The Times We Live In: George Orwell, Rod Liddle and Me
January 25th 2010
I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls,
And woke to find it true;
I wasn’t born for an age like this;
Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?
George Orwell, 1935 (1)
The influence of Gordon Orwell throws a long shadow and influence on many of us who choose to write, are active politically and define ourselves as ‘left’. I think of it as an impressive, friendly, beneficial shadow: a guide, a set of suggestions and inspiration. Most of all I value Orwell for the style and quality of his writing, as much as what he is saying.
I started reading Orwell in a political way at the formative point I became political, in the period 1980-81. What impressed me most was the tautness, economy and structure of his thoughts. This was a deeply political period; the onset of the Thatcher Government, a divided, bitter Britain, and over this period for my O Levels and Highers I choose in my English and History to write on three subjects which I was passionate about but which we had not formally studied. One was the policies of the 1945-51 Labour Government, another was Sham 69, punk and its relationship with the repugnant ‘Oi’ movement, and what this meant for artist and audience.
The final one was on George Orwell, where I took great pleasure in quoting his words from ‘Why I Write’ stating that every single word he had written since 1936 had been ‘against totalitarianism’ and ‘for democratic socialism’. As a young, becoming politically aware man this felt like some small act of revelatory revolution at the time. I even got a subscription to ‘Tribune’ on the back of Orwell having been literary editor in the 1940s without having seen a single copy!
Orwell’s essay ‘Why I Write’ is a typically thoughtful essay exploring the purpose of what it is to be a writer, and what motivates the writer. He identifies four motivations:
Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.
Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.
Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
Political purpose. Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
Orwell felt that while he wrote for all of the first three at points, increasingly the fourth had come to the fore with the rise of fascism, the Spanish Civil War and the march towards war. In a recent essay by Meta Wagner (2), on Orwell and writing, she reflects on Orwell’s comment that when he deviated from a ‘political purpose’ he ended up in ‘purple passages’ and ‘humbug’, and questions where that leaves room for the ephemeral and irreverent, asking ‘Is there no value to pure entertainment in such times?’
I do not want to doubt Wagner’s credentials as a scholar and studier of Orwell, but I don’t think Orwell saw his mission of being political as excluding an element of entertainment and light-heartedness. In fact the opposite was the case, for Orwell ridiculed the left tradition that dismissed everything but politics, class and struggle, and saw decades before the post-modern cul-de-sac the importance of the everyday and mundane.
This is integral to any political project of the left being relevant and real, and still is to this day. How can we think otherwise of a man who in the same year as he wrote ‘Why I Write?’ wrote his seminal essay on tea making, ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’ (3).
Orwell offers us many insights from another age as a writer, an intellectual, a man engaged in public conversation, and firmly on the left, who explored the links, relationships and contradictions between all of these.
What would he make of present times would be to see similarity in many of the challenges: the existence of empire and imperialism, the persistence of a never-ending war which has an Orwellian 1984 overtone (‘the war on terror’), and the maintenance of inequality and privilege in Britain and the world. And a left which is even more hamstrung, cautious and apologetic than in his day.
What would he make of much of what passes for public conversation in Britain today in our media today, can only be guessed at. Here is Rod Liddle in the Saturday ‘Guardian’ justifying his offensive comments about why shouldn’t he be allowed to smoke at Auschwitz (along with several racist remarks):
All of these things are twisted out of context to make me look like a cunt. I may be a cunt but I’m not a racist cunt. (4)
That’s Saturday’s ‘Guardian’ from a man who is a major public figure in Britain and is the favourite to be the next editor of ‘The Independent’. Something has gone far wrong with Liddle and a public culture which validates and encourages such childish behaviour. It is the spectre of these adult children such as Liddle, Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand and a whole host of others running wild ransacking parts of our public space and leaving a sense of something cheapened and defiled.
The legacy of Orwell is about continuing that wider tradition of a political engagement and activism which is informed by in Bernard Crick’s words ‘a deliberate balance between public and private values, between creative work and necessary labour, between politics and culture’ (5). What exactly informs the actions and mindset of today’s perennial schoolboys with their vulgarity, obscenity and nihilism?
The attention seeking actions of the Rod Liddles of this world need to be challenged, but we also need to point and act in a different way. I would like to think that I grasped a little of that when I wrote my Orwell essay for my school exam all those years ago.
1. George Orwell, ‘Why I Write’, Gangrel, Summer 1946, in ‘An Age Like This: Collected Essays 1920-40’.
2. Meta Wagner, ‘Curse Ye Orwell!’, Pop Matters, http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/119260-the-orwellian-way/
3. George Orwell, ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, Evening Standard, January 12th 1946, in ‘As I Please: Collected Essays 1943-45’.
4. James Robinson, ‘Liddle defends quip about Auschwitz on Millwall fans’ forum’, The Guardian, January 23rd 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/jan/22/rod-liddle-quip-auschwitz-millwall
5. Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life, Little Brown 1980, p. 416.