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.
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.
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.