Escape to Wodehouse

January 14, 2013 at 4:14 pm (BBC, class, comedy, history, Jim D, literature, Orwell, parasites)

Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in – Evelyn Waugh

Most of the people whom Wodehouse intends as sympathetic characters are parasites and some of them plain imbeciles, but very few of them could be described as immoral – George Orwell

Wodehouse is back on TV (BBC 1, Sundays), in the form of the Blandings stories about Lord Emsworth, his fearsome sister Constance, the ambitious secretary Baxter and Emsworth’s prize sow, The Empress.

Those of you not already aux fait with the Wodehouse oeuvre will have gathered just from the above, that this is pretty lightweight stuff, completely devoid of any pretensions to social commentary or psychological insight. It’s pure entertainment and – more to the point – pure escapism.

Wodehouse’s published writings began in the very early years of the last century and continued right up to his death in 1974, when he left an unfinished manuscript that was published posthumously as Sunset at Blandings. But (as Orwell pointed out) the world of Wodehouse was outdated even by the 1920’s: Emsworth was a throwback to a bygone Edwardian age and Bertie Wooster really died in the corner of some foreign field round about 1915.

Wodehouse’s reputaton has by now just about about recovered from his appalling misjudgement when, living in France in 1941 and having been interned by advancing German forces, he agreed to broadcast some lighthearted “chats” on Nazi radio. These were apolitical in tone and content, but naturally laid him open to the charge (made most forcefully by ‘Cassandra’ of the Daily Mirror) that he’d been a willing tool of Goebbels’ and had agreed to broadcast in order to get himself released. George Orwell considered Wodehouse to have acted like a bloody idiot, but wrote an essay (In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse, February 1945) that strongly defended him against charges of treachery. It turns out that the British authorities reached the same conclusion, but decided not to tell him, and Wodehouse spent the rest of his days brooding in self-imposed exile in America.

When considering what was undoubtably a dreadful error on Wodehouse’s part, it is worth remembering that he was the creator of Sir Roderick Spode, a thoroughly unpleasant bully and demagogue who turns up in several of the Wooster stories, described as “founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a fascist organisation better known as the Blackshorts.” Not conclusive proof perhaps, but pretty persuasive evidence that Wodehouse had no love of fascism.

But why on earth would any person of even vaguely leftist inclinations actually enjoy these farcical tales of dotty aristocrats, domineering aunts and over-privileged wastrels?

The sheer escapism has a lot to do with it: I know that I am very far from being the only leftie who’s found solace at Blandings Castle and/or the Drones Club when life’s become difficult one way or another. Then there’s the sheer craftsmanship of his plots, and -especially – his use of language.

When Bertie Wooster describes “Aunt calling aunt calling to aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps” you know you’re in the hands of a writer of comic English to rank alongside Wilde and Dickens. Which, come to think of it, may be why BBC 1’s effort on Sunday was just slightly disappointing: the irreplacable descriptive and narrative voice of Wodehouse himself was missing.

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Seamas Milne supports reactionary “anti-imperialism” – yet again

September 20, 2012 at 10:41 am (apologists and collaborators, Beyond parody, class, conspiracy theories, Guardian, imperialism, islamism, Jim D, Marxism, Middle East, Orwell, populism, stalinism, USSR)

“In this way arose feudal Socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core: but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.

“The artistocracy, in order to rally the people to them, waved the proletarian alms-bag in front for a banner. But the people, so often as it joined them, saw on their hindquarters the old feudal coat of arms, and deserted with loud and irreverant laughter” – Marx and Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto.’

I’ve written about the Graun‘s tame public school Stalinist, Seumas “Posh Boy” Milne many times before and was inclined, at first, to ignore his latest pack of lies, half-truths, evasion and privileged westerner’s patronisation of, and generalisation about, people of other cultures, published in that paper yesterday. But it really is a loathsome, poisonous piece of writing, even by Milne’s distasteful ‘standards.’

Milne (ex- Winchester School and Balliol, Oxford) is far from the first scion of the upper class to become a radical and, in a sense, a class traitor. In principle, an admirable stance. George Orwell famously described himself as “lower-upper-middle class” and went to Eton. But Orwell’s socialism was libertarian and democratic to its core. Even in the 1930’s, when the full horrors of Stalinism had yet to be generally acnowledged and the Soviet Union was widely admired amongst British intellectuals, Orwell rejected it and dedicated his life to promoting what he saw as democratic socialism and fighting totalitarianism in both its fascist and Stalinist forms.

Milne could scarcely be further from that tradition. All his adult life has been devoted to glorifying Stalinism and dictatorship. He seems to have a psychological need for a strong leader-figure. He certainly holds democracy in any form, in complete disdain. On leaving Balliol he became business manager of Straight Left (the publication of an ultra-Stalinist faction within the British Communist Party), and since joining the Guardian (via a stint at the Economist) has frequently devoted columns to defending/excusing/downplaying the mass murder that took place under his hero.

But Mine has had a major problem since 1989: the masses of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union rejected totalitarianism, and the working class of the ‘West’ (and, indeed, most of the rest of the world) finally discarded whatever residual illusions they may have had in Stalinism as any kind of progressive force. History’s verdict on the Milnes’ of this world was decisive and damning. Since that blow (shared by his friend and co-thinker George Galloway), he’s had no postive vision of socialism to put forward. Like many other Stalinists, he doesn’t even use the word very often. He prefers to talk about “imperialism,” which for him means little more than “bad” and – especially – American and Israeli “bad.”

Apart from hoping that Chinese capitalism (the rise of which even he has described as “problematic”) will soon eclipse the US version, and that populist demagogues like Hugo Chavez will develop some form of home-grown “socialism” in Latin America, poor Seumas doesn’t really know what he’s actually in favour of. But he knows what he’s against. Hence his support for anyone – but anyone  – who’s against the US and/or ‘the West’ as a whole and/or Israel. Hence his support for the Iranian clerical fascists, for the antisemites of Hamas and Hezbullah, the so-called “resistance” that murdered trade unionists and democrats in Iraq and for the so-called “resistance” (aka the Taliban) in Afghanistan (if you don’t believe me on this, take a look at the video below). Naturally, he now rejoices at the reactionary anti-American protests recently stirred up by clerical fascists in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, which he gloatingly celebrates as “blowback” from “US and western attempts to commandeer the Arab uprisings” (he thought the Libyans should have submitted to the tender mercies of Gaddafi, just as he now supports Assad). Clearly, for Milne (as for Galloway, Pilger, Tariq Ali and people like the degenerate ex-SWP’ers of ‘Counterfire’) Islamism now plays the “progressive” role in the world that Stalinism and various nationalist movements once did. He conveniently ignores the fact that all the evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of Libyans (and no doubt Egyptians and others) rejected the latest manufactured Islamist ‘outrage.’ Here’a telling passage from his latest Graun effort:

“The fact that the attack on the US consulate, along with often violent protests that have spread across 20 countries, was apparently triggered by an obscure online video trailer concocted by US-based Christian fundamentalists and émigré Copts – even one portraying the prophet Muhammad as a fraud and paedophile – seems bafflingly disproportionate to outsiders.

“But in the wake of the Rushdie affair and Danish cartoons controversy, it should be clear that insults to Muhammad are widely seen by Muslims as an attack on their collective identity and, as the Berkeley-based anthropologist Saba Mahmoud argues, a particular form of religiosity that elevates him as an ideal exemplar.

“Those feelings can obviously be exploited, as they have been in recent days in a battle for political influence between fundamentalist Salafists, mainstream Islamists and the Shia Hezbollah. But it would be absurd not to recognise that the scale of the response isn’t just about a repulsive video, or even reverence for the prophet. As is obvious from the slogans and targets, what set these protests alight is the fact that the injury to Muslims is seen once again to come from an arrogant hyperpower that has invaded, subjugated and humiliated the Arab and Muslim world for decades.”

Condensed version: “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”

Seumas, like many such self-important political illiterates, is highly sensitive to criticism, and at Comment is Free (where readers are supposed to be able to comment on Graun articles) he is protected by vigilant “moderators” who regularly delete critical comments and put those who dare attack, mock or just disagree with Seumas into a limbo called “pre-moderation.” However, one or two critical voices occasionally get through:  someone calling themselves ‘sullenandhostile’ (on page 3, 19 Sept, 1.15 pm below the article) takes poor Seumas apart good and proper. I doubt that s/he’ll be allowed to return.

You might just ask, in view of his hatred of America and his support for all who attack the “West” by whatever means, why he doesn’t go the whole hog and express at least some sympathy with Al-Qaeda ; well, he has done. Here. Note the date.

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My Olympian change of heart

August 12, 2012 at 9:54 am (Anti-Racism, David Cameron, immigration, internationalism, Jim D, multiculturalism, Orwell, sport, Tory scum)

As a general rule, I subscribe to Orwell’s somewhat negative view of sport.

I have not voluntarily watched any Olympic event on telly (as opposed to being in a pub while the 100 meters final was beamed onto a big screen to the obvious carnal delight of most females present).

And I still hold to the view that the Olympics are, to a substantial degree, an execise in bread and circuses for the masses while the Tories and their Lib Dem collaborators continue with their “austerity” fraud. The ruthless “branding” by such inappropriate sponsors as Coca-Cola and McDonalds was simply shameful. Even the much-praised volunteers, whose enthusiasm and commitment is not in doubt, were in a sense, undermining the minimum wage.

And yet, and yet…

The event does seem to have brought out the best in us Brits. From Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony to Mo Farah’s double gold, it was a games that, perhaps more by luck that judgement, became a celebration of social solidarity and inclusion, happily devoid of jingoism. I’m told that the crowd cheered the heroic back-markers  and the good-sport no-hopers almost as loudly as they cheered the winners.

I began to waver in my anti-Olympic resolve when I read about some jerk of a Tory MP denouncing the opening ceremony as “Leftie multiculturalist crap.” Left-wing critics and some local residents in Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets, even when making fair points, were stuck with a particularly ludicrous figure as their self-appointed leader and their campaign was not helped by attempts to link it with the increasingly desperate and bankrupt Stop The War Coalition.

Crucially, it was the emergence of such heroes as Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis (such a contrast to the manufactured “stars” and “celebrities” usually touted by the media) that convinced me. This was their Olympics – theirs and the people rooting for them . Of course not everyone who celebrated the success of the ex-refugee and the mixed-race woman will have been converted into a convinced anti-racist overnight. But it has to be A Good Thing, hasn’t it? Something we should be celebrating, not sneering at.

Most important of all, the Tory hypocrites who, on taking power with their Lib-Dem junior partners, immediately scrapped the School Sports Partnership (OK, there’s been a partial U-turn since), must not be allowed to pose as the friends of grass-roots sport in Britain, or to gain any political capital from the success of British sportsmen and women.

So if even this arch-curmudgeon can change his mind, so can I…

[NB: the Olympics have been widely described as a celebration of “multi-culturalism.” My understanding of the term, used in that context, is straightforward anti-racism, not the cultural relativism that the term all too often denotes].

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Beatrix Campbell and the “invisible” women of Wigan Pier

July 14, 2012 at 6:30 am (Guardian, Jim D, literature, Orwell, poverty, stalinism, Uncategorized, women)

Here is the single most famous image in Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier:

“At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her  —  her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to watch her eye. She had a pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when say that ‘it isn’t the same for them as it would be for us’, and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her  —  understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”

Here is Beatrix Campbell in Thursday’s Guardian:

“George Orwell’s elegiac Road to Wigan Pier celebrated the heroic, martyred men who dug our coal. He chided the middle class for not noticing these heroes who brought heat into their homes. Orwell’s chauvinism rendered invisible the women who were still working at the pits around Wigan, and who lay and lit the fires that warmed not only the homes of the middle classes but also the miners themselves.”

Of course, Campbell learned to hate Orwell while in the “old” British Communist Party. The CP had form when it came to spreading lies about him.

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‘Benefit of Clergy’: Some notes on Damien Hirst

April 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm (Art and design, celebrity, Jim D, Orwell, post modernism, profiteers, surrealism)

How then do you become Napoleon? There is always one escape: into wickedness. Always do the thing that will shock and wound people. At five, throw a little boy off a bridge, strike an old doctor and break his spectacles — or, anyway, dream about doing these things. Along the lines you can always feel yourself original. After all, it pays! It is much less dangerous than crime…

…One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other  — George Orwell Benefit of Clergy: Some notes on Salvadore Dali – 1944.

I think art is the greatest currency in the world. Gold, diamonds, art are equal things and I think its a great thing to invest in. I love art and you can put it on your wall and enjoy it as well — Damien Hirst, in The Independent 03/04/12.

Mannequin Rotting in a Taxi-Cab (Dali), and…


For the Love of God (Hirst)…which is the more depraved?
The eve of Damien Hirst’s Tate Modern restrospective, seems like an apposite moment to revisit Benefit of Clergy: Some notes on Salvadore Dali, George Orwell’s extraordinary 1944 attack on the great surrealist. Ostensibly a review of Dali’s 1942 autobiography The Secret Life Life of Salvadore Dali, the article is in reality an extended rumination upon the relationship (if any) between art and morality. It’s one of Orwell’s most profound, thought-provoking and powerful essays on a (supposedly) ‘non-political’ subject. The title of the piece (Benefit of Clergy) is a reference to the ancient rule by which the clergy were exempted from trial by a secular court if charged with a felony. Orwell examines the modern equivalent: the idea that art and artists are above ‘normal’ morality if their art is sufficiently “good.” Orwell comments:
“The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it
shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of
what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall
in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration
camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book
or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’
Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the
implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human
The parallels between Dali and Hirst are unmistakable (and I am not the first to note them in the context of Orwell’s great essay): both are (was, in the case of Dali) consumate self-publicists, money-grubbers, fawners before the rich and powerful, and empty, superficial, thoroughly reactionary characters. Both have/had an almost childish desire to shock with a shared prediliction for rotting human and animal remains (Orwell considers Dali’s “most notable characteristic” to have been his “necrophilia“)..
But there is one fundamental difference. Orwell noted that Dali was, despite everything, a “draughtsman of very exceptional gifts“: even the unpleasant (Orwell wrote “diseased and disgusting“) Mannequin rotting in a taxicab is “a good composition.”
Dali, writes Orwell, “is an exhibitionist and a careerist, but he is not a fraud. He has fifty times more talent than most of the people who would denounce his morals and jeer at his paintings.”
Self-evidently, the same cannot be said of Hirst, a poor craftsman and non-artist, who doesn’t even physically produce his own work, but employs cheap labour to do it for him. This stuff is artistically worthless, and (at least one critic has predicted) may soon become literally worthless, despite its present astronomical price-tags. The proof of the pudding is in the eating: Hirst’s one, ill-advised foray into painting – wisely not included in the Tate Modern show – was simply pathetic
Hirst is a nauseating little money-grubber and self-publicist. He’s probably not such a foul excuse for a human being as was Dali. But nor is is such a good artist. Or, indeed, an artist at all, other than in the sense of “con-artist.”

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Dickens: Orwell’s assessment

February 7, 2012 at 6:54 pm (capitalism, history, humanism, Jim D, literature, Orwell, socialism)

Charles Dickens

Claire Tomalin, author of the magnificent Charles Dickens – A Life (Viking, 2011) has written a very moving and politically pertinent 200th birthday letter to her subject, published in today’s Guardian. It’s essentially a distillation of her book, emphasising  Dickens’s role as humane, liberal social commentator:
“[Y]ou would see the same gulf between the rich, at ease enjoying their money and power, and the poor, relying on out-of-date food thrown out by supermarkets and food parcels from charities, and fearing for their jobs. And since you were obsessively interested in prisons all your life, you might be daunted by the huge increase in our prisons and number of prisoners.“A glance at the newspapers would tell you that your crooked financier, Mr Merdle, has many successors, and that Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle and his Etonian friends and relations are still running things.” (Read the rest here)
But with all due respect to Ms Tomalin (who, in her book, is not uncritical of either Dickens’s character or his literary style), she strikes me as rather too willing to take his supposedly progressive stance at face value. George Orwell in 1939, in what is probably the longest and most detailed essay he ever produced about another writer, took a more nuanced and critical view. He notes that Dickens was no political campaigner, let alone any kind of revolutionary or socialist in the usually understood sense. Dickens was dismissive of trade unionism (in Hard Times and Barnaby Rudge) and bitterly hostile to political revolution (A Tale of Two Cities). In fact, argues Orwell, Dickens wasn’t really political at all: “The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusievly moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places…There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown…it would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system.”
And yet Orwell writes with warmth and obvious affection about Dickens, and makes it clear that he’s immersed himself in Dickens’s stories since childhood. His conclusion is positive, as on balance, is mine:
“If Dickens had been merely a comic writer, the chances are that no one would now remember his name. Or at best a few of his books would survive in rather the same way as books like Frank Fairleigh, Mr. Verdant Green and Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures, as a sort of hangover of the Victorian atmosphere, a pleasant little whiff of oysters and brown stout. Who has not felt sometimes that it was ‘a pity’ that Dickens ever deserted the vein of Pickwick for things like Little Dorrit and Hard Times? What people always demand of a popular novelist is that he shall write the same book over and over again, forgetting that a man who would write the same book twice could not even write it once. Any writer who is not utterly lifeless moves upon a kind of parabola, and the downward curve is implied in the upper one. Joyce has to start with the frigid competence of Dubliners and end with the dream-language of Finnegan’s Wake, but Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist are part of the trajectory. The thing that drove Dickens forward into a form of art for which he was not really suited, and at the same time caused us to remember him, was simply the fact that he was a moralist, the consciousness of ‘having something to say’. He is always preaching a sermon, and that is the final secret of his inventiveness. For you can only create if you can care. Types like Squeers and Micawber could not have been produced by a hack writer looking for something to be funny about. A joke worth laughing at always has an idea behind it, and usually a subversive idea. Dickens is able to go on being funny because he is in revolt against authority, and authority is always there to be laughed at. There is always room for one more custard pie.

“His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, ‘Behave decently’, which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence. What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, ‘an expression on the human face.’ Roughly speaking, his morality is the Christian morality, but in spite of his Anglican upbringing he was essentially a Bible-Christian, as he took care to make plain when writing his will. In any case he cannot properly be described as a religious man. He ‘believed’, undoubtedly, but religion in the devotional sense does not seem to have entered much into his thoughts. Where he is Christian is in his quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed against the oppressors. As a matter of course he is on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere. To carry this to its logical conclusion one has got to change sides when the underdog becomes an upperdog, and in fact Dickens does tend to do so. He loathes the Catholic Church, for instance, but as soon as the Catholics are persecuted (Barnaby Rudge) he is on their side. He loathes the aristocratic class even more, but as soon as they are really overthrown (the revolutionary chapters in A Tale of Two Cities) his sympathies swing round. Whenever he departs from this emotional attitude he goes astray. A well-known example is at the ending of David Copperfield, in which everyone who reads it feels that something has gone wrong. What is wrong is that the closing chapters are pervaded, faintly but not noticeably, by the cult of success. It is the gospel according to Smiles, instead of the gospel according to Dickens. The attractive, out-at-elbow characters are got rid of, Micawber makes a fortune, Heep gets into prison — both of these events are flagrantly impossible — and even Dora is killed off to make way for Agnes. If you like, you can read Dora as Dickens’s wife and Agnes as his sister-in-law, but the essential point is that Dickens has ‘turned respectable’ and done violence to his own nature. Perhaps that is why Agnes is the most disagreeable of his heroines, the real legless angel of Victorian romance, almost as bad as Thackeray’s Laura.

“No grown-up person can read Dickens without feeling his limitations, and yet there does remain his native generosity of mind, which acts as a kind of anchor and nearly always keeps him where he belongs. It is probably the central secret of his popularity. A good-tempered antinomianism rather of Dickens’s type is one of the marks of Western popular culture. One sees it in folk-stories and comic songs, in dream-figures like Mickey Mouse and Pop-eye the Sailor (both of them variants of Jack the Giant-killer), in the history of working-class Socialism, in the popular protests (always ineffective but not always a sham) against imperialism, in the impulse that makes a jury award excessive damages when a rich man’s car runs over a poor man; it is the feeling that one is always on the wrong side of the underdog, on the side of the weak against the strong. In one sense it is a feeling that is fifty years out of date. The common man is still living in the mental world of Dickens, but nearly every modern intellectual has gone over to some or other form of totalitarianism. From the Marxist or Fascist point of view, nearly all that Dickens stands for can be written off as ‘bourgeois morality’. But in moral outlook no one could be more ‘bourgeois’ than the English working classes. The ordinary people in the Western countries have never entered, mentally, into the world of ‘realism’ and power-politics. They may do so before long, in which case Dickens will be as out of date as the cab-horse. But in his own age and ours he has been popular chiefly because he was able to express in a comic, simplified and therefore memorable form the native decency of the common man. And it is important that from this point of view people of very different types can be described as ‘common’. In a country like England, in spite of its class-structure, there does exist a certain cultural unity. All through the Christian ages, and especially since the French Revolution, the Western world has been haunted by the idea of freedom and equality; it is only an idea, but it has penetrated to all ranks of society. The most atrocious injustices, cruelties, lies, snobberies exist everywhere, but there are not many people who can regard these things with the same indifference as, say, a Roman slave-owner. Even the millionaire suffers from a vague sense of guilt, like a dog eating a stolen leg of mutton. Nearly everyone, whatever his actual conduct may be, responds emotionally to the idea of human brotherhood. Dickens voiced a code which was and on the whole still is believed in, even by people who violate it. It is difficult otherwise to explain why he could be both read by working people (a thing that has happened to no other novelist of his stature) and buried in Westminster Abbey.

“When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

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As I Please

October 31, 2011 at 10:44 pm (Orwell, religion, Rosie B)

Since Tribune is in the news, here’s an extract from one of George Orwell’s As I Please columns, which are proto blog posts.   This particular column goes to prove that Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton are not new phenomena.  Their cloud and vapour blowing at crude rationalists who coarsely ask them if the tenets of the religion they defend are true or not were around in 1944.

It . . . appears from my correspondent’s letter that even the most central doctrines of the Christian religion don’t have to be accepted in a literal sense. It doesn’t matter, for instance, whether Jesus Christ ever existed. ‘The figure of Christ (myth, or man, or god, it does not matter) so transcends all the rest that I only wish that everyone would look, before rejecting that version of life.’ Christ, therefore, may be a myth, or he may have been merely a human being, or the account given of him in the Creeds may be true. So we arrive at this position: Tribune must not poke fun at the Christian religion, but the existence of Christ, which innumerable people have been burnt for denying, is a matter of indifference.

……what my correspondent says would be echoed by many Catholic intellectuals. If you talk to a thoughtful Christian, Catholic or Anglican, you often find yourself laughed at for being so ignorant as to suppose that anyone ever took the doctrines of the Church literally. These doctrines have, you are told, a quite other meaning which you are too crude to understand. Immortality of the soul doesn’t ‘mean’ that you, John Smith, will remain conscious after you are dead. Resurrection of the body doesn’t mean that John Smith’s body will actually be resurrected – and so on and so on. Thus the Catholic intellectual is able, for controversial purposes, to play a sort of handy-pandy game, repeating the articles of the Creed in exactly the same terms as his forefathers, while defending himself from the charge of superstition by explaining that he is speaking in parables. Substantially his claim is that though he himself doesn’t believe in any very definite way in life after death, there has been no change in Christian belief, since our ancestors didn’t really believe in it either.
the Catholic intellectuals who cling to the letter of the Creeds while reading into them meanings they were never meant to have, and who snigger at anyone simple enough to suppose that the Fathers of the Church meant what they said, are simply raising smoke-screens to conceal their own disbelief from themselves.

Tribune, 3 March 1944

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Orwell in Tribune

October 27, 2011 at 12:39 am (history, Jim D, labour party, literature, Orwell, socialism, trotskyism)

Orwell in Tribune: ‘As I Please’ and other writings 1943-47
edited by Paul Anderson (Methuen, £14.99)

Orwell and
Marxism:The political and cultural thinking of George Orwell

Philip Bounds (I. B. Tauris. £52.50)

By Richard Vinten, Times Literary Supplement (Aug 2009)

More than any other British
author of the twentieth century, George Orwell has escaped from his own time.
Every schoolchild who gets as far as GCSE English will have read at least one
Orwell novel, and the one that they are most likely to have read (Nineteen Eighty-Four) is, ostensibly at least,
not set in Orwell’s own lifetime. Orwell was fascinated by children’s literature
and some of his books have a special appeal to children (particularly, I
suspect, boys in their early teens). This means that most people read Orwell
before they have any sense of the period in which he wrote; indeed, before they
have much sense of why it might matter to understand the period in which a
writer worked.

Even the most sophisticated readers take Orwell out of
context. In 1940, Q. D. Leavis argued that Orwell’s early novels (the ones with
clear temporal settings) were “wasted effort”. Ever since then, critics have
judged him largely on his long essays, and these reinforce the impression of a
man outside his own time – big enough to interpose himself between Tolstoy and
Shakespeare at a time when his contemporaries were locked in petty Bloomsbury
disputes. His admirers think of him as an emblem of universal integrity. Central
European dissidents in the 1980s appealed to his memory, and committees of the
great and good award an Orwell Prize to writers who have made their reputations
writing about, say, Sweden since the 1970s. I doubt if a day passes when some
politician or journalist does not denounce something or other as “Orwellian”, a
word that Orwell would have hated.

Orwell did not enjoy such special
status in the eyes of his contemporaries. Much of his writing was made up of
book reviews churned out to pay the bills. The flavour of this life is captured
in a short letter that he wrote to T. S. Eliot asking whether Faber might be
interesting in commissioning him to translate Jacques Roberti’s À la Belle de Nuit, a task that apparently
required a command of low-life Paris argot. Some of his work seemed to fit into
easily identifiable patterns. Cyril Connolly had admired Orwell since meeting
him at prep school, but, in Enemies of
Promise (1938), he stitched together quotations from Orwell, Hemingway
and Christopher Isherwood into a single passage to show how indistinguishable
“colloquial” writers could be.

Both these books are designed, in part, to
put Orwell back into the context of his own times. The articles he wrote for
Tribune between 1943 and 1947 are
gathered into a single volume with an excellent introduction by Paul Anderson.
They have all been published in previous collections and some of them, such as
“The Decline of the English Murder”, are already well known, but publication of
the Tribune articles is useful because
Orwell wrote for the paper at a time when he was writing Animal Farm and thinking about Nineteen Eighty-Four. His article on Yevgeny
Zamyatin’s We, a book which is sometimes
seen as a model for Nineteen
Eighty-Four, appeared in January 1946, though any reader of the Tribune articles will conclude that Burnham’s
The Managerial Revolution was a more
important influence on Orwell’s thinking. For most of this time, large parts of
the British Left, including some of the other writers for Tribune, were pro-Soviet. More importantly,
support for the Soviet alliance was part of the official policy of both Britain
and the United States. In short, Orwell’s most famous books need to be
understood against the backdrop of Yalta rather than that of, say, the Berlin
airlift. The Tribune articles show how
intermittent anti-Americanism, suspicion of the British ruling classes and
distaste for the realpolitik of the great powers were blended with a personal
dislike of Stalinism. Orwell repeatedly drew attention to facts about the Soviet
Union that were inconvenient to the Western Allies; he wrote, for example, about
the mass rape of women in Vienna by Russian soldiers. An article of September
1944 about the Warsaw Uprising is particularly striking; in it he asked why the
British intelligentsia were so “dishonestly uncritical” of Soviet policy, but he
also suggested that Western governments were moving towards a peace settlement
that would hand much of Europe to Stalin.

If the Tribune articles tell us mainly about Orwell
after 1943, Philip Bounds sets him against the fast-changing political backdrop
to his whole writing career. In the mid 1930s, the Communist International
turned away from “class against class” tactics to encourage Popular Front
alliances of anti-Fascist forces. This position changed with the
Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, then changed again with the German
invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. These gyrations produced odd
consequences in Britain, a country in which there was not a large Communist
party (though there were some significant figures who, as Orwell put it,
believed in the Russian “mythos” ) and in which the most important leaders of
the Labour Party were not tempted by an anti-Fascist alliance with the
Communists. The Popular Front was supported by an odd coalition that ranged from
Stafford Cripps to the Duchess of Atholl.

Orwell opposed the Popular
Front, or, at least, he was rude about its English supporters. During the
Spanish Civil War he fought with the non-Stalinist POUM rather than the
International Brigade (joined by most Communists). He reversed his position
overnight in 1939: he claimed to have dreamt of war and then come downstairs to
see the newspaper reports of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact. He supported the war
against Hitler and became an eloquent defender of patriotism though he also
thought, at least in 1940 and 1941, that the British war effort might be
combined with a revolutionary transformation of British society. His position
was sometimes close to that of Trotskyists and he quoted the Trotskyite slogan
“the war and the revolution are inseparable” with approval in 1941. Orwell’s
interest in Trotsky, however, seems to have been rooted in a sympathy for
outsiders and in the sense that, to quote his friend Malcolm Muggeridge,
“Trotsky blows the gaff” on the Soviet Union. Orwell did not believe that Russia
would necessarily have been less repressive if ruled by Trotsky rather than
Stalin. He was not much interested in Marxist theory and his remark, apropos of
T. S. Eliot, that Anglo-Catholicism was the “ecclesiastical equivalent of
Trotskyism”, was probably designed to annoy Trotskyites as much as

Bounds covers all of Orwell’s writing – the early
autobiographical novels and exercises in fictionalized autobiography as well as
the better-known works – and tries to trace the themes that run through them
all. In particular, he argues that, for all of his anti-Soviet talk, Orwell was
influenced by Communist or fellow-travelling writers. This influence was masked
by his general cussedness and by a capacity for annexing the ideas of authors he
had once denounced; for example, he wrote a savage review of The Novel Today (1936) by the Communist Philip
Henderson. However, Orwell’s remarks about modernism in his essay “Inside the
Whale” (1940) seem to owe something to Henderson’s assault on literature that
avoids “the urgent problems of the moment”. Orwell even transports the same
rather laboured joke from Punch – about the young man who tells his aunt “My
dear, one doesn’t write about anything; one just writes” – from his 1936 review
to his 1940 essay. The changes in Communist strategy made Orwell’s relations
with its cultural commentators all the more complicated. Sometimes he seemed to
draw on ideas expressed by Communist writers during the “class against class”
period to attack the Popular Front, and then to draw on the Popular Front’s
discovery of national culture to attack Communists after the Molotov–Ribbentrop

Bounds’s book is wide-ranging, stimulating and well written. I was
not, however, entirely convinced by its arguments. This is partly because it is
hard to prove influence. Bounds himself frequently admits that we cannot be sure
that Orwell read a particular author whose ideas seem, in some respects, to run
parallel to his own. Some Marxist authors whom Orwell had read seem not to have
influenced him very much. He reviewed Christopher Hill’s The English Revolution 1640, though he himself
did not go in for the celebration of seventeenth-century radicalism that was so
common among English left-wingers – rather unconvincingly, Bounds attributes
this to the belief that Orwell’s readers were likely to be “culturally ambitious
members of the lower middle class”.

Emphasizing Orwell’s roots on the
Left means playing down his links to writers on the Right. Anthony Powell, a
friend of Orwell, does not feature in this book at all. Bounds suggests that
Orwell’s interest in conservative writers – notably Rudyard Kipling – sprang
partly from a desire to answer a certain kind of Communist attack on them.
Orwell wanted to show the peculiarity of English conservatism and to distinguish
it from Fascism. He certainly underlined the difference between Kipling and
Wodehouse and Fascists. However, there were times when he argued that Fascism
itself might assume a particularly English form. In any case, he admired many
right-wing writers – including, for example, Louis-Ferdinand Céline – for
reasons that cut across his politics.

Bounds’s careful researches into
relatively minor English Marxists can sometimes obscure the importance of the
two most important left-wingers with whom Orwell was associated: John Strachey
and Victor Gollancz. Neither of these men was a member of the Communist party,
though both were close to it at times. Strachey’s The Coming Crisis (1932) presented a Marxist
analysis, but Strachey, like Orwell, also admired the work of some authors on
the Right: he described The Waste Land
as “the most important poem produced in English in our day”. Gollancz was a
publisher and founder, along with Strachey and Stafford Cripps, of the Left Book
Club, and it is tempting to present him as a kind of antiOrwell: devious, shrewd
about money, politically conformist and an intellectual who was not intelligent.
Orwell himself thought privately that Gollancz was “very enterprising about left
stuff and . . . not too bright”. However, relations between the two men were
sometimes closer than Orwell cared to admit. Gollancz published Orwell’s first
book, Down and Out in Paris and London
(1933), and, according to one account, it was he who chose “Orwell” as Eric
Blair’s pen name (the alternatives were “Kenneth Miles” and “H. Lewis Allways”).
It is true that Gollancz, or the Left Book Club, turned down Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm, for fear of offending Communists,
but the Left Book Club did publish The Road to
Wigan Pier, though with an introduction by Gollancz himself in which he
said that he had noted at least a hundred points with which he disagreed. It is
also important to remember that there was a period, from September 1939 until
the summer of 1941, when Orwell, Gollancz and Strachey were united by common
distaste for what they called the Communist Party’s “betrayal of the

Should we see Orwell as primarily a political writer? He certainly
came to see himself as one. In 1946, he wrote: “Every line of serious work that
I have written since 1936 has been written . . . against totalitarianism and for
democratic Socialism . . . it is where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote
lifeless books”. However, not all his early work was “lifeless”, and his later
books are not entirely animated by politics. Throughout his career, Orwell saw
that literature might be an end in itself. As a twenty-year-old policeman in
Burma, during his brief attempt to flee from his destiny as a writer, he had
read War and Peace and been seduced by
its characters: “people about whom one would gladly go on reading for ever”. He
had begun the 1940s hoping to produce a three-volume family saga. Would he have
returned to this apparently unpolitical work if he had believed that he would
have time to finish it?

The fact that Orwell was very ill for much of the
period when he wrote his most famous works, and that he died in January 1950 a
few months after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, raises all sorts of
questions. His most savage critics see his last works as reflecting the despair
of a dying man – but, for my money, Burmese
Days (1934) is the most despairing of his works. And how would he have
reacted to the Cold War, and to seeing his own books used as weapons in that
war? Perhaps most importantly, how would an author who had defined himself in
terms of failure and obscurity have reacted to wealth and fame?

H/t: Paul Anderson, Gauche

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Tribune: the end of an era

October 26, 2011 at 11:49 pm (Jim D, labour party, left, literature, media, Orwell, publications, socialism)

Paul Anderson at Gauche reports:


The following statement will appear in the issue of Tribune to be published
this Friday:

Tribune is to cease publication in its 75th year. Unless
arrangements can be found for new ownership or funding within days the last
edition will be next week, 4 November. The decision has been made by Tribune
Publications 2009 Ltd after a substantial cash injection failed to raise
subscriptions and income to target levels.

The company intends to
maintain a Tribune website, which will carry automated feeds from other
left of centre sources and will require no staff. All six full-time and
part-time staff are to be made redundant.

Owner Kevin McGrath has
indicated to staff that if they wish to continue to run Tribune as a
co-operative he is prepared to transfer the Company and the archive of 75 years
editions to them free of any historical debt, which he has committed to
honouring. In collaboration with senior officials from the National Union of
Journalists, the editor and staff are exploring the possibility of setting up a
co-operative to keep the title alive but with a deadline of Friday 28 October,
time is regrettably short. Talks are taking placed in advance of a crunch
meeting on that date at which new arrangements will be agreed or the company
will be closed. Among the options under review with experts in co-op models of
management is an appeal for short-term donations from readers and supporters on
the basis that these funds would be converted into capital in a jointly-owned
worker-reader co-op, with representation on a new board. The staff have agreed
to continue working in order to get out a final edition and allow some time,
short as it is, for an alternative to be found.

Mr McGrath, who rescued
the paper after a consortium of trade unions relinquished ownership in March
2009, said: “The newspaper format of Tribune has, in a changing world of
electronic communications and economics, become unsustainable. We are, however,
determined to keep the Tribune brand alive by moving all publication to
its web site and through the continued maintenance of the archive of the paper’s
75 years.

“This means that the company has safeguarded the history of
Tribune and will keep the brand alive through the web site which will run
on an automated basis feeding off other left of centre political and arts web
sites and will offer immediate, up-to-date news coverage. It is a positive and
exciting move into the 21st century.

“I would personally like to thank
all the staff for their hard work and commitment to Tribune over the
years. I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank all our loyal readers for
their support and hope they will stay with Tribune at and”

Since its launch in January 1937 Tribune has been a renowned journal of
intellectual, literary journalistic and artistic merit. As a weekly, independent
journal of the labour movement it is needed now more than ever.

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Liam Fox and the English Language

October 12, 2011 at 8:54 pm (Jim D, language, Orwell, politics, Tory scum, truth)

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not simply due to the bad influences of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovernliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts” – George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’, 1945/6.

I don’t give a toss about Liam Fox’s sexuality. Nor do I give a fig about national security.  Fox is a Tory, and therefore the enemy and deserving of no mercy. Whether he’s gay or bi-sexual, or simply someone who enjoys the platonic company of younger men, isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the issue. What is the issue is his lying. Not simple, barefaced lying (as far as we know, so far…), but lying by misuse of the English language. Tony Blair was a master of this, with his “apologies” that weren’t apologies at all, but statements of regret for the fact that people had misunderstood him, or that things (through no fault of his own) hadn’t panned out the way he’d intended.

Key to the Blairite non-apology is the use of passive verbs; things happened, and it wasn’t really my fault. Thus:

“I accept it was a mistake to allow distinctions to be blurred between my professional responsibilities and my personal loyalties to a friend” – L Fox , statement,  9/10/11.

Who, exactly “blurred” those distictions? Was it you, Dr Fox? Or did it just happen – an Act of God – and perhaps you were just an eensy-weensy bit at fault in not having stopped it from happening, but no more than that?

Contrast this with John Profumo’s 1963 resignation statement:

“I misled you and my colleagues and the house.”

As for Fox’s answer to the question, did Adam Werrity make any financial profit from his relationship (whatever it was) with him? – the following must be an all-time classic of obfuscation:

“When it comes to the pecuniary interests of Mr Werrity in those conferences, I am absolutely confident that he was not dependent on any transactional behaviour to maintain his income.”

Fox must resign for abuse of the English language, which amounts to insulting the collective intelligence of the British people, which amounts to…lying.

A Hari-hat-tip to: Jonathan Freedland, in today’s Graun.

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