Richard Lance Keeble, chair of the Orwell Society, gave the keynote speech at a conference jointly organised by the society and Goldsmiths College, University of London, on 7 January. He examined Orwell’s current place in higher education and then concentrated on his much neglected humour and fascination with wit
Orwell the cultural icon
Let’s first consider Orwell’s place in society as nothing less than a cultural icon. Is it not extraordinary that hardly a day goes by without the global media referring to Orwell – while the word Orwellian is equally prominent. It is used as a pejorative adjective to evoke totalitarian terror, the falsification of history by state organised lying; the use of euphemistic language to camouflage morally outrageous ideas and actions. Or it is used as a complimentary adjective to mean ‘displaying outspoken intellectual honesty, like Orwell’. Does any other writer occupy such a place: I doubt it. In the debate over Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA global surveillance Orwell’s Big Brother society of Nineteen Eighty-Four was a constant reference point.
His contribution to the broader culture is vast. Orwell himself gave to the English language a whole host of new words, phrases and striking aphorisms. He was the first person to use the phrase ‘Cold War’. Other phrases and words he invented which have slipped effortlessly into everyday English include ‘Big Brother’, ‘newspeak’ (and variants such as ‘nukespeak’ and ‘massacrespeak’); ‘doublethink’ (and variants such as ‘groupthink’); even ‘Room 101’ (the name of a television series of dubious quality) – all from Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Moreover, many of his aphorisms are regularly referred to in the media. For instance, there’s ‘During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act’ and ‘Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper.’ Others include: ‘Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defence against a homicidal maniac.’ ‘Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,’ and ‘In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly and hatred.’ And there’s ‘The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.’
Orwell and higher education: English Studies
Orwell acquired international fame for his great novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and not surprisingly the study of these and his other novels and essays is embedded in English programmes in schools, colleges and universities across the globe. The recent publication of a volume containing all of Orwell’s poetry by Orwell Society founder member Dione Venables should also help focus academic attention on that previously ignored aspect of his overall vast output.
Moreover, Orwell virtually invented the discipline of Cultural Studies with his commentaries on so many of the manifestations of popular culture which fascinated him – crime novels, boys’ weeklies, women’s magazines, cups of tea, Woolworth’s roses, common lodging houses, the common toad and handwriting. Such subjects have tended to be considered too trivial and unworthy of attention by the intellectual and cultural elite.
In one of his most celebrated essays – published in Cyril Connolly’s Horizon in September 1941 – he examined the seaside postcards of Donald McGill and, as he wrote, ‘their endless succession of fat women in tight bathing-dresses and their crude drawings and unbearable colours’.
Orwell also occupies a place in intelligence studies, highlighted in James Smith’s recently published British Writers and MI5 Surveillance 1930-1960. Files of Special Branch and MI5 released a few years ago reveal that Orwell was followed closely by British intelligence throughout his career – from the time he began writing for radical journals in Paris at the end of the 1920s. But Orwell’s links with the secret state in the end became somewhat ambivalent (as I have examined in a number of essays) – particularly after he befriended David Astor who was very involved in SOE, the military arm of intelligence during the Second World War. It is likely that Orwell travelled to the continent in 1945 on some kind of intelligence mission for Astor under the cover of writing for the Observer – and his decision on his deathbed to hand over a list of crypto-communists to the Information Research Department (a newly set up propaganda operation of the secret state) has been the subject of a heated controversy ever since.
Orwell may be best known as a novelist. But for me, ever since I first joined a newspaper in my home city Nottingham in 1970 Orwell the committed, progressive journalist has been an inspiration.
Moreover, as an academic since 1984 I have used Orwell’s writings in a wide range of programmes. At the University of Lincoln I set up (with the backing of John Pilger) the only undergraduate BA in investigative journalism – and not surprisingly Orwell’s investigations into poverty in Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier are seminal texts which all students without any exception love to devour.
In my teaching of media ethics too Orwell’s decisions to live amongst the beggars, prostitutes, and hop-pickers, to actually go down a mine to experience first-hand the miner’s experience have usefully raised all kinds of issues for students – about authenticity, commitment, and the supposed ‘truthfulness’ of eye-witness reporting. His essential commitment to alternative non-corporate newspapers and journals also raises important ethical and political issues for students (bombarded as they are by the corporate media) to consider.
At Lincoln I also set up the MA programme in War, Journalism and Human Rights and here again Orwell’s writing on his experiences fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and his 19 frontline despatches for the Observer and Manchester Evening News at the end of the Second World War are crucial texts.
Also at Lincoln my teaching of literary journalism (exploring the political economy of the text and the ways in which journalism exploits the techniques mostly associated with high literature) has very often used Orwell’s writings as models. The genres covered by Orwell are so fascinating: film and book reviews, political polemic, columns, essays, war reporting, letters, diaries, memoir. His aim, he said, was ‘to make political writing into an art’. And in that he succeeded.
Humour: Orwell’s bright side
But today I want to focus on a much neglected area – Orwell’s humour. Humour and journalism happens to be in general largely unchartered territory. Indeed, it’s only after I retired two years ago that it occurred to me to look at humour in journalism. And the two books I have recently edited appear to be the very first books to tackle the subject. In Orwell’s case, he has tended to be associated with seriousness, if not the gloom of the dystopian vision of Nineteen Eighty Four. His novels – such as Burmese Days (1934), A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Coming up for Air (1939) – certainly tend to end rather gloomily. Significantly, of his schooldays at St Cyprian’s, Eastbourne, which he revisited later in life in the ironically titled essay ‘Such, such were the joys’, he wrote: ‘Failure, failure, failure – failure before me, failure ahead of me – this is the deepest conviction I carried away.’
But there were brighter aspects of his personality which should not be overlooked. One of his biographers Jeffery Myers reports that at Eton:
One of his star turns was to go around inquiring about the religions of new boys and naming a series of extinct creeds. ‘Are you Sceptic, Epicurean, Cynic, Neoplatonist, Confucian or Zoroastrian?’ he would ask a bewildered youngster. ‘I’m a Christian.’ ‘Oh,’ said Eric, ‘we haven’t had that before.’
Orwell’s diaries are also full of witty observations, humorous anecdotes and high spirits. While down-and-out with the hop-pickers in Kent in September 1931, he records with clear delight the ‘uproarious scenes’ on Saturdays ‘for the people who had money used to get well drunk and it needed the police to get them out of the pub. I have no doubt the residents thought us a nasty vulgar lot, but I could not help feeling that it was rather good for a dull village to have this invasion of cockneys once a year’.
And, in his ‘Introduction’ to George Orwell: A Life in Letters, Peter Davison recalls how David Astor, Orwell’s great friend and editor of the Observer, told him how he would telephone Orwell when he felt depressed and ask to meet him in a local pub. Simply because he knew Orwell would make him laugh and cheer him up.
Moreover, Orwell had a profound fascination with wit as a subject to explore – and the humorous elements in his writings provide endless pleasure.
Humour in Homage
Homage to Catalonia (1938) is celebrated as a vivid, deeply personal account of his time on the frontlines in the Spanish civil war. Throughout the reportage is infused with a droll, self-deprecating wit: military cynicism mixed with military know-how. Of his time on the frontline fighting for the Trotskyite POUM militia against Franco’s forces, he wrote: ‘It is curious, but I dreaded the cold much more than I dreaded the enemy.’ On the Russian gun, he wrote: ‘Its great shells whistled over so slowly that you felt certain you could run beside them and keep up with them.’ Of the fat Russian agent, he says: ‘I watched him with some interest for it was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies – unless one counts journalists.’
He describes a cathedral as ‘one of the most hideous buildings in the world’. He continues: ‘I think the anarchists showed bad faith in not blowing it up when they had the chance.’
Amidst all the horror of trench warfare (when it flares up), Orwell also manages to inject some humour into his narrative. For instance, Orwell is involved in a rare attack on the Fascist lines and sees ‘a shadowy figure in the half-light’. He continues:
I gripped my rifle by the mall of the butt and lunged at the man’s back. He was just out of my reach. Another lunge: still out of reach. And for a little distance we proceeded like this, he rushing up to the trench and I after him on the ground above, prodding at his shoulder-blades and never quite getting there – a comic memory for me to look back upon, though I suppose it seemed less comic to him.
Humour of being hit by a bullet
And notice the droll, down-beat, anti-heroic description of being shot through the neck on 20 May 1937:
The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail. … Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion. … Not being in pain I felt a vague satisfaction. This ought to please my wife, I thought, she had always wanted me wounded which would save me from being killed when the great battle came.
‘As I Please’
I personally cannot read the eighty wonderful ‘As I Please’ columns Orwell contributed to Tribune, the leftist journal, between 1943 and 1947 without constantly smiling at his wit and high spirits. His tone was constantly shifting – from ironic self-effacement to de-mystification and debunking. In his 7 January 1944 column, he mocked the ruling classes in this way:
Looking through the photographs in the New Years Honours List I am struck (as usual) by the quite exceptional ugliness and vulgarity of the faces displayed there. It seems to be almost the rule that the kind of person who earns the right to call himself Lord Percy de Falcontowers should look at best like an overfed publican and at worst a tax-collector with a duodenal ulcer … What I like best is the careful grading by which honours are always dished out in direct proportion to the amount of mischief done – baronies for Big Business, baronetcies for fashionable surgeons, knighthoods for tame professors.
Trousers and the war effort
On 4 February 1944, in typical idiosyncratic style, he chose to link a comment on turn-up trouser ends (of all things) to the war effort in this highly original witty way:
Announcing that the Board of Trade is about to remove the ban on turn-up trouser ends, a tailor’s advertisement hails this as ‘a first instalment of the freedom for which we are fighting’. If we are really fighting for turned up trouser ends I should be inclined to be pro-Axis. Turn-ups have no function except to collect dust and no virtue except that when you clean them out you occasionally find a sixpence there … I would like to see clothes rationing continue until the moths have devoured the last dinner jacket and even the undertakers have shed their top hats.
Dickens and the subversive role of humour
Orwell’s fascination with humour was also reflected in his book reviewing and essays on writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain and P. G. Wodehouse. In his celebrated essay on Dickens (1940), which combines a detailed study of an essentially literary subject with a critique of contemporary political attitudes, he stresses the ‘subversive’ role of humour, suggesting that Dickens’s constant wish to preach a sermon was ‘the final secret of his inventiveness’:
For you can only create if you can care. Types like Squeers and Micawber could not have been produced by a hack writer looking for something to be funny about. A joke worth laughing at always has an idea behind it, and usually a subversive idea. Dickens is able to go on being funny because he is in revolt against authority, and authority is always there to be laughed at. There is always room for one more custard pie.
‘Funny not vulgar’
Orwell is able to display his polymathic knowledge of (and highly opinionated views on) English humorous writing in his 1,884-word essay ‘Funny not vulgar’ (first published in the Leader, on 28 July 1945). He covers writers as diverse as Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Hood, Edward Lear and Dickens. Returning to his ‘humour as subversion’ theme, he comments:
A thing is funny when – in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening – it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution. If you had to define humour, you might define it as dignity sitting on a tin-tack. Whatever destroys dignity, and brings down the mighty from their seats, preferably with a bump, is funny. And the bigger the fall, the bigger the joke.
Today, he suggests, humorists are ‘too genteel, too kind hearted and too consciously lowbrow’. He writes: ‘P. G. Wodehouse’s novels or A. P. Herbert’s verses seem always to be aimed at prosperous stockbrokers whiling away an odd half hour in the lounge of some suburban golf course.’
Wit and the common toad
One of my favourite pieces of Orwellian journalism, which never fails to amuse me, is his essay ‘Some thoughts on the common toad’ of 1946. As Meyers comments, he combined ‘close observation and unusual facts with tenderness for a repulsive creature’.
He starts the column with a gentle, witty dig at Anglo-Catholics, saying that ‘after his long fast, the toad has a spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent’. He continues:
I mention the spawning of the toads because it is one of the phenomena of spring which most deeply appeals to me, and because the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from the poets.
So here is the ever maverick Orwell delighting in speaking out for one of the forgottens of the animal kingdom. From this unlikely source his prose then flows on to a critique of capitalism, no less – and a celebration of life and the pleasure principle! He writes:
Is it wicked to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle.
Failure, as Terry Eagleton says, was Orwell’s forte. But then, as I have argued today, so too was fun.
In conclusion, it’s intriguing to consider that Orwell never went to a university. And perhaps as a result never wrote a footnote in his life. Yet in effect his whole life can be considered an educational project. He had an enormous appetite and curiosity about life – a deep desire to understand himself and the times he was living in. And through his wonderfully original and often witty writings he was seeking to encourage us all to join him on his journey.
• Richard Lance Keeble, Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln, has contributed a chapter, ‘There is always room for one more custard pie’: Orwell’s humour’ to Pleasures of the Prose, he co-edited with David Swick and which has just been published by Abramis, of Bury St Edmunds.