by George Orwell
December 17 / December 24 / December 31
SCENE in a tobacconists shop. Two American soldiers sprawling across the counter, one of them just sober enough to make unwanted love to the two young women who run the shop, the other at the stage known as fighting drunk. Enter Orwell in search of matches. The pugnacious one makes an effort and stands upright.
Soldier: Wharrishay is, perfijious Albion. You heard that? Perfijious Albion. Never trust a Britisher. You cant trust the British.
Orwell: Cant trust them with what?
Soldier: Wharrishay is, down with Britain. Down with the British. You wanna do anything about that? Then you canwell do it. (Sticks his face out like a tomcat on a garden wall.)
Tobacconist: Hell knock your block off if you dont shut up.
Soldier: Wharrishay is, down with Britain. (Subsides across the counter again. The tobacconist lifts his head delicately out of the scales.)
This kind of thing is not exceptional. Even if you steer clear of Piccadilly with its seething swarms of drunks and whores, it is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes. On the other hand the Americans have their own justifiable complaintsin particular, they complain of the children who follow them night and day, cadging sweets.
Does this sort of thing matter? The answer is that it might matter at some moment when Anglo-American relations were in the balance, and when the still-powerful forces in this country which want an understanding with Japan were able to show their faces again. At such moments popular prejudice can count for a great deal. Before the war there was no popular anti-American feeling in this country. It all dates from the arrival of the American troops, and it is made vastly worse by the tacit agreement never to discuss it in print.
Seemingly it is our fixed policy in this war not to criticize our allies, nor to answer their criticisms of us. As a result things have happened which are capable of causing the worst kind of trouble sooner or later. An example is the agreement by which American troops in this country are not liable to British courts for offences against British subjectspractically extra-territorial rights. Not one English person in ten knows of the existence of this agreement; the newspapers barely reported it and refrained from commenting on it. Nor have people been made to realize the extent of anti-British feeling in the United States. Drawing their picture of America from films carefully edited for the British market, they have no notion of the kind of thing that Americans are brought up to believe about us. Suddenly to discover, for instance, that the average American thinks the U.S.A. had more casualties than Britain in the last war comes as a shock, and the kind of shock that can cause a violent quarrel. Even such a fundamental difficulty as the fact that an American soldiers pay is five times that of a British soldier has never been properly ventilated. No sensible person wants to whip up Anglo-American jealousy. On the contrary, it is just because one does want a good relationship between the two countries that one wants plain speaking. Our official soft-soaping policy does us no good in America, while in this country it allows dangerous resentments to fester just below the surface.
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SINCE 1935, when pamphleteering revived, I have been a steady collector of pamphlets, political, religious and what-not. To anyone who happens to come across it and has a shilling to spare I recommend The 1946 MS by Robin Maugham, published by the War Facts Press. It is a good example of that small but growing school of literature, the non-party radical school. It purports to describe the establishment in Britain of a Fascist dictatorship, starting in 1944 and headed by a successful general who is (I think) drawn from a living model. I found it interesting because it gives you the average middle-class mans conception of what Fascism would be like, and more important, of the reasons why Fascism might succeed. Its appearance (along with other similar pamphlets I have in my collection) shows how far that average middle-class man has travelled since 1939, when Socialism still meant dividing the money up and what happened in Europe was none of our business.
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WHO wrote this?
|As we walked over the Drury Lane gratings of the cellars a most foul stench came up, and one in particular that I remember to this day. A man half dressed pushed open a broken window beneath us, just as we passed by, and there issued such a blast of corruption, made up of gases bred by filth, air breathed and re-breathed a hundred times, charged with the odours of unnamable personal uncleanliness and disease, that I staggered to the gutter with a qualm which I could scarcely conquer. . . I did not know, until I came in actual contact with them, how far away the classes which lie at the bottom of great cities are from those above them; how completely they are inaccessible to motives which act upon ordinary human beings, and how deeply they are sunk beyond ray of sun or stars, immersed in the selfishness naturally begotten of their incessant struggle for existence and incessant warfare with society. It was an awful thought to me, ever present on those Sundays, and haunting me at other times; that men, women and children were living in brutish degradation, and that as they died others would take their place. Our civilization seemed nothing but a thin film or crust lying over a bottomless pit and I often wondered whether some day the pit would not break up through it and destroy us all.|
You would know, at any rate, that this comes from some nineteenth-century writer. Actually it is from a novel, Mark Rutherfords Deliverance. (Mark Rutherford, whose real name was Hale White, wrote this book as a pseudo-autobiography.) Apart from the prose, you could recognize this as coming from the nineteenth century because of that description of the unendurable filth of the slums. The London slums of that day were like that, and all honest writers so described them. But even more characteristic is that notion of a whole block of the population being so degraded as to be beyond contact and beyond redemption.
Almost all nineteenth-century English writers are agreed upon this, even Dickens. A large part of the town working class, ruined by industrialism, are simply savages. Revolution is not a thing to be hoped for: it simply means the swamping of civilization by the sub-human. In this novel (it is one of the best novels in English) Mark Rutherford describes the opening of a sort of mission or settlement near Drury Lane. Its object was gradually to attract Drury Lane to come and be saved. Needless to say this was a failure. Drury Lane not only did not want to be saved in the religious sense, it didnt even want to be civilized. All that Mark Rutherford and his friend succeeded in doing, all that one could do, indeed, at that time, was to provide a sort of refuge for the few people of the neighbourhood who did not belong to their surroundings. The general masses were outside the pale.
Mark Rutherford was writing of the seventies, and in a footnote dated 1884 he remarks that socialism, nationalization of the land and other projects have now made their appearance, and may perhaps give a gleam of hope. Nevertheless, he assumes that the condition of the working class will grow worse and not better as time goes on. It was natural to believe this (even Marx seems to have believed it), because it was hard at that time to foresee the enormous increase in the productivity of labour. Actually, such an improvement in the standard of living has taken place as Mark Rutherford and his contemporaries would have considered quite impossible.
The London slums are still bad enough, but they are nothing to those of the nineteenth century. Gone are the days when a single room used to be inhabited by four families, one in each corner, and when incest and infanticide were taken almost for granted. Above all, gone are the days when it seemed natural to write off a whole stratum of the population as irredeemable savages. The most snobbish Tory alive would not now write of the London working class as Mark Rutherford does. And Mark Rutherfordlike Dickens, who shared his attitudewas a Radical! Progress does happen, hard though it may be to believe it, in this age of concentration camps and big beautiful bombs.
SO MANY letters have arrived, attacking me for my remarks about the American soldiers in this country, that I must return to the subject.
Contrary to what most of my correspondents seem to think, I was not trying to make trouble between ourselves and our Allies, nor am I consumed by hatred for the United States. I am much less anti-American than most English people are at this moment. What I say, and what I repeat, is that our policy of not criticizing our Allies, and not answering their criticism of us (we dont answer the Russians either, nor even the Chinese) is a mistake, and is likely to defeat its own object in the long run. And so far as Anglo-American relations go, there are three difficulties which badly need dragging into the open and which simply dont get mentioned in the British press.
- Anti-American feeling in Britain. Before the war, anti-American feeling was a middle-class, and perhaps upper-class thing, resulting from imperialist and business jealousy and disguising itself as dislike of the American accent etc. The working class, so far from being anti-American, were becoming rapidly Americanized in speech by means of the films and jazz songs. Now, in spite of what my correspondents may say, I can hear few good words for the Americans anywhere. This obviously results from the arrival of the American troops. It has been made worse by the fact that, for various reasons, the Mediterranean campaign had to be represented as an American show while most of the casualties had to be suffered by the British. (See Philip Jordans remarks in his Tunis Diary.) I am not saying that popular English prejudices are always justified: I am saying that they exist.
- Anti-British feeling in America. We ought to face the fact that large numbers of Americans are brought up to dislike and despise us. There is a large section of the press whose main accent is anti-British, and countless other papers which attack Britain in a more sporadic way. In addition there is a systematic guying of what are supposed to be British habits and manners on the stage and in comic strips and cheap magazines. The typical Englishman is represented as a chinless ass with a title, a monocle and a habit of saying Haw, haw. This legend is believed in by relatively responsible Americans, for example by the veteran novelist Theodore Dreiser, who remarks in a public speech that the British are horse-riding aristocratic snobs. (Forty-six million horse-riding snobs!) It is a commonplace on the American stage that the Englishman is almost never allowed to play a favourable role, any more than the Negro is allowed to appear as anything more than a comic. Yet right up to Pearl Harbor the American movie industry had an agreement with the Japanese Government never to present a Japanese character in an unfavourable light!
I am not blaming the Americans for all this. The anti-British press has powerful business forces behind it, besides ancient quarrels in many of which Britain was in the wrong. As for popular anti-British feeling, we partly bring it on ourselves by exporting our worst specimens. But what I do want to emphasize is that these anti-British currents in the U.S.A. are very strong, and that the British press has consistently failed to draw attention to them. There has never been in England anything that one could call an anti-American press: and since the war there has been a steady refusal to answer criticism and a careful censorship of the radio to cut out anything that the Americans might object to. As a result, many English people dont realize how they are regarded, and get a shock when they find out.
- Soldiers Pay. It is now nearly two years since the first American troops reached this country, and I rarely see American and British soldiers together. Quite obviously the major cause of this is the difference of pay. You cant have really close and friendly relations with somebody whose income is five times your own. Financially, the whole American army is in the middle class. In the field this might not matter, but in the training period it makes it almost impossible for British and American soldiers to fraternize. If you dont want friendly relations between the British army and the American army, well and good. But if you do, you must either pay the British soldier ten shillings a day or make the American soldier bank the surplus of his pay in America. I dont profess to know which of these alternatives is the right one.
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ONE way of feeling infallible is not to keep a diary. Looking back through the diary I kept in 1940 and 1941 I find that I was usually wrong when it was possible to be wrong. Yet I was not so wrong as the Military Experts. Experts of various schools were telling us in 1939 that the Maginot Line was impregnable, and that the Russo-German Pact had put an end to Hitlers eastwards expansion; in early 1940 they were telling us that the days of tank warfare were over; in mid 1940 they were telling us that the Germans would invade Britain forthwith; in mid 1941 that the Red army would fold up in six weeks; in December 1941, that Japan would collapse after ninety days; in July 1942, that Egypt was lost and so on, more or less indefinitely.
Where now are the men who told us those things? Still on the job, drawing fat salaries. Instead of the unsinkable battleship we have the unsinkable Military Expert . . .
Books have gone up in price like everything else, but the other day I picked up a copy of Lemprières Classical Dictionary, the Whos Who of the ancients, for only sixpence. Opening it at random, I came upon the biography of Laïs, the famous courtesan, daughter of the mistress of Alcibiades:
|She first began to sell her favours at Corinth for 10,000 drachmas, and the immense number of princes, noblemen, philosophers, orators and plebeians who courted her, bear witness to her personal charms. . . Demosthenes visited Corinth for the sake of Laïs, but informed by the courtesan that admittance to her bed was to be bought at the enormous sum of about £200 English money, the orator departed, and observed that he would not buy repentance at so dear a price. . . She ridiculed the austerity of philosophers, and the weakness of those who pretend to have gained a superiority over their passions, by observing that sages and philosophers were not above the rest of mankind, for she found them at her door as often as the rest of the Athenians.|
There is more in the same vein. However, it ends on a good moral, for the other women, jealous of her charms, assassinated her in the temple of Venus about 340 B.C.. That was 2,283 years ago. I wonder how many of the present denizens of Whos Who will seem worth reading about in A.D. 4226?
READING Michael Robertss book on T. E. Hulme, I was reminded once again of the dangerous mistake that the Socialist movement makes in ignoring what one might call the neo-reactionary school of writers. There is a considerable number of these writers: they are intellectually distinguished, they are influential in a quiet way and their criticisms of the Left are much more damaging than anything that issues from the Individualist League or the Conservative Central Office.
T. E. Hulme was killed in the last war and left little completed work behind him, but the ideas that he had roughly formulated had great influence, especially on the numerous writers who were grouped round the Criterion in the twenties and thirties. Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Malcolm Muggeridge, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene all probably owe something to him. But more important than the extent of his personal influence is the general intellectual movement to which he belonged, a movement which could fairly be described as the revival of pessimism. Perhaps its best-known living exponent is Marshal Pétain. But the new pessimism has queerer affiliations than that. It links up not only with Catholicism, Conservatism and Fascism, but also with Pacifism (California brand especially), and Anarchism. It is worth noting that T. E. Hulme, the upper-middle-class English Conservative in a bowler hat, was an admirer and to some extent a follower of the Anarcho-Syndicalist, Georges Sorel.
The thing that is common to all these people, whether it is Pétain mournfully preaching the discipline of defeat, or Sorel denouncing liberalism, or Berdyaev shaking his head over the Russian Revolution, or Beachcomber delivering side-kicks at Beveridge in the Express, or Huxley advocating non-resistance behind the guns of the American Fleet, is their refusal to believe that human society can be fundamentally improved. Man is non-perfectible, merely political changes can effect nothing, progress is an illusion. The connexion between this belief and political reaction is, of course, obvious. Other-worldliness is the best alibi a rich man can have. Men cannot be made better by act of Parliament; therefore I may as well go on drawing my dividends. No one puts it quite so coarsely as that, but the thought of all these people is along those lines: even of those who, like Michael Roberts and Hulme himself, admit that a little, just a little, improvement in earthly society may be thinkable.
The danger of ignoring the neo-pessimists lies in the fact that up to a point they are right. So long as one thinks in short periods it is wise not to be hopeful about the future. Plans for human betterment do normally come unstuck, and the pessimist has many more opportunities of saying I told you so than the optimist. By and large the prophets of doom have been righter than those who imagined that a real step forward would be achieved by universal education, female suffrage, the League of Nations, or what not.
The real answer is to dissociate Socialism from Utopianism. Nearly all neo-pessimist apologetics consist in putting up a man of straw and knocking him down again. The man of straw is called Human Perfectibility. Socialists are accused of believing that society can beand indeed, after the establishment of Socialism, will becompletely perfect; also that progress is inevitable. Debunking such beliefs is money for jam, of course.
The answer, which ought to be uttered more loudly than it usually is, is that Socialism is not perfectionist, perhaps not even hedonistic. Socialists dont claim to be able to make the world perfect: they claim to be able to make it better. And any thinking Socialist will concede to the Catholic that when economic injustice has been righted, the fundamental problem of mans place in the universe will still remain. But what the Socialist does claim is that that problem cannot be dealt with while the average human beings preoccupations are necessarily economic. It is all summed up in Marxs saying that after Socialism has arrived, human history can begin. Meanwhile the neo-pessimists are there, well entrenched in the press of every country in the world, and they have more influence and make more converts among the young than we sometimes care to admit.
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FROM Philip Jordans Tunis Diary:
|We discussed the future of Germany; and John [Strachey] said to an American present, You surely dont want a Carthaginian peace, do you? Our American friend with great slowness but solemnity said, I dont recollect weve ever had much trouble from the Carthaginians since. Which delighted me.|
It doesnt delight me. One answer to the American might have been, No, but weve had a lot of trouble from the Romans, But there is more to it than that. What the people who talk about a Carthaginian peace dont realize is that in our day such things are simply not practicable. Having defeated your enemy you have to choose (unless you want another war within a generation) between exterminating him and treating him generously. Conceivably the first alternative is desirable, but it isnt possible. It is quite true that Carthage was utterly destroyed, its buildings levelled to the ground, its inhabitants put to the sword. Such things were happening all the time in antiquity. But the populations involved were tiny. I wonder if that American knew how many people were found within the walls of Carthage when it was finally sacked? According to the nearest authority I can lay hands on, five thousand! What is the best way of killing off seventy million Germans? Rat poison? We might keep this in mind when Make Germany Pay becomes a battle-cry again.
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ATTACKING me in the Weekly Review for attacking Douglas Reed, Mr A. K. Chesterton remarks: My countryright or wrong is a maxim which apparently has no place in Mr Orwells philosophy. He also states that all of us believe that whatever her condition Britain must win this war, or for that matter any other war in which she is engaged.
The operative phrase is any other war. There are plenty of us who would defend our own country, under no matter what government, if it seemed that we were in danger of actual invasion and conquest. But any war is a different matter. How about the Boer War, for instance? There is a neat little bit of historical irony here. Mr A. K. Chesterton is the nephew of G. K. Chesterton, who courageously opposed the Boer War, and once remarked that My country, right or wrong was on the same moral level as My mother, drunk or sober.
READING the discussions of war guilt which reverberate in the correspondence columns of the newspapers, I note the surprise with which many people seem to discover that war is not crime. Hitler, it appears, has not done anything actionable. He has not raped anybody, nor carried off any pieces of loot with his own hands, nor personally flogged any prisoners, buried any wounded men alive, thrown any babies into the air and spitted them on his bayonet, dipped any nuns in petrol and touched them off with church tapersin fact he has not done any of the things which enemy nationals are usually credited with doing in war-time. He has merely precipitated a world war which will perhaps have cost twenty million lives before it ends. And there is nothing illegal in that. How could there be, when legality implies authority and there is no authority with the power to transcend national frontiers?
At the recent trials in Kharkov some attempt was made to fix on Hitler, Himmler and the rest the responsibility for their subordinates crimes, but the mere fact that this had to be done shows that Hitlers guilt is not self-evident. His crime, it is implied, was not to build up an army for the purpose of aggressive war, but to instruct that army to torture its prisoners. So far as it goes, the distinction between an atrocity and an act of war is valid. An atrocity means an act of terrorism which has no genuine military purpose. One must accept such distinctions if one accepts war at all, which in practice everyone does. Nevertheless, a world in which it is wrong to murder an individual civilian and right to drop a thousand tons of high explosive on a residential area does sometimes make me wonder whether this earth of ours is not a loony-bin made use of by some other planet.
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AS the 53 bus carries me to and fro I never, at any rate when it is light enough to see, pass the little church of St John, just across the road from Lords, without a pang. It is a Regency church, one of the very few of the period, and when you pass that way it is well worth going inside to have a look at its friendly interior and read the resounding epitaphs of the East India Nabobs who lie buried there. But its façade, one of the most charming in London, has been utterly ruined by a hideous war memorial which stands in front of it. That seems to be a fixed rule in London: whenever you do by some chance have a decent vista, block it up with the ugliest statue you can find. And, unfortunately, we have never been sufficiently short of bronze for these things to be melted down.
If you climb to the top of the hill in Greenwich Park, you can have the mild thrill of standing exactly on longitude 0°, and you can also examine the ugliest building in the world, Greenwich Observatory. Then look down the hill towards the Thames. Spread out below you are Wrens masterpiece, Greenwich Hospital (now the Naval College) and another exquisite classical building known as the Queens House. The architects responsible for that shapeless sprawling muddle at the top of the hill had those other two buildings under their eyes while every brick was laid.
As Mr. Osbert Sitwell remarked at the time of the Baedeker raidshow simple-minded of the Germans to imagine that we British could be cowed by the destruction of our ancient monuments! As though any havoc of the German bombs could possibly equal the things we have done ourselves!
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I SEE that Mr Bernard Shaw, among others, wants to rewrite the second verse of the National Anthem. Mr Shaws version retains references to God and the King, but is vaguely internationalist in sentiment. This seems to me ridiculous. Not to have a national anthem would be logical. But if you do have one, its function must necessarily be to point out that we are Good and our enemies are Bad. Besides, Mr Shaw wants to cut out the only worth-while lines the anthem contains. All the brass instruments and big drums in the world cannot turn God Save the King into a good tune, but on the very rare occasions when it is sung in full it does spring to life in the two lines:
Confound their politics,|
Frustrate their knavish tricks!
And, in fact, I had always imagined that the second verse is habitually left out because of a vague suspicion on the part of the Tories that these lines refer to themselves.
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ANOTHER ninepenny acquisition: Chronological Tablets, exhibiting every Remarkable Occurrence from the Creation of the World down to the Present Time. Printed by J. D. Dewick, Aldersgate Street, in the year 1801.
With some interest I looked up the date of the creation of the world, and found it was in 4004 B.C. and is supposed to have taken place in the autumn. Later in the book it is given more exactly as September 4004.
At the end there are a number of blank sheets in which the reader can carry on the chronicles for himself. Whoever possessed this book did not carry it very far, but one of the last entries is: Tuesday 4 May. Peace proclaimed here. General Illumination. That was the Peace of Amiens. This might warn us not to be too previous with our own illuminations when the armistice comes