As I Please
by George Orwell
Tribune, 1947
March 14 / March 28 / April 4


March 7:


SOME time ago a foreign visitor asked me if I could recommend a good, representative anthology of English verse. When I thought it over I found that I could not name a single one that seemed to me satisfactory. Of course there are innumerable period anthologies, but nothing, so far as I know, that attempts to cover the whole of English literature except Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and, more comprehensive and more up-to-date, The Oxford Book of English Verse.

Now, I do not deny that The Oxford Book is useful, that there is a great deal of good stuff in it, and that every schoolchild ought to have a copy, in default of something better. Still, when you look at the last fifty pages, you think twice about recommending such a book to a foreigner who may imagine that it is really representative of English verse. Indeed, the whole of this part of the book is a lamentable illustration of what happens to professors of literature when they have to exercise independent judgement. Up to 1850, or thereabouts, one could not go very wrong in compiling an anthology, because, after all, it is on the whole the best poems that have survived. But as soon as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch reached his contemporaries, all semblance of taste deserted him.

The Oxford Book stops at 1900, and it is true that the last decades of the nineteenth century were a poor period for verse. Still, there were poets even in the nineties. There was Ernest Dowson—‘Cynara’ is not my idea of a good poem, but I would sooner have it than Henley’s ‘England, My England’—there was Hardy, who published his first poems in 1898, and there was Housman, who published A Shropshire Lad in 1896. There was also Hopkins, who was not in print or barely in print, but whom Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch must have known about. None of these appears in The Oxford Book. Yeats, who had already published a great deal at that date, does appear shortly, but he is not represented by his best poems: neither is Kipling, who, I think, did write one or two poems (for instance, ‘How far is St Helena’) which deserve to be included in a serious anthology. And on the other hand, just look at the stuff that has been included! Sir Henry Newholt’s Old Cliftonian keeping a stiff upper Up on the North-West Frontier; other patriotic pieces by Henley and Kipling; and page after page of weak, sickly, imitative verse by Andrew Lang, Sir William Watson, A. C. Benson, Alice Meynell and others now forgotten. What is one to think of an anthologist who puts Newbolt and Edmund Gosse in the same volume with Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Blake?

Perhaps I am just being ignorant and there does already exist a comprehensive anthology running all the way from Chaucer to Dylan Thomas and including no tripe. But if not, I think it is time to compile one, or at least to bring The Oxford Book up to date by making a completely new selection of poets from Tennyson onwards.

Looking through what I have written above, I see that I have spoken rather snootily of Dowson’s ‘Cynara’, I know it is a bad poem, but it is bad in a good way, or good in a bad way, and I do not wish to pretend that I never admired it. Indeed, it was one of the favourites of my boyhood. I am quoting from memory:

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses, riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long—
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

Surely those lines possess, if not actual merit, at least the same kind of charm as belongs to a pink geranium or a soft-centre chocolate.




March 14:


I HAVE not yet read more than a newspaper paragraph about Nu Speling, in connexion with which somebody is introducing a Bill in Parliament, but if it is like most other schemes for rationalizing our spelling, I am against it in advance, as I imagine most people will be.

Probably the strongest reason for resisting rationalized spelling is laziness. We have all learned to read and write already, and we don’t want to have to do it over again. But there are other more respectable objections. To begin with, unless the scheme were rigidly enforced, the resulting chaos, with some newspapers and publishing houses accepting it, others refusing it, and others adopting it in patches, would be fearful. Then again, anyone who had learned only the new system would find it very difficult to read books printed in the old one, so that the huge labour of respelling the entire literature of the past would have to be undertaken. And again, you can only fully rationalize spelling if you give a fixed value to each letter. But this means standardizing pronunciation, which could not be done in this country without an unholy row. What do you do, for instance, about words like ‘butter’ or ‘glass’, which are pronounced in different ways in London and Newcastle? Other words, such as ‘were’, are pronounced in two different ways according to individual inclination, or according to context.

However, I do not want to prejudge the inventors of Nu Speling. Perhaps they have already thought of a way round these difficulties. And certainly our existing spelling system is preposterous and must be a torment to foreign students. This is a pity, because English is well fitted to be the universal second language, if there ever is such a thing. It has a large start over any natural language and an enormous start over any manufactured one, and apart from the spelling it is very easy to learn. Would it not be possible to rationalize it by little and little, a few words every year? Already some of the more ridiculous spellings do tend to get killed off unofficially. For instance, how many people now spell ‘hiccup’ as ‘hiccough’?

Another thing I am against in advance—for it is bound to be suggested sooner or later—is the complete scrapping of our present system of weights and measures.

Obviously you have got to have the metric system for certain purposes. For scientific work it has long been in use, and it is also needed for tools and machinery, especially if you want to export them. But there is a strong case for keeping on the old measurements for use in everyday life. One reason is that the metric system does not possess, or has not succeeded in establishing, a large number of units that can be visualized. There is, for instance, effectively no unit between the metre, which is more than a yard, and the centimetre, which is less than half an inch. In English you can describe someone as being five feet three inches high, or five feet nine inches, or six feet one inch, and your bearer will know fairly accurately what you mean. But I have never heard a Frenchman say, ‘He is a hundred and forty-two centimetres high’; it would not convey any visual image. So also with the various other measurements. Rods and acres, pints, quarts and gallons, pounds, stones and hundredweights, are all of them units with which we are intimately familiar, and we should be slightly poorer without them. Actually, in countries where the metric system is in force a few of the old measurements tend to linger on for everyday purposes, although officially discouraged.

There is also the literary consideration, which cannot be left quite out of account. The names of the units in the old system are short homely words which lend themselves to vigorous speech. Putting a quart into a pint pot is a good image, which could hardly be expressed in the metric system. Also, the literature of the past deals only in the old measurements, and many passages would become an irritation if one had to do a sum in arithmetic when one read them, as one does with those tiresome verses in a Russian novel.

The emmet’s inch and eagle’s mile
Make lame philosophy to smile:

Fancy having to turn that into millimetres!

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I HAVE just been reading about a party of German teachers, journalists, trade-union delegates and others who have been on a visit to this country. It appears that while here they were given food parcels by trade unions and other organizations, only to have them taken away again by the Customs officials at Harwich. They were not even allowed to take out of the country the 15 lb. of food which is permitted to a returning prisoner of war. The newspaper reporting this adds without apparent irony that the Germans in question had been here ‘on a six weeks’ course in democracy’.

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THE other day I had occasion to write something about the teaching of history in private schools, and the following scene, which was only rather loosely connected with what I was writing, floated into my memory. It was less than fifteen years ago that I witnessed it.

‘Jones!’

‘Yessir!’

‘Causes of the French Revolution.’

‘Please, sir, the French Revolution was due to three causes, the teachings of Voltaire and Rousseau, the oppression of the nobles by the people and —’

At this moment a faint chill, like the first premonitory symptom of an illness, falls upon Jones. Is it possible that he has gone wrong somewhere? The master’s face is inscrutable. Swiftly Jones casts his mind back to the unappetizing little book, with the gritty brown cover, a page of which is memorized daily. He could have sworn he had the whole thing right. But at this moment Jones discovers for the first time the deceptiveness of visual memory. The whole page is clear in his mind, the shape of every paragraph accurately recorded, but the trouble is that there is no saying which way round the words go. He had made sure it was the oppression of the nobles by the people; but then it might have been the oppression of the people by the nobles. It is a toss-up. Desperately he takes his decision—better to stick to his first version. He gabbles on:

‘The oppression of the nobles by the people and —’

‘JONES!’

Is that kind of thing still going on, I wonder?




March 28:


I HAVE been reading with interest the February-March bulletin of Mass Observation, which appears just ten years after this organization first came into being. It is curious to remember with what hostility it was greeted at the beginning. It was violently attacked in the New Statesman, for instance, where Mr Stonier declared that the typical Mass Observer would have ‘elephant ears, a loping walk and a permanent sore eye from looking through keyholes’, or words to that effect. Another attacker was Mr Stephen Spender. But on the whole the opposition to this or any other kind of social survey comes from people of conservative opinions, who often seem to be genuinely indignant at the idea of finding out what the big public is thinking.

If asked why, they generally answer that what is discovered is of no interest, and that in any case any intelligent person always knows already what are the main trends of public opinion. Another argument is that social surveys are an interference with individual liberty and a first step towards totalitarianism. The Daily Express ran this line for several years and tried to laugh the small social survey unit instituted by the Ministry of Information out of existence by nicknaming it Cooper’s Snoopers. Of course, behind much of this opposition there lies a well-justified fear of finding that mass sentiment on many subjects is not conservative.

But some people do seem sincerely to feel that it is a bad thing for the government to know too much about what people are thinking, just as others feel that it is a kind of presumption when the government tries to educate public opinion. Actually you can’t have democracy unless both processes are at work. Democracy is only possible when the law-makers and administrators know what the masses want, and what they can be counted on to understand. If the present Government paid more attention to this last point, they would word some of their publicity differently. Mass Observation issued a report last week on the White Paper on the economic situation. They found, as usual, that the abstract words and phrases which are flung to and fro in official announcements mean nothing to countless ordinary citizens. Many people are even flummoxed by the word ‘assets’, which is thought to have something to do with ‘assist’!

The Mass Observation Bulletin gives some account of the methods its investigators use, but does not touch on a very important point, and that is the manner in which social surveys are financed. Mass Observation itself appears to keep going in a-hand-to-mouth way by publishing books and by undertaking specific jobs for the Government or for commercial organizations. Some of its best surveys, such as that dealing with the birthrate, were carried out for the Advertising Service Guild. The trouble with this method is that a subject only gets investigated if some large, wealthy organization happens to be interested in it. An obvious example is antisemitism, which I believe has never been looked into, or only in a very sketchy way. But antisemitism is only one variant of the great modern disease of nationalism. We know very little about the real causes of nationalism, and we might conceivably be on the way towards curing it if we knew more. But who is sufficiently interested to put up the thousands of pounds that an exhaustive survey would cost?

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FOR some weeks there has been correspondence in the Observer about the persistence of ‘spit and polish’ in the armed forces. The last issue had a good letter from someone who signed himself ‘Conscript’, describing how he and his comrades were forced to waste their time in polishing brass, blacking the rubber hoses on stirrup pumps with boot polish, scraping broom handles with razor blades, and so on. But ‘Conscript’ then goes on to say: ‘When an officer (a major) carried out routine reading of King’s Regulations regarding venereal disease, he did not hesitate to add: “There is nothing to be ashamed of if you have the disease—it is quite natural. But make sure that you report for treatment at once.”’ I must say that it seems to me strange, amid the other idiocies mentioned, to object to one of the few sensible things in the army system, i.e. its straightforward attitude towards venereal disease. We shall never be able to stamp out syphilis and gonorrhoea until the stigma of sinfulness is removed from them. When full conscription was introduced in the 1914-18 war it was discovered, if I remember rightly, that nearly half the population suffered or had suffered from some form of venereal disease, and this frightened the authorities into taking a few precautions. During the inter-war years the struggle against venereal disease languished, so far as the civilian population went. There was provision for treatment of those already infected, but the proposal to set up ‘early treatment centres’, as in the army, was quelled by the puritans. Then came another war, with the increase in venereal disease that war necessarily causes, and another attempt to deal with the problem. The Ministry of Health posters are timid enough, but even these would have provoked an outcry from the pious ones if military necessity had not called them into being.

You can’t deal with these diseases so long as they are thought of as visitations of God, in a totally different category from all other diseases. The inevitable result of that is concealment and quack remedies. And it is humbug to say that ‘clean living is the only real remedy’. You are bound to have promiscuity and prostitution in a society like ours, where people mature sexually at about fifteen and are discouraged from marrying till they are in their twenties, where conscription and the need for mobility of labour break up family life, and where young people living in big towns have no regular way of forming acquaintanceships. It is impossible to solve the problem by making people more moral, because they won’t, within any foreseeable time, become as moral as all that. Besides, many of the victims of venereal disease are husbands or wives who have not themselves committed any so-called immoral act. The only sensible course is to recognize that syphilis and gonorrhoea are merely diseases, more preventable if not curable than most, and that to suffer from them is not disgraceful. No doubt the pious ones would squeal. But in doing so they might avow their real motives, and then we should be a little nearer to wiping out this evil.

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FOR the last five minutes I have been gazing out of the window into the square, keeping a sharp look-out for signs of spring. There is a thinnish patch in the clouds with a faint hint of blue behind it, and on a sycamore tree there are some things that look as if they might be buds. Otherwise it is still winter. But don’t worry! Two days ago, after a careful search in Hyde Park, I came on a hawthorn bush that was definitely in bud, and some birds, though not actually singing, were making noises like an orchestra tuning up. Spring is coming after all, and recent rumours that this was the beginning of another Ice Age were unfounded. In only three weeks’ time we shall be listening to the cuckoo, which usually gives tongue about the fourteenth of April. Another three weeks after that, and we shall be basking under blue skies, eating ices off barrows and neglecting to lay up fuel for next winter.

How appropriate the ancient poems in praise of spring have seemed these last few years! They have a meaning that they did not have in the days when there was no fuel shortage and you could get almost anything at any time of year. Of all passages celebrating spring, I think I like best those two stanzas from the beginning of one of the Robin Hood ballads. I modernize the spelling:

When shaws be sheen and swards full fair,
And leaves both large and long,
It is merry walking in the fair forest
To hear the small birds’ song.

The woodwele sang and would not cease,
Sitting upon the spray,
So loud he wakened Robin Hood
In the greenwood where he lay.

But what exactly was the woodwele? The Oxford Dictionary seems to suggest that it was the woodpecker, which is not a notable songster, and I should be interested to know whether it can be identified with some more probable bird.




April 4:


THE Royal Commission on the Press is now getting to work, after mysterious delays. Presumably it will be a long time before it reaches any definite conclusions, and still longer before its findings are acted upon. Nevertheless, it seems to me that now is the time to start discussing the problem of preserving a free Press in a socialised economy. Because, unless we become aware of the difficulties before they are actually upon us, the ultimate condition of the Press in this country will be worse than it need be.

During the fuel crisis I remarked to several people on the badness of Government publicity, to be met each time with the answer that the present Government has hardly any organs of expression under its control. That, of course, is true. I then said, "Why not take over the Daily —— and run it as a Government organ?" This suggestion was always greeted with horror. Apparently to nationalise the Press would be "Fascism," while "freedom of the Press" consists in allowing a few millionaires to coerce hundreds of journalists into falsifying their opinions. But I pass over the question of how free the British Press is at present. The point is, what will finally happen if the present trend towards nationalisation continues?

Sooner or later, it seems to me, the Press is certain to be nationalised, so far as its major organs go. It could hardly continue to exist as a huge patch of private enterprise, like a sort of game reserve, in the middle of a collectivised economy. But does that mean that all channels of expression will ultimately be under the control of bureaucrats? Some such thing could quite easily happen if the people most concerned are indifferent to their fate. One can quite well imagine newspapers, periodicals, magazines, books, films, radio, music and the drama all being lumped together and "co-ordinated" under the guidance of some enormous Ministry of Fine Arts (or whatever its name might be). It is not a pleasant prospect, but I believe it can be averted if the danger is realised in advance.

What is meant by freedom of the Press? The Press is free, I should say, when it is easy and not illegal to get minority opinions into print and distribute them to the public. Britain is luckier in this respect than most countries, and it is fair to say that this is partly due to the variations that exist in the big commercial Press. The leading daily papers, few though they are, contain more shades of difference than a Government-controlled Press would be likely to do. Still, the main guardians of minority opinion are the small independent weekly and monthly papers, and the book-publishing houses. It is only through those channels that you can make sure of getting a hearing for any opinion that does not express a libel or an incitement to violence. Therefore, if the big Press is certain to be nationalised any way, could not this principle be laid down in advance: that nationalisation shall only apply to so much of the Press as comes under the heading of "big business," while small concerns will be left alone?

Obviously the proprietor of a chain of a hundred newspapers is a capitalist. So is a small publisher or the owner-editor of a monthly magazine, strictly speaking. But you are not obliged to treat them both alike, just as in abolishing large-scale ownership of land you are not obliged to rob the smallholder or market gardener of his few acres. So long as a minority Press can exist, and count on continued existence, even in a hole and corner way, the essential freedom will be safeguarded. But the first step is to realise that nationalisation is inevitable, and lay our plans accordingly. Otherwise the people specially concerned, the journalists, artists, actors, etc., may have no bargaining power when the time comes, and that unappetising Ministry of Fine Arts may engulf the whole lot of them.

Recently I was talking to the editor of a newspaper with a very large circulation, who told me that it was now quite easy for his paper to live on its sales alone. This would probably continue to be true, he said, until the paper situation improved, which would mean reverting to pre-war bulk, at enormously greater expense. Until then, advertisements would be of only secondary importance as a source of revenue.

If that is so—and I believe many papers could now exist without advertisements—is not this just the moment for an all-out drive against patent medicines? Before the war it was never possible to attack patent medicines in a big way, because the Press, which would have had to make the exposure, lived partly off advertisements for them. As a start, some enterprising publisher might track down and reprint the two volumes of that rare and very entertaining book, Secret Remedies. This was issued, if I remember rightly, by the British Medical Association—at any rate, by some association of doctors—the first volume appearing about 1912 and the second during the nineteen-twenties. It consisted simply of a list of existing proprietory medicines, with a statement of their claims, an analysis of their contents, and an estimate of their cost. There was very little comment, which in most cases was hardly necesary. I distinctly remember that one "consumption cure" sold to the public at thirty-five shillings a bottle was estimated to cost a halfpenny.

Neither volume made much impact on the public. The Press, for reasons indicated above, practically ignored both issues, and they are now so rare that I have not seen a copy for years. (Incidentally, if any reader has a copy I would gladly buy it—especially the second volume, which I think is the rarer.) If reissued, the book would need bringing up to date, for the claim to cure certain diseases is now forbidden by law, while many new kinds of rubbish have come on to the market. But many of the old ones are still there—that is the significant point. Is it not possible that the consumption of patent medicines might decrease if people were given a clearer idea of the nature and the real cost of the stuff they are pouring down their throats?

A few weeks back a correspondent in Tribune asked why we are not allowed to grow and cure tobacco for our own use, In practice, I think, you can do so. There is a law against it, but it is not strictly enforced—at any rate, I have certainly known people who grew their own tobacco, and even prepared it in cakes like the commercial article. I tried some once, and thought it the perfect tobacco for a non-smoker. The trouble with English tobacco is that it is so mild that you can hardly taste it. This is not, I believe, due to the lack of sun but to some deficiency in the soil. However, any tobacco is better than none, and a few thousand acres laid down to it in the south of England might help us through the cigarette shortage which is likely to happen this year, without using up any dollars or robbing the State of any revenue.

I have just been reading about the pidgin English (or "beche-la-mar"0) used in the Solomon and New Hebrides Islands in the South Pacific. It is the lingua franca between many islands whose inhabitants speak different languages or dialects. As it has only a tiny vocabulary and is lacking in many necessary parts of speech, it has to make use of astonishing circumlocutions. An aeroplane, for instance, is called "lanich (launch) belong fly allsame pigeon." A violin is described thus: "One small bokkis (box) belong whiteman all he scratch him belly belong him sing out good fella." Here is a passage in what seems, judging by the other extracts given, to be very high-class pidgin. It announces the Coronation of King George VI:

King George, he dead. Number one son, Edward, he no want him clothes. Number two son he like. Bishop he make plenty talk along new King. He say: "You look out good along all the people?" King he talk: "Yes." Then bishop and plenty Government official and storekeeper and soldier and bank manager and policeman, all he stand up and sing and blow him trumpet. Finish.

There are similar pidgins, most of them not quite so bad, in other parts of the world. In some cases the people who first formed them were probably influenced by the feeling that a subject race ought to talk comically. But there are areas where a lingua franca of some kind is indispensable, and the perversions actually in use make one see what a lot there is to be said for Basic.





George Orwell's As I Please for 4 April 1947 turned out to be his last column for Tribune. On April 10th he left for Jura in order to complete the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four.








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