Don McCullin @ Tate Britain

This is an enormous exhibition of over 250 photos by famous war photographer Don McCullin. A working class lad who left school at 15 and got interested in cameras during his national service, the show opens with the first photograph he sold (in 1958 a policeman was stabbed by members of a gang in Finsbury Park – McCullin happened to have been at school with some of these young toughs and persuaded them to be photographed posing in a bombed-out house – people in his office saw the printed photo and said why don’t you try selling it to a newspaper? A newspaper bought it, and said have you got any more like that? And so a star was born).

The Guv'nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The Guv’nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The exhibition then follows McCullin’s career as he visited one warzone, famine zone, disaster zone, after another from the early 1960s right through to the 2000s, in the process becoming one of the most famous photographers in the world. He began a long association with the Sunday Times which covered war zones and natural disasters around the world in a ground-breaking combination of photojournalism.

Each of these odysseys is accompanied by a wall label which gives you the historical background of the conflict in question, and then, separately, McCullin’s reactions and thoughts about it.

Not all of them are abroad. The Troubles in Northern Ireland, though mainland Brits often forget it, was, of course, a low-level war or civil conflict fought here in Britain. And McCullin also undertook trips with journalists to parts of Britain which were still very, very deprived in the 1960s and 70s, capturing images of the homeless and alcoholics in the East End, as well as sequences depicting the bleak late-industrial landscapes and cramped lifestyles of the North of England.

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

The featured locations and subjects are:

  • Early London i.e. variations on his gangs of Finsbury shots
  • 1961 a journey to Berlin just as the wall was going up
  • Republic of Congo descent into civil war
  • Cyprus – intercommunal assassinations between Greeks and Turks
  • Biafra, war and then famine in this breakaway state of Nigeria
  • Vietnam – McCullin went to Vietnam no fewer than eighteen times and shot some of the iconic images of the war: there’s a display case showing the passports he used and the actual combat helmet he wore
Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

  • Cambodia – as the Vietnam conflict spilled over into its neighbour setting the scene for the rise of the Khmer Rouge
  • the East End i.e. the homeless, tramps and derelicts around Spitalfields
  • Northern Ireland in the early years of the conflict 1970 showing youths throwing stones at British soldiers
  • Bradford and the North – McCullin has a special fondness for Bradford with its rugged stone architecture, and shot the working class amusements of the population (bingo, the pub) with the same harsh candour he brought to his war photos
  • British Summer Time – a smaller section about the activities of the British rich i.e. the season, Ascot etc
  • Bangladesh – the war followed by floods and famine as East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan in 1971
  • Beirut – once the Paris of the Middle East descends into a three-way civil war, destabilised by neighbours Israel and Syria – there’s a famous sequence McCullin shot at a home for the mentally ill which had been abandoned by most of its carers: madness within madness
  • Iraq – among the Kurds in particular as the first Gulf War came to its tragic end (President Bush exhorted the Kurds and Marsh Arabs to rise up against Saddam Hussein but when they did, gave them no help, so that they were slaughtered in their thousands or fled to refugee camps
  • southern Ethiopia – amazingly colourful tribespeople holding kalashnikovs
  • India – one of McCullin’s favourite countries which he’s returned to again and again to capture the swirl and detail of life
  • the AIDS pandemic in Africa – pictures of the dying accompanied by McCullin’s harrowing description of the AIDS pandemic as the biggest disaster he’d covered

Finally, in the last big room, are displayed the photos from the last few decades of McCullin’s career (born in October 1935, he is now 83 years old), in which he has finally been persuaded to take it easy. These are in two big themes and a smaller one:

  • he has been undertaking trips to the ancient Roman ruins to be found in the Arab countries bordering the Mediterranean, leading up to the publication of the book Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across the Roman Empire
  • and his most recent book, The Landscape (2018), is a collection of stunning photos of the scenery near his home in the Somerset Levels
  • finally, right at the tippy-most end of this long exhausting exhibition are three or four still lifes, very deliberately composed to reference the tradition of the still life in art, featuring apples or flowers in a bowl, next to a cutting board
Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Black and white

All the 250 photos in the exhibition are in black and white. McCullin printed them himself by hand in the dark room at his Somerset home.

As I’ve remarked in reviews of umpteen other photography exhibitions, black and white photography is immediately more arty than colour, because it focuses your visual response on depth, shade, lines and composition.

A lot of the early war photography is obviously capturing the moment, often under gunfire (McCullin was himself hit by shrapnel and hospitalised in Cambodia). But many of the smokestack cityscapes of Bradford and the North, the images of swirling mist and muddy rivers in India, and then the bleak photos of the Somerset Levels, in winter, dotted by leafless trees, floodwater reflecting the huge mackerel cloudscapes – many of these also have a threatening, looming, menacing effect.

The wall labels and the quotes from McCullin himself make it explicit that he is still haunted by the horrors he has witnessed – of war and cruelty, but also of famine and death by epidemic disease. It is a fairly easy interpretation to find the trauma of war still directing the aesthetic of the later photos – whether of Roman ruins in the desert or lowering skies over bleak Somerset in winter – both looking as if some terrible cataclysm has overtaken them.

The magazine slideshow

The one exception to the black and white presentation is a big dark projection room which shows a loop of the magazine covers and articles where McCullin’s photos were first published, displays of how they actually looked when first used, covered with banner headlines, or next to pages of text, and accompanied by detailed captions, describing the scene, what had happened just before or was going to happen afterwards, quotes from the people pictured.

It is striking what a difference a) being in colour and b) being accompanied by text, makes to these images. You quite literally read them in a different way, namely that your eye is drawn first to the text, whether it be the splash headlines on the front covers, or the tiny lines of caption accompanying the images.

It makes you realise that they were almost all first intended to tell a story, to explain a situation and, in all of the rest of the rooms of the exhibition, where that story is told by, at most, a paragraph of text on the wall, the images become ‘orphaned’. They stand alone. they are more ominous, pregnant with meaning, imposing.

Here, in the magazine slideshow, pretty much the same images are contained, corralled to sizes and shapes dictated by magazine layout, and overwritten by text which immediately channels your aesthetic and emotional responses and underwritten by captions, explanations and quotes which lead you away from the image and into the world of words and information.

And because information is, at the end of the day, more entrancing than pictures, more addictive (you want to find out what happened next, who, where, what, why) in one way this was the most powerful room in the show. I stayed for the entire loop which must have lasted over ten minutes, incidentally conveying, yet again, the sheer volume of work McCullin produced.

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

One perspective

Which brings me to my concluding thought which is that, for all its breadth (some fifty countries visited) and variety (from traumatic photojournalistic immediacy of wounded soldiers or starving children, to the monumental beauty of the Roman ruin shots and the chilly vistas of Somerset in winter) there is nonetheless a kind of narrowness to the work, in at least two ways:

The louring images of Somerset could hardly be more bleak and abandoned and the commentary is not slow to make the obvious point that they can be interpreted as landscapes as portrayed by a deeply traumatised, harrowed survivor i.e. it is all the suffering he saw which makes McCullin’s photographs of Somerset so compelling.

Well, yes, but these are also landscapes which people travel a long way to go on holiday in, where people have barbecues in the summer, take their dogs for walks, cars drive across playing Radio One, which has a good cricket team and various tourist attractions.

None of that is here. None of the actual world in all its banality, traffic jams and Tesco superstores. The images have been very carefully composed, shot and printed in order to create a particular view of the world.

And this also goes for the war and disaster photos. Seeing so many brilliantly captured, framed and shot images of war and disaster and famine, as well as the images of wrecked human beings in Spitalsfield and the poverty of the North of England – all this is bleak and upsetting and creates the impression that McCullin was living, that we are all living, in a world in permanent crisis, permanent poverty, permanent devastation.

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

You would never guess from this exhibition that his career covers the heyday of the Beatles, Swinging London, hippies smoking dope in a thousand attic squats, Biba and new boutiques, that – in other words – while soldiers were torturing civilians in Congo or Bangladesh, lots of young people were partying, older people going to work, kids going to school, families going on package holidays to the Costa del Sol, trying out fondue sets and meal warmers and all the other fancy new consumer gadgets which the Sunday Times advertised in the same magazines where McCullin’s photos appeared.

In other words, that away from these warzones, and these areas of maximum deprivation, life was going on as usual, and life was actually sweet for many millions of Brits. Kids play and laugh, even in warzones, even in poor neighborhoods. No kids are playing or laughing in any of these photos.

McCullin’s photos build up into an amazing oeuvre, an incredible body of work. But it would be a mistake to use them as the basis for a history or political interpretation of the era. It is just one perspective, and a perspective paid for by editors who wanted him to seek out the most harrowing, the most gut-wrenching and the most conscience-wracking situations possible.

If the cumulative worldview which arises from all these 250 photos is violent and troubled that is because he was paid to take photos of violence and trouble. Other photographers were doing fashion and advertising and sport and pop music photos. Their work is just as valid.

None of McCullin’s work is untrue (obviously), and all of it is beautifully shot and luminously printed – but his photos need to be placed in a much wider, broader context to even begin to grasp the history and meaning of his complex and multi-faceted era.

The promotional video


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Reviews of other photography exhibitions

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937)

Columbus sailed the Atlantic, the first steam engines tottered into motion, the British squares stood firm under the French guns at Waterloo, the one-eyed scoundrels of the nineteenth century praised God and filled their pockets; and this is where it all led – to labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round and round them like blackbeetles. (Chapter 1)

This was Orwell’s second book of social reportage.

Like 1933’s Down and Out in Paris and London it is in two parts, but in a different way. The first hundred pages comprise a detailed but selective account of his journey to the North of England to see the results of the Depression and mass unemployment for himself. The second half switches tone completely to become a long account of his own intellectual development towards a belief in Socialism.

By 1936 social reporting had become a respectable intellectual activity. J.B. Priestly had published a successful book about England north of the Trent two years earlier. The Mass-Observation social research organisation was to be founded the following year. The new wave of young writers and poets, led by W.H. Auden, had been writing about the landscape of modern industrial England and on the social impact of the depression since around 1930. Quite radical left-wing attitudes were widely held among the intelligentsia, the trade unions and ordinary workers. Indeed, Orwell was commissioned to write this book by radical publisher Victor Gollancz, and it was published by his Left Book Club.

Part one

Like Down and outWigan pier is obviously based on Orwell’s real experiences, but artfully arranged and edited to create a certain impression.

For example, it is artful that the book opens with a semi-comic account of the cramped and dirty lodging house-cum-tripe shop kept by permanently filthy Mr Brooker and the sofa-bound and obese invalid Mrs Brooker. The tales of their moaning and mean-mindedness, alongside pen portraits of the other inhabitants of the house, repeat Down and Out‘s technique of combining close observation with comedy to create an atmosphere of seediness and petty-minded poverty.

But the passage also has the structural function of easing you into the subject matter and into ‘the north’, by numerous casual asides and observations. Using the techniques of the imaginative writer.

The next chapter switches tone to begin a serious examination of both the working conditions, pay and economic importance of coal mining to Britain. It includes Orwell’s famously gruelling description of a coal miner’s working day. If the book had opened like this it would have seemed too much like a worthy left-wing pamphlet. The Brooker chapter’s function is to soften the blow and allow you to settle in with humour and human foibles before he deals you the hard-hitting description.

Chapter 2 is a gripping and detailed account of his trips down coal mines to give a visceral description of the appalling back-breaking work involved. Chapter 3 continues the coal mining theme with more detail about the work, which then morphs into a breakdown of miners’ earnings and outgoings, showing how wretchedly they are paid.

Chapter 4 is a grim description of the really appalling condition of northern slum housing. The small rooms, windows that don’t open, no heating, no hot water, no toilets, back to back housing where you have to walk 200 yards to the nearest toilet, in all weathers, and then queue. The families of five, six, seven or more people sleeping in two beds.

A dreadful room in Wigan where all the furniture seemed to be made of packing cases and barrel
staves and was coming to pieces at that; and an old woman with a blackened neck and her hair coining down denouncing her landlord in a Lancashire-Irish accent; and her mother, aged well over ninety, sitting in the background on the barrel that served her as a commode and regarding us blankly with a yellow, cretinous face. I could fill up pages with memories of similar interiors. (Chapter 4)

Chapter 5 is a detailed analysis of unemployment figures (if you include the dependents of the unemployed, then truly huge numbers, probably over ten million, were in dire poverty). It goes on to analyse the complicated structure of the dole payments made in the 1930s.

Let’s face it, almost all of this material is of historical interest. Coal has almost ceased to be mined in this country. Now almost every aspect of our lives is dominated by oil, which is extracted in much better-paid conditions and in far-away countries. There is unemployment, there is a long-term underclass in this country, but it is very difficult to get information about them. Much council housing may be grim but nowhere near as squalid as the Victorian slums gone rotten which Orwell describes.

There is a note of relevance in an interesting section at the end of chapter 5 which describes Orwell’s puzzlement at how this period of mass unemployment and demoralisation has oddly coincided with the rise of cheap luxuries: off-the-peg clothes and cheap movies were an innovation in his generation. Sweets and crap food are cheap, whereas meat and vegetables remained expensive. He saw for himself that some families barely had enough to feed themselves, but that every single household had a radio.

Similarly, maybe, to our own times when even the poorest of the poor have a mobile phone and a TV. Orwell considers the common media studies argument that these devices were ways for the ruling classes to keep the workers sated and distracted with cheap gewgaws, but I agree with his preferred analysis, that it is just the market working logically.

People want luxuries, the unemployed want to live in a fantasy of Hollywood stars and celebrities, no matter how poor they are, people will prefer cheap fattening foods and dinky devices to a nourishing diet and the fine arts.

People are people, even the poorest want to look like Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber. You have to begin from that basis, from a realistic assessment of human nature. not from some fantasy of a revolution-wishing proletariat which is just gagging to be fed classical concerts and agit-prop theatre.

Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can’t get much meat for threepence, but you can get a lot of fish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even ‘mild’ beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet.

And above all there is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of starvation can buy a few days’ hope (‘Something to live for’, as they call it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. Organized gambling has now risen almost to the status of a major industry. Consider, for instance, a phenomenon like the Football Pools, with a turnover of about six million pounds a year, almost all of it from the pockets of working-class people. I happened to be in Yorkshire when Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland. Hitler, Locarno, Fascism, and the threat of war aroused hardly a flicker of interest locally, but the decision of the Football Association to stop publishing their fixtures in advance (this was an attempt to quell the Football Pools) flung all Yorkshire into a storm of fury.

And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life. (Chapter 5)

Chapter 6 continues the theme, focusing on food but lamenting that a) the northern working classes prefer cheap luxuries – tinned peas, fish and chips, sweetened milk – to more straightforward nutritious food; but then conceding that when you are unemployed and demoralised little luxuries are vital to keeping your spirits up.

Orwell goes on to speculate that the preference for cheap luxuries might be a contributory factor to why the physiques of the poor are so stunted. Nobody over thirty has any of their own teeth. Even children’s teeth are blue and carious. Orwell repeatedly admires many of the miners’ wonderful physiques, but they are nearly all short men (for the obvious reason that the mine shafts are generally only 4 or 3 feet high).

The men are stunted and ill; you never see a good-looking working woman. Where are the six-foot heroes he read about as a boy? Grimly, he concludes, ‘buried in the Flanders mud’.

If the English physique has declined, this is no doubt partly due to the fact that the Great War carefully selected the million best men in England and slaughtered them, largely before they had had time to breed. (Chapter 6)

D.H. Lawrence, also, lamented the stunted ugliness of body, face and manner of the Nottinghamshire working class he grew up among.

An hour walking bent double to the coalface, seven and a half hours hard labour, an hour walking back and then the walk back to a slum house with no bath or hot water

An hour walking bent double to the coalface, seven and a half hours hard labour, an hour walking back to the lift to the surface, and then a couple of miles walk back to a slum house with no bath or hot water, every day, for thirty years or more

Part two

In part two of the book Orwell describes in some detail his intellectual development towards a belief in socialism.

This is, frankly, plain weird and pretty disappointing. Although it contains many striking sentences and sheds light on social changes from his Edwardian childhood through the 1930s, nonetheless it is an intensely personal, even cranky, set of opinions. It is not the clear and logical manifesot you would like it to have been.

For a start, Orwell focuses to an embarrassing extent on how the main difference between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is smell, sweat and dirt. He tells quite a few stories, which we really don’t need to hear, about how, as a snobbish little boy, the thought of swigging from bottles others had drunk from made him feel sick, how the sight of soldiers marching past made him nauseous – because of their proletarian sweat.

Again and again Orwell is distracted from any kind of theoretical ideas by the immediacy of his physical feelings of repulsion. For example, there is a fascinating section about his experiences in Burma as an officer in the Imperial Police. This makes the astonishing claim that many if not all Anglo-Indian officers thought the Empire was a bad thing, realising there was absolutely no justification for us to be ruling over foreigners in their country.

But anecdotes about the handful of officers who ever dared break the taboo about discussing the subject are sidetracked with an equally long disquisition (a page) comparing the average Burmese body (smooth, brown, hairless) and English body (ugly, clumsy, podgy, hairy in embarrassing places). Orwell is obsessed by bodies.

Here’s a typical passage which is a) characteristically well written b) conveys powerful thoughts with energy but c) is so completely personal and autobiographical as to be way out of place in a general essay about politics.

When I came home on leave in 1927 I was already half determined to throw up my job, and one sniff of English air decided me. I was not going back to be a part of that evil despotism. But I wanted much more than merely to escape from my job. For five years I had been part of an oppressive system, and it had left me with a bad conscience. Innumerable remembered faces – faces of prisoners in the dock, of men waiting in the condemned cells, of subordinates I had bullied and aged peasants I had snubbed, of servants and coolies I had hit with my fist in moments of rage (nearly everyone does these things in the East, at any rate occasionally: Orientals can be very provoking) – haunted me intolerably.

I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate. I suppose that sounds exaggerated; but if you do for five years a job that you thoroughly disapprove of, you will probably feel the same. I had reduced everything to the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong: a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being one of the oppressors yourself.

I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants. And, chiefly because I had had to think everything out in solitude, I had carried my hatred of oppression to extraordinary lengths. At that time failure seemed to me to be the only virtue. Every suspicion of self-advancement, even to ‘succeed’ in life to the extent of making a few hundreds a year, seemed to me spiritually ugly, a species of bullying. (Chapter 9)

Most of what Orwell writes is readable because he writes it in the clear, crisp prose of a man educated at Eton, who then went on to serve in the Imperial Police, a man trained to getting to the point, to writing crisp reports for his school masters and then military superiors.

And his prose is backed up with his almost pathological need to tell the complete honest truth, no matter how embarrassing to himself, which is a large part of what makes it psychologically compelling. He so regularly flays himself, his own opinions and sensations, that he can’t help winning you over.

Each page is littered with fascinating insights into the society of his time and its attitudes, not least where it reveals what we today would consider – despite his claims to be a progressive thinker – attitudes of astonishing racism and everyday sexism.

But there are also long passages dealing with attitudes, caricatures, personas and social ‘types’ which have completely vanished, satirising stereotypes which you have to look up on Google to understand. Maybe these were acute and funny in his day but they now read like long woolly padding.

It is only when you meet someone of a different culture from yourself that you begin to realize what
your own beliefs really are. If you are a bourgeois ‘intellectual’ you too readily imagine that you have somehow become unbourgeois because you find it easy to laugh at patriotism and the G. of E. and the Old School Tie and Colonel Blimp and all the rest of it.

But from the point of view of the proletarian ‘intellectual’, who at least by origin is genuinely outside the bourgeois culture, your resemblances to Colonel Blimp may be more important than your differences. Very likely he looks upon you and Colonel Blimp as practically equivalent persons; and in a way he is right, though neither you nor Colonel Blimp would admit it. So that the meeting of proletarian and bourgeois, when they do succeed in meeting, is not always the embrace of long-lost brothers; too often it is the clash of alien cultures which can only meet in war. (Chapter 10)

Orwell is almost always incredibly anecdotal, his insights based on highly personal opinions, experiences, conversations and so on. The more I read the more I realised that Orwell’s factual books lack three things which characterise modern political discourse.

1. They are utterly untheoretical: the terms bourgeois and proletariat and intellectual are chucked about without any definitions or precision, let alone any of the vast weight of radical theory which began to be generated, I suppose, in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, Orwell goes out of his way to disparage anyone who studies or uses Marxist terminology:

As for the technical jargon of the Communists, it is as far removed from the common speech as
the language of a mathematical textbook. I remember hearing a professional Communist speaker address a working-class audience. His speech was the usual bookish stuff, full of long sentences and parentheses and ‘Notwithstanding’ and ‘Be that as it may’, besides the usual jargon of ‘ideology’ and ‘class-consciousness’ and ‘proletarian solidarity’ and all the rest of it. After him a Lancashire working man got up and spoke to the crowd in their own broad lingo. There was not much doubt which of the two was nearer to his audience… (Chapter 11)

2. No sense of the complexity of social groupings. Modern marketing and advertising from the 1960s onwards have led to sophisticated ways of categorising western societies not only into social classes but into groups and types with their own specific interests (the grey pound, the gay community), not to mention the influx of immigrants who now have to be taken account of.

Twenty years of internet marketing have gone hand in hand with the growth of identity politics to create a sense of a society teeming with special interest groups. Reading Orwell’s division of society into a ruling upper class, a bourgeois class, and a proletariat is like reading a fairy tale. When he does talk about other social groupings they read like Bateman cartoons, the most simple of stereotypes. For example, there is a long sequence where he says the average person is put off ‘socialism’ because it seems to attract so many cranks:

In addition to this there is the horrible – the really disquieting – prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. One day this summer I was riding through Letchworth when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got on to it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured ‘Socialists’, as who should say, ‘Red Indians’. He was probably right – the I.L.P. were holding their summer school at Letchworth. But the point is that to him, as an ordinary
man, a crank meant a Socialist and a Socialist meant a crank. (Chapter 11)

It’s quite funny but hopelessly anecdotal (and note the thread of intense physical repulsion which runs like a vein through all Orwell’s writings). It’s interesting as social history but useless as any kind of argument. Passages like this are really a kind of ‘higher gossip’, it’s a story told in the pub – ‘You know I was on the bus the other day…’. It’s almost as far from political argument as you can get.

3. Numbers: Modern political discourse is absolutely saturated by numbers, be it percentages of the population or particular groups who say they want this or that, in countless opinion polls, or amounts of money required to support the NHS, Britain’s schools or hospitals or prisons or drug rehabilitation centres.

Modern political discourse is saturated with statistics and it feels quaint and old fashioned to read a supposedly political essay which revolves around the author’s memories of childhood, of school, of his early jobs, and then in adult life how his sense of smell or hygiene is offended by workers and foreigners.

4. Using literature as evidence Lacking theoretical precision, lacking a sociological or economic understanding of the complexity of modern society, lacking a grasp of agricultural or industrial production, Orwell’s most repeated tactic is ad hominem attacks on the failings of other writers.

Chapter 10 sets out to answer the question ‘What is socialism?’ but very disappointingly falls away into a string of shallow hits at contemporary writers or social stereotypes (he really hates naturists, sandal-wearers, vegetarians, fruit juice drinkers and feminists).

He slags off the high profile Roman Catholic converts of the day (G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox – notably omitting the more famous – to us – Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene). He calls Auden ‘a gutless Kipling’; he thinks George Bernard Shaw’s plays show that Shaw is averse to revolutionary socialism from below and only wants to impose his own sense of order and discipline from above.

Fellow Fabian Beatrice Webb’s autobiography gives ‘unconsciously, a most revealing picture of the high-minded Socialist slum-visitor’. Henri Barbusse (author to the First World War classic, Le Feu) is criticised for his mindless claims that he wants to bayonet the bourgeoisie. A certain Prince Mirsky who stayed in exile in England for a while before returning to the USSR and writing an excoriating criticism of the British intelligentsia, is quoted at length. William Morris is a ‘windbag’.

Orwell claims it is a common phenomenon that intellectuals and writers heartily support the downtrodden, the urban poor and so on… until there’s the remotest chance that the downtrodden might actually stand up for themselves and start to change things, at which point they turn into the most reactionary of conservatives. And his proof for this assertion? The novels of John Galsworthy.

Chapter 11 sets out to address what he sees as a common objection to socialism, which is ordinary people’s dislike of the mechanisation of life and society. This is represented in an astonishingly vague abstract way via – once again – purely literary authors. The utopia of Samuel Butler (in Erewhon, 1872) is contrasted with a lengthy critique of the idea of ever-increasing mechanisation proposed in the sci-fi novels of H.G. Wells, and both contrasted with the dystopian vision of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).

This is fine as literary chat but is useless as political analysis.

What is Socialism?

It is really striking that nowhere does Orwell present or discuss the policies of actual political parties, neither the British Liberals, Conservatives nor Labour Party, let alone any parties from the continent.

Instead the entire debate is frame either in terms of Orwell’s own very personal experiences or by way of paraphrasing authors old or contemporary.

He continually tells his readers that the only possible choice for the sensible modern person is Socialism, we must put aside our differences and adopt Socialism, now is the time to promote Socialism etc etc. But as to what Socialism actually is, he only gets around to addressing on a handful of occasions, and his definitions are tragically banal:

  • Socialism means justice and common decency. (Chapter 11)
  • The essential aims of Socialism are justice and liberty. (Chapter 12)
  • We have got to fight for justice and liberty, and Socialism does mean justice and liberty when the
    nonsense is stripped off it. (Chapter 13)
  • I suggest that the real Socialist is one who wishes – not merely conceives it as desirable, but actively wishes – to see tyranny overthrown. (Chapter 14)
  • Socialism means the overthrow of tyranny. (Chapter 14)
  • The Socialist movement has not time to be a league of dialectical materialists; it has got to be a league of the oppressed against the oppressors. (Chapter 14)
  • All that is needed is to hammer two facts home into the public consciousness. One, that the interests of all exploited people are the same; the other, that Socialism is compatible with common decency. (Chapter 14)

Pitifully inadequate. How many sceptics do you think were won over by these trite formulations?

Interesting as social history and literary gossip, the long second part of The Road To Wigan Pier is a desperately disappointing failure to present even the most basic tenets of socialism or give any idea how it could be implemented or brought about.

Illustration by H. Lanos to When the Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells which Orwell uses at length in his discussion of the mechanisation of modern society

Illustration by H. Lanos to When the Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells which Orwell uses at length in his discussion of the mechanisation of modern society

Postscript – Orwell and cranks

Orwell’s hatred of ‘cranks’ is itself cranky. He is obsessed with a whole raft of alternative life style nudists, vegetarians, feminists and sandal wearers. These kinds of people come in for farm more criticism than the bankers, financiers, big businessmen, conservative politicians who you might have thought ought to be the targets of his ire.

And then there is the outer-suburban creeping Jesus, a hangover from the William Morris period, but still surprisingly common, who goes about saying ‘Why must we level down? Why not level up?’ and proposes to level the working class ‘up’ (up to his own standard) by means of hygiene, fruit-juice, birth-control, poetry, etc. (Chapter 10)

The middle-class I.L.P.’er and the bearded fruit-juice drinker are all for a classless society so long as they see the proletariat through the wrong end of the telescope; force them into any real contact with a proletarian – let them get into a fight with a drunken fish-porter on Saturday night, for instance – and they are capable of swinging back to the most ordinary middle-class snobbishness. (Chapter 10)

The typical Socialist is not, as tremulous old ladies imagine, a ferocious-looking working man with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years’ time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and, above all, with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting. (Chapter 11)

The only thing for which we can combine is the underlying ideal of Socialism; justice and liberty. But it is hardly strong enough to call this ideal ‘underlying’. It is almost completely forgotten. It has been buried beneath layer after layer of doctrinaire priggishness, party squabbles, and half-baked ‘progressivism’ until it is like a diamond hidden under a mountain of dung. The job of the Socialist is to get it out again. Justice and liberty! Those are the words that have got to ring like a bugle across the world. For a long time past, certainly for the last ten years, the devil has had all the best tunes. We have reached a stage when the very word ‘Socialism’ calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors, and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers. Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankishness, machine-worship, and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you can remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism may win.  (Chapter 12)

It would help enormously, for instance, if the smell of crankishness which still clings to the Socialist movement could be dispelled. If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly! (Chapter 14)

It is fatal to let the ordinary inquirer get away with the idea that being a Socialist means wearing sandals and burbling about dialectical materialism. (Chapter 14)

Orwell’s quite vitriolic dislike of faddists and cranks and of all the left-wing writers he disagrees with, of Catholic converts and communists, of proletarian writers and high-minded reformers, of writers and the entire London literary scene as a whole, is itself a (quaintly English) symptom of the hopeless lack of unity and infighting which has so often bedevilled the parties of the Left, and which in his day paralysed their opposition to Mussolini and Hitler and, on a much more serious level, was a key element in the defeat of the republic in the Spanish Civil War.

His rhetoric often operates on precisely the kind of visceral physical insults which he was later to condemn in Stalinism. For example, he is very prone to calling people he despises fat:

  • Mrs Brooker used to lament by the hour, lying on her sofa, a soft mound of fat and self-pity… (Chapter 1)
  • Ideally, the worst type of slum landlord is a fat wicked man, preferably a bishop, who is drawing an immense income from extortionate rents. (Chapter 4)
  • ‘I think running water is much more attractive in moor and mountain country than in the fat and sluggish South.’ (from a letter written to him by a friend which he quotes in Chapter 7)
  • The white man is generally ill-shaped, and when he grows fat he bulges in improbable places. (Chapter 9)
  • Please notice that this essentially fat-bellied version of ‘progress’ is not an integral part of Socialist doctrine; but it has come to be thought of as one… (Chapter 12)
  • Barring wars and unforeseen disasters, the future is envisaged as an ever more rapid march of mechanical progress; machines to save work, machines to save thought, machines to save pain,
    hygiene, efficiency, organization, more hygiene, more efficiency, more organization, more machines–until finally you land up in the by now familiar Wellsian Utopia, aptly caricatured by Huxley in Brave New World, the paradise of little fat men. (Chapter 12)
  • Brave New World belongs to a later time and to a generation which has seen through the
    swindle of ‘progress’. It contains its own contradictions (the most important of them is pointed out in Mr John Strachey’s The Coming Struggle for Power), but it is at least a memorable assault on the more fat-bellied type of perfectionism. (Chapter 12)
  • Clearly I do not, in a sense, ‘want’ to return to a simpler, harder, probably agricultural way of life. In the same sense I don’t ‘want’ to cut down my drinking, to pay my debts, to take enough exercise, to be faithful to my wife, etc., etc. But in another and more permanent sense I do want these things, and perhaps in the same sense I want a civilization in which ‘progress’ is not definable as making the world safe for little fat men. (Chapter 12)
  • This [opposition to socialism] is traceable to two main causes. One is the personal inferiority of
    many individual Socialists; the other is the fact that Socialism is too often coupled with a fat-bellied, godless conception of ‘progress’ which revolts anyone with a feeling for tradition or the rudiments of an aesthetic sense. (Chapter 13)

Instead of criticising pretty much every group he could identify and every author he’d ever read, Orwell should have been trying to unite as many disparate groups as possible by hammering out an anti-fascist, anti-Right wing platform which could be agreed on by the widest possible range of parties and groups.

This is precisely what he tries to do in the final chapter of the book, by saying that the ‘comrades’ need to tone down the anti-bourgeois rhetoric because it is precisely the petty bourgeois office workers and commercial travellers and clerks that they need to win over to the cause.

Alienate them by telling them they are capitalist running dogs and you push them into the Fascist camp. But these exhortations to unity come at the end of nearly a hundred pages of unrelenting criticism and vituperation. Too little, too late.

And above all, there is a huge, a vast chasm in the book which is where he should have been explaining just exactly what he means in practical terms by Socialism and how it would be brought about and just why it is in the direct personal interest of a floor walker or commercial traveller, the clerks and drapers and civil servants and millions of other petty bourgeois to espouse it and fight for it.

Part one – conditions of miners in the North – priceless reportage and still shocking to this day.

Part two – his own personal views about Socialism – a desperately confusing rag-bag of personal anecdote, obsessions and ringing rhetorical calls for Justice, totally devoid of any practical policies.


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I prefer 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

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