George Orwell passed away sixty-five years ago today. He died alone in his room on the fourth floor of UCLH’s Rosenheim Building, where he was being treated for tuberculosis. Though he was in the late stages of the disease, he had been discussing the day before with Sonia, his wife of just a few days, how best to make the journey to Switzerland, where he hoped that a cure might be possible. How poignant then, that having said goodnight to her and settled down for the night, he just slipped away after suffering a massive embolism as he slept. He died, though, knowing that in Nineteen Eighty-Four he had finally produced a critically acclaimed work of profound brilliance that remains as one of the most influential novels ever written in the English language.
As I Please
by George Orwell
FOR anyone who wants a good laugh I recommend a book which was published about a dozen years ago, but which I only recently succeeded in getting hold of. This is I.A. Richards’s Practical Criticism.
Although mostly concerned with the general principles of literary criticism, it also describes an experiment that Mr Richards made with, or one should perhaps say on, his English students at Cambridge. Various volunteers, not actually students but presumably interested in English literature, also took part. Thirteen poems were presented to them, and they were asked to criticize them. The authorship of the poems was not revealed, and none of them was well enough known to be recognized at sight by the average reader. You are getting, therefore, specimens of literary criticism not complicated by snobbishness of the ordinary kind.
One ought not to be too superior, and there is no need to be, because the book is so arranged that you can try the experiment on yourself. The poems, unsigned, are all together at the end, and the authors’ names are on a fold-over page which you need not look at till afterwards. I will say at once that I only spotted the authorship of two, one of which I knew already, and though I could date most of the others within a few decades, I made two bad bloomers, in one case attributing to Shelley a poem written in the nineteen-twenties. But still, some of the comments recorded by Dr Richards are startling. They go to show that many people who would describe themselves as lovers of poetry have no more notion of distinguishing between a good poem and a bad one than a dog has of arithmetic.
For example, a piece of completely spurious bombast by Alfred Noyes gets quite a lot of praise. One critic compares it to Keats. A sentimental ballad from Rough Rhymes of a Padre, by ‘Woodbine Willie’, also gets quite a good press. On the other hand, a magnificent sonnet by John Donne gets a distinctly chilly reception. Dr Richards records only three favourable criticisms and about a dozen cold or hostile ones. One writer says contemptuously that the poem ‘would make a good hymn’, while another remarks, ‘I can find no other reaction except disgust.’ Donne was at that time at the top of his reputation and no doubt most of the people taking part in this experiment would have fallen on their faces at his name. D. H. Lawrence’s poem ‘The Piano’ gets many sneers, though it is praised by a minority. So also with a short poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. ‘The worst poem I have ever read,’ declares one writer, while another’s criticism is simply ‘Pish-posh!’
However, before blaming these youthful students for their bad judgement, let it be remembered that when some time ago somebody published a not very convincing fake of an eighteenth-century diary, the aged critic, Sir Edmund Gosse, librarian of the House of Lords, fell for it immediately. And there was also the case of the Parisian art critics, of I forget which ‘school’, who went into rhapsodies over a picture which was afterwards discovered to have been painted by a donkey with a paint-brush tied to its tail.
I have been reading Orwell’s As I Please columns from when he was at The Tribune in the early 1940s. They make wonderful reading. He wrote very engagingly on any subject that he found interesting. The style and tone of his prose is magnificently entertaining; mocking, didactic, sarcastic, ironic, but never, ever boring. Much of his column is political, no surprise there, then. However, he also writes about diverse matters often very humorously as the following example from 31 December, 1943 shows:
I SEE that Mr Bernard Shaw, among others, wants to rewrite the second verse of the National Anthem. Mr Shaw’s version retains references to God and the King, but is vaguely internationalist in sentiment. This seems to me ridiculous. Not to have a national anthem would be logical. But if you do have one, its function must necessarily be to point out that we are Good and our enemies are Bad. Besides, Mr Shaw wants to cut out the only worth-while lines the anthem contains. All the brass instruments and big drums in the world cannot turn ‘God Save the King’ into a good tune, but on the very rare occasions when it is sung in full it does spring to life in the two lines:
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks!
And, in fact, I had always imagined that the second verse is habitually left out because of a vague suspicion on the part of the Tories that these lines refer to themselves.
It is also possible to pick out the proto-phraseology that Orwell would develop fully in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He refers in his article, or blog, of 17 March, 1944 to the language used by left-wing publications to bamboozle the reader and on 28 April, 1944 his thoughts on what living within a totalitarian society would really entail.
George also lets his readers know exactly who his literary heroes are. He writes indignantly about the treatment of writers like James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence after their respective deaths. Both receiving less than eulogistic obituaries in the establishment press and over the generally outrageous treatment that both received from the various governments.
Though written almost seventy years ago, much of what Orwell writes about in As I Like is vibrant and often surprisingly relevant today. All of the As I Please columns can be read by just clicking here.
As a regular feature, starting today I’m going to post instances of totalitarian (Soviet, mostly) mis-information that corresponds with “Newspeak’ mis-information as described by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
This Soviet education poster is by Alexander Nikolaevitch Zelensky (1882-1942) and I am grateful to Wikipedia from where I obtained the JPEG. Interestingly, the Wikipedia caption reads, “To have more, we must produce more. To produce more, we must know more”. This is classically Orwellian, though I use the term purely grammatically, since the poster is from very early in the revolution when Orwell would have still been a schoolboy at Eton.
The poster can be seen in the book by Albert Rhys Williams Through The Russian Revolution (Boni and Liveright, NY, 1921). And it is tempting to speculate upon the possibility that Orwell would have had access to the book, one of the earliest commentaries upon the revolution, and that the caption stayed with him until he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.
But I think I smell a rat! There may have been some jiggery-pokery by the compilers of the Wikipedia page wishing to emphasis the Orwellian message, because in Williams’ book the caption is the significantly less succinct “In Order To Have More, It Is Necessary To Produce More. In Order To Produce More, It Is Necessary To Know More”.
I’m no student of the Russian language, and therefore unable to determine myself which caption is the more accurate translation. So, I carried out a small experiment and copied both captions into Google Translate. Here are the results:
“To have more, we must produce more. To produce more, we must know more” translates as “Для того, чтобы больше, мы должны производить больше. Для получения более, мы должны знать больше”.
“In Order To Have More, It Is Necessary To Produce More. In Order To Produce More, It Is Necessary To Know More” translates as “Для того, чтобы иметь больше, надо производить больше. Для того, чтобы производить больше, необходимо знать больше”.
Reasonably inconclusive, I’m sure readers will agree. But I have a feeling that the Wikipedia version is more accurate, and you never know; Orwell might have carried out his own translation and achieved the same result!
Continuing from my most recent post on the subject (yet again, some might say!) of Orwell’s stay in Sheffield in March 1936, my continued research might well have finally yielded a result. In his 1991 book At The Heart of the City Nicholas Farr provides a detailed history of Sheffield’s Methodist Mission Hall, which was subsequently replaced when the Victoria Hall was built in the early twentieth century. Farr’s attention to detail is impressive, which makes the book more than a challenging read. However, quite early on he describes the various inspirational preachers who have spoken at the hall throughout the years, one of the most renowned (in Methodist circles) being the reverend Percy Medcraft, who preached at the hall during the turbulent 1920s and 1930s. In 1936, one of his audience was, as Farr writes: “One man who came… to hear Medcraft… and then resumed his travels… was Eric Blair, who wrote under the pseudonym of George Orwell. At the time, he may have been preparing The Road to Wigan Pier. His impressions of Sheffield were not kind, and one wonders what he thought of the mission.”
We know now that Orwell was indeed preparing ‘Wigan Pier’, and we know from his diaries what he thought of the mission (see previous post). He was scathing, particularly of the speaker, who it seems, must have almost certainly been Percy Medcraft.
It is unfortunate that the Methodist preacher was described by Orwell in such scathing terms. Medcraft was devoted to his ministry for more than a decade, doing what he could to improve the lives of the Sheffield poor. He would have suspected, I’m sure, that his preaching was probably received by deaf ears, and this, surely, must have affected his delivery.
Orwell moved on, and he later visited the coalfields at Barnsley, where he stayed with a mining family. More on that later.
I did it… I graduated! A BA in English Literature with Creative Writing. And then I spent the summer working as a surveyor (yes, I know… but any port in a storm). I have just started on a Masters at UEA. The course is Creative Entrepreneurship, and so far it has been brilliant. I won’t bore you with the details, you can see for yourself here:
UEA Creative Entrepreneurship
Tesco is not a supermarket, it’s a superracket. The store near Watford’s town centre has just been refurbished. According to Tesco, this is to provide its ‘loyal’ customers with, as Tesco describes it, a “food first” shopping experience, but in reality it is just to provide some competition to a new Waitrose store due to open almost across the street.Signs all over the store make a big play on the words ‘your store’, as though they are doing something purely for the benefit of the customers. In reality, it is just Tesco doublespeak. It is clear that the gigantic organisation follows the Orwellian ‘Airstrip 1’ philosophy when it comes to dealing with its loyal customers, i.e., tell them the same thing enough times and they’ll start to believe it.
I’ve shopped in the new store on one occasion, and I will not be returning. Admittedly, the new store is an improvement on the old one in the respect that the foul smell from the drains near the butchery and fishmongery departments has gone, but this has been replaced by a malodorous atmosphere caused by the legions of management goons strutting around the place keeping the troops in order. By troops, I mean both the shoppers and the Tesco staff. Gone are the morose faces of all the checkout staff. Gone are the insouciant shelf stackers who could not care if you found what you were looking for or not. Gone are the serving staff who always had something else better to do than serve. The same people are still there, but now they have been subjected to a ‘Room 101’ re-education that has resulted in a force of ‘automatons’ trained to smile while retaining the same glassy eyed look of indifference. Woe betide any of them caught without a smile, I dread to think of the consequences, probably tortured like Winston Smith with the rats that were running around in the stinking sewers.
Of course, not everyone of the staff has been brainwashed, not in Room 101 anyway. The management goons are the equivalent of Orwell’s ‘Inner Party’. They are the upper echelons, the ones whose job it is to keep the Winston Smiths in line. I watched them marching around the store in groups of at two and three, all trying to outdo each other in their worship of ‘Big-Brother’. Stern, unsmiling, caring only that the system works. It has to work, even if the customers don’t like it, it has to work. It will work, and here I veer off into Animal Farm by using poor old Boxer’s mantra,”I must work harder, I must work harder”, it will work, it will work. It all seems so obvious and familiar.
I plucked up the courage to approach one of these goons when I could find nowhere in the massive new bakery department to get my ‘fresh that day—store baked’ loaf of bread sliced. The goon broke off from lecturing one of his unfortunate shelf-stackers to glare at me with a look that would turn bread stale, “We don’t slice bread in store anymore—it’s not our policy!’ Not our policy…to slice bread, in a bakery department! I would dearly love to have been a fly on the wall in the committee room where that was decided.
The new CEO of Tesco has been slinging some mud at his ultra successful predecessor, Sir Terry Leahy, for not concentrating on the Tesco core business. He is supposed to be putting into place a set of measures to make Tesco do what it has done for years until Leahy departed, and that is to trash the opposition. Well, they used to do that by outdoing the others, by selling cheap, by giving the customer what he wanted. That is obviously not ‘core’ anymore. Well, in my opinion, he had better do a bit of a rethink, because Tesco are never going to return to their previous dominance by copying niche supermarkets like Waitrose. However, if that’s what they want to do, good luck to them. I know where I’ll be doing my shopping, and it does not begin with a T.
Now, in my own busy household, that would be truly wonderful!