The Road to Sanctity: George Orwell and the NS

To celebrate George Orwell Day, we take a look back through the archive and republish five importance pieces this week.

For some reason, religious language sticks to George Orwell. The late historian Angus Calder, reviewing the collected non-fiction in the late 1960s, described Orwell’s decision to join the Imperial Police in Burma as “the first of those individualistic decisions which mark his life like the stations of the cross”. Unimpressed by the biographical “study” by George Woodcock (Orwell attempted to forbid authorised biographies), Tom Nairn invoked “Orwell the individualist, the angry man of conscience who wanted to battle against all ‘smelly little orthodoxies’, [who] ended up as the foremost literary apostle of anti-communism.” In 2012, New Yorker journalist Katherine Boo was described as “George Orwell’s greatest living acolyte”.

“No doubt alcohol, tobacco and so forth are things that a saint must avoid,” Orwell wrote in his final long essay, attempting to disentangle the apotheosis of Mahatma Ghandi. “But sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.”

Perhaps the root of the canonising instinct lies in V S Pritchett’s wistful eulogy, published shortly after Orwell’s death:

Orwell was the wintry conscience of a generation which in the thirties had heard the call of to the rather assumptions of political faith. He was a kind of saint and, in that character, more likely in politics to chasten his own side than the enemy. His instinctive choice of spiritual and physical discomfort, his habit of going his own way, looked like the crankishness which has often cropped up in the British characters; if this were so, it was vagrant rather than puritan. He prided himself on seeing through the rackets, and on conveying the impression of living without the solace or even the need of a single illusion.

Is this the man, the shambling ascetic set against the ordering of his house, who has been appropriated by Right, Left, liberal and indifferent? In an article entitled “What Would George Do?” (2 June 2003), Professor Scott Lucas noted the circularity of the claims made on his behalf: “For Noam Chomsky, he was the model of the ‘responsible intellectual’. For Bernard Crick he was, in post-imperial, post-welfare-state Britain, the ‘English socialist’. And since the events of September 2001 he has become, for Christopher Hitchens, a stalwart against ‘Islamic fascism’ and its pacifist accomplices (such as Noam Chomsky).”

The battle for Orwell’s soul raged bitterly in the New Statesman. Nobody can forgive the decision by editor Kingsley Martin not to publish reports sent from Barcelona, fearing they were “liable to be taken as propaganda against socialism.” But since the 1950s, the NS has produced crop after crop of aspirant political writers, imitators and champions for whom Orwell has provided both a model and night-watchman. A quick glance through the archive produces profiles by Edward Said, Bernard Crick, Christopher Hitchens, Francis Hope and Ben Pimlott. Now we have a feast on which to debate his life and legacy: 21 January, the day Orwell died in 1950. The event is being steered by the Orwell Prize and Penguin Books, who have published stylish new editions of his best-known works. For our own part, we plan to publish five important pieces from our archive throughout the week, both by and about Orwell, an index of which is at the bottom of this page.

Eric Blair

On 21 October, 1931, the NS published an assemblage of diary entries by the twenty-eight year old Eric Blair. Recently returned from Paris, Blair was encouraged by two lifelong guttersnipes to seek his fortune picking hops in Kent. “Holiday with pay,” they said, “Keep yourself all the time you’re down there, pay your fare both ways and come back.” So off he went, aping the example of Jack London, whose People of the Abyss (1903) was written from first-hand experience of dossing in east London workhouses. “[They] ought to have known better,” he concluded. “As a matter of fact, hop-picking is far from being a holiday, and, as far as wages go, no worse employment exists.”

The early novels were met with guarded praise, mingled with unguarded irritation and disdain. Burmese Days is “an extremely biased book” in which “the author lacks both the depth of Mr E M Forster and the detachment of Mr Somerset Maugham”, wrote Cyril Connolly in 1935. A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) was “ambitious yet not entirely successful” according to Peter Quennell. The author of Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) “hates London and everything there” Connolly wrote on his second encounter, “Hence the realism of one book was redeemed by an operating sense of beauty, that of the other is not.” Coming up for Air (1939), reviewed by the son of H G Wells and Rebecca West, Anthony West, “is a statement of present discontents made with all the persistent disagreeableness for which Mr George Orwell is renowned; he dislikes almost everything about England today, most of all the shabby genteel England where people who have very little pretend that they are wealthy and secure.”

The non-fiction was praised, though not without caveat. When Hamish Miles reviewed The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), he applauded the “thwacks at Anglo-Communism, tinned food, Punch, the highbrows of ‘the snootier magazines,’ the ‘leisure’ Utopians, and much else”, but felt it necessary to shoot the elephant in the room, adding, “It may be hard for Mr Orwell to accept such praise from such a notoriously snooty quarter as Great Turnstile: it is fairly clear that The New Statesman and Nation is as a pink rag to his bull-wrath. But he must take it.” He had taken it before. In 1933 the NS commissioned an outside reviewer, the poet W H Davies, who had previously led a destitute life (though not from choice), to review Down and Out in Paris and London. Davies celebrated Orwell’s scrupulousness: “We make haste to assure him that his book is packed with unique and strange information. It is all true to life, from beginning to end.”

In spite of his disagreement with Martin, Orwell continued to review military non-fiction, historical novels, travel writing from the parts of Asia he knew, pamphlets and biographies for the New Statesman until 1943. He wrote an illuminating review of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940) – “What was frightening about [the Moscow show trials] was not the fact that they happened – for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society – but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them.”

Orwell’s own attempts to fictionalise autocratic conditions in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm raked up old resentments. In 1945, while Martin watched the tide turn against those who had defended Stalinism, he decided to review Animal Farm himself. “There is plenty in the USSR to satirise, and Mr Orwell does it well,” he wrote. “How deftly the fairy story of the animals who, in anticipation of freedom and plenty, revolt against the tyrannical farmer, turns into a rollicking caricature of the Russian Revolution. His shaft strikes home.” Though of course, just as Orwell was made to recognise “Nazi Germany was now an even worse enemy than the British Empire”, so too he is “compelled” to accept that “the new ruling class is really very different indeed from anything that Russia has known before.”

St George

Three years after Orwell’s death (aged forty-six, from a burst artery brought on by tuberculosis), his unsteady relationship with the NS ceased to be unsteady: he was claimed for common sense. The art historian Benedict Nicolson, reviewing the early collection of essays England, Your England (1953), proffered a mea culpa on behalf of the theorising Left: “We needed an Orwell, not a Conservative politician, to point out that the intellectual had no real understanding of working-class mentality, that he could never acquire it, that whatever he did he could not deny his bourgeois background.” And it is this Orwell, the Franciscan truth-teller, half-man, half-myth, whom warring factions have debated ever since. “Orwell’s opinions,” Nicolson wrote, “largely owing to the fact that he expressed them and we absorbed them, now read as common sense, whereas at the time they read as thrilling heresies. His mistrust, for example, of Soviet ‘democracy,’ once thought perverse, is now orthodox.”

In 1971 the political theorist Bernard Crick observed, “Eric Blair was perhaps one man, but there were several George Orwells – both of his own and others’ making.” Crick contributed his own eleven years later, collaborating with Orwell’s widow Sonia Brownell to produce George Orwell: A Life (1982; revised in 1992), and reviewing every book written about Orwell for the NS in the meantime. He recognised the allure: “So many writers have selected from him, almost re-written him, as if challenged by him to come to terms with themselves.” Unable to review his own, the attempt which came closest to defying Orwell’s prohibition on biographies, Christopher Hitchens stepped in. “In the Forties Orwell was lunching with Malcolm Muggeridge at the Little Akropolis in Charlotte Street. When Kingsley Martin came in, Orwell asked Muggeridge to change places so that he could be spared the sight of ‘that corrupt face’ all through the meal.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hitchens found Crick “bloodless”, lacking in anecdote, character, gossip.

Why Orwell Matters (2002) provided Hitchens every opportunity to reinvigorate Orwell the man (as well as to assert that he was neither Puritan nor saint). His chapters, “Orwell and the Left” and “Orwell and the Right” follow a long line of pieces published in the magazine with names like “My country Right or Left” (Francis Hope, 1969), “Look right, look left, look right again” (1999, Geoffrey Wheatcroft) and “The socialist fallacy: Orwell’s status as the secular saint of socialism is built on a myth” (Scott Lucas, 2000) – out of which emerged an exasperated populism grounded in decency and domesticity: the “perfect English cup of tea”. Journey’s end for Orwell and his biographers. Unlike the many men who tried to claim Orwell, or to argue he was stubbornly unclaimable, Beatrix Campbell in “Wigan Pier and Beyond” (1983) tried to shrug off his influence. Aligning herself with the matured “powerful but stupid” and “apathetic masses”, who had lately found a voice and learned to think, she writes: “Although much of his work is about ‘the masses’, we, the masses, are the objects of his narrative. He is the subject.”

For all his “orthodoxies”, Orwell got plenty wrong. In “Eternal vigilance” (2009), n+1's Keith Gessen writes: “First, Orwell declares that no great novel could now be written by a Catholic (or communist) perspective; late he allows that a novel could be written from such a perspective, in a pinch; and then, in his essay on Graham Greene, he comes very near to suggesting that only Catholics can now write novels.” Part of this is down to style. Just as school friends are all right on their own, but tend to act badly in crowds, Orwell’s plain style “so resembles someone speaking honestly and without pretence directly to you”, it makes you feel “there is no way on earth you could possibly disagree with him, unless you’re part of the pansy left, or a sandal-wearer and fruit-juice drinker, or maybe just a crank.”

“So who is Orwell for,” Campbell asked on the cusp of 1984 (there was a noted resurgence of interest in Orwell under Thatcher), “in this jamboree year, when both Right and Left will be slugging it out to claim him for themselves as if, like the Bible or Capital his books were necessary to their litany?” Rather than suppose an answer, twenty-first century reviews have often focused on the work, the context in which it was written, to recognise its irreducibility.

The 1998 Complete Works of George Orwell was schematised by its harrowed reviewer: “20 volumes, 3,755 items in the last 11 volumes of essays, journalism, letters, diaries; 7,460 pages in all, 30,000 entries in the cumulative index, with footnotes and annotations beyond measure”. It holds an otherworldly price tag too, RRP £750. The text requires reviewers to deploy extended metaphors. In 2003, Scott Lucas (who received the reviewing mantle from Crick) opted for the lone frontiersman: “He had patrolled the borders of socialism as a lone ranger of decency, the authoritative voice of dissent limiting the voice of others.” He left an unreadable (in terms of size) corpus behind, which justifies little, and criticises everything as part of its operating logic. In Orwell things are found. He is still repackaged and republished, and remains an enigmatic source: a commonplace book for political journalists (and essayists) on the make.

Monday: Eric Blair, “Common lodging houses” (3 September 1932)

Tuesday: W H Davies, “Confessions of a Down and Out” (18 March 1933)

Wednesday: George Orwell, “New Novels: Darkness at Noon” (4 January 1941)

Thursday: Christopher Hitchens, “What People do not Want to Hear” (28 November 1980)

Friday: Beatrix Campbell, “Wigan Pier and Beyond” (16 December 1983)

An illustration from Animal Farm, by Ralph Steadman.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
Show Hide image

Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496