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.
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.
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. 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. ‘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.
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’ 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 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. 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’.
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.’ 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. 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.
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.
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.
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’ 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.’ 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.’ 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.
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...
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.) 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. 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. 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.’
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 
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.
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
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
‘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
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’.
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.’ 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.
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.’ 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.’
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). 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’? 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.’ 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.
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’. 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.
‘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.
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. 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. 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.’
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.
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’, 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.’ 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!
Above all, her capriciousness: ‘even the nickname “Flip” suggested some primitive goddess of fortune.’ 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.”’
‘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.
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.’ 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.
He summed it all up by saying that he had been ‘through a prison sentence that ended in escape, however ignominious’. 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.’ ‘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.
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.’ 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...
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.
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.
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’. 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.’ He also regaled the readers of Tribune in 1947 with an account of how bad history teaching is in private schools.
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.
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.
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.’ 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. 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.
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).’
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
‘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.
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.’
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.
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.
AWAKE YOUNG MEN OF ENGLAND
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.
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”’ 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.
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...
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.
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.’ 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.’ 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’. 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. Poetry was, indeed, to be important in the aspirations of both the boy and the man.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’ 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.
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 ...
Several times he was to condemn the prep schools as being worse than the public schools. 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. 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. 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.
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.’ 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. 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.’ 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.’ 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.’ 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.’ 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.’ 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.’ 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!’ 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.
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.
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.’ 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.’ 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.
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.’
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.
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. 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). 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’. 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’.
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. 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.
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. 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?
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.
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. 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.
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?’ 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.
‘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.
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. 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.
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. 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.’ 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.’ 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. 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
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.
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’.
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.
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.
(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. 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. 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.
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.’ 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.’ 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 ...’ 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. 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.
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’ — 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’. 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 ...
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. 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). 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 ...
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’. 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:
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.
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’. 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’.
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!’ 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.’ 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’. 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.
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]
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.’ 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’. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.’ (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.
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.’
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’. 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.’
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’, 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.
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.’ 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.’
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.
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. 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.’ 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.’
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. 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.’)
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.)
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. 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.’ 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. 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.
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)’. 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”’.
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’. 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’.
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.’ 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”.’
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. 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. 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.
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’.
Seeley years later told two American scholars that Blair had frequented the waterfront brothels. 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 ...’ 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’. 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.
THE LESSER EVIL
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.
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.’
‘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.’
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.
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...
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.’ 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.
____ § ____
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.
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.’ 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. 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.’ ‘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’.
‘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.
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.
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’, 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.’ 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.’
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.’ 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.
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. 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.
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’. 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’.
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.
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]
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. 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.’
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’.
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. 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. 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.’ 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.
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.
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.’ 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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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 (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 ...
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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’): ‘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.’ 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.’ 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. ‘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.’ 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. 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.
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.
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.
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’humour “AYANT 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
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’). 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,
L. I. Bailey
for THE MCCLURE NEWSPAPER SYND.
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.
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
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.
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.’ Even a stamp costs two bread rolls.
6 rue du Pot de Fer
22 September 1929
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.
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.’ 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.’ 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.
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.
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.
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’. 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.
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.
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. 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.’
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.
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.
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’. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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).
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.
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.
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 ...
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.
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.’ 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.
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. 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 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.
T. S. Eliot
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.
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.
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. 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.’ 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. 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. 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.’
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. 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.’
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]
Bernard Crick: ‘George Orwell: A Life’
Published: book ‘Penguin Books Ltd’. — 27 Wrights Lane, London w8 5TZ, England, 1992.
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Last modified on: 2019-12-29
‘George Orwell: A Life’
© 1980, 1982, 1992 Bernard Crick
Bernard Crick: 'George Orwell: A Life' [Index page]