Orwell’s Wartime Diary
The Docks at Dunkirk
George Orwell kept a diary during WWII, through the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, all of it. And he continued writing. For his January 1941 “London Letter” for New York’s Partisan Review, he wrote of “the day in September when the Germans broke through and set the docks on fire”.
People in London, South London – were watching this, and one can only imagine what nightmarish vision it had to have been. Orwell’s account reminded me of Rutger Hauer’s elegy to himself as the fast-fading replicant Roy Baty:
“…Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark…“
“I think few people can have watched those enormous fires without feeling that this was the end of an epoch…but to an astonishing extent things have slipped back to normal.”
Normal enough, anyway, for London theatre productions to continue – Orwell did regular theatre review for Time and Tide. It might seem perverse; an extravagance when many people were suffering in London, but keeping up a semblance of normalcy was important for morale. Indeed, as Roger Waters would have it,
“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.”
And people were indeed suffering – the Orwells included – they suffered a very personal loss, indeed.
A fascinating document, the diary (reprinted in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. II) begins on May 28, 1940, when news of Dunkirk first broke.
The war came rapidly.
It decribes the chaos of the Dunkirk evacuation after the British army’s hasty retreat from the Low Countries and the surrender of Belgium to the Germans. Unscheduled trains were pouring into London from English Channel ports; traincars full of bewildered British troops, some in formation, some not, and exhausted Belgian and French refugees. The Orwells sought news of Eileen’s brother Lawrence O’Shaughnessy, who was a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and who had treated Orwell for years and.
The news came days later – he had been killed on the beaches while aiding the wounded. A hard-felt loss for both; though curiously, or not, there is no mention of his death in Orwell’s diary. Eileen was very close to her brother and according to friends, his death struck her very hard.
And so in his diary Orwell skips mention of this personal loss, but writes of nights spent in the bomb shelter during German blitzes:
“10 September…Most of last night in the public shelter, having been driven there by recurrent whistle and crash of bombs not very far away.”
We learn of South Londoners’ (many already bombed out of house) having witnessed the frightful conflagration of wood burning on water across the Channel during the Dunkirk evacuations: while in the shelter [10 Sept.], in “[f]rightful discomfort due to overcrowding…” and “12 September…a youth of about twenty in dirty overalls, perhaps a garage hand. Very embittered and defeatist…He spoke bitterly about the people rendered homeless in South London…”. Perhaps not surprising if the chap had been among those unfortunate who witnessed the fires of Dunkirk blazing from across the Channel. Alas, the Orwells were “watching at the front door when the East India docks were hit”.
II. Eric Blair, a.k.a. George Orwell
Orwell the man was somewhat of a contradiction. He was highly political; highly opinionated. A friend once remarked that “he couldn’t blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry”. Yet he was a traditionalist and firmly in support of Britain’s position in the war. The same man who led an Anarchist, “Trotskyist” battalion fighting against Franco’s Republicans on the Spanish front – the same man five years later was a uniformed member of the Home Guard, Britain’s civil-defense corps.
His fame as a writer was growing, however. Particularly since he’d returned from Spain in 1936 wounded with a gunshot through the neck from close-range by a high-powered enemy rifle. He gained hero-status in some circles, reinforced by his Homage to Catalonia (published by Gollancz, 25 April 1938 and re-published by the widowed Sonia Brownell in 1952). The book renewed the row between, on the one hand, the Marxist/Anarchist ILP (Independent Labour Party) and POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista) – who were the vehicle and political structure of the famed International Brigades – and on the other hand the then robust Communist Party. who after the Spanish revolution fell to Franco, criticized the former for their insistence on sticking to principle and for supposedly hurting the Popular Front/Communist government’s cause.
After his convalescence and on advice from Eileen’s surgeon brother, Lawrence O’Shaughnessy, the Orwells traveled from the then British-controlled Rock of Gibraltar to Morroco – Tangiers, Casablanca, and on to Marrakesh where they stayed for half-a-year. Though war clouds loomed, they were keen to return to England, and did – to Wallington, though the steadily-growing consequences of German war-machine on Great Britain; the rush to maintain industrial capability; the evacuations/displacement of children and families north and westward soon forced the Orwells to London (to 18 Dorset Chambers, Chagford Street NW 1 – a modest flat).
After failing to get work with the government, Orwell was keen to ‘join up’. But no draft/requisition board would accept him due to his health. His Spanish tenure during the ’30s had taken a great toll on his health (one need only consult Homage to Catalonia to see what an ordeal it truly was for those brave men fighting their (eventually lost) struggle against Franco. This opening chapters betray Orwell’s frustration at the pitiful condition of his initial experience on the Catalonian front – entrenched in mud and the cold of high-altitude at winter) POUM, particularly, were only a hastily-raised militia, and terribly unprepared to wage war (one International Brigader, Commandante Georges Kopp (a Belgian) declared to Orwell, “This is not a war, this is a comic-opera.”
George Orwell continued his commercial writing, and amazingly, despite the tension and deprivation of the war, to judge from a the chronology in George Orwell: Essays [Alfred A. Knopf 1968] the years from 1939 to 1945 comprise the bulk of his life’s work, in essays. Orwell had already published a book a year (true to his stated goal of doing just that) since 1933, to ’39.
– d.g.w. (last updated 21 Dec. 2009]
III. The Death of Roy Baty
(From the film adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick)
“I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire
off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark
near the Tannhauser Gate. All those… moments will be lost in time…
like… tears… in rain”
|Incept date||January 8, 2016|
|Function||Combat, Colonization Defense Prog|
|Phys. Level A||Ment. Level A|
to Rick Deckard, Los Angeles, circa 2019
America: A Prophecy
(by William Blake, 1793)
This extended poem was the inspiration for Rutger Hauer’s elegy in Bladerunner (1981, Dir. Ridley Scott). Supposedly Hauer came up with it on his own for the Roy Baty’s exit – the movie’s climaxing scene.
The Guardian Prince of Albion burns in his nightly tent:
Sullen fires across the Atlantic glow to America’s
Piercing the souls of warlike men who rise in silent night.
Washington, Franklin, Paine, and Warren,
Gates, Hancock, and Green
Meet on the coast glowing with blood from Albion’s fiery Prince.
Washington spoke: `Friends of America! look over the Atlantic sea;
A bended bow is lifted in Heaven, and
a heavy iron chain
Descends, link by link, from Albion’s cliffs across the sea, to bind
Brothers and sons
of America; till our faces pale and yellow,
Heads depress’d, voices weak, eyes downcast, hands work-
Feet bleeding on the sultry sands, and the furrows of the whip
Descend to generations, that in
future times forget.’
The strong voice ceas’d; for a terrible blast swept over the heaving sea:
The eastern cloud rent: on his
cliffs stood Albion’s wrathful Prince,
A dragon form, clashing his scales: at midnight he arose,
red meteors round the land of Albion beneath;
His voice, his locks, his awful shoulders, and his glowing
Appear to the Americans upon the cloudy night.