The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell (1941)

In all countries the poor are more national than the rich, but the English working class are outstanding in their abhorrence of foreign habits. Even when they are obliged to live abroad for years they refuse either to accustom themselves to foreign food or to learn foreign languages. Nearly every Englishman of working-class origin considers it effeminate to pronounce a foreign word correctly.

The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius was published in February 1941, well into the Second World War, after Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. It is a long essay, divided into three parts.

  1. England Your England (35 pages)
  2. Shopkeepers at War (19 pages)
  3. The English Revolution (9 pages)

The three essays 1. describe the essence of Englishness and records changes in English society over the previous thirty years or so 2. make the case for a socialist system in England 3. argue for an English democratic socialism, sharply distinct from the totalitarian communism of Stalin.

Now, at this distance of 76 years, the political content seems to me almost completely useless. After the war, the socialist policies carried out by Attlee’s government, thirty years of ‘Butskellism’ and Britain’s steady industrial decline into the 1970s which was brutally arrested by Mrs Thatcher’s radical economic and social policies of the 1980s, followed by Tony Blair’s attempt to create a non-socialist Labour Party in the 1990s, and all the time the enormous social transformations wrought by ever-changing technology – the political, social, economic, technological and cultural character of England has been transformed out of all recognition.

That said, this book-length essay is still worth reading as a fascinating social history of its times and for its warm evocation of the elements of the English character, some of which linger on, some of which have disappeared.

England Your England

By far the longest section is part one which is an extended evocation of all aspects of English character, so powerful, well-written and thought-provoking that it is often reprinted on its own. In its affection for all aspects of England it continued the nostalgia for an older, less commercialised, more decent England which marked his previous book, the novel Coming Up For Air.

What really marks it out is not the truth or otherwise of Orwell’s statements, but the tremendously pithy lucidity with which he expresses them. If they are not true, many of us older white liberals wish they were true. The essay invites you to play a sort of ‘Where’s Wally’ game of deciding whether you agree or disagree with his generalisations, and why. It has a kind of crossword-y kind of pleasure.

What, he asks, is England?

The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.

Other aspects of Englishness, as Orwell perceived it in 1941, include: solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes, love of flowers and gardening, hobbies and the essential privateness of English life. An Englishman’s home is his castle means he can tell the authorities to buzz off and mind their own business.

We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.

Religion?

The common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.

This strikes me as true. A kind of buried Anglicanism flavours most mid-century English culture, in Auden the Anglican returnee, Vaughan Williams the agnostic Anglican or Larkin the atheist Anglican. This idea of the softening influence of a non-fanatical, non-Catholic, barely believed religion, leads on to the next idea. If you have read his writings of the 1930s it comes as no surprise when he says:

The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic. You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil. It is a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers. In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement. And with this goes something that is always written off by European observers as ‘decadence’ or hypocrisy, the English hatred of war and militarism. It is rooted deep in history, and it is strong in the lower-middle class as well as the working class.

This reminds me of a consistent thread in Kipling’s writing which is righteous anger at the hypocrisy with which the general population despise and abuse soldiers – until they need them!

I went into a public ‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, ” We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ” Tommy, go away ” ;
But it’s ” Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play… (Tommy, 1890)

This anti-militarism has a comic side in that the English only seem to remember their terrible defeats: the Somme, Dunkirk. As Orwell puts it with typical pithiness:

The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.

This anti-militarism goes alongside a profound respect for the law; not necessarily obeying it, but knowing it is there and can be appealed to at all times. ‘Oi, you can’t do that to me, I aven’t done anything wrong’ is a universal cry of the English crook and trouble-maker. The law may be organised to protect the property of the rich but it isn’t as absolutely corrupt as in other countries, and it certainly hasn’t ceased to matter, as it has in the totalitarian states.

Abroad? An old saying had it that ‘wogs begin at Calais’ and the recent Brexit vote confirms the underlying xenophobia of the British who have a proud tradition of never learning a word of a foreign language, even if they’ve lived in France or Spain for decades. This rejection of the foreign partly accounts for English philistinism:

The English are not gifted artistically. They are not as musical as the Germans or Italians, painting and sculpture have never flourished in England as they have in France. Another is that, as Europeans go, the English are not intellectual.

Class?

England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.

Towards the end of the essay Orwell analyses the role of the ruling class. Basically, they have been unable to get to grips with the modern world and retreated into Colonel Blimpish stupidity.

One of the dominant facts in English life during the past three quarters of a century has been the decay of ability in the ruling class.

The great public schools, the army, the universities, all teach the upper classes to rely on forms and behaviour which was suitable to the 1880s. The fact that Germany was out-producing British industry by 1900, that America was emerging as the strongest economy in the world, that the working classes were becoming organised and demanding a say in the running of the country? Go the club and surround yourself with like-minded cigar-puffing buffoons and dismiss it all as easily as dismissing the waiter.

This refusal to face the world, this decision to be stupid, explains much. It explains the astonishing sequence of humiliating military defeats – in the Crimea, the Zulu War, the Boer War, the Great War the British ruling class, as epitomised by its upper class twit general, consistently failed in every aspect of war-making. In each case initial defeats were only clawed back when a younger, less ‘educated’ cohort of officers took charge.

Orwell continues the sheer stupidity of the ruling class in his description of the terrifically posh Tory politicians who ran British foreign policy during the 1930s. Two things happened: the empire declined and we completely failed to understand the rise of the totalitarian states. To take the second first, upper-class numpties like Lord Halifax (Foreign Secretary 1938-40) and Neville Chamberlain (Prime Minister 1937-40) were paralysed during the 1930s. They were terrified of Stalin’s communism and secretly sympathised with much of Fascist policy, but couldn’t bring themselves to deal with the vulgar little Hitler. Their upbringing at public schools and running an empire where everyone said, Yes sahib, completely unprepared them for the modern world.

They could not struggle against Nazism or Fascism, because they could not understand them. Neither could they have struggled against Communism, if Communism had been a serious force in western Europe. To understand Fascism they would have had to study the theory of Socialism, which would have forced them to realize that the economic system by which they lived was unjust, inefficient and out-of-date. But it was exactly this fact that they had trained themselves never to face. They dealt with Fascism as the cavalry generals of 1914 dealt with the machine-guns – by ignoring it.

(Lord Halifax’s Wikipedia page relates that he almost created a massive scene when he first met Adolf Hitler and handed him his overcoat, thinking him to be the footman. Exactly. To Halifax’s class, everyone who didn’t go to their school must be a servant.)

And what about the British Empire? On the face of it between 1918 and 1945 the British Empire reached its greatest geographical extent, not least due to the addition of the various mandates in the Middle East carved out of the former Ottoman Empire. But despite the razamataz of the 1924 Empire Exhibition and so on, it’s quite clear that for most ordinary people and pretty much all intellectuals, the age of empire was over. it just took the ruling classes another 30 odd years to realise it. Orwell gives a reason for this decline in belief in the empire which I hadn’t heard before.

It was due to the rise of bureaucracy. Orwell specifically blames the telegraph and radio. In the golden age of empire the world presented a vast playground for buccaneering soldiers and ruthless merchants. No more.

The thing that had killed them was the telegraph. In a narrowing world, more and more governed from Whitehall, there was every year less room for individual initiative. Men like Clive, Nelson, Nicholson, Gordon would find no place for themselves in the modern British Empire. By 1920 nearly every inch of the colonial empire was in the grip of Whitehall. Well-meaning, over-civilized men, in dark suits and black felt hats, with neatly rolled umbrellas crooked over the left forearm, were imposing their constipated view of life on Malaya and Nigeria, Mombasa and Mandalay. The one-time empire builders were reduced to the status of clerks, buried deeper and deeper under mounds of paper and red tape. In the early twenties one could see, all over the Empire, the older officials, who had known more spacious days, writhing impotently under the changes that were happening. From that time onwards it has been next door to impossible to induce young men of spirit to take any part in imperial administration. And what was true of the official world was true also of the commercial. The great monopoly companies swallowed up hosts of petty traders. Instead of going out to trade adventurously in the Indies one went to an office stool in Bombay or Singapore. And life in Bombay or Singapore was actually duller and safer than life in London. Imperialist sentiment remained strong in the middle class, chiefly owing to family tradition, but the job of administering the Empire had ceased to appeal. Few able men went east of Suez if there was any way of avoiding it.

And of course, Orwell had seen this for himself, first hand, as an imperial servant in Burma from 1922 to 1928.

Lastly, the final section of part one describes the undermining of the rigid old class system since the Great War by the advent of new technologies, by the growth of light industry on the outskirts of towns, and the proliferation of entirely new types of middle-class work.

Britain was no longer a country of rich landowners and poverty-stricken peasants, of brutal factory owners and a huge immiserated proletariat. New technology was producing an entire new range of products – cheap clothes and shoes and fashions, cheap movies, affordable cars, houses with inside toilets etc, at the same time as the new industries no longer required thick-muscled navvies or exhausted women leaned over cotton looms, but educated managers, chemists, technicians, secretaries, salesmen and so on, who call into being a supporting class of doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, etc. This is particularly noticeable in the new townships of the south.

In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes – everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns – the old pattern is gradually changing into something new. In those vast new wildernesses of glass and brick the sharp distinctions of the older kind of town, with its slums and mansions, or of the country, with its manor-houses and squalid cottages, no longer exist. There are wide gradations of income, but it is the same kind of life that is being lived at different levels, in labour-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads and in the naked democracy of the swimming-pools. It is a rather restless, cultureless life, centring round tinned food, Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine. It is a civilization in which children grow up with an intimate knowledge of magnetoes and in complete ignorance of the Bible. To that civilization belong the people who are most at home in and most definitely OF the modern world, the technicians and the higher-paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists. They are the indeterminate stratum at which the older class distinctions are beginning to break down.

It is fascinating to learn that this process, the breakdown of old class barriers due to new industries, new consumer products and a new thrusting classless generation, which I tended to associate with the 1960s – maybe because the movies and music of the 1960s proclaim this so loudly and are still so widely available – was in fact taking place as early as the 1920s.

The effect of all this is a general softening of manners. It is enhanced by the fact that modern industrial methods tend always to demand less muscular effort and therefore to leave people with more energy when their day’s work is done. Many workers in the light industries are less truly manual labourers than is a doctor or a grocer. In tastes, habits, manners and outlook the working class and the middle class are drawing together.

2. Shopkeepers at War

In this part Orwell declares that the old ruling class and their capitalism must be overthrown for the simple reason that

private capitalism, that is, an economic system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit — DOES NOT WORK.

The war so far has shown that a planned economy will always beat an unplanned one. Both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia have states and economies guided from the top downwards towards clearly articulated political ends (winning wars). A capitalist society is made up of thousands of businesses all competing against and undermining each other, and undermining the national good. His example is British firms which right up to the declaration of war were still aggressively seeking contracts with Hitler’s Germany to sell them vital raw materials required for weapons, tin, rubber, copper. Madness!

Only a modern centralised, nationalised economy can successfully fight off other centralised nationalised economies. This, argues Orwell, is why some kind of socialist revolution must take place. In order to win the war, the British government must, in the name of the people, take over central running of all aspects of the economy.

In this section Orwell gives us a good working definition of socialism, the definition which was promised and then so glaringly absent from The Road To Wigan Pier four years earlier. Maybe it took those four years, Spain and distance from England, to be able to define it for himself.

Socialism is usually defined as “common ownership of the means of production”. Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State. The State is the sole large-scale producer. It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption. At normal times a capitalist economy can never consume all that it produces, so that there is always a wasted surplus (wheat burned in furnaces, herrings dumped back into the sea etc etc) and always unemployment. In time of war, on the other hand, it has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it. In a Socialist economy these problems do not exist. The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them. Production is only limited by the amount of labour and raw materials. Money, for internal purposes, ceases to be a mysterious all-powerful thing and becomes a sort of coupon or ration-ticket, issued in sufficient quantities to buy up such consumption goods as may be available at the moment.

However, it has become clear in the last few years that “common ownership of the means of production” is not in itself a sufficient definition of Socialism. One must also add the following: approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education. These are simply the necessary safeguards against the reappearance of a class system. Centralised ownership has very little meaning unless the mass of the people are living roughly upon an equal level, and have some kind of control over the government.

Socialism aims, ultimately, at a world-state of free and equal human beings. It takes the equality of human rights for granted.

The nature of the revolution

So what would this English revolution consist of? The complete overthrow of the useless ruling class which is bedevilled by its own stupidity and simply unable to see the genuine threat that Hitler posed, able only to read him as a bulwark against Bolshevism and therefore a defender of all the privileges of England’s entrenched ruling class. Away with it in –

a complete shift of power. New blood, new men, new ideas — in the true sense of the word, a revolution… It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting, it means a fundamental shift of power… What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old… Right through our national life we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public-schoolboy is better fitted for command than an intelligent mechanic… Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the moneyed class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny.

In this section he speaks right to the present moment and lists the agents of defeat, from pacifists through Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts to some Roman Catholics. But the real enemy, he says, is those who talk of peace, of negotiating peace with Hitler, a peace designed to leave in place all their perks and privileges, their dividends and servants. These are the worst, the most insidious enemies, both of the war effort and of the English people as a whole.

3. The English Revolution

We cannot establish anything that a western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler; on the other hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century.

Orwell gives a sweeping trenchant review of the current political scene in England, 1941. All the parties of the left are incapable of reform, the Labour Party most of all since it is the party of the trade unions and therefore has a vested interest in the maintenenace and flourishing of capitalism. The tiny communist party appeals to deracinated individuals but has done more to put the man in the street off socialism than any other influence.

The Labour Party stood for a timid reformism, the Marxists were looking at the modern world through nineteenth-century spectacles. Both ignored agriculture and imperial problems, and both antagonised the middle classes. The suffocating stupidity of left-wing propaganda had frightened away whole classes of necessary people, factory managers, airmen, naval officers, farmers, white-collar workers, shopkeepers, policemen. All of these people had been taught to think of Socialism as something which menaced their livelihood, or as something seditious, alien, “anti-British” as they would have called it.

Therefore, the revolution must come from below. Sound utopian? It is the war which has made it a possibility. The policy of the ruling class in the run-up to the war, the shameful incompetence of the opening year – Dunkirk – have made obvious to absolutely everyone that change is needed. Now, for the first time in its history, a genuinely revolutionary socialist change is thinkable.

A Socialist movement which can swing the mass of the people behind it, drive the pro-Fascists out of positions of control, wipe out the grosser injustices and let the working class see that they have something to fight for, win over the middle classes instead of antagonising them, produce a workable imperial policy instead of a mixture of humbug and Utopianism, bring patriotism and intelligence into partnership – for the first time, a movement of such a kind becomes possible.

Here, at the climax of the essay, he gives six practical policies:

  1. Nationalisation of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries.
  2. Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.
  3. Reform of the educational system along democratic lines.
  4. Immediate Dominion status for India, with power to secede when the war is over.
  5. Formation of an Imperial General Council, in which the coloured peoples are to be represented.
  6. Declaration of formal alliance with China, Abyssinia and all other victims of the Fascist powers.

The general tendency of this programme is unmistakable. It aims quite frankly at turning this war into a revolutionary war and England into a Socialist democracy.

Wow! The verve, the intellectual confidence, and the optimism of these passages is thrilling!

In the final pages Orwell guesses what kind of revolution it will be, namely a revolution ‘with English characteristics’, the characteristics he so lovingly enumerated in the first section. He gives a complicated analysis of the many forces against it, including comparisons with Vichy France and guesses about the strategies of Hitler and Stalin, too complicated to summarise. The essays ends by repeatedly attacking the pacifism and defeatism of English intellectuals, left-wing intellectuals and so-called communists. It is an all-or-nothing struggle. We can’t go back. the world has completely changed. We must recognise these changes, grasp them, and take them forward in a sweeping social revolution which alone can guarantee victory.

It is goodbye to the Tatler and the Bystander, and farewell to the lady in the Rolls-Royce car. The heirs of Nelson and of Cromwell are not in the House of Lords. They are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden; and at present they are still kept under by a generation of ghosts. Compared with the task of bringing the real England to the surface, even the winning of the war, necessary though it is, is secondary. By revolution we become more ourselves, not less. There is no question of stopping short, striking a compromise, salvaging “democracy”, standing still. Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.

Wow! It must have been amazing to read this at the time.

And then what happened?

Churchill’s government did grasp the need for total war mobilisation on an unprecedented scale. Rationing was introduced and every effort made to quash luxury. If we ‘won’ the war it was because Hitler made the mad decision to invade Russia at the same time as the Japanese foolishly attacked America. Britain became the baby buoyed up between Russia and America.

And the war was barely over (May 1945) when Britain held a general election (July 1945) which to everyone’s amazement swept the victorious war leader Churchill from power and produced a socialist government with a huge majority. For the one and only time in its history the British enacted a sweep of revolutionary policies, nationalising the entire health service, extending free state education, and nationalising the key industries of coal, steel and so on. Within two years India was granted its independence. Surely these fulfilled most of Orwell’s definitions of revolution.

And yet… Private schools weren’t abolished and continued to serve as a beacon for privilege and snobbery. The banks and entire financial system was left untouched to flourish, continuing to orchestrate an essentially capitalist economy and redistribute money upwards towards the rich. Income was in no way controlled and so soon the divide between rich and poor opened up again. Massive social changes took place and yet – as Orwell had clearly seen, England’s essential character remained unchanged. Attlee’s government achieved much in five brief years but then was tumbled from power and England reverted to being ruled by upper-class twits, the twits who, like all their ilk live in the past, thought Britain was still a global power, and so took us into the Suez Crisis of 1956. But by then Orwell was long dead.

Conclusion

This is a brilliant long essay, one of the greatest in all English literature, a wonderful combination of nostalgic description for an idealised England, with a fascinating analysis of the social and political scene of his day, and then onto a stirringly patriotic call to fight not only to defeat fascism but to create a new, fairer society. It is impossible not to be stirred and inspired by the combination of incisive analysis, the novelist’s imaginative evocation of English character, and then a speech-writer’s stirring peroration.

However, it is all too easy, in my opinion, to let yourself get swept along by the unashamed patriotism and the bracing insights into ‘the English character’ so that you end up acquiescing in what turned out to be Orwell’s completely inaccurate predictions of the future and his completely unfounded faith in an English revolution.

A social revolution of sorts did take place during and immediately after the war, but what made it so English was the way that, deep down, it didn’t change anything at all.

London 1940 - seat of a socialist revolution?

London 1940 – seat of a socialist revolution?


Credit

The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell was published by Secker and Warburg in 1941. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

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

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell (1939)

I shoved my foot down on the accelerator. The very thought of going back to Lower Binfield had done me good already. You know the feeling I had. Coming up for air! Like the big sea-turtles when they come paddling up to the surface, stick their noses out and fill their lungs with a great gulp before they sink down again among the seaweed and the octopuses. We’re all stifling at the bottom of a dustbin, but I’d found the way to the top. Back to Lower Binfield!

This is a surprisingly nostalgic and moving book. It is the only one of Orwell’s novels told in the first person, and it soon becomes clear why. Most of the first half consists of his protagonist’s long and evocative memory of England before the Great War, a loving memory of an England of calm, order and confidence.

The plot

Part one

The narrator is George Bowling. He lives in an anonymous semi in an anonymous street, one of those streets which ‘fester all over the inner-outer suburbs’, in an anonymous London suburb. He is middle-aged and fat (he mentions that he is fat a lot, there are page-long meditations on the condition of fatness).

I haven’t got one of those bellies that sag half-way down to the knees. It’s merely that I’m a little bit broad in the beam, with a tendency to be barrel-shaped.

George is a 45 year-old insurance salesman who makes a respectable seven of so pounds a week, so he is significantly better off – and more comfortable, more at ease with life – than the protagonists of Orwell’s previous novels, A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep The Aspidistra Flying. He is married to a scrawny nagging wife, Hilda, and has two whiny kids – Billy (7) and Lorna (11) – that he refers to as the bastards.

On the day of the novel George has no work to do and so takes his time washing, shaving, having breakfast, taking the train into London, stopping into pubs for a quick one, and strolling the streets. It is, in fact, the day he is going to his dentist to take possession of his new set of false teeth. So a few things happen but there isn’t that much interaction with other people. For the most part we are inside George’s head listening to him muse about a) the wretched lives of London’s middle-class men, trapped by wage slavery and nagging wives –

Because, after all, what is a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semidetached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. (p.14)

b) the condition of being fat, how it crept up on him but how he still eyes up women in the street c) the awful shallowness and vulgarity of modern life – all those ads for shiny consumer goods; milk bars; radio – yuk d) overshadowing all his thoughts is his obsession with the shadow of war: bomber planes fly overhead at several points, and his imagination is saturated with the reality of modern war, whole cities bombed flat, refugees in the street, machine guns firing from broken windows. Hitler and Stalin, Stalin and Hitler.

I looked at the great sea of roofs stretching on and on. Miles and miles of streets, fried-fish shops, tin chapels, picture houses, little printing-shops up back alleys, factories, blocks of flats, whelk stalls, dairies, power stations – on and on and on. Enormous! And the peacefulness of it! Like a great wilderness with no wild beasts. No guns firing, nobody chucking pineapples, nobody beating anybody else up with a rubber truncheon. If you come to think of it, in the whole of England at this moment there probably isn’t a single bedroom window from which anyone’s firing a machine-gun.
But how about five years from now? Or two years? Or one year? (p.24)

War is coming soon, he reflects with a kind of grim satisfaction as he looks out the train window at the endless suburban gardens, as he sips his pint as he walks along the Strand.

As I read I kept thinking of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the famous modernist masterpiece describing a day in the life of an average man wandering round a big city, thinking, musing, pondering. But there is none of Joyce’s experimentalism here. The opposite, there is a good deal of repetition. The paragraphs about being fat, becoming fat, how a fat man feels, how a fat man looks and so on, are a bit repetitive, and so are the meditations about the trashiness of modern life (key hate word is ‘streamlined’ – everything ‘streamlined’ is by definition bad) and the visions of war come back every few pages like acid reflux and repeat entire phrases again and again (I got a little bored of envisioning the machine guns ‘squirting’ from the windows.)

Part two

But everything changes as the book enters part two. Triggered by a news story in today’s paper, George’s mind is taken back to the church services of his boyhood in the little village of Lower Binfield. This (fictional) village of around 2,000 inhabitants somewhere in south Oxfordshire, a few miles from the Thames, is where George’s idyllic childhood took place.

It was a wonderful June morning. The buttercups were up to my knees. There was a breath of wind just stirring the tops of the elms, and the great green clouds of leaves were sort of soft and rich like silk. And it was nine in the morning and I was eight years old, and all round me it was early summer, with great tangled hedges where the wild roses were still in bloom, and bits of soft white cloud drifting overhead, and in the distance the low hills and the dim blue masses of the woods round Upper Binfield. (p.58)

His father was a seed merchant who kept a shop off the High Street. George’s older brother, Joe, is a tough, part of a gang which eventually grudgingly lets little Georgie join in (the other members being Sid Lovegrove and Harry Burnes, the errand boy). He remembers that long distant era as a land of perpetual sunshine, endless wheat fields and cool tree-lined pools for fishing in. (Orwell deliberately makes his protagonist older than him: Bowling was born about 1893 – he’s just old enough to remember the Boer War and the argument about it between his father and Uncle Ezekiel, as well as the mad jubilation surrounding the relief of Mafeking.)

This is a long sequence with many passages of great descriptive beauty. It is an unembarrassed wallow in nostalgia for the sweet decency of rural south England (Orwell knows all too well about life in England’s cities and life in the North of England). It is a powerful vision of idealised south of England village life, the same kind of feeling which permeates John Betjeman and goes on into Philip Larkin in the 1950s…

I’m back in Lower Binfield, and the year’s 1900. Beside the horse-trough in the market-place the carrier’s horse is having its nose-bag. At the sweet-shop on the corner Mother Wheeler is weighing out a ha’porth of brandy balls. Lady Rampling’s carriage is driving by, with the tiger sitting behind in his pipeclayed breeches with his arms folded. Uncle Ezekiel is cursing Joe Chamberlain. The recruiting-sergeant in his scarlet jacket, tight blue overalls, and pillbox hat, is strutting up and down twisting his moustache. (p.34)

There are wonderful long descriptions of the wild flowers and weeds which, because of his father’s trade in seeds, he knew were alright to eat. And central to the section, and to the novel, is the long passage about his boyhood obsession with fishing, which involves pages of detailed description of how to make a fishing rod, how to make the flies and the float and the hook from basic household items – and when he’s got a little more experience, a detailed list of the different types of bait you need to catch all the traditional English fish.

Grasshoppers are about the best bait there is, especially for chub. You stick them on the hook without any shot and just flick them to and fro on the surface – ‘dapping’, they call it. But you can never get more than two or three grasshoppers at a time. Greenbottle flies, which are also damned difficult to catch, are the best bait for dace, especially on clear days. You want to put them on the hook alive, so that they wriggle. A chub will even take a wasp, but it’s a ticklish job to put a live wasp on the hook.

It is an astonishingly sensuous, free and delightful memory of boyhood, immensely readable like almost all of Orwell, but unexpectedly happy and carefree.

The still summer evening, the faint splash of the weir, the rings on the water where the fish are rising, the midges eating you alive, the shoals of dace swarming round your hook and never biting. And the kind of passion with which you’d watch the black backs of the fish swarming round, hoping and praying (yes, literally praying) that one of them would change his mind and grab your bait before it got too dark. And then it was always ‘Let’s have five minutes more’, and then ‘Just five minutes more’, until in the end you had to walk your bike into the town because Towler, the copper, was prowling round and you could be ‘had up’ for riding without a light. And the times in the summer holidays when we went out to make a day of it with boiled eggs and bread and butter and a bottle of lemonade, and fished and bathed and then fished again and did occasionally catch something. At night you’d come home with filthy hands so hungry that you’d eaten what was left of your bread paste, with three or four smelly dace wrapped up in your handkerchief.

There is much, much more capturing the quality of boyhood when there is no future and the sunny present stretches on forever. The local girl who looked after him and his brother when they were young. The taste and feel of long-forgotten sweets, bought by the penny. The sights and sounds of market day. His mother and father sitting either side of the fire on a Sunday afternoon, falling asleep over their respective newspapers.

It is not an utterly rose-tinted view. At school he and the rest tease the mentally sub-normal boy. Along with his brother’s gang, George pulls birds’ nests out of trees and stamps on the chicks. As he explains, violence and killing, tormenting and bullying, are part of the sense of power, of immortality which author and character both seem to see as an important part of boyhood.

The section continues past this boyhood into the arrival of puberty and girls, and then on to his first real experience of reading, of entering amazing imaginative worlds from the heat of India to the jungles of the Amazon. His older brother, Joe, always a handful, is co-opted by his dad into helping with the seed shop but is impatient, loafing at the front door, ogling girls, catcalling. One day he disappears from the house, having stolen everything in the till, and is never seen again.

There is a fascinating description of his experiences during the Great War. After being wounded just enough to be sent home from the trenches, Bowling finds himself, through a series of bureaucratic errors, charged with looking after a defunct rations dump in remotest Cornwall. Here he sits out the war in peace and comfort, along with another ne-er-do-well soldier, Private Lidgebird, ‘a surly devil’. Part of the enjoyment of this long memoir is not only Orwell’s prose but the vividness with which he describes the many odd characters his protagonist encounters.

  • Old Hodges, the lodge-keeper who acted as a kind of caretaker to the abandoned grand house on the hill. ‘He had a face like something carved out of a bit of root, and only two teeth, which were dark brown and very long.’ (p.75)
  • Whiskers (his name was Wicksey) the headmaster of the grammar school, a dreadful-looking little man, with a face just like a wolf, and at the end of the big schoolroom he had a glass case with canes in it, which he’d sometimes take out and swish through the air in a terrifying manner.
  • Gravitt, the butcher… was a big, rough-faced old devil with a voice like a mastiff, and when he barked, as he generally did when speaking to boys, all the knives and steels on his blue apron would give a jingle.

Finally, we get to George’s early manhood. After the war he is pushed into a job with the local grocer, before wangling a job as a travelling salesman. Through an extraordinary coincidence he bumps into the senior officer who had allotted him the job at the rations dump, now the head of a modern conglomerate business, and through him is given a much better job in the insurance company.

At around the same time he first meets Hilda. They completely misunderstand each other because, as Orwell elaborately explains, they are from completely different classes. Hilda’s people are ex-army, ex-India but come down in the world, living in a small house stuffed with memorabilia of the Raj. George thinks they are class. Hilda’s people think George is man on the move, going up in the world, and thus push Hilda towards marrying him.

They get married and quite quickly George realises he hates her. As soon as they’re wed she drops every effort to look nice or be comforting. She becomes sharp and shrewish and reveals that she is obsessed with money, penny-pinching at every turn. George is lumbered with her and fathers two brats by her but spends his life scheming how to get away which, fortunately, his life as a travelling insurance salesman makes relatively easy.

Part three

The short part three brings us back to the present. It is the evening of the same day. George allows himself to be persuaded by Hilda to go along to a lecture at the church hall, which turns out to be given by a fierce anti-fascist. George is appalled by the venom and violence in the man’s attitude. Afterwards he joins in good humouredly with a squabble about how to fight fascism with a little group of Labour supporters. The evening ends with George dropping in on a local friend, a public school teacher, Porteous, who is a satirical caricature of the Oxbridge ivory tower intellectual.

But beneath these surface vents, George has been coming to a decision. He will wangle a week’s leave from his firm, tell Hilda he’s got business for a week in Birmingham, and… he will go back to Lower Binfield. He will revisit the scene of his childhood and all its intense happiness, before the war starts, before the war obliterates everything, he will recapture that first fine careless rapture. He will ‘come up for air’.

Part four

Of course it’s all gone. As his car breasts the hill and he looks down into the village of 2,000 he remembers so well, George discovers… it has mutated into a town of maybe 25,000 people. Houses, houses everywhere. In the distance some glass and chrome factories – that explains the population boom. He gets lost trying to find the centre but eventually reaches it, parks up in the old village inn and takes a room for a week.

At which point Orwell sets about destroying every single one of Bowling’s happy memories by showing the present-day reality of all that fond nostalgia. The family home and shop which he remembered with such vivid intensity is now a tacky tea-rooms. He goes down to the Thames, with a newly-purchased fishing rod, determined to recreate those balmy summer days in the green light below the weir – but the towpath is absolutely packed out with screaming kids, ice cream stalls, hundreds of other fishers while the water is stirred up by non-stop pleasure cruisers and the water is filthy with diesel oil and paper cups. The big old house on the hill in whose ground he and the gang used to fish has been turned into a mental home. And the secluded pond, full of legendarily huge fish, has been drained and become a rubbish dump on the edge of a vast new estate.

They’d filled my pool up with tin cans. God rot them and bust them! Say what you like – call it silly, childish, anything – but doesn’t it make you puke sometimes to see what they’re doing to England, with their bird- baths and their plaster gnomes, and their pixies and tin cans, where the beech woods used to be? (p.215)

You can’t go back. George finds himself getting drunk and wittering on to the barmaid, then trying to chat up a single woman who turns out to be posh and dismisses him with a withering glance. One further humiliation is when he bumps into his first real girlfriend, the girl (it is implied) to whom he lost his virginity, sweet honey-haired Elsie. Well, now she’s a shapeless grey-haired frump, and he follows her through the street where he first saw her, back to the frowsy little tobacconists shop she now lives in. Neither her nor husband recognise him. The past is dead.

One thing, I thought as I drove down the hill, I’m finished with this notion of getting back into the past. What’s the good of trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don’t exist. Coming up for air! But there isn’t any air. The dustbin that we’re in reaches up to the stratosphere. (p.216)

There is an odd scene almost at the end. On his last, disappointed morning, he’s strolling across the market square when there is an almighty explosion. Recognising a barrage when he hears one George drops to the ground, but there is no repeat. Earlier we had learned that there is a new bomber airfield somewhere near the town, and locals had told George that the newish stocking factory had recently been converted to manufacture bombs for the planes. It seems one of the pilots on a test run pushed the wrong lever and dropped a bomb on Lower Binfield! A grocer’s shop was flattened and the three inhabitants killed. See, George thinks, it’s coming, it’s coming and there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it.

In the final scene he motors home to find that Hilda, the suspicious little shrew, had figured out he was never in Birmingham by the simple expedient of writing to the hotel George claimed to be staying at and getting a reply saying the hotel closed two years previously. She knows George has been with another woman and starts to give him a piece of his mind George, faced with the daunting challenge of trying to explain the impulse to rediscover his childhood happiness which took him on a wild goose chase to his boyhood haunts, well, George realises it’ll be easier to admit he spent the week with another woman.


Visions of war

Barely a page goes by without George imagining the bombing or fighting in the street to come, or reflects on the streamlined, Americanised trashiness of modern life. The difference between George’s visions and those of Gordon, in Keep The Aspidistra Flying, is that George keeps these thoughts under control; he is not infuriated or exasperated by them. He sees the world about him, thinks about wars and modern life, and then has another pint which fills him with a glow of well-being. He thinks grim but he actually feels warm and rosy.

I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loud-speakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners… I see it all. I see the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. (p.29)

Next moment he’s an affable cheeky chappie, the type you’d meet in the saloon bar of a decent local pub, buying drinks for all and sundry and telling humorous stories. This alternation between Vaughan Williams pastoralism and the violence of the Gestapo, rubber coshes and machine guns is like the good cop/bad cop act. Just as you’re softening up to another vision of lying under a weeping willow beside the Thames’s purling water, a bomber flies overhead and George is off again about Stalin and Hitler.

The book is a work in its own right, and the pastoral passages are beautifully worth reading for their mental and sensual pleasure. But read in the context of Orwell’s political writings about the necessity and the inevitability of Socialism in England, I think there is a clear message. England’s dreamy past is over. We face an entirely unprecedented new threat in the form of totalitarianism. We must wake up and face the reality around us.

George has a particular variation on the widespread war fear of the time – he is more worried about what will come after the war – will it be the triumph of totalitarianism in England, with a secret police, torture chambers and loudspeakers blaring from every corner telling people what to think? Ten years later these fears would be worked up into the monstrous vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The modern world

Both Georges hate it. Streamlined, slick, Americanised, tasteless food, chromium bars, clever trite ads, George hates it all. He stops into a ‘milk bar’, epitome of everything flashy, American and revolting.

There’s a kind of atmosphere about these places that gets me down. Everything slick and shiny and streamlined; mirrors, enamel, and chromium plate whichever direction you look in. Everything spent on the decorations and nothing on the food. No real food at all. Just lists of stuff with American names, sort of phantom stuff that you can’t taste and can hardly believe in the existence of. Everything comes out of a carton or a tin, or it’s hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube. No comfort, no privacy. Tall stools to sit on, a kind of narrow ledge to eat off, mirrors all round you. A sort of propaganda floating round, mixed up with the noise of the radio, to the effect that food doesn’t matter, comfort doesn’t matter, nothing matters except slickness and shininess and streamlining. (p.25)

George makes the bad mistake of buying a hot dog. One bite and he feels like retching.

It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth. (p.27)

This modern trashiness provides an obvious contrast with the solid food and hearty beer of his childhood. But – the message of the book goes – this is the world today and we must face it.

On being a boy

I had a wonderful feeling inside me, a feeling you can’t know about unless you’ve had it – but if you’re a man you’ll have had it some time. I knew that I wasn’t a kid any longer, I was a boy at last. And it’s a wonderful thing to be a boy, to go roaming where grown-ups can’t catch you, and to chase rats and kill birds and shy stones and cheek carters and shout dirty words. It’s a kind of strong, rank feeling, a feeling of knowing everything and fearing nothing, and it’s all bound up with breaking rules and killing things. The white dusty roads, the hot sweaty feeling of one’s clothes, the smell of fennel and wild peppermint, the dirty words, the sour stink of the rubbish dump, the taste of fizzy lemonade and the gas that made one belch, the stamping on the young birds, the feel of the fish straining on the line – it was all part of it. Thank God I’m a man, because no woman ever has that feeling.

Having been a boy myself, raised in a little village in Berkshire, left to roam through woods and become part of a gang of other 8, 9, 10 year-olds, fishing in Englemere Lake and breaking into the old gravel pit to build dams out of sand, I very heartily respond to these visions of a south-of-England boyhood.


The importance of types and stereotypes in Orwell’s fiction and political writing

One of those…

In reviews of his previous novels I’ve highlighted Orwell’s continual appeal to our supposed common knowledge of various types or stereotypes of English life. He continues this trait in this novel, in fact it sits much better with Bowling’s cheeky-chappy, button-holing personality than it did with the third-person narrator of the earlier novels. But it’s the same habit of mind.

  • Do you know the active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party? I’m that type. (p.8)
  • She’s one of those people who get their main kick in life out of foreseeing disasters. (p.11)
  • He was one of those people who turn away and then suddenly dart back at you, like a dragon-fly. (p.17)
  • He’s one of these chaps you read about in novels, that have pale sensitive faces and dark hair and a private income. (p.22)
  • Warner is one of these cheap American dentists, and he has his consulting-room, or ‘parlour’ as he likes to call it, halfway up a big block of offices, between a photographer and a rubber-goods wholesaler. (p.25)

Again and again George shows off his ability to place and situate people he sees as characteristic types.

The girl was a kid about eighteen, rather fat, with a sort of moony face, the kind that would never get the change right anyway… He was an ugly, stiff-built little devil, the sort of cock-sparrow type of man that sticks his chest out and puts his hands under his coattails – the type that’d be a sergeant-major only they aren’t tall enough… Two vulgar kind of blokes in shabby overcoats, obviously commercials of the lowest type, newspaper canvassers probably, were sitting opposite me…

What I’m suggesting is that part of what Orwell’s fans and devotees describe as his honesty and his penetrating insight is actually created by this rhetorical habit of seeing the whole world in terms of recognisable and knowable types. This technique makes the world seem rational and susceptible to understanding, as organised, arranged and presented by an author who is a supreme knower of human types and behaviour. You bow before his wisdom.

  • I had one of those sudden inspirations that you get occasionally…
  • She was one of those people who never say much, but remain on the edge of any conversation that’s going on, and give the impression that they’re listening…
  • They had a little dark house in one of those buried back-streets that exist in Ealing.
  • Then they nearly joined one of those women’s clubs which go for conducted tours round factories
  • I could hear their voices cooing away in one of those meaningless conversations that women have when they’re just passing the time of day.

He is a man of the world, he knows all theses types, you know the sort, and he flatters the reader by expecting you to be, too.

Types and sterotypes

  • He looked the perfect professional soldier, the K.C.M.G., D.S.O. with bar type…
  • I’m the type that can sell things on commission…
  • I’m not the type that starves. I’m about as likely to end up in the workhouse as to end up in the House of Lords. I’m the middling type, the type that gravitates by a kind of natural law towards the five-pound-a-week level.
  • He was the usual type, completely bald, almost invisible behind his moustache, and full of stories about cobras and cummerbunds and what the district collector said in ‘93.
  • I knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, nature-worship, roll in the dew before breakfast. I’d met a few of them years ago in Ealing.

Yes, I know the type.

Stereotypes and Socialism

Having paid all this attention to Orwell’s use of types, half way through the book I had an epiphany.

In many ways political beliefs are built on ‘types’ of people, types we represent and speak for, types we oppose, who are our enemies. This was certainly true of the rather simple-minded (to our eye) political beliefs of the 1930s. To the Socialists their enemies are upper-class toffs, bankers, the bourgeoisie, the rentier class. To the Tory the enemy is the Bolshevik, the anarchist, the trade unionist, the stroppy worker. To the feminists of the day (who Orwell routinely lampoons: see the pert librarian who disapproves of Gordon Comstock asking for a book on midwifery, convinced he only wants to look at ‘dirty’ pictures) all men are horrible perverts only interested in one thing.

My questions are:

  1. To what extent is stereotyping your enemy vital to political discourse, in general?
  2. And what part do these types and stereotypes play in the formulation and expression of Orwell’s political beliefs?

Although his work is riddled with defences of ‘democratic socialism’, as even his own publisher, Victor Gollancz, explained in the apologetic preface he inserted before the second part of The Road To Wigan Pier, Orwell nowhere actually defines what Socialism is – except for a few trite phrases about justice and decency. Instead, the second part of Wigan Pier -which was intended as a 100-page long account of his intellectual development towards a belief in Socialism – mostly consists of Orwell setting up a whole series of straw men through the use of types and stereotypes – and then all-too-easily demolishing them. As a political manifesto, it is an embarrassing, almost incoherent failure.

Instead of proposing detailed plans to, say, nationalise key industries, to re-organise the economy, to create a nationalised health and education service – Orwell wastes these hundred pages addressing so-called objections the man-in-the-street might have to Socialism, via stereotypical caricatures of the views of its opponents. Thus he says the average person might be put off socialism because of the association that’s grown up with it and the kind of shiny technological future depicted in so many of H.G. Wells’s novels and tracts and magazine articles. The man-in-the-street doesn’t fancy that kind of technological future and so he (mistakenly) rejects socialism.

My point is that this farrago relies on a) trusting Orwell to know that this is in fact a major objection of the man-in-the-street to socialism b) accepting his much reduced and caricatured summary of Wells’s position and then c) accepting Orwell’s argument that a socialist future need not be a repellent one of glass and chrome.

This entire argument is so eccentric, so beside the point, that there’s something comic about it, and there is always something a little comic about Orwell’s use of human types, whether in his fiction or political essays. Something a little too pat, a little cartoonish. ‘It’s always that way with X.’ ‘They’re the type who Y.’ ‘He’s one of those Z.’ ‘Of course, the real bourgeoisie does A…  the true socialist says Y… the fascist type yells C…’

Look here, he always seems to be saying, I’m a man of the world and these people always say, do, promise, lie or behave in the following ways. It’s one thing when you’re listening to a fat, middle-aged insurance salesman in the pub; quite another when you’re deciding the future of the country.

To some extent, George Bowling is of course a parody of George Orwell’s own instincts, feelings and beliefs. Just as he cranked up his hatred of the modern world and conflicted self-loathing to create the wretched protagonist of Keep The Aspidistra Flying, so in Coming Up For Air he exaggerates both his sentimental nostalgia for a perfect England and his fear for the future.

You know

Backing away from the political implications, there’s no doubt that this button-holing and shoulder-nudging you towards acquiescence in the narrator’s thoughts and experiences is a major part of the rhetorical strategy of Orwell’s fiction.

George is propping up the bar and while the barmaid fetches another round of drinks, launches off on another story about one of those… you know the type… the kind of chap who…

  • You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses…
  • You know the smell churches have, a peculiar, dank, dusty, decaying, sweetish sort of smell…
  • You know the kind of kitchen people had in those days…
  • You know the feeling you had when you came out of the line. A stiffened feeling in all your joints, and inside you a kind of emptiness, a feeling that you’d never again have any interest in anything…
  • You know the kind of holiday. Margate, Yarmouth, Eastbourne, Hastings, Bournemouth, Brighton…
  • You know the atmosphere of a draper’s shop. It’s something peculiarly feminine. There’s a hushed feeling, a subdued light, a cool smell of cloth, and a faint whirring from the wooden balls of change rolling to and fro…
  • You know the feeling of a June evening. The kind of blue twilight that goes on and on, and the air brushing against your face like silk…
  • You know how it is with these big business men, they seem to take up more room and walk more loudly than any ordinary person, and they give off a kind of wave of money that you can feel fifty yards away…
  • You know those tennis clubs in the genteel suburbs — little wooden pavilions and high wire- netting enclosures where young chaps in rather badly cut white flannels prance up and down, shouting ‘Fifteen forty!’ and ‘Vantage all!’ in voices which are a tolerable imitation of the Upper Crust…
  • Do you know these Anglo-Indian families? It’s almost impossible, when you get inside these people’s houses, to remember that out in the street it’s England and the twentieth century. As soon as you set foot inside the front door you’re in India in the eighties. You know the kind of atmosphere. The carved teak furniture, the brass trays, the dusty tiger-skulls on the wall, the Trichinopoly cigars, the red-hot pickles, the yellow photographs of chaps in sun-helmets, the Hindustani words that you’re expected to know the meaning of, the everlasting anecdotes about tiger-shoots and what Smith said to Jones in Poona in ‘87…
  • It was rather a gloomy little hall. You know the kind of place. Pitch-pine walls, corrugated iron roof, and enough draughts to make you want to keep your overcoat on…
  • You know the line of talk. These chaps can churn it out by the hour. Just like a gramophone. Turn the handle, press the button, and it starts. Democracy, Fascism, Democracy…
  • Just behind her two old blokes from the local Labour Party were sitting. One had grey hair cropped very short, the other had a bald head and a droopy moustache. Both wearing their overcoats. You know the type…
  • You know the kind of day that generally comes some time in March when winter suddenly seems to give up fighting. For days past we’d been having the kind of beastly weather that people call ‘bright’ weather, when the sky’s a cold hard blue and the wind scrapes you like a blunt razor-blade. Then suddenly the wind had dropped and the sun got a chance. You know the kind of day..
  • You know the look of a wood fire on a still day. The sticks that have gone all to white ash and still keep the shape of sticks, and under the ash the kind of vivid red that you can see into…
  • You know how people look at you when they’re in a car coming towards you…
  • You know the kind of houses that are just a little too high-class to stand in a row, and so they’re dotted about in a kind of colony, with private roads leading up to them…
  • You know those very cheap small houses which run up a hillside in one continuous row, with the roofs rising one above the other like a flight of steps, all exactly the same…
  • I asked her for tea, and she was ten minutes getting it. You know the kind of tea – China tea, so weak that you could think it’s water till you put the milk in…
  • As soon as I set eyes on her I had a most peculiar feeling that I’d seen her somewhere before. You know that feeling…
  • Do you know that type of middle-aged woman that has a face just like a bulldog? Great underhung jaw, mouth turned down at the corners, eyes sunken, with pouches underneath…
  • Do you know the kind of shuffling, round-shouldered movements of an old woman who’s lost something?
  • You know the way small shopkeepers look at their customers – utter lack of interest…
  • Do you know these faked-up Tudor houses with the curly roofs and the buttresses that don’t buttress anything, and the rock-gardens with concrete bird-baths and those red plaster elves you can buy at the florists’?
  • You know the kind of tough old devil with grey hair and a kippered face that’s always put in charge of Girl Guide detachments, Y.W.C.A. hostels, and whatnot. She had on a coat and skirt that somehow looked like a uniform and gave you a strong impression that she was wearing a Sam Browne belt, though actually she wasn’t. I knew her type

Orwell, and his narrators, always know her type. They know all types. They are experts in all types of human and on the entire human condition. It is upon this claim to universal knowledge of human nature, upon this barrage of ‘types’ and ‘you knows’ that we are meant to place our trust in them.

Comments

Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air as soon as he’d finished Homage to Catalonia, the terrifying account of his time in Spain during the early stage of the Spanish civil war. He wrote Coming Up during a six-month stay in North Africa, from September 1938 to March 1939, which was recommended by his doctors on account of his poor health.

What a period to be outside of England and outside of Europe, looking in, looking back. From the Munich Crisis (September 1938) via Kristallnacht (November 1938) to the German annexation of Czechoslovakia  in March 1939.

Pretty obviously these were the twin sources of the powerful nostalgia which is Coming Up For Air‘s ultimate mood:

  • He had seen Soviet-style political terror in Barcelona and it made him re-evaluate the enduring value of the docile freedoms of England.
  • And then he was out of England for six long months, writing a book in which a middle-aged man reminisces about his boyhood in rural England, surely given piquancy at every turn from the fact that it was written under such very alien skies.

Ultimately Coming Up For Air is a dubious achievement as a novel – with little plot, almost no interaction among the characters and too much of a feeling that it is preaching at you – you could say that it dramatises a predicament more than a believable personality. But Orwell’s writing is marvellous throughout: you can open it at any page and immediately be drawn in by the vividness of the imagined details and the clarity of his wonderfully forthright, lucid prose.


Credit

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell was published by Victor Gollancz in 1939. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

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

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933)

Poverty is what I’m writing about, and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum. (p.9)

This is George Orwell’s first published book. It is a book of two halves – a tale of two cities, in fact.

Eric Blair

George Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair. Eric was born in India in 1903 to an Imperial civil servant father. The family returned to England in 1907 and sent young Eric to prep school then to, surprisingly, managed to wangle him a scholarship to Eton. Good at sports (not least because of his gangling six-foot-two height) Eric’s poor academic record made it seem unlikely he’d get into Oxbridge so the decision was made to send him to join the Imperial Police Force in Burma in 1922.

Eric served for five years before quitting and returning to England in 1927, determined to make a career as a writer. (His time in Burma and his growing disillusionment with the empire is described in chapter 9 of The Road to Wigan Pier; a huge amount of background knowledge and observation went into his first novel, Burmese Days.) Eric took odd jobs while scratching together drafts of novels, but found it easier to write essays and factual descriptions.

By the late 1920s Eric was living in London and fascinated by the East End. He made the first of numerous forays into the world of the doss house, the spike or the kip, the very basic lodgings provided for tramps. It fed something in him to turn his back on his genteelly upper-class milieu and confront really grinding poverty. In fact, in Wigan Pier he explains that he returned from Burma feeling guilty at being one of the oppressors; he thought he could only throw off his guilt by really sinking himself into the life of the oppressed. The sights, sounds and people he met provided the material for the second – London – section of Down and Out in Paris and London.

In 1928 Eric went to live in a ragamuffin hotel in a poor quarter of Paris hoping, in the traditional manner, to become a writer. He stayed for nearly two years. The area is named the Coq d’Or quarter in the book, and he claims he lived there for a year and a half (p.14). Eric managed to sell some journalistic pieces to French journals, was ill and hospitalised for a while and, upon his release, had all his money stolen from a lodging house.

The first hundred pages of Down and Out detail the sights and sounds and smells of this shabby area, of the squalid hotel and its impoverished but colourful inhabitants. In the opening chapters, robbed of almost all his cash, Eric is living in complete poverty off what he could pawn, often going completely hungry for days on end. Then he teams up with an ex-waiter, an émigré Russian named Boris and, after many hopes and disappointments, he finally gets a job for a glorious month or so working very long hours but with a regular income, as a plongeur at a swanky hotel-restaurant off the Rue de Rivoli.

Against his better judgement he is persuaded by Boris to quit this job to help at a new venture, the Auberge de Jehan Cottard, which turns out not even to have been properly wired, plumbed or decorated. Eric helps with all this work while, yet again, virtually starving. Finally the auberge opens and he finds himself working even longer hours, in the furnace-like kitchen where the super-harassed staff and cook spend 17-hours a day shouting abuse at each other and preparing awful food.

Eventually, Eric can’t stand the squalor, the stress and the lack of sleep any more and cables a friend in London. The friend (referred to only as B.) sends back a fiver and the promise of a job in England looking after an invalid. Eric quits the auberge, says goodbye to Boris, packs his bags and takes the cross-Channel ferry back to Blighty in chapter 24.

Here Eric is devastated to find the invalid has upped stumps and gone to the continent, so he is once again thrown on his uppers, pawns his suit and changes into the smelliest old clothes and tries his luck at a variety of filthy doss houses. For the last 80 or so pages the narrative switches to London and the towns around it, detailing the squalid conditions in the different sorts of kips in and around London, as well as his encounters with other tramps and the short-lived friendships he makes.

This second part lacks the charge and joie de vivre of the first half. The irrepressible Russian optimism of Boris brings the Paris section to life, and also the hotel is a permanent base whose inhabitants he gets to know very well, drinking and carousing with them (when he is in funds). Also the depiction of the life of a plongeur in a smart hotel is genuinely fascinating, even gripping. You get a strong flavour of Paris with descriptions of trams and night noises and dawn over the city.

By contrast the second section is not really about London at all, since many of the kips are out of town. And because he is constantly on the move (many of the doss houses only let tramps stay for one night), even when he meets other tramps and gets to know them a bit, it is only for fleeting encounters. There are no real friends such as Boris, and none of the warm camaraderie of the Hotel des Trois Moineaux. Instead the dominant theme is of large groups of extremely poor, old and sick men stripping bare in squalid bath rooms, their bodies covered in sores and rashes, all of them forced to ‘wash’ in a couple of filthy metal bath tubs.

Eric Blair becomes George Orwell

The book marks Eric’s first use of the pen-name George Orwell. Apparently he didn’t want to publish it under his own name as he didn’t want his family or friends or literary contacts to know the squalor he’d been living in. He wanted to disassociate himself from his earlier scattered articles. And he had come to consider the surname ‘Blair’ as being ‘too Scottish’.

So he submitted a list of four possible pen-names to his agent and they both agreed on George Orwell, George sounding hearty and patriotic, Orwell from the river in Suffolk not far from Southwold where his parents had by this stage bought a house and where he often stayed. (The other three were P. S. Burton, Kenneth Miles and H. Lewis Allways.)

Anyway, the name has become set in stone and it shows the essentially comical and absurd transmutations of language and culture that a sleepy little river in Suffolk has come to be the adjective educated people around the world now use to describe a dystopian vision of a crushingly totalitarian future – Orwellian.

Aspects of poverty

Taken together these 200 pages provide a vivid picture of the life of poverty in the capital cities of the two main Western democracies in the early 1930s. The book established Orwell as a great writer of social reportage, a genre he was to excel in.

Early on in the Paris section Orwell lists the characteristics of poverty (chapter 3 – the entire text is available online courtesy of the fabulous George Orwell – The Complete Works website – I’ll link off to the relevant sections of the text, as appropriate).

For a start people think poverty must be very simple, but being poor is surprisingly complicated. You have to work out dodges and wheezes both to scrounge money or food, and to avoid the unnecessary commitments you can no longer afford. You have to fib to the laundress why you no longer send her your laundry; to the tobacconist why you no longer buy your baccy from him. You pay for a handful of vegetables but discover one of the coins is Belgian, which they refuse and, since you have no others, have to slink off without paying, covered in humiliation. You find yourself lying to people, and Orwell hated lying. (It is notable that Orwell’s humiliations are not ours e.g. bringing food home to eat in the hotel room is obviously a source of deep shame for him, whereas it’s commonplace today). Shops full of delicious food (this is Paris!) make you realise how starving hungry you are. Your starving mind tells you just to grab a baguette and run, but you are too afraid to even do that. Your self-loathing deepens.

To some extent all of this is compensated for by the one great positive aspect of poverty – it abolishes care for the future, because there is no future. There is only day-to-day survival, to eke out the little money you have, to calculate how to eat, drink and find somewhere to sleep, and then to waste the day working through the thousand and one mean dodges required to stay alive.

Comedy & character

One of the blurbs of an older edition describes it as being ‘a savage portrait of the lower depths’. It’s true that the dwelling on the hunger, squalor and humiliation of utter poverty is grim, but this is to overlook the fact that the book is full of humour. He describes the couple who live in his shabby hotel and make a living by the Seine selling the postcards in bags which usually include pornographic photos – only theirs contain pictures of the chateux of the Loire, which, when they open them, the purchasers are too embarrassed to return and ask for their money back.

The majority of the Paris experience describes his shared tribulations with his friend Boris, a Russian emigre whose bumptious optimism, encyclopedic knowledge of the military campaigns of Napoleon, swanking references to his many old mistresses, and incessant bad luck make him a triumphantly comic character.

When Orwell finally finds a job as a plongeur or kind of washer-up-cum-food-server in the hellish bowels of a swanky Paris hotel, his revelations of how filthy the whole behind-the-scenes operation is may come as a shock to many people (I’ve worked in posh pubs and in the kitchen at Royal Ascot where I quickly overcame my horror at the casual lack of hygiene of food preparation; what people don’t know won’t hurt them – probably).

He gives a particularly gloating description of how the best steak will be pawed and padded and its gravy licked first by the maitre d’, then by the waiter, their unwashed filthy fingers more likely than not drenched in hair oil and nicotine, and only once they’re satisfied will they wipe their fingermarks off the plate with a cloth and sally forth to present it as a work of art to the oblivious customer.

Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it. (p.72)

This isn’t ‘savage’; it is gloating at the way the rich are abused behind their backs. He gleefully claims that all French cooks without exception spit into the soup they’re making. The communist Magyar waiter at his next job tells Orwell that he sometimes wrings a dirty dishcloth into a customer’s soup ‘just to be revenged on a member of the bourgeoisie’ (p.101).

Orwell’s dissection of the hotel’s complex class system which demarcates, the maitre d’, the cooks, the waiters, and the plongeurs like himself is fascinating, wonderful reporting of an unknown world, and full of humorous touches. Take the Italian waiter who, after a big slanging match with a plongeur who has accidentally broken a wine bottle, threatens to cut the offender with a razor, lets forth a last stream of Italian abuse and farts contemptuously as he exits the first of the swing doors out of the fiery kitchen — only to completely transform his demeanour into stylish subservience as he exits the second door into the hotel dining room, gliding like a swan across the swish floor to the customer’s table where he presents the much-pawed dish with balletic grace, and standing attentively to serve. He was, Orwell, comments, a natural aristocrat (p.61). This and almost all of the scenes are wonderfully humorous and human.

Orwell gleefully explains how the food served at the hotel is average to poor – all the ingredients bought at local markets and the prices at least doubled; the wine is common vin ordinaire poured into posh bottles. The waiters live on tips and one of the many dodges among waiters is to get commission from champagne brands for every cork returned to them. The management are therefore at a loss what to do with the faddish American who orders for dinner a glass of hot water and salt. In the end they serve it and charge a ludicrous 25 Francs which the American pays without a murmur.

This comes among a sequence of broad humour at the expense of American guests who, Orwell suggests, deserve to be ripped off for their wealth, their faddishness and their lack of taste, who ‘seemed to know nothing whatever about food’ (p.74). It is an indicator of just how far away Orwell is from us that one of his prime proofs of how swinish Americans are is their habit of eating ‘disgusting American “cereals”‘ (p.74), a habit which had pretty much conquered the western world by the time I was a boy and shows no sign of going away.

An entire chapter, 17, is a wonderful description of the weekly piss-up in the cellar bar of the cheap hotel he lodged in, the Hotel des Trois Moineaux, with thumbnail portraits of the villainous characters who lived there and each got drunk in their own way. The ex-soldier who started the evening as a communist but got progressively more patriotic the more he drank, until he was easily baited into launching into a raucous version of La Marseillais until he is pinned down by two jokers while a third suddenly shouts ‘Vive l’Allemagne’ in his face and the whole room roars with laughter at his helpless rage – all this is deliberately comic and poignant, in fact the chapter is a masterpiece of mood and description.

Or take Charlie’s story about how he nearly got caught out in scam to diddle food from one of Paris’s hospital for pregnant mothers, in chapter 18. This is a straightforward comic anecdote.

Consideration of these two chapters brings out how short all of the chapters are. The Penguin paperback text stretches to 185 pages in total, divided into 38 chapters = an average of 4.8 pages per chapter. It is, then, a book of snapshots and anecdotes.

Typical is the pen portrait of Bozo the screever which makes up chapter 30. Less warm and funny than one of the Paris sections, it is nonetheless eye-opening and poignant on a number of levels.

Comparing Paris and London

All day I loafed in the streets, east as far as Wapping, west as far as Whitechapel. It was queer after Paris; everything was so much cleaner and quieter and drearier. One missed the scream of the trams, and the noisy, festering life of the back streets, and the armed men clattering through the squares. The crowds were better dressed and the faces comelier and milder and more alike, without that fierce individuality and malice of the French. There was less drunkenness, and less dirt, and less
quarrelling, and more idling. Knots of men stood at all the corners, slightly underfed, but kept going by the tea-and-two-slices which the Londoner swallows every two hours. One seemed to breathe a less feverish air than in Paris. It was the land of the tea urn and the Labour Exchange, as Paris is the land of the bistro and the sweatshop. (Chapter 25)

Politics

In chapter 22 Orwell gathers his thoughts on the life of a plongeur, considered as a kind of slave.

He presents two ideas. The weaker one is the idea that the upper classes and the liberal intelligentsia are both terrified of the mob and believe their best way of preventing a revolution in which they’ll be shot, their house burned, their precious library despoiled or end up forced to work in a lavatory, is to keep the terrifying working class in its place by forcing it to work all the hours God sends. This may have been a plausible interpretation in his day, but it’s not clear if there is a working class in that way any more. I read lots about the ‘gig economy’ these days but if people continue to work long hours in catering, retail and – especially – out in the fields picking crops, it is because there is a slander margin on these activities and they continue to be, despite all the crap about robots taking over, very labour intensive.

His second point is more pertinent, for he attacks the whole basis of ‘luxury’ and ‘hotels’. Are they really needed? I agree with him that they’re not, and that the so-called ‘luxury’ they provide is in fact trashy and fake – airport luxury, Dubai luxury. But then I am a Puritan like Orwell, I share his honesty, his hatred of cant and jargon, and his physical revulsion at luxury and comfort.

But having just got back from a holiday in Spain, from reading the daily papers with their ads for luxury products and holidays, and from watching daytime TV at the gym where it is beamed onto half a dozen screens, I can confidently say that we are in a minority. There will continue to be hotels and restaurants and bars and cafes because lots and lots of people like being served. Every day in Starbucks and all the other coffee chains, and food shops, and restaurants etc, people in the rich West like to be served. And from what I’ve seen of Arab countries, of Turkey and Greece, of India and south-east Asia, it is a universal pleasure to take a seat at an outdoors table, order a little coffee or chai, light up a cigarette and watch the world go by.

Luxury, no matter how fake, continues because people want it and enjoy it. It feeds the human spirit to be able to ‘take your ease at your inn’, to quote Falstaff.

London Labour

Orwell is on safer ground when presenting sociological material. Chapter 32 is a brief consideration of London slang and swear words. It starts with the slang for different types of beggars and the tools of their trade. This immediately put me in mind of Henry Mayhew’s epic and classic account of the livelihoods of the London poor in the 1840s, London Labour and the London Poor, a veritable encyclopedia listing and categorising hundreds of types of street worker, along with their stories and trade secrets in five enormous volumes. Orwell’s slender chapter is like a snowdrop next to an iceberg in comparison.


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

The Soul of Man under Socialism by Oscar Wilde (1891)

Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.

 A brief recap

Wilde debuted with a volume of slender and derivative poems in 1881 and was promptly invited to undertake a lecture tour of America in 1882 which proved fabulously successful. Throughout the 1880s he established himself via essays, reviews and articles (not least for The Woman’s World magazine which he edited for a spell) as a flamboyant journalist, leading representative of the Aesthetic movement, as well as fashioning himself into one of the London’s most notorious and newsworthy personalities.

Tiring of makepiece journalism, towards the end of the decade he made the transition to becoming a full-time writer of prose with a series of short stories and essays:

– as well as his one and fabulous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) – before embarking on the series of comic dramas which clinched his reputation:

  • Lady Windermere’s Fan  (1892)
  • A Woman of No Importance (1893)
  • An Ideal Husband (1894)
  • The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)

The Soul of Man Under Socialism, published in 1891, was therefore written at the height of Wilde’s powers as a prose artist.


The Soul of Man under Socialism

Believe it or not, this essay was written under the influence of the contemporary anarchist philosopher, Kropotkin, whose works Wilde had been reading. Dangerous thing, reading.

It is foolish to try and extract too sensible, coherent or linear an argument from a Wilde text. His whole purpose is to entertain and delight, and witty paradox or bon mots will always take precedence over logic. And sure enough the second half of this long essay does wander a long way from the ostensible topic, so much so that it ceases to be a consideration of Socialism, the political platform espoused by (in their very different ways) George Bernard Shaw or William Morris, and becomes a long defence of Wilde’s theory of Individualism.

In the first part, insofar as their is an ‘argument’ in this, Wilde’s only statement on politics, it can be summed up quickly: Capitalism forces men to waste their energy and genius trying to help each other in vain and silly ‘politics’ or pointless ‘charity’. In a world set free by technology, everyone would be free to express themselves creatively. Wilde the artist and art critic, rather inevitably sees Art as the highest form of being, and involvement in creating or appreciating art the highest fulfilment of human nature.

His vision of socialism is one where everyone devotes all their energies to developing and moulding themselves into the most exquisite art works possible. It is everyone’s duty to cultivate their individuality. Anything which prevents this ie the entire set-up of Victorian society, is bad.

For individualism

Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.

Under the new conditions Individualism will be far freer, far finer, and far more intensified than it is now. I am not talking of the great imaginatively-realised Individualism of such poets as I have mentioned, but of the great actual Individualism latent and potential in mankind generally.

With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

In the central part of the essay, at its hinge or transition, Wilde makes a prolonged case for Jesus as the first prophet of Individualism, a radical reinterpretation, spangled with Wildean paradox, but eventually quite convincing (or as convincing as many of the other dogmas and sects whch have been spun out of the Big One’s words). He presents a Jesus who is continually emphasising that the kingdom of God is within you, nothing to do with external possessions or even actions:

He said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your affection is inside of you. If only you could realise that, you would not want to be rich. Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. In the treasury-house of your soul, there are infinitely precious things, that may not be taken from you. And so, try to so shape your life that external things will not harm you. And try also to get rid of personal property. It involves sordid preoccupation, endless industry, continual wrong. Personal property hinders Individualism at every step.’

At moments a strightforward rehash of Jesus’s teachings, at others it suddenly sheds new light, making Jesus appear an 1890s Aestheste. This section can’t have made him many friends with late-Victorians, and it would be remembered at his trial. Everything beautiful and inspiring which he wrote would be used against him.

And so he who would lead a Christlike life is he who is perfectly and absolutely himself. He may be a great poet, or a great man of science; or a young student at a University, or one who watches sheep upon a moor; or a maker of dramas, like Shakespeare, or a thinker about God, like Spinoza; or a child who plays in a garden, or a fisherman who throws his net into the sea. It does not matter what he is, as long as he realises the perfection of the soul that is within him.

It is to be noted also that Individualism does not come to man with any sickly cant about duty, which merely means doing what other people want because they want it; or any hideous cant about self-sacrifice, which is merely a survival of savage mutilation. In fact, it does not come to man with any claims upon him at all. It comes naturally and inevitably out of man. It is the point to which all development tends. It is the differentiation to which all organisms grow. It is the perfection that is inherent in every mode of life, and towards which every mode of life quickens. And so Individualism exercises no compulsion over man. On the contrary, it says to man that he should suffer no compulsion to be exercised over him. It does not try to force people to be good. It knows that people are good when they are let alone. Man will develop Individualism out of himself.

‘Sickly cant about duty.’ This is a deliberate insult to the Kipling worldview and the entire administration of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen. For them, for the public school ethos which provided the administrators of the Empire, Duty is paramount, and Duty is about suppressing the self, crushing the self, denying the self in order to do your duty by God and Her Majesty the Queen-Empress. Knowing what lay ahead, it is impossible to read this bating of the Establishment without anxiety.

Against coercion

Wilde repeatedly warns that the whole point of socialism or communism (in his view) is to free people to do as they want and to be themselves. It follows that any sign of compulsion in the movement will risk instituting a new tyranny worse than the current one. How horribly prophetic.

I confess that many of the socialistic views that I have come across seem to me to be tainted with ideas of authority, if not of actual compulsion. Of course, authority and compulsion are out of the question. All association must be quite voluntary. It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine.

[For] all authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised.

No Authoritarian Socialism will do. For while under the present system a very large number of people can lead lives of a certain amount of freedom and expression and happiness, under an industrial-barrack system, or a system of economic tyranny, nobody would be able to have any such freedom at all.

What is needed is Individualism. If the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first.

People sometimes inquire what form of government is most suitable for an artist to live under. To this question there is only one answer. The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all. Authority over him and his art is ridiculous. .. all authority is equally bad.

Morris and Wilde

Both men are more radical than their modern watered-down reputations suggest. Morris genuinely called for a violent revolution. Wilde supported Irish nationalism and signed petitions supporting arrested anarchists. They attacked the Establishment. They both thought the British Empire was ridiculous and immoral. (When Kipling returned to London for the first time as an adult in 1889, this is the kind of literary culture and writing he found offensively short-sighted, ignorant and unpatriotic. Which side would you have been on?)

Superficially their utopias sound very different: Morris’s utopia, in News from Nowhere, is rural and simple and arts and crafts-y. It in effect calls for a radical simplification of human nature, until everyone is reduced to the level of a pipe-smoking rustic. Wilde’s utopia sounds, at first, as if it lies at the other extreme, overwhelmingly urban, upper-class, cosmopolitan and super-sophisticated. And yet Wilde – after the Jesus section mentioned above – disconcerts with his vision of the character of the future, liberated, humanity – in its way even more wilfully infantile than Morris’s:

It will be a marvellous thing – the true personality of man – when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will never argue or dispute. It will not prove things. It will know everything. And yet it will not busy itself about knowledge. It will have wisdom. Its value will not be measured by material things. It will have nothing. And yet it will have everything, and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be. It will not be always meddling with others, or asking them to be like itself. It will love them because they will be different. And yet while it will not meddle with others, it will help all, as a beautiful thing helps us, by being what it is. The personality of man will be very wonderful. It will be as wonderful as the personality of a child.

More art, more individualism

The second half of the essay wanders away from politics to become an extended disquisition on the nature of Individualism, on the necessary individualism of the artist, and consequently how all genuine artists must prompt the enmity of the stupid, suburban, philistine English and their lackeys in the popular pres, the critics who always want more of the same and never understand the New or the Beautiful. Socialism is left quite a way behind. The essay should really be called something like The Necessity of Individualism.

And on reflection I realise this is the weakness in the argument (if it is an argument rather than a collection of beautifully written witticisms and generalisations about Art): No matter how many times he writes that he is thinking about everyone in society when he urges a philosophy if Individualism, in practice figure of the Individual is always set against the hectoring of vile journalists, ignorant art critics, bombastic politicians and, behind them all, the vast stupid public, brought up to have the lowest, most degraded taste, and to be the great squid against which the true Individual must struggle to assert himself.

This, as Morris, Shaw et al realised, was not the language of the joiner, the supporter, the member of any political movement they recognised. How to get from a society where a few scattered individuals (like Wilde and his clique) were fortunate enough to be able to truly express themselves to one where everyone, absolutely everyone, either wants to or can, is the vast leap Wilde takes for granted. Just as Morris struggles to imagine how society can possibly make the transition from Victorian repression to the utopia of News from Nowhere, in which it takes the form of a kind of great spiritual awakening.

Now we know that it is brought about by social breakdown, anarchy, the seizure of power by a well-organised vanguard who seize the mechanism of the state and institute a reign of terror. England 1647. Paris 1792. Petersburg 1917. Tehran 1979.

Summary

This essay is often spoilt, wilful, showy, overly paradoxical. And yet in his disgust at the poverty and misery of so many of his fellow human beings in Victorian England’s grotesquely unfair society, and in his warning against the coercive element in Socialism which risked imposing a tyranny worse than the ills it set out to cure, Wilde was bang on the nail.

And in his combination of good humour, clever sophistry, flowing clear style and witty paradoxes, he is a master of this form, to be enjoyed and relished for his skill no matter what he’s saying.

Related links

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

The hopes of civilisation by William Morris (1885)

‘Hope’ is Morris’s key word, a central concept in his writings. It occurs 58 times in this essay, a fact which might give the impression the text is a wishy-washy set of liberal hopes for the amelioration of the wretched state of the Victorian working classes. In fact, this is by far the toughest-minded, theoretically advanced and historically grounded of Morris’s essays. He has been reading Marx and Marx has colonised his thought with a vengeance.

This lecture was delivered to the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League at Kelmscott House on 14 June 1885. In the preceding months he had been reading Marx and other advanced socialist economists – some of his other essays and lectures of the time go out of their way to explain Marxist concepts such as surplus labour in great detail: ‘On the whole tough as the job is you ought to read Marx if you can: up to date he is the only completely scientific Economist on our side.’ (Letter to J Carruthers, Feb 1885)

The hopes of civilisation amounts to a long and detailed recapitulation of the claim from The Communist Manifesto that all history has been the history of class struggle and proceeds to describe these class struggles in great detail. Early on there is some of the old medievalising Morris we’re used to:

Not seldom I please myself with trying to realize the face of mediaeval England; the many chases and great woods, the stretches of common tillage and common pasture quite unenclosed; the rough husbandry of the tilled parts, the unimproved breeds of cattle, sheep, and swine; especially the latter, so lank and long and lathy, looking so strange to us; the strings of packhorses along the bridle- roads, the scantiness of the wheel-roads, scarce any except those left by the Romans, and those made from monastery to monastery: the scarcity of bridges, and people using ferries instead, or fords where they could; the little towns, well bechurched, often walled; the villages just where they are now (except for those that have nothing but the church left to tell of them), but better and more populous; their churches, some big and handsome, some small and curious, but all crowded with altars and furniture, and gay with pictures and ornament; the many religious houses, with their glorious architecture; the beautiful manor-houses, some of them castles once, and survivals from an earlier period; some new and elegant; some out of all proportion small for the importance of their lords. How strange it would be to us if we could be landed in fourteenth century England; unless we saw the crest of some familiar hill, like that which yet bears upon it a symbol of an English tribe, and from which, looking down on the plain where Alfred was born, I once had many such ponderings, we should not know into what country of the world we were come: the name is left, scarce a thing else.

The middle ages which epitomised everything he felt was good about life. But the rest of the essay is tough-minded and merciless in its Marxist analysis: all eras, of Elizabeth, the Stuarts, the civil wars and Restoration and Glorious Revolution etc are seen through the lens of the class struggle between landowners and the nascent businessmen on the one hand, and the propertyless journeymen labourers on the other, who will form the basis of the capitalists and industrial proletariat of his own day.

Now, in all I have been saying, I have been wanting you to trace the fact that, ever since the establishment of commercialism on the ruins of feudality, there has been growing a steady feeling on the part of the workers that they are a class dealt with as a class, and in like manner to deal with others; and that as this class feeling has grown, so also has grown with it a consciousness of the antagonism between their class and the class which employs it, as the phrase goes; that is to say, which lives by means of its labour. Now it is just this growing consciousness of the fact that as long as there exists in society a propertied class living on the labour of a propertyless one, there MUST be a struggle always going on between those two classes–it is just the dawning knowledge of this fact which should show us what civilization can hope for–namely, transformation into true society, in which there will no longer be classes with their necessary struggle for existence and superiority.

His previous lectures cared very little about the situation on the Continent. With his new, post-Marxist cosmopolitanism, this lecture has sections giving precise Marxist analyses of the French Revolution and the Commune, the situations in Germany or Russia, more or less copied from Marx and his epigones.

The defeats and disgraces of [the Franco-Prussian] war developed, on the one hand, an increase in the wooden implacability and baseness of the French bourgeois, but on the other made way for revolutionary hope to spring again, from which resulted the attempt to establish society on the basis of the freedom of labour, which we call the Commune of Paris of 1871. Whatever mistakes or imprudences were made in this attempt, and all wars blossom thick with such mistakes, I will leave the reactionary enemies of the people’s cause to put forward: the immediate and obvious result was the slaughter of thousands of brave and honest revolutionists at the hands of the respectable classes, the loss in fact of an army for the popular cause: but we may be sure that the results of the Commune will not stop there: to all Socialists that heroic attempt will give hope and ardour in the cause as long as it is to be won; we feel as though the Paris workman had striven to bring the day-dawn for us, and had lifted us the sun’s rim over the horizon, never to set in utter darkness again: of such attempts one must say, that though those who perished in them might have been put in a better place in the battle, yet after all brave men never die for nothing, when they die for principle.

Here we can hear the true Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, the vaunting vainglorious rhetorical style which came to characterise communist regimes in the twentieth century. It is strange that it’s an essentially Victorian rhetoric, one which had to be abandoned by even its most jingoistic supporters in the West after the Great War, and yet lived on in the world’s communist regimes, sounding with ever-more ludicrous hollowness, enduring into the 1970s and 80s in the Eastern bloc, and still surviving in bizarre anachronisms like North Korea even today.

The essay ends with a detailed critique of all the possible responses to the current political crisis, as Morris sees it: he itemises the possible responses and then witheringly explains how every one is inadequate, short of full-scale Revolution and the overthrow, probably by violence, of the besieged Capitalist classes, before the new day of freedom can dawn.

Once he had taken the plunge, once he had joined the Socialist League, Morris wrote to all his friends, writers like Swinburne or his mentor, Ruskin, his artist colleagues Burne-Jones et al strongly suggesting they also join. It was the only way he could see out of the artist’s indefensible isolation from his fellow men and the guilt of living a fulfilled happy life in a society based on slavery. It would be interesting to anthologise the apologetic and sheepish replies he had from his correspondents as, one by one, they backed away and failed to make the great leap forward which meant so much to Morris.

Related links

A meeting of great beards!

A meeting of great beards!

Useful Work versus Useless Toil by William Morris (1884)

To sum up, then, concerning the manner of work in civilized States, these States are composed of three classes – a class which does not even pretend to work, a class which pretends to works but which produces nothing, and a class which works, but is compelled by the other two classes to do work which is often unproductive. Civilization therefore wastes its own resources, and will do so as long as the present system lasts.

In January 1883 Morris joined the tiny Democratic Federation, the only socialist organisation in England. The move crystallised the sentiments he had been publicly expressing in lectures for years, that something was seriously wrong with English society. Here we were, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, commanding the most advanced technology the world had ever seen and yet the majority of the population lived in grinding poverty and misery, either altogether unemployed or employed as slave labour in nightmareish factories producing horrible tat.

This lecture was written and delivered in 1884, in Morris’s new socialist phase. As in his previous lectures he seeks to analyse the causes of the problem, but for the first time he inserts explicitly Marxist analysis of how Capital works to distort and exploit human effort, and in the peroration for the first time states that it may take a violent conflict to bring about the revolutionary overthrow of the established order.  His argument goes:

Defining types of work

Man must work; we must wrest our livelihood from Nature. But work need not be a curse, it could be a blessing, it should be the way humans express themselves, freely and creatively. More precisely, Morris analysis three aspects of productive labour: ‘hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself’ ie that it should last a reasonable period and leave enough time to recover and rest; that it should be engaged on making useful and beautiful things; and that the work itself should give pleasure, as an animal feels pleasure in the exercise of its animal abilities.

To all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong. But a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works. Not only his own thoughts, but the thoughts of the men of past ages guide his hands; and, as a part of the human race, he creates. If we work thus we shall be men, and our days will be happy and eventful.

The class system analysed by its relationship with work

Having defined useful work, who in Victorian society actually does or is able to do it? Morris defines three classes: the aristocracy who make a point of ostentatiously doing nothing; the middle classes who bustle about a lot claiming to work but their work is either marketing and selling products made by others, or servicing the aristocracy (lawyers, doctors) and the great majority of the population who work like slaves to support the rest.

The upper class (does no work)

As to the class of rich people doing no work, we all know that they consume a great deal while they produce nothing. Therefore, clearly, they have to be kept at the expense of those who do work, just as paupers have, and are a mere burden on the community.

The middle class (busies itself servicing the upper class, doing no productive work)

As to the middle class, including the trading, manufacturing, and professional people of our society, they do, as a rule, seem to work quite hard enough, and so at first sight might be thought to help the community, and not burden it. But by far the greater part of them, though they work, do not produce, and even when they do produce, as in the case of those engaged (wastefully indeed) in the distribution of goods, or doctors, or (genuine) artists and literary men, they consume out of all proportion to their due share. The commercial and manufacturing part of them, the most powerful part, spent their lives and energies in fighting amongst themselves for their respective shares of the wealth which they force the genuine workers to provide for them; the others are almost wholly the hangers-on of these; they do not work for the public, but a privileged class: they are the parasites of property, sometimes, as in the case of lawyers, undisguisedly so; sometimes, as the doctors and others above mentioned, professing to be useful, but too often of no use save as supporters of the system of folly, fraud, and tyranny of which they form a part.

The working classes produce everything in a state of slavery

In fact Morris’s analysis goes deeper than the traditional three classes to look closely into the kinds of employment there are for the labouring classes. It is striking how unchanged society is from his analysis.

The class that remains to be considered produces all that is produced, and supports both itself and the other classes, though it is placed in a position of inferiority to them; real inferiority, mind you, involving a degradation both of mind and body. But it is a necessary consequence of this tyranny and folly that again many of these workers are not producers. A vast number of them once more are merely parasites of property, some of them openly so, as the soldiers by land and sea who are kept on foot for the perpetuating of national rivalries and enmities, and for the purposes of the national struggle for the share of the product of unpaid labour. But besides this obvious burden on the producers and the scarcely less obvious one of domestic servants, there is first the army of clerks, shop-assistants, and so forth, who are engaged in the service of the private war for wealth, which, as above said, is the real occupation of the well-to-do middle class.

Working lives wasted producing rubbish

A horrible irony of the system is that a large proportion of the working class spends and wastes their lives producing tat, so-called luxury items which Morris, with his keen aesthetic sensibilities, considers anything but.

The mass of people employed in making all those articles of folly and luxury, the demand for which is the outcome of the existence of the rich non-producing classes; things which people leading a manly and uncorrupted life would not ask for or dream of. These things, whoever may gainsay me, I will for ever refuse to call wealth: they are not wealth, but waste. Wealth is what Nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of Nature for his reasonable use. The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment and housing necessary and decent; the storing up of knowledge of all kinds, and the power of disseminating it; means of free communication between man and man; works of art, the beauty which man creates when he is most a man, most aspiring and thoughtful – all things which serve the pleasure of people, free, manly, and uncorrupted. This is wealth. Nor can I think of anything worth having which does not come under one or other of these heads. But think, I beseech you, of the product of England, the workshop of the world, and will you not be bewildered, as I am, at the thought of the mass of things which no sane man could desire, but which our useless toil makes – and sells?

The logic of exploitation

If the men who labour are forced to do so to support the (admittedly small) upper class, and the much larger varieties of non-productive middle class, it follows that only a minority of their labour effort is left over to produce goods for themselves and that, because their labour is controlled by their masters, they will be forced to produce and consume only the most inferior produce possible.

For if many men live without producing, nay, must live lives so empty and foolish that they force a great part of the workers to produce wares which no one needs, not even the rich, it follows that most men must be poor; and, living as they do on wages from those whom they support, cannot get for their use the goods which men naturally desire, but must put up with miserable makeshifts for them, with coarse food that does not nourish, with rotten raiment which does not shelter, with wretched houses which may well make a town-dweller in civilization look back with regret to the tent of the nomad tribe, or the cave of the prehistoric savage. Nay, the workers must even lend a hand to the great industrial invention of the age – adulteration, and by its help produce for their own use shams and mockeries of the luxury of the rich; for the wage-earners must always live as the wage-payers bid them, and their very habits of life are forced on them by their masters.

This cheapness is necessary to the system of exploiting on which modern manufacture rests. In other words, our society includes a great mass of slaves, who must be fed, clothed, housed and amused as slaves, and that their daily necessity compels them to make the slave-wares whose use is the perpetuation of their slavery.

Is this civilisation?

Can this appalling situation really be the climax of thousands of years of history and so-called civilisation?

Men urged by their necessities and desires have laboured for many thousands of years at the task of subjugating the forces of Nature and of making the natural material useful to them. To our eyes, since we cannot see into the future, that struggle with Nature seems nearly over, and the victory of the human race over her nearly complete. And, looking backwards to the time when history first began, we note that the progress of that victory has been far swifter and more startling within the last two hundred years than ever before. Surely, therefore, we moderns ought to be in all ways vastly better off than any who have gone before us. Surely we ought, one and all of us, to be wealthy, to be well furnished with the good things which our victory over Nature has won for us.

But what is the real fact? Who will dare to deny that the great mass of civilized men are poor? So poor are they that it is mere childishness troubling ourselves to discuss whether perhaps they are in some ways a little better off than their forefathers. They are poor; nor can their poverty be measured by the poverty of a resourceless savage, for he knows of nothing else than his poverty; that he should be cold, hungry, houseless, dirty, ignorant, all that is to him as natural as that he should have a skin. But for us, for the most of us, civilization has bred desires which she forbids us to satisfy, and so is not merely a niggard but a torturer also.

Thus then have the fruits of our victory over Nature been stolen from us.

It is this robbery and waste on the part of the minority which keeps the majority poor.

The way forward

Abolish the unproductive classes. Make everyone do productive work.

The first step to be taken then is to abolish a class of men privileged to shirk their duties as men, thus forcing others to do the work which they refuse to do. All must work according to their ability, and so produce what they consume. hus, at last, would true Society be founded. It would rest on equality of condition. No man would be tormented for the benefit of another – nay, no one man would be tormented for the benefit of Society. Nor, indeed, can that order be called Society which is not upheld for the benefit of every one of its members.

By simple maths, if twice the number of people did the work which is currently done to produce X, then it will take half the time. Enough work will be done to maintain Society and also guarantee the workers enough leisure time to enjoy their lives.

When class-robbery is abolished, every man will reap the fruits of his labour, every man will have due rest – leisure, that is.

As things are now, between the waste of labour-power in mere idleness and its waste in unproductive work, it is clear that the world of civilization is supported by a small part of its people; when all were working usefully for its support, the share of work which each would have to do would be but small, if our standard of life were about on the footing of what well-to-do and refined people now think desirable. We shall have labour-power to spare, and shall, in short, be as wealthy as we please. It will be easy to live.

But Morris wants to go beyond this, beyond the workers reaping the fruits of their labour, to insist on one more condition: that everyone’s labour be pleasurable.

As long as the work is repulsive it will still be a burden which must be taken up daily, and even so would mar our life, even though the hours of labour were short. What we want to do is to add to our wealth without diminishing our pleasure. Nature will not be finally conquered till our work becomes a part of the pleasure of our lives.

After the revolution

But when revolution has made it ‘easy to live,’ when all are working harmoniously together and there is no one to rob the worker of his time, that is to say, his life; in those coming days there will be no compulsion on us to go on producing things we do not want, no compulsion on us to labour for nothing; we shall be able calmly and thoughtfully to consider what we shall do with our wealth of labour-power. Now, for my part, I think the first use we ought to make of that wealth, of that freedom, should be to make all our labour, even the commonest and most necessary, pleasant to everybody.

Part two – pleasurable work

All the above is only the preamble, accepted by most socialists, to the section which interests Morris. How, after the revolution, can we ensure that work is pleasurable.

  1. All work will be socially useful, unlike current work most of which is socially useless and thus waste
  2. The working day will be short, since a) everyone will now be doing the work which only half the population did before b) the great burden of pointless work, producing tat or pointless luxuries, will be abolished
  3. We will be able to vary the work we do: ‘A man might easily learn and practise at least three crafts, varying sedentary occupation with outdoor – occupation calling for the exercise of strong bodily energy for work in which the mind had more to do.’
  4. Education will be completely reformed to support this utopia:

At present all education is directed towards the end of fitting people to take their places in the hierarchy of commerce – these as masters, those as workmen. The education of the masters is more ornamental than that of the workmen, but it is commercial still; and even at the ancient universities learning is but little regarded, unless it can in the long run be made to pay. Due education is a totally different thing from this, and concerns itself in finding out what different people are fit for, and helping them along the road which they are inclined to take. In a duly ordered society, therefore, young people would be taught such handicrafts as they had a turn for as a part of their education, the discipline of their minds and bodies; and adults would also have opportunities of learning in the same schools, for the development of individual capacities would be of all things chiefly aimed at by education, instead, as now, the subordination of all capacities to the great end of “money-making” for oneself – or one’s master. The amount of talent, and even genius, which the present system crushes, and which would be drawn out by such a system, would make our daily work easy and interesting.

6. Popular art, which has been crushed and destroyed by commercial Capitalism, will be restored.

The craftsman, as he fashioned the thing he had under his hand, ornamented it so naturally and so entirely without conscious effort, that it is often difficult to distinguish where the mere utilitarian part of his work ended and the ornamental began. Now the origin of this art was the necessity that the workman felt for variety in his work, and though the beauty produced by this desire was a great gift to the world, yet the obtaining variety and pleasure in the work by the workman was a matter of more importance still, for it stamped all labour with the impress of pleasure. All this has now quite disappeared from the work of civilization.

7. Decent housing and pleasant surroundings. Once luxury and the parasite classes are abolished and the capitalists incessant drive to make a profit, to ‘make money’, then we can get ride of the squalid rabbit hutches we call houses and build homes worthy of the name, and not all cramped into slum quarters but spread out so as to allow for trees and greenery, for Nature to adorn our lives.

Capitalistic manufacture, capitalistic land-owning, and capitalistic exchange force men into big cities in order to manipulate them in the interests of capital; the same tyranny contracts the due space of the factory so much that (for instance) the interior of a great weaving-shed is almost as ridiculous a spectacle as it is a horrible one. There is no other necessity for all this, save the necessity for grinding profits out of men’s lives, and of producing cheap goods for the use (and subjection) of the slaves who grind. All labour is not yet driven into factories; often where it is there is no necessity for it, save again the profit-tyranny. People engaged in all such labour need by no means be compelled to pig together in close city quarters. There is no reason why they should not follow their occupations in quiet country homes, in industrial colleges, in small towns, or, in short, where they find it happiest for them to live.

[Regarding factories, where they are necessary] Science duly applied would enable the workers to get rid of refuse, to minimize, if not wholly to destroy, all the inconveniences which at present attend the use of elaborate machinery, such as smoke, stench, and noise; nor would they endure that the buildings in which they worked or lived should be ugly blots on the fair face of the earth. Beginning by making their factories, buildings, and sheds decent and convenient like their homes, they would infallibly go on to make them not merely negatively good, inoffensive merely, but even beautiful, so that the glorious art of architecture, now for some time slain by commercial greed, would be born again and flourish.

A new art

Some of his artistic colleagues complain that what we currently call Art (ie luxury) will almost certainly disappear in this new utilitarian society. a) It will be worth it, says Morris, but also b) genuine art is irrepressibly intrinsic to human nature and will reappear, but in new forms.

If the cripple and the starveling disappear from our streets, if the earth nourish us all alike, if the sun shines for all of us alike, if to one and all of us the glorious drama of the earth – day and night, summer and winter – can be presented as a thing to understand and love, we can afford to wait awhile till we are purified from the shame of the past corruption, and till art arises again amongst people freed from the terror of the slave and the shame of the robber.

Related links

William Morris by Christine Poulson

I don’t have many rules of reading. One of them is: always go back to the source text, never read a summary or biography – read the thing itself. Every element of an original text, its spelling, its title page, the chapter headings and sidenotes and footnotes, the entire way it is presented, tell you reams about the author, their purpose, and the times they wrote in, or when the edition was printed. And all that’s before you get to the text itself…

This breaks my rule by being a biography, a large-format coffee table book by Christine Poulson who was, at the time of writing it, Curator of the William Morris Society in London. It tells the story of Morris’s life clearly and authoritatively in chapters which cover:

  • childhood, Oxford and the pre-Raphaelites
  • 1857 published poems in The Defence of Guenevere, little noticed, discouraged him from writing
  • 1861 setting up the Firm – Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. the start of 30 years of creating stained glass, murals, wallpaper, furniture, fabrics, curtains and tapestries incorporating intricate designs from nature
  • marriage to Jane Burden and happy life at the Red House in Bexley from 1859
  • 1865 forced through his wife’s illness to move to Bloomsbury central London – Jane’s affair with Rossetti
  • 1868 publishes The Earthly Paradise
  • the romantic chivalric ideals of the Morte d’Arthur no longer sufficed and Morris was drawn to the hard, bleak courage of the Icelanders depicted in the sagas: in 1868 he published the first of what was to be a series of translations of the great sagas
  • 1871 took lease on Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire with Rossetti: fled abroad to Iceland leaving Rossetti and Jane to their adulterous affair
  • late 1870s and thru the 1880s host of lectures to art schools and workingmen’s institutes
  • 1878 moved to Kelmscott House, Hammersmith: continued experiments with colouring weaving and tapestries
  • 1881 Morris took over works at Merton Abbey on the river Wandle south of London to produce carpets, tapestries and cottons, a glass studio and dye-house
  • 1883 revolted by Gladstone’s Liberals’ imperialism, Morris committed himself to socialism and joined the Democratic Federation, which became the Social Democratic Federation in 1884, the first British socialist party. At the end of that year Morris leads a breakaway faction to found the Socialist League, and for the rest of the 80s threw himself into political agitation, making speeches up and down the land in all weathers
  • from 1885 writes and edits the Commonweal the journal of the Socialist League
  • 13 November 1887 ‘Bloody Sunday’, police break up a massive demonstration in favour of free speech in Trafalgar Square, killing 2 and injuring 200. On 18 December Morris was pall-bearer to Alfred Linnell, run down and killed by a police horse: at the grave Morris called for ‘a holy war’ to prevent London being turned into a vast prison
  • 1890 publishes News from Nowhere, a vision of post-revolutionary communist England, just as the Socialist League fell apart into those prepared to compromise with Parliament and diehard anarchists. Morris withdrew his support.
  • 1891 his daughter ill with epilepsy, Morris ill with gout, possibly diabetes, told to stop working so hard and diverted his energies into founding the Kelmscott Press to produce high quality books
  • 1892, upon Tennyson’s death Morris was offered the Poet Laureateship (!), being still best known to a wide public as a poet. He turned it down and it was eventually given to the Tory propagandist Alfred Austin in 1896.
  • 1896 the Kelmscott Chaucer published: over three years in the typesetting and over a year in the printing & binding, it was put into Morris’s hands only months before he died.

But the joy of this book and the reason I borrowed it from the library is the liberal use of full-page, full-colour illustrations – of paintings by the pre-Raphaelites, homes and houses, friends and lovers, furniture, tiles and stained glass etc – and above all the large double-page spreads of Morris’s wonderful fabrics and designs, such as these:

Related links

Strawberry thief, design for printed cotton by William Morris (1883)

Strawberry thief, a design for printed cotton by William Morris (1883)

The Beauty of Life by William Morris (1880)

HAVE NOTHING IN YOUR HOUSES WHICH YOU DO NOT KNOW TO BE USEFUL OR BELIEVE TO BE BEAUTIFUL.

A lecture delivered to the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, February 19, 1880. Reading around the subject I discover that the Birmingham school was in fact the first municipal school of art in the country and that Birmingham, through Burne-Jones and his circle, played a leading role in the Arts & Crafts movement.

Repetition

Morris apologises for repeating himself and this is, indeed, the most obvious feature of this lecture, that it is made up of the same ideas as the previous lectures:

  • current civilisation in the Century of Commerce is degraded
  • the arts have become split between a high art of demoralised artists working only for the super-rich or just for their own small coterie (art for art’s sake)…
  • …while the popular arts, the decoration and ornamentation of the everyday objects most people see most of their lives, have become crude and cheap
  • this reflects the unfair nature of Victorian class society ie a small number of parasite rich leading a life of luxury paid for by the wealth extracted from a vast class of slave labourers condemned to lives of servitude and ugliness
  • whereas everything we know about history and prehistory suggests that decorating and ornamenting everyday objects is a central element of human nature; preventing men doing that is cruel and stupid
  • thus, an ideal society would remove the parasite rich and, by doing so, liberate workers to work shorter hours and take more care over what they make – the pleasure of and pride in their work would be restored to everyone who works
  • it may seem a long way off but we handicraftsmen must set the tone and aim for this goal and have hope of better things to come

To be fair there are new sections here: the recap of the history of civilisation which takes in the Romans and Greeks and noticably downplays the Renaissance; a short passage about how his friends the pre-Raphaelites have saved English art; a section on the Environment and a plea not to litter, not to cut down trees; a section on the contents of the Ideal Home.

Sermon

I read that Morris and Burne-Jones at Oxford earnestly wanted to become priests, ambitions that took some time to die, and only when they transferred their zeal and passion to Art, as practised by the new pre-Raphaelites and expounded by John ‘the Baptist’ Ruskin. These Morris lectures, in their high-minded but vague phraseology, their uplifting vision of the New Jerusalem, and their call for moral reform, are much more like sermons than any factual and informative lecture I’ve ever heard.

A young socialist, Bruce Glasier, has left his impression of hearing Morris lecture in 1884:

On the lecture itself I only remember that it seemed to me something more than a lecture, a kind of parable or prediction, in which art and labour were held forth, not as mere circumstances or incidents to life, but as life or the act of living itself.

Quotes

I must once again call the faithful of art to a battle wider and more distracting than that kindly struggle with nature, to which all true craftsmen are born…

Most people live as if the beauty of life were irrelevant or an unaffordable luxury, whereas art and beauty in the widest sense, are vital elements in the life Nature intended us to lead.

The lack of art, or rather the murder of art, that curses our streets from the sordidness of the surroundings of the lower classes, has its exact counterpart in the dulness and vulgarity of those of the middle classes, and the double-distilled dulness, and scarcely less vulgarity of those of the upper classes.

Once more I say that the greatest foe to art is luxury, art cannot live in its atmosphere.

The danger is that the present course of civilisation will destroy the beauty of life…

My message is, in short, to call on you to face the latest danger which civilisation is threatened with, a danger of her own breeding: that men in struggling towards the complete attainment of all the luxuries of life for the strongest portion of their race should deprive their whole race of all the beauty of life: a danger that the strongest and wisest of mankind, in striving to attain to a complete mastery over nature, should destroy her simplest and widest-spread gifts, and thereby enslave simple people to them, and themselves to themselves, and so at last drag the world into a second barbarism more ignoble, and a thousandfold more hopeless, than the first.

So much is now known of the periods of art that have left abundant examples of their work behind them, that we can judge of the art of all periods by comparing these with the remains of times of which less has been left us; and we cannot fail to come to the conclusion that down to very recent days everything that the hand of man touched was more or less beautiful: so that in those days all people who made anything shared in art, as well as all people who used the things so made: that is, ALL people shared in art.

It is strange and perplexing that from those days forward the lapse of time, which, through plenteous confusion and failure, has on the whole been steadily destroying privilege and exclusiveness in other matters, has delivered up art to be the exclusive privilege of a few, and has taken from the people their birthright; while both wronged and wrongers have been wholly unconscious of what they were doing.

I believe that art made by the people and for the people as a joy both to the maker and the user would further progress in other matters rather than hinder it, so also I firmly believe that that higher art produced only by great brains and miraculously gifted hands cannot exist without it.

We must work towards an art MADE BY THE PEOPLE FOR THE PEOPLE AS A JOY FOR THE MAKER AND THE USER.

To be a man is to understand and create and appreciate art. Men in these degraded times have shut down that feeling in themselves, and so acquiesce in the squalor of the times. If men were whole again, it would inspire them to want to reform and change society. A feeling for art would prompt feelings for reform if not revolution!

Well, people will not take the trouble or spend the money necessary to beginning this sort of reforms, because they do not feel the evils they live amongst, because they have degraded themselves into something less than men; they are unmanly because they have ceased to have their due share of art.

You cannot educate, you cannot civilise men, unless you can give them a share in art.

He has a good passage describing the subtlety of the influences by which the system has ensnared us, by making the lives of so many people so much more comfortable in so many ways – but at the price of new forms of slavery for the oppressed.

If civilisation is to go no further than this, it had better not have gone so far: if it does not aim at getting rid of this misery and giving some share in the happiness and dignity of life to ALL the people that it has created, and which it spends such unwearying energy in creating, it is simply an organised injustice, a mere instrument for oppression, so much the worse than that which has gone before it, as its pretensions are higher, its slavery subtler, its mastery harder to overthrow, because supported by such a dense mass of commonplace well-being and comfort.

And Art, far from being the irrelevant luxury that the people in power believe it to be, can play a vital role in restoring to slaves their humanity.

… that evil of the greater part of the population being engaged for by far the most part of their lives in work, which at the best cannot interest them, or develop their best faculties, and at the worst (and that is the commonest, too) is mere unmitigated slavish toil, only to be wrung out of them by the sternest compulsion, a toil which they shirk all they can– small blame to them. And this toil degrades them into less than men: and they will some day come to know it, and cry out to be made men again, and art only can do it, and redeem them from this slavery; and I say once more that this is her highest and most glorious end and aim; and it is in her struggle to attain to it that she will most surely purify herself, and quicken her own aspirations towards perfection.

This is what we should set ourselves to aim for, a true and noble goal of creating a free, just society, not the continuation of our crass materialistic culture.

I had thought that civilisation meant the attainment of peace and order and freedom, of goodwill between man and man, of the love of truth and the hatred of injustice, and by consequence the attainment of the good life which these things breed, a life free from craven fear, but full of incident: that was what I thought it meant, not more stuffed chairs and more cushions, and more carpets and gas, and more dainty meat and drink–and therewithal more and sharper differences between class and class.

What I want to do to-night is to put definitely before you a cause for which to strive. That cause is the Democracy of Art, the ennobling of daily and common work, which will one day put hope and pleasure in the place of fear and pain, as the forces which move men to labour and keep the world a-going.

The pre-Raphaelites

There is an unblushing passage about the role of his friends (and himself) in restoring art to England.

You know well that one of the master-arts, the art of painting, has been revolutionised. I have a genuine difficulty in speaking to you of men who are my own personal friends, nay my masters: still, since I cannot quite say nothing of them I must say the plain truth, which is this; never in the whole history of art did any set of men come nearer to the feat of making something out of nothing than that little knot of painters who have raised English art from what it was, when as a boy I used to go to the Royal Academy Exhibition, to what it is now.

It is amusingly revealing that later in the lecture, in his brief historical overview of western history, he uses the same phraseology to describe the founders of Christianity.

Therefore no tyrant was too base, no pretext too hollow, for enslaving the grandsons of the men of Salamis and Thermopylae: therefore did the descendants of those stern and self-restrained Romans, who were ready to give up everything, and life as the least of things, to the glory of their commonweal, produce monsters of license and reckless folly. Therefore did a little knot of Galilean peasants overthrow the Roman Empire.

The pre-Raphaelite mindset of a small group of high-minded men determined to change the world morphs seamlessly into Morris’s vision of a small group of artists who can bring about a transformation of society, a vision still in the loose and open phase in these early lectures but which crystallises into the notion of a vanguard political party in his later political phase.

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Detail of Woodpecker tapestry designed by William Morris (1885)

Detail of Woodpecker tapestry designed by William Morris (1885)

The Lesser Arts by William Morris (1877)

Morris’s few forays into painting weren’t a success and he quickly realised he had a gift for the other, practical or decorative arts. In 1861 he set up ‘the Firm’ – Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. ‘Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the Metals’ – which became a thriving concern and undertook major commissions for the next 30 years and beyond his death. Morris was a lifelong champion of the practical arts and, when he became interested in a new one, he taught himself from scratch, often using medieval handbooks. Thus, in his final years, he taught himself bookbinding in order to set up the Kelmscott Press.

This lecture on the Decorative arts, delivered in 1877 (Morris aged 44) was thus given by a man with lifetime’s interest in and commitment to the subject. In his excellent introduction to the Penguin edition of News from Nowhere, Clive Wilmer says he thinks Morris’s factual prose is stronger than his imaginative: this reminds me a little of George Orwell who said that when he wrote well it was because he had something to say.

Morris really passionately means what he says and so his prose reduces to a minimum the Victorian phraseology, abandons the medievalisms and cuteness which mar News from Nowhere and his prose romances, and says what he means as plainly as he can. The result is page after page which you want to quote in their entirety because his meaning is conveyed as much by the rolling rhythm of his sentences as the content of his argument.

The decorative arts?

Our subject is that great body of art, by means of which men have at all times more or less striven to beautify the familiar matters of everyday life… A very great industry indeed, comprising the crafts of house-building, painting, joinery and carpentry, smiths’ work, pottery and glass-making, weaving, and many others: a body of art most important to the public in general, but still more so to us handicraftsmen; since there is scarce anything that they use, and that we fashion, but it has always been thought to be unfinished till it has had some touch or other of decoration about it.

These arts, I have said, are part of a great system invented for the expression of a man’s delight in beauty: all peoples and times have used them; they have been the joy of free nations, and the solace of oppressed nations; religion has used and elevated them, has abused and degraded them; they are connected with all history, and are clear teachers of it; and, best of all, they are the sweeteners of human labour, both to the handicraftsman, whose life is spent in working in them, and to people in general who are influenced by the sight of them at every turn of the day’s work: they make our toil happy, our rest fruitful.

The arts have split

As man’s thought has become more intricate, more thorough, the two branches of art – the Greater and Lesser arts – once united, have become separated to the detriment of both: serious art has become heavy, earnest, doomy, the decorative arts vulgar, mass-produced tat.

…the great art of Architecture, and less still with the great arts commonly called Sculpture and Painting, yet I cannot in my own mind quite sever them from those lesser so-called Decorative Arts, which I have to speak about: it is only in latter times, and under the most intricate conditions of life, that they have fallen apart from one another; and I hold that, when they are so parted, it is ill for the Arts altogether: the lesser ones become trivial, mechanical, unintelligent, incapable of resisting the changes pressed upon them by fashion or dishonesty; while the greater, however they may be practised for a while by men of great minds and wonder-working hands, unhelped by the lesser, unhelped by each other, are sure to lose their dignity of popular arts, and become nothing but dull adjuncts to unmeaning pomp, or ingenious toys for a few rich and idle men.

The Decorative arts are intrinsic to human nature

It is one of the chief uses of decoration, the chief part of its alliance with nature, that it has to sharpen our dulled senses in this matter: for this end are those wonders of intricate patterns interwoven, those strange forms invented, which men have so long delighted in: forms and intricacies that do not necessarily imitate nature, but in which the hand of the craftsman is guided to work in the way that she does, till the web, the cup, or the knife, look as natural, nay as lovely, as the green field, the river bank, or the mountain flint.

…the art of unconscious intelligence, as one should call it, which began without a date, at least so long ago as those strange and masterly scratchings on mammoth-bones and the like found but the other day in the drift…

(This last phrase reminded me of all the artefacts I saw at the wonderful Ice Age exhibition at the British Museum, tiny fragments of bone or wood or antler which had been intricately carved and decorated.) As such, as an intrinsic part of human nature and human activity, decoration and ornament should be part of our everyday work, part of our working hours to make our work rewarding and fulfilling and to create a world full of beautifully decorated objects which brighten our rest time.

I say that without these arts, our rest would be vacant and uninteresting, our labour mere endurance, mere wearing away of body and mind… only let the arts which we are talking of beautify our labour, and be widely spread, intelligent, well understood both by the maker and the user, let them grow in one word POPULAR, and there will be pretty much an end of dull work and its wearing slavery.

The death of Art in our current capitalist society

Morris paints a dismal picture of the low state to which the arts have sunk in his time and, in a typically extreme section, foresees the eventual complete death of Art.

Even now amid the squalor of London it is hard to imagine what it will be. Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, with the crowd of lesser arts that belong to them, these, together with Music and Poetry, will be dead and forgotten, will no longer excite or amuse people in the least: for, once more, we must not deceive ourselves; the death of one art means the death of all; the only difference in their fate will be that the luckiest will be eaten the last–the luckiest, or the unluckiest: in all that has to do with beauty the invention and ingenuity of man will have come to a dead stop.

The solution is for craftsmen to set an example

You whose hands make those things that should be works of art, you must be all artists, and good artists too, before the public at large can take real interest in such things; and when you have become so, I promise you that you shall lead the fashion; fashion shall follow your hands obediently enough.

The remedy, I repeat, is plain if it can be applied; the handicraftsman, left behind by the artist when the arts sundered, must come up with him, must work side by side with him: apart from the difference between a great master and a scholar, apart from the differences of the natural bent of men’s minds, which would make one man an imitative, and another an architectural or decorative artist, there should be no difference between those employed on strictly ornamental work; and the body of artists dealing with this should quicken with their art all makers of things into artists also, in proportion to the necessities and uses of the things they would make.

True that we live amid the disgusting squalor, poverty and hideousness of Victorian London, but we can decide to rise above it:

If you can really fill your minds with memories of great works of art, and great times of art, you will, I think, be able to a certain extent to look through the aforesaid ugly surroundings, and will be moved to discontent of what is careless and brutal now, and will, I hope, at last be so much discontented with what is bad, that you will determine to bear no longer that short-sighted, reckless brutality of squalor that so disgraces our intricate civilisation.

The loveliness of English folk art

Having recently visited the Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain, and looked at shop signs and quilts and primitive paintings and pub signs and carved fireplaces and pin cushions I have a better sense of the unstoppability with which people will decorate and adorn everything in their lives. Morris hymns the modesty of this English folk art, shaped by the modesty of the English landscape:

For as was the land, such was the art of it while folk yet troubled themselves about such things; it strove little to impress people either by pomp or ingenuity: not unseldom it fell into commonplace, rarely it rose into majesty; yet was it never oppressive, never a slave’s nightmare nor an insolent boast: and at its best it had an inventiveness, an individuality that grander styles have never overpassed: its best too, and that was in its very heart, was given as freely to the yeoman’s house, and the humble village church, as to the lord’s palace or the mighty cathedral: never coarse, though often rude enough, sweet, natural and unaffected, an art of peasants rather than of merchant-princes or courtiers, it must be a hard heart, I think, that does not love it: whether a man has been born among it like ourselves, or has come wonderingly on its simplicity from all the grandeur over-seas. A peasant art, I say, and it clung fast to the life of the people, and still lived among the cottagers and yeomen in many parts of the country while the big houses were being built ‘French and fine’: still lived also in many a quaint pattern of loom and printing-block, and embroiderer’s needle, while over-seas stupid pomp had extinguished all nature and freedom, and art was become, in France especially, the mere expression of that successful and exultant rascality, which in the flesh no long time afterwards went down into the pit for ever.

Art is labour beautifed, pleasurable labour is art

What is an artist but a workman who is determined that, whatever else happens, his work shall be excellent? or, to put it in another way: the decoration of workmanship, what is it but the expression of man’s pleasure in successful labour?

Nothing can be a work of art which is not useful; that is to say, which does not minister to the body when well under command of the mind, or which does not amuse, soothe, or elevate the mind in a healthy state. What tons upon tons of unutterable rubbish pretending to be works of art in some degree would this maxim clear out of our London houses, if it were understood and acted upon! To my mind it is only here and there (out of the kitchen) that you can find in a well-to-do house things that are of any use at all: as a rule all the decoration (so called) that has got there is there for the sake of show, not because anybody likes it. I repeat, this stupidity goes through all classes of society: the silk curtains in my Lord’s drawing-room are no more a matter of art to him than the powder in his footman’s hair; the kitchen in a country farmhouse is most commonly a pleasant and homelike place, the parlour dreary and useless.

Environmentalism ie creating an environment fit for humans to live in

Science–we have loved her well, and followed her diligently, what will she do? I fear she is so much in the pay of the counting- house, the counting-house and the drill-sergeant, that she is too busy, and will for the present do nothing. Yet there are matters which I should have thought easy for her; say for example teaching Manchester how to consume its own smoke, or Leeds how to get rid of its superfluous black dye without turning it into the river, which would be as much worth her attention as the production of the heaviest of heavy black silks, or the biggest of useless guns. Anyhow, however it be done, unless people care about carrying on their business without making the world hideous, how can they care about Art? I know it will cost much both of time and money to better these things even a little; but I do not see how these can be better spent than in making life cheerful and honourable for others and for ourselves; and the gain of good life to the country at large that would result from men seriously setting about the bettering of the decency of our big towns would be priceless, even if nothing specially good befell the arts in consequence.

Against the elitism of Art for Art’s sake

Unless something or other is done to give all men some pleasure for the eyes and rest for the mind in the aspect of their own and their neighbours’ houses, until the contrast is less disgraceful between the fields where beasts live and the streets where men live, I suppose that the practice of the arts must be mainly kept in the hands of a few highly cultivated men, who can go often to beautiful places, whose education enables them, in the contemplation of the past glories of the world, to shut out from their view the everyday squalors that the most of men move in. Sirs, I believe that art has such sympathy with cheerful freedom, open-heartedness and reality, so much she sickens under selfishness and luxury, that she will not live thus isolated and exclusive. I will go further than this and say that on such terms I do not wish her to live. I protest that it would be a shame to an honest artist to enjoy what he had huddled up to himself of such art, as it would be for a rich man to sit and eat dainty food amongst starving soldiers in a beleaguered fort.

I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.

His vision for the future

I have a sort of faith, though, that this clearing away of all art will not happen, that men will get wiser, as well as more learned; that many of the intricacies of life, on which we now pride ourselves more than enough, partly because they are new, partly because they have come with the gain of better things, will be cast aside as having played their part, and being useful no longer. I hope that we shall have leisure from war,–war commercial, as well as war of the bullet and the bayonet; leisure from the knowledge that darkens counsel; leisure above all from the greed of money, and the craving for that overwhelming distinction that money now brings: I believe that as we have even now partly achieved LIBERTY, so we shall one day achieve EQUALITY, which, and which only, means FRATERNITY, and so have leisure from poverty and all its griping, sordid cares.

Then having leisure from all these things, amidst renewed simplicity of life we shall have leisure to think about our work, that faithful daily companion, which no man any longer will venture to call the Curse of labour: for surely then we shall be happy in it, each in his place, no man grudging at another; no one bidden to be any man’s SERVANT, every one scorning to be any man’s MASTER: men will then assuredly be happy in their work, and that happiness will assuredly bring forth decorative, noble, POPULAR art.

That art will make our streets as beautiful as the woods, as elevating as the mountain-sides: it will be a pleasure and a rest, and not a weight upon the spirits to come from the open country into a town; every man’s house will be fair and decent, soothing to his mind and helpful to his work: all the works of man that we live amongst and handle will be in harmony with nature, will be reasonable and beautiful: yet all will be simple and inspiriting, not childish nor enervating; for as nothing of beauty and splendour that man’s mind and hand may compass shall be wanting from our public buildings, so in no private dwelling will there be any signs of waste, pomp, or insolence, and every man will have his share of the BEST.

Hope and Fears for Art

This 1877 lecture was collected with four others in the 1882 volume Hopes and Fears for Art, and a further set of lectures, all broadly socialist in nature, were collected in the 1888 volume Signs of Change. Clive Wilmers writes of them: ‘These two books, central to Morris’s work, must count among the finest of his achievements.’ Hmm. Better read them, then…

Related links

William Morris (Wikimedia Commons)

William Morris (Wikimedia Commons)

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