Since whoever we are (save for a few sad Leninists) we all agree with George Orwell, it usually follows that Orwell must agree with us. Whatever our 21st-century predilections, Tory or leftist, conservative or progressive, we discover blessings and endorsements somewhere in Orwell’s words. We grab him for ourselves.
In English Rebel, Professor Robert Colls grabs Orwell for an idea of national affiliation. Colls offsets his attempt by disclaiming any such ambition. “There is no ‘key’ to Orwell,” he writes at the end of his introduction, “any more than he is a ‘box’ to open. His Englishness, though, is worth following through.” A modest grab, then – and, as we shall see, a good grab. But a grab nonetheless.
George Orwell was, argues Colls, “deracinated”. He went to Eton but he was not of the ruling class. He served as a colonial policeman in Burma but he was alienated from the Raj. He became an intellectual who disliked intellectuals, and a socialist who distrusted almost all forms of socialism. He belonged nowhere.
Except, eventually, to England – not Britain, says Colls, which was too abstract an identity, but England. Between coming back from Burma in the late 1920s and the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, Orwell came to understand, and wanted to defend, the peculiar virtues of Englishness as understood and practised by “ordinary” English people. Bluff wisdom resided in the folk of England – whose gentleness and stoicism presumably distinguished them from alien intellectuals and alien peoples. The socialism of Orwell can be moot, Colls suggests, but his Englishness is the most real part of him.
There are several ways in which – quite apart from the success or otherwise of Colls’s thesis – this book is a kind of Orwellian triumph. Colls is a lovely writer, who is fearless in a way that academics too often are not. He is happy to subvert clichés, make little speeches and is willing to permit useful generalisations. A sentence such as the following, concerning Orwell’s class, takes a lot of risks for a good return: “The English class system, home or away, was an exercise in fine weights and measures which only a haunted class like the middle class could understand.”
Colls is full of learning and insight, and is happy to borrow (with attribution) from the wisdom of others. So he endorses Ross McKibbin’s idea that the true beginning of the short triumph of British (and therefore English) “popular left politicisation” was not in 1944 0r 1945, but in 1940 when Winston Churchill proclaimed the republic of blood, toil, sweat and tears.
Before the Second World War altered the world for Orwell, he had returned from exile in Burma, been down and out in the two capitals, written a bad novel and taken himself off to the north of England – where he discovered the working classes. The first part of The Road to Wigan Pier is the travelogue of a southern writer in the northern land, the middle-class boy in the proletarian world.
This might have been an exercise in slumming it (Harry Pollitt, the Communist Party leader and himself a working-class boy, accused Orwell of just that) but it was one for which very few other writers volunteered. “Unlike nearly every London journalist there is (and has been)”, Colls writes, Orwell understood what back-to-back housing was. All I can say is: “Guilty” – perhaps because generations of us could not understand how anyone could build anything so stupid or wicked.
Colls credits Orwell for the effort but, just as Orwell later does for Dickens, not always for the result. Orwell’s workers, he points out, have no pleasures, no organisations, no spokespeople, heroes or political parties.
Orwell finished The Road to Wigan Pier with some thoughts about socialism; and then, nine months after coming back from the north, he left for Spain. Why he did so is rather beyond Colls’s scope, as is almost anything to do with Orwell and Abroad – save for Spain, where Orwell discovers how bloody Abroad can be and how ideology can make people suffer. But, more importantly, he realises that there are great lies being told and obfuscations being made, mostly by the Stalinists. After that (this is me, not Colls), lies and obfuscation become the real enemy. Without them, something may be done. With them, nothing good can happen.
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