As I Please
by George Orwell
Tribune, 1944
January 14 / January 21 / January 28 / February 4 / February 11 / February 25

January 7:

LOOKING through the photographs in the New Year’s Honours List, I am struck (as usual) by the quite exceptional ugliness and vulgarity of the faces displayed there. It seems to be almost the rule that the kind of person who earns the right to call himself Lord Percy de Falcontowers should look at best like an overfed publican and at worst like a tax-collector with a duodenal ulcer. But our country is not alone in this. Anyone who is a good hand with scissors and paste could compile an excellent book entitled Our Rulers, and consisting simply of published photographs of the great ones of the earth. The idea first occurred to me when I saw in Picture Post some ‘stills’ of Beaverbrook delivering a speech and looking more like a monkey on a stick than you would think possible for anyone who was not doing it on purpose.

When you had got together your collection of fuehrers, actual and would-be, you would notice that several qualities recur throughout the list. To begin with, they are all old. In spite of the lip-service that is paid everywhere to youth, there is no such thing as a person in a truly commanding position who is less than fifty years old. Secondly, they are nearly all under-sized. A dictator taller than five feet six inches is a very great rarity. And, thirdly, there is this almost general and sometimes quite fantastic ugliness. The collection would contain photographs of Streicher bursting a blood vessel, Japanese war-lords impersonating baboons, Mussolini with his scrubby dewlap, the chinless de Gaulle, the stumpy short-armed Churchill, Gandhi with his long sly nose and huge bat’s ears, Tojo displaying thirty-two teeth with gold in every one of them. And opposite each, to make a contrast, there would be a photograph of an ordinary human being from the country concerned. Opposite Hitler a young sailor from a German submarine, opposite Tojo a Japanese peasant of the old type—and so on.

But to come back to the Honours List. When you remember that nearly the whole of the rest of the world has dropped it, it does seem strange to see this flummery still continuing in England, a country in which the very notion of aristocracy perished hundreds of years ago. The race-difference on which aristocratic rule is usually founded had disappeared from England by the end of the Middle Ages, and the concept of ‘blue blood’ as something valuable in itself, and independent of money, was vanishing in the age of Elizabeth. Since then we have been a plutocracy plain and simple. Yet we still make spasmodic efforts to dress ourselves in the colours of medieval feudalism.

Think of the Herald’s Office solemnly faking pedigrees and inventing coats of arms with mermaids and unicorns couchant, regardant and what-not, for company directors in bowler hats and striped trousers! What I like best is the careful grading by which the honours are always dished out in direct proportion to the amount of mischief done—baronies for Big Business, baronetcies for fashionable surgeons, knighthoods for tame professors. But do these people imagine that by calling themselves lords, knights and so forth they somehow come to have something in common with the medieval aristocracy? Does Sir Walter Citrine, say, feel himself to be rather the same kind of person as Childe Roland (Childe Citrine to the dark tower came!), or is Lord Nuffield under the impression that we shall mistake him for a crusader in chain-armour?

However, this honours-list business has one severely practical aspect, and that is that a title is a first-class alias. Mr X can practically cancel his past by turning himself into Lord Y. Some of the ministerial appointments that have been made during this war would hardly have been possible without some such disguise. As Tom Paine put it: ‘These people change their names so often that it is as hard to know them as it is to know thieves.’

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I WRITE this to the tune of an electric drill. They are drilling holes in the walls of a surface shelter, removing bricks at regular intervals. Why? Because the shelter is in danger of falling down and it is necessary to give it a cement facing.

It seems doubtful whether these surface shelters were ever of much use. They would give protection against splinters and blast, but not more than the walls of an ordinary house, and the only time I saw a bomb drop anywhere near one it sliced it off the ground as neatly as if it had been done with a knife. The real point is, however, that at the time when these shelters were built it was known that they would fall down in a year or two. Innumerable people pointed this out. But nothing happened; the slovenly building continued, and somebody scooped the contract. Sure enough, a year or two later, the prophets were justified. The mortar began to fall out of the walls, and it became necessary to case the shelters in cement. Once again somebody—perhaps it was the same somebody—scooped the contract. I do not know whether, in any part of the country, these shelters are actually used in air raids. In my part of London there has never been any question of using them; in fact, they are kept permanently locked lest they should be used for ‘improper purposes’. There is one thing, however, that they might conceivably be useful for and that is as block-houses in street fighting. And on the whole they have been built in the poorer streets. It would amuse me if when the time came the higher-ups were unable to crush the populace because they had thoughtlessly provided them with thousands of machine-gun nests beforehand.

January 14:

THE OLD custom of binding up magazines and periodicals in book form seems to have gone out almost entirely, which is a pity, for a year’s issue of even a very stupid magazine is more readable after a lapse of time than the majority of books. I do not believe I ever had a better bargain than the dozen volumes of the Quarterly Review, starting in 1809, which I once picked up for two shillings at a farmhouse auction; but a good sixpennyworth was a year’s issue of the Cornhill when either Trollope or Thackeray, I forget which, was editing it, and another good buy was some odd volumes of the Gentleman’s Magazine of the mid-sixties, at threepence each. I have also had some happy half-hours with Chambers’s Papers for the People, which flourished in the fifties, the Boy’s Own Paper in the days of the Boer War, the Strand in its great Sherlock Holmes days, and—a book I unfortunately only saw and didn’t buy—a bound volume of the Athenæum in the early twenties, when Middleton Murry was editing it, and T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster and various others were making their first impact on the big public. I do not know why no one bothers to do this nowadays, for to get a year’s issue of a magazine bound costs less than buying a novel, and you can even do the job yourself if you have a spare evening and the right materials.

The great fascination of these old magazines is the completeness with which they ‘date’. Absorbed in the affairs of the moment, they tell one about political fashions and tendencies which are hardly mentioned in the more general history books. It is interesting, for instance, to study in contemporary magazines the war scare of the early sixties, when it was assumed on all sides that Britain was about to be invaded, the Volunteers were formed, amateur strategists published maps showing the routes by which the French armies would converge on London, and peaceful citizens cowered in ditches while the bullets of the Rifle Clubs (the then equivalent of the Home Guard) ricocheted in all directions.

The mistake that nearly all British observers made at that time was not to notice that Germany was dangerous. The sole danger was supposed to come from France, which had shot its bolt as a military power and had in any case no reason for quarrelling with Britain. And I believe that casual readers in the future, dipping into our newspapers and magazines, will note a similar aberration in the turning-away from democracy and frank admiration for totalitarianism which overtook the British intelligentsia about 1940.

Recently, turning up back numbers of Horizon, I came upon a long article on James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution, in which Burnham’s main thesis was accepted almost without examination. It represented, many people would have claimed, the most intelligent forecast of our time. And yet—founded as it really was on a belief in the invincibility of the German army—events have already blown it to pieces.

January 21:

A CORRESPONDENT reproaches me with being ‘negative’ and ‘always attacking things’. The fact is that we live in a time when causes for rejoicing are not numerous. But I like praising things, when there is anything to praise, and I would like here to write a few lines—they have to be retrospective, unfortunately—in praise of the Woolworth’s Rose.

In the good days when nothing in Woolworth’s cost over sixpence, one of their best lines was their rose bushes. They were always very young plants, but they came into bloom in their second year, and I don’t think I ever had one die on me. Their chief interest was that they were never, or very seldom, what they claimed to be on their labels. One that I bought for a Dorothy Perkins turned out to be a beautiful little white rose with a yellow heart, one of the finest ramblers I have ever seen. A polyantha rose labelled yellow turned out to be deep red. Another, bought for an Abertine, was like an Abertine, but more double, and gave astonishing masses of blossom. These roses had all the interest of a surprise packet, and there was always the chance that you might happen upon a new variety which you would have the right to name John Smith or something of that kind.

Last summer I passed the cottage where I used to live before the war. The little white rose, no bigger than a boy’s catapult when I put it in, had grown into a huge vigorous bush, the Abertine or near-Abertine was smothering half the fence in a cloud of pink blossom. I had planted both of those in 1936. And I thought, ‘All that for sixpence!’ I do not know how long a rose bush lives; I suppose ten years might be an average life. And throughout that time a rambler will be in full bloom for a month or six weeks each year, while a bush rose will be blooming, on and off, for at least four months. All that for sixpence—the price, before the war, of ten Players, or a pint and a half of mild, or a week’s subscription to the Daily Mail, or about twenty minutes of twice-breathed air in the movies!

January 28:

I SEE that Mr. Suresh Vaidya, an Indian journalist living in England, has been arrested for refusing military service. This is not the first case of its kind, and if it is the last it will probably be because no more Indians of military age are left to be victimized.

Everyone knows without being told them the juridical aspects of Mr. Vaidya’s case, and I have no wish to dwell on them. But I would like to draw attention to the common-sense aspect, which the British Government so steadily refuses to consider. Putting aside the seamen who come and go, and the handful of troops who are still here, there might perhaps be two thousand Indians in this country, of all kinds and ages. By applying conscription to them you may raise a few score extra soldiers; and by coercing the minority who ‘object’ you may swell the British prison population by about a dozen. That is the net result from the military point of view.

But unfortunately that isn’t all. By behaviour of this kind you antagonize the entire Indian community in Britain—for no Indian, whatever his views, admits that Britain had the right to declare war on India’s behalf or has the right to impose compulsory service on Indians. Anything that happens in the Indian community here has prompt repercussions in India, and appreciable effects further afield. One Indian war resister victimized does us more harm than ten thousand British ones. It seems a high price to pay for the satisfaction the Blimps probably feel at having another ‘red’ in their clutches. I don’t expect the Blimps to see Mr. Vaidya’s point of view. But they really might see, after all their experience, that making martyrs does not pay.

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A CORRESPONDENT has sent us a letter in defence of Ezra Pound, the American poet who transferred his allegiance to Mussolini some years before the war and has been a lively propagandist on the Rome radio. The substance of his claim is (a) that Pound did not sell himself simply for money, and (b) that when you get hold of a true poet you can afford to ignore his political opinions.

Now, of course, Pound did not sell himself solely for money. No writer ever does that. Anyone who wanted money before all else would choose some more paying profession. But I think it probable that Pound did sell himself partly for prestige, flattery and a professorship. He had a most venomous hatred for both Britain and the U.S.A., where he felt that his talents had not been fully appreciated, and obviously believed that there was a conspiracy against him throughout the English-speaking countries. Then there were several ignominious episodes in which Pound’s phony erudition was shown up, and which he no doubt found it hard to forgive. By the mid-thirties Pound was singing the praises of ‘the Boss’ (Mussolini) in a number of English papers, including Mosley’s quarterly, British Union (to which Vidkun Quisling was also a contributor). At the time of the Abyssinian war Pound was vociferously anti-Abyssinian. In 1938 or thereabouts the Italians gave him a chair at one of their universities, and some time after war broke out he took Italian citizenship. Whether a poet, as such, is to be forgiven his political opinions is a different question. Obviously one mustn’t say ‘X agrees with me: therefore he is a good writer’, and for the last ten years honest literary criticism has largely consisted in combating this outlook. Personally I admire several writers (Céline, for instance) who have gone over to the Fascists, and many others whose political outlook I strongly object to. But one has the right to expect ordinary decency of a poet. I never listened to Pound’s broadcasts, but I often read them in the B.B.C. Monitoring Reports, and they were intellectually and morally disgusting. Antisemitism, for instance, is simply not the doctrine of a grown-up person. People who go in for that kind of thing must take the consequences. But I do agree with our correspondent in hoping that the American authorities do not catch Pound and shoot him, as they have threatened to do. It would establish his reputation so thoroughly that it might be a good hundred years before anyone could determine dispassionately whether Pound’s much-debated poems are any good or not.

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THE OTHER night a barmaid informed me that if you pour beer into a damp glass it goes flat much more quickly. She added that to dip your moustache into your beer also turns it flat. I immediately accepted this without further inquiry; in fact, as soon as I got home I clipped my moustache, which I had forgotten to do for some days.

Only later did it strike me that this was probably one of those superstitions which are able to keep alive because they have the air of being scientific truths. In my note-book I have a long list of fallacies which were taught to me in my childhood, in each case not as an old wives’ tale but as a scientific fact. I can’t give the whole list, but there are a few hardy favourites:

  • That a swan can break your leg with a blow of its wing.
  • That if you cut yourself between the thumb and forefinger you get lockjaw.
  • That powdered glass is poisonous.
  • That if you wash your hands in the water eggs have been boiled in (why anyone should do this is a mystery) you will get warts.
  • That bulls become infuriated at the sight of red.
  • That sulphur in a dog’s drinking water acts as a tonic.

And so on and so forth. Almost everyone carries some or other of these beliefs into adult life. I have met someone of over thirty who still retained the second of the beliefs I have listed above. As for the third, it is so widespread that in India, for instance, people are constantly trying to poison one another with powdered glass, with disappointing results.

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I WISH now that I had read Basic English versus the Artificial Languages before and not after reviewing the interesting little book in which Professor Lancelot Hogben sets forth his own artificial language, Interglossa. For in that case I should have realized how comparatively chivalrous Professor Hogben had been towards the inventors of rival international languages. Controversies on serious subjects are often far from polite. Followers of the Stalinist-Trotskyist controversy will have observed that an unfriendly note tends to creep into it, and when the Tablet and the Church Times are having a go at one another the blows are not always above the belt. But for sheer dirtiness of fighting the feud between the inventors of various of the international languages would take a lot of beating.

Tribune may before long print one or more articles on Basic English. If any language is ever adopted as a world-wide ‘second’ language it is immensely unlikely that it will be a manufactured one, and of the existing natural ones English has much the best chance, though not necessarily in the Basic form. Public opinion is beginning to wake up to the need for an international language, though fantastic misconceptions still exist. For example, many people imagine that the advocates of an international language aim at suppressing the natural languages, a thing no one has ever seriously suggested.

At present, in spite of the growing recognition of this need, the world is growing more and not less nationalistic in language. This is partly from conscious policy (about half a dozen of the existing languages are being pushed in an imperialistic way in various parts of the world), and partly owing to the dislocation caused by the war. And the difficulties of trade, travel and inter-communication between scientists, and the time-wasting labour of learning foreign languages, still continue. In my life I have learned seven foreign languages, including two dead ones, and out of those seven I retain only one, and that not brilliantly. This would be quite a normal case. A member of a small nationality, a Dane or a Dutchman, say, has to learn three foreign languages as a matter of course, if he wants to be educated at all. Clearly this position could be bettered, and the great difficulty is to decide which language is to be adopted as the international one. But there is going to be some ugly scrapping before that is settled, as anyone who has ever glanced into this subject knows.

February 4:

WHEN Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London, he occupied himself with writing a history of the world. He had finished the first volume and was at work on the second when there was a scuffle between some workmen beneath the window of his cell, and one of the men was killed. In spite of diligent inquiries, and in spite of the fact that he had actually seen the thing happen, Sir Walter was never able to discover what the quarrel was about: whereupon, so it is said—and if the story is not true it certainly ought to be—he burned what he had written and abandoned his project.

This story has come into my head I do not know how many times during the past ten years, but always with the reflection that Raleigh was probably wrong. Allowing for all the difficulties of research at that date, and the special difficulty of conducting research in prison, he could probably have produced a world history which had some resemblance to the real course of events. Up to a fairly recent date, the major events recorded in the history books probably happened. It is probably true that the battle of Hastings was fought in 1066, that Columbus discovered America, that Henry VIII had six wives, and so on. A certain degree of truthfulness was possible so long as it was admitted that a fact may be true even if you don’t like it. Even as late as the last war it was possible for the Encyclopædia Britannica, for instance, to compile its articles on the various campaigns partly from German sources. Some of the facts—the casualty figures, for instance—were regarded as neutral and in substance accepted by everybody. No such thing would be possible now. A Nazi and a non-Nazi version of the present war would have no resemblance to one another, and which of them finally gets into the history books will be decided not by evidential methods but on the battlefield.

During the Spanish Civil War I found myself feeling very strongly that a true history of this war never would or could be written. Accurate figures, objective accounts of what was happening, simply did not exist. And if I felt that even in 1937, when the Spanish Government was still in being, and the lies which the various Republican factions were telling about each other and about the enemy were relatively small ones, how does the case stand now? Even if Franco is overthrown, what kind of records will the future historian have to go upon? And if Franco or anyone at all resembling him remains in power, the history of the war will consist quite largely of ‘facts’ which millions of people now living know to be lies. One of these ‘facts’, for instance, is that there was a considerable Russian army in Spain. There exists the most abundant evidence that there was no such army. Yet if Franco remains in power, and if Fascism in general survives, that Russian army will go into the history books and future schoolchildren will believe in it. So for practical purposes the lie will have become truth.

This kind of thing is happening all the time. Out of the millions of instances which must be available, I will choose one which happens to be verifiable. During part of 1941 and 1942, when the Luftwaffe was busy in Russia, the German radio regaled its home audience with stories of devastating air raids on London. Now, we are aware that those raids did not happen. But what use would our knowledge be if the Germans conquered Britain? For the purpose of a future historian, did those raids happen, or didn’t they? The answer is: If Hitler survives, they happened, and if he falls they didn’t happen. So with innumerable other events of the past ten or twenty years. Is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion a genuine document? Did Trotsky plot with the Nazis? How many German aeroplanes were shot down in the Battle of Britain? Does Europe welcome the New Order? In no case do you get one answer which is universally accepted because it is true: in each case you get a number of totally incompatible answers, one of which is finally adopted as the result of a physical struggle. History is written by the winners.

In the last analysis our only claim to victory is that if we win the war we shall tell less lies about it than our adversaries. The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits atrocities but that it attacks the concept of objective truth: it claims to control the past as well as the future. In spite of all the lying and self-righteousness that war encourages, I do not honestly think it can be said that that habit of mind is growing in Britain. Taking one thing with another, I should say that the press is slightly freer than it was before the war. I know out of my own experience that you can print things now which you couldn’t print ten years ago. War resisters have probably been less maltreated in this war than in the last one, and the expression of unpopular opinions in public is certainly safer. There is some hope, therefore, that the liberal habit of mind, which thinks of truth as something outside yourself, something to be discovered, and not as something you can make up as you go along, will survive. But I still don’t envy the future historian’s job. Is it not a strange commentary on our time that even the casualties in the present war cannot be estimated within several millions?

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ANNOUNCING that the Board of Trade is about to remove the ban on turned-up trouser-ends, a tailor’s advertisement hails this as ‘a first instalment of the freedom for which we are fighting’.

If we were really fighting for turned-up trouser-ends, I should be inclined to be pro-Axis. Turn-ups have no function except to collect dust, and no virtue except that when you clean them out you occasionally find a sixpence there. But beneath that tailor’s jubilant cry there lies another thought: that in a little while Germany will be finished, the war will be half over, rationing will be relaxed, and clothes snobbery will be in full swing again. I don’t share that hope. The sooner we are able to stop food rationing the better I shall be pleased, but I would like to see clothes rationing continue till the moths have devoured the last dinner-jacket and even the undertakers have shed their top-hats. I would not mind seeing the whole nation in dyed battledress for five years if by that means one of the main breeding points of snobbery and envy could be eliminated. Clothes rationing was not conceived in a democratic spirit, but all the same it has had a democratizing effect. If the poor are not much better dressed, at least the rich are shabbier. And since no real structural change is occurring in our society, the mechanical levelling process that results from sheer scarcity is better than nothing.

February 11:

THERE are two journalistic activities that will always bring you a come-back. One is to attack the Catholics and the other is to defend the Jews. Recently I happened to review some books dealing with the persecution of the Jews in medieval and modern Europe. The review brought me the usual wad of antisemitic letters, which left me thinking for the thousandth time that this problem is being evaded even by the people whom it concerns most directly.

The disquieting thing about these letters is that they do not all come from lunatics. I don’t greatly mind the person who believes in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, nor even the discharged army officer who has been shabbily treated by the Government and is infuriated by seeing ‘aliens’ given all the best jobs. But in addition to these types there is the small business or professional man who is firmly convinced that the Jews bring all their troubles upon themselves by underhand business methods and complete lack of public spirit. These people write reasonable, well-balanced letters, disclaim any belief in racialism, and back up everything they say with copious instances. They admit the existence of ‘good Jews’, and usually declare (Hitler says just the same in Mein Kampf) that they did not start out with any anti-Jewish feeling but have been forced into it simply by observing how Jews behave.

The weakness of the left-wing attitude towards antisemitism is to approach it from a rationalistic angle. Obviously the charges made against Jews are not true. They cannot be true, partly because they cancel out, partly because no one people could have such a monopoly of wickedness. But simply by pointing this out one gets no further. The official left-wing view of antisemitism is that it is something ‘got up’ by the ruling classes in order to divert attention away from the real evils of society. The Jews, in fact, are scapegoats. This is no doubt correct, but it is quite useless as an argument. One does not dispose of a belief by showing that it is irrational. Nor is it any use, in my experience, to talk about the persecution of the Jews in Germany. If a man has the slightest disposition towards antisemitism, such things bounce off his consciousness like peas off a steel helmet. The best argument of all, if rational arguments were ever of any use, would be to point out that the alleged crimes of the Jews are only possible because we live in a society which rewards crime. If all Jews are crooks, let us deal with them by so arranging our economic system that crooks cannot prosper. But what good is it to say that kind of thing to the man who believes as an article of faith that Jews dominate the Black Market, push their way to the front of queues and dodge military service?

We could do with a detailed inquiry into the causes of antisemitism, and it ought not to be vitiated in advance by the assumption that those causes are wholly economic. However true the ‘scapegoat’ theory may be in general terms, it does not explain why the Jews rather than some other minority group are picked on, nor does it make clear what they are a scapegoat for. A thing like the Dreyfus Case, for instance, is not easily translated into economic terms. So far as Britain is concerned, the important things to find out are just what charges are made against the Jews, whether antisemitism is really on the increase (it may actually have decreased over the past thirty years), and to what extent it is aggravated by the influx of refugees since about 1938.

One not only ought not to assume that the causes of antisemitism are economic in a crude, direct way (unemployment, business jealousy, etc.), one also ought not to assume that ‘sensible’ people are immune to it. It flourishes especially among literary men, for instance. Without even getting up from this table to consult a book I can think of passages in Villon, Shakespeare, Smollett, Thackeray, H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot and many another which would be called antisemitic if they had been written since Hitler came to power. Both Belloc and Chesterton flirted, or something more than flirted, with antisemitism, and other writers whom it is possible to respect have swallowed it more or less in its Nazi form. Clearly the neurosis lies very deep, and just what it is that people hate when they say that they hate a non-existent entity called ‘the Jews’ is still uncertain. And it is partly the fear of finding out how widespread antisemitism is that prevents it from being seriously investigated.

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THE FOLLOWING lines are quoted in Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography:

When Payne-Knight’s Taste was issued on the town
A few Greek verses in the text set down
Were torn to pieces, mangled into hash,
Hurled to the flames as execrable trash;
In short, were butchered rather than dissected
And several false quantities detected;
Till, when the smoke had risen from the cinders
It was discovered that—the lines were Pindar’s!

Trollope does not make clear who is the author of these lines, and I should be very glad if any reader could let me know. But I also quote them for their own sake—that is, for the terrible warning to literary critics that they contain—and for the sake of drawing attention to Trollope’s Autobiography, which is a most fascinating book, although or because it is largely concerned with money.

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THE DISPUTE that has been going on in Time and Tide about Mr J. F. Horrabin’s atlas of war geography is a reminder that maps are tricky things, to be regarded with the same suspicion as photographs and statistics.

It is an interesting minor manifestation of nationalism that every nation colours itself red on the map. There is also a tendency to make yourself look bigger than you are, which is possible without actual forgery since every projection of the earth as a flat surface distorts some part or other. During the Empire Free Trade ‘crusade’ there was a free distribution to schools of large coloured wall-maps which were made on a new projection and dwarfed the U.S.S.R. while exaggerating the size of India and Africa. Then there are ethnological and political maps, a most rewarding material for propaganda. During the Spanish Civil War, maps were pinned up in the Spanish villages which divided the world into Socialist, democratic and Fascist states. From these you could learn that India was a democracy, while Madagascar and Indo-China (this was the period of the Popular Front Government in France) were labelled ‘Socialist’.

The war has probably done something towards improving our geography. People who five years ago thought that Croats rhymed with goats and drew only a very shadowy distinction between Minsk and Pinsk, could now tell you which sea the Volga flows into and indicate without much searching the whereabouts of Guadalcanal or Buthidaung. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of English people can nearly pronounce Dnepropetrovsk. But it takes a war to make map-reading popular. As late as the time of Wavell’s Egyptian campaign I met a woman who thought that Italy was joined up with Africa, and in 1938, when I was leaving for Morocco, some of the people in my village—a very rustic village, certainly, but only fifty miles from London—asked whether it would be necessary to cross the sea to get there. If you ask any circle of people (I should particularly like to do this with the members of the House of Commons) to draw a map of Europe from memory, you get some surprising results. Any government which genuinely cared about education would see to it that a globe map, at present an expensive rarity, was accessible to every school child. Without some notion of which country is next to which, and which is the quickest route from one place to another, and where a ship can be bombed from shore, and where it can’t, it is difficult to see what value the average citizen’s views on foreign policy can have.

February 25:

A SHORT story in the Home Companion and Family Journal, entitled ‘Hullo, Sweetheart’, recounts the adventures of a young girl named Lucy Fallows who worked on the switchboard of a long-distance telephone exchange. She had ‘sacrificed her yearning to be in uniform’ in order to take this job, but found it dull and uneventful. ‘So many silly people seemed to use long-distance just to blether to each other . . . . She felt fed up; she felt that she was a servant to selfish people’, and there was ‘a cloud in her hazel eyes’. However, as you will readily guess, Lucy’s job soon livened up, and before long she found herself in the middle of thrilling adventures which included the sinking of a U-boat, the capture of a German sabotage crew, and a long motor-ride with a handsome naval officer who had ‘a crisp voice’. Such is life in the Telephone Exchange.

At the end of the story there is a little note: ‘Any of our young readers themselves interested in the work of the Long Distance Telephone Exchange (such work as Lucy Fallows was doing) should apply to the Staff Controller, L.T.R., London, who will inform them as to the opportunities open.’

I do not know whether this is an advertisement likely to have much success. I should doubt whether even girls of the age aimed at would believe that capturing U-boats enters very largely into the lives of telephone operators. But I note with interest the direct correlation between a government recruiting advertisement and a piece of commercial fiction. Before the war the Admiralty, for instance, used to put its advertisements in the boys’ adventure papers, which was a natural place to put them, but stories were not, so far as I know, written to order. Probably they are not definitely commissioned even now. It is more likely that the departments concerned keep their eye on the weekly papers (incidentally I like to think of some stripe-trousered personage in the G.P.O. reading ‘Hullo, Sweetheart’ as part of his official duties) and push in an ad when any story seems likely to form an attractive bait. But from that to the actual commissioning of stories to be written round the A.T.S., Women’s Land Army, or any other body in need of recruits, is only a short step. One can almost hear the tired, cultured voices from the M.O.I. saying:

‘Hullo! Hullo! Is that you, Tony? Oh, hullo. Look here, I’ve got another script for you, Tony, “A Ticket to Paradise”. It’s bus conductress this time. They’re not coming in. I believe the trousers don’t fit, or something. Well, anyway, Peter says make it sexy, but kind of clean—you know. Nothing extra-marital. We want the stuff in by Tuesday. Fifteen thousand words. You can choose the hero. I rather favour the kind of outdoor man that dogs and kiddies all love—you know. Or very tall with a sensitive mouth, I don’t mind, really. But pile on the sex, Peter says.’

Something resembling this already happens with radio features and documentary films, but hitherto there has not been any very direct connexion between fiction and propaganda. That half-inch ad in the Home Companion seems to mark another small stage in the process of ‘co-ordination’ that is gradually happening to all the arts.

.     .     .     .     .

LOOKING through Chesterton’s Introduction to Hard Times in the Everyman Edition (incidentally, Chesterton’s Introductions to Dickens are about the best thing he ever wrote), I note the typically sweeping statement: ‘There are no new ideas.’ Chesterton is here claiming that the ideas which animated the French Revolution were not new ones but simply a revival of doctrines which had flourished earlier and then been abandoned. But the claim that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ is one of the stock arguments of intelligent reactionaries. Catholic apologists, in particular, use it almost automatically. Everything that you can say or think has been said or thought before. Every political theory from Liberalism to Trotskyism can be shown to be a development of some heresy in the early Church. Every system of philosophy springs ultimately from the Greeks. Every scientific theory (if we are to believe the popular Catholic press) was anticipated by Roger Bacon and others in the thirteenth century. Some Hindu thinkers go even further and claim that not merely the scientific theories, but the products of applied science as well, aeroplanes, radio and the whole bag of tricks, were known to the ancient Hindus, who afterwards dropped them as being unworthy of their attention.

It is not very difficult to see that this idea is rooted in the fear of progress. If there is nothing new under the sun, if the past in some shape or another always returns, then the future when it comes will be something familiar. At any rate what will never come—since it has never come before—is that hated, dreaded thing, a world of free and equal human beings. Particularly comforting to reactionary thinkers is the idea of a cyclical universe, in which the same chain of events happens over and over again. In such a universe every seeming advance towards democracy simply means that the coming age of tyranny and privilege is a bit nearer. This belief, obviously superstitious though it is, is widely held nowadays, and is common among Fascists and near-Fascists.

In fact, there are new ideas. The idea that an advanced civilization need not rest on slavery is a relatively new idea, for instance: it is a good deal younger than the Christian religion. But even if Chesterton’s dictum were true, it would only be true in the sense that a statue is contained in every block of stone. Ideas may not change, but emphasis shifts constantly. It could be claimed, for example, that the most important part of Marx’s theory is contained in the saying: ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’ But before Marx developed it, what force had that saying had? Who had paid any attention to it? Who had inferred from it—what it certainly implies—that laws, religions and moral codes are all a superstructure built over existing property relations? It was Christ, according to the Gospel, who uttered the text, but it was Marx who brought it to life. And ever since he did so the motives of politicians, priests, judges, moralists and millionaires have been under the deepest suspicion—which, of course, is why they hate him so much.

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