Dickens essay was an attempt to worry away at why he was such a successful writer and is the longest in this collection. But it is infused with the same spirit of personal engagement as everything else. It is that amazing ability to make you believe that you would have felt as he felt that is his genius. Take 'Shooting an Elephant', which recounts an incident during his time as a policeman in Burma. It is a remarkable piece. There is, firstly, the language. When he first sees the elephant, which is said to have run amok, it is standing, beating a bunch of grass against its knees, 'with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have'. In the seconds after pulling the trigger the beast remains standing, but 'a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant... every line of his body altered... He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old.' Then the elephant sags to its knees, its mouth slobbering. And, the utterly perfect sentence: 'An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him.'
Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays
with an Introduction by Jeremy Paxman
Why I Write
Shooting an Elephant
My Country Right or Left
Looking Back on the Spanish War
In Defence of English Cooking
Good Bad Books
The Sporting Spirit
The Prevention of Literature
Books v. Cigarettes
Decline of the English Murder
Some Thoughts on the Common Toad
Confessions of a Book Reviewer
Politics v. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver's Travels
How the Poor Die
Such, Such Were the Joys
Reflections on Gandhi
Politics and the English Language
PENGUIN MODERN CLASSICS
Shooting an Elephant
George Orwell (whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair) was born in 1903 in India and then went to Eton when his family moved back to England. From 1922 to 1927 he served with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, an experience that inspired his first novel, Burmese Days (1934). He lived in Paris before returning to England, and Down and Out in Paris and London was published in 1936. After writing The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia (his account of fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War), Orwell was admitted to a sanatorium in 1938 and from then on was never fully fit. He spent six months in Morocco where he wrote Coming Up for Air. During the Second World War Orwell served in the Home Guard and worked for the BBC. His political allegory Animal Farm was published in 1945 and it was this novel, together with Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which brought him worldwide fame. George Orwell was taken seriously ill in the winter of 1948-9 and died in London in 1950.
Jeremy Paxman is a journalist and writer.
If you want to learn how to write non-fiction, Orwell is your man. He may be known worldwide for his last two novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty Four. But, for me, his best work is his essays.
Who would have imagined that sixteen hundred words in praise of the Common Toad, knocked out to fill a newspaper column in April 1946, would be worth reprinting sixty years later? But here it is, with many of the characteristic Orwell delights, the unglamorous subject matter, the unnoticed detail ('a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature') the baleful glare, the profound belief in humanity. Because what the piece is really about, of course, is not the toad itself, but the thrill of that most promising time of year, the spring, even as seen from Orwell's dingy Islington flat.
When he produced articles like this, hair-shirted fellow socialists got cross. Why wasn't he spending his time promoting discontent, denouncing the establishment, glorifying the machine-driven future? It is a mark of his greatness that Orwell didn't care. They - whoever they might be - cannot stop you enjoying spring. The essay ends, 'The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.'
It all reads so effortlessly. And yet it cannot have been produced without toil. He tells us in 'Why I Write' that he found writing a book 'a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness' and even the shorter pieces, knocked out for magazines or newspapers, must often have been a chore. There is the research, for one thing. His generous, insightful analysis of Charles Dickens shows not merely a close familiarity with thirteen of his novels, but also with those of Trollope, Thackeray and a host of long-forgotten writers, too. For his caustic piece on Boys' Weeklies he evidently immersed himself in mountains of the things.
The result of this steeping is a piece so deft and witty that the result has you laughing out loud. Here, for example, is his list of the national characteristics of the foreigners who make occasional appearances in this bizarre genre:
FRENCHMAN: Excitable. Wears beard, gesticulates wildly.
SPANIARD, MEXICAN, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.
ARAB, AFGHAN, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.
CHINESE: Sinister, treacherous. Wears pigtail's.
ITALIAN: Excitable. Grinds barrel-organ or carries stiletto.
SWEDE, DANE, etc.: Kind-hearted, stupid.
NEGRO: Comic, very faithful.
How one longs for him to have lived long enough to be let loose on the lads' mags culture of the early twenty-first century.
Because something paradoxical has happened to us. The abundance of the mass media offers a greater choice than ever before. We are adrift in a sea of newspapers, magazines, radio, television and the limitless extremities of cyberspace. It is not merely that the more there is of it, the less any individual part of it matters. It is that so little of it seems intended to have any meaning. The mechanical processes of printing and broadcasting seem somehow to have been applied to the generation of content, too. To take one small example; no one ever experiences inconvenience as a result of motorway traffic jams or a broken-down train. Instead they - invariably, meaninglessly - suffer 'misery'. They have not, of course. It is just that that is the word the mental function key brings up when someone is required to write about disruption on the transport system.
Orwell is the enemy of laziness, vagueness and staleness. His 1946 essay, 'Politics and the English Language' remains the best starting point for anyone hoping to achieve the deceptively hard task of clear communication. He boils the business down to five instructions:
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
He might have added - for it was certainly true in his case - that it also helps not to have had your head cluttered, your voice strangulated and your writing hand swathed in bandages by attending one of our finer universities.
You will find nothing much here about fashion, Westminster politics, gossip, relationships, must-have gadgets and holidays, not a mention of the hints dropped by payroll propagandists, nor a word from anonymous 'sources close to' some soon-to-be forgotten minister, and nothing at all about television, pop music, or most of the other subjects which enable our increasingly feeble newspapers to trail their ink across page after page.
What you will find, instead, is an abundance of everything from the life of a book reviewer to how it is to watch a man hanged. The impeccable style is one thing. But if I had to sum up what makes Orwell's essays so remarkable it is that that they always surprise you. Sometimes it is the choice of subject matter: how many journalists can write with any authority on what it is like to queue to be let into an overnight shelter for the homeless? More often, it's the totally unexpected insight. He can write a sixty-page essay on Charles Dickens which frequently seems to be tending to a conclusion that he was a sentimental old fool, but then come to an unexpectedly affectionate final judgement. You have travelled with him on his journey and are rather startled, and pleased, to discover where you have ended up.
Being Orwell, of course, the event is put to political purpose, demonstrating the futility of the imperial project. He has already told us that 'every white man's life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at'. Then he reveals in the last sentence that he had killed the elephant 'solely to avoid looking a fool'. Yes, you think, that makes perfect sense. It is hard to imagine many people less suited to the job of an imperial policeman than Orwell.
Yet, while he hated imperialism, he could still remark that the British empire was 'a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it'. In another essay ('My Country Right or Left') he admits to finding it childish that he feels it faintly sacrilegious not to stand to attention during 'God Save the King', but that he would sooner have that instinct 'than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so "enlightened" that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions'.
There is something very striking about this patriotism of his. It was laid out most obviously in his manifesto for a post-war revolution, The Lion and The Unicorn, but his love of England informs just about everything he wrote. It is there like a defiant bugle call rallying us to appreciate kippers, crumpets, marmalade and stilton cheese in 'In Defence of English Cooking'. It is there like a comforting cup of tea in 'Decline of the English Murder'. Both belong to a time when - seen from this distance - English life appears to have been more settled, less commercial, more neighbourly and less racked by uncertainty of purpose. You cannot read a piece like 'Bookshop Memories' without immediately conjuring up the bad suits and rank smell of dead cigarettes. They could not have been written about any other country on earth.
Yet this is a million miles away from the nostalgic pastiche that John Major once conjured up for a Conservative conference when he talked about the country being a place of warm beer, cricket grounds and 'old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist'. It is not just that in Orwell's day there really were old maids on bicycles and that the Sunday place of pilgrimage had not yet become some ugly out-of-town shopping warehouse. It is that Orwell intuitively understood what it was to be English, and that he felt the possibilities within that identity. John Major, decent man though he may have been, was perpetrating the politician's attempt to seem an ordinary bloke. Orwell lives and breathes the identity. And it is a specifically English identity. What would he have made of our contemporary politicians' attempts to assure us that all is well with the Union, as it suffers the convulsions of its current St Vitus' Dance? Not much, I suspect. He had a devastatingly accurate instinct for cant.
It is, of course, as a 'political' writer that he is now best-known. Sixty years after publication, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the greatest fictional demolition of totalitarianism, and any decently educated twelve-year-old can explain what Animal Farm is about. But, in truth, there is almost none of his successful work, either fiction or non-fiction, that is not political. It doesn't matter whether he is writing in his early 'Tory Anarchist' state, or as the committed socialist of later years, his work is always about that basic political question - why do we live like this?
What marks it out from other political writing is not merely the quality of the prose, but its moral authority. Where does this come from? Would he, for example, have produced such luminescent work had had he not had his first unsuitable job? If he had not suffered at the hands of oafs at his ghastly prep school? If he had not had the years of failure? I think the answer to all these questions is 'no'.
But he also had the paradoxical good fortune to live in evil times. There could be no accommodation with fascism - it was either resistance or capitulation, and everything he wrote from the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War until his death was infused with the same urgent imperative to resist totalitarianism. Of course, some of it is absurdly overstated (can he really have believed that 'only revolution can save England, that has been obvious for years... I dare say the London gutters will have to run with blood,' in 1940?), but evil times force harsh judgements.
Orwell could toss off sentences like that with greater authority than most because of the quality not merely of his writing but of his experience. When he spoke of life at the bottom of the heap he did so as someone who had lived as a scullion and a tramp. When he talked of war and death he did so as someone who had fought in war and seen people die. The experiences had translated a natural hatred of authority into a political manifesto of sorts. In 'Why I Write' he claimed that he was driven more by egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm and curiosity than by any political purpose. Yet in the same essay he claims that those of his books which lacked a political purpose are those which are most ornate and pointless. This apparent contradiction can, of course be explained in the narrow sense in which he talks of his political purpose ('against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism.') But anyone can profess a commitment to some ideology or other, and given those particular options, what sensible personal would not make that choice?
I think there is another explanation, too. What Orwell's experiences - both as figure of authority and as scullion - had given him was a lived understanding of the human condition. It was this grounding in reality which bestowed a more profound political instinct than would be available to some sloganeering zealot. He had acquired a capacity to empathise with the foot-soldiers of history, the put-upon people generally taken for granted, ignored or squashed by the great 'isms' of one sort or another. It conferred upon him the remarkable ability to achieve what every journalist and essayist seeks.
He could tell the truth.
Jeremy Paxman, 2009
Why I Write
From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.
I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child's habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and under-valued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life. Nevertheless the volume of serious - i.e. seriously intended - writing which I produced all through my childhood and boyhood would not amount to half a dozen pages. I wrote my first poem at the age of four or five, my mother taking it down to dictation. I cannot remember anything about it except that it was about a tiger and the tiger had 'chair-like teeth' - a good enough phrase, but I fancy the poem was a plagiarism of Blake's 'Tiger, Tiger'. At eleven, when the war of 1914-18 broke out, I wrote a patriotic poem which was printed in the local newspaper, as was another, two years later, on the death o
f Kitchener. From time to time, when I was a bit older, I wrote bad and usually unfinished 'nature poems' in the Georgian style. I also, about twice, attempted a short story which was a ghastly failure. That was the total of the would-be serious work that I actually set down on paper during all those years.
However, throughout this time I did in a sense engage in literary activities. To begin with there was the made-to-order stuff which I produced quickly, easily and without much pleasure to myself. Apart from school work, I wrote vers d'occasion, semi-comic poems which I could turn out at what now seems to me astonishing speed - at fourteen I wrote a whole rhyming play, in imitation of Aristophanes, in about a week - and helped to edit school magazines, both printed and in manuscript. These magazines were the most pitiful burlesque stuff that you could imagine, and I took far less trouble with them than I now would with the cheapest journalism. But side by side with all this, for fifteen years or more, I was carrying out a literary exercise of a quite different kind: this was the making up of a continuous 'story' about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind. I believe this is a common habit of children and adolescents. As a very small child I used to imagine that I was, say, Robin Hood, and picture myself as the hero of thrilling adventures, but quite soon my 'story' ceased to be narcissistic in a crude way and became more and more a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw. For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: 'He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a matchbox, half open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf,' etc. etc. This habit continued till I was about twenty-five, right through my non-literary years. Although I had to search, and did search, for the right words, I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside. The 'story' must, I suppose, have reflected the styles of the various writers I admired at different ages, but so far as I remember it always had the same meticulous descriptive quality.