August 22, 2008
Much of George Orwell’s early years was spent investigating social conditions. Luckily for us, more often than not a book would follow – a gift to the world from a man with an incomparable knack for courageous and unbiased observation and truth of language. In this, and in his brutal honesty in matters of politics, he was as a scientist, or sociologist investigating the world.
Orwell first met the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer during his two socially-engaged years in Hempstead, an “artsy” area of London. Through his mentor Mabel Fierz, Orwell connected with Francis and Myfanwy Westrope, proprietors of “Booklover’s Corner”, a hub of sorts for fledgling writers, who would room upstairs in return for work down in the bookstore by day. According to biographer Crick, it was through the Westropes that Orwell was to meet his wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, accomplished proprietor of a typing/transcription outfit in the neighborhood.
This period – in the two years prior to his dedicated journey north to chronicle miners’ conditions – informed his writing at the time. It became the setting for Keep the Aspidistra Flying (which was, according to biographer Bernard Crick, transparently “Hempstead”). Orwell’s life in the bookshop became fodder for the novel’s protagonist, Gordon Comstock (and perhaps also for 1984‘s Winston Smith, who finds some peace – and love, incidentally – in the sanctuary of a little side-street antique shop). Indeed, publisher Gollancz required revisions to a slew of names/places/products, to avoid possible libel lawsuits (the laws for which, were quite strict in Britain compared with the States, for example).
In Hempstead and through Booklover’s Corner, Orwell brushed shoulders with artists and literary types many of whom were in the neighborhood for like reasons. And though ostensibly still a self-proclaimed “Tory-Anarchist”, Orwell was growing increasingly political (he would be in Spain with the International Brigades by the end of 1936). With the Westropes, he attended ILP meetings, of which a large contingent met in nearby Conway Hall. He roomed with Jon Kimche, later to become editor of Tribune, and then Jewish Observer and Middle East Review
It is supposed that Orwell only entered the socialist camp for good as a result of his experience in the north of England, touring the ‘Black Country’ (“in other words,” Crick writes, “passing through some of the grimmest urban spoil of the first industrial revolution…”) toward his destination – the mining regions, chronicled in The Road to Wigan Pier (pub. March, 1937). He boarded with working-class miners’ families and experienced first-hand their brand of hardened, true-to-life socialism; risking his own health, delved down into the mines to experience for himself the working conditions that counted among the worst in Britain.
It is true that only after this experience did Orwell then take the fateful step of taking up with the ILB in Spain. The shift from Keep the Aspidistra Flying to The Road to Wigan Pier highlight his break with a purely literary, novelistic approach, toward political writing, as well as the later, polemical essays in which Orwell would display some of his sharpest political acumen.
But 1936 was a fateful year in European politics, as Orwell was keenly aware. A socialist government had just won the popular vote and events were heating up. The international nature of politics was becoming more keenly felt in the lead up to the war.
During 1934-35 Hempstead, London, reviews for Burmese Days were being published: most officially by Blair’s old St. Cyprian’s/grade-school mate (whom he’d not seen since those days), Cyril Connolly, for New Statesman and Nation. Forthwith, they met for dinner. (It was also through Connolly that Orwell later met his second wife, Sonia).
His Hempstead/bookshop days also spawned life-long friendship and correspondence following a letter from Geoffrey Gorer (16 July 1935) congratulating him on Burmese Days. Interviewed years later for a BBC television program on Orwell (“The Road to the Left”, 1970, produced by Melvin Bragg) Gorer recalled frankly yet warmly the young Orwell:
I found he was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known. I was never bored in his company. He was interested in nearly everything. And his attitudes were original. He didn’t take accepted ideas… I would have said he was an unhappy man. He was too big for himself. I suppose if he’d been younger you would have said ‘coltish’. He was awfully likely to knock things off tables, to trip over things. I mean, he was a gangling, physically badly co-ordinated young man. I think his feelings that even the inanimate world was against him which he did have at some times, I mean any gas stove he had would go wrong, any radio would break down… He was a lonely man – until he met Eileen, a very lonely man. He was fairly well convinced that nobody would like him, which made him prickly.
After his return from Spain, Orwell wrote Homage to Catalonia. But Orwell was of necessity walking a fine line, as his publisher, and others on the left, in the tumultuous politics of the day, were concerned about his involvement with the Anarchist POUM during that war. The Communist Party’s line in the aftermath of (and indeed, during) the Spanish war was that the Catalonian brigades and the Anarchists were in league with Franco to undermine the Popular Front (who were Communist sympathizers and receiving aid from Stalin) and the Government, etc., etc.
Orwell wrote to Gorer a remarkably concise and candid letter summing up the matter of Spain, and returning also to the lesson of Burmese Days:
The Popular Front baloney boils down to this: that when the war comes the Communists, labourites, etc., instead of working to stop the war and overthrow the Government, will be on the side of the Government, provided that the Government is on the ‘right’ side, i.e., against Germany. But everyone with any imagination can foresee that Fascism, not of course called Fascism, will be imposed on us as soon as the war starts. So you will have Fascism with Communists participating in it, and, if we are in alliance with the USSR, taking a leading part in it. This is what has happened in Spain. AFter what I have seen in Spain I have come to the conclusion that it is futile to be ‘anti-Fascist’ while attempting to preserve capitalism. Fascism, after all is only a development of capitalism, and the mildest democracy, so-called, is liable to turn into Fascism when the pinch comes. We like to think of England as a democratic country, but our rule in India, for instance, is just as bad as German Fascism, though outwardly it may be less irritating [perhaps purposefully ironic understatement]. I do not see how one can oppose Fascism except by working for the overthrow of capitalism, starting, of course, in one’s own country. If one collaborates with a capitalist-imperialist government in a struggle ‘against Fascism’, i.e., against a rival imperialism, one is simply letting Fascism in by the back door. The whole struggle in Spain, on the Government side, has turned upon this. The revolutionary parties, the Anarchists, POUM, etc. wanted to complete the revolution, the others wanted to fight the Fascists in the name of ‘democracy’, and of course, when they felt sure enough of their position and had tricked the workers into giving up their arms, re-introduce capitalism. The grotesque feature, which very few people outside Spain have yet grasped, is that the Communists stood furthest of all to the Right, and were more anxious even than the liberals to hunt down the revolutionaries and stamp out all revolutionary ideas.
– (from Collected Essays I, pp. 284-85.)