ORWELL THE PASSING TRAVELLER
George Orwell's Definitive Obituary
born June 25, 1903 -- died January 21, 1950
George Orwell was the wintry conscience of a generation which in the 'thirties had heard the call to the rasher assumptions of political faith. He was a kind of saint and, in that character, more likely in politics to chasten his own side than the enemy. His instinctive choice of spiritual and physical discomfort, his habit of going his own way, looked like the crankishness which has often cropped up in the British character; if this were so, it was vagrant rather than puritan. He prided himself on seeing through the rackets, and on conveying the impression of living without the solace or even the need of a single illusion.
There can hardly have been a more belligerent and yet more pessimistic Socialist; indeed his Socialism became anarchism. In corrupt and ever worsening years, he always woke up one miserable hour earlier than anyone else and, suspecting something fishy in the site, broke camp and advanced alone to some tougher position in a bleaker place; and it had often happened that he had been the first to detect an unpleasant truth or to refuse a tempting hypocrisy. Conscience took the Anglo-Indian out of the Burma police, conscience sent the old Etonian among the down and outs in London and Paris, and the degraded victims of the Means Test or slum incompetence in Wigan; it drove him into the Spanish civil war and, inevitably, into one of its unpopular sects, and there Don Quixote saw the poker face of Communism. His was the guilty conscience of the educated and privileged man, one of that regular supply of brilliant recalcitrants which Eton has given us since the days of Fielding; and this conscience could be allayed only by taking upon itself the pain, the misery, the dinginess and the pathetic but hard vulgarities of a stale and hopeless period.
But all this makes only the severe half of George Orwell's character. There were two George Orwells even in name. I see a tall emaciated man with a face scored by the marks of physical suffering. There is the ironic grin of pain at the ends of kind lips, and an expression in the fine eyes that had something of the exalted and obstructive farsightedness one sees in the blind; an expression that will suddenly become gentle, lazily kind and gleaming with workmanlike humour. He would be jogged into remembering mad, comical and often tender things which his indignation had written off; rather like some military man taking time off from a private struggle with the War Office or society in general.
He was an expert on living on the bare necessities and a keen hand at making them barer. There was a sardonic suggestion that he could do this but you could not. He was a handyman. He liked the idea of a bench. I remember once being advised by him to go in for goat-keeping, partly I think because it was a sure road to trouble and semi-starvation; but as he set out the alluring disadvantages it seemed to dawn on him that he was arguing for some country Arcadia, some Animal Farm, he had once known; goats began to look like escapism and, turning aside as we walked to buy some shag at a struggling Wellsian small trader's shop, he switched the subject sharply to the dangerous Fascist tendencies of the St John's Wood Home Guard who were marching to imaginary battle under the Old School Tie.
As an Old School Tie himself, Orwell had varied one of its traditions and had "gone native" in his own country. It is often said that he knew nothing about the working classes, and indeed a certain self-righteousness in the respectable working class obviously repelled his independent mind. So many of his contemporaries had "gone native" in France; he redressed a balance. But he did know that sour, truculent, worrying, vulgar lower class England of people half "done down", commercially exploited, culturally degraded, lazy, feckless, mild and kind who had appeared in the novels of Dickens, were to show their heads again in Wells and now stood in danger of having the long Victorian decency knocked out of them by gangster politics.
By "the people" he did not mean what the politicians mean; but he saw, at least in his Socialist pamphlets, that it was they who would give English life of the future a raw, muddy but unmistakable and inescapable flavour. His masochism, indeed, extended to culture.
In a way, he deplored this. A classical education had given him a taste for the politician who can quote from Horace; and as was shown in the lovely passages of boyhood reminiscences in Coming up for Air, his imagination was fun only in the kind world he had known before 1914. Growing up turned him not exactly into a misanthrope -- he was too good-natured and spirited for that -- but into one who felt too painfully the ugly pressure of society upon private virtue and happiness. His own literary tastes were fixed -- with a discernible trailing of the coat -- in that boyish period: Bret Harte, Jules Verne, pioneering stuff, Kipling and boys' books. He wrote the best English appreciation of Dickens of our time. Animal Farm has become a favourite book for children. His Burmese novels, though poor in character, turn Kipling upside down. As a reporting pamphleteer, his fast, clear, grey prose carries its hard and sweeping satire perfectly.
He has gone: but in one sense, he always made this impression of the passing traveller who meets one on the station, points out that one is waiting for the wrong train and vanishes. His popularity, after Animal Farm, must have disturbed such a lone hand. In 1984, alas, one can see that deadly pain, which had long been his subject, had seized him completely and obliged him to project a nightmare, as Wells had done in his last days, upon the future.
written by V.S. PRITCHETT, January 28, 1950
on the occasion of Orwell's death on January 21, 1950
ESCAPE TO ORWELL'S BARNHILL (found peace & quiet to write 1984), Januray 21, 2012
SONIA'S FLAT & ORWELL'S HOSPITAL
"'The Death occurred in London to-day of Mr George Orwell, the author, at the age of 46. He had been ill for a long time. George Orwell was educated at Eton and later served in the Burma police. He fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and was wounded. After that he spent most of his time writing. He will, perhaps, be best remembered for Animal Farm, a satire on life in the Soviet Union, and for the recently published Nineteen Eighty-Four, a grim imaginary picture of a totalitarian Great Britain some 30 years from now, which was highly praised by critics on both sides of the Atlantic.'"
ORWELL & THE NEW STATESMAN and ORWELL'S CRYSTAL SPIRIT POEM and ORWELL'S PERSONA
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