Also By George Orwell
by Christopher Hitchens
At various points in his essays – notably in ‘Why I Write’ but also in his popular occasional column As I Please – George Orwell gave us an account of what made him tick, as it were, and of what supplied the motive for his work. At different times he instanced what he called his ‘power of facing unpleasant facts’, his love for the natural world, ‘growing things’ and the annual replenishment of the seasons, and his desire to forward the cause of democratic socialism and oppose the menace of Fascism. Other strong impulses include his near-visceral feeling for the English language and his urge to defend it from the constant encroachments of propaganda and euphemism, and his reverence for objective truth, which he feared was being driven out of the world by the deliberate distortion and even obliteration of recent history.
As someone who had been brought up in a fairly rarefied and distinctly reactionary English milieu, in which the underclass of his own society and the millions of inhabitants of its colonial empire were regarded with a mixture of fear and loathing, Orwell also made an early decision to find out for himself what the living conditions of these remote latitudes were really ‘like’. This second commitment, to acquaint himself with the brute facts as they actually were, was to prove a powerful reinforcement of his latent convictions.
Read with care, these diaries from the years 1931 to 1949 can greatly enrich our understanding of how Orwell transmuted the raw material of everyday experience into some of his best-known novels and polemics. They also furnish us with a more intimate picture of a man who, committed to the struggles of the mechanized and ‘modern’ world, was also drawn by the rhythms of the wild, the rural and the remote. (He barely survived into the first month of the second half of the twentieth century, dying of the sort of poverty-induced disease that might have killed a character out of Dickens. Yet despite his Edwardian and near-Victorian provenance he remains more contemporary and relevant to us than many authors of a much later date.)
This diary is not by any means a ‘straight’ guide, or a trove of clues and cross-references. It would be rather difficult to deduce, for example, that it was during his sojourn in Morocco in 1938–1939 that Orwell conceived and composed the novel
Indeed, the thirties were the decade during which Orwell took up the task of amateur anthropologist, both in his own country and overseas. Sometimes attempting to disguise his origins as an educated member of the upper classes and former colonial policeman (he is amusing about his attempts to flatten his accent according to the company he was keeping), he set off to amass notes and absorb experiences. I mentioned earlier that his family background, the income of which depended on the detestable opium trade between British-ruled India and British-influenced China, had at first conditioned him to fear and despise the ‘locals’ and the ‘natives’. One of the many things that made Orwell so interesting was his self-education
It may not be too much to claim that by undertaking these investigations, Orwell helped found what we now know as ‘cultural studies’ and ‘postcolonial studies’. His study of unemployment and poor housing in the north of England stands comparison, with its careful statistics, with Friedrich Engels’s
Similarly in North Africa, Orwell continued down the track on which he had begun when he declared his own independence from the British colonial system in Indo-China. (It is often forgotten that one of his first published researches, written in French and published by a small radical house in Paris, was about the way in which Britain’s exploitation perpetuated the underdevelopment of Burma.) The sexual and racial implications of the exertion of colonial power he reserved for his first novel –
The most searing and formative experience of Orwell’s engagement with the thirties was his enlistment on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, during which he took a bullet in the throat from the Fascist si ...