Austerity Britain: A World to Build 1945–48 by David Kynaston (2007)

David Kynaston (b.1951) has written about 16 history books on broadly three topics: cricket, the City of London, and Britain after the Second World War. His post-war histories (to date; the plan is to take them up to 1979) have been published as three volumes, each of which – rather confusingly – contains two ‘books’:

Should one review the portmanteau volume – Austerity Britain (692 pages long in its current Bloomsbury paperback edition) – or the two ‘books’ it contains? I’ve chosen the latter option, because each of the ‘books’ is so dense and packed with information that they require separate posts.

Approach

What makes the books so delightful and addictive is that they are an oral history. Rather than the stats and graphs of an economic history, or the acts and votes of a political history, or the treaties and negotiations of a diplomatic history, Kynaston’s account quotes at length from diaries, letters, journals and accounts kept by the widest range of people alive during the period, as they react to events large and small, national, international and parochial.

Fairly regularly he stops to consider this or that ‘issue’ – rationing, nationalisation, town planning – in what you might call the traditional historical way, describing key publications or speeches in that area. But then he swiftly returns to the more gossipy main stream of his approach, to quote housewives, workers, local officials.

The result is to be led through the key events and debates of the period, but to see it overwhelmingly in human terms, in the words of the people who shed and led debate but also the reactions of the ordinary man and woman in the street.

Some of the voices

The Famous

  • Neil Kinnock, future leader of the Labour Party, aged 3 when the war ends in 1945
  • Patrick Stewart, 5, moved along by a policeman for singing outside a polling booth in 1945
  • Bill Wyman, bassist with the Rolling Stones, starts grammar school, 8
  • Glenda Jackson, aged 9 when the war ends, starts grammar school in 1947
  • Alan Bennett, 11, spent VE Day in Guildford
  • Kenneth Tynan, drama critic to be, now Birmingham schoolboy, 18
  • Humphrey Lyttleton, 24
  • ultra-royalist James Lees-Milne, diarist, architectural historian, worked for the National Trust, 36
  • Cyril Connolly, editor of Horizon literary magazine, 41
  • Noel Coward, playwright, aged 45
  • J.B. Priestley, novelist and radio broadcaster, 50
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, 53, commenting on the insanity of the atom bomb
  • Harold Nicholson, British diplomat, author, diarist and politician, 58
  • Violet Bonham Carter, Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury, politician and diarist, 58

There are hundreds more but this gives a flavour. Kinnock is quoted as remembering the prefab house his parents moved into. Bill Wyman remembers how going to grammar school in 1947 cut him off from his working class roots, though the boys at his new school teased him for being poor. Lees-Milne is very posh and quoted liberally throughout with his generally negative reactions to the Labour government.

Connolly, as a magazine editor and essayist, wrote reams of material, but Kynaston quotes him, fascinatingly, commenting on the way the great wall of left-wing / communist solidarity among artists, writers, poets and so on during the 1930s simply evaporated after the war and had quite disappeared by 1947. The problem was that they finally had a ‘socialist’ government and there wasn’t a man or woman in ‘the movement’ who wasn’t bitterly disappointed at the reality (p.235). The same sentiment is expressed by George Orwell, who in his long essay, The Lion and the Unicorn (1942), wrote confidently about the general public’s swing to the Left and the notion of central planning but, by 1946, had become disillusioned (pp.45, 173).

All this was exacerbated by the Berlin Airlift, the coup in Czechoslovakia, and the general start of the Cold War. I hadn’t realised that this led to actual legislation banning car carrying communists from public office, with the ruin of many a career.

There are also extensive quotes from key players in politics, from the diaries or letters or speeches of men like Clement Attlee (Labour Prime Minister), Hugh Gaitskell (Minister of Fuel and Power), Aneurin Bevan (Minister of Health overseeing the creation of the National Health Service), Ernest Bevin (Foreign Secretary who oversaw the independence of India, Israel etc), Herbert Morrison (Deputy Prime Minister), Stafford Cripps (Chancellor of the Exchequer).

Slowly you get a feel for their personalities, achievements and disagreements. Around them swim all kinds of minor figures, private secretaries, and MPs, and policy makers such as Michael Young, who wrote Labour’s 1945 manifesto (Let Us Face The Future), coined the term meritocracy and went on to play a key role in setting up the Consumer Association and the Open University.

The Obscure

Kynaston takes his lead from Mass Observation, set up in 1937 by three Cambridge graduates, anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. Mass Observation aimed to:

record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires (known as directives). They also paid investigators to anonymously record people’s conversation and behaviour at work, on the street and at various public occasions including public meetings and sporting and religious events. (Wikipedia)

Kynaston relies heavily on material from the M-O archive now held at the University of Sussex. This takes many forms. M-O carried out tailored surveys on specific issues throwing up statistical results of the numbers in favour or against particular policies. Their contributors often reported on conversations overheard on the street, on the buses or tube, at the theatre etc. And other contributors kept detailed diaries. The most famous of these was Nella Last (1889-1968), who wrote over two million words about everything she died, heard and observed, from 1939 to 1966, making her one of the single largest contributors to M-O.

But Kynaston quotes from a large number of other diarists and recorders, including:

  • Michael Burns, grew up in Tolworth
  • Lawrence Daly, coalminer
  • Alice ‘Judy’ Haines, a young married mother of two living in Chingford
  • Anthony Heap, a middle-aged local government officer from St Pancras
  • Mary King, retired teacher
  • Gladys Langford, deserted by her husband, living alone in the Woodstock Hotel
  • Ernest Loftus, headmaster of Barking Abbey School
  • Edith Palmer, ex-pat’s daughter, late-20s, arriving in England from Kenya
  • Mrs Michael Pleydell-Bouverie who spent three years on behalf of the Daily Mail speaking to ‘the Women of Britain’ about homes and housing
  • Kenneth Preston, a middle-aged English teacher at Keighley Grammar School
  • Marian Raynham, a housewife from Surbiton
  • Henry St John, son of a sweetshop owner, living in Bristol
  • Sir Raymond Streat, head of the Cotton Board
  • Rose Uttin, housewife from Wembley
  • Mrs Madge Waller

Post-war issues

So what do these people comment on and discuss? A huge array of issues and problems which faced Britain right from the moment war ended (Victory in Europe 8 May 1945, Victory in Japan and the final end of the war, 15 August). As stated, Kynaston is not a conventional historian of diplomacy or economics. Issues appear insofar as they impinged on the minds of his huge cast of Britons. None of them are pursued in detail and, after 300 pages, I realised that he rarely comes to a conclusion about any of them. Instead we are presented with a variety of opinions, from top politicians and expert down to housewives and coalminers – and then he moves on.

Domestic affairs

  • Rationing
  • The General Election 5 July 1945
  • The Labour government’s attempts to:
    • nationalise industry
    • set up a National Health Service (launched, after much struggles with the doctors, on 5 July 1948)
  • The housing crisis
  • Education  (everyone accepted the 11-plus, the division between grammar and technical schools, and nobody touched the public schools which were [and are], according to Kynaston, ‘the single most important source of political, social and economic privilege’, p.153)

International affairs

  • Surrender of Germany, suicide of Hitler
  • Atom bombs dropped on Japan
  • Berlin Blockade and airlift
  • June 1947 Marshall Plan
  • February 1948 communist coup in Czechoslovakia

But most of the people Kynaston quotes have little or no interest in international affairs. After initial relief that the war is over, and then shock at the revelation of the atom bomb, most people sink back into their customary indifference to international affairs (and to politics generally).

Britain might as well not have an empire at all. The independence of Israel and India/Pakistan are not mentioned. Decades ago I read the comment by the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James, that the tragedy of the British was that all their history took place abroad – by which he meant in the empire.

One of the biggest aspects of the book is the way the British Empire is almost completely absent from it. The people Kynaston quotes are struggling to make ends meet, to find somewhere to live, find a job, and then find food to eat. He quotes a survey of 2,000 adults made in 1948 which revealed that only 49% could name a single British colony. The majority of those surveyed could not name a single British colony.

And so, since so few people knew or cared about the empire, Kynaston devotes much space to popular radio programmes (Woman’s Hour, first broadcast on 7 October 1946 on the BBC’s Light Programme, the popular comedy It’s That Man Again), to the very slow spread of television (only 50,000 sets in 1945). There is more about the Grand National than there is about Gandhi, more about Stanley Matthews (the footballer) than Stalin.

In this book nobody travels abroad (nobody can afford it) but plenty of people have a summer holiday at Margate or Morecambe or at Billy Butlin’s new holiday camps (first one at Skegness in 1936).

Kynaston gives us the results of the key test matches and FA Cup Finals for 1945, 46, and 47, as well as the Epsom Derby, and reports from greyhound races and boxing matches – while all kinds of high-minded middle-class commentators lament that the average working man seems more interested in a pint, a packet of fags and the sports results than he does about the Iron Curtain.

The intellectuals and the masses

This reflects what, for me, is the main impression of the book, which is the enormous divide between the relatively small educated liberal intelligentsia – the policy makers and politicians and thinkers and writers and architects and planners – and the vast majority of the population, still very working class, often illiterate or, as Kynaston puts it:

the profound cultural mismatch between progressive activators and the millions acted upon (p.267)

Kynaston shows how all of the 1945 Labour government’s policies were not just controversial but opposed by large number of people, even the working people the Labour Party claimed to represent. For example, efforts to pass laws guaranteeing the trade unions representatives on boards of the new nationalised industries (a policy followed in Germany) were rejected by the unions. Why? Because they preferred to negotiate wages from a position of freedom and strength (p.229) It was a mindset which, arguably, crippled British industry for generations.

Similarly, it is fascinating to read how many ordinary people (not just the usual suspects, Tory MPs and toff writers), really hard core working class people, were suspicious of, or actively against, the welfare state, the new system of national insurance and the National Health Service.

The gaping chasm between well-meaning left-leaning university-educated intellectuals and ‘the masses’ is probably best demonstrated in the area of housing. Vast amounts of Britain’s housing stock was destroyed by German bombing. But a fair percentage of what survived was desperately rundown slums, particularly in the industrial cities – London’s East End, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and so on contained acres of slums, houses with no running water, gas or electricity, millions of people living with no indoor toilet.

The chasm comes about when the planners and architects put their heads together to solve the problem. There was debate and argument at all levels, but roughly speaking, people wanted houses with a little garden of their own, and the planners wanted to put them in blocks of flats. People wanted their bombed out city centres to be restored to how they were before the war. Urban planners and go-ahead young architects wanted, on the contrary, to demolish what old buildings were left, and create sweeping new town centres, dominated by pedestrian precincts and car parks, surrounded by ring roads. As he writes of the brave new plan devised to demolish and rebuild central Plymouth:

There was little or no local consultation, with all objections overruled. (p.36)

The opening of the book is devoted to arguments about how to rebuild Britain and, through the thicket of specific details about new schemes for Plymouth or Hull, one gets a really clear feel for the divide between those who know best what the people want, and the people themselves – not least, of course, because Kynaston’s whole book is devoted to the people’s voices. He quotes one of the founders of Mass Observation, Tom Harrison:

worried most by the way that planners and others associated with the matter talked as if they were winning over the general public when they were only winning over each other. He had never met any group of people who ‘scratched each other’s backs’ more than planners did. (p.47)

In Bristol the local retail association organised a poll which showed that only 400 were in favour of the new Broadmead shopping centre, while 13,000 opposed it. The planners ignored this and all other opposition, and went ahead and built it.

This Great Divide, this sense of a mass population profoundly alienated from their lords and masters, grows as the book progresses from the May 1945 General Election through to its end point, 5 July 1948, the day the National Health Service was inaugurated. Intellectuals at the time were agonisingly aware of it. Various papers and reports guesstimated that ‘the thinking minority’ ranged from 20% down to a mere 5% of the population (p.55). How could they break out of their bubble to really engage with the great unwashed (an expression coined around 1830 by the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton)?

Ronald

Maybe the single biggest surprise is the couple of pages devoted to the four months spent by American actor, Ronald Reagan at Elstree Studios making a war movie called The Hasty Heart (pp.314-315). Reagan was appalled by the filthy London smogs and rundown hotels, and – although he went out of his way to praise the director and all the other technicians he worked with – it was a grim first-hand sight of socialism in action which, in his view, amounted to stoppages dictated by the militant trade unions, six-hour queues at hospitals, gaunt impoverished passersby and mile after mile of slate-roofed council houses in the rain.

So far so anecdotal: but Kynaston goes on to say that Reagan himself, writing twenty years later in the 1970s, pointed to this trip to Britain – to seeing the ‘natural’ economic order of free markets replaced by rationing and state interference at every level, and the resulting lack of all basic facilities in a culture dominated by the petty tyrannies of trade union shop stewards and local government officials – as a defining moment in his journey to the Right.

So that, considering Reagan’s centrality to world politics during the 1980s and the role he played in the collapse of the Soviet Union, of communism, and even of full-blooded socialism as a viable political programme, there’s a case for saying that these few months in rainy Hertfordshire changed the history of the world.

General impoverishment

Kynaston devotes pages to political debates about Marshall Aid, about the end of Lend-Lease, about the currency crisis and devaluation of sterling, and so on.

But by far the biggest and most enduring subject of the book is RATIONING, the rationing of food and clothing, which not only continued after the war, but got worse, a lot worse. From the poshest in the land down to a variety of housewives, Kynaston’s quotes convey the sheer numbing crushing effect of days and months and year after year of shortages of meat, bacon, milk, sugar, butter, even of bread.

Demobbed soldiers, or visitors from abroad (including the American playwright Tennessee Williams), or British children arriving in Britain back from the colonies (Cliff Richard arriving from India in 1948, aged 8) all noticed how pale and underfed the population looked. For years after the war the gas supply was weak and the electricity was turned off at certain times of day. Witnesses like Harold Nicholson testify that even in the best London clubs, the food came in minuscule portions and was barely edible.

And then in February 1948 the population was afflicted by the coldest winter of the 20th century. Young Roy Hattersley remembers sledging down the middle of usually busy streets (p.199) but thousands of the elderly and the infirm died. And millions had to dig a path from their back doors to their outside toilets.

There are thousands of wonderful anecdotes, gems and insights throughout the book – but the predominating image is of impoverishment and endurance.

The queue for rationed food - symbol of post-war Britain

The queue for rationed food – symbol of post-war Britain

P.S. Obscure novelists

A lot of the people Kynaston quotes are, inevitably, writers, a self-selecting cohort since he is himself a writer dealing with written records which ‘writers’ dominate.

Your ears prick up at the famous ones (Graham Greene, Noel Coward, Doris Lessing) but he also introduces us to a cocktail party of less well-known writers from the period, a list which has the effect o making you realise how selective ‘literary history’ is, picking out the half dozen ‘serious’ writers from each era or decade, and letting plenty of other authors drop into obscurity.

It is one of the many many pleasures of the book to come across forgotten authors he mentions, and google them and toy with tracking down and reading their (mostly forgotten) works:

  • Ruby Mildred Ayres b.1881 – one of the most popular and prolific romantic novelists of the twentieth century
  • Ethel M. Dell b.1881 – author of over 30 popular romance novels
  • Naomi Jacob b.1884 – author and actress
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett b.1884 – novelist
  • Angela Thirkell b.1890 – author of a series of 19 novels set in Home Counties ‘Barsetshire’
  • James Lansdale Hodson b.1891 – journalist and novelist
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner b.1893 – novelist and poet
  • Elizabeth Bowen b.1899 – Irish novelist and short story writer
  • Mollie Panter-Downes b.1906 – novelist and writer of Letters from England for the New Yorker magazine
  • Pamela Hansford Johnson, Baroness Snow b.1912 – novelist, playwright, poet, literary and social critic
  • Denton Welch b.1915 – writer and painter
  • Sid Chaplin b.1916 coal miner who wrote novels about mining communities in the North-East
  • Joan Wyndham b.1921 – rose to literary prominence late in life through the diaries she had kept about her romantic adventures during the Second World War

Related links

In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells (1906)

We live now in these days, when the Great Change has been in most things accomplished, in a time when every one is being educated to a sort of intellectual gentleness, a gentleness that abates nothing from our vigour, and it is hard to understand the stifled and struggling manner in which my generation of common young men did its thinking. (Chapter One)

In his earliest stories Wells stuck to describing localised events witnessed and recounted with feverish, first-person intensity by his astonished protagonists.

As he became famous he branched out. He wrote a series of non-science-fiction love stories (Love and Mr Lewisham, Kipps), often featuring whimsical social comedy satirising Edwardian manners and society.

He also began a series of factual articles and books devoted to predicting the future based on likely scientific and technological advances – Anticipations, A Modern UtopiaThe Shape of Things To Come and so on.

And his science fiction stories became more long-winded and discursive, incorporating these other elements to produce stories which were longer, less focused, and contained all kinds of material extraneous to the main plot. In The Days of The Comet is a classic example of this tendency.

In the Days of the Comet

The central event of In The Days of the Comet is easy to describe. A comet passes close to the earth, trailing a cloud of strange chemicals through the atmosphere, which leads to an abrupt and total revolution in human nature and in human affairs, referred to as The Great Change. Everyone becomes peaceful, kind, forgiving and sensible. Here is the narrator telling his contemporary, post-Change audience, about the bad old days:

You must understand – and every year it becomes increasingly difficult to understand – how entirely different the world was then from what it is now. It was a dark world; it was full of preventable disorder, preventable diseases, and preventable pain, of harshness and stupid unpremeditated cruelties; but yet, it may be even by virtue of the general darkness, there were moments of a rare and evanescent beauty that seem no longer possible in my experience. The Great Change has come for ever more, happiness and beauty are our atmosphere, there is peace on earth and good will to all men. None would dare to dream of returning to the sorrows of the former time…

Wells has bitten off a massive theme – the transformation of the entire human race from a jungle of competing individualists, a system which produces misery and exploitation, into a brotherhood of enlightened and caring citizens who treat each other as equals and set about building the Perfect Society. For the fumes of the comet bring about the great Socialist Transformation of the World which Wells and so many of his contemporaries dreamed of.

But Wells has set himself the same challenge he faced in The Food of the Gods, which is to tell the transformation of the entire human race via the tiny story of a handful of individuals – in this case via the recollections of one particular man, Willie Leadford, now aged 71.

The novel is Willie’s autobiography, or more precisely his memoir, of the months leading up to the Great Change 50 years previously, when he was a hot-tempered young man. The minutely narrow scope of the task is made clear in the book’s first line:

I have set myself to write the story of the Great Change, so far as it has affected my own life and the lives of one or two people closely connected with me, primarily to please myself.

Well, that gets Wells off the hook of having to write some kind of global history of this vast transformation. Instead it’s going to be a book about Willie.

The central thread of the novel is Willie’s mismatched love affair with the beautiful but narrow-minded young woman Nettie Stuart. They are both lower class inhabitants of the Four Towns, a region of the industrial Midlands. Here Willie has grown up in extreme poverty, raised by his mother, a devoted and tireless charlady who has almost literally worked her fingers to the bone. Their wretched hovel of a rented cottage is bitterly described numerous times, not least the leaks in the roof which lets rain into his mother’s bedroom, exacerbating her many illnesses.

Against this backdrop, and in the scenery of this grim northern industrial townscape, Willie grows up into a typical angry young man who loses his religious faith and discovers ‘socialism’. He moves in to share a flat with another young man, Parload, who is, however, more taken by the stars and astronomy than socialism.

Anyway, the central spine of the novel is Willie’s forlorn love affair with Nettie. She is the daughter of the gardener to the local lady of the manor, Lady Verrall, and so she and her family regard themselves as a notch or two above Willie and his mother in the social scale. We know from his biography that at one stage of his own adolescence, Wells’s family fell on hard times and his mother went to work as cleaner to a local landowner and Wells was obliged to give up schooling to work in a local shop in Sussex.

You cannot help feeling that the descriptions of a) his good and long-suffering mother b) his smouldering resentment at the patronising, superior attitude of the local landowners and c) his youthful sense of the crazy injustice of the entire social system, are all strongly derived from his own experiences, which he channels into this story of an earnest young working class man falling in love with a beautiful but unimaginative young woman from just a fraction above his own class.

In the hands of a genius like D.H. Lawrence this kind of thing would have been turned into an entire novel registering every flicker of the sensibilities of both the protagonists, and exquisitely marking the rise and fall of their relationship, recording:

the host of dark distressful memories, of darkened childhood, toilsome youth, embittered adolescence.

But in the hands of bumptious Mr Wells it is a good tale, some passages are intensely felt and written but… but… it always feels that Well’s real focus of attention is elsewhere…

Anyway, young Willie becomes even more embittered when he tries to share his ‘socialist’ convictions with Nettie, as well as his loss of religious faith. Being a shallow conformist, all this alarms Nettie, who not only drops him but, in a scene worthy of a Thomas Hardy novel, rejects him for the rich son of a local landowner, the elegant, drawling, upper-class Edward Verrall –

son of the man who owned not only this great estate but more than half of Rawdon’s pot-bank, and who had interests and possessions, collieries and rents, all over the district of the Four Towns.

They argue. Willie departs. He hears from local gossip that she has taken up with young Verrall. When he goes once again up to the grand house where Nettie lives with her mother and father in the gardeners’ quarters, Willie is devastated to discover that… Nettie and Verrall have eloped!

Willie is consumed with psychotic anger, focusing all his personal frustration – the fact that he’s just been ‘let go’ by his employer, Rawdon – the general misery of the industrial proletariat living in the hovels of the local towns – the injustice of the social system – the sight of his poor downtrodden mother – and the (believe it or not) fact that the country seems to be slipping towards war with Germany – all these things come together to make Willie search high and low until he finds a shop where he buys a revolver.

Willie determines to track the couple down and shoot them both, he is that demented with rage, and the remainder of part one of the book follows his efforts to establish where they’ve gone (Norfolk), tracking them to the coast, and then to a little bohemian ‘artist’s colony’ on the seaside.

The industrial Midlands

Partly I’ve thought of D.H. Lawrence because the story is set in the industrial Midlands – Lawrence’s home turf – and a lot of Willie’s youthful energy goes into being outraged by the wretched poverty of the workers and the luxurious lifestyle of the rich.

Wells can certainly write when he wants to and, as you read on, you realise he has made a big effort to capture the miserable topography and lives of the down-trodden miners and other manual workers in the tight little cluster of Midlands mining towns he takes as his setting. I wonder if he had visited the area and made notes. It reads like it. Here’s a description of Willie and his friend and flatmate, Parload, walking round the dirty industrial town of ‘Clayton’:

Then across the allotments, a wilderness of cabbages and evil-looking sheds, past a gaunt abandoned factory, and so to the high road. The high road ascended in a curve past a few houses and a beerhouse or so, and round until all the valley in which four industrial towns lay crowded and confluent was overlooked.

I will admit that with the twilight there came a spell of weird magnificence over all that land and brooded on it until dawn. The horrible meanness of its details was veiled, the hutches that were homes, the bristling multitudes of chimneys, the ugly patches of unwilling vegetation amidst the makeshift fences of barrel-stave and wire. The rusty scars that framed the opposite ridges where the iron ore was taken and the barren mountains of slag from the blast furnaces were veiled; the reek and boiling smoke and dust from foundry, pot-bank, and furnace, transfigured and assimilated by the night. The dust-laden atmosphere that was grey oppression through the day became at sundown a mystery of deep translucent colours, of blues and purples, of sombre and vivid reds, of strange bright clearnesses of green and yellow athwart the darkling sky. Each upstart furnace, when its monarch sun had gone, crowned itself with flames, the dark cinder heaps began to glow with quivering fires, and each pot-bank squatted rebellious in a volcanic coronet of light. The empire of the day broke into a thousand feudal baronies of burning coal. The minor streets across the valley picked themselves out with gas-lamps of faint yellow, that brightened and mingled at all the principal squares and crossings with the greenish pallor of incandescent mantles and the high cold glare of the electric arc. The interlacing railways lifted bright signal-boxes over their intersections, and signal stars of red and green in rectangular constellations. The trains became articulated black serpents breathing fire.

Dickens wrote a vivid description of the Midlands in The Old Curiosity Shop in 1842, and George Orwell was to describe them again nearly a century later. Wells comes in the middle of that period and is as vivid as either:

You cannot see, as I can see, the dark empty way between the mean houses, the dark empty way lit by a bleary gas-lamp at the corner, you cannot feel the hard checkered pavement under your boots, you cannot mark the dimly lit windows here and there, and the shadows upon the ugly and often patched and crooked blinds of the people cooped within. Nor can you presently pass the beer house with its brighter gas and its queer, screening windows, nor get a whiff of foul air and foul language from its door, nor see the crumpled furtive figure – some rascal child – that slinks past us down the steps.

We crossed the longer street, up which a clumsy steam tram, vomiting smoke and sparks, made its clangorous way, and adown which one saw the greasy brilliance of shop fronts and the naphtha flares of hawkers’ barrows dripping fire into the night. A hazy movement of people swayed along that road, and we heard the voice of an itinerant preacher from a waste place between the houses.

There’s a recession – Leadford and his flatmate squabble about the elementary economic causes of recessions in capitalism – some of the miners have come out on strike, there’s stone throwing and minor riots and Leadford manages to get caught up in scuffles and mobs.

This could have been an interesting novel about industrial relations circa 1905, except that… a comet is hurtling towards the earth.

It’s a bit like getting fifty pages into a promising early novel by D.H. Lawrence when the Tardis suddenly materialises and Dr Who steps out!

You are just getting into it, as a realistic novel, when Willie looks up once again to look at the strange green light of the approaching comet. For weeks now the newspapers and their ‘experts’ have been assuring the public that it will miss the earth and have no effect on all of us.

Part two – after the comet

Except that it does have an effect on all of us – a transformative impact.

The first part of the novel rises to a climax as Willie, one fateful night, tracks down the lovers Verrall and Nettie, to their beach hut hideaway, from a hiding place watches them gallivanting on the sand, then steps out and advances towards them, blindly firing his revolver (missing them both, luckily) and, as they turn and run, running after them, blind with impotent rage, anger, frustration, all the emotions of a trapped, trammelled inhabitant of the squalid little earth of 1906.

Absurdly (I haven’t brought it out enough) in the background throughout the story, we have had tips and hints that Britain is stumbling towards war against Germany. Willie has absent-mindedly been reading the newspaper hoardings at the railways stations and towns he passes through on his vengeful pursuit, and now, here on the beach, his own personal demented rage is counterpointed by a battle which suddenly starts up between huge warships taking place way out at sea, off the coast, the flares and booms of the big guns lighting up the beach as Willie chases the lovers through the dunes. All very cinematic!

And then… the green lights of the comet engulf everything. It is as if a thousand pistols are detonating all over the sky and a great mist, a green fog, sweeps in from the sea, and Willie loses consciousness.

When he awakes some hours later he is struck by the beauty of the grass among the sand. He looks up into the beautiful sky. He feels fulfilled and happy. He looks down at the gun at his feet and doesn’t understand it. He stumbles through the fields till he comes to a lane where a man has fallen and sprained his ankle and so he immediately helps him. It seems like the obvious thing to do.

And all over the world every person is waking with the same thought – feeling whole, purified, happy, content, and so brimming with good humour that they need to give of it, help others, make a better life.

In a throwaway bit of science Willie says that he later learned that chemicals in the comet’s tail reacted with the nitrogen in the earth’s atmosphere to create a new element which, when breathed in, gives new energy to blood corpuscles and gives the brain and nervous system a tremendous sense of life and calm.

Part two of the book describes the Great Change in three ways.

1. Very conveniently, the man Willie has found injured in the road turns out to be Melmount, a senior Cabinet Minister. Willie helps him to his holiday home down the coast where, incapacitated and so unable to go back to London, Melmount calls a cabinet meeting to discuss the new world and, since there aren’t any of the usual civil servant secretariesavailable, Willie finds himself being dragooned into acting as secretary and aide de camp to the Prime Minister during these first few weeks after the Change. This allows Wells:

  • to give us satirical portraits of the members of the cabinet
  • to insert his analysis of the British government of his day (it didn’t, in  his opinion, have a clue what to do with its enormous empire or about the numerous social problems at home)
  • and to convey in broad brush terms how all of its members now look back on their narrow, sheltered, blinkered, privileged upbringings and publicly express regret

The politicians set about making radical changes which begin with Wells’s personal hobby horse, land reform, namely nationalising all land and rebuilding society from scratch.

2. After witnessing all this Willie returns to Clayton, and registers the Great Change in the town, his mother, Nettie’s parents and even old Mrs Verrall the landowner. All are now peaceful and calm. The scales have fallen from their eyes. All are now determined to build the New Jerusalem. Willie describes how they knock down all the disgusting old slums, and hold huge bonfires in which they burn their smelly clothes, disgusting furniture, rubbish decorations. Now all the land is jointly owned by the ‘commune’ as it is now called which plans rationally, establishing new workplaces in the best places, rebuilding convenient railway lines to link them, building new homes which are healthy and hygienic, for everyone. In the mornings they all work together, to build a better world. In the afternoons all take place in further education designed to bring out everyone’s potential – everyone’s life becomes a combination of productive labour and creative self-fulfilment.

3. And finally the love affair. This is dealt with in three parts. In the immediate aftermath of the Great Change, Willie comes across Nettie and Verrall again, and they all apologise to each other. In a rather moving passage both Nettie and Verrall reveal their feelings and motivations for running off together: Nettie admits that to some extent, it was Verrall’s clothes: he just dressed so richly and confidently and ably, compared to Willie’s dismal, dirty, threadbare working class suit, that she was bewitched. And Verrall gives what I thought was a powerful half page or so summary of the sheer irresponsible thrill of having an affair, of running away and abandoning all his parents’ fine hopes that he’d become a politician, spurning all society’s rules about not ‘ruining’ the reputation of a virginal young woman. What larks it was!

Anyway, they all sheepishly look at each other and apologise. Nettie says she wants to remain in love with Willie, who was her earliest adult friend and boyfriend but… still wants to remain with Verrall. The two men agree it cannot be and so, regretfully, she leaves with Verrall, leaving Willie to throw himself with energy into building the New Jerusalem in Clayton.

Back in Clayton, his mother is nearing the end of an exhausting long life of hard work, and the commune (in its new enlightened form) allots her a nurse – stocky young Annie – to be her carer through her last months. Distracted with all his new duties Willie is blissfully ignorant of the fact that this devoted, loyal young woman – rather inevitably – falls in love with him. It is only on the day of his mother’s eventual death, that they burst into tears, find each other in each other’s arms, and then kissing and then passionately kissing. Oops.

They marry and have children. Willie emphasises she was always his best friend and helpmeet. But… But Nettie reappears. Nettie has heard about his mother dying and makes a visit. And here she pursues the theme she had broached back in their parting scene at the seaside resort. Here she suggests… that she can be the lover of two men, that Willie can join her and Verrall. And Annie can join them too. And so it transpires. They become a ménage à quatre.

For the Great Change has overthrown even that old shibboleth, that one man shall cleave to one women, and one woman to one man, and that they shall be each other’s all-in-all and never have any surplus love or affection to give to anybody else.

After all the heady themes the book has covered – socialism, social injustice, the squalor of industrial Britain, the unmerited privilege of the rich, the stupidity of war, the absurdity of empire, the incompetence of politicians – this is how it ends, with a hymn to Free Love, a very fashionable, if scandalous, Edwardian topic.

Anybody who knew about Wells’s own love life (i.e. all of literary and artistic and political London) knew that this was in fact a close reflection of Well’s own situation. He was married to the plain and devoted Jane Wells,who bore him several children and managed the home, but had to put up with Wells’s numerous affairs with an impressive list of younger, sexier women, with several of whom he had illegitimate children.

(Wells’s lovers included American birth control activist Margaret Sanger, writer Odette Keun, Soviet spy Moura Budberg, novelist Elizabeth von Arnim, writer Amber Reeves, novelist and feminist Rebecca West, and many more.)

And there the story ends.

Before and after

The story is a variation on the very Wellsian trope of the sleeper who awakes in the distant future.

There is a ‘before’ (the grimy present day) and an ‘after’ (utopia after the Great Change). And the narrator is able to bear witness to both worlds. Thus the narrator is able to contrast a) the social squalor and b) the psychological and emotional constipation, of Edwardian times, with the a) social harmony and b) the relaxed and open relationships, after ‘the Great Change’.

This gives rise to the odd and distinctive feature of the book which is that you can go for pages reading either a) gritty descriptions of the muddy coal-mining town and its surly inhabitants or b) the sometimes genuinely moving, sometimes rather laughable descriptions of Willie’s love affair with Nettie – and both lull you into a false sense of security that you are reading a standard Edwardian novel…

But then Wells will throw in a sentence or two reminding us that this is all before the Change, the protagonist will look up and see the eerie shape of billowing green flaring in the night sky as the comet approaches day after day, thus inviting the reader to view with ridicule the absurd economic system and social conventions of the time – and you realise you are in a completely different type of book.

Or you are in a D.H. Lawrence social realist novel which has been picked up and photoshopped into a scene from Star Wars.

This before-and-after trope explains the prominence in the text of the direct address to the reader. By which I mean that the first person protagonist, Willie, is continually stopping to address his modern readers, the young readers who have grown up since the Great Change, with phrases like ‘You who have grown up since the Change will scarcely believe the silliness of the society I grew up in…’

My point being that the ‘before and after’ trope isn’t a minor aspect of the book, it is something the narrator and Wells are constantly rubbing in our faces.

You will consider those notions of my youth poor silly violent stuff; particularly if you are of the younger generation born since the Change you will be of that opinion.

When I think of that growing proportion of readers who belong entirely to the new order, who are growing up with only the vaguest early memories of the old world, I find the greatest difficulty in writing down the unintelligible confusions that were matter of fact to their fathers.

You cannot imagine the littleness of those former times; their naive, queer absurdities!

And here again I find myself writing in an unknown language, so far as my younger readers are concerned. You who know only the world that followed the Great Change will find much that I am telling inconceivable…

All that previous life of ours had been an ill-lit marionette show, acted in the twilight. . . .

The whole of that old history becomes more and more foreign, more and more like some queer barbaric drama played in a forgotten tongue…

Thus the novel stands in the tradition which includes all the other ‘before and after’ socialist novels of the era, such as Looking BackwardNews From Nowhere and so on.

Was Wells a socialist – or a nihilist?

Wells joined the socialist Fabian Society in 1903 and wrote numerous articles for newspapers, magazines and so on, supporting socialism. And he certainly writes eloquently about the glaring social injustices of his day, in this book giving lengthy and convincing descriptions of the miserable state of slum-dwellers in a Midland industrial town.

He also makes an effort to analyse their causes, attributing most of it to the idea of private property in land i.e. the tradition that had grown up of letting landowners acquire more land, on which mines and other factories could be built, while swarming millions of the proletariat had no land whatsoever. He is particularly upset that this tradition – the crazy, disorganised and blatantly unfair distribution of land – had continued in America which some people had hoped would be a more rational utopia but with which, by 1906, Wells was thoroughly disillusioned.

The implication of the repeated references to unfair land distribution is that nationalising all land, abolishing the private ownership of land, is the only way to creating the basis for equality.

But if you ask whether Wells was a genuine socialist, I think the answer might well be No. What comes over from all his novels is not a careful analysis of the means of production and distribution and a fictional dramatisation of how these can be seized by the working class.

What comes over from his novels are cosmic visions of vast realms of space and time against which humanity is a mere insect. The point of The Time Machine and of The War of the Worlds is how puny and petty our present-day human concerns are compared to the vastness of the solar system and the knowledge that there are countless other life forms in the universe who are completely indifferent to us, to his visions of a future planet earth on which humanity has ceased to exist, and it doesn’t matter.

I picture to myself this thing happening in space, a planetary moment, the faint smudge, the slender whirl of meteor, drawing nearer to this planet – this planet like a ball, like a shaded rounded ball, floating in the void, with its little, nearly impalpable coat of cloud and air, with its dark pools of ocean, its gleaming ridges of land. And as that midge from the void touches it, the transparent gaseous outer shell clouds in an instant green and then slowly clears again. . . .

The Fabians made sensible proposals about to how to improve the lot of the working classes through better building regulations, hygiene, water and gas and electricity provision, shorter working hours and so on. Wells paid lip service to all this but couldn’t help, wherever he turns his eye, being overwhelmed by the sheer futility of human existence. Futility is a word which rings through all these books. Love is futile. Individuals are futile. War is futile. The whole social order is futile.

The golden earth and sky seemed like a little bubble that floated in the globe of human futility.

In The Time Machine the narrator reflects on the futile effort to create civilisations which have vanished, is afflicted by the futile attempts of the pretty young Eloi he befriends to understand him, calls the entire race of Eloi ‘a mere beautiful futility’.

One of the most powerful results of the sojourn of the narrator on The Island of Dr Moreau is the way it leaves him with a crushing sense of the futility of human endeavour. ‘I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island…’

The net effect of The War of the Worlds is both to make you realise what petty, powerless things human beings are, playthings before the mighty powers of the universe – but also that the Martians themselves are prey to the tiniest enemy, the terrestrial bacteria which kill them.

Wells’s fundamental worldview is the heartless, brutal materialism of Darwin, as passed on to him directly by Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, who personally taught Wells at the South Kensington Science Institute in the 1880s.

We have come into being through a tumult of blind forces.

We are made for the struggle for existence – we ARE the struggle for existence; the things that live are the struggle for existence incarnate…

This is Darwinism raw.

In The Food of the Gods, Wells helps the reader come to see the entire present order of things as a mere stepping stone to the next level of evolution, to the coming of the giants, epitomised in the character of the uneducated giant, Caddles, who has no idea why he exists or what anybody is doing. Here he is, straddling Piccadilly, looking down at the multitudes of little people, and afflicted with a sense of complete pointlessness:

None of them seemed to see, as he could do, the drink-sodden wretchedness of the painted women at the corner, the ragged misery that sneaked along the gutters, the infinite futility of all this employment. The infinite futility! (The Food of the Gods Book III, Chapter 3)

At the climax of that novel, as the protagonist Redwood argues with the anti-giant Prime Minister, Caterham, ‘The more he talked the more certain Redwood’s sense of stupendous futility grew.’ (Book III, Chapter 4)

So it should come as no surprise to find the same note sounded again and again in In The Days of The Comet. Here is young Willie’s thoughts as he leaves his childhood home:

It was my native valley, and I was going out of it, I thought never to return, and yet in that last prospect, the group of towns that had borne me and dwarfed and crippled and made me, seemed, in some indefinable manner, strange. I was, perhaps, more used to seeing it from this comprehensive view-point when it was veiled and softened by night; now it came out in all its weekday reek, under a clear afternoon sun. That may account a little for its unfamiliarity. And perhaps, too, there was something in the emotions through which I had been passing for a week and more, to intensify my insight, to enable me to pierce the unusual, to question the accepted. But it came to me then, I am sure, for the first time, how promiscuous, how higgledy-piggledy was the whole of that jumble of mines and homes, collieries and potbanks, railway yards, canals, schools, forges and blast furnaces, churches, chapels, allotment hovels, a vast irregular agglomeration of ugly smoking accidents in which men lived as happy as frogs in a dustbin. Each thing jostled and damaged the other things about it, each thing ignored the other things about it; the smoke of the furnace defiled the potbank clay, the clatter of the railway deafened the worshipers in church, the public-house thrust corruption at the school doors, the dismal homes squeezed miserably amidst the monstrosities of industrialism, with an effect of groping imbecility. Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.

‘Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.’

That is the true Wellsian note. His vision isn’t of a fair and equal society, to set alongside the utopian views of Edward Bellamy or William Morris. It is of apocalyptic wars, alien invasions, cosmic events and far futurity which make all human effort seem like ‘groping imbecility’.

Poor little angry, miserable creature! Poor little angry, miserable world!

All that said, the second half of the In The Days of the Comet – After the Change – does make a sustained effort to paint a lyrical picture of a socialist paradise in which everyone collaborates to build a better life for everyone else. It is powerfully, forcefully and lyrically described, at length, along with practical aspects of the New World, like the destruction of all the old towns and cities and the building of new, rationally laid out urban centres lined with clean, well-lit, healthy and hygienic dwellings, and the availability of free higher education to all, and the limiting of work to only what is required and only what human beings can enjoyably supply.

The second half of the book does bear comparison with the ‘After’ scenarios painted by Bellamy and Morris in their utopias. But the grip of the book, its bite and punch, come from the narrator’s anger and frustration at the glaring inequality, the poverty and misery, and the million subtle social slights which the poor and lower middle class have to endure from their hoity-toity superiors, which really drive the first half. And then the sense of the vast cosmic transformation which has undertaken mankind.

And the glaring drawback of the book is that, to get to that Ideal Future, the reader has to swallow the notion that the very air we breathe has been transformed by unknown chemicals from a passing comet. Which is not a very practical political policy.

Goodbye Fabians

All of which makes it no surprise to learn that the Fabian Society expelled Wells in 1908.

The other Fabians came to dislike his flashiness, irresponsibility and sexual adventurism. It is typical of his restless magpie mind that a book which was meant to turn into a vision of a socialist utopia instead leads up to a description of the Free Love which very much suited Wells and his philandering ways.

There is always another distraction in a book by Wells, always another shiny new idea or invention which he suddenly wants to share with you, and which leads him wandering away from the book’s ostensible topic.

In response to their criticisms of him, Wells went on to satirise the two leading Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in his 1910 novel, The New Machiavelli but, in the event, it was their modest, top-down vision of a soft socialist nanny state which was to triumph – albeit not till after the Second World War.

And although Well’s predictions of worldwide war and disaster did come true, particularly in the inferno of the Second World War, the final verdict on the visionary inconsequentiality of Well’s vast and voluminous writings is the way almost all of them sank into the almost complete obscurity after that war.

He wrote over a hundred books and God knows how many articles. Nowadays only half a dozen of the best sci-fi and four or five of his Edwardian comedies of manners survive.

Relying on comets from outer space to bring about social change turned out not to be a very practical option.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous with Rama a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

Why is this, Wells’s first novella, such a classic? At least in part because it is short, pacy and vivid.

Short 

Barely 90 pages in the Pan paperback version, at 33,000 words The Time Machine is comparable to the first Sherlock Holmes novels or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (25,000 words). It gets in, makes its sensational statement, and is all over while you’re still reeling. It takes as long to read as the average movie to watch.

Pacy 

Not only is it short, but it moves at a cracking pace, the opening words introducing us to the (anonymous) Time Traveller in conversation with his dinner guests. We are plunged straight into a discussion of the theory of time before, a few pages later, he shows them a small time machine (p.13), before then (p.16) exhibiting the nearly completed full-size machine itself, and then – a mere week, and three pages, later (p.19), his friends, assembled for the usual Thursday evening dinner, gasp as he staggers dramatically through the door, and tells the assembled guests his extraordinary story.

Given that the Pan paperback text starts on page seven, it’s gone from nothing to details of his time travelling adventures in twelve swift pages.

Vivid 

And nobody who’s read it can forget the tremendous scenes he conjures up –

  • the idyllic, sunny world of the Eloi
  • the horror of the underground world inhabited by the filthy, white ape-like Morlocks
  • the Time Traveller wandering, accompanied by the elfin Weena, through the ruins of a vast abandoned Natural History Museum
  • the fire in the forest as the Morlocks attack him and Weena
  • and then the climactic scene as the Morlocks swarm all over him as he struggles to reattach the levers to the time machine which make it work and let him escape

And I have never forgotten being entranced, as a boy, by the coda to the main adventure, his visions of the world millions of years hence, when the dying sun has stopped rising or setting, the moon has disappeared, and the world is a vast beach lapped by a thick oily sea, inhabited only by monstrous crabs.

‘I stopped very gently and sat upon the Time Machine, looking round. The sky was no longer blue. North-eastward it was inky black, and out of the blackness shone brightly and steadily the pale white stars. Overhead it was a deep Indian red and starless, and south-eastward it grew brighter to a glowing scarlet where, cut by the horizon, lay the huge hull of the sun, red and motionless. The rocks about me were of a harsh reddish colour, and all the trace of life that I could see at first was the intensely green vegetation that covered every projecting point on their south-eastern face. It was the same rich green that one sees on forest moss or on the lichen in caves: plants which like these grow in a perpetual twilight.

‘The machine was standing on a sloping beach. The sea stretched away to the south-west, to rise into a sharp bright horizon against the wan sky. There were no breakers and no waves, for not a breath of wind was stirring. Only a slight oily swell rose and fell like a gentle breathing, and showed that the eternal sea was still moving and living. And along the margin where the water sometimes broke was a thick incrustation of salt—pink under the lurid sky. There was a sense of oppression in my head, and I noticed that I was breathing very fast. The sensation reminded me of my only experience of mountaineering, and from that I judged the air to be more rarefied than it is now.

‘Far away up the desolate slope I heard a harsh scream, and saw a thing like a huge white butterfly go slanting and fluttering up into the sky and, circling, disappear over some low hillocks beyond. The sound of its voice was so dismal that I shivered and seated myself more firmly upon the machine. Looking round me again, I saw that, quite near, what I had taken to be a reddish mass of rock was moving slowly towards me. Then I saw the thing was really a monstrous crab-like creature. Can you imagine a crab as large as yonder table, with its many legs moving slowly and uncertainly, its big claws swaying, its long antennæ, like carters’ whips, waving and feeling, and its stalked eyes gleaming at you on either side of its metallic front? Its back was corrugated and ornamented with ungainly bosses, and a greenish incrustation blotched it here and there. I could see the many palps of its complicated mouth flickering and feeling as it moved.’

Wow. Just wow. What a scene! How many teenage imaginations have been inflamed by Well’s vivid vision of a bleak and otherworldly futurity.

The scientific perspective

Underpinning the grip of the narrative is Wells’s aura of scientific knowledgeability. The idea of a world divided into gladsome nymphs cavorting in the sunshine and vile cannibal apes living underground is one thing. What gives it depth is the narrator’s thought-provoking speculations about why this future world has come about. His initial theory is proven wrong, but is interesting nonetheless. He speculates that intelligence is required by creatures that have to cope with changing and dangerous circumstances.

‘It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.’ (Chapter 13)

In other words he applies a purely Darwinian worldview to the world that he encounters. There is no Victorian sentimentality about God or religion or ‘the spirit’. From the get-go Wells is an adherent of Darwinian materialism and comes up with materialist explanations for everything he sees – lacking big animal predators or external threat, mankind has dwindled to four-foot, happy, brainless elves.

But when presented with new evidence, like a good scientist he abandons theory one and comes up with his theory two, although confessing to his listeners that it might still be wrong. Now he speculates that the two races – the Eloi and the Morlocks – represent the very long-term outcome of the trend already visible in Victorian times – the division of society into two classes, an insouciant, privileged upper class, and a grunting, toiling underclass, increasingly consigned, literally, to a subterranean existence.

This theory itself strikes me as being crude as an explanation for the society he finds in the year eight hundred and two thousand, seven hundred and one. The scientific worldview of the book is created less by this big speculation, than by his understanding of countless little details. For example, the way he speculates that the big, flat eyes and white coloration of the Morlocks are a result of living in underground darkness – and mentions the Victorian naturalists who had found the same qualities in fish which live in the depths of the oceans.

Or his knowledge of the solar system, of the movements of the earth, moon and other planets around the sun, which he brings to bear in his speculations about the way the night sky of earth in the far distant future, millions of years hence, is so radically different from our time.

George Orwell paid tribute to Wells by saying that he showed adolescents and young adults of his generation that the world was not going to be as their stuffy, hidebound, stiflingly Anglican parents thought it would be. It wasn’t going to be all boy scouts and British Empire forever. Wells showed that vastly bigger forces were at work on all humankind. The future was going to be something altogether weirder and more uncanny. It was going to be strange and wonderful. And this, Orwell says, was experienced as a huge imaginative liberation from the restrictions of Edwardian society.

Over and above this, Wells repeatedly hits the note, beloved of adolescents, of the futility of human life, especially of contemporary polite society. The perspectives he opens up, the vast realms of astronomy and evolution, the epochs and distances, dwarf out petty concerns.

I suppose this is one of the key notes and comforts of science fiction as a genre.

‘Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life. I thought of their unfathomable distance, and the slow inevitable drift of their movements out of the unknown past into the unknown future. I thought of the great precessional cycle that the pole of the earth describes. Only forty times had that silent revolution occurred during all the years that I had traversed. And during these few revolutions all the activity, all the traditions, the complex organisations, the nations, languages, literatures, aspirations, even the mere memory of Man as I knew him, had been swept out of existence. Instead were these frail creatures who had forgotten their high ancestry, and the white Things of which I went in terror.’

Wonder 

And this, I think, accounts for the enduring success and influence of the early Wells science fantasias – their sense of wonder! They capture a profound sense of awe and amazement. They are astonishing and astounding. You can feel your imagination being stretched and extended in previously undreamed-of ways.

It’s that ability to amaze which marks Wells out, and the speed with which he gets to the amazing bits, with the minimum of Victorian etiquette and bombast and narrative machinery. Within minutes of opening the book we are there in the room as the time traveller tests his time machine, and all the early books are like that. Immediate.

The anchor of the mundane

The story was so fantastic and incredible, the telling so credible and sober. (Chapter 16)

I’d forgotten that The Time Machine is set in Richmond-upon-Thames. That’s where the house of the unnamed time traveller is situated, on a hill overlooking the river Thames, where a half dozen or so professional chaps meet up every Thursday for dinner and intelligent conversation.

Since the time machine doesn’t move in space but only in time, that means that the eerie statue of the sphinx, the ruined hall where the Eloi eat and sleep, and the nearby air shafts up which the Morlocks climb to seize their prey – all are, or more accurately, will be situated, in Richmond. Weird thought.

Similarly, the porcelain palace, as he calls it, an immense ruined building which turns out to be a kind of natural history museum, is off in the direction of Banstead, which he has to get to by passing through what was once Wimbledon. From the heights on which the palace is built he can look north-east and see a creek or inlet of the Thames where ‘Battersea must once have been’.

For a Londoner (and most of Wells’s early readers were from London’s literary circles and readerships) these incongruous references to banal and everyday locations add another layer of frisson and excitement – to see places you know and travel through and are thoroughly bored with, described as they will appear in an inconceivably distant future, is strange and marvellous.

The mundaneness of the settings – the glimpses of the traveller’s bustling servants and the dinner guests fussing with their pipes – and the drabness of these suburban place names, perform two functions:

  1. they anchor and root the stories in the real actual everyday world, lending the astonishing stories a patina of plausibility
  2. at the same time, the banality of place names and domestic habits are like velvet backgrounds against which he sets the wonderful jewels of his imagination

Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis (1936)

I’ve just read Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger, a classic account of trench warfare on the Western Front during World War One, which is based on the detailed diaries Jünger kept from 1915 to 1918, featuring, among numerous other fights, his part in the Battle of the Somme.

Notoriously, Jünger’s account is so close to the events it describes that it is often difficult to understand quite what’s going on – as it often was for the troops on the ground. Storm of Steel became so well-known precisely because it is an intensely immediate and visceral account, a moment-by-moment description of comrades being shot, blown up, shredded, sniped, burnt by flares or eviscerated by shellfire as they advance, fighting and shooting, chucking grenades and grappling in hand-to-hand combat with the foe. Jünger himself was repeatedly wounded, picking up some 20 wounds in all. The descriptions of fighting are so intense and immediate that the only lyricism which emerges is a kind of visionary hymn to war itself, to the supposedly purifying and transforming experience of danger, injury and pain.

Sagittarius Rising, Cecil Lewis’s account of the three years he spent flying airplanes over the Western Front – exactly contemporary to Jünger, and also taking part in the Battle of the Somme – couldn’t be more different.

The benefit of hindsight

The key difference is that Lewis didn’t come to write his account until nearly 20 after the events he describes, in 1935, the finished book being published in 1936. This has a number of consequences. It means everything he writes is coloured by his knowledge of not only who won the war, but of what the long-term consequences of Allied victory would turn out to be i.e. chaos across Europe and then the rise of Hitler.

But it also means he can’t remember a lot of what happened. Although he kept a flight log as part of his job, and he has it open on his table as he writes, the entries are so clipped and official that he himself admits that he often has no memory of the events they describe. In a couple of places he quotes them verbatim and then laments that he now has no memory at all of so many of the events he recorded.

I am like a man on a rise, looking back over a plain where white ground mists lie, seeing isolated trees and roofs, upthrust haphazard, floating on the sea, without apparent connection with the lanes and fields beneath. I remember only incidents, and lose the vivid landscape of time. (p.80)

Instead of the searing relentlessness of the Jünger, then, what we get is something far more fragmented, and infinitely more mellow and reflective.

The 266-page text is divided into nine chapters (in fact the last three of these describe Lewis’s career after the war ended). But these ‘chapters’ are really just buckets into which he has gathered together impressions, vignettes, memories and reflections from particular periods and postings. The actual text is made up of hundreds of short passages, none of them more than three pages long, many of them less than a page long.

World government

And knowing what he does, how the war ended, who lived and who died, how ‘victory’ was frittered away by the post-war politicians – and writing as he does, in 1935, with Hitler in full flood and the dark clouds of another war looming close – the book is drenched with hindsight about fallen colleagues, poignant laments for his own naivety, and dark forebodings of what is to come.

In fact there’s a surprising number of passages where Lewis completely switches from memoir mode into discussion of contemporary politics, and warnings about the contemporary situation in Europe 1935, passages where he passionately argues that what the world needs to avoid another war is some kind of World Government which will rise above the petty rivalries of nation states driven by fear. In these passages he is clearly echoing thinkers like H.G. Wells, who was one of the leading proponents of a World Government.

The influence of modernism

And there is another, stylistic, difference from Jünger’s book, another indication of the way the book was written twenty years after the fact. This is that Lewis has absorbed the lessons of the Modernist writers who became widely known after the war, suggestions about how to play with form and experiment with voice and style. This impact is visible in at least two ways:

One is the way the text is highly fragmented: not in order to be deliberately disorientating, just that it’s made up of lots and lots of short scenes and vignettes, which create a scrapbook, mosaic effect.

Second is that he’s relaxed about writing the vignettes in different styles. The opening couple of pages describing him and a friend as keen young public schoolboys wanting to join the Royal Flying Corps have the jolly chaps tone of late Victorian boys adventure stories. In sharp contrast, he has several passages describing what he imagines his mother must have felt about him running off to war and these are written in a sensitive style which bends the rules of narrative and goes right inside her head to give us her thoughts and anxieties directly described in a mild stream-of-consciousness style that reminds me of Virginia Woolf.

Other passages describing the terror he felt on his first few flights, and the first few times the planes had problems and he experienced real panic, are done in a full-on stream-of-consciousness way but more disrupted and anxious in feel.

By contrast, in the many sections about the specifications and performance of the planes themselves, Lewis’s prose is as factual and clear as an engineering manual.

In one passage, describing three airmen out on the town in a French village behind the lines, where one of them pairs off with (sleeps with) a pretty 18 year old girl – the whole thing is told in the third person, like a short story plonked down in the middle of an otherwise first-person memoir, although we gather he’s describing something he himself experienced.

To any modern reader none of this presents a challenge. But it’s interesting to observe how fully techniques and approaches which were new and daring in the hands of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce had obviously become accepted and absorbed into mainstream writing by 1935.

Themes and variations

1. His mother

It’s only around page 100 that we meet his father, who appears to have gone off to live by himself in Devon and devote himself to ruminating on philosophy and the meaning of life, happy to sound off about Marx and Socialism on the rare occasions when Lewis goes to visit him (pp. 112-115). The first hundred pages are much more dominated by his mother who – presumably – brought him up alone. There are many deeply evocative descriptions of the landscape of the Surrey Hills where he grew up.

His mother appears in a series of short scenes, dominated by his guilt. As an impetuous, ungrateful 17-year-old all Lewis wanted to do was run off to join the air force. Only now, as he writes in middle age, does he realise how callow and unfeeling he was, and how his mother must have suffered agonies of anxiety. For example, he meets hismother in the Piccadilly Grill after his first training flight.

‘Well, dear, how did you get on?’
‘Pretty well.’
‘Did you go up?’
‘Yes!’
‘Oh!’ there was a faint tremor in her voice. (Not already! This only son, in the air, and a moment ago he played at her feet. Not already! Not to be snatched away already…) (p.20)

See how he almost immediately takes us into her mind and worries.

It is a sign of Lewis’s maturity and character that he includes these scenes, and that he obviously took as much care crafting them as the other, more obvious ones, about flying and the war. They’re touching in themselves and an indication of the benefits of waiting twenty years and really mulling over the whole situation, as it affected those around him. (pp. 34, pp. 72-74)

2. Women

It was the 1930s and so authors could write more openly about sex than in the 1910s. And because the narrative is by way of being a sort of coming-of-age story (as Lewis says, instead of university, he had the Western Front) a silver thread runs through the book recounting his experiences with girls.

Remember he was only seventeen when the story begins, and we find him walking a pretty girl home along quiet Surrey lanes on his last evening before going to training camp (pp. 26-27). He is in agonies of embarrassment and shyness before it is she who invites him to give her one, quick, chaste kiss.

Next, more confidently, he takes ‘Eleanor’ out for a champagne meal and a box at the theatre, but, when she invites him into her place, they simply sit in front of the fire until she lets him kiss her once, and then, yawning, dismisses him. He was bursting with ardour and impatience, but didn’t know how to proceed, what to do or say. Looking back as a middle-aged man he can’t help wondering what might have been. (pp. 34-36).

A year or so later, having got his flying licence and experienced life among men, we see him getting drunk with two comrades in an estaminet behind the lines, where the two filles de joie accompanying his pals find him a girl, the pale, slender mistress of a French officer who, in her master’s absence, grants Cecil her favours (pp. 66-69). It is revealing that this story has to be told in the third person, as if it is a fictional short story.

Later still, our hero comes back to the French cottage he’s billeted on, roaring drunk from an officers’ piss-up, and yells through to the coarse peasant woman he’s been billeted on, and she sleepily shouts ‘oui’ from her bedroom, so that – we understand – he can go in and shag her.

Thus the book charts his progress from timidly innocent virgin to drunken debauchee in less than two years.

In another bravura passage he describes a secret location in Kensington where off-duty officers could go to party, to dance to the music of a jazz band and to pick up girls. He takes a willing slender young thing up to the balcony to stare at the stars, to be intensely in the moment. Having dispensed with Victorian hypocrisy, he has reached the stage of being an utterly unillisioned healthy young animal after animal fun (pp. 157-160).

3. The planes

Lewis loves the planes. He includes as much technical information and descriptions of the designs, layouts, flyability, shortcomings and advantages of all the models he gets to fly as he can, and, he assures us that in his three years of service he flew every plane available on the Western Front. Thus he gives us detailed accounts of the:

  • Maurice Farman Longhorn (p.22)
  • Maurice Farman Shorthorn
  • BE 2B (p.30)
  • BE 2C (pp.42, 116)
  • Avro
  • Morane biplane
  • Sopwith Triplane (p.133) his favourite
  • SE5 (p.136)
  • Higher-powered SE5 (p.150)
  • Spad (p.161)
  • Sopwith Camel (p.165)
  • Handley Page (p.198)
  • DH4 (p.198)

So when Lewis is eventually posted back to Britain, to a squadron tasked with trying out new designs of plane, he is in ‘paradise’ (p.132).

Throughout the book are sprinkled wonderful passages describing the freedom of the skies and the joy of flying, combined with the constant awareness of death looming at any moment in the form of enemy planes, and the awareness of the limitations and foibles of the plane he’s flying.

He really makes you feel the exhilarating freedom of flying those rattly old death-traps high up above the clouds into the clean clear blue of the empyrean.

4. The joy of flying

The upper rim of the circle of fire dipped finally behind the clouds, and a bunch of rays, held as it were in some invisible quiver, shot a beam high into the arc of heaven, where it turned a wraith of cirrus cloud to marvellous gold. The lofty shade had covered the visible earth, and beauty lingered only in the sky. It turned colder… I remembered suddenly the warmth of the mess fire and the faces of friends. It would be good to be down again. I turned towards home and throttled down. The engine roar died. The wind sang gently in the wires. A long steady glide carried me inland. Now that the engine was off and the warm air did not blow through the cockpit, I grew chilly and beat my hands on my thighs. It was cold at ten thousand in March. I opened up the engine again to feel its warmth. Slowly the aerodrome rose up through the gauzy swathes of mist spun by the invisible hands of twilight. Above, the cirrus turned copper, faded to pink and mauve, and at last drifted grey and shroud like in the vast arena of the darkening heaven. I must hurry, It would  be night before I was down. Over the sheds at four thousand I went into a vertical bank and rushed earthwards in a tight spiral. At a thousand I pulled out, feeling a bit sick, burst my engine to make sure of the plugs, and then cautiously felt my way in over the hangars and touched with that gentle easy rumble which means a perfect landing, turned, and taxied in. (p.55)

Aged just 18. What an experience!

5. Landscapes

The book is littered with wonderful descriptions of landscape, beginning with the misty mornings in the Surrey Hills where he grew up, and including a phenomenal description of flying from Kent back to France and being able, mid-Channel, to look down and see the landmarks in both countries, and the little ships like toys sailing across the foam-tipped water.

I was particularly taken by this lyrical description of the country surrounding the River Somme.

Beyond the village, towards the lines, where the poplars started again to flank the dusty road, was the aerodrome. A row of Bessoneau hangars (canvas-covered, wooden-framed sheds holding four machines each) backed onto a small orchard where the squadron officers stood. The sheds faced the lines, fifteen miles away; but they were hidden from our direct view by the rolling undulations of the ground. It was that wide featureless landscape typical of northern France, miles and miles of cultivated fields, some brown from the plough, others green with the springing crops, receding to the horizon in immense vistas of peaceful fertility – the sort of country that makes you understand why the French love their earth. A mile or two south of the road, and running more or less parallel to it, lay the shallow valley of the Somme. the lovely river wandered, doubling heedlessly upon itself, through copses of polar and willow, split into diverse channels where water-weeds streamed in long swathes, lazily curling and uncurling along the placid surface, and flooded out over marshes where sedge and bulrushes hid the nests of the wild-duck, the coot, and the heron. It was always there on our right hand as we left the aerodrome for the lines, an infinitely peaceful companion, basking under a haze at midday, cool and mysterious when mists stole out of the dusk. A sort of contrapuntal theme, it played against our short staccato madness an immortal bass, whose notes, serene and timeless, would ring on when this war was a story of no more moment to the world than Alexander’s, dead in the dust of Babylon. (p.73)

6. Detachment and futility

From up in the sky he can see the beautiful countryside stretching for 20, 30, 40 miles either side of the Front. And then he can look down on the tiny ant-creatures murdering each other and turning the countryside into a hellscape.

His own psychological predisposition to the lyrical and beautiful and the distance which comes from twenty years of hindsight reinforce the simple detachment which must have been been created by flying so high above the scene. They combine to produce a series of passages of heartfelt anger, rage and contempt at the folly of war and the pitifulness of humanity, at ‘human fury and stupidity’ (p.97). There’s no shortage of long passages, or short references, where Lewis lets us know his full opinion of the futility of war.

The war below us was a spectacle. We aided and abetted it, admiring the tenacity of men who fought in verminous filth to take the next trench thirty yards away. But such objectives could not thrill us, who, when we raised our eyes, could see objective after objective receding, fifty, sixty, seventy miles beyond. Indeed, the fearful thing about the war became its horrible futility, the mountainous waste of life and wealth to stake a mile or two of earth. There was so much beyond. Viewed with detachment, it had all the elements of grotesque comedy – a prodigious and complex effort, cunningly contrived, and carried out with deadly seriousness, in order to achieve just nothing at all. It was Heath Robinson raised to the nth power – a fantastic caricature of common sense. But the humour was grim, fit only for the gods to laugh at, since to the participants it was a sickening death-struggle, in which both sides would evidently be exhausted, both defeated, and both eager, when they had licked their wounds, to fly at each other’s throats again. (p.82)

And what did it look like, the war – from up there?

Just above us the heavy cloud-banks looked like the bellies of a school of whales huddled together in the dusk. Beyond, a faintly luminous strip of yellow marked the sunset. Below, the gloomy earth glittered under the continual scintillation of gunfire. Right round the salient down to the Somme, where the mists backed up the ghostly effect, was this sequined veil of greenish flashes, quivering. Thousands of guns were spitting high explosive, and the invisible projectiles were screaming past us on every side. (p.85)

His job

So what did Lewis actually do? For most of his time on the Western Front Lewis was in observation and reconnaissance. In the build-up to the Battle of the Somme he was ordered to fly along the line of trenches taking photographs – an incredibly perilous activity, given the primitiveness of the planes and the even more startling primitiveness of the cameras.

Once the battle started he was charged with flying over the battlefield to observe the advance, or not, of our troops, and activity on the Hun side (in ‘Hunland’, as he puts it), reporting this back to communication trenches behind our lines, who relayed the information back to the artillery barrages, who aimed accordingly. For his work during this period he was awarded the Military Cross.

In between doing his daily tasks he seems to have been fairly free just to go for ‘joy rides’ to spy out the lie of the land, during which he and his spotter sometimes encountered Hun planes and had primitive dogfights. At other times he seems to have been free just to fly for the pure joy of it, watching a cumulus cloud appear out of nothing high in the sky, and then noticing the way the shadow of his plane against the pure white backdrop was ringed by a perfect rainbow (p.126).

His entire chapter two – nearly 100 pages long – describes this work, the tension in the last few days before the Somme offensive began on July 1, and then gives a day by day account of his work in the first few weeks of the battle, conveying his slowly growing sense of disillusion as it became clear that this enormous concentration of men and resources was going to fail, both to meet its immediate objectives, and to do anything like end the war. He describes the mood of disillusionment which sets in among his comrades, and on our side. ‘A complete washout’, ‘bitter disappointment’ (p.90).

Coming back from a week’s leave (where he has, as ever, tried to calm his mother’s terrible anxiety about him) Lewis discovers that a whole bunch of his mates, the liveliest, funniest characters from the Mess – Pip, Rudd, Kidd – have all been killed (p.122).

And towards the end of 1916 he notices that the Brits no longer enjoy quite the air supremacy they had previously had. German anti-aircraft fire (nicknamed Archie) is getting more precise. German fighter planes are better built and engineered and their pilots are becoming more aggressive.

The Hun was everywhere consolidating his positions, and paying much more attention to us than hitherto. (p.118)

Several times he is forced to make emergency landings, described with hair-raising immediacy, although he always manages to walk away (pp. 95-97). And how different things look on the pock-marked, devastated stinking ground from up there in the clean blue air!

The trees by the roadside were riven and splintered, their branches blown hither and thither, and the cracked stumps stuck up uselessly into the air, flanking the road, forlorn, like a byway to hell. The farms were a mass of debris, the garden walls heaps of rubble, the cemeteries had their crosses and their wire wreaths blown horribly askew. Every five yards held a crater. The earth had no longer its smooth familiar face. It was diseases, pocked, rancid, stinking of death in the morning sun. (p.97)

One evening he is flying over the lines and sees ‘a long creeping wraith of yellow mist’ over the trenches north of Thiepval.

Men were dying there, under me, from a whiff of it: not dying quickly, nor even maimed and shattered, but dying whole, retching and vomiting blood and guts; and those who lived would be wrecks with seared, poisoned lungs, rotten for life. (p.103)

This yellow drift of death gas was, for him, ‘the most pregnant memory of the war’, a symbol of the entire twentieth century, a symbol of the way man, in his stupidity, greed and lust for power, perverts whatever science discovers into disgusting methods of slaughter.

In a vision that shows the influence of H.G. Wells and directly echoes the war-visions which haunt George Orwell’s pre-war novels, Lewis foresees the next war in which pilots like himself will drop gas bombs on densely populated cities and poison into reservoirs, slaughtering hecatombs of woman and children. He can see only one solution to the mad rivalry between nations led by demagogues, a power which rises above all of them:

World state, world currency, world language. (p.105)

In 1922 Wells had written that ‘Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe.’ Lewis echoes this sentiment (which I take to be a truism or cliché of the inter-war years):

It is a fight between intellect and appetite, between the international idea and armaments. (p.105)

We now know this is naive and simplistic. Education, science and technology have made improvements Lewis can never have dreamed of. And yet fighting never ends. It is about resources, the means for populations to live,and deeply embedded ethnic hatreds. And fighting over those will never end.

Posted home

Lewis developed conjunctivitis. All that staring from heights at troop movements on the ground, plus the effects of oil and smoke flying into his face from the plane engine. It kept recurring which impeded his battle fitness, so at the end of 1916 he was posted back to Britain.

As he remarks several times, the average life expectancy of a flier on the Western Front was three weeks. He survived eight months. But, obliquely, he records how such prolonged nervous strain takes its toll.

Nobody could stand the strain indefinitely, ultimately it reduced you to a dithering state, near to imbecility. For you always had to fight it down, you had to go out and do the job, you could never admit it… Cowardice, because, I suppose, it is the most common human emotion, is the most despised. And you did gain victories over yourself. You won and won and won again, and always there was another to be won on the morrow. They sent you home to rest, and you put it in the background of your mind; but it was not like a bodily fatigue from which you could completely recover, it was a sort of damage to the essential tissue of your being. (p.61)

He is posted to a testing squadron and has great fun flying all sorts of new planes for several months, before being recalled for active duty, and leading a squadron back to France in April 1917.

Dogfighting in France

Whereas previously he had been flying reconnaissance missions, now he and his men are fully engaged in fighting enemy planes. There follow some amazing descriptions of dogfights in the sky, the meeting of massed ranks of planes from both sides, and an explanation of what a dogfight actually involved, and how to survive it.

Protecting London

Then some German planes bomb London, the populace and politicians panic, and he and his crack squadron are flown hurriedly back to London to protect the metropolis. Lewis, by now cynical beyond measure, contemplates the stupidity of the authorities for not protecting London before, and the hysteria of the Londoners, with contempt.

No further German bombers appear, but Lewis describes the hard partying he and his squadron pursue. Drunk at dawn with comrades. Dancing with strange girls at riotous parties. The 1920s started here with the complete abandonment of the stupid old morality, the starchy Victorian etiquette and fake politeness which concealed the raw facts of human lust and reproduction.

As crude as the Death which stalks them, is the young pilots’ quest for pleasure in the here and now.

Fighting gets more intense – injury

No German bombers reappearing, Lewis is posted back to France. The descriptions of the dogfights become more intense. More friends and colleagues are killed. Eventually Lewis is caught out. Flying separately from his squadron while he tries to fix his jammed gun, is attacked and it’s only because he was in an unusual posture fiddling with the gun that the bullet which streaked down his back didn’t enter it and penetrate his heart (p.163). Bleeding and in pain he makes it back to the aerodrome and is posted home to recuperate.

Defending and partying in London

Having recovered he is posted to a Home defence squadron in Essex. Lewis describes the air defence system created to protect the south of England from bombers, and his part in it, though he is sceptical. The sky is so big, planes are so small – the bombers will always get through. Then to everyone’s shock the Germans come on a bombing raid at night. He is at a dance at the Savoy Hotel when the music is brought to a screeching halt by the sound of bombs dropping nearby. He gives an almost science fiction description of the impact on the jazz dancing crowds as they panic and flee towards all the exits.

Now his squadron have to learn to fly at night and he gives a brilliant description of his first night flight, afraid it will be like flying into pitch blackness, and then enchanted to discover that there is much more light than he’d expected, and that the countryside beneath – villages, fields, roads, are all picked out in the eerie glow of moonlight (pp.168-170).

Night raids on London

He gets drunk. They party hard in London. There are hi-jinks in the Mess. A new raid alert system is put into place and he describes being scrambled and flying towards London, watching the searchlights and the ack-ack guns but being completely unable to find the enemy bombers.

His experience of trying to halt the German bombing raids leads him to one big conclusion which he is at pains to emphasise: You cannot stop the bombers – they will always get through – which leads him to another of  his urgent contemporary pleas for action.

Today the voice of no one man, or no one country, can save Europe (and after the whole civilised world) from imminent destruction. If we cannot collectively rise above our narrow nationalism, the vast credits of wealth, wisdom and art produced by Western civilisation will be wiped out. (p.154)

Flying, drinking, dying

The final pages feel bitty. The promotions come faster. He is moved from one squadron to another. He retells experiences of landing in fog, of his plane catching fire in mid-air. There’s an extended anecdote about the time he landed in a field to ask someone where the devil he was (that happened a lot), and went back to the plane and turned on the motor, but the plane began to move before he could climb into the cockpit. It then proceeded to run in a small circle just a bit too fast for him – wearing heavy flying gear and boots – to manage to run into the circle while avoiding the propeller. In the end he gave up and watched it move in circles and slowly across a field until it fell into a ditch.

And the last pages are darkened by friends dying. Armstrong was the best pilot he knew but he mistimed a landing, crashed and was killed outright. His friend Bill was killed stupidly – crashing into a small ditch at the airfield, getting out to inspect the damage when his engineer triggered one of the guns by mistake which shot him through the heart – that Lewis balls his fists and rages against the senselessness of the world.

He is proud to be chosen to lead three squadrons across to France to combat the final German offensive in the spring of 1918, one of the few massed flights that made the commute without at least one accident. As the tide turns against the Germans the squadron is posted forward into an aerodrome near Ypres and he can’t believe the utter desolation of the countryside which is revealed to them. What a hell men have made of the earth.

It’s all over

Then it is all over. The Armistice is signed. They celebrate as best they can and all feel let down and deflated. The new young squadron he’s commanding has only just arrived. Trained to fight they never seen any action. And Lewis himself feels bereft. For the four most formative years of his life he has been living under the shadow of war, in the presence of Death, stretching his nerves to breaking point. Now it is all over. He is demobilised.

He was twenty years old. What a beautiful, thoughtful, considerate, sometimes savagely bitter, often rapturously lyrical, intelligent and mature memoir this is.


1964 interview with Cecil Lewis


Credit

Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis was published by Peter Davies Ltd in 1936. All references are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger (1920)

A figure stripped to the waist, with ripped-open back, leaned against the parapet. Another, with a triangular flap hanging off the back of his skull, emitted short, high-pitched screams. This was the home of the great god Pain, and for the first time I looked through a devilish chink into the depths of his realm. (p.31)

Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) fought for the German army in the First World War. Wikipedia gives a good summary of his wartime career.

Most other memoirs and fictions about the war took years to surface, while the authors struggled to manage their traumatic memories and to find the words to describe the experience.

No such hesitation for Jünger, who converted the 16 diaries he’d kept during his three-year period of service into a narrative – titled In Stahlgewittern – which he had privately printed in 1920 in an edition of 2,000.

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Ernst Jünger in 1919 – looking miraculously untouched after three years of war and some 20 wounds

Over the course of his very long life (he lived to be 102 years old), Jünger not only wrote many more books and articles, but he rewrote In Stahlgewittern half a dozen times, each time moving further from the diary format, adding passages of philosophical reflection, and altering the emphasis.

For example, the 1924 edition is the most blood-thirsty and gives precise details of how he shot British soldiers. The 1934 edition, by contrast, is much more muted and removes those descriptions. Jünger was by now reaching an international audience i.e. British and French readers, with whom he needed to be more tactful.

It was only in 1930 that Storm of Steel was first translated into English and given this English title. During the 1930s it quickly became acknowledged as one of the classic accounts of trench fighting in the Great War.

Translating Jünger into English

English written by an English person tends to indicate the author’s social class, with traces of the kind of school they went to (private or state), sometimes their regional origins, and so on. It is full of all kinds of traces.

Translations into English, on the other hand, generally tell you more about the translator than about the original author.

Clunky phrasing

The translation I read is by Michael Hofmann, the poet, and was published in 2003. Although it won several prizes, I found it very easy to dislike.

Hofmann’s English prose doesn’t flow, in fact it regularly (two or three times per page) breaks down into unidiomatic and clunky phrasing. Again and again I found myself thinking ‘No native English speaker ever spoke or wrote like that – so why are you?’

‘They asked us how things were back in Hanover, and whether the war might not soon be over.’ (p.8)
How about … ‘and whether the war was going to end soon’

‘I was given a couple of hours to find an exhausted sleep in a bare chalk dugout.’ (p.9)
‘To find an exhausted sleep’??

‘If it’s all one to you, I’d just as soon hang on to it.’ (p.18)
No English speaker ever said ‘If it’s all one to you’. An English speaker would say ‘If it’s all the same to you…’

We had the satisfaction of having our opponent disappearing for good after a series of shots had struck the clay ramparts directly in front of his face. (p.65)
Why the -ing on the end of disappear?

‘Recouvrance was a remote village, nestling in pretty chalk hills, to where all the regiments in the division dispatched a few of their young men to receive a thorough schooling in military matters…” (p.16)
Why not just delete ‘to’? And replace ‘dispatched’ with ‘sent’?

Maybe the resolutely un-English nature of many of the sentences and the un-English atmosphere which hovers over the entire text is a deliberate strategy to convey the un-English nature of Jünger’s original German.

But I doubt it because many of the sentences in Hofmann’s introduction have the same broken-backed, wrong-word-order, clumsy clauses, not-quite-English feel about them.

As I read Hofmann’s translation I compared it with the first translation of Storm of Steel into English which was made by Basil Creighton back in 1930, and which I borrowed from my local library. Creighton’s translation of that last excerpt reads:

Recouvrance was a remote little village hidden among delightful chalk hills. A certain number of the more youthful of us were sent there from the division to receive a thorough military training…

Though not perfect, Creighton’s version has more of the rhythm of ordinary English prose, and is therefore much more readable, than the Hofmann.

Erratic vocabulary and register

Hofmann is an acclaimed poet – which maybe explains why in some places he shows a deliberately refractory choice of phrasing and word order – why he often flaunts odd words and phrases – in a way common in modern poetry but which stands out next to Creighton’s straightforwardly factual (if sometimes dated) prose.

This often leads Hofmann into what I thought was a curiously tin ear for register, by which I mean the way a writer chooses vocabulary and phrasing, manages the positioning of subordinate clauses and so on, in order to create a consistent style or voice.

To give a specific example, Hofmann seems to deliberately combine terms which are inappropriate or anachronistic in order to create a clash of registers. Take this sentence:

After this incident I betook myself to my dugout, but today too there was no chance of any restorative kip. (p.74)

‘Betook myself to’? When do you think that phrase was last used in everyday speech or writing? It sounds like Dr Johnson and the Augustans to me. Googling it you find that ‘betook myself’ is included in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven, which was written in the mid-19th century in a deliberately archaic and Gothic style. In other words, the phrase was old in 1845.

On the other hand ‘kip’ is a slang term for sleep which reminds me of George Orwell’s use of it in Down and Out in Paris and London in the 1930s, where it has the feel of the rough, lower-class, Victorian vocabulary used by Orwell’s tramps.

Bringing them together in the one sentence – an extremely archaic 18th century idiom running into a 1930s slang term – creates, for me, a car crash of registers. And neither of them are what you’d call modern colloquial or formal English. They create a made-up register, an invented English.

Why? Maybe we are meant to accept it as the style of a famous poet playing with language. ‘He’s a poet; of course he’s going to give you a poetic translation!’

Which is all well and good in the privacy of his own writing where he can do as he pleases – but when he is translating a notable foreign author surely he should try to recreate a consistent register of English which is the nearest possible replication of the original author’s tone of voice. Isn’t that the goal of most translations?

(Incidentally, the insertion of ‘too’ in the ‘betook’ sentence is something no English speaker would do, but is instead a quite obvious direct translation of the German word auch and is placed where the German word comes in the sentence: aber heute auch – ‘but today also’. An English writer might say: ‘After this incident I went back to my dugout but once [or yet] again there was no chance of a restorative sleep.’)

To take another tiny, jarring detail, I was pulled up short when Hofmann has Jünger use the term ‘grunt’ (pp.133, 196) for infantryman. Now ‘grunt’ is a well-known word to anyone who’s read about the Vietnam War of the 1960s, where it became the universal term for the American infantry, expressing a combination of embattled fondness for the dumb front-line soldiers with contempt for the shitstorm their superiors had dumped them in. Looking it up, I find that ‘grunt’ was first recorded in this sense in print in 1969.

My point is that all this word’s associations are to Vietnam – to choppers, ‘gooks’, napalm at dawn and so on. Dropping it into your translation of Jünger describing the First World War is like dropping a couple of seconds of colour film into a black-and-white Charlie Chaplin movie. It is a deliberately jarring anachronism.

It seemed to me that at moments like this the translator is grandstanding, making more of an effort to display his modernist taste for unexpected juxtapositions of register, signalling what a poet he is – rather than concentrating on translating Jünger into clear, effective and tonally consistent prose.

Sometimes Hoffman has Jünger use low-class phrases like ‘argy-bargy’ (pp.155, 245) and ‘getting on our wicks’ (p.149) – phrases more evocative of Eastenders than an élite Germany infantry officer of 1917.

But at the other extreme of class diction, after our hero survives a violent foray into the British trenches, Hoffman has him overhearing a common soldier saying:

‘I must say, though, that Lieutenant Jünger is really something else: my word, the sight of him vaulting over those barricades!’

‘I must say… My word’! Does Hoffman really think that an ordinary squaddie – one of the common infantry he describes as ‘grunts’ – would actually talk like that? While he has posh, upper-class officers says things are ‘getting on our wicks’. It is a topsy-turvy use of registers.

Where and when is this English set? Is it with Edgar Allen Poe in 1845, with Orwell’s tramps’ during the depression, 1920s Jeeves and Wooster banter, or in 1967 Vietnam slang? This prose is all over the place.

German word order

I studied German at GCSE level. Not enough to be fluent but enough to have a feel for its grammar and very different word order from English. So I kept having the feeling that Hofmann, happy to play havoc with the register of his prose, also made a point of clinging to the original German word order.

Maybe, again, this is a deliberate strategy to convey the ‘otherness’ of the original German, but too often it simply has the result of obscuring Jünger’s actual meaning.

For example, Jünger first experiences a really heavy artillery barrage at les Éparges in 1915. He feels weirdly disconnected from the mayhem around him. Hofmann has:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Note the way he handles the subordinate clauses in these sentences. French and German users often put descriptions of something or someone or an action that the subject of the sentence has taken, into a subordinate clause right next to the subject or object. They write:

The ball, having been kicked by Daisy, rolled across the grass.

Francois, a man I had never liked, opened the door.

It often makes French and German prose, if translated literally, feel clotted or lumpy. Deciding what to do with these stumpy subordinate clauses is one of the chief problems facing anyone translating from those languages into English.

Because in flowing, idiomatic English, we prefer to give such clauses a main verb and subject of their own, sometimes inserting them into the main sentence, or – if that’s too tricky – just breaking a long clotted sentence up into two simpler ones. This makes them flow better, and it makes the prose more punchy and effective because, instead of a passive past participle, you have an active verb. So we write:

Daisy kicked the ball and it rolled across the grass.

Francois opened the door. I had never liked him.

Clearer, simpler, more active. Let’s look at that passage again:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Twice in this short passage Hofmann uses subordinate clauses, and these create a sense of passivity: ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ and ‘returned to my unit’ are both adjectival phrases describing the ‘I’ which immediately follows. They blunt the potential for active verbs. They weight the subject down like a ball and chain. They make the prose inactive and heavy.

Compare and contrast with Creighton’s translation of the same passage:

At the same time I had no fear. For I felt that I was not seen, and I could not believe that anyone aimed at me or that I should be hit. Indeed, when I rejoined my section I surveyed our front with complete calm. It was the courage of ignorance.

Not perfect prose either, I grant you, but note:

  1. Hofmann’s passive subordinate clauses have become phrases led by an active verb – ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ has become ‘I felt that I was not seen’, and ‘returned to my unit’ becomes ‘when I rejoined my section’. Feels brighter and more lively, doesn’t it? The point is that Hofmann tucks away a lot of information in clauses which – as the name suggests – are subordinate – passive, veiled and hidden. Creighton’s prose brings this information out into the daylight as active phrases which contribute to the flow of the prose and which the reader notices more.
  2. And this greater activity is really rammed home by Creighton’s final sentence which has the ta-dah! impact of the pithy couplet at the end of a Shakespeare sonnet. ‘It was the courage of ignorance’ is exactly the kind of didactic punchline the paragraph is crying out for, which brings the point out into the open and rams it home. (It’s easier to feel the impact of this last sentence if you’ve read the whole of the previous sequence of paragraphs: it neatly sums up an entire passage.)

The result of all this is that I didn’t really notice this passage at all when I read it in the Hofmann. It just drifted by, passive, subordinate and veiled. Whereas when I read the Creighton version, this passage really leaped out at me as the pithy and powerful conclusion of a man who had been through his first artillery barrage and now, looking back, realises how naive and foolish he was to have felt so confident.

It was only in the Creighton translation that I understood the point Jünger was making.

So: from very early on in my reading, I had the impression that Hofmann was more interested in tickling the tastebuds of modish readers who like poetic effects (jarring, modernist, poetic effects) than in finding a consistent register which would allow Jünger’s meaning and conclusions to come over as clearly, consistently and powerfully as possible.

To be even blunter – I felt that in reading the Hofmann, I not only had to put up with a steady flow of clunking un-English phraseology and word order, but that I was missing a lot of what Jünger wanted to say.

Hofmann’s clunks

At four o’clock already we were roused from our bed put together from bits of furniture, to be given our steel helmets. (p.93)
This is German word order, not English. French and German uses the equivalent of ‘already’ a lot more than we do in English. It’s a giveaway sign that the German is being translated word for word rather than into idiomatic English.

All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of coloured flares. (p.95)

When morning paled, the strange surroundings gradually revealed themselves to our disbelieving eyes. (p.97)
Show-off, poetic use of ‘pale’ as a verb.

In my unhealthy irritation, I couldn’t help but think that these vehicles followed no other purpose than to annoy us… (p.102)
I don’t think ‘to follow a purpose’ is an English idiom. We’d say ‘had no other purpose’, though it’s still clunky phrasing. How about: ‘I couldn’t help thinking the only point of these vehicles was to annoy us…’

The following morning, the battalion marched off into the direction of heavy firing… (p.131)
Doesn’t he mean either ‘in the direction of’ or, more simply, ‘towards’?

We ate heartily, and handed the bottle of ’98 proof’ around. Then we settled off to sleep… (p.166)
‘Settled off’? Obviously he means ‘settled down’. This is not English. Why wasn’t this book proof read by an English speaker?

Our first period in position passed pleasantly quietly. (p.142)

In the evening, the shelling waxed to a demented fury. (p.161)
‘Waxed’? I know that it can mean ‘grew’, but it hasn’t been used in this sense since Shakespeare.

German humour

Maybe they simply don’t survive Hofmann’s clumsy translation, but what appear to be  Jünger’s attempts at humour aren’t very funny. For example, I think the following is intended to include both a stylish reference to a German literary figure, and to be itself a humorous description of trying to get rid of lice.

Fairly unscathed myself thus far by that scourge, I helped my comrade Priepke, an exporter from Hamburg, wrap his woollen waistcoat – as populous as once the garment of the adventurous Simplicissimus – round a heavy boulder, and for mass extermination, dunk it in the river. Where, since we left Hérinnes very suddenly, it will have mouldered away quietly ever since. (p.20)

This is godawful English prose. What a mouthful of marbles! In Creighton’s version this becomes:

As I had been more or less free from this plague, I assisted a friend, Priepke, to deal with his woollen vest, which was as populous as the habit of Simplicius Simplicissimus of yore. So we wrapped it round a large stone and sank it in a stream. As our departure from Herne followed very suddenly upon this, it is likely that the garment enjoys a quiet resting-place there to this day.

Creighton’s version is not brilliant either, but at least he makes the sensible move of breaking up the long clotted main sentence into two smaller sentences. And the use of ‘so’ at the start of the second sentence gives a sense of logic and clarity to the description.

Still not that rib-tickling, though, is it?

In his introduction Hofmann devotes a couple of pages to explaining what an awful translator Creighton was, and how he made literally hundreds of elemental mistakes in his understanding of German. Maybe. But his version is much more readable than Hofmann’s. If Hofmann’s accusations against Creighton are true then, alas, it seems that the reader is stuck with two very flawed translations.

Worse, it appears that the Creighton contains content – passages of reflection and philosophising – which are simply not present in the Hofmann. Presumably this is because Creighton was translating from one of the more wordy and reflective versions of the book, and Hofmann has chosen to translate one of the leaner versions or to himself cut out the philosophising passages.

It is in these sections that Jünger gives his thoughts about the meaning of war and bravery. Creighton has quite a few of them; Hofmann has none. Maybe this makes the Hofmann version more pure and elemental but it does mean that the average English reader will never get to see and read Jünger’s thoughts about his central subject – men in war.

From all this I conclude that maybe what this important book deserves is some kind of scholarly variorum edition. An edition which:

  • clearly explains the textual history of the book
  • summarises the changes between all the different versions
  • decides which version to translate (and explains why)
  • renders it into clear, unfussy English

But which also features extensive footnotes or endnotes which include the important passages from all the other versions, so we can see how Jünger chopped and changed the text, and with notes explaining why he did this and how it reflected his evolving attitude towards the subject matter.

Jünger’s detached attitude

As to the actual content of the book, it is notorious for Jünger’s apparently cold, detached and heartless description of what he experiences.

There is absolutely no build-up in the way of the author’s birth, upbringing, family, education, feelings on the outbreak of war, agonising over which regiment to join and so on, none of the bonhomie and chat and certainly none of the humour which characterises, say, Robert Graves’s famous war book, Goodbye To All That.

Instead we are thrown straight into the action: the narrator just steps off a train in France, is told to line up with his squad, is marched to a village, has his first experience of shellfire, sees some men from a different unit get killed, and then he’s taken up the line and starts the trench soldier’s existence of sleeplessness, cold and discomfort.

It is a little as if an utterly detached intelligence from another planet has been embedded in a human body and proceeds to do everything it’s told, while all the time observing the strange human creatures and their customs.

I still viewed the machinery of conflict with the eyes of an inexperienced recruit – the expressions of bellicosity seemed as distant and peculiar to me as events on another planet. (p.27)

It’s only some way into the text that we even learn the year he’s describing, namely 1915. It is a bare bones approach. In the fifth chapter (‘Daily life in the trenches’) the text really returns to the ‘bones’ of his experience, as it reverts to its original format as a diary, each paragraph starting with a date and the events of that day. We follow a straightforward chronological sequence of dates which takes us through the summer and autumn 1915, through Christmas, and into the spring of 1916.

The names of lots of soldier comrades are given, but only in the briefest, most clinical way. Often they’re only mentioned on the date they die, in fact most of the diary entries are clipped descriptions of who died on what day, and how.

Jünger doesn’t seem to have any close friends. He certainly doesn’t have the witty conversations with them that Graves does, or hang out with a few close buddies like Frederick Manning does in his brilliant war memoir, The Middle Parts of Fortune.

Instead, Jünger observes with cool detachment everything that happens around him. After he’s wounded the first time – a shrapnel laceration across his thigh – Jünger is brought back to a clearing station, where the surgeon is overwhelmed with casualties.

At the sight of the surgeon, who stood checking the roster in the bloody chaos, I once again had the impression, hard to describe, of seeing a man surrounded by elemental terror and anguish, studying the functioning of his organisation with ant-like cold-bloodedness. (p.32)

As it happens, among his many other achievements, Jünger lived to become a famous entomologist i.e. an expert on insects, and went on to write books on the subject after the war. So it strikes me that his portrait of the surgeon, calm and detached among the slaughter, watching the people around him as if they were insects to be studied – is in fact Jünger’s self-portrait of himself.


Jünger’s vision of war

What it lacks in warmth, humour or human touch, the book more than makes up for with the thing that makes it so powerful, which helped it grow into a classic – which is Jünger’s hugely compelling descriptions of the brutal, the eerie, the strange, the heroic and the primordial nature of this utterly new kind of total war, and of the terrifying new race of men it seemed to be breeding.

Physical disgust

In the rising mist, I leaped out of the trench and found a shrunken French corpse. Flesh like mouldering fish gleamed greenishly through splits in the shredded uniform. Turning round, I took a step back in horror; next to me a figure was crouched by a tree. It still had gleaming French leather harness, and on its back was a fully packed haversack, topped by a round mess-tin. Empty eye-sockets and a few strands of hair on the bluish-black skull indicated that the man was not among the living. There was another sitting down, slumped forward towards his feet, as though he had just collapsed. All round were dozens more, rotted, dried, stiffened to mummies, frozen in an eerie dance of death. (p.25)

Not only are there corpses all around, but the book gives us hundreds of descriptions of men being shot, eviscerated, decapitated, buried alive, flayed by shrapnel, burned to death by fire, stifled by gas, and exploded.

There was another whistling high up in the air. Everyone had the choking feeling: this one’s heading our way! Then there was a huge, stunning explosion – the shell had hit in our midst.

Half stunned I stood up. From the big crater, burning machine-gun belts spilled a coarse pinkish light. It lit the smouldering smoke of the explosion, where a pile of charred bodies were writhing, and the shadows of those still living were fleeing in all directions. Simultaneously, a grisly chorus of pain and cries for help went up. The rolling motion of the dark mass in the bottom of the smoking and glowing cauldron, like a hellish vision, for a moment tore open the extreme abysm of terror. (p.225)

The rate of deaths, the endless stream of deaths Jünger sees at first hand, right in front of him, never lets up, is staggering, stupefying. So many men, so many terrifying woundings, eviscerations, liquidations, smashings, manglings and screams of pain.

NCO Dujesiefken, my comrade at Regniéville, was standing in front of my foxhole, begging me to get into the trench as even a light shell bursting anywhere near would cause masses of earth to come down on top of me. An explosion cut him off: he sprawled to the ground, missing a leg. He was past help. (p.230)

Beside the ruined cottage lay a piece of trench that was being swept with machine-gun fire from beyond. I jumped into it, and found it untenanted. Immediately afterwards, I was joined by Oskar Kius and von Wedelstädt. An orderly of von Wedelstädt’s, the last man in, collapsed in mid-air, shot through one eye. (p.237)

One man beside me from the 76th, a huge Herculean dockworker from Hamburg, fired off one shot after another, with a wild look on his face, not even thinking of cover, until he collapsed in a bloody heap. With the sound of a plank crashing down, a bullet had drilled through his forehead. He crumpled into a corner of the trench, half upright, with his head pressed against the trench wall. His blood poured onto the floor of the trench, as if tipped out of a bucket. (p.248)

On his six visits to dressing stations in the rear and then on to hospitals to be treated, Jünger is in the company of men weeping and screaming from all sorts of pitiful wounds. At one hospital he is told they had received 30,000 casualties in the previous three weeks. Men die horrible deaths left, right and centre, all the time, unrelentingly. Death death death.

In the spring the ice and frost melt and the walls of the trenches thaw and dissolve, revealing the massed bodies and equipment of the men of 1914 and 1915, whose bodies had been built into the defences. The soldiers find themselves treading on the slimy gloop of the decomposing corpses from last year’s battles.

The scale of the killing is inconceivable.

Heightened alertness

Yet Jünger combines countless examples of disgusting physical injury and the ubiquity of slimy, popping, farting, rotting corpses, with an unquenchable lust for life and excitement. Nothing can stop his steely patriotism and lust for excitement.

Whenever possible he volunteers to go on night patrols into no man’s land, risking his life for often trivial rewards or none at all, generally ending up haring back to his own lines as rifle and machine gun fire starts up from the British or French opposite. But to be out there, sneaking silently in the presence of Death, is to be alive as nowhere else.

These moments of nocturnal prowling leave an indelible impression. Eyes and ears are tensed to the maximum, the rustling approach of strange feet in the tall grass is an unutterable menacing thing. Your breath comes in shallow burst; you have to force yourself to stifle any panting or wheezing. There is a little mechanical click as the safety-catch of your pistol is taken off; the sound cuts straight through your nerves. Your teeth are grinding on the fuse-pin of the hand-grenade. The encounter will be short and murderous. You tremble with two contradictory impulses: the heightened awareness of the huntsman, and the terror of the quarry. You are a world to yourself, saturated with the appalling aura of the savage landscape. ( p.71)

Battlefield stress

Sometimes it all seems like a dream or a nightmare, a waking nightmare from which there is no escape. On one occasion, caught out in no man’s land when his little squad bumps into some foraging Brits, the two groups fall to mad hand-to-hand fighting in which all their 20th century weapons fail, leaving only wordless, primitive struggle.

After one shot the magazine had clicked out of my pistol grip. I stood yelling in front of a Briton who in his horror was pressing his back into the barbed wire, and kept pulling the trigger. Nothing happened – it was like a dream of impotence. (p.88)

Later, Jünger is behind the lines in the village of Fresnoy when it comes under a pulverising artillery bombardment that blows houses to pieces and human beings into shreds of flesh.

I saw a basement flattened. All we could recover from the scorched space were the three bodies. Next to the entrance one man lay on his belly in a shredded uniform; his head was off, and the blood had flowed into a puddle. When an ambulanceman turned him over to check him for valuables, I saw as in a nightmare that his thumb was still hanging from the remains of his arm. (p.135)

It is a world of despairingly horrific sights and intense visions. A world in which everything is bright, overlit, too vivid, permanently visionary.

Like a vision in a dream, the sight, lit only by falling sparks, of a double line of kneeling figures at the instant in which they rose to advance, etched itself into my eye. (p.147)

A world in which even things which have just happened are so outside the range of normal human experience that they are impossible to process in any rational way.

I experienced quite a few adventures in the course of the war, but none was quite as eerie as this. It still makes me feel a cold sweat when I think of us wandering around among those unfamiliar trenches by the cold early light. It was like the dream of a labyrinth. (p.190)

Unsurprisingly, so many close encounters with death – not just close, but so irrational, so uncanny, so deep, arousing the cave man or the prehuman in their souls – had psychological repercussions.

It was only afterwards that I noticed that the experience had taken its toll on my nerves, when I was lying on my pallet in my dugout with my teeth chattering, and quite unable to sleep. Rather, I had the sensation of a sort of supreme awakeness – as if I had a little electric bell going off somewhere in my body. The following morning I could hardly walk. (p.88)

But like the men he so fulsomely praises, Jünger does get up, he commands, he leads, he doesn’t stop.

The emotions of war

The intensity of the war, the relentless bombardment, the lack of sleep, the continual toll of deaths from snipers or random mortar bombs, gives rise to new emotions and feelings – strange hilarities, clarities, hysterias – which he observes working within himself.

Here, and really only here, I was to observe that there is a quality of dread that feels as unfamiliar as a foreign country. In moments when I felt it, I experienced no fear as such but a kind of exalted, almost demoniacal lightness; often attended by fits of laughter I was unable to repress. (p.93)

And he repeatedly describes the madness of combat, the crazed exhiliration of the charge, bayonets fixed, down a confusing warren of corpse-strewn trenches, towards the top, and over into the face of the enemy.

On, on! In one violently bombarded defile, the sections backed up. Take cover! A horribly penetrating smell told us that this passage had already taken a good many lives. After running for our lives, we managed to reach a second defile which concealed the dugout of the front-line commanding officer, then we lost our way again, and in a painful crush of excited men, had to turn back once more. At the most five yards from Vogel and me, a middle-sized shell struck the bank behind us with a dull thump, and hurled mighty clods of earth over us, as we thought our last moment had come. Finally, our guide found the path again – a strangely constellated group of corpses serving as a landmark. One of the dead lay there as if crucified on the chalk slope. It was impossible to imagine a more appropriate landmark.

On, on! Men collapsed while running, we had to threaten them to use the last energy from their exhausted bodies. Wounded men went down left and right in craters – we disregarded their cries for help. We went on, eyes implacably on the man in front, through a knee-high trench formed from a thin chain of enormous craters, one dead man after another. At moments we felt our feet settling on soft, yielding corpses, whose form we couldn’t make out on account of the darkness. The wounded man collapsing on the path suffered the same fate: he too was trampled underfoot by the boots of those hurrying ever onwards. (pp.96-97)

Courage

And in this strange landscape, between the midnight hunting in no man’s land, the grinding lack of sleep of the nightly sentry routine, and the appallingly unrelenting artillery bombardments unleashed by the British, amid all this horror, Jünger’s comrades do not defect or resile. They stand to when ordered to. They muster by the revetments of the trenches causing Jünger to burn with pride.

It was in the course of these days that I learned to appreciate these men with whom I was to be together for two more years of the war. What was at stake here was a British initiative on such a small scale as barely to find mention in the histories of both armies, intended to commit us to a sector where the main attack was not to be. Nor did the men have much to do, only cover the very small amount of ground, from the entrance of the shelter to the sentry posts. But these few steps needed to be taken in the instant of a great crescendo of fire before an attack, the precise timing of which is a matter of gut instinct and feeling. The dark wave that so many times in those nights welled up to the traverses through fire, and without even an order being possible, remained with me in my heart as a personal yardstick for human trustworthiness. (p.85)

Something awesome is happening, and Jünger brilliantly conveys its tensed uniqueness.

These instants, in which the entire complement of men stood behind the traverses, tensed and ready, had something magical about them; they were like the last breathless second before a hugely important performance, as the music is turned off and the big lights go up. (p.77)

New men

For amid this inferno, a new race of men is being forged.

A runner from a Württemberg regiment reported to me to guide my new platoon to the famous town of Combles, where we were to be held in reserve for the time being. He was the first German soldier I saw in a steel helmet, and he straightaway struck me as the denizen of a new and far harsher world… Nothing was left in his voice but equanimity, apathy; fire had burned everything else out of it. It’s men like that that you need for fighting. (p.92)

Invulnerable, invincible men of steel, forged in the furnace of war.

As the storm raged around us, I walked up and down my sector. The men had fixed bayonets. They stood stony and motionless, rifle in hand, on the front edge of the dip, gazing into the field. Now and then, by the light of a flare, I saw steel helmet by steel helmet, blade by glinting blade, and I was overcome by a feeling of invulnerability. We might be crushed, but surely we could not be conquered. (p.99)

New men. Men of the future. The Overmen.

There was in these men a quality that both emphasised the savagery of war and transfigured it at the same time: an objective relish for danger, the chevalieresque urge to prevail in battle. Over four years, the fire smelted an ever-purer, ever-bolder warriorhood. (p.140)

Something primordial

Men being shaped anew in the storm of steel because these are conditions and circumstances unlike any ever experienced by any humans in all previous human history.

From nine till ten, the shelling acquired a demented fury. The earth shook, the sky seemed like a boiling cauldron. Hundreds of heavy batteries were crashing away at and around Combles, innumerable shells criss-crossed hissing and howling over our heads. All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of flares. Because of racking pains in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by odd, shouted words. The ability to think logically and the feeling of gravity, both seemed to have been removed. We had the sensation of the ineluctable and the unconditionally necessary, as if we were facing an elemental force. (p.95)

The sheer unrelenting killing machine mincing its way through human flesh on an unprecedented scale awakes echoes of something infinitely primitive, primordial, echoes of pre-human conditions, the beginning or end of the world.

The whole scene – the mixture of the prisoners’ laments and our jubilation – had something primordial about it. This wasn’t war; it was ancient history. (p.150)

Conclusion

Storm of Steel follows Jünger’s diary in giving the German point of view of a number of Western front battles, in chronological order, from 1915 to 1918, including the Battle of the Somme and leading up to the German spring offensive of 1918, followed by the Allied counter-attack in the summer of 1918. At this point Jünger was wounded for the sixth time, and he was recuperating back in Germany when the war ended.

The text could be used as evidence of the camaraderie of the German forces, or of their officers’ awareness of their material inferiority to the Allies, or of their confidence in the superiority of the German fighting spirit.

The Creighton translation has an introduction by one R.H. Mottram, who himself fought in the war. In his opinion Storm of Steel is evidence of the obtuse refusal to face reality of the entire Germany military class. After the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in October 1914, it became clear that the war could only ever end with Allied victory – yet the German High Command stretched it out for four long, bitter years of psychological denial, resulting in ten million unnecessary deaths.

There are occasional moments when Jünger reveals a human side. Half way through the book there’s an unexpected passage in which Jünger discovers that his brother, who had also enlisted, is fighting in a unit right alongside his own. He immediately goes to find him, in the heat of a battle and, discovering him wounded in a farmhouse, arranges for him to be carried back to a field hospital in a piece of tarpaulin, probably saving his life.

So, all in all, Storm of Steel contains much material for historians or literary critics, psychologists or military analysts, to excerpt and analyse.

And there are countless details to shock and grab the casual reader’s attention, like the little girl lying in a pool of her own blood in a bombed-out village, or the soldier thrown into the exact pose of the crucifixion by a shell blast – the kind of details which feed into the modern liberal consensus that war is hell.

But in my opinion, all these elements are eclipsed by Jünger’s terrifying sense of a new world of war emerging, a world of unprecedented destruction and obliteration, in which a wholly new breed of heartless, battle-hardened warriors would arise to fight and flourish. Emerging from his visceral description of total war is a nightmare vision of the future, and an even more destructive conflagration to come.

As though waking from a deep dream, I saw German steel helmets approaching through the craters. They seemed to sprout from the fire-harrowed soil like some iron harvest. (p.235)


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson (1940)

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was one of mid-twentieth century’s great literary journalists and critics. (In her biography of Somerset Maugham, Selina Hastings describes Wilson as being, in 1945, ‘America’s most influential critic’ p.482)

Friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and many other authors from that generation, he wrote extended essays on the French Symbolist poets, on T.S. Eliot, Proust, James Joyce and the classic Modernists, on Kipling, Charles Dickens, a study of the literature of the Civil War, memoirs of the 1920s and 30s, a book length study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and much, much more.

Edmund Wilson in 1951

Edmund Wilson in 1951

His style now seems very old-fashioned, a leisurely, bookish approach which was long ago eclipsed by the new professionalism of academia and the blizzard of literary and sociological theory which erupted in the 1960s.

Most of Wilson’s books are not currently in print, and many passages in this book demonstrate the relaxed, belle-lettreist, impressionist approach – often more in love with the sound of its own rolling prose than with conveying any clear information – which shows why.

Though Marx has always kept our nose so close to the counting-house and the spindle and the steam hammer and the scutching-mill and the clay-pit and the mine, he always carries with him through the caverns and the wastes of the modern industrial world, cold as those abysses of the sea which the mariner of his ballad scorned as godless, the commands of that ‘eternal God’ who equips him with his undeviating standard for judging earthly things. (p.289)

That said, Wilson was an extremely intelligent man, more of a literary-minded journalist than an academic, capable of synthesising vast amounts of information about historical periods, giving it a literary, bookish spin, and making it accessible and compelling.

Some themes or ideas

To The Finland Station is Wilson’s attempt to understand the Marxist tradition, and its place in the America of his day i.e. the angry left-wing American literary world produced by the Great Depression of the 1930s. He began researching and writing the book in the mid-1930s as well-meaning intellectuals all across America turned to socialism and communism to fix what seemed like a badly, and maybe permanently, broken society.

Like many guilty middle-class intellectuals who lived through the Great Depression, Wilson went through a phase of thinking that capitalism was finished, and that this was the big crisis, long-predicted by Marxists, which would finish it off.

He was simultaneously attracted and repelled by the psychological extremism and religious fervour of communism. Even after actually visiting Russia and seeing for himself the poverty, mismanagement and terror as Stalin’s grip tightened, Wilson couldn’t eradicate this feeling. He tried to analyse its roots by going back to the intellectual origins of socialism – then reading everything he could about Marx and Engels – and so on to Lenin and the Russian Revolution. This book is a kind of diary of his autodidactic project.

The myth of the Dialectic As Wilson prepared the book he realised that to understand Marx and his generation you need to understand Hegel – and he couldn’t make head or tail of Hegel, as his chapter on ‘The Myth of the Dialectic’ all too clearly reveals. He ends up comparing Hegel’s Dialectic to the Christian notion of the Trinity (Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis as a kind of modern version of Father, Son and Holy Ghost) in a way that’s superficially clever, but ultimately wrong. To understand Hegel’s importance for Marx and the German thinkers of that generation you should read:

More telling is Wilson’s point that Marx invoked his version of Hegelianism to give a mystical, quasi-religious sense of inevitability, a pseudo-scientific rationale, for what was simply, at bottom, the burning sense of moral outrage (i.e. at poverty and injustice) shared by so many of his contemporaries.

Aesthetics in Marx A later chapter dwells at length on Capital Volume One, pointing out that it is an aesthetic as much as an economic or political text, before going on to point out the ultimate inaccuracy of Marx’s Labour theory of Value.

The Labour Theory of Value Marx thought he had invented a new insight, that the value of a product is the value of ‘the labour invested in it’ – and that because the bourgeois owners of factories only paid their workers the bare minimum to allow them to live, they were thus stealing from the workers the surplus value which the workers had invested in the finished products.

This theory appeared to give concrete economic basis for the moral case made by trade unionists, socialists and their allies that capitalists are thieves. 

The only flaw is that there are quite a few alternative theories of ‘value’ – for example, as I’ve discovered whenever I’ve tried to sell anything on eBay, the ‘value’ of something is only what anyone is prepared to pay for it. In fact ‘value’ turns out to be one of the most tortuously convoluted ideas in economics, deeply imbricated in all sorts of irrational human drives (what is the ‘value’ of a gift your mother gave you, of your first pushbike, and so on?).

Wilson is onto something when he says that both the idea of the ‘Dialectic of History’ and the ‘Labour Theory of Value’ are fine-sounding myths, elaborate intellectual schemas designed to give some kind of objective underpinning to the widespread sense of socialist anger – but neither of which stand up to close scrutiny.

And although socialism or communism are meant to about the working class, Wilson’s book about Marx and Lenin, like so many others of its ilk, is a surprisingly proletarian-free zone, almost entirely concerned with bourgeois intellectuals and their highfalutin’ theories, with almost no sense of the experience of the crushing work regimes of capitalist industry, which were at the heart of the problem.

I’ve worked in a number of factories and warehouses (a Dorothy Perkins clothes warehouse, a credit card factory, the yoghurt potting section of a massive dairy) as well as serving on petrol pumps in the driving rain and working as a dustman in winter so cold the black binliners froze to my fingers. As in so many of these books about the working classes, there is little or nothing about the actual experience of work. The actual experience of actual specific jobs is nowhere described. Everything is generalisations about ‘History’ and ‘Society’ and ‘the Proletariat’ – which may partly explain why all attempts to put Socialism into action have been so ill-fated.

To The Finland Station

Wilson’s book is more like a series of interesting magazine articles about a sequence of oddball left-wing thinkers, often throwing up interesting insights into them and their times, always readable and informative, but lacking any theoretical or real political thrust. The book is divided into three parts.

Part one – The decline of the bourgeois revolutionary tradition

I was deeply surprised to discover that part one is a detailed survey, not of the pre-Marxist socialist political and economic thinkers – but of the careers of four of France’s great historians and social critics, namely:

  • Jules Michelet (1798-1874) author of a massive history of the French Revolution
  • Ernst Renan (1823-1892) expert on Semitic languages and civilizations, philosopher, historian and writer
  • Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) critic, historian and proponent of sociological positivism
  • Anatole France (1844-1924) poet, critic, novelist and the most eminent man of letters of his day i.e. the turn of the century and Edwardian period

Why? What’s this got to do with Lenin or Marx? It is only in the very last paragraph of this section that Wilson explains his intention, which has been to follow ‘the tradition of the bourgeois revolution to its disintegration in Anatole France’ (p.68).

Scanning back through the previous 68 pages I think I can see what he means. Sort of.

The idea is that Michelet came from a poor background, taught himself to read and study, and expressed in his sweeping histories a grand Victorian vision of Man engaged in a Struggle for Liberty and Dignity. He was heavily influenced by the memory of the Great Revolution, which he dedicated his life to writing about. Thus Michelet is taken as a type of the post-revolutionary intellectual who espoused a humanist commitment to ‘the people’. He provides a kind of sheet anchor or litmus test for what a humanist socialist should be.

Renan and Taine, in their different ways, moved beyond this humanist revolutionary vision, Renan to produce a debunking theory of Christianity in which Jesus is not at all the son of God but an inspired moral thinker, Taine embracing Science as the great Liberator of human society. Both were disappointed by the failure of the 1848 French Revolution and its ultimate outcome in the repressive Second Empire of Louis-Napoleon.

Anatole France, 20 years younger than Renan and Taine, was a young man during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. This turned him completely off revolutionary politics and steered him towards a dandyish appreciation of art and literature. France represents, for Wilson, a disconnection from the political life around him. He continues the trajectory of French intellectuals away from Michelet’s humane engagement.

Anatole France

Anatole France A Corpse

During the 1890s the Symbolist movement in art and literature continued this trajectory, moving the artist even further from ‘the street’, from the deliberately wide-ranging social concerns of a Michelet.

The Paris Dadaists moved even further away from the Michelet ideal, choosing the day of Anatole France’s funeral in 1924 to publish A Corpse, a fierce manifesto excoriating France for representing everything conventional and bourgeois about French culture which they loathed.

And the Dadaists morphed into the Surrealists who proceeded to turn their back completely on politics and the public sphere – turning instead to ‘automatic writing’, to the personal language of dreams, to the writings of people in lunatic asylums.

So Wilson’s point is that between the 1820s and the 1920s the French intellectual bourgeoisie had gone from socialist solidarity with the poor, via sceptical Bible criticism and detached scientific positivism, to dilettantish symbolism, and – in Dada and Surrealism – finally disappeared up its own bum into art school narcissism. It amounts to a complete betrayal of the humanist, socially-conscious tradition.

Now all this may well be true, but:

  1. It would have been good manners of Wilson to have explained that describing all this was his aim at the start of part one, to prepare the reader.
  2. It is odd that, although he takes a literary-critical view of the writings of Michelet, Taine et al, he doesn’t touch on the most famous literary authors of the century – for example, the super-famous novelists Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant and Zola, to name a few.
  3. And this is all very literary – there is next to nothing about the politics or economics of the era (apart from brief mention of the revolutions of 1830, 1848 and 1870 as they affected his chosen writers). There is no historical, social, economic or political analysis. The whole argument is carried by a commentary on the literary style and worldview of the four authors he’s chosen, with no facts or figures about changing French society, industrialisation, wars, the rise and fall of different political parties, and so on.

So even when you eventually understand what Wilson was trying to do, it still seems a puzzling if not eccentric way to present an overview of bourgeois thought in the 19th century – via a small handful of historians? And why only in France? What happened to Britain or Germany (or Russia or America)?

Having made what he thinks is a useful review of the decline of bourgeois thinking of the 19th century, Wilson moves on to part two, which is a review of the rise of socialist thinking during the 19th century.

Part two – The origins of socialism through to Karl Marx

You might disagree with his strategy, but can’t deny that Wilson writes in a clear, accessible magazine style. The opening chapters of this section present entertaining thumbnail portraits of the theories and lives of some of the notable pre-Marxist radical thinkers of the early 19th century, men like Babeuf, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen.

Wilson’s account of the large number of utopian communities which were set up across America in the first half of the century is particularly entertaining, especially the many ways they all collapsed and failed.

The Mormons It is striking to come across the Mormons being described as one of the early American utopian communities. They were pretty much the only idealistic community from the era to not only survive but thrive, despite fierce opposition. As Wilson reviews the fate of the various utopian communities set up during the early nineteenth century, it becomes clear that the key to survival was to have a strong second leader to succeed the founding visionary. For example, all the communities which Robert Owen founded failed when he left because they were only held together by his strong charisma (and dictatorial leadership).Hundreds of Fourieresque communities were set up, flourished for a few years, then expired. The Mormons were the exception because when their founder, Joseph Smith, died (he was actually murdered by an angry mob) he was succeeded by an even stronger, better organiser, Brigham Young, who went on to establish their enduring settlement of Utah.

Babeuf François-Noël Babeuf was a French political agitator during the French Revolution of 1789 who vehemently supported the people and the poor, founding a Society of Equals, calling for complete equality. As the bourgeois class which had done very well out of the overthrow of the king and aristocracy consolidated their gains during the period of the Directory (1795-99) Babeuf’s attacks on it for betraying the principles of the revolution became more outspoken and he was eventually arrested, tried and executed for treason. But his idea of complete equality, of everyone living in communes with little or no property, no hierarchy, everyone working, work being allotted equally, everyone eating the same, was to endure as a central thread of 19th century communism and anarchism.

Robert Owen ran a cotton factory in Scotland, and focused in his writings the paradox which plenty of contemporaries observed – that the world had experienced a wave of technological inventions which ought to have made everyone better off – and yet everyone could see the unprecedented scale of misery and poverty which they seemed to have brought about.

Young Karl Marx was just one of many thinkers determined to get to the bottom of this apparent paradox. The difference between Marx and, say, most British thinkers, is that Karl was drilled in the philosophical power of Hegel’s enormous Philosophy of World History.

Marx arrives in chapter five of part two and dominates the next eleven chapters, pages 111 to 339, the core of the book. Wilson gives us a lot of biography. Karl is the cleverest child of his Jewish-convert-to-Christianity father. He rejects advice to become a lawyer, studies Hegel, gets in trouble with the police and starts work as a newspaper editor.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Friedrich Engels Through this newspaper Karl meets Friedrich Engels, who sends him articles to publish. Two years younger, handsome and full of life, Engels is sent by his father to supervise the family factory in Manchester, north-west England. Here Engels is appalled by the staggering immiseration of the urban proletariat, several families packed to a damp basement room in the hurriedly-built shanty towns surrounding Manchester, enslaved 12 hours a day in the noise and dirt of factories and, whenever there was a depression, immediately thrown out of work, whole families begging on the street, boys turning to theft, the girls to prostitution, in order to survive.

And yet when Engels talked to the factory owners – and he was a man of their class, an owner himself – all they saw was profit margins, capital outlay, money to be made to build big mansions in the countryside. Questioned about the lives of their workers, the owners dismissed them as lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothings. Engels was disgusted by their greed, selfishness and philistinism.

Traipsing the streets of the city, shown into the homes of hundreds of workers, awed by the scale of the misery produced by the technological marvels of the industrial revolution, Engels could see no way to reform this society. The only way to change it would be to smash it completely.

The hypocrisy of classical economists As for contemporary British political and economic writing, it was a con, a sham, a rationalisation and justification of the rapacious capital-owning class. Adam Smith, David Ricardo and the rest of the so-called ‘classical’ economists merely provided long-winded rationalisations of exploitation. Smith said that the free market worked with a kind of ‘hidden hand’, a magic force which united people all over the globe in common enterprises, like the cotton pickers in America who supplied factories in Manchester to manufacture clothes which were then sold in India. Smith predicted that this ‘hidden hand’ of capitalism would, as if by magic, mean that, although everyone in society pursued their own interests, they would ineluctably be brought together by ‘the market’ to work together, to improve the lot of all, to create a balanced and fair society.

Well, Marx, Engels and anyone else with eyes could see that the exact opposite of these predictions had come about. British society circa 1844 was full of outrageous poverty and misery.

Marx meets Engels These were the thoughts Engels brought when he met Marx in Paris in 1844. His ideas and his practical experience electrified the brilliant polymath and provided Marx with the direction and focus he needed. He set about reading all the British political economists with a view to mastering classical economics and to superseding it.

Although Wilson periodically stops to summarise the development of their thought and give a précis of key works, I was surprised by the extent to which this middle section about Marx was mostly biographical. We learn a lot about the squalid conditions of Marx’s house in Soho, about Engels’s ménage with the Irish working class woman, Mary Burns, and there are entertaining portraits of rival figures like Lassalle and Bakunin.

All this is long on anecdote and very thin on theory or ideas. Wilson tells us a lot more about Lassalle’s love life than the reason why he was an important mid-century socialist leader. I learned much more about Mikhail Bakunin’s family life in Russia than I did about his political theories.

Wilson is at pains to point out on more than one occasion that he has read the entire Marx-Engels correspondence – but makes little more of it than to point out how Engels’s natural good humour struggled to manage Marx’s bitter misanthropy and biting satire.

Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels

Swiftian insults Wilson is happier with literary than with economic or political analysis, with comparing Marx to the great Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, than he is trying to explain his roots in either German Hegelianism or economic theory. He repeatedly compares Marx’s misanthropy, outrage and sarcasm to Swift’s – passages which make you realise that bitterly anti-human, savage invective was core to the Marxist project right from the start, flowering in the flaying insults of Lenin and Trotsky, before assuming terrifying dimensions in the show trials and terror rhetoric of Stalinism.

Failures of theory In the last chapter of the section Marx dies, and Wilson is left to conclude that Marx and Engels’s claim to have created a scientific socialism was anything but. Dialectical Materialism only works if you accept the premises of German idealist philosophy. The Theory of Surplus Labour doesn’t stand up to investigation. Their idea that the violence and cruelty needed to bring about a proletarian revolution will differ in quality from the violence and cruelty of bourgeois repression is naive.

There is in Marx an irreducible discrepancy between the good which he proposes for humanity and the ruthlessness and hatred he inculcates as a means of arriving at it. (p.303)

The idea that, once the revolution is accomplished, the state will ‘wither away’ is pitiful. For Wilson, their thought repeatedly betrays:

the crudity of the psychological motivation which underlies the worldview of Marx (p.295)

the inadequacy of the Marxist conception of human nature (p.298)

In a telling passage Wilson shows how happy Marx was when writing about the simple-minded dichotomy between the big, bad exploiting bourgeoisie versus the hard-done-by but noble proletariat in The Communist Manifesto and to some extent in Capital. But when he came to really engage with the notion of ‘class’, Marx quickly found the real world bewilderingly complicated. In the drafts of the uncompleted later volumes of Capital, only one fragment tries to address the complex issue of class and it peters out after just a page and a half.

Marx dropped the class analysis of society at the moment when he was approaching its real difficulties. (p.296)

Larding their books with quotes from British Parliamentary inquiries into the vile iniquities of industrial capitalism was one thing. Whipping up outrage at extreme poverty is one thing. But Marx and Engels’ failure to really engage with the complexity of modern industrial society reflects the shallowness and the superficiality of their view of human nature. Their political philosophy boils down to:

  • Bourgeois bad
  • Worker good
  • Both formed by capitalist society
  • Overthrow capitalist society, instal communist society, everyone will be good

Why? Because the Dialectic says so, because History says so. Because if you attribute all the vices of human nature to being caused by the ‘capitalist system’, then, by definition, once you have ‘abolished’ the ‘capitalist system’, there will be no human vices.

At which point, despite the hundreds of pages of sophisticated argufying, you have to question validity of the Marxist conception of both the ‘Dialectic’ and of ‘History’ as anything like viable explanations of what we know about human nature.

Marx’s enduring contribution to human understanding was to create a wide-ranging intellectual, economic and cultural framework for the sophisticated analysis of the development and impact of industrial capitalism which can still, in outline, be applied to many societies today.

But the prescriptive part of the theory, the bit which claimed that capitalism would, any day now, give rise inevitably and unstoppably to the overthrow of the capitalist system, well – look around you. Look at the device you’re reading this on – the latest in a long line of consumer goods which have enriched the lives of hundreds of millions of ‘ordinary’ people around the world (the telephone, cheap cars, fridges, washing machines, tumble dryers, microwaves, radios, televisions, record players, portable computers, smart phones) invented and perfected under the entirely capitalist system of America which – despite a century of hopeful prophecies by left-wingers – shows no signs of ceasing to be the richest, most advanced and most powerful nation on earth.

As so many people have pointed out, the Great Revolution did not take place in the most advanced capitalist societies – as both Marx and Engels insisted that it inevitably and unstoppably must. Instead it came as, in effect, a political coup carried out in the most backward, least industrialised, most peasant state in Europe, if indeed it is in Europe at all – Russia.

Part three – Lenin and the Bolsheviks

The final section of 123 pages goes very long on the biography and character of its two main figures, Lenin and Trotsky. (It is strange and eerie that Wilson describes Trotsky throughout in the present tense because, in fact, Trotsky was alive and well, broadcasting and writing articles when Wilson was writing his book. It was only later the same year that To The Finland Station was published – 1940 – that Trotsky was assassinated on Stalin’s orders).

Thus I remember more, from Wilson’s account, about Lenin and Trotsky’s personal lives than about their thought. Lenin’s closeness to his elder brother, Alexander, images of them playing chess in their rural house, the devotion of their mother, the family’s devastation when Alexander was arrested for conspiring with fellow students to assassinate the Tsar, Lenin’s exile in Siberia and then wanderings round Europe – all this comes over very vividly.

I was startled to learn that Lenin lived for a while in Tottenham Court Road, where there was a longstanding centre for communist revolutionaries. Wilson also quotes liberally from the memoirs of Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, about their trials and tribulations.

What comes over is that Lenin was good at lending a sympathetic hearing to working men and women, quick to make friends everywhere he went. Unlike Marx he didn’t bear rancorous grudges. Unlike Marx he didn’t have an extensive library and lard his books with literary references. Lenin was totally focused on the political situation, here and now, on analysing power structures, seizing the day, permanently focused, 24/7 on advancing the revolutionary cause.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin

Hence his 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement addresses the practical problems of the communist movement at that specific moment.

I know a reasonable amount about the Russian Revolution itself. What fascinates me are the dog years between the death of Engels in 1895 and the Great War broke out in 1914. These were the years in which the legacy and meaning of Marxism were fought over by a floating band of revolutionaries, and in the meetings of the Second International, right across Europe, with factions splitting and dividing and reuniting, with leading communists bitterly arguing about how to proceed, about whether there would ever be a workers’ revolution and, if so, where.

Wilson brings out the constant temptation to so-called ‘bourgeois reformism’ i.e. abandoning the hope for a revolutionary transformation of capitalist society, and instead forming a democratic party, campaigning for votes and getting into the national parliament (in Britain, France, Germany, wherever).

This was the position of Edward Bernstein in Germany, who pointed out that the Social Democratic Party was having great success being elected and introducing reforms to benefit the working classes, building on the establishment of a welfare state, old age pensions and so on by Bismarck.

Reformists could also point to the way that the middle classes, far from being removed by the war between monopoly capitalists and an evermore impoverished proletariat, were in fact growing in numbers, that the working classes were better off, that all of society was becoming more ‘bourgeois’ (p.382).

This, we now know, was to be the pattern across all the industrialised countries. A large manufacturing working class, frequently embittered and given to strikes and even the occasional general strike, was to endure well into the 1970s – but the general direction of travel was for the middle classes, middle management, for ‘supervisors’ and white collar workers, to grow – something George Orwell remarks on in his novels of the 1930s.

The vision of an ever-more stark confrontation between super-rich capitalists and a vast army of angry proletariat just didn’t happen.

Lenin was having none of this bourgeois reformism. Wilson calls him the watchdog, the heresy hunter of orthodox Marxism. He turns out pamphlets attacking ‘reformism’ and ‘opportunism’. In Russia he attacks the ‘Populists’, the ‘Legal Marxists’, in books like Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908) (p.384).

His 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement attacks Bernstein and bourgeois opportunists. What is to be done is that the working classes can never get beyond trade union level of political activity by themselves – they need to be spurred on by a vanguard of committed professional revolutionaries. People like, ahem, Comrade Lenin himself.

The same thinking was behind the creation of the ‘Bolsheviks’. At the Second Congress of the Social Democrats in summer 1903 some delegates brought forward a motion that the party should let concerned and sympathetic liberals join it. Lenin vehemently opposed the idea, insisting that the party must remain a small, committed vanguard of professional revolutionaries. When it came to a vote Lenin’s view won, and his followers became known as the majority, which is all that Bolsheviki means in Russian, as opposed to the Mensheviki, or minority. But over time, the overtones of majority, the masses, the bigger, greater number, would help the Bolsheviks on a psychological and propaganda level in their forthcoming struggles.

Throughout his thought, Lenin also dwells on the special circumstances of Russia, namely that:

a) 999 in a 1,000 of the population are illiterate peasants
b) even educated intellectuals, liberals and socialists, had been demoralised by centuries of Tsarist autocracy, reinforced by the recent decades of anti-socialist repression (all the revolutionaries had been arrested, spent time in prison even – like Trotsky – long periods in solitary confinement, as well as prolonged stays in Siberia)

The vast gulf in Russian society between a handful of super-educated elite on the one hand, and the enormous number of illiterate peasants sprinkled with a smaller number of illiterate proles in the cities, meant that the only practical way (and Lenin was always practical) to run a revolution was with top-down leadership. Lenin writes quite clearly that Russians will require a dictatorship not only to effect the revolutionary transformation of society, but to educate the peasants and workers as to what that actually means for them.

While even close associates in the communist movement such as Bernstein and Kautsky criticised this approach, while many of them wrote accurate predictions that this approach would lead to dictatorship pure and simple, others, like Trotsky, were energised and excited by the psychological vision of a ruthless and cruel dictatorship. The only thing the Russian people understood was force, and so the revolutionaries must use force, relentlessly. Amid the civil war of 1920 Trotsky found time to write a pamphlet, The Defense of Terrorism, refuting Kautsky’s attacks on the Bolshevik government and defending the shooting of military and political enemies.

What this all shows is how difficult it is for liberals and people with moral scruples to stop revolutionaries who eschew and ignore moral constraints, particularly when it comes to revolutionary violence and terror. The most violent faction almost always wins out.

At the Finland Station

In his chapter on Marx’s Capital Wilson had pointed out (rather inevitably, given his belle-lettrist origins) that the book has an aesthetic, as well as political-economic-philosophic aspect – i.e. that Marx had crafted and shaped the subject matter in order to create a psychological effect (namely arousing outrage at the injustices of capitalist exploitation, then channelling this through his pages of economic analysis into the climactic revolutionary call to action).

Wilson’s book is similarly crafted. Having moved back and forth in time between the childhood of Lenin and Trotsky and their actions in the 1920s and 30s, even mentioning Trotsky’s activities in the present day (1940), Wilson goes back in time to conclude the book with a detailed account of Lenin’s train journey.

In April 1917 Lenin and 30 or so supporters were provided with a train by the German Army High Command which took them from exile in Switzerland, across Germany to the Baltic, by ferry boat across to Sweden, and then on another train through Finland, until he finally arrived in St Petersburg in April 1917, into the political turmoil caused by the overthrow of the Tsar and the creation of a very shaky provisional government.

Lenin was welcomed by pompous parliamentarians but it was to the workers and soldiers present that, with typical political insight, he devoted his speeches. He knew that it was in their name and with their help, that his small cadre of professional revolutionaries would seize power and declare the dictatorship of the proletariat. Which is what they finally did in October 1917.

‘All power to the soviets’ would be their catchphrase. Only time would reveal that this meant giving all power to the Bolshevik Party – leading to civil war and famine – and that, a mere 15 years later, it would end with giving all power to Joseph Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers of all time.


Related links

Related blog posts

Marx and Engels

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to foment revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, leading to street fighting in Barcelona and then mass arrests which Orwell only just managed to escape arrest, before fleeing back to England.

Communism in England

The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre (2)

Never again, never, will I think about what I am – but only about what I do.
(Mathieu in his diary – p.134)

The Last Chance brings together all the fragments published during his lifetime, and then found among his papers after his death, of what was intended to be the fourth volume of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy (1945-49).

I read the first three books (The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, Iron in The Soul) when I was at school in the 1970s and they made a profound impression on me.

This scholarly edition – which brings together all the known fragments for the intended fourth book in the series, along with a number of essays about it and about the tetralogy as a whole – was published in France in 1981, but only translated into English in 2009.

The ideas and issues raised in the introductory material and essays are so numerous that I discuss them in a separate blog post, The Last Chance (1).

In this blog post I am commenting solely on the two large fragments of the uncompleted novel itself. These were given by Sartre the titles of: A Strange Friendship and The Last Chance.


1. A Strange Friendship (68 pages)

In 1939 Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. He was captured by German troops in 1940 in the village of Padoux, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war, first in Nancy and finally in Stalag XII-D. (Wikipedia)

Mathieu and Brunet at the end of Iron in the Soul

In the third novel of the published trilogy, Iron In the Soul, we followed the activities of Mathieu Delarue, the ineffectual philosophy teacher – a sort of self-portrait by the author – and Brunet, the tough-minded Communist organiser, as they both, separately, retreated in June 1940 before the German advance in France and ended up in a small French village.

Here Mathieu finds himself deciding to quit the squad of demoralised men he’d arrived with, and instead throw in his lot with a still-pugnacious lieutenant and his platoon, who have arrived in the village after carrying out a fighting retreat.

Almost before he knows it, Mathieu has accompanied some of the soldiers to the top of the village church tower where they wait anxiously for the first German scouts to arrive. When the first Germans enter the village, Mathieu and comrades begin shooting at them, sparking a fierce firefight, which is only ended when the Germans bring up a field gun and blow the tower to pieces. The reader assumes that Mathieu, until the last minute firing from this church tower, was killed.

Meanwhile, by a large coincidence, without realising the closeness of his boyhood friend, Mathieu, the tough-minded communist, Brunet, has also ended up in the same village, but here he makes a very different decision. He decides to surrender to the Germans in the hope of recruiting and organising what is obviously going to be a larege number of French prisoners of war into a communist cell.

The final part of Iron in the Soul had followed Brunet’s journey, along with thousands of other POWs, to a holding camp in France, where there is no food and his condition deteriorates along with all the others, Decent feeding arrangements are finally made and, after a long period of lassitude, the prisoners are marched to a train station, loaded into cattle trucks and shipped off to a prison camp in the Fatherland.

In other words, both Mathieu and Brunet’s stories rely very heavily on Sartre’s own experiences of capture and imprisonment in 1940.

Throughout the long second section of Iron in the Soul, Brunet had found himself in conflict with a fellow prisoner, Schneider, who declares himself broadly sympathetic to Brunet’s communist intentions, but is much more a genuine man of the people – in contrast with Brunet’s well-educated background. At key moments Schneider points out the flaws in Brunet’s approach, in the way he’s handling the men and so on.

A Strange Friendship

A Strange Friendship opens with Brunet, Schneider and thousands of other French POWs imprisoned in a German prison camp in freezing winter conditions in January 1941. Because it’s based so closely on Sartre’s own identical experiences, we can be confident that the descriptions of the camp and of the horrible conditions are accurate.

What gets the action of A Strange Friendship going is the arrival of new prisoners at the camp, one of them being Chalais, a former Communist Party deputy. He turns Brunet’s world upside down by announcing:

a) that Schneider is none other than ‘Vicarios’, a French Communist Party official who had denounced the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and was therefore expelled from the Party
b) that Brunet’s entire strategy within the camp, namely organising the prisoners, recruiting the willing ones to a communist cell, with the long term plan of undermining the Germans, is wrong

Chalais is a representative of the French Communist Party (which was, of course, a mouthpiece for Soviet Foreign policy).

He tells Brunet that the views he’s been putting about – that the war isn’t over yet, that the USSR will crush Germany, that the workers should reject the armistice, that the defeat of the Axis will be a victory for the proletariat, that the French prisoners should still consider themselves as soldiers (p.55) – are wrong.

Chalais ridicules de Gaulle’s recent radio broadcast saying the USSR and USA will enter the war, that the Vichy government is illegitimate, that the armistice the new french government signed with the Nazis was treason. With typical bullying insults, in his ‘loudspeaker voice’, Chalais says that Brunet has been dead wrong. He has, ‘objectively’, i.e. in the eyes of the inflexible Party, been merely a propagandist for Churchill and British imperialism.

Chalais tells him that he and his men must not oppose the Germans; the Germans are allies of our heroic Soviet Union. The Soviet Union will never enter the war. (Indeed, at this point and until it was invaded in June 1941, the Soviet Union for nearly two years supported the Nazi regime with food, oil and raw materials). The Soviet Union will wait until Europe has fought itself to a standstill and then dictate the peace in the interests of the proletariat.

So, instead of subverting the Germans, the communist party ought to cosy up to the Nazis in a bid to become officially recognised and to get a foot into the French National Assembly again.

To Brunet’s astonishment Chalais says they must work to attack the imperialism of the bourgeois ‘democracies’ (i.e. Britain), attack de Gaulle – who is merely a mouthpiece for British imperialism – and direct the workers towards pacifism, not towards enmity to the Germans (p.63).

Brunet listens with astonishment to this interpretation of the situation which is completely opposite to everything he has been telling the men he’s recruited to the communist cause. Chalais has the impeccable authority of being a senior party member, and of having been free – and so in touch with the communist hierarchy – more recently than Brunet himself.

Brunet tries to quell his misgivings, to make himself a servant of the Party and to obey.

This is an example of Sartre depicting how a man – Brunet – denies his absolute freedom, represses his own thoughts and feelings, in the name of Obedience to External Law.

(There is also a massive authorly irony at work here, because the reader knows that Chalais is dead wrong – when Hitler invades the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin immediately declares Germany the enemy and reverses every one of the policies which Chalais had been championing. Brunet was to be proved right. But not yet.)

The second section of A Strange Friendship jumps to a month later. The result of Brunet following Chalais’s instructions is that the camaraderie Brunet had carefully built up over the previous 6 months in the camp has evaporated, and Brunet is now regarded shiftily by the men he has so suddenly deserted. They no longer trust him.

In another one-on-one scene Chalais confronts Brunet with this problem – the men don’t trust Chalais and now think Brunet was lying to them. Chalais floats the possibility emerges that Brunet should co-host a Party meeting and stand up, validate Chalais and the Party line, and then humiliate and implicate himself – just as so many old Bolsheviks did in the Stalin Show Trials of the late 1930s (as depicted in the classic novel, Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler).

Brunet refuses. His unwavering faith in the Party is for the first time broken. For the first time he sees that the Party might be wrong, that the USSR might be wrong. If it loses the war, if the Party is abolished, Man will continue i.e. History is bigger than the Communist Party.

1. Here is Brunet explaining (to himself) his previous attitude to his own free thought i.e. that it was merely a bourgeois self-indulgence which he needed to repress.

So much for ideas. He’d always had them, like everyone, they’re just mildew, leftovers from brain activity; but he never used to pay them any mind, just let them sprout like mushrooms in the basement. So let’s just put them back in their place and everything will be alright: he’ll toe the line, follow orders, and carry his ideas around inside him without saying a word, like a shameful disease. This will go no further, this can go no further: we do not think in opposition to the Party, thoughts are words, words belong to the Party, the Party defines them, the Party controls them; Truth and the Party are one and the same. (p78)

(It’s worth remembering that Sartre was writing these passages just as George Orwell’s terrifying vision of totalitarian thought control, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published [June 1949]. Orwell’s book now stands alone as a classic of dystopian fiction, like an isolated mesa in the desert; but once it was part of the vast ocean of discourse about communism, for and against, which washed over European culture all through and for long after the war.)

2. And here is Brunet, moments later, for the first time in his life considering what it would mean if the USSR did lose the war, and if the communist cause was defeated.

He blows through the roof, flying in the dark, explodes, the Party is below him, a living jelly covering the globe, I never saw it, I was inside it: he turns above this imperishable jelly: the Party can die. He’s cold, he turns: if the Party is right, then I am more alone than a madman [to oppose it]; if it’s wrong, we’re all on our own, and the world is fucked. (p.79)

It seems to me he is undergoing the classic Sartrean awakening to the fact of his abandonment, to his complete aloneness, to the shocking reality of his freedom.

Back in the plot, Brunet realises some men have been despatched from a Party meeting chaired by Chalais to go and beat up Schneider – a traitor to the Party because he criticised Stalin’s Nazi-Soviet Pact with Hitler.

Recalling all their talks and all the help he’s given him, Brunet comes to Schneider’s rescue and interrupts the pair of thugs beating Schneider. But the two men – who Brunet himself recruited to the communist cause – don’t understand why he’s protecting Schneider. Chalais has explained that Schneider is a traitor, why is Brunet defending him? Is Brunet a traitor too?

In the childlike simple-mindedness of the Communist Party, well, yes, Brunet is a traitor. Sticking up for a bad guy makes you a bad guy. Brunet smashes one of the thugs in the face and the pair of thugs slope off, at which point Brunet realises that he has burned all his bridges. Now ‘his’ men belong to Chalais and everything he and Schneider achieved is destroyed, in fact his entire life to date has been negated. He has fought all his adult life for the Communist Party. Now the Party has decreed that he is a traitor and so he is a traitor. He must get away.

Brunet makes plans for him and Schneider to escape. In the face of a blasting howling January gale, they lay planks over the barbed wire fence surrounding the POW camp and escape – only for the floodlights to come on and them to be shot at from all sides. Brunet realises they’ve been betrayed, probably by ‘the comrades’, who want them more dead than the Germans.

As they run for the woodline Schneider is hit. Brunet helps him on and they fall down a wooded slope, coming to rest against a tree which is where Schneider dies in Brunet’s arms, not at all romantically, but vomiting and blaming Brunet for his death.

Brunet stands up and walks back towards the guards. His death is only just starting.

Commentary

1. You can immediately see why Sartre ran into problems trying to finish this story. The more it plunges into the minutiae of the argument between communists loyal to the Soviet-Comintern party line, and every other non-communist brand of leftist, as it stood in the winter of 1940-41, the more obscure this story becomes. Not least because, as the notes in this edition point out, the official Party line was itself continually changing and would, of course, undergo a complete volte-face when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

In addition, a vast amount had happened between spring 1941 and the post-war, Cold War era of the early 1950s when Sartre was writing. The Korean War broke out in June 1950, increasing general hysteria that the Cold War might escalate into a nuclear apocalypse.

Why write about the arcane disputes of this increasingly remote period of time, when your own times are so pressing and urgent? As you read the fragment it becomes increasingly obvious why Sartre gave up struggling with The Last Chance and switched to writing political commentary on the very fraught times he found himself in in the early 1950s.

2. Looked at from this distance of time, nearly 80 years later, all the characters seem like idiots – Brunet and Schneider and Chalais, all blindly defending the Soviet Union which a) they should already have realised was one of the most repressive regimes in human history b) went on to prove it in the brutal repression of Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 60s c) collapsed in 1990 and is now remote, dusty, ancient history.

3. The entire plot exemplifies the way that the communists’ main talent appears to have been carrying out witch hunts against all other leftists, and then among themselves. This is the central theme of George Orwell’s terrifying memoir of the Spanish Civil war, Homage to Catalonia, which shows how the Communist Party systematically suppressed, arrested, tortured and executed all its opponents on the same side in the civil war – in the opinion of historian Antony Beevor, a major contributory factor to why the Republican side lost The Battle for Spain.

And the war of the Communist Party against itself is the subject of Arthur Koestler’s fictional recreation of the interrogation and show trial of an old Bolshevik in his classic novel, Darkness At Noon.

4. Looked at in its broader historical context, the entire sequence is more evidence to add to the 680-page analysis by historian Alistair Horne in his classic account, To Lose a Battle, that France’s defeat by Germany was entirely her own fault and overwhelmingly due to the ruinous divisions in her political culture. The french hated each other much more than they hated the Germans.

At one point Chalais, the hard-line Communist Deputy, actually says out loud that he prefers the Nazis to so-called ‘radicals’ i.e. to left-wingers operating outside the Communist Party (p.64) who he despises and calls ‘dogs’.

(It is important to remember that the French Communist Party called on workers to sabotage the war effort against Germany – to sabotage their own country’s war effort.)

Chalais prefers the Nazis to non-communist left-wingers. This is an amazing thing to really process and let sink in. And Chalais exactly mirrors the attitude of many right-wingers in pre-war France who declared ‘Better Hitler than the reds’.

Taken together it is a picture of a country in which nearly all sides wanted Hitler to beat them. I can see how this section was intended as an ‘analysis’ of the Communist Party line at a particular historical moment, and as a portrait of how it undermines and preys on a man (Brunet) who wants to be a loyal Party servant but finds himself torn between ideology and loyalty to the men he’s recruited.

I can see how it carries out Sartre’s mission to show his ‘heroes’ emerging from various types of ‘bad faith’ into the desolate realisation of their inescapable freedom: as, for example, Brunet realises that his ongoing presence is undermining Chalais’ Communist Party mission, that his own elimination is called for by strict Party logic – but refuses, in the end, to give up and insists on living.

But at this distance of time, the entire sequence seems like just a further example of the complete moral and political bankruptcy of mid-twentieth century French culture.

5. From a literary point of view, more interesting for me is the almost complete absence of any of the prose poetry which characterised the earlier books (and which I quote liberally in my reviews of them). The text is almost completely functional. It often reads like directions for a play: ‘X looks at Y. Y Says Z. X Gets up, leaves through the door.’  This suggests that a lot of the impressionistic poetry, the floods of feeling, the great waves of death and night and futility and emptiness which wash over the characters in the earlier books, that all this was put in later, during the revising, once the narrative scaffold was in place.

This text as we have it consists almost entirely of this very basic scaffold, bare present tense prose used to convey the dry-as-dust theological squabbles of a discredited belief-system and the toxic power struggles it led to.

Only at the end, in the final few pages, when the scales fall from Brunet’s eyes, does his mind then entertain some of the delirious hallucinations so common to the other characters in the series; and only in the escape over the wire and through the howling gale does Sartre let rip with some impressionistic prose.

I’m guessing this is deliberate. Maybe the grindingly boring, factual prose of most of the section is intended to enact the grindingly boring nature of revolutionary politics and its squalid betrayals.

Whereas the moments of high delirium which Brunet experiences in the last few pages, and then the intensely impressionistic description of the escape in the snow storm, represent the return of Freedom, the flooding into Brunet’s consciousness of the confusions, the overwhelming and bewildering sense of finally throwing off his disciplined devotion to The Party, and his arrival in the bewildering abandonment of his human Freedom.

To be free, in Sartre’s fiction, is to be overwhelmed with sensations and thoughts.

6. The whole thing is written as a tragedy but, to an Anglo-Saxon eye it has a certain grim humour. It is notable the way no Germans feature at all anywhere in the story: sure, they’re referred to a lot as the people who run the camp, but:

a) there’s no analysis of Nazi strategy, no mention of Hitler’s likely plans and intentions for Europe (which, though interesting, I can see would be extraneous to the core subject, which is the drama of Brunet’s disillusionment with the Party)
b) no individual Germans appear, even right at the end when they’re pursuing Schneider and Brunet in their escape. The Germans always remain disembodied shouts and bullets.

Again, to the sceptical outsider this is partly because – comically enough – the Germans don’t need to do anything. They know they can leave the French to carry on fighting among themselves, the right-wingers against the radicals, the communists against the Catholics. The French can be relied on to display not a shred of solidarity or patriotism.

Sartre is inside the French political world and so he takes endless internecine fighting for granted. I come from the Anglo-Saxon countries which had a bit more backbone and where patriotism really did unite the country against the potential invader: from a place where Canadians, Australians, Poles and other European exiles came together to fight the Nazis; not, as the French did, to betray each other to the Nazis.

For Sartre this squalid little squabble among communists can be represented as a kind of noble tragedy – but for the reader outside the snake pit of French culture, it’s just another example of the Communist talent for eliminating each other, and the French talent for ruinous infighting.

Vive la France! Vive la Revolution! are essentially comic declarations.


2.The Last Chance (76 pages)

All the readers of the original trilogy of novels thought that Mathieu Delarue – the most obviously autobiographical character in the series, an ineffectual philosophy teacher much like Sartre – had been blown to smithereens at the end of part one of Iron in the Soul. But no, folks, he’s back and more plagued by philosophical doubts than ever!

Nothing is explained. The other sizeable fragment of the unfinished novel – titled The Last Chance – just starts with Mathieu in a German prisoner of war hospital, from which he’s soon transferred out into the wider camp.

The section opens with him helping a young man who has lost both his legs, amputated after being hit by a shell, put on his ‘pants’ (all the way through the text are reminders that this is a translation into American prose). Apparently, Mathieu was shot through the lungs and still feels weak, but survived otherwise unscathed. Huh.

As usual, two things happen immediately with Mathieu: he is nervous around other human beings, over-sensitively noticing all aspects about them, and his reactions to them, and their reactions to his reactions to them, and so on.

And his consciousness is, as usual, susceptible to being flooded with overwhelming, uncontrollable perceptions and sensations. His perceptions flood his mind. This is the Sartre of his first novel, Nausea, and a feature of almost all the characters in the first two novels in the sequence.

He opened his eyes, and saw nothing. He was nowhere. Between two wooden frames with rectangular holes, there were a table and benches, but it was nothing, not even furniture, not even utensils, not even things; the inert underside of a few simple gestures; suspended in emptiness. The emptiness enveloped Mathieu with a glassy dissolving look, penetrating his eyes, gnawing at his flesh, all there was was a skeleton: ‘I’ll be living in emptiness.’ The skeleton took a seated position. (p.110)

This is just the latest in a long line of occasions when Sartrean characters cease to perceive the world normally, cease even perceive themselves as human, instead become perceiving objects, lose all their personality, are suffused with grand abstractions like death, night, freedom and so on.

I like them. I like this way of thinking and writing. The world, very obviously, is far far weirder than official discourse permits, and Sartre is a great poet of this weirdness, the weirdness of being a walking, sentient nervous system adrift in a sea of things.

Just as characteristically, Mathieu then hallucinates that the dour defeated inhabitants of the wider POW camp are sub-human, insects, crustaceans.

Even though they filled him with a slight repulsion, and even fear, like the crazies he had seen in Rouen in 1936, he knew perfectly well that he was not in an insane asylum: rather, he was in a breeding ground of crabs and lobsters. He was fascinated by these prehistoric crustaceans who crawled around on the tormented ground of an unknown planet, suddenly his heart sank and he thought: in a few days, I’ll be one of them. He would have these same eyes, airs and gestures, he would understand these incomprehensible creatures from inside, he would be a crab. (p.113)

Weird, huh? And reminds me of the notion I developed in reading The Reprieve that there is something distinctly science fiction-y about much of the altered states Sartre describes.

He was most certainly not in Africa, not even anywhere on a human planet. He was walking dry and crisp, between the glass panes of an aquarium. The horror was not in him yet, he could still defend himself against it: it was in things, and in the eyes of those who saw what he didn’t see. But soon, because of the water pressure and the great sea-spiders, these panes would break. (p.121)

The contrast between the histrionic, science fiction prose poetry of the Mathieu section and the spare functional prose of most of the Brunet section clinches the idea that Sartre alters his prose style to match the subject/character. I am genuinely impressed by the range of styles and rhetorical effects Sartre can pull off.

The structure of the complete novel

As to the plot, all we have is fragments. In the notes, the editor Craig Vasey, explains that the plan for the entire book appears to have been something like:

  • Novel opens with Mathieu in the infirmary. He helps the amputee put on his ‘pants’.
  • Mathieu transfers to the camp where he thinks the defeated soldiers look like undersea crabs.
  • Cut to Brunet smoothly running his circle of comrades, until Chalais arrives and turns everything upside down.
  • Back to Mathieu: through his eyes we see fragmentary descriptions of camp life and mentality.
    • Ramard: someone has stolen a fur coat from the German stores, Mathieu helps a fellow inmate hide some stolen champagne.
    • The only first-person narrative anywhere in the series, apparently from Mathieu’s diary, as he meets the disconsolate architect Longin.
    • One of the prisoners gets hold of a newspaper from a new inmate and reads it out to Mathieu’s room-mates, with Mathieu interpolating his usual philosophic ruminations.
    • The Dream of killing: Mathieu has a recurrent waking dream of killing his room-mates. A form of post-traumatic stress triggered by his shooting German soldiers back in the church tower. Interestingly, there are seven fragments on this one theme which are obviously reworkings of the same scene: Mathieu is sitting in a prison office watching his colleague, Chomat, doing paperwork and imagines killing him with a knife slipped into the nape of his neck. Over and over.
  • Cut back to Brunet. It’s 40 days after he was captured trying to escape, the snow-bound escape attempt in which Schneider died. Surprisingly, he wasn’t shot but put in the punishment block. Now, released, Brunet returns to his old barrack with trepidation only to discover that Chalais and the cohort of comrades who had it in for him have all been shipped out. Gone as if they never were. He is no longer under imminent threat of assassination. Then Brunet gets wind of an escape committee, is taken to see it and discovers…
  • That it is run by his childhood friend, Mathieu. The book seems to have been intended to climax with the encounter between Mathieu and Brunet, each assessing the road the other has travelled. They don’t particularly like each other. In fact the main tone is one of boredom and mild dislike.
  • The novel climaxes with a dramatic and philosophical encounter between Brunet and Mathieu.

The encounter between Brunet and Mathieu should have triumphantly completed the circle. They met in the first book, The Age of Reason, where the manly and convinced communist Brunet tried to persuade the ineffectual philosopher Mathieu to join him.

Now Brunet has been disowned by the communist party and discovered how tough life is on the ‘outside’, whereas Mathieu has not only ‘become free’ by shooting German soldiers from that church tower, but also – we now learn – runs the team that organises escapes from the camp. He has become the man of action while Brunet has become the man of uncertainty.

And, in a final rather melodramatic twist, it is revealed that the snitch who betrayed Brunet and Schneider’s escape attempt wasn’t Chalais the Commissar, it was the fat, thieving prole Moûlu. And in fact, while they’ve been chatting, Mathieu now reveals that his fellow escape committee members have just tried and executed Moûlu by strangling him. Brunet is more angry than shocked.

But the reader is shocked.

Mathieu says Brunet will be suspected by the Germans when Moûlu’s body is found, so they’ll arrange for his escape early the next morning. And it’s here that this long, fragmented section ends.


American translation

The translation is by an American, Craig Vasey, Professor of Philosophy at the Mary Washington University, Virginia.

This is a shame because Sartre’s demotic French is translated into demotic American, which jars with the English reader. ‘Mad’ means angry’; ‘pants’ mean ‘trousers’; the Germans become ‘the Krauts’, so that it feels like we’re in a U.S. war movie.

Worst of all, all the men or blokes are referred to as ‘the guys’. Innocuous though this trivial verbal choice may sound, it has major ramifications because the word appears numerous times on every page. For me it dominated the entire reading experience and its continual repetition had the effect of making it seem like we’re in a movie about the mafia.

  • Twenty guys are washing quickly under a shelter.
  • The guys are putting on their coats; they are heading off for work.
  • Brunet looks at his guys with satisfaction.
  • ‘This guy’s name is Schneider.’
  • ‘Our guys in Algiers have the proof.’
  • ‘My guys can’t stand him.’
  • ‘He’s not that kind of guy.’
  • ‘Don’t say anything to the guys.’
  • ‘I’m going to send you up one of my guys.’
  • ‘These Dutch guys don’t speak a word of French.’
  • ‘Hey,’ say the guys, ‘it’s Brunet.’
  • ‘What do you guys want?’
  • All the guys are there, all the guys looking at him…
  • ‘Don’t think about it too much guys…’
  • ‘You guys are assholes…’

Credit

The French edition of The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1981. This English translation by Craig Vasey was published by Continuum International Publishing in 2009. All references are to the CIP paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Reviews of related books

Seeing Things As They Are by George Orwell edited by Peter Davison

The full title is Seeing Things as They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings of George Orwell and it does what it says on the tin. This long densely-printed paperback is a treasure trove of Orwell’s best book, film and theatre reviews, along with his BBC radio broadcasts and numerous magazine articles, interviews and short essays. It does not include the full-length, often literary-minded essays – these are collected in a number of other selections.

Peter Davison (b.1926) has devoted his life to editing the 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, to identifying and cataloguing everything Orwell ever wrote into one thoroughly annotated, indexed format, first published in 1998. For this massive labour of love Davison was awarded an OBE for services to literature.

In the 480 pages of this handsome Penguin paperback Davison presents a selection of the very best of Orwell’s writings from across his fairly short (20 years, 1930-1950) but prolific career. It brings together an astonishing variety of writings, from a school poem right at the start, to an deleted passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four right at the end of his life. For a start, it is an eye-opener to see what a diversity of channels were open to a freelance journalist in the middle of the twentieth century. He writes for:

  • The Adelphi (literary magazine), New Statesman and Nation (founded by the Fabian Society), New English Weekly, Time and Tide, Left Forum, Horizon (founded in 1940 by Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender), Tribune (founded in 1937 by Labour MPs), Left News, Partisan Review (an American left-wing magazine), The Listener (the BBC’s radio magazine), PoetryThe ObserverThe Manchester Evening News (founded 1868), The Windmillthe Times Literary SupplementThe New Yorker and more.

Davison not only prints the pieces but gives detailed, sometimes page-long, notes explaining the background of each of the magazines in question and Orwell’s relation to them – for example, including correspondence between the editors of Partisan Review and Orwell, when they commissioned a regular ‘London Letter’ from him in December 1940.

Orwell worked for the BBC from the start of 1941 to November 1943. He was involved in a variety of projects, initially writing and reading weekly News Reviews, generally describing the political situation, which were broadcast to India and the Far East (there appear to have been 59 of these). But he also worked on a variety of other programmes, for example, giving four talks on literary criticism in 1941, or six editions of a poetry magazine, for which he personally persuaded leading poets of the day to contribute – and so on.

Orwell quit the BBC in November 1943 in order to join the left-wing newspaper Tribune as its literary editor. He commissioned others to write its book reviews, wrote reviews of his own, and created a regular weekly slot called ‘As I Please’ in which he wrote about subjects that took his fancy. He wrote 80 As I Please columns, and since each one often contained three or so subjects, that’s a lot of issues, ideas and areas of contemporary life which he covered. To take a random selection, subjects included: insulting nicknames, Ezra Pound, anti-Semitism, clothes rationing, the decline of religious belief, Dickens and country life, foreign words, flying bombs, the Warsaw Uprising, and so on.

One of the standout items is a page on ‘the colour bar’ (As I Please 37, Tribune 11 August 1944) which argues why it is so important to call out racist pubs, clubs, restaurants who forbid admission to non-whites, which sounds very relevant to our own race-conscious times.

The ordinary Indian, Negro or Chinese can only be protected against petty insult if other ordinary people are willing to exert themselves on his behalf. (p.290)

If one thing emerges it is that, although he writes occasional literary criticism on authors he likes or thinks important – T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Henry Miller, Jack London – the lion’s share of the texts, whether BBC broadcasts, book reviews, Letters from London or As I Please columns, are concerned with politics and with Orwell’s particularly pessimistic take on the world around him.

Stepping back from the multitudinous details of these pieces, it’s possible to summarise Orwell’s core worldview thus:

  1. The world is going to hell: capitalism is visibly collapsing before our eyes: its days are numbered.
  2. Already it has been replaced across much of Europe by a new kind of authoritarian government – totalitarianism – which seeks to control not just what people do and say but even what they think.
  3. Ranged against these forces of social and mental repression is the key Orwellian virtue of Decency, the term which sums up honesty, fair play, justice and which, in Wigan Pier, he put at the centre of his definition of Socialism.
  4. Imaginative literature, of the kind he likes and would like to write himself, is only possible in a world of free individuals, free to think what they want and free to express it how they want.
  5. Given that the old order, with its antiquated class system and its reassuring certainties, is being swept away, the only way to preserve decency and the dignity of the individual in the coming world will be by supporting a democratic Socialism – Socialism because the only choice is between Socialism and Fascism – and ‘democratic’ to signal its difference from Stalinist totalitarianism.

Almost all Orwell’s writing takes place against this bleak background and pretty much every one of the pieces here refers to at least one of these ideas: whether he’s reviewing plays, films or books, one or other element of the basic argument crops up – capitalism is collapsing; totalitarian thought-control threatens; the private decency of the old writers is no longer possible; only a Socialist revolution and the advent of democratic Socialism can a) fight off totalitarianism b) ensure the survival into the future of all the aspects of human decency and literary freedom which Orwell cherishes.

It is very interesting to learn that this tendency, the tendency of all his writing to return to the same fundamental issue, was noticed at the time. The book includes the first ever sustained essay written about Orwell, by Jonathan Cape’s leading reader, Daniel George, who comments:

Most of Orwell’s essays have a literary starting-point. But he quickly deserts literature for life and politics… All of these [the essays in Orwell’s Critical Essays, published 1946] become, sooner or later, but chiefly, moralisings upon modern tendencies in thought and behaviour; and all illustrate his dislike – almost his fear – of a totalitarian system of government… Insidious persuasion is his method… (Davison pp.375, 377, 379)

In the light of the enormous effort Orwell poured into his writings, it seems ungrateful and churlish to point out that very little of what he predicted actually came about. Certainly Stalinist totalitarianism conquered Eastern Europe, but the Fascist powers in Germany, Italy and Japan were defeated. America emerged as the world’s military and economic superpower, capable of defending democracy in Europe and the Pacific, at the same time! In fact, with vast funding from America, Germany and Japan in particular were transformed within a decade of the end of the war into paragons of modern capitalism.

Orwell fails to see this coming because of his instinctive anti-Americanism. It comes out strongest in the novels whose protagonists routinely despise American consumer culture, despise soda pop and breakfast cereals and slick movies and streamlined advertising. This cultural-emotional anti-Americanism made Orwell underestimate America’s growing power as the war progressed, and fail to anticipate what it would mean for the ‘West’ as the war draw to an end – i.e. not only the survival, but the triumph of the kind of consumer capitalism he despised and thought was doomed, and the concomitant flourishing of all the freedoms he thought were so threatened.

The totalitarian mind-control which remodelled human nature to render it supine forever, creating a new race of zombie slaves – this never happened. Even in the darkest days of the Soviet Union and its control of Eastern Europe, there was samizdat literature, there were dissidents, people rebelled, in Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and again in the 1970s, setting up Charter 77.

(To be fair, in a mea culpa piece for Partisan Review dated October 1944, Orwell does concede that nearly all his predictions about the war had turned out wrong, including his belief that only by having a Socialist Revolution could Britain win, pp.301-307).

And although I wanted to like Orwell, as I read through these pieces I found myself repeatedly disagreeing with him, on issues large and small. He is against the metric system and in favour of keeping rods and acres, pints, quarts and gallons, pounds, stones and hundredweights (p.416) – an opinion of purely historic interest to us today. He speculates that, if four-letter words were freely published in fiction and newspapers, it might remove their magic and mystique,

and the habit of swearing, degrading to our thoughts and weakening to our language, might become less common. (p.396)

Well, that didn’t work out, did it? On the larger scale, Orwell says capitalism is finished – well, put simply, it triumphed and defeated communism around the world. He says the novel is dying – well, the 1950s saw some great novels written and the 1960s saw an explosion of writing of every type. He says the English language is in irreversible decline – well, that’s what gloomy Guses in every age claim, the English language looks alive and kicking to me today.

And quite often not only does his journalism reference one or more elements of the worldview I summarised above, but it takes a visceral pleasure in saying so. He is thrilled by the bleak future he envisions. It gives him – and is designed to give his reader – the shivers.

The era of free speech is closing down… The time is coming – not next year, perhaps not for ten or twenty years, but it is coming – when every writer will have the choice of being silenced altogether or of producing the dope that a privileged minority demands. (Written in 1938 – p.69)

That just didn’t happen. As political and social and cultural prophet, Orwell is wrong again and again. When blurb writers and reviewers claim that Orwell ‘still speaks to our time’, is ‘more relevant than ever’, I don’t get it. We do not today face the threat of external totalitarian regimes invading and conquering us. If we do face a political challenge today, it is from the political instability caused by the prolonged rule of neo-liberal capitalist ideology which has produced an unequal society, exacerbated by the tensions caused by mass immigration.

But then, society was also grossly unequal in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s. In fact, it’s a working definition of a free democracy that it is always struggling with various crises of unrest and complaint. I am old enough to remember the endless strikes of the 1970s, the Miners’ Strike of 1984, the Poll Tax riots in the early 1990s. In comparison the situation we find ourselves in now, in 2017, seems like a kind of consumer utopia for a large percentage of the population.

And far from living in a society of zombies who supinely accept the mind-numbing slogans of a totalitarian government, do we not live in the extreme opposite – a society which, due to the internet, Facebook, twitter, Instagram, and millions of blogs like my one, has more voices yelling complaint about every possible issue under the sun than ever before in human history?

On the plus side Orwell’s journalism offers trenchant commentaries on particular events of his day, and a good deal of nostalgic fondness for imperial weights and measures, forgotten Edwardian novels and boys comics. It contains thoughts on social issues and trends which are often overlooked by the history books. The fact that shopkeepers got ruder as rationing got tighter (p.308), tensions between American soldiers and the native English, the significance of the lonely hearts columns in wartime newspapers (p.278) – Orwell’s writings present a fascinating social and intellectual record of his age, specifically the 1930s and 1940s. This volume amounts to a useful primer on the texture of ordinary life in the era of the Great Depression, the Second World War and the start of the Cold War.

Preparation for Nineteen Eighty-Four

Maybe the best way of seeing all these essays and reviews – in fact the way in which they themselves often suggest they are read – is as a steady, thorough and obsessive working-out of the themes and ideas which reach their perfect expression in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Whenever Orwell mentions thought-control, or the implications of totalitarian society on culture, or the death of free speech, or control of the past, or the likely division of the world into three superstates (p.315), the reader can’t help but think of hos these ideas will end up informing his great novel.

In this respect, Orwell was tremendously lucky. As this selection shows, from almost the start of his career he was obsessed with the idea of totalitarianism and how it would destroy the decencies and freedoms he remembered from the Edwardian boyhood which he held so dear. Over and over again he nags and worries at the implications of this terrifying threat. I call him ‘lucky’ because he was lucky enough to find an imaginative structure into which he could pour a lifetime of brooding and thinking. And lucky that he managed to complete his masterwork, considering just how close a race it was against his worsening health in the late 1940s.

That he was able to finish the book which is one of the great masterpieces of the century was partly because its central ideas and their application in every detail had been brooded on and worked through for decades – as the hundreds of pieces gathered in this book testify.

This book contains scores of passing insights and ideas, all expressed in his brisk, no-nonsense prose, deliberately denuded of rhetoric and fancy, always nudging and persuading you to agree with his common-sense-sounding assumptions. These are all enjoyable and make the book a great pleasure to read. But what it shows more than anything else is the length of time and the depth and variety of thinking which went into the creation of Orwell’s masterpiece.

Anti-Left

Another major theme which emerges is Orwell’s consistent opposition to and criticism of the left-wing orthodoxy in the England of his day. Barely a page goes by without some withering criticism of left-wing intellectuals. This is because, ever since his experience in Spain in 1937, he had grasped that Soviet Communism was a completely amoral extension of Stalin’s nationalist foreign policy. Orwell’s image of totalitarian thought control doesn’t come from Nazi Germany – which he never visited – but from his actual personal experience of the kind of lies and distortions carried out by the communists in Spain, as he watched them take over the republican cause and proceeded to vilify, arrest, torture and execute all their political enemies.

When he came back to England he found that all the left-wing publishers refused to publish his account of his experiences, Homage to Catalonia because they didn’t want to undermine ‘the cause’,because they wouldn’t accept its criticism of Soviet policy. And when the book was eventually published, it prompted negative reviews from most of the left-wing press as well as personal attacks calling Orwell a lackey for capitalism and imperialism, a Trotskyist, a saboteur etc, all the hate terminology he’d seen the Stalinists using in Spain.

And he realised – It could happen here. It could happen here because the entire deracinated, unhappy intellectual class had given its heart to a foreign power and to a Great Leader who they slavishly believed would transform the world and make them happy. And because the left-wing intellectuals have imposed a stifling orthodoxy of thought over all the publications they control, creating an atmosphere of political correctness which you speak out against at your peril.

Thus, although he routinely criticises the Tories, whether in or out of power, the lies of the right-wing press, and has harsh words for the Catholic church’s instinctive support of all right-wing causes – the real animus in his writings is consistently against his own side. The real enemy is the slavish devotees of Stalin’s Soviet communism.

Typical comments are:

  • I don’t share the average English intellectual’s hatred of his own country and am not dismayed by a British victory. (p.304)
  • Particularly on the Left, political thought is a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of facts hardly matter. (p.303)

Now readers up-to-speed with left-wing politics in general and the tortuous situation of the 1930s in particular, Orwell is making subtle and important points. How many people would that have been? As an indication, some of Orwell’s books only sold a few thousand copies in his lifetime. But to someone a bit further removed from the cat fights of the English Left, it can all too easily seem that Orwell’s Socialism is associated with violent revolution, burning down churches, locking up, torturing and executing your opponents and imposing totalitarian mind control. In other words, his calls for a Democratic Socialism only really mean something to someone who already knows quite a lot about left-wing politics and can distinguish between its multiple strands and traditions.

Political correctness

This is one of the few ideas I think we can actually apply to our own times. For we also live in times when a ‘progressive’ orthodoxy has imposed politically correct axioms right across the mainstream media to do with race, gender, sexuality, with immigration and identity, which you criticise or question at your peril. As he wrote in his essay, The Prevention of Literature:

To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (The Prevention of Literature)

‘One cannot be politically orthodox.’

In a similar way, today in 2017, there are a number of progressive causes which you criticise or question at your peril. While I was reading the book and thinking about the issues it raises, the resignation was announced of Shadow Equalities Spokesperson, Sarah Champion, after writing an article in the Sun newspaper about British Pakistani men:

I am not taking any opinion whatsoever on the article or its subject matter – I am just pointing out that we live, like Orwell, in times where you have to be extremely careful what you say on certain issues – if anyone in the world was going to be politically correct and careful what they say, you’d have thought it would be Labour’s equalities spokesperson. If even she can’t speak casually and openly on certain subjects, then the rest of us better keep quiet.

The peril doesn’t come from the Right. I can say or write whatever I like about Donald Trump or Theresa May, I can insult Brexiteers or English nationalists till the cows come home, and I will be praised in the mainstream media. It is the Left which has erected certain orthodoxies, certain ‘correct’ attitudes, which anyone writing, or even talking out loud, must be careful to comply with.

To repeat – I make no comment whatsoever about the subject raised in Champion’s Sun article – I am just pointing out that her resignation shows that we live in a time of powerful orthodoxies which you infringe at the risk of your job and your career – and that I find Orwell’s thoughts about the impact of unquestioned orthodoxies on freedom of speech and imaginative literature far more relevant to our present-day situation than his more directly political analyses.


Credit

Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings by George Orwell edited by Peter Davison was published by Harvill Secker in 2014. All references are to the 2016 Penguin paperback edition.

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

George Orwell in Barcelona

In chapter 10 of Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes how street fighting broke out in Barcelona in 1937. I happen to have been in Barcelona recently and so used Orwell’s account to track down and photograph the buildings he describes.

Background

On 18 July 1936 generals in the Spanish army mounted a military coup against the democratically elected left-wing government. This sounds like a simple case of right and wrong but early 20th century Spain had had a troubled history. It only became a republic when King Alfonso XIII fled the country in 1931. Spain was deeply polarised between the forces of reaction – powerful landowners, the Catholic church, the police and army – and of the republic – the urban working class, some peasants. There had been an attempt to mount a left-wing revolution in 1934, which was repressed but left all sides convinced the other side was planning huge conspiracies.

In July 1936 the generals had planned and hoped that their coup would take the entire country. But the uprising failed in barracks in the major cities (Madrid and Barcelona) and in the east generally, and in the two provinces of Spain which have always prized their independence, the Basque country in the north-west and Catalonia in the north-east.

Both sides took steps to round up and disarm opponents in their part of the country, often with bloodshed. Thousands died in the early days and it was in these early days that the trade unions acted with decisiveness to raise huge militias. They begged the cautious government for arms and just about managed to put enough troops in the field to stall the nationalists’ advance. By September both sides – generally referred to as nationalists and republicans – were looking abroad for help. The nationalists quickly gained support from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The republicans were subject to a (controversial) arms embargo by France and Britain and forced to rely entirely on arms and advisors from Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Within a few months sympathisers in the democracies began to volunteer to fight for the republic (and a handful for the nationalists). For many idealistic young men and women in Britain, France, America and elsewhere, the outbreak of the war in Spain represented a tipping point in history, the moment when fascist forces came out into the open and had to be defeated. If Spain fell to fascism, went the argument, with Italy and Germany already fascist and Fascist parties powerful or in power in many east European countries, then France and Britain would be next.

Among the many volunteers from Britain was George Orwell, author up to that point of three novels and his documentary books, Down and out in Paris and London and The Road To Wigan Pier. Orwell approached the British communist party but they were (rightly, as it turned out) suspicious of his independent attitude, so he ended up wangling an introduction to the Independent Labour Party representative in Barcelona, John McNair. Having travelled across France and crossed the border into Spain, Orwell arrived in Barcelona, and was channeled away from the Overseas Volunteers – the International Brigades which were being administered by communists – and into the militia of the anti-communist revolutionary party, the POUM (the Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista).

Orwell writes vividly of the egalitarian atmosphere in Barcelona when he arrived in december 1936: everyone dressed in workers’ clothes, prostitution, begging and tipping had been banned, revolutionary banners hung from all the buildings and from passing lorries full of cheering militia.

After some primitive training and armed with antique rifles without much ammunition, Orwell was despatched to the ‘front’. He sat out the winter in the freezing trenches, opposite Fascist ones 1,000 yards away and, with one or two exceptions, was rarely involved in any fighting. He was at the front for 115 days solidly and eventually given leave to return to Barcelona to meet his wife – who had by this stage also come to Barcelona – in late April.

He was shocked to find the atmosphere of the city completely transformed. The bourgeoisie had emerged from hiding, luxury restaurants had opened up, bootblacks and tipping were again in evidence. More oppressively, though, was the atmosphere of tension and suppressed violence. In his absence the relatively small Spanish communist party had lost no time imposing its influence on the central government and in all the republican areas. they were able to do this because Stalin was now the only outside power supplying the government with arms and ammunition. And with advisors. Not only military advisors but political advisors who, not surprisingly, advised the government that they could never win with a hodge-podge of voluntary militias raised from a kaleidoscope of different unions and parties. All of them must come under one central dominant control – Comrade Stalin said so.

From the start the republican side was riven by factions and feuds. the Civil Guard, who continued to police the republican areas, had long been the traditional enemy of the working class. The republican government was an uneasy alliance of anarchists, socialists and communists. In Catalonia especially, the working class was represented by anarchist trade unions who advocated the worker takeover of the means of production and distribution, but via decentralised federations – the opposite of the centralised Stalinist model.

If Stalin, through his commissars and advisors was just imposing one model instead of another it would have been one thing. But there was worse. Stalin, looking at the map of Europe, with a central band of antagonistic Fascist powers, and Spain now at risk of going Fascist, realised that he must make allies with the French and, hopefully, with the more reluctant British. If war was to break out he desperately needed all the allies he could get. But what would scare Briain and France away from him and into the arms of the anti-Bolshevik Fascists faster than anything else? A full-scale workers revolution in Spain. Therefore, Stalin instructed his advisors and commissars, as they infiltrated themselves further into government departments and into every level of the republican administration – to repress the genuinely revolutionary instincts and achievements of the anarchists and the other non-Stalinist communist parties.

It was this rolling back of the revolution, and the slow insidious propaganda which criticised and blamed the anarchists for every military defeat – in other words, the same techniques of insulting, vilifying and outlawing your opponents that Stalin was using at the very same time in Russia – that Orwell got back from the trenches to find being used in Barcelona. Nobody knew who would attack whom first but the atmosphere was heavy with violence.

The May fighting

On 3 May Orwell was crossing the foyer of his hotel when a friend told him ‘it’ had started. the Catalan government had sent Civil Guards to take control of the Telephone Exchange in the Plaza de Cataluna, and the anarchists who controlled it had fired back. I looked long and hard in the modern-day Catalonia Square but couldn’t identify the Telephone Exchange.

That afternoon, between three and four, I was half-way down the Ramblas when I heard several rifle-shots behind me. I turned round and saw some youths, with rifles in their hands and the red and black handkerchiefs of the Anarchists round their throats, edging up a side – street that ran off the Ramblas northward. They were evidently exchanging shots with someone in a tall octagonal tower – a church, I think – that commanded the side-street.

I’m not sure but this church, Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, is half way down the Ramblas, has an octagonal tower and is opposite an alley running off the other side of the Ramplas.

Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, Barcelona

Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, Barcelona

Then:

At this moment an American doctor who had been with us at the front ran up to me and grabbed me by the arm. He was greatly excited. ‘Come on, we must get down to the Hotel Falcon.’ (The Hotel Falcon was a sort of boarding-house maintained by the P.O.U.M. and used chiefly by militiamen on leave.) ‘The P.O.U.M. chaps will be meeting there. The trouble’s starting. We must hang together.’

The Hotel Falcon is down towards the sea end of the Ramblas. It is now a library, named after the anarchist leader Andreu Nin.

Biblioteca Gòtic - Andreu Nin, Barcelona

Biblioteca Gòtic – Andreu Nin, Barcelona

Here’s the precise Google maps location.

With some kind of historical irony, I found three or four derelicts sleeping in the ground floor window alcoves, while the hordes of rich tourists hurried by on their way top spend money at the monster shopping centre on the seafront.

Orwell went across the Ramblas to the building opposite, a disused cabaret theatre which had been taken over by the POUM. He spent hours with a colleague exploring it and also looking for arms, eventually spending the night there rolled up in a curtain he tore down for the purpose. The building is still there and is now the Teatre Principal. 

Teatre Principal, Barcelona

Teatre Principal, Barcelona

Next morning POUM and their associated trade union, the CNT, start building barricades outside the Hotel Falcon and the theatre. Orwell nips up the Ramblas to the Hotel Continental where his wife is staying, dropping in on the moasly closed market to buy some cheese. This covered market is very much still there and very popular with tourists.

Orwell then walked a hundred yards or so to the POUM Executive Building. This is now the Hotel Rivoli at number 128 Ramblas. He’s inside when he hears firing nearby and discovers that the Café Moka next door had been seized the day before by 20 or 30 Civil Guards.

Next door to the P.O.U.M. building there was a cafe with a hotel above it, called the Cafe Moka. The day before twenty or thirty armed Civil Guards had entered the cafe and then, when the fighting started, had suddenly seized the building and barricaded themselves in. Presumably they had been ordered to seize the cafe as a preliminary to attacking the P.O.U.M. offices later. Early in the morning they had attempted to come out, shots had been exchanged, and one Shock Trooper was badly wounded and a Civil Guard killed. The Civil Guards had fled back into the cafe…

But when an American tourist walked down the street they had opened fire. Both sides now erect barriers outside their buildings and have an armed stand-off. Eventually Orwell’s commandant in the POUM militia, the Belgian George Kopp, bravely organises a truce. Both Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka are still there side by side. It is a little hard to conceive how either side could have built a barricade outside without being riddled with bullets from their opponents.

Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka

Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka

The Cafe Moka, captured by Civil Guards in May 1937.

Naturally they had looted everything drinkable the cafe possessed, and they made Kopp a present of fifteen bottles of beer. In return Kopp had actually given them one of our rifles to make up for one they had somehow lost on the previous day.

Cafe Moka, Barcelona

Cafe Moka, Barcelona

Immediately opposite there was a cinematograph, called the Poliorama, with a museum above it, and at the top, high above the general level of the roofs, a small observatory with twin domes. The domes commanded the street, and a few men posted up there with rifles could prevent any attack on the P.O.U.M. buildings. The caretakers at the cinema were C.N.T. members and would let us come and go… There were generally about six of us up there. We placed a man on guard in each of the observatory towers, and the rest of us sat on the lead roof below, where there was no cover except a stone palisade.

This building is still there, along with its two domes. Difficult imagining being up there with a couple of comrades and some rifles, ready to snipe at any Civil Guards who fire at you.

Reial Academia De Ciences I Arts

Reial Academia De Ciences I Arts

By the Thursday the Catalan government – the Generalite – was trying top patch things up. Nobody wanted a civil war within a civil war. The CNT and POUM wanted the Civil Guard to retreat from the Plaza de Catalunia and lay down their weapons. Their newspaper advised peace and taking down the barricades. Orwell’s mood going into that Thursday night was one of frustration, disgust and extreme hunger. On the Friday the barricades began to be dismantled,. the Civil Guards in the cafe Moka came out to sit in the sunshine dandling their rifles on their knees.

Peace had sort of broken out. That night the city was flooded by Assault Guards who were meant to be a neutral force between the anarchists and the Civil Guards, and the next day they are patrolling the city in squads, reassuring the population and all the political factions. Orwell is most impressed by their shiny new rifles, far better than anything he or his comrades have at the front. The May fighting had profound consequences. it marked the triumph of the central government – backed up by Stalin’s communists – over the truly revolutionary forces of the POUM and its trade union, the CNT.

The Barcelona fighting had given the Valencia Government the long — wanted excuse to assume fuller control of Catalonia. The workers’ militias were to be broken’ up and redistributed among the Popular Army. The Spanish Republican flag was flying all over Barcelona — the first time I had seen it, I think, except over a Fascist trench. In the working-class quarters the barricades were being pulled down, rather fragmentarily, for it is a lot easier to build a barricade than to put the stones back. Outside the P.S.U.C. buildings the barricades were allowed to remain standing, and indeed many were standing as late as June. The Civil Guards were still occupying strategic points. Huge seizures of arms were being made from C.N.T. strongholds, though I have no doubt a good many escaped seizure. La Batalla was still appearing, but it was censored until the front page was almost completely blank. The P.S.U.C. papers were un-censored and were publishing inflammatory articles demanding the suppression of the P.O.U.M. The P.O.U.M. was declared to be a disguised Fascist organization, and a cartoon representing the P.O.U.M. as a figure slipping off” a mask marked with the hammer and sickle and revealing a hideous, maniacal face marked with the swastika, was being circulated all over the town by P.S.U.C. agents. Evidently the official version of the Barcelona fighting was already fixed upon: it was to be represented as a ‘fifth column’ Fascist rising engineered solely by the P.O.U.M.

From now on the POUM would be blamed for everything, for every military failure and political setback. He heard stories of POUM officials being snatched in midnight raids, of secret prisons being created and quickly filling up with ‘Fascist saboteurs’. Orwell returned reluctantly to the front, but was wounded four weeks later, shot in the throat. He was treated at several hospitals before finally being returned to Barcelona in mid-June and being reunited with his distraught wife.

After only a few days they were both horrified when the logic of the May Fighting came to its logical conclusion and on 16 June 1937 the POUM was banned for being a traitorous organisation. Orwell has to go on the run, sleeping rough at nights and hanging out in obscure parts of town by day, until his wife can make the arrangements to have them both smuggled across the border into France. His brave commander, Kopp, was in prison. Andreu Nin and almost the entire POUM leadership was arrested and tortured. Nin was executed.

As soon as he was back in England Orwell began writing Homage to Catalonia, the eye-witness account of his experiences at white-hot speed. It was published in April 1938 and was a commercial flop. More than that, it was solidly attacked in Britain’s communist-sympathetic press for defending ‘Trotskyite saboteurs’ etc etc.

The entire experience opened Orwell’s eyes about a) the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism; it made him realise it was just a national totalitarian party which used the communist parties of other countries simply as extensions of its entirely self-interested foreign policy. And b) it showed him at close quarters how political and military events could be completely distorted and ‘history’ rewritten to suit the interests of a totalitarian government which controlled all the organs of communication.

This, of course, was to be Orwell’s most central theme in the war years and afterwards, finding its apotheosis in the nightmare vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Away from the Ramblas, which is where Orwell’s eye-witness account of the May Fighting mostly takes place, there is a sweet little square in Barcelona named after him

Placa de George Orwell

Placa de George Orwell

It is home to vegetarian restaurants, bars and boutiques. the bar which we ate at had an Orwell-themed menu with 1984 pizza and an Animal Farm fry-up. I modestly suggested that they should add Victory Gin to their menu.

Placa de George Orwell

Placa de George Orwell


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Inside the Whale and Other Essays by George Orwell

To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (The Prevention of Literature)

Orwell wrote hundreds of essays, reviews and articles which, since his death in 1950, have been repackaged in a number of formats. This selection dates from 1957 and contains some of his greatest hits. It’s notable that most of these come from the war years. By this stage, after a decade of writing so-so novels and the three great works of reportage (Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia) he had found his voice and writing style – a frank, common sense left-wing persona conveyed in attractively straightforward prose.

Orwell wrote a staggering number of book reviews, theatre reviews, film reviews, as well as a large number of opinion pieces, besides his long works of reportage and the novels. For decades after his premature death in 1950 various selections of these essays have been gathered. When I was a boy in the 1970s Penguin published four volumes of the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, comprising:

  • Volume 1: An Age Like This, 1920-1940
  • Volume 2: My Country Right or Left, 1940-1943
  • Volume 3: As I Please, 1943-1945
  • Volume 4: In Front of Your Nose, 1945-1950

They seemed expensive (and big) to me at the time so I never bought them which I now regret. Penguin also offered two shorter paperback collections, Inside The Whale and Other Essays and The Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays.

In the 1990s all these collections were rendered obsolete by the publication of the heroic lifework of Orwell scholar Peter Davison – no fewer than 20 volumes of the Complete Works of George Orwell. The first ten or so contain the novels and other book-length works – the remaining 10 volumes collect not only every known essay, but all the poems, all the letters and all the diary entries for each of the two or three-year periods they cover. If you have these books, you have everything. And each one is around 600 pages long. Orwell wrote a lot.

Inside the Whale is a much shorter, simpler selection of just nine essays which was originally published in 1957 and reissued by Penguin in 1962, a nifty 200 pages long.

It contains excerpts from two longer works – from the documentary reportage The Road To Wigan Pier and the political tract The Lion and The Unicorn – along with seven other stand-alone essays, as follows:

Inside the Whale

This is a long review of the novel Tropic of Cancer, published in 1935 the by American writer Henry Miller. It’s the largely autobiographical ‘story’ of a penniless American author in Paris, living from hand to mouth in a milieu of brothels, cheap bars and other cadgers and chancers. It was banned when Orwell reviewed it because its pages are stuffed with (then banned) swearwords as well as obscenely graphic descriptions of sex. Surprisingly, the highly political Orwell declares the irresponsibly hedonist Tropic of Cancer an important book which everyone should read. In order to explain why, Orwell has to step back and give a brief overview of the development of English literature in the previous 40 years or so.

First the Edwardian era, which he sees as being dominated by ‘beer-and-nature’ writers, the Georgian poets, John Masefield, Edward Thomas and so on. (Orwell gives no sociological explanation for this ‘movement’, though my understanding is that the trend towards English nature writing in the first decade of the 20th century was a backlash against the very urban decadence, the Yellow Book atmosphere and the Oscar Wilde trial of the 1890s.) As his exemplar Orwell gives a long summary of the timeless appeal of the Shropshire Lad poems of A.E. Housman.

Post Great War, Orwell here – as in many places – emphasises the extraordinary bitterness between the generations, the older generation still puffing on about Empire and honour, the younger generation bitterly disillusioned by what they’d seen. The movement’ of the 1920s consisted of startling individuals – Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Wyndham, Lewis, Aldous Huxley. If one thing characterised this disparate group it was pessimism combined with highly experimental technique – itself a sort of embodiment of the collapse of traditional forms.

They dominated the 1920s. Then, very abruptly, after the Wall Street Crash, there emerged a completely new generation of young poets and novelists, dominated by the energetic socially conscious poetry of W.H. Auden. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, all close friends who reviewed each other’s works, the Auden gang reverted to traditional forms, easily understandable diction, and the conviction that literature must be engaged and purposeful – they were all left-wing and some toyed with communist beliefs.

This sweeping overview of the literary scene is firm, confident and helps you grasp the basic outline of the decades since 1900 – but it also leaves you, as with so much Orwell, with the feeling that he’s simplifying things and leaving things out. You don’t have to be a feminist to feel he’s left out any women writers, chief of whom should be Virginia Woolf. And he mentions other Edwardian writers – Moore, Conrad, Bennett, Wells, Norman Douglas – simply to say they’d shot their bolt before the war began. Probably. And doesn’t mention Rudyard Kipling whose personality – from everything I read – dominated the Edwardian era. Or John Galsworthy who was writing his long series The Forsyte Saga from 1906 onwards, and was so esteemed as a writer that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Anyway, having given an entertaining caricature of the literature of the 1920s and 30s Orwell gets back to the point. He confidently states that the coming war will tear to pieces western civilisation. This is a feeling which dominates his 1939 novel Coming Up For Air. But it is not just the war that worries him, it is what will happen after the war, which he fears will see a revolution and maybe the advent of some kind of totalitarian society. This fear is based on the existence of totalitarian states in Russia and Germany, the feeling that many aspects of a mechanised society call for strong centralised authority, and the tendencies he sees around him in contemporary England. In this scenario, it is unlikely that the ‘liberal’ literature of his day will survive.

Back to the Miller novel: Orwell praises Tropic of Cancer because it honestly describes the squalid everyday thoughts in most people’s head, the everyday worries and fidgets, without any glamour, without any political purpose. Its protagonist spends his time cadging money, getting drunk, smoking fags, scrounging for food. Thus the novel stands completely outside the trend for highly politicised poems and novels of the 1930s, even in America it stands apart from the politicised novels of John Dos Passos and so on. It comes from a writer who accepts that civilisation is ending and doesn’t care. Acceptance of life as it is for most people – dirty, cheap, sordid, sex, defecating, scrounging money, setting people up – this is the everyday concern of his ‘hero’, and screw the rest.

Orwell then pauses his analysis to invoke the Bible story of Jonah in the whale (it isn’t a whale in the Bible, it is simply referred to as a fish). In Orwell’s reading this legend is so popular because the whale represents the womb. Maybe this is why the story has such a fairy tale feel and has endured so long, stripped of all religious meaning. It is a symbol of the womb, safe and warm and secure.

Bringing all these strands together, Orwell concludes that Miller is inside the whale – he accepts the decline and fall of the West and he doesn’t give a damn, he just describes life the way it is experienced by millions of average non-intellectual people. In its lack of highbrow content, in its lack of political engagement, in its lack of liberal worry and concern, in its avoidance of everything which obsesses the ‘responsible’ literature of the 1930s, Tropic of Cancer may well be, says Orwell, a harbinger of the literature of the future. A novel of proletarian acceptance and passivity.

Thoughts Orwell’s sweeping generalisations about the Modernist generation and then about the Auden generation are confident and compelling and contain loads of insights. But the fundamental premise of this and so much of Orwell’s writing – that western capitalism is crumbling before our eyes, that it is finished, that it must and will be overthrown and replaced with some form of socialism – turned out to be deeply and profoundly untrue. Sure the post-war Attlee government nationalised medicine and other key industries, but after six exhausting years the British people threw them out and elected the usual parade of public schoolboys. The banks weren’t nationalised. The Stock Exchange stands where it’s always been. All the public schools remained, churning out pukka chaps to run government, ministries, the army and the British Empire for another generation.

Orwell’s comments and insights into contemporary writers have a kind of sixth-form brilliance but tend to remind you of what you already knew; or, on closer examination, turn out to gloss over all kinds of exceptions and complexities (all the writers he leaves out in order to make his generational point); or are telling enough, but belong to the world of 80 years ago, a world as remote, to all practical purposes as Dickens’s London.

Down the Mine (1937)

This is an excerpt from chapter two of Orwell’s 1937 work of reportage, The Road to Wigan Pier, in which he summarises the experience of going down a coalmine, the collation of Orwell’s visits to three different northern coalmines in February 1937.

The whole chapter opens with a typically ringing Orwell statement –

Our civilization, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal, more completely than one realizes until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil.

None of this is true any more. Our civilisation is built on oil, extracted and refined in faraway countries, notably the Middle East where we are doomed to be embroiled for the foreseeable future.

Hard and grim reading though the chapter is, it is of purely historical interest, like a description of a Victorian cotton factory, or of life in the trenches, or onboard a slave ship.

England Your England (1941)

This is section one of the long political essay The Lion and The Unicorn, which Orwell wrote as the Second World War got underway and which was published in 1941. The aim of the book was to show that a socialist revolution was not only an option but vital to winning the war because Hitler and Stalin’s totalitarianisms had shown how effective strong, centrally planned economies are at waging war – the only hope for Britain to fight back was for us also to create a strong centrally planned economy and the only way that could happen was if there was some kind of socialist revolution.

Here, as in all his predictions, Orwell was dead wrong. Sure, production in a whole range of British industries was redirected by the wartime coalition into a centrally co-ordinated war effort. But it was all done without the government actually taking over any of these concerns and it was all done under a profoundly reactionary Conservative Prime Minister.

These political ideas are argued through in parts two and three of the essay and their demonstrable falseness is part of the reason they are rarely reprinted. The aim of part one was to establish the nature of the English character as a starting block before going on to explain why the English revolution would take place with English characteristics.

These thirty or so pages are, then, a preliminary to the book’s central argument and consist of a loving and nostalgic summary of all aspects of the English character. It is a very forgiving portrait. The main drift is that, although Orwell claims the law is rotten and ‘democracy’ is a sham and capitalism is coming to an end – in fact, when you look at it, the law is not completely – not as corrupt as in a dictatorship; in fact the law still plays a central life of even the lowest crook – a sharp contrast with the totalitarian states where there is, in effect, no law.

Similarly, he repeats the standard left-wing view that the newspapers are the voice-pieces for their capitalist owners, but he is forced to admit that they don’t actually take bribes. He contrasts the relative honesty of serious English newspapers with the French press, which he says was openly bought and sold in the 1930s.

The standout passages are where Orwell lauds numerous aspects of English culture in a fondly critical way – our philistinism, lack of philosophical thought, our poor records in the arts (especially music), the refusal of the English to learn other languages, our fondness for hobbies especially gardening, and so on. Though hedged with barbs and criticisms, this long essay is in effect a wide-ranging and forcefully expressed love letter to England and that is why it has proved so popular.

Late in the essay he develops a theory about why England’s recent leaders have been so rubbish – the English upper classes have simply refused to see that times have changed: if they did they would realise that they have to change too; they would realise the social and economic conditions which supported a landed aristocracy in the 1850s or 60s have simply ceased to exist.

Instead the English ruling class retreated into stupidity, the stupidity of the upper class idiots who ran the First World War, the captains of industry who didn’t know how to modernise in the 1920s, the buffoons who let the largest empire the world has ever seen drift rudderless between the wars, and the half-treacherous politicians who prostrated themselves before Hitler. Chaps like Lord Halifax (Eton and Oxford) or Neville Chamberlain (Rugby) didn’t know what to do with Hitler because he wasn’t a chap from a nice public school like them. He represented the revolutionary aspects of the modern world which were precisely what the English upper classes had taught themselves not to acknowledge or understand.

This is plausible and darkly funny; like so much of Orwell’s essays it contains dazzling generalisations, biting criticism and an underlying current of ironic amusement. But, of course, every single one of its modern readers reads it with a condescending smile. Nobody alive today identifies with this poncey upper class. Like so much satire, nobody applies it to themselves.

Thus, the essay’s barbs about the English character can be shrugged aside by most readers: as the political analysis a) doesn’t apply to me b) was all 80 years ago — all that remains is the love letter – and hence its enduring popularity among nostalgic readers of all stripes.

Shooting an Elephant (1936)

A short account of an incident during Orwell’s time as an officer in the Indian Police stationed in Burma. An elephant goes rogue, rampaging through the market and killing a native. Orwell is compelled to do something and sends for a rifle to protect himself. But his presence, and even more the arrival of the gun, help draw a huge crowd and then create an enormous sense of expectation.

And all of a sudden Orwell feels a fool and a fake. Thousands of natives are watching him expecting him to do something decisive. And Orwell feels as never before that the imperialist, the sahib, is compelled into this absurd role.

I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at. (p.96)

So, despite not wanting to do it with every nerve in his body, Orwell ends up shooting the elephant so as not to be ridiculed, to keep the British end up, to play the good sahib. What makes it infinitely worse is that the elephant proves horribly resilient and even after Orwell has emptied the rifle into it, plus a load of revolver bullets, still takes half an hour to painfully die.

Leaving Orwell revolted with himself, his cowardice and the absurd system which placed him in such a ridiculous situation.

Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool (1947)

Towards the end of his life, in 1903 the famous Russian novelist and spiritual writer Leo Tolstoy wrote an essay summarising a lifelong dislike for Shakespeare. (Like so many writers and critics he doesn’t let it lie with a personal dislike, but goes on to assert why everyone must dislike Shakespeare, because he is naturally bad. In fact he calls Shakespeare evil.)

Orwell is struck by the way Tolstoy singles out King Lear as the focus of his attack, giving a misleading and crude summary of the plot in order to support his claims that Lear – and Shakespeare – are

stupid, verbose, unnatural, unintelligible, bombastic, vulgar, tedious and full of incredible events, ‘wild ravings’, ‘mirthless jokes’, anachronisms, irrelevancies, obscenities, worn-out stage conventions and other faults both moral and aesthetic.

Psychological Orwell draws attention to the parallels between Lear and Tolstoy himself who, famously, gave away his land, money, the copyrights in his writings and tried to get closer to God by living the simple life of a peasant. In the event, his renunciation didn’t bring him freedom as he continued to be harried and nagged by those around him to carry out his duties (and keep his money). Shakespeare’s play is remarkably similar in outline, describing King Lear’s attempt to give away his royal power which leads to humiliation and degradation – rubbed home by various other characters in the play, not least the Fool. Lear’s story, in other words, tends to undermine the central moral act of Tolstoy’s life: it attacks Tolstoy at his most sensitive spot.

(This is an unusually psychological approach for Orwell, whose criticism is usually characterised by a political, semi-Marxist approach i.e. the importance of economics and class as determining factors in an author’s work).

The Christian versus humanist worldview The essay goes on to draw a general contrast between Tolstoy’s born-again Christian viewpoint and Shakespeare’s broad humanism. After his conversion Tolstoy thought that he (and all mankind) ought to narrow down their lives to the single aim of striving to live the good, holy life of simplicity and devotion to God.

His [Tolstoy’s] main aim, in his later years, was to narrow the range of human consciousness. One’s interests, one’s points of attachment to the physical world and the day-to-day struggle, must be as few and not as many as possible. Literature must consist of parables, stripped of detail and almost independent of language. (p.109)

His later writings in this vein amount to a kind of ‘spiritual bullying’.

Shakespeare, by contrast, is fascinated by the teeming profusion of life. Shakespeare may or may not have been a Christian – it’s impossible to tell from either the plays or the Sonnets – but his writing is characterised by an astonishing curiosity about all aspects of human life and experience expressed in a fantastic profusion of language.

If one has once read Shakespeare with attention, it is not easy to go a day without quoting him, because there are not many subjects of major importance that he does not discuss or at least mention somewhere or other, in his unsystematic but illuminating way. Even the irrelevancies that litter every one of his plays – the puns and riddles, the lists of names, the scraps of ‘reportage’ like the conversation of the carriers in Henry IV the bawdy jokes, the rescued fragments of forgotten ballads – are merely the products of excessive vitality.

The clash between Shakespeare’s worldly profusion, its ‘irreligious, earthbound nature’ and Tolstoy’s vehement rejection of the world – this world against the next – is the eternal clash between the religious worldview and the humanist worldview.

Orwell finishes with some sentiments which anticipate Nineteen Eighty-Four – that it wasn’t enough for Tolstoy to dislike Shakespeare; he had to concoct the most powerful case possible against him, he had to get inside the minds of Shakespeare devotees and do as much damage to him as possible.

He will do dirt on Shakespeare, if he can. He will try to get inside the mind of every lover of Shakespeare and kill his enjoyment by every trick he can think of, including—as I have shown in my summary of his pamphlet—arguments which are self-contradictory or even doubtfully honest. (p.119)

Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels (1946)

This is a fascinating essay flowing with insights into Swift’s politics and personality as revealed by a close reading of Gulliver’s Travels. There is no doubt Swift was a reactionary and a misanthrope, but Orwell has found himself coming back to Gullivers Travels again and again, and partly the essay is an exploration of why he is so beguiled by an author who, on paper, he ought to disagree with.

For a start Orwell identifies Swift as a religious reactionary, and defines the type as:

people who defend an unjust order of Society by claiming that this world cannot be substantially improved and only the ‘next world’ matters.

This arises after a lengthy consideration of Swift’s dislike of the contemporary world of his day (the early 1700s), his contempt for contemporary politicians and his especial hatred of ‘science’ which he regards as completely useless.

Orwell entertainingly points out the similarity between Swift’s anti-science and the attitude of religious writers of the 1940s. A tactic of religious writers through the ages is to say that experts in other (scientific) fields shouldn’t meddle in theology e.g. Richard Dawkins may know all about evolution but his views on religion are worthless; he shouldn’t meddle in areas where he isn’t an expert. Orwell brings out the implication of this line of argument which is that the ‘theology’ which religious writers practice and preach is as solidly factual and undisputed as, say, chemistry or physics – when it very obviously isn’t.

This, Orwell comments, is:

the note of the popular Catholic apologists who profess to be astonished when a scientist utters an opinion on such questions as the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. The scientist, we are told, is an expert only in one restricted field: why should his opinions be of value in any other? The implication is that theology is just as much an exact science as, for instance, chemistry, and that the priest is also an expert whose conclusions on certain subjects must be accepted.

After many scattered insights into Swift’s personality and writings, this essay – like so many of Orwell’s – veers round to finally focus on Orwell’s Number One Obsession – the totalitarian state. Orwell makes the surprising suggestion that Gulliver’s Travels contains uncanny predictions of the essential qualities of totalitarianism:

Swift’s greatest contribution to political thought in the narrower sense of the words, is his attack, especially in Part III, on what would now be called totalitarianism. He has an extraordinarily clear prevision of the spy-haunted ‘police State’, with its endless heresy-hunts and treason trials, all really designed to neutralize popular discontent by changing it into war hysteria.

In Orwell’s view, Swift anticipated the notion that, in a pacifist or anarchist society, with few if any laws, there is a tyranny of public opinion. Everyone believes X and huge psychological and/or emotional pressure is brought on you to believe X, too. Anyone not believing X hasn’t broken any laws, because there are no laws. He or she is just excommunicated from society. Thus the Houyhnhnms, the horse-like ideal creatures of part IV of Gulliver’s Travels:

had reached, in fact, the highest stage of totalitarian organization, the stage when conformity has become so general that there is no need for a police force.

Finally, Orwell returns to where he started: Why, if Swift’s vision is so nihilistic and reactionary, does he still love him so much? Orwell concludes that even if you profoundly disagree with a writer’s worldview, as long as they are not actually mad, and are capable of continuous i.e coherent thought – then the key criterion is conviction. Conviction and sincerity in a writer can often make the unappealing or antipathetic, strangely powerful and appealing.

His attitude is in effect the Christian attitude, minus the bribe of a ‘next world’ – which, however, probably has less hold upon the minds of believers than the conviction that this world is a vale of tears and the grave is a place of rest. It is, I am certain, a wrong attitude, and one which could have harmful effects upon behaviour; but something in us responds to it, as it responds to the gloomy words of the burial service and the sweetish smell of corpses in a country church…

The views that a writer holds must be compatible with sanity, in the medical sense, and with the power of continuous thought: beyond that what we ask of him is talent, which is probably another name for conviction. Swift did not possess ordinary wisdom, but he did possess a terrible intensity of vision, capable of picking out a single hidden truth and then magnifying it and distorting it.

Having just read Peter Davison’s selection of Orwell’s journalism, Seeing Things As They Are, I know that this is a criterion Orwell returns to again and again – personal conviction is the fundamental bedrock of a ‘good’ writer: even if you completely disagree with their worldview or politics, the sincerity of their writings can still win your admiration.

Politics and the English Language (1946)

Orwell starts from the premise that western civilisation is going down the tube and part of that decadence is the decline of the English language. Well, that was eighty years ago and we’re still here and managing to write books and talk to each other. A certain type of person is always lamenting the death of English, conservatives with a small c.

Orwell gives five examples of terrible writing from his day, and then gives a handy list of the bad techniques they use:

  1. Dying metaphors. New metaphors make us see the world anew, but dead metaphors give the impression of imagination or perceptiveness while in fact remaining inert.
  2. Operators or verbal false limbs: replacing simple verbs with verb phrases such as ‘render inoperative’, ‘militate against’, ‘prove unacceptable’, ‘make contact with’, ‘be subjected to’ and so on. In addition, the number of verbs is being reduced – by using the passive over the active voice, using noun constructions instead of gerunds (‘by examination of’ instead of ‘by examining’ – sounds more scientific) and so on. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as ‘with respect to’, ‘having regard to’, ‘the fact that’, ‘in view of’ etc. The ends of sentences are saved from anti-climax by resounding commonplaces like ‘greatly to be desired’, ‘cannot be left out of account’. In our own time I reach for my gun every time someone says ‘going forward’.
  3. Pretentious diction:
    1. Verbs like ‘exploit’, ‘utilize’, ‘eliminate’ are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.
    2. Adjectives like ‘epoch-making’, ‘historic’, ‘triumphant’ are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics.
    3. Foreign words and expressions such as ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, are used to give an air of culture and elegance.
  4. Meaningless words: Orwell singles out art criticism for its vague emptiness, but also key political terms which have become almost meaningless, like ‘fascist’, ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’.

These trends can be summarised.

The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. (p.150)

People use longer words and ready-made phrases because they sound grand. Also you don’t have to think about them so much. Modern discourse is full of identikit elements. Modern

prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. (p.145)

The more examples he gives us the more it becomes clear Orwell’s critique is targeted mainly at the grandiose verbosity of the Soviet Union and its communist defenders in the West – with some side dishes knocking the mealy-mouthed euphemisms used to conceal the brutality of the British Empire or – a new appearance in his list of enemies – the American use of atomic bombs on Japan.

Then he gives us his set of six rules which will help us purify our writing style and our thinking:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Comments As usual with Orwell you get the feeling that he is an amateur trespassing into a vast and specialised field: linguistics, psychology, brain science, communication theory and much more have grown up since his day. It may be true that bad style corrupts language and that this damages thought, but it is a typically sweeping generalisation that actually raises far more issues than it settles.

Although the article starts out appearing to be about language in general, it soon becomes clear that Orwell is thinking of political journalism, reporting and speech-making and, even more specifically, is criticising the obfuscations of the hard-left defenders of the Soviet Union in particular.

His claim is that most contemporary political discourse is designed to hide things.

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

I’m not saying this isn’t true, just wondering when it has ever not been true? Political speeches and writings of the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries, were they all better expressed and therefore more honest? As usual, Orwell’s points are interesting, thought-provoking and forcefully expressed – but leave you suspecting they are a gross simplification of extremely complex ideas and issues.

The Prevention of Literature (1946)

Like so many of Orwell’s later essays, this reads like a kind of offcut from Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell attends a meeting of P.E.N. ostensibly devoted to ‘freedom of the press’ but is appalled at the mealy-mouthed lack of conviction among the speakers. Indeed he is disgusted to find so many British ‘intellectuals’ defending the USSR and Stalinist communism.

This begins his argument with the proposition that imaginative literature needs to rebel, to be heterodox, to say no to authority.

To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (p.168)

But instead of speaking truth to power, a worrying number of the intellectuals he sees around him censor themselves, refusing to tell the truth about the Spanish Civil War (Stalin’s communist party sabotaged the republican side), Russia’s treatment of Poland (Stalin deliberately tried to exterminate its intelligentsia) the Ukraine famine (millions died as a result of Stalin’s obsession with ‘collectivising’ agriculture) and so on.

This leads him to a consideration of how a totalitarian state requires not just total submission in the present, but requires that the past lines up to support the present ‘line’. And this leads to a paragraph which could have come straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened. Then again, every major change in policy demands a corresponding change of doctrine and a revelation of prominent historical figures. This kind of thing happens everywhere, but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth. (p.164)

Exactly the situation described in the novel. This leads him on to even wilder speculation about what might be the fate of ‘literature’ in a state which was truly totalitarian over many generations. It would eventually be created by committee, or even by machines, to fulfil the iron requirements of ideology.

It is probably in some such way that the literature of a totalitarian society would be produced, if literature were still felt to be necessary. Imagination — even consciousness, so far as possible — would be eliminated from the process of writing. Books would be planned in their broad lines by bureaucrats, and would pass through so many hands that when finished they would be no more an individual product than a Ford car at the end of the assembly line. It goes without saying that anything so produced would be rubbish; but anything that was not rubbish would endanger the structure of the state. As for the surviving literature of the past, it would have to be suppressed or at least elaborately rewritten. (p.172)

Already, he says with a ghoulish shiver, modern films, radio programmes and the newfangled television are being produced by such committees – and gives the terrifying example of the Disney films.

A sort of mechanizing process can already be seen at work in the film and radio, in publicity and propaganda, and in the lower reaches of journalism. The Disney films, for instance, are produced by what is essentially a factory process, the work being done partly mechanically and partly by teams of artists who have to subordinate their individual style. (p.171)

Yes. Bambi (1942) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – terrifying harbingers of a totalitarian future 🙂

In Orwell’s later essays there are countless stretches which remind you of Nineteen Eighty-Four and if you read Nineteen Eighty-Four there are countless passages which remind you of passages in the essays: between the two they build up into a stiflingly self-reinforcing universe, a bubble of Orwell’s paranoid obsessions. The essay ends with a characteristically spine-chilling note of doom:

At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity. Any writer or journalist who denies that fact – and nearly all the current praise of the Soviet Union contains or implies such a denial – is, in effect, demanding his own destruction. (p.174)

He makes it sound as if the entire class of contemporary writers is rushing pell-mell into self-created gulags – and yet who were the authors of the 1930s?

Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Daphne du Maurier, Agatha Christie, Robert Graves, T.H. White, Virginia Woolf, Stella Gibbons, Dorothy L. Sayers, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Willie Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, Anthony Powell and many others. None of them seem quite so terrified of the present or future as Orwell. All of them got on with writing novels for the most part untouched by the claustrophobic throbbing of Orwell’s feverish fantasies.

Boys’ Weeklies (1940)

Orwell in English nostalgia mode gives a surprisingly long and thorough review of the boys’ comics of his day which, seeing as many of them had been going for decades, were also the comics of his own boyhood. Some of the ones he mentions – Hotspur and Wizard – were (I think) still going when I was a boy in the 1960s. There are roughly two types, those for 12 and 13 year-olds, and those for slightly older boys.

He lingers longest over Gem and Magnet, which both contain stories set in public school and featuring stereotype characters (school hero, school bully, school swot, Indian rajah’s son). He repeats three of four times the idea that these stories contain no reference to the real contemporary world – the slump, unemployment, strikes, trade unions, the Russian Revolution, Hitler or Fascism.

He then points out that all these comics are published by big publishing combines which also include, for example, The Times and The Daily Telegraph – right-wing publishers, in other words.

And he concludes his syllogism by concluding that these comics probably play a larger part in forming the mentality and attitudes of boys than people like to admit. And their influence is overwhelmingly on the side of the status quo – supporting the British Empire, dismissing foreigners as ludicrous, ignoring all the social issues of the day which threaten to undermine the current (capitalist) system.

a) I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing this was quite a pioneering essay, to give such length and analysis to twopenny comics. I shouldn’t be surprised if this kind of thing is used to position Orwell as godfather to modern media studies, semiology and so on.
b) Like a lot of media studies it seems grindingly obvious and trite, alongside other shock-horror revelations such as that adverts are designed to manipulate their audiences, Hollywood happy endings ignore the complex realities of life, the news in papers or on TV is actually manufactured – chosen and written and presented from artificial, non-neutral points of view. Golly.

The essay seems to me a long exercise in English nostalgia which I think is Orwell’s predominant mood or feeling. He is not very optimistic about the future and so doesn’t give you the kind of socialist uplift his ostensibly left-wing views might suggest. Instead, like his novels, many of his essays give the impression of being horrified by the modern world and wishing, at numerous levels, to be able to go back to simpler, more bucolic Edwardian times.

Founding text of media studies it may or may not be – but it is certainly of a piece with the man who wrote the long love letter to the English character excerpted above, England Your England.

Conclusion

Many of the essays are now so dated that they are period pieces, but I think the forthright, confident and very persuasive style of Orwell’s essays deludes many of his fans into thinking they have more contemporary relevance than they actually do.

Far from being political analyses which we can apply to our own situation, now, in 2017, most of these essays evince a strong nostalgia for a lost Edwardian England, of boys’ comics and maiden aunts cycling to church, of common decency and the rule of law.

In turn they themselves are objects of our own nostalgia for the 1930s – nostalgia for a period when political issues seemed to be much clearer and unmistakable, when the plight of coal miners was an obvious scandal, when the threat from Hitler was real and apparent, when intellectual life seemed much simpler. And also for the rather stylised picture he paints of the 1930s, for for the quaint world of pigeon fancying, stamp collecting and all the other aspects of ‘the English character’ which Orwell so lovingly describes in England your England – for the gentleness and above all the decency Orwell which repeatedly singles out as the main quality of English life.

And then I think there is a kind of nostalgia for the figure of Orwell himself, for the persona he crafted, for the plain-speaking chap who could tackle a wide variety of subjects in clear, informative prose without any special philosophical or economic understanding, who wrote about literature without invoking any literary or cultural theory – an honest plain straightforward decent man speaking to plain decent readers. How we wish we lived in that world.

But I’m afraid I think it is a world that never was. It is a world conjured up by Orwell’s mastery of rhetoric, a world powered by the rather compelling generalisations he makes and the confident assertions, the broad brush approach to history or society which persuades you you’re in the presence of a man who really understands what’s going on and is really telling it like it is.

The trouble is that, beneath the straight-talking manly prose and the often sweeping generalisations – when the dust dies down – the take-home messages of many of these essays are not that shattering: ideas like, political language ought to be clearer so politicians so politicians can’t get away with lying, or that Shakespeare was a humanist which is why the religious fanatic Tolstoy hated him; that the British Empire was a hollow charade which enforced ghastly conformity from its sahibs, or that totalitarianism will always crush the imaginative writer.

Orwell is never less than interesting and is always highly readable – but a couple of hours later I often have trouble remembering what any particular one of the essays is actually about.


Credit

Inside the Whale and Other Essays by George Orwell was published as Selected Essays in 1957 and republished with its current title in 1962. All references are to the 1975 Penguin paperback edition.

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four
2014 – Seeing Things as They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings of George Orwell

%d bloggers like this: