George Orwell: Diaries

George Orwell was always a topical writer, passionately concerned with the political and social issues of his lifetime (1903-50): colonialism; urban poverty; the British class system; communism and the rise of fascism; the Spanish Civil War (in which he participated and took a bullet in the throat); World War II. Yet Orwell, whose work remains so intimately entwined with the events of his own dramatic era, has proved at least as “contemporary,” as persistently relevant, as any writer of the last century. His great political novels Animal Farm and 1984 have transcended the circumstances that inspired them (Soviet totalitarianism) to become classics, universally applicable allegories on power and subjugation. His still-resonant essay “Politics and the English Language” has never been equaled as a primer on the way language can be manipulated to serve political agendas. His warnings about propaganda and the purposeful distortion of history are even more necessary in our age of the Internet than they were in his own age of radio.

Orwell was a private person and in no way an introspective writer; his work, even the fiction, tended to the sociological and philosophical rather than the personal, and before his death he requested that there be no biography (though by now several have appeared). It is a blessing, then, to now have the opportunity to read his Diaries, edited meticulously by Peter Davison, who as the editor of the twenty volumes of Orwell’s Complete Works has an unequaled knowledge of the material.

Orwell did not keep diaries at every moment of his life; instead, he wrote particular journals during particular, discrete periods. About half the diaries in this volume are of little interest, being mere bare-bones accounts of the author’s farming and gardening activities, along the lines of “Sowed carnations,” “Put roofing felt on henhouse,” “13 eggs today.” But the balance of them will be of real interest not only to Orwell enthusiasts but to any student of twentieth-century history. There are two dating from the time when the young author studied working-class conditions by tramping and living among the poor: one of these describes his 1931 journey to pick hops in Kent with an itinerant group of London Cockneys, and the other relates his 1936 experiences studying mining communities in northern England — a visit that resulted in his groundbreaking 1937 book, The Road to Wigan Pier. There are the diaries he kept during his residence in Morocco in 1938-39, where he worked, incongruously, on his nostalgic novel of pre-World War I England, Coming Up for Air. Then there are the most substantial portions of the volume, the diaries Orwell began just before the outbreak of World War II and continued until 1942, when the war had begun to turn in the Allies’ favor.

As is pointed out by Davison and Christopher Hitchens, who wrote the volume’s excellent introduction, there might well have been another diary encompassing the author’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War. If such a thing did exist it was probably stolen from his Barcelona hotel room in a communist police raid in 1937, and in that case it would now reside in the archives of the Russian secret police. Its loss is a real shame, as this would have been the raw material for Orwell’s stirring 1938 memoir, Homage to Catalonia.

As this sort of raw material for his books, in fact, and as intellectual fodder for the political ideas and observations he developed in his matchless essays, the Diaries are consistently riveting. There is the subject of social class, for example, a topic that obsessed Orwell throughout his career. Orwell might be described as a self-hating bourgeois: a product of Eton College (though on a scholarship) and a onetime officer of the colonial police force in Burma, he turned his back on the values of his caste and became an advocate for democratic socialism and a trenchant critic of the British system. Over the years his distaste for the gratin became positively visceral, and almost the last thing he wrote — from his bed at a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1949 — was a grumpy tirade against some distastefully upper-class voices he heard at a nearby bedside: “And what voices! A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a constant bah-bahing of laughter about nothing, above all a sort of heaviness & richness combined with a fundamental ill-will — people who, one instinctively feels, without even being able to see them, are the enemies of anything intelligent or sensitive or beautiful. No wonder everyone hates us so.”

Far too intelligent for primitive class prejudice, Orwell explored the genesis of class character and attitudes, the ways in which people are molded and formed by the categories into which they are born. “I am struck again by the fact,” he wrote from the mining districts of the North in 1936, “that as soon as a working man gets an official post in the Trade Union or goes into Labour politics, he becomes middle-class whether he will or no. ie by fighting against the bourgeoisie he becomes a bourgeois. The fact is that you cannot help living in the manner appropriate and developing the ideology appropriate to your income.” Proletarian culture warped its members as much as the aristocratic variety did; Orwell did not sentimentalize about the poor, though he was always on their side. At a Wigan dance he observed the locals with his customary dispassion: “I suppose these people represent a fair cross-section of the more revolutionary element in Wigan,” he concluded. “If so, God help us. Exactly the same sheeplike crowd — gaping girls and shapeless middle-aged women dozing over their knitting — that you see everywhere else. There is no turbulence left in England.”

Orwell’s interest in propaganda, culminating in 1984‘s mythical Oceania with its fearsome Ministry of Truth, was of long standing, and it is fascinating to see how it developed during his wartime labors for the Overseas Service of the BBC. In 1941 he attended the organization’s induction course (which the poet William Empson had dubbed “The Liars’ School”) and subsequently worked on broadcasts to India, British Malaya, and Indonesia. Writing of the BBC soon after his hiring, he commented: “Its atmosphere is something halfway between a girls’ school and a lunatic asylum, and all we are doing at present is worthless, or slightly worse than useless…. Nevertheless, one rapidly becomes propaganda-minded and develops a cunning one did not previously have…. All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth.” And indeed how could it be otherwise when one considers “how politically ignorant the majority of people are, how uninterested in anything outside their immediate affairs, and how little impressed by inconsistency”?

The decade of the 1930s, with its creep show of ranting dictators and would-be dictators, had sensitized him to the subject; observing a London rally by supporters of the fascist politician Sir Oswald Mosley, Orwell wrote that “it struck me how easy it is to bamboozle an uneducated audience if you have prepared beforehand a set of repartees with which to evade awkward questions.” How true — and how this art has been refined since Orwell’s day. One wonders what he would have made of today’s presidential “debates”! As so often while perusing these diaries, I wished he could come back to comment on the developments that have taken place in the last half century — developments that have been even more marked here in the United States than in Orwell’s England.

Here, for example, is Orwell writing in 1942: “You can go on and on telling lies, and the most palpable lies at that, and even if they are not actually believed, there is no strong revulsion either. We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has an axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgment have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a ‘case’ with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends…. But is there no one who has both firm opinions and a balanced outlook?  Actually there are plenty, but they are powerless. All power is in the hands of paranoiacs.”

What could be more horribly contemporary? Christopher Hitchens’s Why Orwell Matters (2002) made an eloquent case for the great thinker’s continued importance in today’s amped-up media circus. Hitchens’s contentions are richly borne out by the tough, analytic tone of Orwell’s diary entries, what he himself called his “power of facing unpleasant facts.” Though they do not tell us much about Orwell the man — he was too private a person to expose his inner self even in his journal — they throw a revealing light on Orwell the thinker, and offer welcome stimulus to revisit the books and essays in which that mind left its lasting  imprint.