to say something to McNair about ‘my wanting to go to Madrid, etc.’.[29]

Madrid was the most active section of the line. But the Madrid front was the preserve of the International Brigade, mostly Communists, entirely under Communist control.

The ‘etc.’ in his letter to Eileen must refer to the political and military debate that was raging in the ILP contingent. The POUM and the Anarchist trades unions of the CNT held that the war could only be won by continuing the revolution that had been sparked off by the Fascist rebellion. They held that it must be, as in the days of Danton or of Trotsky, a revolutionary war: ‘We must go forward or we shall go back!’ was their slogan. The official Republican Government, backed by the powerful UGT unions and, above all, by the Communist Party (grown disproportionately powerful since Stalin was almost the only supplier of arms to the Republic) tried to contain, even to suppress, the revolutionary fervour. They feared that the call of the extreme Left for the expropriation of property would alienate both the middle classes and foreign investors: the war was to be fought simply to save the Republic. Middle-of-the-road parties took the same view, but so, tactically, did the Communists. Stalin had wanted to defeat German and Italian intervention in Spain without antagonizing the British and French governments, whom he still hoped would see the need for a European anti-Fascist defensive alliance, something just as important as lifting the arms embargo against Spain. And the Communists had been strengthened by the affiliation of the Socialist Youth Movement — a militarily important body, since its age limit reached up to 35.[30] This is to put the case at its best; but also the Spanish Communist Party, under Russian orders, were after power and would stop at nothing to prevent the Anarchists and the ‘Trotskyites’ (that is, in their eyes, the POUM) from retaining their local dominance in Catalonia. Three days before Andres Nin had been expelled from the Catalan Government, Pravda itself on 16 December 1936 somewhat prematurely announced that ‘In Catalonia the elimination ofTrotskyites and Anarcho-Syndicalists has begun. It will be carried out with the same energy as it was carried out in the Soviet Union.’[31]

Most of the ILP contingent were strongly anti-Communist even before they arrived in Spain. They shared the view of Nin (who was soon to be killed by Russian agents) that Stalin had betrayed the revolution and was even willing to connive in a purely nationalistic and imperialistic war against Germany, at least a war that would have nothing to do with advancing socialism. Orwell, while he did not share the Communists’ view that Fascism in Spain was the same as that in Germany and Italy (Franco, he shrewdly saw, wished more to restore feudalism than to impose modern fascism),[*] did share their tactical view of how the war should be run. He found socialism among the Catalan militia but he saw the practical international case for the Communist slogan, ‘The war first, the revolution afterwards’, a slogan derided by both POUM and the Anarchists. This seemed to him common sense, and he maintained this minority viewpoint in the long hours of debate with which the ILP contingent pursued continuous political education, or fought off boredom. He was firm enough in his own mind and tough enough in discussion to hear and accept all the POUM and the ILP denunciations of Stalin’s tyranny and yet to say that had nothing to do with the tactical situation in Spain. Two of his comrades remember this well, and he soon made no secret of his intention to transfer, during the coming leave, to the International Brigade. Others would have gone with him, because they too wanted to be with the real action and to have the modem weapons with which the Russians favoured their own.[32] Again there is need to remember that, while he had criticized the Marxist mentality in The Road to Wigan Pier, he had had good personal relations with the Communists in the North of England, and had respected their practical activism. In Chapter 5 of Homage to Catalonia, when he came down strongly in favour of POUM’s revolutionary strategy, none the less he said quite plainly — what so many have ignored —

I do not want to suggest that in February I held all of the opinions that are implied in what I have said above... It is easy to see why, at this time, I preferred the Communist viewpoint to that of the POUM. The Communists had a definite practical policy, an obviously better policy from the point of view of the common sense which looks only a few months ahead... On the whole I accepted the Communist viewpoint, which boiled down to saying: ‘We can’t talk of revolution till we’ve won the war.’[33]

Orwell’s views were far from eccentric. Willy Brandt (the future prime minister and SPD leader) was in Catalonia at this time (they only met very briefly) as a young German exile, and he expressed the dilemma thus:

The POUM in partial agreement with the Anarcho-syndicalists... supported the view that the revolution was the overriding concern. The Communists, in partial agreement with the ‘bourgeois’ Democrats, took the opposing view that the demands of the war took precedence. In trying to arrive at a view of my own I fell out with the revolutionaries, who seemed to me to have overshot the target by a wide margin, but I disagreed even more violently with those who sought to exploit the discipline which the military situation demanded by establishing a system of one-party rule.[34]

But it was not the ‘debate in the trenches’ that was to move Orwell like Brandt against the Communist Party, while retaining his respect for the revolutionaries; his attitudes were to change when he took a spectacularly unrestful leave back in a changed Barcelona after one hundred and fifteen days in the trenches.

There were a few days of peace, however. Eileen wrote to her brother on i May: ‘George is here on leave. He arrived completely ragged, almost barefoot, a little lousy, dark brown and looking very well. In the previous twelve hours he had been in trains consuming anis, muscatel out of anis bottles, brandies and chocolate.’ So he was ill for two days, she related, and thus ‘still persuadable to having a quiet day’. In the same letter, she mentioned that he had actually applied for a discharge and planned to re-enlist with the International Brigade in Madrid.

On 3 May, the Government’s ‘Civil Guards’, said Orwell,[*] attempted to take over the telephone exchange from the Anarchist CNT unions who controlled it. He recalled:

About midday on 3 May a friend crossing the lounge of the hotel said casually: ‘There’s been some kind of trouble at the Telephone Exchange, I hear’. For some reason I paid no attention to it at the time.

That afternoon, between three and four, I was halfway down the Ramblas when I heard several rifle-shots behind me. I turned round and saw some youths, with rifles in their hands and the red and black handkerchiefs of the Anarchists round their throats, edging up a side-street that ran off the Ramblas northward. They were evidently exchanging shots with someone in a tall octagonal tower — a church, I think — that commanded the side-street. I thought instantly, ‘It’s started!’[35]

No one would ever be sure why it happened or quite what happened, though trouble was in the air. It may have been the Anarchists behaving in a tactically undisciplined way. They, like the POUM militia, kept their own arms and ammunition dumps, defended their own localities, and were deeply suspicious of central civil or strategic military commands. The Anarchists may well have been tapping the phones. Some were anxious for a showdown in Catalonia with the Communists, and vice versa. In any case, they were not subject to much control by their leaders. The Anarchists believed to a man that the Communists provoked their people to riot in order to force the central government to suppress and disarm them. The Communist leaders spread the tale in Spain that the Anarchists and the POUM had been infiltrated by Fascist agents provocateurs who, indeed, long afterwards claimed credit — as such people will. Broue and Temime in their great study of the Communist role in the Civil War sanely comment: ‘Such a discussion is a complete waste of time: provocation by one, two or even ten agents is only effective if the situation lends itself to it. As we have seen, it did lend itself to it.’[36]

The Communists spread the tale abroad that the POUM were secretly allied to the Fascists, even receiving arms from them across the lines at night, and that the Anarchists were ‘objectively Fascists’; and this canard was repeated without question by Left-wing and even by some Liberal newspapers in Britain, to Orwell’s great disgust and anger when copies reached him in Barcelona. By 9 May the Communist Party secretary, Jose Diaz, had established the line: ‘our principal enemies are the Fascists. However, these not only include the Fascists themselves, but also the agents who work for them... Some call themselves Trotskyites... If everyone knows this, if the government knows it, why doesn’t it treat them like Fascists and exterminate them pitilessly.’[37]

As the fighting spread, Orwell could not get up the Ramblas to the Hotel Continental where Eileen was staying. It was situated on the corner of Plaza de Catalunya where the telephone exchange was, so he headed for the Hotel Falcon down the other end of the Ramblas, which was used by POUM militiamen on leave. Most of the ILP platoon gathered there. Confusion reigned. No one really knew what was happening. The Anarchist parliamentary leaders were publicly calling for a truce, but barricades had already gone up and local groups were heavily involved in street fighting. No one knew or could see if it was an Anarchist rising or a Government attempt to wipe them out. If it was a rising, it was most incompetently planned; but if it was a deliberate purge, that too was ill-prepared, spasmodic and halfhearted.

John McNair appeared that night with supplies of cigarettes and news. The following day Orwell, issued with a rifle and ammunition as well as tobacco, managed to work his way up the Ramblas, despite snipers’ bullets, to the Continental to find Eileen. He also found Georges Kopp. Kopp, a soldier of fortune in all things, was perhaps a little over-attentive to his comrade’s wife; he saw it as being equally fond of them both; but she kept him at a comradely distance. Kopp busied himself to prevent bloodshed in their block. Close to the Continental were the offices of the POUM. Next door was the Café Moka in which twenty to thirty ‘Civil Guards’, said Orwell, had barricaded themselves when the fighting started, more in fear than in offence. Some German POUM Shock Troopers were bowling hand-grenades down the pavement at the café. Kopp ordered them to stop. He then with a studied casualness strolled up to the café, to the alarm of his men, and reached a local cease-fire agreement with the Asaltos, restoring their confidence by swopping a crate of beer for a rifle they had lost. He ordered the POUM building to be defended against any attack, but otherwise there was to be no firing. Orwell was sent across the road into a small, ornamental conservatory or cupola on the roof of the Poliorama cinema. From there he guarded the approaches for three almost sleepless days and nights; but they were not attacked. Jon Kimche, visiting Spain as chairman of the ILP League of Youth, found Orwell there, ‘lounging in the cupola’, but there was little time to talk; or if so, of what they talked is forgotten — just as in the bookshop.

Elsewhere from all over the town sounds of machine-gun and rifle fire and of exploding hand-grenades came in spasmodic gusts, even the occasional crash of artillery. Orwell only fired once, to destroy an unexploded grenade on the pavement. By the time the unhappy Prime Minister had agreed with the Communists to send strong Government reinforcements to Barcelona and the Anarchists on 8 May had finally obeyed a desperate appeal by their leaders to take down the barricades and disperse, at least four hundred people had been killed and a thousand wounded. Orwell was to describe with impressive honesty and objectivity what happened to him and what he saw. At first the tone is dry:

I was in no danger. I suffered from nothing worse than hunger and boredom, yet it was one of the most unbearable periods of my whole life. I think few experiences could be more sickening, more disillusioning or, finally, more nerve-racking than those evil days of street warfare... Sometimes I was merely bored with the whole affair, paid no attention to the hellish noise, and spent hours reading a succession of Penguin Library books which, luckily, I had bought a few days earlier; sometimes I was very conscious of the armed men watching me fifty yards away. It was a little like being in the trenches again; several times I caught myself, from force of habit, speaking of the Civil Guards [sic] as ‘the Fascists’.[38]

His tone became more angry, a cool hard anger, only in the next chapter of the book, where he discussed the reporting of all this in the Communist and international press. Two examples are enough. He quoted the Daily Worker of 11 May, an article that began, ‘The German and Italian agents, who poured into Barcelona ostensibly “to prepare” the notorious “Congress of the Fourth International”, had one big task’ which was to provoke so much bloodshed, ‘in co-operation with the local Trotskyists’, that the Germans and Italians would have an excuse for direct naval and military intervention on the Catalan coast. He also quoted the Liberal News Chronicle, whose foreign staff had been heavily penetrated by Communists (as when Arthur Koestler became a correspondent for them in Spain), a story that began’... This has not been an Anarchist uprising. It is a frustrated putsch of the “Trotskyist” POUM’; and cheerfully ended ‘Barcelona, the first city of Spain, was plunged into bloodshed by agents provocateurs using this subversive organization’.[39] It is still hard to recall how vile, gross, and fabricated such propaganda was. Orwell saw before his own eyes not merely the distortion of evidence through differing perspectives but the sheer invention of history. One aspect of Nineteen Eighty-Four was already occurring.

Again Orwell admits that the lesson of these events took some time to sink in. ‘Orwell was affected less by the May fighting,’ the historian Raymond Carr has written, ‘than by the ruthless use the Communists made of a political post-mortem in order to destroy their enemies.’[40] Not knowing fully what the fighting was about, Orwell instinctively took up arms with his POUM comrades:

The poorer classes in Barcelona looked upon the Civil Guards [sic] as something rather resembling the Black and Tans, and it seemed to be taken for granted that they had started this attack on their own initiative. Once I had heard how things stood, I felt easier in my mind. The issue was clear enough. On one side, the CNT, on the other side the police. I have no particular love for the idealized ‘worker’ as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.[41]

The Burma policeman who claimed to have struck servants with his fists had travelled a long way.

The outbreak of fighting could just have been a ghastly series of muddles and misunderstandings. Only after the fighting ended did Orwell become aware of what malignant lies and simplicities were being written in the Communist press. He says that rank-and-file Communists on the spot were unhappy at what they read but stuck to their own side none the less.

Our Communist friend approached me once again and asked me whether I would not transfer into the International Column.

I was rather surprised. ‘Your papers are saying I’m a Fascist,’ I said, ‘Surely I should be politically suspect, coming from the POUM.’

‘Oh, that doesn’t matter. After all, you were only acting under orders.’ I had to tell him that after this affair I could not join any Communist-controlled unit. Sooner or later it might mean being used against the Spanish working class. One could not tell when this kind of thing would break out again, and if I had to use my rifle at all in such an affair I would use it on the side of the working class and not against them. He was very decent about it. But from now on the whole atmosphere was changed.[42]

Another pair of size twelve boots which he had ordered from a local cobbler the day before the fighting began were ready the day after it ended. On 10 May Orwell returned to the line near Huesca with the POUM, and was made lieutenant of the ILP platoon in Bob Edwards’ continued absence.

Only the year before, John Cornford had written for Margot Heinemann in the poem ‘Heart of the heartless world’ that ‘... if bad luck should lay my strength into the shallow grave...’ Orwell, in a grim way, had good luck. Ten days after returning to the front, at 5 in the morning on 20 May, ‘Eric was standing there talking to us, at dawn “Stand To”, telling us of his experiences in the brothels in Paris... then it got light’, remembers Frank Frankford, ‘and his tall head was right above the parapet and all of a sudden, down he goes, shot through the throat’.[43] A single shot had rung out. A sniper, aiming well or damned lucky, had put a bullet right through his neck, just under the larynx. ‘Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion...’ Orwell recalled, ‘my first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well... The meaninglessness of it! To be bumped off, not even in battle, but in this stale corner of the trenches, thanks to a moment’s carelessness.’[44] Luckily he was hit, as recounted by Kopp, by a high velocity modern rifle from fairly close range: the speed and heat of the bullet left a clean and cauterized wound, there was little haemorrhaging and no infection set in.

The doctors told him that if the bullet had been but a millimetre to the left he would have been dead. They also told him, quite wrongly, that the vocal chord was broken and that he would never speak normally again. At the field hospital two of his comrades came, as was customary, to take the wounded man’s pistol, watch, torch and knife. Such things were common property, only privately possessed for public use. They found him very calm but they took it for granted that he would die. He was then jolted down to the divisional hospital at Barbastro. This was so horribly overcrowded that the very next morning, without further treatment, he was shipped down by train to Lerida. He drily commented that people with abdominal or internal wounds were usually killed by the jolting on the badly made and shell-scarred roads, so he was lucky to have gone by train.

Eileen and Georges Kopp found him at Lerida from where, after three or four days, he was sent on to Tarragona. He claimed this was a mistake and that it was meant to be Barcelona. After a week there, Eileen staying by him every minute, he was declared out of danger and ended up in a POUM convalescent hospital, Sanatorium Maurin, in a suburb of Barcelona (named after the famous POUM leader). His voice came back after electrotherapy, but low and hoarse: when he was fully recovered, he had a lasting. Hat tonelessness of speech. Eileen had sent a telegram to his father at Southwold only four days after the wound: ‘ERIC SLIGHTLY WOUNDED PROGRESS EXCELLENT SENDS LOVE NO NEED FOR ANXIETY EILEEN’. The Blairs would have read this as if he had got ‘a Blighty wound’ and that their strange son would soon be home. At that stage she must have been desperately worried herself, but probably feared that one of the ILP contingent might send a more alarming message. On 31 May, Eileen got Georges Kopp to send a full medical account to her surgeon brother, an eight-page description and narrative, requesting him to write to the Spanish specialist, anticipating that George would be leaving Spain for further treatment in England.[45]

In the hospital, there were old comrades from the unit: Arthur Clinton, Robert Williams and Stafford Cottmann, the youngest of the ILP contingent. George could get into Barcelona in the afternoon on the tram to meet Eileen. But he realized that everything was turning sour. The military truce of the POUM and CNT with the police and civil authorities had been observed, but a vicious post-mortem filled the Communist and Government Press, ‘there was a peculiar evil feeling in the air, and veiled hatred’. The Communists had become the dominant power in the local administration. POUM members on leave felt themselves viewed with suspicion, discriminated against in small ways. On returning to the front from leave, Orwell had learned that another member of the ILP contingent, Bob Smillie (the grandson of the great Scottish miners’ leader), had been arrested after coming back to Spain from a propaganda tour in England. Smillie was in prison in Valencia (and he was to die there, though whether from acute appendicitis or murdered by the Communists has never been cleared up). It was known that Smillie had been carrying documents, so Cottman and Orwell anxiously destroyed pamphlets and maps, anything that could be regarded by hopeful Communists or ignorant police as incriminating. Somewhat disillusioned, unsure if the full use of his voice would ever return, very tired, Orwell applied for his discharge. It was readily given on medical grounds; but it had to be counter-signed by divisional military commanders back in the field, a measure introduced to guard against malingering and desertion. It took Orwell six days, from 14 June, to get his discharge, as he was shunted from one office and one town to another, hitch-hiking lifts on military vehicles. He was back in Barcelona on 20 June and walked into the Hotel Continental.

Eileen was waiting anxiously in the foyer. She immediately bustled him straight out again into the street, and told him that the police had begun a purge of Anarchist and POUM activists and their foreign supporters. The POUM had been declared illegal and the Anarchists had been disarmed by sudden raids. The news had been kept from the front for several days, so that POUM units returning on leave were either disarmed and disbanded or arrested. Her own room had been searched by the police a few nights before, but with typical Spanish manners neither her person nor the bed on which she was lying — in which she had concealed ILP documents. Eileen told him who had been caught and who not. McNair and Cottman were hiding out, but Georges Kopp, although a battalion commander now, had been arrested.

That night Orwell slept out, hiding in a ruined church. The next morning Eileen arranged that McNair, Cottman and he should all meet at the British Consulate. His two friends brought news that Smillie had died in prison and rumours, which soon proved true, that Andres Nin had been kidnapped and killed by Russian agents. The memory of the martyred Nin stayed with Orwell: he left a ‘testament’ too, like Goldstein in Nineteen Eighty-Four who is Nin quite as much as Trotsky.[46]

That same afternoon, he and Eileen visited Kopp in prison. In the confusion of the mass arrests, ordinary prison rules, allowing a daily visit before trial, were still being observed: the political prisoners were not yet incommunicado. Kopp told them that he had been carrying an important letter from the Ministry of War to a colonel of Engineering on the eastern front which the police had confiscated. Orwell went straight to the War Department in Barcelona and, with difficulty, found the colonel’s office. He explained to the aide-de-camp that Major Kopp had been arrested by mistake while carrying an important letter to his colonel. The ADC was startled, if not scared, to learn what unit they were from, but he took Orwell with him straight to the office of the Chief of Police. After a fierce argument, the officer retrieved the letter. But for Kopp, he could do nothing: only promise that ‘proper inquiries’ would be made. The little ADC shook hands with Orwell in front of the police before they parted. Orwell thought that very brave of him. The whole episode shows the Orwells as incredibly brave too, almost foolhardy. They could do little or nothing to get their friend out of prison and yet had risked being rounded up themselves.

The men spent another night hiding and a day walking the boulevards as if they were tourists. Hotels had to report all guests to the police. They ran into several old comrades or acquaintances on the streets, also on the run or lying low — among them Willy Brandt. They tried to persuade Brandt to come with them to England but he refused. Cottman remembers Brandt then in a mood of despair at ‘working men killing working men’, pitying the poor among the Fascists, almost turning pacifist in his sadness at the sweet cause gone sour. In the evening Eileen, having got papers and passports together, and paid back personal money she was holding for various ILP members still at large, met them at the station at the last possible moment before the evening train left for France — which they then found, incredibly for Spain, had left early. So a third night was spent hiding out before the four of them got on the morning train together and sat confidently in the restaurant car, as if they were tourists or delegates returning from some conference. They crossed the frontier tensely but without incident. Orwell’s discharge papers had only the number of his regiment on it and the frontier guards had not yet been told that it was a POUM formation. The four of them grieved for Kopp and other friends, but McNair knew that they could all do more good raising the alarm outside — if anyone would listen.[47]

At Perpignan on the French side of the frontier they ran into Fenner Brockway, the General Secretary of the ILP, coming into Spain again to try to get some of the others out. Brockway had met Orwell only once before, but now found him ‘far more mature as a socialist’. The five of them talked deep and anxiously into the night. They talked about Spain and discussed where articles and letters could be published to warn the other elements in the Popular Front of the Communists’ actions and to bring pressure for the release of their imprisoned comrades. They talked about the issues of international politics and readily agreed, according to Brockway, that the British Government was more interested in combating Communism and Socialism than Fascism, so that if war did come with Germany, it would be a purely imperialist and capitalist struggle for markets, nothing that should gain the support of genuine socialists. Orwell said that he intended to support the ILP strongly and practically. He also asked Brockway’s advice about a publisher for a book on Spain, since he already knew that Gollancz was ‘distressed’ at his POUM connection. Brockway suggested that Fredric Warburg was just the man, not afraid to publish books from the independent Left wing, like Brockway’s own The Workers’ Front. He was already nicknamed, very misleadingly, ‘The Trotskyite publisher’.[*]

In the morning Brockway departed for Barcelona, McNair and Cottman for Paris, and George and Eileen had three days’ rest at Banyuls.[48] ‘Rest’, once again, is a relative term. He sent a telegram to the New Statesman and Nation offering an article, received an encouraging reply and began to write ‘Eyewitness in Barcelona’.

By the first week in July the Blairs were back in the house in Wallington, which Jack Common had been looking after for them. Orwell got down to Homage to Catalonia almost at once and Eileen got down to putting the house and garden in order. He must have been pleased to find on his return a copy of the News Chronicle for 10 June 1937 with a large photograph and long extract from The Road to Wigan Pier — as fourth of a series of five ‘giving the work of young writers already famous among critics, less well-known by the public’. The others were Arthur Calder-Marshall, Tom Harrisson, Stephen Spender, and — coupled together — W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. But his article for the New Statesman and Nation was rejected. He might growl and be suspicious as to their motives, but it was, after all, submitted on spec, not commissioned. So he published it in two parts in his old stand-by, the New English Weekly, on 29 July and 2 September. He told of the ‘reign of terror’ that the Government, backed by the Communist Party, had unleashed against ‘its own revolutionaries’; he said that the real struggle in Spain was between revolution and counter-revolution in the Government camp. He went so far as to accuse the Republican middle class of favouring a negotiated peace with Franco for fear that outright victory would mean the revolution. For good measure he argued that the British Government, by its fear of ‘communism’ (misplaced in this case) and sympathy with Spanish Fascism, had brought a new world war closer, but it would clearly not be fought as an anti-Fascist war, but simply as a capitalist and nationalist reaction to German military and commercial expansion. The Communist purge of the POUM had brought Orwell right round to the Anarchist, POUM, Trotskyite and ILP line that the Spanish War could only be won through a revolution, indeed that the future, impending and inevitable, European or world war could only be won by the elan and dedication of a people’s revolution, neither by phoney national coalition nor by popular front. The articles appear to have had no popular impact.

The New Statesman and Nation, however, sent him for review as a kind of softener Franz Borkenau’s Spanish Cockpit. ‘Dr Borkenau,’ wrote Orwell, ‘is a sociologist and not connected with any political party.’ Borkenau, in fact, had been an Austrian Communist who had worked for the Comintern in Moscow, lost his faith when he saw the megalomania of Stalin and the power hunger and cynicism of the bureaucrats; then he studied at Frankfurt under Adorno; was an exile in Panama and then Mexico, before going to Spain a few weeks after the outbreak of rebellion, and writing what is still a classic book on the war. His Spanish Cockpit both analyses the reasons for its outbreak and gives an eye-witness account of the revolution in Catalonia that, even before Orwell arrived in Spain, exposes the hostility and conspiracy of the Communists against their Left-wing rivals. He was imprisoned at Communist instigation and was lucky to get out. The experience took him to places and enabled him to see connections hidden to Orwell. But the argument was the same: the needs of Spain perverted and ruined by the dogmatic rigidity and the power hunger of Moscow. Borkenau had a deep influence on Orwell who reviewed equally enthusiastically two of his later books, The Communist International (1938) and The Totalitarian Enemy (1940).[49] Borkenau, like Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler and George Orwell himself, had come to see that, however horrible and paradoxical it might be, Stalinism and Fascism had something in common both in style and methods. The word that Mussolini had used as a boast they used as an insight into the unique aspirations of some modern autocracies: ‘totalitarianism’.

Orwell’s review of Borkenau appeared, however, not in the New Statesman and Nation, but in Time and Tide (31 July 1937), for Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman and Nation had rejected it.

29 July 1937

Dear Mr Orwell,

I am sorry that it is not possible for us to use your review of The Spanish Cockpit. The reason is simply that it too far controverts the political policy of the paper. It is very uncompromisingly said and implies that our Spanish correspondents are all wrong. I have, in fact, done my best to present a balanced view of the Spanish situation and published an article taking much the same view as yours by Listen Oak, followed by two very judicial articles by Brailsford, who made this controversy one of his particular subjects of investigation while he was in Spain.

I should add that our reviewers are always left a good deal of latitude and there is free controversy in the correspondence columns, but it is no use publishing reviews that too directly contradict conclusions that have been very carefully reached in the first part of the paper.

We shall, of course, send you payment in the usual way.

Yours sincerely
Kingsley Martin[50]

The Literary Editor, Raymond Mortimer, claimed to have rejected the review for the different reason that it simply stated Orwell’s own view, not Borkenau’s (they were, in fact, very much the same); but he apologized profusely to Orwell the following year when he learned for the first time of Kingsley Martin’s letter.[51] Martin never seemed to grasp the enormity of his action, particularly reprehensible as he never denied that Orwell’s facts were true, only that he believed that to publish them would damage the Popular Front.[52] His biographer talks about a proper sense of expediency, but Orwell thought that such ‘expediency’ was toleration of ‘necessary murder’ and showed ‘the mentality of a whore’ — a willingness to string along at any price.[53] Long before Orwell’s difficulties in getting Animal Farm accepted in 1944, there were objective reasons to believe that many prominent Left-wing intellectuals were not as dedicated to truth and liberty as they were to the illusion of being close to the future levers of power if they kept the company of the communists. Bertrand Russell accused them of worshipping the power as well as the sense of purpose of the Soviet Union. There is not the slightest ground for imputing persecution mania or paranoia to Orwell on this score. The socialist camp had gained as a recruit its most earnest and difficult free spirit.

Looking back in his essay ‘The Prevention of Literature’ of 1946 he said: ‘To write in plain, vigorous language, one has to think fearlessly and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.’ In ‘Why I Write’ of the same year he had stressed the primacy of ‘taking a stand’ and having something to say. But whether his heterodoxy led to the plain style or the plain style to the heterodoxy, it was in Spain that they fused in his character and in his craft and in Homage to Catalonia that they appeared in their fullest and most perfect expression — with the sole possible exception of Animal Farm.

For the next few years, public controversy and Orwell walked hand in hand. He had come back to England to read the reviewers’ warfare that had greeted The Road to Wigan Pier. It was internecine strife. The second half of the book had divided the Left. It was, indeed, wide open to criticism: he generalized about the psychology of the Left without so much as mentioning the Labour Party and the TUC, and he portrayed the Left’s ideas or rather ‘mentality’, for it was all from talk rather than from books, as if the whole world of socialist theory were composed either of official Marxists (the Communist Party) or provisional Marxists (the ILP). None the less, he made deep and shrewd criticisms. If he exaggerated the influence of intellectuals, yet the middle classes, especially the lower middle classes who needed to be won over, made the same mistake. He realized that ordinary people were more appalled by the apparent crankery of socialists than they were attracted or repelled by socialist doctrines. Orwell made a virtue of ordinariness and common decency; the Lord had not come into the world to save those who were righteous already. Some reviewers saw this, in whole or in part. Ethel Mannin had snorted in the ILP’s New Leader that it was ‘a great pity... he did not confine himself to facts and figures’.[54] Harold Laski in the Left Book Club’s journal gave faint praise to the first half and damned the second half for ignorance of socialist theory.[55] But Arthur Calder-Marshall wrote a very respectful review in Time and Tide in which, however, he pointed out two grave faults: that the stress on the squalor of the lodging house underestimates ‘the humanity of even the most poverty-stricken working-class homes’; and that of all the reasons both plausible and strange that Orwell gives for the disarray of the socialist movement, he fails to mention the most obvious: the lack of militant leadership by the Labour party and the TUC.[56]

This sort of fair criticism did not suit Pollitt or Strachey. Pollitt himself reviewed the book in the Daily Worker — a sign of the importance he attached to it:

Here is George Orwell, a disillusioned little middle-class boy who, seeing through imperialism, decided to discover what Socialism has to offer... a late imperialist policeman... If ever snobbery had its hallmark placed upon it, it is by Mr Orwell... I gather that the chief thing that worries Mr Orwell is the ‘smell’ of the working-class, for smells seem to occupy the major portion of the book... One thing I am certain of, and it is this — if Mr Orwell could only hear what the Left Book circles will say about this book, then he would make a resolution never to write again on any subject that he does not understand.[57]

The attack was repeated several times in the summer, an attack of such a kind that Orwell wrote to Gollancz. The letter is a characteristic mixture of honesty, straightforwardness, pugnacity and simplicity (or is the apparent naïveté ironical?)

The Stores, Wallington, Nr Baldock, Herts

Dear Mr Gollancz,

I do not expect you will have seen the enclosed cutting, as it does not refer to anything you published for me.

This (see underlined words) is the — I think — third reference in the ‘Daily Worker’ to my supposedly saying that the working classes ‘smell’. As you know I have never said anything of the kind, in fact have specifically said the opposite. What I said in Chapter VIII of ‘Wigan Pier’, as you may perhaps remember, is that middle-class people are brought up to believe that the working classes ‘smell’, which is simply a matter of observable fact. Numbers of the letters I received from readers of the book referred to this and congratulated me on pointing it out. The statement or implication that I think working people ‘smell’ is a deliberate lie aimed at people who have not read this or any other of my books, in order to give them the idea that I am a vulgar snob and thus indirectly hit at the political parties with which I have been associated. These attacks in the Worker only began after it became known to the Communist Party that I was serving with the POUM militia.

I have no connection with these people (the ‘Worker’ staff) and nothing I said would carry any weight with them, but you of course are in a different position. I am very sorry to trouble you about what is more or less my own personal affair, but I think perhaps it might be worth your while to intervene and stop attacks of this kind which will not, of course, do any good to the books you have published for me or may publish for me in the future. If therefore at any time you happen to be in touch with anyone in authority on the Worker staff, I should be very greatly obliged if you would tell them two things:

1. That if they repeat this lie about my saying the working classes ‘smell’ I shall publish a reply with the necessary quotations, and in it I shall include what John Strachey said to me on the subject just before I left for Spain (about December 20th). Strachey will no doubt remember it, and I don’t think the CP would care to see it in print.

2. This is a more serious matter. A campaign of organized libel is going on against people who were serving with the POUM in Spain. A comrade of mine,[*] a boy of eighteen whom I knew in the line, was recently not only expelled from his branch of the YCL for his association with the POUM, which was perhaps justifiable as the POUM and CP policies are quite incompatible, but was also described in a letter as ‘in the pay of Franco’. This latter statement is quite a different matter. I don’t know whether it is libellous within the meaning of the act, but I am taking counsel’s opinion, as, of course, the same thing (i.e. that I am in Fascist pay) is liable to be said about myself. Perhaps again, if you are speaking to anyone in authoritative position, you could tell them that in the case of anything actionable being said against me, I shall not hesitate to take a libel action immediately. I hate to take up this threatening attitude, and I should hate sail more to be involved in litigation, especially against members of another working-class party, but I think one has a right to defend oneself against these malignant personal attacks which, even if it is really the case that the CP is entirely right and the POUM and ILP entirely wrong, cannot in the long run do any good to the working-class cause. You see here (second passage underlined) the implied suggestion that I did not ‘pull my weight’ in the fight against the Fascists. From this it is only a short step to calling me a coward, a shirker etc., and I do not doubt these people would do so if they thought it was safe.

I am extremely sorry to put this kind of thing upon you, and I shall understand and not be in any way offended if you do not feel you can do anything about it. But I have ventured to approach you because you are my publisher and may, perhaps, feel that your good name is to some extent involved with mine.

Yours sincerely, Eric Blair[58]

Gollancz replied to Orwell at once with unusual brevity, ‘Many thanks for your letter, which I am passing on to the proper quarter’; and to the proper quarter in King Street he wrote: ‘My dear Harry, you should see this letter from Orwell. I read it to John over the telephone and he assures me that he is quite certain that he said nothing whatever indiscreet. Yours ever, Victor.’[59] The attacks, for the moment, did cease. What Strachey said, alas, we will never know. He might actually have said something critical of the party line.

Sometimes the Communist movement, however, got its wires crossed badly. In May 1937 Orwell had received a letter from the Moscow periodical International Literature asking for a contribution and a copy of Wigan Pier. He sent the book, promised a contribution, but explained that he was recovering from a wound he had had while serving with the POUM militia. He received, at length, this remarkable reply:

Mr George Orwell
The Stores


The Editorial Office of the International Literature has received your letter, in which you answer our letter dated May 31st. You are right to be frank with us, you are right to inform us of your service in the militia of the POUM. Our magazine, indeed, has nothing to do with POUM-members; this organization, as the long experience of the Spanish people’s struggle against insurgents and fascist interventions has shown, is a part of Franco’s ‘fifth column’ which is acting in the rear [of] the heroic army of Republican Spain.

International Literature[60]

As in the worlds of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the discredited rival is not just labelled ‘objectively Fascist’, he becomes perceived as Fascist.

That summer and autumn, into the next year in fact, anxious letters went to and fro trying to discover what had happened to missing members of the ILP contingent in Spain. One letter from a man just out of prison. Harry Wilton, said that he had heard that Georges Kopp had been moved to Madrid at the end of July and had been ‘knocked off’; and Eileen’s brother had been sent by Kopp a copy of an ultimatum he had presented to the Chief of Police in Barcelona at the beginning of that month threatening to go on hunger strike if not given a hearing — a letter which Eileen passed on to John McNair to publicize. Forgotten men are more easily killed. Some months later came a letter to Eileen from Robert Williams, who had spent longer in prison, informing ‘My dear Comrade Blair’ that Kopp was still alive. Yet in May 1938, she got a letter from Alexander Smillie, thanking her for sending him a copy of Homage to Catalonia, talking sadly of his dead son, George’s comrade, either killed by the Communists or allowed to die by neglect in prison, and linking ‘poor Kopp’ to his ‘poor Bob’ as among the ranks of the martyrs for the ‘good old cause’.

Not all men are made of the stuff of martyrs. On 14 September the Daily Worker carried a long statement alleged to have been signed by F. A. Frankfort who had been in prison in Barcelona (though for a civil, not a political charge — he says). The statement said that when the ILP contingent was near Alcubierre under Kopp’s command: ‘Every night at 11 p.m. the sentries heard the rattle of a cart’ and they could tell from its light that it came from the Fascist lines, and ‘we were ordered never to shoot at this light, and when we grew inquisitive about it we were forbidden to try to find anything out’. He implied that these arms were then used in the May riots. ‘In their political work, also, the POUM was similarly working for Fascism... Had my political education not been so backward, I should not have let myself be led so far. But my ignorance in May still so great,’ the statement went on, ‘that I committed the. crime of taking part in the armed rising of Fascists against the anti-Fascist Government.’ (Could this specifically, as well as the Moscow trials generally, have given Orwell the idea for the bizarre and pathetic confessions of the animals in Animal Farm?) Two days later the Daily Worker said that they had been asked by him to correct certain points: the spelling of his name, Frankford not Frankfort; that he had not been kept in the POUM by force; and that he was not certain that the carts actually crossed the line, nor had he himself actually seen Kopp returning from the Fascist lines.[61]

First John McNair attacked Frankford in the ILP’s New Leader, and a week later Orwell wrote a precise and angry refutation of each of the charges which was signed by fourteen other members of the contingent, all those the editors could contact at short notice.[*] The heading stated that he was ‘not a member of the ILP’. Orwell speculated that ‘all these wild words... were put into Frankford’s mouth by Barcelona journalists, and that he chose to save his skin by assenting to them’. And Fenner Brockway asserts that a few days after the article ‘the boy’ came to London, saw McNair-and ‘broke down crying and begged forgiveness’. He too conjectures that he ‘had been imprisoned in Barcelona and presented with the document to sign as a condition of freedom’.[62]

Both these suppositions seem reasonable, but Mr Frankford denies that he ever broke down or asked forgiveness; says that he never signed anything, but simply gave an interview to Sam Lessor of the Daily Worker which he embellished, and he sticks to his story that there was fraternization and crossing of the lines on occasion (which seems plausible), but he is ‘not sure’ whether he ever thought that guns rather than fruit and vegetables ever figured in such movements, though ‘there are things still to be explained’. (When I asked him if he was not angry at the Daily Worker for putting words into his mouth, Mr Frankford replied: ‘Quite legitimate in politics, I am a realist.’)[63]

Such an incident not merely strengthened Orwell’s affection for the ILP but must also have set his mind working on the necessity of telling the truth in politics and the dangers of ideological approaches that deal only in ‘the truth’ or in ‘the objective truth’.

Orwell did not join the ILP until the following year, but he attended part of their summer school and various other activities. The summer school was in the first two weeks of August at St Christopher School, Letchworth. McNair, Cottman, Paddy Donovan, Douglas Moyle and Jock Braithwaite were there, as well as Fenner Brockway. Officials from the POUM and the CNT spoke. Among other speakers were George Padmore, Reginald Reynolds, and James Maxton. One evening was given over to a report from the contingent members. New Leader’s conference report only mentioned ‘There was Eric Blair, an intellectual, his voice still weak from a bullet wound in the throat,’[64] and that he spoke briefly. Others remember him making occasional brief and impressive interventions in other discussions, but that his voice was low and he was not always audible. Fenner Brockway walked with him on the lawns one evening and Orwell offered to write regularly for New Leader — an offer that was turned down, ‘to my everlasting regret’, says Lord Brockway. ‘I made one of the two great mistakes of my life. I turned him down because New Leader was a propaganda sheet for the factory floor, and it did not seem to me that this was his kind of writing.’[65] But he may also still have distrusted Orwell as a ‘literary man’ or a Johnnie-come-lately to Fenner’s stern version of the socialist camp.

The ILP had organized a camp that summer for refugee Basque children. They lived under canvas at Kelvedon in Essex while they were taught English and found families. A then 16-year-old member of the Barking Branch of the ILP Guild of Youth remembers Orwell. He must have gone down to help for at least one week, possibly several weekends as well. He helped them draw up their appeals for money. On her part, it was a case of calf-love at first sight. She did not realize that he was married. He did not volunteer the information, but nor did he take advantage of her, ‘he was so gentlemanly’. He was ‘so gentle, so wise, so well-informed and so dedicated’. Her Guild of Youth thought of themselves, she said, as a POUM group through his influence.[66] Who was following whom is not clear, but both McNair and Cottman remember ‘the girl from Essex’ as being in the lorry when volunteers from the London area went to help organize a meeting at Bristol one weekend, and the lorry came off the road into a ditch. They both laughed, remembering George as being ‘shy with women’, for she seemed to want close comfort in the upset night, and he would only proffer a brotherly shoulder. Perhaps he was a little bit shy, but he was also a gentleman, defending the weak, not taking advantage of them.

Many ordinary people began to write to Orwell at this time about The Road to Wigan Pier, how it had brought them to socialism, or at least to the realization that something needed to be done about unemployment, poverty and the constraints and conceits of class. Some in the cause already pointed out in friendly criticisms that conditions in other parts of the country were very different from those in South Lancashire and the West Riding. Only a few of his replies survive, but enough to suggest that he replied patiently and at length to them all, rather humbly admitting the complexity and variety of poverty. (Sometimes one does learn something more about a subject after writing a book about it.)

Old friends were eager to talk about Spain. Connolly had visited Spain briefly before Orwell and Richard Rees had plunged in actively as an ambulance driver. His letters to old friends at this rime are among the fullest he ever wrote, but they largely anticipate or repeat the matter of Homage to Catalonia. He was also reviewing many books on Spain, now that far more political books came his way than novels. He could not afford to turn anything down, however: money was getting very tight again. One can see him working out ideas for the book, or that became part of the book, in letters and reviews. He always thought aloud, as it were, in minor book reviews about the major themes of his next book.

That autumn, he and Eileen stayed at Southwold for three weeks with his parents; they sowed more spring vegetables at Wallington, aiming to become self-sufficient, and they bought a dog whom they christened ‘Marx’ — a black poodle, but the manly, hunting-dog sort, not a lap-dog poodle. All in all, it is a wonder he was able to finish the book that year; but by the turn of the New Year, 1938, driving himself hard, it was done.

A letter to Geoffrey Gorer, however, showed more clearly than is explicit in the book how Orwell saw his Spanish experience in the perspective of the ILP, virtually the Trotskyist, theory of international relations. This involved an opposition both to Fascism and to preparation for war against Germany, a view-point which he held until September 1939.

The Popular Front boloney boils down to this: that when the war comes the Communists, labourites etc., instead of working to stop the war and overthrow the Government, will be on the side of the Government, provided that the Government is on the ‘right’ side, i.e. against Germany. But everyone with any imagination can foresee that Fascism, not of course called Fascism, will be imposed on us as soon as the war starts. So you will have Fascism with Communists participating in it, and, if we are in alliance with the USSR, taking a leading part in it. This is what has happened in Spain. After what I have seen in Spain I have come to the conclusion that it is futile to be ‘anti-Fascist’ while attempting to preserve capitalism. Fascism after all is only a development of capitalism, and the mildest democracy, so-called, is liable to turn into Fascism when the pinch comes. We like to think of England as a democratic country, but our rule in India, for instance, is just as bad as German Fascism, though outwardly it may be less irritating. I do not see how one can oppose Fascism except by working for the overthrow of capitalism, starting, of course, in one’s own country. If one collaborates with a capitalist-imperialist government in a struggle ‘against Fascism’, i.e. against a rival imperialism, one is simply letting Fascism in by the back door. The whole struggle in Spain, on the Government side, has turned upon this. The revolutionary parties, the Anarchists, POUM, etc. wanted to complete the revolution, the others wanted to fight the Fascists in the name of ‘democracy’, and of course, when they felt sure enough of their position and had tricked the workers into giving up their arms, re-introduce capitalism. The grotesque feature, which very few people outside Spain have yet grasped, is that the Communists stood furthest of all to the Right, and were more anxious even than the liberals to hunt down the revolutionaries and stamp out all revolutionary ideas.[67]

The language is extreme: far to the Left of the ordinary Labour movement. If he was not yet a member of the ILP, he was certainly its fellow-traveller; and he shared the revolutionary socialism of its international section (perhaps so extreme because most of the ILP were stubbornly parochial and let the Fenner Brockways ‘get on with it’). But leaving the rhetoric aside, the basic policies and contradictions were also those of the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party at that time: opposition both to Hitler and to rearmament. That Orwell was not just trying out newly read ILP ideas on Gorer is suggested by Paddy Donovan’s memory that Orwell told him in Spain that a war between Britain and Germany would just be ‘one band of robbers against another’.

The Anarchists tried to woo Orwell. He had said in Homage to Catalonia that ‘As far as my purely personal preferences went I would have liked to join the Anarchists.’ And he called them ‘the main revolutionary force’. Emma Goldman wrote to Rudolf Rocker, ‘For the first time since the struggle began in 1936 someone outside our ranks has come forward to paint the Spanish anarchists as they really are.’ But he remained outside, although critically sympathetic. Emma Goldman did persuade him to join a kind of anarchist front organization, the International Anti-Fascist Solidarity Committee, which brought him into contact with such British libertarians as his fellow sponsors Ethel Mannin, Rebecca West, John Cowper Powys and Herbert Read who had been similarly influenced by Spain. And he met for the first time Vernon Richards, the writer and journalist, very active in the formal Anarchist movement.[68]

Orwell’s love of literature did not diminish. He was beginning to see the connection between clarity of language and truth which was soon to bring his two great concerns together. He looked forward, however, to being able to begin work on ‘my next novel’, and he welcomed the chance of broadening his literary acquaintance, even in unlikely directions. ‘Yes,’ to Geoffrey Gorer, ‘I should like to meet Edith Sitwell very much, some time when I am in town’; and ‘thanks’ to Cyril Connolly, ‘I would like to come to lunch on Friday very much. I would also like to meet Stephen Spender if he is free. I’ve often said rude things about him in print etc.,[*] but I daresay he won’t know or won’t mind’.[69] And some time later when he was ‘in town’ Connolly recalled:

I remember him coming to a cocktail party we gave in the Spanish wartime, and we had quite a lot of Right-wing friends, rather nice, jolly girls with lots of money who were unpolitical, and then there were one or two Left-wing political people, and poets... And he came along, looking gaunt and shaggy, shabby, aloof, and he had this extraordinary magical effect again on these women. They all wanted to meet him and started talking to him, and their fur coats shook with pleasure. They were totally unprepared for anyone like that and they responded to something... this sort of John the Baptist figure coming in from the wilderness and suddenly the women feel it doesn’t matter what his political views are, he’s a wonderful man.[70]

Such excursions into the rarefied atmosphere of the world of Cyril Connolly were fairly rare. He spent most of his time amid the rural smells ofWallington actually writing; and it did matter very much what his politics were.

After the ordeals of Spain and writing the book about it, most of Orwell’s formative experiences were over. His finest writing, his best essays and his great fame lay ahead. From 1937 onwards he knew where he stood, what he was capable of doing and he was able to give out great riches from the store of his experience, he no longer needed to seek out new experiences even though, on two occasions at least, he sought to do so, but as if out of habit rather than for the necessities of writing. Before 1937 a confusion or fusion of autobiography, fiction and documentary was typical of his writing and has needed to be disentangled slowly and critically; but from now on there were to be fewer ambiguities of that kind in his major writings (with the notable exception of ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’) and they speak for themselves clearly, if they are read in the context of his entire production, including the political journalism as well as the literary essays. As he became more of a public figure, he assumed that people knew where he stood and what his presuppositions were; would have read his journalism and his essays as well as his novels. That was not always to be a sensible assumption.


1. CE I, p. 516. The tangled history ofAuden’s revisions to ‘Spain’ is at last made clear in Edward Mendelson’s The English Auden (Faber and Faber, London, 1977), pp. 424-5. Auden by 1940 had changed inter alia ‘in the necessary murder’ to ‘in the fact of murder’, and ‘deliberate increase...’ became ‘inevitable increase in the chances of death’. Mendelson points out that Auden’s revision was published a month before ‘Inside the Whale’ appeared, so that he could not have been reacting to Orwell’s criticism of the two stanzas as some critics have believed. But Orwell, as so often, had written an earlier and cruder version of the same thing. In ‘Political Reflections on the Crisis’, Adelphi, December 1938, p. 110, he had attacked ‘this utterly irresponsible intelligentsia’, the alliance of ‘the gangster and the pansy’, had referred to Auden by name, had neither mentioned ‘Spain’ explicitly nor quoted the two offending stanzas, but had misquoted ‘from Auden’, he said, ‘“the acceptance of guilt for the necessary murder’”. So the question remains open.[back]

2. CE I, pp. 317-I8.[back]

3. loc. cit.[back]

4. Alfred Perlès, My Friend Henry Miller (Neville Spearman, London, 1955), pp. 156-9; and Orwell, ‘Inside the Whale’, CE I, pp. 519-20.[back]

5. ‘As I Please’, Tribune, 15 Sept. 1944, p. 11.[back]

6. Victor Alba, El Marxisme a Catalunya, Vol. II, ‘Historia de POUM’ (Editorial Portic, Barcelona, 1974). I am grateful to Mr Miguel Berga for drawing my attention to this book and for translating passages for me from Catalan.[back]

7. John McNair, ‘George Orwell: The Man I Knew’, p. 10. This is a TS. dated March 1965, based on his MA Thesis, copies in University of Newcastle Library and Orwell Archive. The pages on Spain are from his memory and are authentic if not always fully accurate, but most of the thesis is purely secondary and discursive. His Spanish Diary, edited with a commentary by Don Bateman (Independent Labour Publications, Leeds, n.d.) is useful, but it is not a contemporary diary and the editing is uncritical.[back]

8. Victor Alba, El Marxisme a Catalunya, pp. 150 ff.[back]

9. Notes on interview with John McNair by Ian Angus and Macdonald Emslie, April 1964.[back]

10. Fredric Warburg, An Occupation for Gentlemen (Hutchinson, London, 1959), pp. 231-2. His account is circumstantial, he even remembers Orwell saying ‘I want to go to Spain and have a look at the fighting... write a book about it. Good chaps, those Spaniards, can’t let them down.’ And he remembers the advance paid. But Orwell only came to him after Spain, so memory has transposed one incident, invented the other and imagined the dialogue. See footnote on p. 339 above.[back]

11. Homage to Catalonia, p. 2, and a long letter to Frank Jellinek of 20 Dec. 1938, CE I, pp.363-7.[back]

12. McNair, op. cit., pp. 10 and 11-12.[back]

13. Homage to Catalonia, p. 111. Orwell’s accounts of military matters can be checked in Vicenc Guamer, El Front d’Aragó, Documents 15 (La Gaia Ciéncia, Barcelona, 1977). Again I thank Miguel Berga for the reference and translation.[back]

14. ibid., pp. 34-5.[back]

15. ‘Looking back on the Spanish War’ (written in 1942), CE II, p. 249.[back]

16. Homage to Catalonia, pp. 79 and 31.[back]

17. ibid., p. 32.[back]

18. From Cornford’s poem ‘A Letter from Aragon’, in Jonathan Galassi (ed.), Understand the Weapon, Understand the Wound: Selected Writings of John Cornford (Carcanet Press, Manchester, 1976), p. 41.[back]

19. Victor Alba, El Marxisms a Catalunya, pp. 150 ff.[back]

20. Homage to Catalonia, pp. 26-7 and 69-70; and letter to Cyril Connolly of 8 June 1937,CE I, p. 269.[back]

21. J. Coll and J. Pané, Josep Rovira: una vida al servei de Catalunya i del socialisms (Ariel, Barcelona, 1978), pp. 129-30 and pp. 128-41 generally on Homage to Catalonia.[back]

22. Bob Edwards speaking in ‘George Orwell: A Programme of Recorded Reminiscences’, arranged and narrated by Rayner Heppenstall, recorded on 20 August 1960 and first broadcast on 2 November 1960 (BBC Archives, Ref. No. TLO 24177). Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]

23. loc. cit.[back]

24. Bob Edwards, MP, ‘Introduction’, p. 8, to Homage to Catalonia (Folio Society, London, 1970). When I interviewed Mr Edwards (20 Jan. 1975) he insisted that Orwell had come out primarily not just to write a book rather than to fight, but also to report the war for Tribune. He sent me to prove this a photocopy of a reproduction in a book of Orwell’s NUJ card mentioning Tribune. But that card was only issued when Orwell joined Tribune in 1943; and he wrote nothing for it earlier than 1940 when it became its modern, independent Left-wing self.[back]

25. Interview by the author with Stafford Cottman, West Ruislip, 21 Aug. 1979.[back]

26. ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, CE II, p. 254.[back]

27. For Orwell’s account see Homage to Catalonia, pp. 91-107; the passage quoted is on p. 103.[back]

28. The ILP account is in ‘Night Attack on the Aragon Front’, The New Leader, 30 April 1937, p. 3.[back]

29. CE I, pp. 264-6.[back]

30. See Bumett Bolloten, The Grand Camouflage: The Spanish Civil War and the Revolution (Pall Mail, London, 1968), p. 115 and generally, for a scholarly study of Communist tactics in Spain which supports Orwell’s experience and conclusions.[back]

31. Alba, op. cit., p. 162, fn.[back]

* ‘Franco was not strictly comparable with Hitler and Mussolini’, his was not a revolution but a ‘military mutiny backed up by the aristocracy and the church... not so much to impose Fascism as to restore feudalism’ (Homage to Catalonia, p. 49). Interestingly this was the only passage that the censor (in Franco’s lifetime) deleted from the first Catalan translation in 1970 (see J. Coll and J. Pané, Josef Rovira: una vida at servei de Catalunya i del Socialisme (Ediciones Ariel, Barcelona, 1978), p. 135 and for Orwell’s views on Fascism see Chapter Nine, p. 293, note 30 above).[back]

32. Stafford Cottman and John (‘Paddy’) Donovan when interviewed by Ian Angus (28 July 1965 and 27 April 1967 respectively). Bob Edwards (op. cit.) confirms this, but he alone maintains that Orwell’s motive to leave for a more active sector was a matter of writing rather than fighting.[back]

33. Homage to Catalonia, pp. 59-60, 65 and 70.[back]

34. Willy Brandt, In Exile: Essays, Reflections and Letters 1933-47 (Oscar Wolff, London, 1977), p. 141.[back]

* Orwell appears to have confused the Civil Guard, the national armed gendarmerie, with the Guardia de Asaho, the Asaltos — an even tougher lot. These assault Guards had been founded in 1931 as a small corps d’ élite specifically for emergencies and for the ‘defence of the republic’. See Alberto Corazon, his Introduction to the first Spanish translation of Homage to Catalonia, Homanje a Cataluña (Ediciones Ariel, Barcelona, 1970), pp. 11-12.[back]

35. Homage to Catalonia, p. 129. Eileen’s letter is in the Orwell Archive.[back]

36. P. Broué and E. Témime, The Revolution and the Civil War (Faber and Faber, London, 1972), p. 286. Their account of the May riots and of ‘The Break Up of the Antifascist Coalition’ commands great respect and, incidentally, makes Hugh Thomas’ remark that Orwell’s account of the riots, ‘marvellously written though it is, is a better book about war itself than about the Spanish war’ seem ungenerous. (Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, 3rd edn revised and enlarged [Hamish Hamilton, London, 1977], p. 653.) Nothing in Orwell’s account is contradicted by Broué and Témime, nor by Jose Peirats, Los anarquistas en la crisis politico española (Buenos Aires, 1964) nor by Manuel Cruells, Mayo sangriento: Barcelona 1937 (Ariel, Barcelona, 1970), on both of whom Thomas relies heavily in his revised edition. Gabriel Jackson, The Spanish Republic ana the Civil War (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1965) is more just when he says that Orwell ‘gives a vivid, sympathetic picture of the situation as seen by the POUM militia, but the reader should bear in mind Orwell’s own honest statement that he knew very little about the political complexities of the struggle’ (p. 370).[back]

37. Quoted in Bumett Bolloten, ‘The Parties of the Left and the Civil War’ in Raymond Carr (ed.). The Republic and the Civil War in Spain (Macmillan, London, 1971), p. 144.[back]

38. Homage to Catalonia, pp. 139 and 141.[back]

39. ibid., pp. 171 and 179-80.[back]

40. Raymond Carr in Miriam Gross (ed.). The World of George Orwell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1971), p. 70.[back]

41. Homage to Catalonia, pp. 131-2.[back]

42. ibid., pp. 155-6.[back]

43. Interview by the author with Mr F. Frankford, Wells, 22 Dec. 1979.[back]

44. Homage to Catalonia, pp. 198 and 200.[back]

45. Both the telegram and the medical narrative are in the Orwell Archive.[back]

46. Among Orwell’s pamphlet collection, now in the British Library (BM 1899 SS 3 [30]), is a pamphlet by Bertram D. Wolfe, Civil War in Spain (Workers’ Age Publications, New York, 1937), which has as an appendix ‘The Thesis of Andres Nin’, a draft he prepared for discussion at the POUM’s planned Second Congress in Barcelona in 1937, which was suppressed. It was published on 5 April in Spain. Wolfe’s eulogy of Nin (pp. 92-3) has several obvious parallels to Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Few political papers, since the days when Lenin was at the head of the Communist International, have the revolutionary boldness, the insight, the luminous thought and vivid language that characterize this last important writing from the hands of Nin.

Let the reader compare it with the stale, sausage-machine theses of the ultra-left period and the fuzzy, unscrupulous and treacherous language of Comintern documents today, and he will understand why these preachers of confusion and outworn bourgeois catchwords could not tolerate the existence of a clear revolutionary voice which reminded them of their own past and of the true meaning of the ideals and doctrines in the name of which they profess to speak. That is the reason why Nin lies dead, why his body, like those of Liebknecht and Luxemburg under similar circumstances, was secretly buried in the dead of night in some ditch or sewer on the outskirts of Madrid, why his great voice is stilled and his clear brain had ceased to function in the cause of the working class.

Wolfe says that Nin also took the line that the slogan of ‘First win the war, then the revolution’ was a deliberate Russian betrayal of the actual working-class revolution in Spain. Another pamphlet or small book in Orwell’s collection for the same period takes this line and puts it into the broader context of the history of the Soviet Communist Party and of the blind Russophilia of Left-wing intellectuals: Max Eastman, The End of Socialism in Russia, was published by Secker & Warburg in May 1937, so Orwell could well have read it before writing Homage to Catalonia, and it would have refortified all he meant to say.

This is not to imply that the ideas of Homage to Catalonia are derived from either book directly, only to show that the ideas were common stock among the free Left. Orwell’s genius lay in relating these ideas to his direct experience, showing how they indeed arose from his experience: positively, the direct and simple style; and negatively, the avoidance of that theoretical introversion which is typical of the Eastmans and the Wolfes. (There were only brief extracts from Nin’s speeches in ILP Publications. A recent work in Catalan contains literary and political essays and a brief biography: Oriol Pi De Cabanyes, Que Va Dir Andreu Nin (Editorial Nova Terra, Barcelona, 1978). In English there is only a short pamphlet: Wilebaldo Solano, The Life of Andres Nin (Independent Labour Publications, Leeds, n.d.).[back]

47. The narrative in the preceding four paragraphs follows Orwell’s account in Homage to Catalonia, pp. 219-48, with some additional detail and complete corroboration from Ian Angus’ interviews with McNair (see note 9 above), McNair’s thesis (see note 7 above) and my interview with Cottman (see note 25 above).[back]

* Fredric Warburg in his autobiography, An Occupation for Gentlemen (Hutchinson, London, 1959), says that ‘Orwell came to see me in December 1936 to discuss a visit to Spain and a book on the Spanish War... “I want to go to Spain and have a look at the fighting”, he said, “write a book about it. Good chaps, those Spaniards, can’t let them down. Can probably give you the book a month or two after I get back.”’ (p. 231) And he also has an account of John McNair hiding the manuscript ‘when the police ransacked his flat during the Barcelona rising’ (p. 236) — which conflates the rising with the subsequent purge and credits Orwell with a superhuman speed of writing. Warburg’s memory must be at fault on both counts. Orwell had written to Gollancz from Barcelona as early as 9 May 1937, saying ‘I hope I shall get a chance to write the truth about what I have seen... I hope to have a book ready for you about the beginning of next year’ (The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. I, p. 267). But Gollancz must have rejected this offer, for Orwell told Rayner Heppenstall in a letter of 31 July 1937: ‘I am also having to change my publisher, at least for this book. Gollancz is, of course, part of the Communism-racket, and as soon as he heard I had been associated with the POUM and Anarchists and had seen the inside of the May riots in Barcelona, he said he did not think he would be able to publish my book, though not a word of it was written yet.’ And an unpublished letter to his agent of 1 September 1937 is conclusive: ‘Herewith the signed draft of the agreement, for which many thanks. I trust I shall get the book done by December 31st, as agreed. If Secker and Warburg want to know how it is getting on I could let them have some specimen chapters in a few weeks, providing they understand that this is the rough draft and I always alter a great deal in rewriting.’ (Whatever it was that McNair may have told Warburg that he hid from the police, it cannot have been the manuscript of Homage to Catalonia. Even if there was an earlier version, or notes towards one, it did not get out of Spain; their lives had depended on crossing the frontier with nothing incriminating on them.)[back]

48. Interview by the author with Lord Brockway, 15 March 1977, and his book Outside the Right (Alien & Unwin, London, 1963), p. 25.[back]

49. CE I, pp. 348-51 and CE II, pp. 24-6.[back]

50. Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]

51. See Orwell’s letter to Raymond Mortimer of 9 Feb. 1938, CE I, pp. 299-302, and the editors’ footnote on p. 299 about the incident. Mortimer’s two letters are in the Orwell Archive.[back]

52. Kingsley Martin, Editor (Hutchinson, London, 1968), pp. 215-19.[back]

53. C. H. Rolph, Kingsley (Gollancz, London, 1973), pp. 225-59; and Orwell’s remarks are quoted in Edward Hyams’ The New Statesman 1913-63 (Longman, London, 1963), p. 140. Hyams holds that Martin’s action ‘was really imposed on him by the logic of the situation’. The last phrase is a fine piece of bourgeois Marxist apologetic.[back]

54. New Leader, 12 March 1937.[back]

55. Left News, March 1937, pp. 275-6.[back]

56. Time and Tide, 20 March 1937.[back]

57. Daily Worker, 17 March 1937. Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]

* This was Stafford Cottman who said that his home was picketed on his return by local Communists denouncing him as a Fascist.[back]

58. In the papers of Victor Gollancz Ltd.[back]

59. loc. cit.[back]

60. Orwell Archive.[back]

61. Daily Worker, 14 and 16 Sept. 1937.[back]

* Their names were Bob Edwards, Charles Doran, John Donovan, Douglas Moyle, George Gross, Charles Justessen, Mike Milton, John Braithwaite, Stafford Cottman, Harry Thomas, Philip Hunter, Uriah Jones, Tom Coles and John Ritchie. Floreat semper eadem.[back]

62. John McNair, ‘The Daily Worker and F. A. Frankfort’, New Leader, 19 Sept. 1937; George Orwell, ‘That Mysterious Cart’, New Leader, 24 Sept. 1937; and Fenner Brockway, Inside the Left (Alien & Unwin, London, 1942), p-317.[back]

63. I did not interview Mr Frankford until 22 Dec. 1979 when this manuscript was virtually ready for the printer. Earlier I had failed to trace him, but then he simply wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph (21 Nov. 1979) to correct a statement by Anthony Powell that Orwell was shot by ‘one of the other Leftist groups’. Mr Frankford told me that he had never read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (despite having just taken an Open University degree in History). He has since re-read the Daily Worker piece in his name and McNair’s and Orwell’s attacks. He denies having written the statement or even having signed it, but does not repudiate it because there is ‘some hanky-panky’ yet to be explained. (Sam Lessor still works for the old firm but does not answer letters or calls from bourgeois professors.)

His attitude to Orwell contrasts vividly with that of Stafford Cottman and Paddy Donovan. He told me that in argument with Orwell:

Basically his attitude was Fascist, he didn’t like the workers... I don’t care what he says and what he’s written, when you spoke to him he didn’t like them, he despised them. That was why I could never understand what he was doing there. In fact we said to him that he was a man of the right and not of the left and that he had never thrown off his Burma police attitude. I’m sure he despised us all, which was why we disliked him... As far as he was concerned, we were a load of nits. We probably were a load of nits, but no need to have adopted that attitude.

If Mr Frankford did feel like this at the time, I suspect that one reason could be that Orwell’s Socratic manner, which had ruffled the miners at Barnsley after the Mosley meeting, unused to hearing their own assumptions speculatively criticized, could easily make him appear hostile, rather than both committed and probing.[back]

64. New Leader, 13 Aug. 1937.[back]

65. Interview by the author with Lord Brockway, 15 March 1977.[back]

66. Interview by the author with Miss M. Pritchard, South Croydon, Feb. 1977.[back]

67. CE I, pp. 284-5.[back]

68. I thank Nicolas Walter for these references, all in his excellent ‘Orwell and the Anarchists’, Freedom, Jan. 1981, pp. 9-12, written in response to my First Edition.[back]

* Not actually by name, but by genus: ‘Parlour Bolshevik’, ‘fashionable successful person’ and “Communist sympathizer’. See his letter to Spender (The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. I p. 313); or ‘The Nancy poets’ for whom the miners sweat their guts out (The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 35).[back]

69. CE I, pp. 285 and 290.[back]

70. Connolly speaking in a BBC television ‘Omnibus’ programme of 1970 on Orwell, ‘The Road to the Left’, produced by Melvyn Bragg (Post Production script No. 06349/1139, p. 33, BBC Archives). Copy in Orwell Archive.[back]



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Firstly I must thank the late Mrs Sonia Orwell who in 1972 granted me unrestricted access to all of George Orwell’s papers. I must also say clearly that the opinions expressed in this book are mine alone and that in no sense is this an official biography, nor is it likely to be the last life of George Orwell that is written (all perspectives change over time), even if the first to have unlimited rights of quotation from all of his published and unpublished work.

Because there were still some restrictions on access to parts of the Orwell Archive at University College, London, I have sometimes quoted at greater length from material not included in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (four volumes. Secker & Warburg, London, 1968) than economy of style might otherwise dictate.

I wish to thank Mr Ian Angus, the Librarian of King’s College, London, who, while Deputy Librarian of University College, London, was in charge of the Orwell Archive. While collecting material for the archive, with admirable energy and skill, he interviewed and corresponded with many people who had known Orwell, some of whom were dead by the time I began work. Ian Angus generously made his own interview notes as well as the Archive’s correspondence available to me, let me use a day-to-day chronology of Orwell’s life that he had compiled, and helped me in numerous other ways. He is working, with Mr lan Willison of the British Library, on a definitive bibliography of George Orwell. It is necessary to say clearly that he is in no way responsible for the use I have made of his help, and again that the opinions expressed in this book are mine alone.

With similar qualifications, I thank Professor Bernard Bergonzi and Mr Julian Symons, who read the manuscript for the publishers, for giving me their detailed criticisms as well as making very helpful general points, as did Mrs Celia Goodman and Professor Barbara Hardy, both of whom read through it all at my earnest request, patiently and helpfully. My good friends, Irene and Roland Brown, also read the manuscript closely and sceptically.

Audrey Coppard has been my Department’s research assistant at Birkbeck College during almost the whole of this work, giving me, by the sufferance of my colleagues, a lion’s share other time. She helped with the research and typed the manuscript in its different stages, but only after reading critically and helping to tighten every chapter. Without her literary experience, common sense and mixture of faith and irony I would have lost my way many times, or could have produced several volumes of unreadable length. My former Department Secretary, Mrs Pat Culshaw, held the fort while I was otherwise engaged, and in temporary retirement helped with some final typing.

Anne Daltrop came to work with us as the first draft was completed and checked all quotations and footnotes with great skill. And she and Audrey Coppard have read the proofs with me efficiently and impersonally. Two former part-time research assistants in my Department at Birkbeck also helped: Deirdre McKellar transcribed notebooks, etc.; Jasmina Ljuhar listed Orwell’s writings which are not included in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, and she searched for and transcribed marginalia in his books (disappointingly few, incidentally). The comments of two members of my seminar proved especially helpful, those of Dr Robert Klitzke on Orwell’s political writings in the period 1936 to 1939 (not fully represented in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters), and of Miguel Berga on Catalonia and Spain, and I want to add that I have found the editorial and production staff at Secker & Warburg most helpful and perceptive.

Mrs Janet Percival, who is in charge of the Orwell Archive at University College, has an extraordinary knowledge of it and an untiring practical helpfulness. Without her help and that other cheerful colleagues in the Manuscripts and Rare Books Department, progress would have been much more difficult and even slower. Some libraries are a pleasure to work in.

Also I must thank Birkbeck College for a term’s leave of absence; and the Nuffleld Foundation for giving me a small grant towards travel and research assistance.

Now must follow a long and necessarily undifferenriated list of those who granted me interviews, wrote me helpful letters, put me on a trail, or allowed me to quote from unpublished letters or documents in their ownership or possession. Their precise help appears in the footnotes.

Eileen Aird, the late Evelyn Anderson, Lord Ardwick, David Astor, His Excellency Maung Hrin Aung, Sir Alfred Ayer, Noreen Bagnall, the late Roger Beadon, Anne Olivier Bell, Miguel Berga, Lucy Bestley, Richard Blair, Francis Boyle, Melvyn Bragg, Lord Brockway, James Brodie, Jonathan Brown, Jacintha Buddicom, Amy and Jerry Byme, Professor John Cohen, F. J. R. Coleridge, Dennis Ceilings, the late Cyril Connolly, Lettice Cooper, Stafford Cottman, Constance Cruik-shank. Henry Dakin, Donald Darroch, Kate Darroch, Mary Deiner, Kay Dick, Rodney Dobson, Patricia Donoghue, the late Avril Dunn, William Dunn, Christopher Eastwood, Bob Edwards, MP, Kay Ekevall, Valeric Eliot, Sir William Empson, David Fairer, Tony Farringdon, Mabel Fierz, Michael Foot, MP., Frank Frankford, Tosco Fyvel, Frank M. Gardner, Percy Girling, Livia Gollancz, Jose Gomes, Celia Goodman, Geoffrey Gorer, the late Andrew Gow, Ruth E. Graves, Sir John Grotrian, Jim Hammond, Rosalind Henschel, the late Rayner Heppenstall, David Holbrook, the late Inez Holden, Lydia Jackson, M. D. Jacobs, Tom Jones, G. D. Kennan, Jon Kimche, Denys King-Farlow, who also kindly gave permission for two of his photographs of Orwell to be used, Colin Kirkpatrick, Helmut Klause, Arthur Koesder, Joan Lancaster, Baroness Lee of Asheridge, David McAvoy, James MacGibbon, Sally Magill, the late Philip Mairet, L. W. Marrison, Carlton Melling, Edward Mendelson, the late Henry Miller, Jane Morgan, Frank Morley, Malcolm Muggeridge, Joan Mullock, Michael Meyer, Sir Roger Mynors, Margaret Nelson, Rosalind Obermeyer, David Owen, MP, Harry Pearce, Henry Pelling, Captain Maurice Peters, Professor Richard Peters, Ruth Fitter, Paul Potts, Anthony Powell, the late Sir Herbert Read, Vernon Richards, Alan Rimmer, Tony and Betty Rozga, Sir Steven Rundman, Brenda Salkeld, Professor John Saville, George Scharrat, L. J. Bahadur Singh, Stephen Spender, Victor Stacey, Corin Hughes Stanton, H. S. K. Stapley, Geoffrey Stevens, George Strauss, Professor Gleb Strove, Henry Swanzy, Julian Symons, Dr Lola S. Szladits, Fred Urquhart, Sir Anthony Wagner, Nicolas Walter, George Wansbrough, the late Fredric Warburg, Susan Watson, Dame Veronica Wedgwood, Dame Rebecca West, the late Myfanwy Westrope, Baroness White of Rhymney, B. T. White, lan Willison, and George Woodcock.

Also I thank the following for giving permission to quote from published materials in copyright:
George Alien & Unwin (Publishers) Ltd, extract from Truth About a Publisher by Sir Stanley Unwin; Campbell, Thomson & McLaughlin Ltd, extract from The House of Elrig by Gavin Maxwell; Jonathan Cape Ltd, extracts from Jonathan Cape, Publisher by Michael S. Howard; Cassell Ltd, extracts from My Life and Soft Times by Henry Long-hurst; Collins Publishers, extracts from Part of My Life by A. J. Ayer and Chronicles of Wasted Time by Malcolm Muggeridge; Commentary; Constable Publishers, extract from The Unknown Orwell by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams; Letrice Cooper, extract from Black Bethlehem; Curris Brown Ltd, extract from ‘Some Are More Equal than Others’ (New Writing), by John Morris; Peter Davies Ltd, extracts from Almost a Gentleman by Mark Benney; William Dunn, extracts from an essay and broadcast of the late Avril Dunn; Valeric Eliot, extract from letter by T. S. Eliot to George Orwell; Encounter; Faber & Faber, extract from ‘Spain’ by W. H. Auden; Freedom Press, extract from Freedom; John Freeman, extract from Editor by Kingsley Martin; Tosco Fyvel, extracts from essays; Victor Gollancz Ltd, extracts from The Left News, readers’ reports and Victor Gollancz’s writings; David Higham Associates Ltd, extracts from More Memoirs of an Aesthete by Sir Harold Acton, I Am My Brother by John Lehmann, The Whispering Gallery by John Lehmann, and Infants of the Spring by Anthony Powell; James MacGibbon, extracts from The Holiday and letters by Stevie Smith; Macmillan London and Basing-stoke, extracts from The Republic and the Civil War in Spain by B. Bolloten, and poems by Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Road to Mandalay’, ‘MacDonaugh’s Song’ and ‘Take Up the White Man’s Burden’; Sally Magill, extracts from a manuscript ‘Orwell at Wallington’ by the late Jack Common; Morning Star, extract from Daily Worker; New Statesman; A. D. Peters & Co Ltd, extracts from Fugitive from the Camp of Victory and A Theory of My Time by Richard Rees; Deborah Rogers Ltd, extracts from Enemies of Promise, © 1938 and 1948 by Cyril Connolly, and The Evening Colonnade, © 1973 by Cyril Connolly, and Previous Convictions, © 1963 by Cyril Connolly; Anthony Sheil Associates Ltd, extracts from The Crystal Spirit by George Woodcock, and Dante Called You Beatrice by Paul Potts; Neville Spearman Ltd, extract from My Friend Henry Miller by Alfred Perles; Julian Symons, extract from ‘An Appreciation’; Weidenfeld (Publishers) Ltd, extracts from Grace and Favour by Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, and The World of George Orwell, edited by Miriam Gross; George Woodcock, extract from The Writer and Politics.

If I have accidentially omitted to acknowledge any copyright material, I apologize profusely.

Numerous BBC programmes, based on interviews with old friends, have been made about Orwell since his death, notably those produced by Rayner Heppenstall, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Melvyn Bragg. This material has been extremely valuable, but questions of copyright of great complexity arise. I thank the BBC for their permission to consult transcripts of the broadcasts, and apologize if in using some extracts I have accidentally infringed any copyright of some of those recorded or of their heirs whom I have been unable to trace.

Bernard Crick
Birkbeck College
University of London


  1. Ida Mabel Blair (née Limouzin), 1897 (Dakin family) [Photo]
  2. Eric Blair, six weeks old (Dakin family) [Photo]
  3. Ida Blair, Marjorie and Eric, in the garden of 'The Nutshell', Henley-on-Thames, 1906 (Dakin family) [Photo]
  4. Three years old (Dakin family) [Photo]
  5. Mr Blair on leave, 1916 (Parents - Ida Mabel and Richard Walmesley Blair with children Marjorie and Eric) (Dakin family) [Photo]
  6. Eric Blair, Guinever and Prosper Buddicom, at Church Stretton, Shropshire, September 1917 (Guinever Buddicom) [Photo]
  7. At 'Athens' after swimming, summer 1919 (Denys King-Farlow) [Photo]
  8. Asking for trouble, 1919 (Denys King-Farlow) [Photo]
  9. Before an Eton Wall Game, 1921 (Orwell Archive) [Photo]
  10. Burma Provincial Police Training School, Mandalay, 1923 (Eric Blair standing third from left) (Orwell Archive) [Photo]
  11. Montague House, Southwold (Orwell Archive) [Photo]
  12. Mrs Blair with dog and friend, Southwold High Street, mid-1930s (Dakin family) [Photo]
  13. Teaching at the Hawthorns, 1933 (Geoffrey Stevens) [Photo]
  14. Southwold beach, 1934 (Dennis Collings) [Photo]
  15. The P.O.U.M. centuria leaving Lenin barracks, Barcelona, January 1937 (Senora Rovira) [Photo]
  16. Eileen Blair visits Eric and the ILP contingent at the front near Huesca, March 1937 (Orwell Archive) [Photo]
  17. Spanish comrades meet again, I.L.P. Summer School at Letchworth, 1937. (Left to right) John MacNair, Douglas Moyle, Stafford Cottman, George Orwell, Jock Braithwaite (Orwell Archive) [Photo]
  18. Identity papers at Marrakesh, September 1938 (Orwell Archive) [Photo]
  19. Feeding Muriel at Wallington, summer 1939 (Dennis Collings) [Photo]
  20. Eileen Blair, circa 1941 (Dakin family) [Photo]
  21. Union card, dated 29 December 1943 (Orwell Archive) [Photo]
  22. 'VOICE' - the monthly radio magazine programme in the Eastern Service of the B.B.C. (Left to right, sitting) Venu Chitale, J. M. Tambimuttu, T. S. Eliot, Una Marson, Mulk Raj Anand, C. Pemberton, Narayana Menon; (standing) George Orwell, Nancy Barrat, William Empson (Copyright BBC) [Photo]
  23. Orwell with Richard, Islington, winter 1945 (Vernon Richards) [Photo]
  24. Eileen and baby Richard, 1944 (Vernon Richards) [Photo]
  25. Orwell and baby Richard, 1944 (Dakin family) [Photo]
  26. Orwell talking in his flat in Islington, winter 1945 (Vernon Richards) [Photo]
  27. Sonia Blair (née Brownell), October 1949 (Orwell Archive) [Photo]
  28. Orwell taking a break from writing, winter 1945 (Vernon Richards) [Photo]
  29. Orwell typing in his flat in Islington, winter 1945 (Vernon Richards) [Photo]
  30. Barnhill, 1948 (Dakin family) [Photo]

1980, 1982, 1992


George Orwell: A Life
[Front cover]
© 1980—1992 Penguin Books.