20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, Book review, England, essays, George Orwell, Non-fiction, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘England, Your England: Notes on a Nation’ by George Orwell

Non-fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 188 pages; 2021.

George Orwell’s England Your England: Notes on a Nation is a collection of five essays brought together in one volume published by Pushkin Press last year.

The subjects covered are incredibly varied but all share a common theme: English life and culture in all its peculiarities.

The essays were penned between 1931 and 1946 and showcase Orwell’s gift for observation and his masterful ability to convey the political machinations that underpin society. And everything is written in his distinctive pared-back prose style that makes it an effortless read.

Essays one and two

The first essay, Decline of the English Murder, is an almost satirical look at the tabloid press’s obsession with true crime reportage, and reading it now, more than 75 years later, not much seems to have changed.

[…] one can construct what would be, from a News of the World reader’s point of view, the ‘perfect’ murder. The murderer would be a little man of the professional class —  a dentist or a solicitor, say — living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall.

In Shooting an Elephant, he reveals his personal experience in the early 1920s when, as a policeman in Burma — then a province of British India — he was required to shoot a rampaging elephant.

He made the decision to play the hero as a way of proving himself to the locals, who had taken against him, even though he did not want to shoot the animal because he was squeamish and regarded it as murder. He has an alarming sense of self-awareness:

Here I was, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece, but in reality, I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

Essay three

Perhaps the most interesting essay, or at least the one that is most shocking (to this reader anyway), is Down the Mine, a look at what it was like to be a coal miner deep underground in the 1930s.

Orwell’s first-person piece, which first appeared in his book The Road to Wigan Pier (published 1937), details the hardships and sheer grunt work the men do in dangerous, claustrophobic conditions in tunnels so small they cannot even stand up to wield their picks and shovels.

He marvels at the speed at which they do their work — shifting coal at around two tons an hour — and is amazed by the idea they often have to walk, or crawl, more than a mile underground to reach the coal face.

When I am digging trenches in my garden, if I shift two tons of earth during the afternoon, I feel that I have earned my tea. But earth is tractable stuff compared with coal, and I don’t have to work kneeling down, a thousand feet underground, in suffocating heat and swallowing coal dust with every breath I take; nor do I have to walk a mile bent double before I begin. The miner’s job would be as much beyond my power as it would be to perform on the flying trapeze or to win the Grand National.

Essay four

The grim theme continues in The Spike, which is about life inside a workhouse. In this 1931 essay (which you can read in full online at The Orwell Foundation website), Orwell details an overnight stay when he was deliberately living as a vagrant as part of his studies for his first book Down and Out in Paris and London.

Acting as a passive observer, he paints pen portraits of the men that eat and sleep there and contrasts life inside the institution — dank, depressing, grim — with life outside, on the road, where “the chestnut branches were covered with blossom, and beyond that great woolly clouds floated almost motionless in a clear sky”.

He explains how the men are given a bath, a medical inspection, a bed to sleep in for the night and an enormous meal, but are then thrown back out onto the street and left to fend for themselves once again. In between, they are locked up inside, denied their tobacco and forced to talk to one another to pass the time.

It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel. Only an educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure confinement. Tramps, unlettered types as nearly all of them are, face their poverty with blank, resourceless minds.

The masterpiece essay

The book culminates with Orwell’s three-part essay on English socialism, The Lion and the Unicorn, which was first published in 1941 and outlines his opinions on the Second World War and the role that Britain was playing in it at the time.

His analysis of the British character, the class system and Empire seems remarkably on point more than 80 years later, particularly in light of Brexit and the political shenanigans currently happening in the UK.

I underlined so many pertinent sentences and paragraphs and, indeed, entire pages, that I couldn’t possibly summarise or review this essay in any meaningful or articulate way. Instead, let me share some of my favourite quotes:

We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.

In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious.

Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as the law, there is only power, has never taken root. Even the intelligentsia have only accepted it in theory.

The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time.

It follows that British democracy is less of a fraud than it sometimes appears. A foreign observer sees only the huge inequality of wealth, the unfair electoral system, the governing-class control over the press, the radio and education, and concludes that democracy is simply a polite name for dictatorship. But this ignores the considerable agreement that does unfortunately exist between the leaders and the led.

England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled by largely the old and silly.

I could go on… but I won’t.

England Your England: Notes on a Nation is a gem of a collection: forthright, thought-provoking and an astute observation of English life from another generation but one that still resonates today.

This is my 8th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from the independent book store Crow Books here in Perth last Christmas using some money I was given by Mr Reading Matters to treat myself to “books and beer”! I love the look and feel of this Pushkin Press edition. There’s a second one in the set, “Inside the Whale: On Writers and Writing”, that I now need to hunt out.

Author, Book review, essays, George Orwell, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher

‘Books v. cigarettes’ by George Orwell

BooksvsCigarettes

Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin; 144 pages; 2008.

Books v. cigarettes is a small collection of essays by George Orwell brought together as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas Series 3. The title of the book comes from an essay of the same name in which Orwell considers how much money he spends on his two vices, reading and smoking. This particular essay, first published in the Tribune on 8 February 1946, will resonate with book lovers the world over, because how many of us have foregone some other pleasure (or necessity) in favour of a good book?

To prove that reading is not an expensive hobby out of the reach of ordinary citizens, Orwell counts all the books he owns (this sounds remarkably like what I have done in recent weeks, tackling my TBR piles) and adds up their total price to work out how much money he has spent on reading over a 15-year period. He discovers he has some 900 books and that it has cost him a little more than £11 per year.

He also includes his newspaper and periodicals intake, which is quite impressive: £8 per year on “two daily papers, one evening paper, two Sunday papers, one weekly review and one or two monthly magazines”.  (I suspect if Orwell was around today he’d be a complete internet junkie, reading all the news sites, book blogs, Twitter feeds and so on.)

He also spends roughly £6 per year on library subscriptions and cheap paperbacks, chiefly Penguins, “which one buys and then loses or throws away”.

All up, he estimates reading costs him £25 per year, which, according to this calculator, is the equivalent of £648 in today’s money. By comparison, he spends £20 a year on cigarettes and beer.

In the grand scheme of things, he thinks this is quite reasonable, though he points out that it is difficult to establish “any relationship between the price of books and the value one gets out of them”.

His second essay, Bookshop Memories, recalls his time spent working in a second-hand bookshop. His observations are both slightly snobby (“I doubt whether 10 per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one”) and acutely funny:

Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, the dear old lady who ‘wants a book for an invalid’ (a very common demand, that), and the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the title or the author’s name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover.

This quote made me laugh out loud because I spent six years working in bookshops and used to get vague requests like this all the time!

Books v. cigarettes also includes a wonderful essay about reviewing books and another on the state of literature, which will appeal to bibliophiles. The rest of this slim volume tackles other non-bookish subjects: patriotism, the relationship between doctors and patients, and Orwell’s childhood memoirs spent at an exclusive boarding school for which he obtained a scholarship.

All up, this is a perfect, effortless read, highly personable and quite bookish, if you like that sort of thing.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, George Orwell, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘Coming Up for Air’ by George Orwell

Comingupforair

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 256 pages; 2001.

George Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air in 1939, a decade before his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s a strange, beguiling and a quite humorous novel, but there’s a dark undertone that sums up the time period in which it was written, as Britain hovered on the edge of war.

Mid-life crisis?

The story, which is commonly thought to be a thinly veiled autobiography, is narrated by George Bowling, a 45-year-old married man with two children who’s bored with his life as an insurance salesman.

He lives in the “inner-outer suburbs” in one of those streets that looks like every other, comprising a long, long row of “little semi-detached houses as much like council houses but generally uglier”. He’s just had a new set of false teeth fitted and his waistline is expanding at an alarming rate. Hmmm, sounds charming, doesn’t he?

With the country on the brink of war and bombing planes flying low overhead, George retreats into the world of nostalgia and spends most of the novel recalling his semi-idyllic childhood in a village outside of London. He gets so lost in this reverie, where he no longer has to worry about the 9-to-5 treadmill and his dreary commute, that he hits upon an idea: he’ll take a secret holiday, sans kids and wife, to the village he grew up in to soak up that wonderful, happy atmosphere once again.

But in the heat of the moment, he forgets one important thing: the march of progress and its impact on the rural way of life he longs to revisit so keenly. What he finds when he arrives isn’t quite what he expected…

The seeds of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’

Coming Up for Air pays homage to English country life at the turn of the 19th century and the ways in which little boys grew up, carefree and obsessed by egg-collecting, fishing and other wildlife pursuits, before the horrors of the First World War changed things forever.

But the most interesting aspect of this novel is seeing the seeds of Nineteen Eighty-Four buried in the narrative. For instance, before George escapes to the village of his childhood, he’s fearful of the current political climate — “Hitler, Stalin, bombs, machine-guns, rubber truncheons, Rome-Berlin axis, Popular Front, anti-Comintern pact” — even though he believes no one else is much bothered.

I can see the war that’s coming and I can see the after-war, the food queues and the secret police and the loudspeakers telling you what to think.

When he attends a lecture in the local hall with his wife and her female companions (remember, this is in the days before TV and such lectures were common entertainment), he feels slightly detached from the speaker who, predictably, pitches “into Hitler and the Nazis”. But for anyone who’s read Nineteen Eighty-Four the following sounds very much like the germ of the idea of the “two minutes hate”:

A rather mean little man, with a white face and a bald-head, standing on a platform, shooting out slogans. Whats he doing? Quite deliberately, and quite openly, he’s stirring up hatred. […] He means it. Not faking at all — feels every word he’s saying. He’s trying to work up hatred in the audience, but that’s nothing to the hatred he feels himself. Every slogan’s gospel truth to him. If you cut him open all you’d find inside would be Democracy-Fascism-Democracy.

But the book’s not entirely humourless, because even if the narrator’s not exactly likable, he does have a habit of taking the mickey out of himself and others. Here he describes the audience members at the lecture:

…a little woman with red hair was knitting a jumper. One plain, two purl, drop one and knit two together. The lecturer was describing how the Nazis chop people’s heads off for treason and sometimes the executioner makes a bosh shot. There was another woman in the audience, a girl with dark hair, one of the teachers at the School Council, really listening, sitting forward with her big round eyes fixed on the lecturer and her mouth a little bit open, drinking it all in.

On the whole, though, this is a rather pessimistic novel about a man trying to come to terms with a lost Edwardian childhood while a war with Germany looms large on the horizon.

1001 books, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, George Orwell, literary fiction, London, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 352 pages; 2004.

How do you review a book that is a true 20th Century classic like George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four without simply regurgitating all that has been said before? Is there anything more I can add to the mix? Probably not, but that won’t stop me from telling you just a little about this brilliant dystopian novel, first published in 1949, and why I love it so much.

A dystopian masterpiece

For those of you who have never read Orwell’s masterpiece (a term I don’t use lightly), it’s set in London in 1984. The city, which belongs to one of the world’s three superstates, is under Totalitarian rule and at perpetual war. Everyone lives under the watchful eye of Big Brother, children are encouraged to spy against their parents, and to even think “bad” thoughts is considered a crime.

Winston Smith, the narrator, works for the Ministry of Truth, rewriting Times articles so that the ruling Party’s version of history, which changes on a daily basis, is always correct. But Winston is not like everyone else and considers that the continual surveillance and collective worldview is oppressive and stifles individuality. He’s also alarmed by the number of people who are “disappeared” and re-written out of history because they haven’t toed the Party line.

When he meets the intriguing Julia and begins an illicit romance with her, he discovers that he is not the only secret “rebel”. But this liaison does not escape the Thought Police, and Winston is thrown into prison, where the “secrets” of the Party are finally revealed to him.

A blast from the past

I first read this book at school in 1984, but I can’t recall what I thought of it back then. But when I re-read it, circa 1994, when I was studying journalism, I remember, quite clearly, the oppression resonating off the page.

It was a dark, incredibly thought-provoking story, and with every turn of the page I could feel my whole worldview being challenged on many different levels: was history a true record of the past? Was the news media so corrupt? Were wars just a means to stimulate the economy and keep people in jobs? Were the enemies of the West just a conspiracy invented to keep us living in fear?

Fast forward 15 years and I re-read the book as part of my book group last month. This time around, my brain, having already grappled with these new and alarming concepts, now concentrated on whether Orwell’s “predictions” had come true. And because I was less caught up in the overwhelming brilliance of the book’s scope and vision, I enjoyed the narrative, which is quite fast-paced, and the eloquence of the prose, which is sparse without ever becoming boring.

The thing that struck me most, however, was how much of this futuristic novel was deeply rooted in the time in which Orwell wrote it. There are echoes of war-torn London throughout this book, not the least in the following passage:

He remembered better the rackety, uneasy circumstances of the time: the periodical panics about air-raids and the sheltering in Tube stations, the piles of rubble everywhere, the unintelligible proclamations posted at street corners, the gangs of youths in shirts all the same colour, the enormous queues outside the bakeries, the intermittent machine-gun fire in the distance — above all, the fact that there was never enough to eat.

A prescient novel

Obviously, there’s a lot of stuff that feels incredibly prescient today: the so-called War on Terror and its resultant erosion of civil liberties; the increasing reliance on media spin, particularly by government agencies; and the ever-present CCTV surveillance, especially here in the UK (in 2006, there was one CCTV camera for every 14 people).

By contrast, Orwell’s prediction that the future would be sexless didn’t quite come off, and even the notion that you only had to alter The Times newspaper to rewrite history seems laughable given today’s preponderance of media outlets and formats, including the internet and mobile phone technology.

But, on the whole, this is a remarkable novel, a warning shot from the past, that still resonates and which will continue to resonate long into the future. If you’ve never read this book, I urge you to do so, and even if you have, it’s worth revisiting just to re-experience Orwell’s amazing vision.