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33 review for The Penguin Complete Longer Non-fiction of George Orwell

  1. 4 out of 5

    Phillip Kay

    The first book by George Orwell I ever read was the first one he published, in 1933, Down and Out in Paris and London. An old tattered Penguin, it fell to bits after a second reading, and I bought a set published by the Folio Society called Reportage, which included all three of Orwell’s non-fiction works as well as a selection of his essays and from which edition I quote. It is dated 1998 and illustrated with photographs by Brassai and Bill Brandt. Down and Out in Paris and London is a record of The first book by George Orwell I ever read was the first one he published, in 1933, Down and Out in Paris and London. An old tattered Penguin, it fell to bits after a second reading, and I bought a set published by the Folio Society called Reportage, which included all three of Orwell’s non-fiction works as well as a selection of his essays and from which edition I quote. It is dated 1998 and illustrated with photographs by Brassai and Bill Brandt. Down and Out in Paris and London is a record of an experiment Orwell made during the years 1928 and 1931, of living with and experiencing the life of the poor. He was supposedly inspired by Jack London’s writings about Limehouse, and was motivated by a fervour against social injustice as strong as Jonathan Swift’s. In many ways he was reacting against his former career as an administrator in the Indian Imperial Police. Right from the start, with the intransigence of his decision and the honesty of his reportage one can see the idiosyncratic way Orwell expressed his beliefs, and unhesitatingly built on them, that made him an original thinker far from any orthodoxy, and which made him as many enemies on the left as on the right. In his first book, and on its first page, one can see journalism being changed into literature by the strength and courage of his convictions. “Quarrels, and the desolate cries of street hawkers, and the shouts of children chasing orange peel over the cobbles, and at night loud singing and the sour reek of the refuse-carts, made up the atmosphere of the street.” (p1.) And then, at the end of the chapter, “Poverty is what I am writing about, and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum. The slum, with its dirt and its queer lives, was first an object lesson in poverty, and then the background of my own experiences. It is for that reason that I try to give some idea of what life was like there.” (p5) Whether the style is the man is a debatable point, but surely it is with Orwell. Everything he ever wrote, despite the artificial process of shaping his prose into a book or an essay, is so demonstrably what he believed that one hardly needs to know how autobiographical it mostly was. Despite never being doctrinaire, he was remarkably consistent. He has a very high credibility rating. No bullshit, as they say around here. Orwell had his little bit of money stolen, and became destitute in Paris. He chronicles the shame and the lies it entailed, the boredom, the privations, but also gives many vivid sketches of the eccentrics he met. For a time he worked as a plongeur, doing the washing up in the caverns beneath a fashionable restaurant. Speaking of the virtual slavery of these plongeurs: “…He is the slave of a hotel or a restaurant, and his slavery is more or less useless. For, after all, where is the real need of big hotels and smart restaurants? They are supposed to provide luxury, but in reality they provide only a cheap, shoddy imitation of it”. (p118) Hard to argue with Orwell. He was there. He saw. Following his experiences in Paris Orwell came back to London then went on the tramp. The last section of his book is about the tramps he met, their language, and the spikes they stayed at. “Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handout, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.” (p216) Down and Out in Paris and London impressed me greatly. I’ve read it six or seven times, and remember the caverns beneath Hotel X where Orwell worked as a plongeur quite vividly. Simply put, Orwell found that poverty was more widespread than anyone had thought, and he objected to the fact that the lives of as much as a third of the population of cities such as Paris and London were wasted. This is where his socialism came from, from a sense of fairness. The ones with most to fear from communism are fascists, most to fear from fascism are communists: from the centre both look ridiculous. Orwell was commissioned to write a book on the depressed conditions of life in northern England and published The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937. He was seen as a socialist writer but in fact the left in Britain, very much impressed with the dream come true of Stalinist Russia but then unaware of the dreadful means by which it was realised, were very critical of Orwell. The book contains a passage I have never forgotten and have always found extremely significant. “As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her – her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen…For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her – understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.” (p13) Was Bruce Springsteen thinking of something similar: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Here is that unique combination of gifts that make Orwell so slippery to evaluate: the exact observation of a superb journalist; the skills of a master of English prose (note the use of alliteration in this passage); the empathy that made him such an effective novelist; the outrage at injustice that made him such a passionate writer on social and political matters. It makes him hard to evaluate as a novelist, an essayist, a political critic, because he was always all of these at the same time. Whether Orwell is talking about unemployment, working conditions of the miners, or his own experiences as a member of the lower middle classes, he is uniformly convincing. And it is worth while reflecting he is not talking just about Britain in the 1930s, because today, in 2010, in most of the countries of the world including the affluent first world of England, America and Australia, there is a growing increase in the numbers of disadvantaged people. In Orwell’s day, a quarter of the population, today, a third, tomorrow, perhaps a half. Because of this we have one of the most unstable social systems in all of history; the ancien régime looks like the rock of Gibralter by comparison. Our choice: reform, revolution or Big Brother. Another reason why George Orwell is one of the most relevant of writers for people now living. Orwell was caught up in the Spanish Civil War as so many English left wing intellectuals were and characteristically volunteered for active service. In Spain Orwell found himself involved in the crossfire between Stalinist and Trotskyist factions that did much to ensure the victory of Franco. His book on the conflict, Homage to Catalonia was published in 1938, pleased no-one, and saw the hardening of his opposition to Stalinism. Unlike his other two books of non-fiction it was a commercial failure. It is a testimonial to the fact that totalitarianism succeeds because opposition to it is so confused and divided, not because it is more efficient or powerful.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ruth Bertram

  3. 4 out of 5

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    Michael Bishop

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    Michael Beaton

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    Claire Wiltshire

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  27. 5 out of 5

    Mohamed Sharara

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  29. 4 out of 5

    ErrBookErrDay

  30. 4 out of 5

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  31. 4 out of 5

    Shian Maclean

  32. 4 out of 5

    Kevin White

  33. 5 out of 5

    Chelsae

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