Homage to literary journalism

Richard Lance Keeble celebrates Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia as a wonderful example of literary journalism, focusing on just the opening pages

One of the most striking aspects of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938), his eye-witness account of fighting alongside the Republican militia in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1937), is the range of literary genres and tones incorporated into the text. For instance, there are profiles (of individuals, cities, groups), sections of very direct, personal, emotional writing (conveying an earnestness to convey authentic/real experience); elements of background description, generalising comment and concrete experience; and personal commentary together with eye-witness reportage informed by a social political awareness. In addition, there is a journalistic emphasis on the extraordinary and the contradictory; confessional writing; a practical, down-to-earth awareness/sensibility; press content analysis/critique; political analysis (however reluctant); wit, irony, humour; there’s the droll debunking of the heroism of war and the claims of history – and political analysis/commentary. All of that packed into little more than a couple of hundred pages.

In my teaching of literary journalism I often take as an example worthy of constant analysis and debate the first few pages of Homage where Orwell describes so vividly meeting an Italian militiaman. He begins in traditional journalistic style: spelling out concisely and emphatically the ‘where,’ (In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona’) the ‘when,’ (‘the day before I joined the militia’) the ‘who,’ (‘I’) and the ‘what,’ (‘saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers’ table’). As Lynette Hunter comments in George Orwell: The Search for a Voice (1984): ‘It is an abrupt start to the book. There is no introductory prelude for the “I” who writes. The reader is thrust into a situation which he is supposed, in some way, to recognize: the detail is so concrete it assumes our familiarity with it.’

Orwell then describes/profiles the militiaman. There is extraordinary intensity in his gaze, perhaps with an element of homo-erotic excitement in it, as he dwells on the violence of the man: he stresses he was ‘a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders. His peaked leather cap was pulled fiercely over one eye. … Something in his face deeply moved me’. He says there were ‘both candour and ferocity in it’. But then a somewhat patronising, contemptuous tone emerges (perhaps from his educated, Old Etonian, ‘lower upper middle class’ background) as he mocks his ‘pathetic reverence that illiterate people have for their supposed superiors’. Interestingly, this homoeroticism also appears in the poem ‘The Italian Soldier Shook my Hand’ Orwell composed in 1939 about the experience: ‘To meet within the sound of guns/But oh! What peace I knew then/In gazing on his battered face/Purer than any woman’s’ (see George Orwell: The Complete Poetry, edited by Dione Venables, Finlay Publishers, 2015).

Orwell is clearly not hiding his feelings at the opening of Homage. The mockery continues: ‘Obviously he could not make head or tail of the map; obviously he regarded map-reading as a stupendous intellectual feat.’ Yet, paradoxically, the man’s ignorance adds to his allure which is matched by Orwell’s own confessed ignorance. He writes: ‘I hardly know why, but I have seldom seen anyone – any man, I mean – to whom I have taken such an immediate liking.’ As Hunter comments: ‘The lack of knowledge, combined with ignorance, paradoxically creates for the reader an elusiveness similar to the response to the Italian soldier and points to the past narrator’s inability to define the situation.’

Having gazed at a distance at the man, Orwell propels his dramatic narrative towards closer, more intimate contact: first, they engage in awkward, clipped dialogue as the Italian raises his head. Then, from gazing and dialogue the intimacy quickly moves on to the level of touching, and there is a certain ‘violence’ in the contact which Orwell clearly finds attractive: ‘As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard.’ And he adds: ‘Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger!’ This generalisation serves two purposes: from the isolated incident Orwell is able to draw out an observation about the human predicament and at the same time avoid the personal voice: perhaps Orwell felt for a moment a certain embarrassment/shame about the intensity of his feelings for the stranger. Significantly, he quickly returns to the personal voice stressing the ‘utter intimacy’ of the contact: ‘It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hoped he liked me as well as I liked him.’ The battle front had, then, became the traditional site for male bonding.

Looking back on the incident, Orwell reflects, with a certain sadness: ‘But I also knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again; and needless to say I never did see him again.’ And from the personal he shifts to the impersonal, generalised ‘one’ voice – as if to distance himself from a certain pain: ‘One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.’ As Hunter says: ‘The movement from optimistic fervour to criticism alerts the reader to a duality of naïve commitment yet clear detachment in the narrative. The duality is primarily one of chronological difference. There are two narrative voices: the earlier, immediately experiencing voice of the past, and the older, more reflective voice of the present.’

Orwell moves on to profile, in effect, the city of Barcelona, including personal impressions and vivid observations – while the emotional intensity of the writing captures both his own exhilaration and the extraordinary nature of the events witnessed. He quickly moves from the ‘I’ voice to that of the passionately engaged eye-witness: ‘It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. … Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared.’

Orwell, the narrator of the past here, is deeply inspired politically by what he sees. Looking back, he is able through the benefit of hindsight to acknowledge his ignorance: ‘There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.’ And he admits to his innocence and naïveté: ‘Also I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ state and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed, or voluntarily come over to the worker’s side.’ The voice of the more reflective, present narrator adds: ‘I did not realize that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being.’ This tension between detachment and involvement (and between past and present narrators) is a constant feature of the reportage.

Yet, Jeffery Meyers, in his 2000 biography, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation, is critical of Orwell suggesting that his ‘intoxication’ with the radical politics he witnessed in Barcelona meant that he failed to acknowledge adequately the atrocities that accompanied the raising of the red and black flags: ‘Despite the shocking desecration of the churches, the persecution and murder of priests and nuns, Orwell was intoxicated by the atmosphere of Barcelona.’

• Richard Lance Keeble is chair of the Orwell Society and Professor of |Journalism at the University of Lincoln. His latest edited collection of essays, George Orwell Now! has just been published by Peter Lang, of New York. His own chapter compares Orwell’s journalistic writing styles in Homage (as explored in this article) and in his despatches from the European Continent in World War Two in 1945.

A Short Video of the Gravesite of George Orwell

Note from Quentin Kopp:

One of the Orwell Society’s members in Spain, has brought this beautiful film by Sonia Boue to my attention. It is the product of some a project she was engaged in at the Abbey opposite the Church in Sutton Courtenay. I think it is beautiful and I would like to bring it to the attention of Members and anyone interested in Orwell.



Len Crome Memorial Conference: Women and the Spanish Civil War

Len Crome Memorial Conference
Women and the Spanish Civil War

Saturday, 12th March 2016
Location: The Manchester Conference Centre & Pendulum Hotel, Sackville Street, Manchester M1 3BB

(There will be time for questions after each session)
10.30 Registration
11.00 Welcome: Richard Baxell, Chair IBMT
11.15 Professor Paul Preston: Women in the Spanish Civil War
Pasionaria of Steel – The Life of Dolores Ibárruri
12.15 Professor Helen Graham: Wars of development –
Margaret Michaelis’ images of 1930s Barcelona
1.00 Lunch/Exhibitions/Stalls
2.00 Lynn Collins: Regional Secretary of North West TUC
2.30 Dr Sylvia Martin: Aileen Palmer and the British Medical Unit –
’our secretary, our interpreter, our dogsbody’
3.15 Dr Linda Palfreeman: Fernanda Jacobsen – Samaritan or Spy?
4.00 Plenary
5.00 Closing remarks: Jim Jump, Secretary IBMT

Contacts, Costs and payment details
£15 buffet and entrance
(payment in advance by Feb 28th)
£10 entrance only
(payment on the day)
Payment to IBMT by cheque/PayPal/bank transfer to:
Charles Jepson
Aysgaard, Beardwood Brow, Blackburn, Lancs, BB2 7AT
Tel: 01254 51302 Email:clarioncc@yahoo.co.uk
(please note no receipts will be sent out)
For further information on the conference:
Dolores Long: 0161 2262013 doloreslong@fastmail.fm
Charles Jepson: 01254 51302 clarioncc@yahoo.co.uk
Hilary Jones: 01625 527540 hilary.m.jones@btinternet.com

The Orwell Society will have a stand in the Exhibition on the day, which will include our Patron, Orwell’s son, Richard Blair and Quentin and Liz Kopp. Liz Kopp’s father was with the Czech International Brigade. Please join us for the day. It is always a very interesting day. This will be the 4th Year the Orwell Society have been to the Len Crome Lecture.

Dystopian fiction prize challenge for university students

To celebrate George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Orwell Society is organising a competition for students (both BA and MA) at British universities. Dystopian narratives of 3,000 words should be sent to Professor Richard Lance Keeble, chair of the Orwell Society, via dystopianfictioncompetition@orwellsociety.com, by 15 January 2016. A fee of £5 will be charged for each entry.

The judging panel comprises Richard Blair, the son of George Orwell and Patron of the Orwell Society, Dr Julie Wheelwright, programme director of the Creative Writing (narrative non-fiction/creative writing and publishing) MA at City University London, Dr Luke Seaber, tutor in Modern European Culture at University College London, and Professor Keeble. The prize of £500 will be announced on 15 February and comes with a trophy which is a bust of Orwell. They will be handed over by Richard Blair at the Society’s AGM later in the year.

The judges will be looking for the narrative which best follows in the tradition set by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four and which Orwell is most likely to have admired. The winning entry will be published in the Society’s Journal and (along with the two runners-up) on the Society’s website, www.orwellsociety.com.

Entries can be submitted by paying £5 by one of the following means, referencing the prize:
• Via Paypal: The PayPal account is paypal@orwellsociety.com.
• Sterling bank transfer: Make a sterling payment to the Society’s bank account (account name: ‘The Orwell Society’; sort code 601035; account number 13166417).
• UK sterling cheque: Please send your cheque, payable to The Orwell Society, to The Orwell Society, Marie Cottage, Bickenhill Lane, Catherine-de-Barnes, Solihull B92 0DE.

All submissions should be in a Word file (not PDF) and begin with a cover page providing title of story, name of author, name of university, name of programme studying on, and full contact details (address, telephone etc). The story should be presented in 12 pt Times Roman double spaced – with each page numbered and it should end with a word count.

Orwell’s battle with the intelligentsia, or what the new Left Book Club can learn from the old one

By Oscar Clarke

Nearly seven decades after the last one folded, a new Left Book Club has been founded. It has just released its first title – a book about the Syriza movement – and the timing could hardly be more appropriate. For, if nothing else, Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership election is evidence that socialism didn’t die with Tony Benn. And perusing the Club’s website, I learn that its founders themselves are more than a little enthusiastic about Corbynism (one of them has written a long article about how it represents the end of Mrs Thatcher’s “counter-revolution”). But it is perhaps because of their dizzying enthusiasm for the latest left-wing current that they have not, in their own account of the history of the old Club – to which Orwell was both participant and observer – given the most detailed description of the reasons why it fell apart. So that is what I have decided to do here. Perhaps it will serve as a cautionary tale.

The original Left Book Club was founded in 1936 by the publisher Victor Gollancz, the writer John Strachey and Harold Laski, who was a lecturer at the London School of Economics. The idea was to provide a cheap political education. In return for a small annual subscription-fee, members would receive the Club’s chosen titles every month and could also attend regular LBC reading groups. Plainly the political education was not a general one. The Club’s two primary objectives were (1) to make the case for socialism and (2) to unite as many people as possible to the anti-fascist cause. In Coming Up for Air, Orwell satirised the almost-fascistic fanaticism with which this latter aim was advanced, his protagonist, George Bowling, observing that LBC meetings were dominated by hatred and propaganda. For Gollancz, though, anti-fascism was a matter of supreme urgency. In the belief that only a firm and united Europe could stand up to Hitler – and thus prevent war – he wanted to encourage the various leftist factions in Britain to put the main issue above their petty, internecine squabbles.

But he also wanted the Left Book Club to be more than a purely political venture. As a publisher, he had an aesthetic appreciation for pleasing prose. Like the poet John Lehmann, who founded the journal New Writing – ostensibly with the aim of anthologising the anti-fascist (and pro-communist) writings of the Auden-set – Gollancz recognised Orwell’s talent as an essayist. Lehmann’s journal published “Shooting an Elephant” and “Marrakech,” which contained some of Orwell’s most famous insights about the absurdities of the “White Man’s Burden.” (The latter essay – and I only mention this because I have never seen this point raised in the biographies of Orwell that I have read – also demonstrated his awareness of the relationship between conspiracy theory and pogroms. Noticing that in Morocco, like Europe, “you hear… dark rumours about” supposed Jewish power he drew the parallel between this and the “witches,” once burned at the stake, “who could not even work enough magic to get themselves a square meal.”) Gollancz, meanwhile, published The Road to Wigan Pier as a Club choice. The first part of the book, he thought, advertised Orwell as one of the most talented socialist writers in Britain. The second part, however – largely a critique of “sandal-wearing,” middle-class socialists – tested his patience. He wanted to publish only the bits that he had found agreeable, but eventually settled for the compromise of writing a preface denouncing the bits that he had not.

His literary sensibilities notwithstanding, the formation of a left-wing coalition – eventually a “grand coalition,” including Churchill and Anthony Eden – remained Gollancz’s primary fixation right up until September 1939. As will be revealed, the centrality of this aim became an impediment to the intellectual openness of the Club, Gollancz feeling the need to censor authors whose works might upset certain orthodoxies. His relationship with Orwell was one of the casualties of this urge. Rejecting to publish the next piece of reportage that Orwell sent his way (making a gift of the chagrined author’s brilliance to Fredrick Warburg), the two did eventually collaborate, along with Strachey and Laski, on a collection of essays – but only after the bedfellows for whom Gollancz had sacrificed so much had monumentally disappointed him. More on that shortly.

The first obstacle in the way of Gollancz’s mission for left-wing unity was that the Labour Party wanted no part in any front involving communists. Popular Front coalitions were winning elections in Spain and France, but Labour were unable to simply forget that communists had, until March 1933, treated reformist social democrats as their primary adversaries, denouncing them as “social fascists.” When the Communist Party changed tack and proposed a “United Front” against fascism, Labour responded by publishing Democracy Versus Dictatorship, a pamphlet comparing Stalin with Hitler. Laski, who was on the left of the Labour Party, and Strachey, a one-time MP who had abandoned the Party in 1931, saw things differently. After witnessing Labour fail to address Britain’s unemployment crisis during the first years of the depression – causing the collapse of Ramsey MacDonald’s government – and the subsequent rise of Nazism, they arrived at two conclusions. First, social democracy had failed; second, capitalism, in its “last stages,” would engender fascism – which was the popular left-wing interpretation of what had occurred in Germany. Both conclusions implied that a Bolshevik-style revolution had become a necessity.

Inevitably, they both became enthusiastic fellow-travellers, as most of those engaged in the debunking of capitalism did in the ’thirties. “All people who are morally sound,” Orwell wrote in a wartime letter to Humphrey House, “have known since about 1931 that the Russian regime stinks.” Not so Strachey, who wrote in The Coming Struggle for Power that communism would be the “salvation of the British people,” nor Laski, who penned Democracy in Crisis, excusing Soviet abuses of freedom as a necessary part of the struggle for a more comprehensive freedom than that afforded by the democracies. Gollancz, meanwhile, visited Russia in 1937, shortly after nominating Stalin “man of the year” in an interview for Cavalcade magazine. Unlike Andre Gide, he did not suffer any disillusionment. His sojourn had imbued him with a rather sycophantic “sort of spring-time feeling… that pre-history is over and history is just beginning.”

Labour’s disavowal of organisations like the LBC, coupled with its founders’ palpable fondness for the Soviet Union, meant that the Club naturally became something of a Communist Party front. Most of its authors were Party members, many of its books were written with the sole intent of eulogising the U.S.S.R., and its leaflets carried articles justifying the purges. Gollancz rejected at least two books on the Spanish Civil War – one of which was that Orwell title: Homage to Catalonia – because they drew attention to the fact that Stalin was crushing, rather than supporting, the revolution. He chose to publish Arthur Koestler’s Spanish Testament instead, which was written while the Hungarian was still working as a Comintern agent.

All of this did not prevent tremendous success. After all, “the central stream of English literature,” Orwell wrote in Inside the Whale, “was more or less directly under communist control” in the late nineteen-thirties. It was “the sin of nearly all left wingers from 1933 onward… to be anti-fascist without being anti-totalitarian.” The Club was simply wedded to an orthodoxy represented by Auden, Isherwood, Day-Lewis & co. Indeed, Stephen Spender wrote one of its monthly choices after he joined the Party. And it wasn’t only Gollancz who refused to publish unpleasant truths about the Soviet Union. The New Statesman weren’t interested in Orwell’s Spanish dispatches either, and Kingsley Martin’s journal was extremely quiet on the subject of the purges.

Gollancz would always vehemently deny that the Club was a CP front, for he was himself a Labour Party supporter and a liberal at heart. But as his biographer, Ruth Dudley Edwards concluded, his indignant responses to such accusations were probably a measure of his guilt. He had been a schoolteacher before he became a publisher and, as one of his students later recalled, had always believed profoundly in the liberal idea that education precipitated progress. The LBC was founded as an educational institution, but more and more it had become a tool for Communist Party propaganda. One Club meeting, addressed by the CPGB General Secretary, Harry Pollitt, was concluded with a hearty rendition of the Internationale.

Whilst Strachey’s politics became ever more extreme – he endorsed the myth that Trotskyists had collaborated with the Gestapo in Spain, for instance – Gollancz began to wonder if he had betrayed his own principles. By wilfully ignoring facts which might be exploited by “the enemies of socialism,” he was lying in the service of a doctrine which promised to do away with dishonesty. By the winter of 1938 he was criticising himself. He wrote a letter to the author Leonard Woolf, predicting “a future more and more dominated by lying propaganda” (Orwell certainly shared that fear), adding that:

I believe the most important thing of all is to preserve, so far as they can be preserved, tolerance, the open mind, freedom of thought and discussion… I have myself for many years held the view that these things… were not ultimately possible in a capitalist society: and I have therefore been prepared – though with extreme reluctance – to defend the suppression of these things in the Soviet Union, on the grounds that… ‘the end justifies the means.’

This was what a repentant Koestler would later call the totalitarian ethic. Unfortunately, Gollancz did not immediately abandon it. In the same letter to Woolf, he had asked him to write a book on the defence of Western Civilisation. Woolf did, and he sent Gollancz the manuscript in the spring of 1939. It bore the wonderful title: Barbarians at the Gate. But the book criticised Stalin, and recent events had caused Gollancz to reconsider whether the time was right for freedom of discussion on this issue. For Hitler had just taken all of Czechoslovakia, prompting Gollancz to write an indignant pamphlet against appeasement, Is Mr Chamberlain Saving Peace? Like many on the left, he was now convinced that only an Anglo-French-Soviet pact of mutual assistance could check Hitler and prevent war. He informed Woolf that the opponents of such a pact would surely use his criticisms of Stalin in their propaganda; he would have to delay publication for a few months. Woolf was incredulous, but Gollancz was unmoved.

Only a couple of months later, Stalin shocked the world by inviting Ribbentrop to the Kremlin and entering into a Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler. No one knew about the Secret Protocols which assured the partition of Poland, but shortly after Britain had declared war with the enthusiastic backing of Britain’s communists, the CPGB received a communique from the Comintern revealing that this was an “imperialist war.” (When the American Party received this news, as Orwell’s retelling of the story goes, a member of their Central Committee returned from a toilet break to learn that the Party line had inversed in his absence.) Now Gollancz’s communist friends – those who had been loudest in condemning Hitler for years – suddenly became pro-Nazi (something Orwell had predicted would happen in The Road to Wigan Pier).

The CP journal, the Daily Worker, printed an infamous article entitled “Hitler Speaks” on February 1st 1940, in which they agreed with the Austrian that Britain and Poland had forced war upon Germany. And after the Worker, citing a German source, predicted the invasion of the Low Countries – not by the Nazis, but by Britain and France – it became clear to Gollancz that the Party was pursuing a policy of Leninist Revolutionary Defeatism. Spreading propaganda against the war effort, the CP acted in the fanciful belief that a Nazi conquest would be followed by a European revolution which would bring communists to power everywhere. Roger Moorhouse, in his recent book on the Nazi-Soviet Pact, found Molotov expressing this slightly mad idea:

Today we support Germany but just enough to keep her from being smothered before the miserable and starving masses of the warring nations become disillusioned and rise against their leaders. Then the German bourgeoisie will come to an agreement with its enemy, the allied bourgeoisie, in order to crush with their combined forces the aroused proletariat. But at that moment we will come to its aid, we will come with fresh forces, well prepared, and in the territory of Western Europe, I believe, somewhere near the Rhine. The final battle between the proletariat and the degenerate bourgeoisie will take place which will decide the fate of Europe for all time. We are convinced that we… will win that battle.

After Gollancz wrote Where are you Going? An Appeal to Communists, in the late spring of 1940, Orwell, in a letter to his friend Geoffrey Gorer, wrote “I saw Gollancz recently, he is furious with his communist late-friends, owing to their lies etc., so perhaps the Left Book Club may become quite a power for good.” In early 1941, the two collaborated, along with Strachey and Laski – who were also appalled by the lengths to which the communists had persevered with the doctrine that ends justify means – on a book of essays entitled The Betrayal of the Left. They documented in immense detail how every Daily Worker and CP campaign since late 1939 had been geared towards facilitating the defeat of Britain by Hitler.

It was an important historical document, but the Betrayal of the Left was effectively the swansong of the Left Book Club. One of Orwell’s essays from the volume – “Patriots and Revolutionaries,” which formed the basis of an expanded and better-known later essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn” – appropriately concludes the LBC anthology which Paul Laity put together a few years ago. For, though the Club struggled on until a couple of years after the War, it had alienated almost everyone but fellow-travellers during the ’thirties, and subsequently paid the price for trying to be honest after many of its readers had decided that Hitler was not so bad after all.

If the articles on their website are anything to go by, the founders of the new Left Book Club will proudly participate in the inquisition against the Parliamentary Labour Party’s Blairites. “Support for war” is the primary evil to be corrected by Jeremy Corbyn’s morally superior alternative: anti-imperialism. But, refusing to follow their thoughts beyond this point – especially now that President Assad has enlisted Russia in his war against Syrian civil society – is perhaps actually a sign of moral deficiency. In any case, by making themselves prisoner to such orthodoxies, their Club is more likely to become a crude propaganda machine than an educational institution, and they might discover that their readership will desert them if they ever decide to broaden their political horizons.


Conference focus on Orwell

A major conference, jointly organised by the Orwell Society and Goldsmiths College, University London, entitled ‘Orwell, the University and the University of Life’ is to be held on Thursday, 7 January 2016, at Goldsmiths, Lewisham, London SE14 6NW.

Professor Richard Lance Keeble, chair of the Orwell Society, is to give the keynote: ‘”There is always room for one more custard pie”: Orwell’s humour’ while Professor Tim Crook, of Goldsmiths, is to talk on ‘George Orwell and the radio imagination’. Other speakers will include Professor Jean Seaton, of Westminster University, and Professor John Newsinger, Professor of Modern History at Bath Spa University.

Professor Crook commented: ‘We want to celebrate the teaching and research of George Orwell’s writings and culture in the academy.’

• Attendance for the event, which will take place at The Cinema, Richard Hoggart Main Building, Goldsmith, from 10 am to 4 pm, is free. All are welcome. Please contact Professor Crook at T.Crook@gold.ac.uk.

Orwell report on BBC1

Some months ago, Richard Blair did some filming with the “One Show” history unit. It is a series of short pieces about the wills of famous deceased people and Orwell was one of them. The subject in this case was about a travelling bookcase that people once carried with them in the 19th century and one of Orwell’s ancestors had such a book case, which Orwell wished to remain in the family. We can now announce that this short piece of film was shown on BBC 1 between 7 and 7.30 in the evening of 27th October 2015.

The Guardian Publishes the Saturday Poem: Summer for an Instant

The Saturday poem: Summer for an Instant
by George Orwell (published in the Adelphi Magazine, May 1933)

Summer-like for an instant the autumn sun bursts out,
And the light through the turning elms is green and clear,
It slants down the path and the ragged marigolds glow
Fiery again, last flames of the dying year.

… ”

For the full text follow this link to the Guardian website.

George Orwell: The Complete Poems, compiled by Dione Venables, is available from scarthinbooks.com The book can be ordered from Waterstones, Amazon or any other wholesalers.

Edition of Orwell’s poems: ‘A triumph’

The Orwell Society is proud to feature an exclusive book review by the highly esteemed British novelist and writer D. J. Taylor, the author of two renowned biographies, Thackerary (1999), and Orwell: The Life (2003), which won the Whitbread Biography Prize in 2003. D. J. Taylor has published eleven novels, the most recent being The Windsor Faction (2013), and is joint winner of the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. He is also well known for his reviews and cultural critiques as well as his journalism, which has been published in the Independent and the Independent on Sunday, the Guardian, the Tablet, the Spectator, the Wall Street Journal and, anonymously, in Private Eye.

George Orwell: The Complete Poetry (edited by Dione Venables, Finlay Publishers)

It is no disrespect to the legion of PhD students currently at work in British and American universities on such topics as the language of totalitarianism and the post-imperial hegemony to say that most of the best work on Orwell has come from beyond academe. Certainly Professor Peter Davison, editor of the immortal George Orwell: The Complete Works, and Sir Bernard Crick, who published the first trail-blazing biography 35 years ago, were career academics, but Orwell, when they began to write about him, lay some way distant from their specialist fields, and, for all its exactitude, their approach to his work owed as much to personal enthusiasm as professional zeal. To say that Dione Venables’s edition of Orwell’s poetry is essentially an amateur production is, consequently, one of the highest compliments you can pay it.

In some ways the context in which Orwell produced the 46 individual pieces – some of them no more than fragments – that make up this notably slim oeuvre is quite as beguiling as the poems themselves. The early twentieth century was a time in which, as Penelope Fitzgerald once put it, the English people ‘still liked poetry’, when the Collected Poems of the Laureate John Masefield could sell 80,000 copies and the ongoing war between modernism and Georgian-style traditional verse was fought out from one newspaper arts section to the next. To the twenty-something who wanted to ‘be a writer’ in the age of Ramsay Macdonald and Stanley Baldwin, poetry seemed quite as seductive as the novel, and the number of celebrated inter-war novelists who began as poets takes in everyone from Graham Greene (Babbling April, 1924) to Patrick Hamilton.

In most cases this virus burnt itself out at a comparatively early stage. Evelyn Waugh’s elder brother Alec, for example, published a single volume of poetry (Resentment, 1918) at the age of 20 and then seems to have given up the medium altogether. One of the fascinations of Orwell’s ambitions as a poet, on the other hand, is how long they survived. The urge that led him as a small child to compose a Blakean pastiche about a tiger with ‘chair-like teeth’ was still going strong in the early 1930s when, entombed in one of his school-teaching jobs, he wrote to his agent Leonard Moore with news of a long poem describing a day out in London – undoubtedly the source of London Pleasures, the 2,000 line epic in rhyme royal on which Gordon Comstock desultorily labours in Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). In one of the few articles he ever wrote that touch on sport, Orwell describes himself as having once conducted a ‘hopeless love affair with cricket’, but the same could be said of his attitude to verse.

Not that ‘hopeless’ is quite the right adjective for a relationship that lasted nearly three and a half decades, from the patriotic fervour of ‘Awake! Young Men of England’, published in the Henley & South Oxfordshire Standard on 2 October 1914, when its author had just passed his eleventh birthday, to the rough draft of ‘Joseph Higgs, late of this parish’ scribbled out in a hospital bed which appears in volume XX of the Complete Works. In fact, the reader who comes fresh to Orwell’s poems will very soon divine quite how much the form meant to him, and how considerable are the kind of effects he was able to bring off when his emotions were truly stirred. It is significant, for example, that the encounter with the Italian militia man (‘The Italian Soldier shook my hand’) should be written up as a poem rather than set down in prose, for the implication is that Orwell thought poetry a better vehicle for conveying this mixture of personal reaction and universal truth.

The fact that Mrs Venables’s compendium extends even as far as 63 pages may surprise some readers, but its dimensions are a testimony to her diligence. Not only does she include the poems written ‘as poems’, but there is also space for the scraps of verse that appear in the novels, such as the schoolyard insult composed by ‘a critic who now wrote rather good articles in the Nation’ ‘New-tick Flory does look rum/Got a face like a monkey’s bum’ from Burmese Days and Animal Farm’s ‘Beasts of England’ and ‘Comrade Napoleon’. Read chronologically, the material falls into several clearly demarcated groups – patriotic juvenilia, Etonian squibs, the love poems to Jacintha Buddicom, a series of verses written during his time in Burma, some exercises in Thirties miserabilism – see in particular ‘Sometimes in the Middle Autumn Days’ – and a handful of later vers d’occasion such as ‘Memories of the Blitz’ (1945) with its evocative lines about ‘The blimp has a patch on its nose/The railings have gone to the smelter/Only the ghost and the cat/Sleep in the Anderson shelter.’

It would be wrong to claim that very much of this is worth preserving as poetry, or that any critic who came upon it without knowing the author’s identity would immediately set about culling it for anthologies. At the same time the biographical significance of a poem like ‘Romance’ to anyone interested in the question of whether Orwell slept with Burmese prostitutes cannot be overstressed, and even ‘Sometimes in the Middle Autumn Days’ sheds a penetrating light on, among things, its author’s debt to Eliot. The handful of really good pieces are either straightforward reportage (‘A dressed man and a naked man/Stood by the kip-house fire’) or poems in which observations of scene are the prelude to some absorbing internal dilemma, as in ‘St Andrew’s Day 1935’, or the wonderful ‘A Happy Vicar I Might Have Been’, with its ringing sign-off ‘I wasn’t born for an age like this/Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?’

And then there are the Byronic stanzas traded with ‘Obadiah Hornbrooke’ (Alex Comfort) in Tribune in 1943 which, at the very least, show a highly-developed facility for pastiche. If Mrs Venables keeps her textual notes to a minimum (I always wonder who the ‘Duggie’ is in ‘A Happy Vicar’ who ‘always pays’ – Major C.H. Douglas of the Social Credit movement perhaps?) then her incidental commentary is always to the point. George Orwell: The Complete Poetry is a triumph – a labour of love and, for Orwell-fanciers, a highly necessary task elegantly and succinctly brought home to harbour.

By D. J. Taylor

• The launch of George Orwell: The Complete Poetry, edited by Dione Venables, will be on Saturday, 17 October. Copies of the book will be available to purchase for £8.99 via Scarthin Books.com. The book can be ordered from Waterstones, Amazon or any other wholesalers.

To Be Featured on BBC News at Six and Ten, on Friday 16 October

George Orwell: The Complete Poetry
Compiled and edited by Dione Venables
and published for The Orwell Society
on the 17th October 2015

This little anthology reveals an emotional layer of George Orwell
which has not previously been emphasised. It is a patchwork quilt
of emotions which were written when the mood was in him, as all
poetry is written, but it reveals a side of his personality less obvious
in his more studied and brilliant work. The colours are brighter and
darker here; the humour more mischievous; the gloom and anger
more intense; the occasional serenity more profound.

A brief introduction to each poem has been written in order to lead
the reader into the verse with greater understanding of its message.

George Orwell: The Complete Poetry (price £8.99 plus p&p)
is available (via the link below) from

The Orwell Society.com
Scarthin Books.com

The book can be ordered from Waterstones, Amazon or any other wholesalers.

Excerpt from A Dressed Man and A Naked man

A Dressed Man and A Naked man
(The Adelphi, October 2933)

A dressed man and a naked man
Stood by the kip-house fire,
Watching the sooty cooking-pots
That bubble on the wire;

And bidding tanners up and down,
Bargaining for a deal,
Naked skin for empty skin,
Clothes against a meal.

“Ten bob it is.” the dressed man said,
“These boots cost near a pound.
“This coat’s a blanket of itself
“When you kip on the frost ground.”


For book sales enquiries regarding George Orwell: The Complete Poetry please visit the website of Scarthin Books.com via this link!

The official society for the author Eric Arthur Blair known as George Orwell