ORWELL'S RIFLE ON WALL
To Orwell Today,
In your article "Orwell Was Armed", you print excerpts from Michael Sheldon's "Orwell: The Authorized Biography".
In the text of Sheldon's book the quote "THAT RIFLE HANGING ON THE WALL OF THE WORKING-CLASS FLAT OR LABOURER'S COTTAGE IS THE SYMBOL OF DEMOCRACY. IT IS OUR JOB TO SEE THAT IT STAYS THERE." was incorrectly attributed to an article on the Home Guard Orwell wrote in Tribune.
Sheldon didn't provide any notes providing the date and page for this quote, probably because he forgot where he found it and incorrectly assumed it was in Tribune.
There is an article titled "The Home Guard and You: George Orwell puts a personal question to 'make believe democrats' - and real ones". This article was printed in Tribune on 20 December 1940, but does not contain the "Rifle Hanging On the Wall" quote.
Bernard Crick in his book "George Orwell A Life" has the following quote in Chapter 12 The Challenge and Frustration of war (1939-41).
"Even as it stands, the Home Guard could only exist in a country where men feel themselves free. The totalitarian states can do great things, but there is one thing they cannot do: they cannot give the factory-worker a rifle and tell him to take it home and keep it in his bedroom. THAT RIFLE HANGING ON THE WALL OF THE WORKING-CLASS FLAT OR LABOURER'S COTTAGE, IS THE SYMBOL OF DEMOCRACY. IT IS OUR JOB TO SEE THAT IT STAYS THERE."
Crick correctly attributes the quote to an 8 January 1941 article Orwell wrote for Evening Standard. The article was titled "Don't Let Colonel Blimp Ruin the Home Guard"
I spent several hours at the Stanford Green Library unsuccessfully looking for the quote in their 1941/1944 copies of Tribune.
I then E-mailed the Orwell Archives at University College London. They told me I could find a copy of the article in "The Complete Works of George Orwell", Edited by Peter Davison, 1998, volume 12 of the 20 volume set. Pages 362-365 contain a reprint of the entire article, "Don't Let Colonel Blimp Ruin the Home Guard", Evening Standard, 8 January 1941.
Volume 12 on pages 309-312 also contains the 20 December 1940, Tribune, Orwell Article titled "The Home Guard and You: George Orwell puts a personal question to "make believe democrats" - and real ones."
This article does not contain the "Rifle on the Wall" quote, but it is probably the article Sheldon was confused about.
At any rate I can mail you photo copies of the Evening Standard article or you could look it up yourself in "The Complete Works of George Orwell, volume 12.
I looked it up in volume 12 from the University of Houston Libraries' set.
It never ceases to amaze me how synergy works, especially in regards to Orwell. Yesterday I finished reading THE LARGER EVIL, NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, THE TRUTH BEHIND THE SATIRE by W. J. West and discovered the "rifle on the wall" quote in its broader context, far beyond what Sheldon had mentioned in ORWELL: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY. I noticed that West never refers to Sheldon by name and refers to his book merely as "the authorized biography". I couldn't put West's book down it was so fascinating and it inspired me to get reading Crick's GEORGE ORWELL: A LIFE, both of which Sheldon disparages if I recall.
West's and Crick's books I do now own, having had them miraculously jump into my hands at Hay in Wales this summer (along with others that I'll be discussing when I tell people about my Orwell experience during R & R). I already own West's GEORGE ORWELL: THE LOST WRITINGS which I've read in part.
...but anyway, to get back to what we're talking about here, ie Sheldon's misquote which I multiplied. I came into my office a few minutes ago and found your email and having just finished West and two chapters into Crick (although I'm reading from the back at the moment) I know exactly what you are talking about and you are exactly correct and I will have to make the change on my site. Here's what I read yesterday in West's THE LARGER EVILS:
[quoting from pages 49 - 52]:
"...After the first fears receded, the Communist Party set in train a campaign which became known as the People's Convention movement. Its manifestos, produced in rapid succession, were all written by D. N. Pritt, the communist Q.C. The final version was called Forward to a People's Peace.
...The facts are that this movement was allowed to flourish and the Daily Worker allowed to continue in publication until the very last moment against the urgent request of the Security Executive that it be suppressed. Orwell would have known nothing of this internal battle at the time, although he may have been informed later. He did however become aware of the People's Convention movement and wrote about it in his diary.
....Orwell became involved in this fight by going around tearing down posters advertising the Convention which had suddenly appeared all over London, printed at great cost. In writing about his actions he said that this was the first time he had done such a thing, going on to reminisce about his time in Barcelona when he had gone around chalking up "Visca POUM" after the organisation he fought with had been suppressed. Clearly Orwell thought he was involved in just such a fight. Revolution was close and it would not be the revolution he hoped for in The Lion and the Unicorn but a Stalinist version. Whoever it was that warned Orwell, and whatever the reality or otherwise of the threat, the image of Orwell going around wartime London tearing down posters is a strong one.
There is further evidence that Orwell was not alone in his actions but if he was working with some official backing, whose it was is not entirely clear. His diary is understandably skimped at this period, for it does not mention any of his articles where some of this evidence appears, or his actions in connection with the Home Guard. These have been widely misinterpreted; it has even been suggested that he saw it as a revolutionary force! The position was almost exactly the reverse of this, as his statements in the various articles he wrote at the time make quite clear. He wrote, for example:
'The communists, the ILP, and all their kind can parrot 'Arms for the Workers', but they cannot put a rifle into the workers' hands. The Home Guard can and does. The moral for any socialist who is reasonably fit and can spare a certain amount of time is obvious... Any socialist who obtains influence in the Home Guard will do it by being conspicuously obedient, efficient and self-sacrificing.'
Any lingering doubt about the message that Orwell was giving is dispelled by another article he wrote a few days before the Convention actually gathered for the London Evening Standard. Under the headline DON'T LET COLONEL BLIMP RUIN THE HOME GUARD, (completely misleading since the message was to get anyone on the left who harboured revolutionary feelings into the Home Guard under military discipline) he wrote:
'Even as it stands the Home Guard could only exist in a country where men feel themselves free. The totalitarian states can do great things, but there is one thing they cannot do, they cannot give the factory worker a rifle and tell him to take it home and keep it in his bedroom. THAT RIFLE HANGING ON THE WALL OF THE WORKING-CLASS FLAT OR LABOURER'S COTTAGE IS THE SYMBOL OF DEMOCRACY. IT IS OUR JOB TO SEE IT STAYS THERE.'
These urgent messages, at the very time the Daily Worker was carrying articles by Claud Cockburn (under the pseudonym Frank Pitcairn) urging soldiers to go back to their barracks and start insurrection immediately, arming the workers, can have had only one purpose -- to neutralise any possible danger of revolution by getting all those workers who wanted to arm themselves into the Home Guard where their patriotism and respect for democracy would bring them back to their senses. For such appeals to appear in the Evening Standard Orwell must have had official backing -- it would have been quite impossible to publish such material unless he had. Again it is not possible to know how this was done, or who he was working with. But it is certain that those in the Communist Party who were behind the People's Convention would have known who their enemy was. When the Convention was actually held it was a failure. And if those organising it wanted someone to blame then the campaign in which Orwell took so prominent part would be an obvious target..." [end quoting]
Soon I will make the correction on the website. I'm still on my Research & Rejuvination break which is involving massive reading about and by Orwell and which I will be telling the readers about when I am ready to hit the trenches again. As mentioned earlier, I have added immensely to my Orwell library this summer and am in the process of reading these wonderful books and then continue with my work in spreading Orwell's important message.
Thank you very much for your interest in my site and for helping me out by pointing out where an error had been made. I appreciate that immensely.
All the best,
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