Why I Write, by George Orwell

This is a nice collection of four essays by Orwell, three very short and one much longer, and I'm going to treat them separately, because that gives me an excuse to inflict Orwell's gorgeous prose on you several times.

"Why I Write"

Third paragraph:

However, throughout this time I did in a sense engage in literary activities. To begin with there was the made-to-order stuff which I produced quickly, easily and without much pleasure to myself. Apart from school work, I wrote vers d'occasion, semi-comic poems which I could turn out at what now seems to me astonishing speed — at fourteen I wrote a whole rhyming play, in imitation of Aristophanes, in about a week — and helped to edit a school magazines, both printed and in manuscript. These magazines were the most pitiful burlesque stuff that you could imagine, and I took far less trouble with them than I now would with the cheapest journalism. But side by side with all this, for fifteen years or more, I was carrying out a literary exercise of a quite different kind: this was the making up of a continuous "story" about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind. I believe this is a common habit of children and adolescents. As a very small child I used to imagine that I was, say, Robin Hood, and picture myself as the hero of thrilling adventures, but quite soon my "story" ceased to be narcissistic in a crude way and became more and more a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw. For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: "He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a match-box, half-open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf," etc. etc. This habit continued until I was about twenty-five, right through my non-literary years. Although I had to search, and did search, for the right words, I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside. The "story" must, I suppose, have reflected the styles of the various writers I admired at different ages, but so far as I remember it always had the same meticulous descriptive quality.

An interesting bit of self-reflection, available here, in which Orwell starts by describing his own artistic growth, and then the impact of politics on his thoughts and words. But he finished with a description which I recognise from some writers who I have known:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

"The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius"

Second paragraph of third section:

One gets a better view of this question if one considers the minor point first. It is quite true that the so-called races of Britain feel themselves to be very different from one another. A Scotsman, for instance, does not thank you if you call him an Englishman. You can see the hesitation we feel on this point by the fact that we call our islands by no less than six different names, England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion. Even the differences between north and south England loom large in our own eyes. But somehow these differences fade away the moment that any two Britons are confronted by a European. It is very rare to meet a foreigner, other than an American, who can distinguish between English and Scots or even English and Irish. To a Frenchman, the Breton and the Auvergnat seem very different beings, and the accent of Marseilles is a stock joke in Paris. Yet we speak of “France” and “the French”, recognizing France as an entity, a single civilization, which in fact it is. So also with ourselves. Looked at from the outside, even the cockney and the Yorkshireman have a strong family resemblance.

The longest essay in the book, taking up more than two thirds of the 120 pages, available separately here. On the one hand, it's very much moored in the particular time it was written – 1941, when it was not at all clear who was going to win the war – and with a particular agenda in mind – the necessity and inevitability of a Socialist government which would win the war and modernise Britain. In fact, of course, the Labour victory came only after the war was over, though it's certainly fair to say that the war could not have been won without the social changes that came with it. On the other, some of Orwell's observations are simply brilliant.

Since the ’fifties every war in which England has engaged has started off with a series of disasters, after which the situation has been saved by people comparatively low in the social scale. The higher commanders, drawn from the aristocracy, could never prepare for modern war, because in order to do so they would have had to admit to themselves that the world was changing. They have always clung to obsolete methods and weapons, because they inevitably saw each war as a repetition of the last. Before the Boer War they prepared for the Zulu War, before the 1914 for the Boer War, and before the present war for 1914. Even at this moment hundreds of thousands of men in England are being trained with the bayonet, a weapon entirely useless except for opening tins.

When I posted that last sentence admiringly to Facebook, lots of people jumped on me with examples of successful bayonet charges since Orwell wrote; but his point is that the soldiers were not being taught anything else.

"A Hanging"

Third paragraph:

Eight o'clock struck and a bugle call, desolately thin in the wet air, floated from the distant barracks. The superintendent of the jail, who was standing apart from the rest of us, moodily prodding the gravel with his stick, raised his head at the sound. He was an army doctor, with a grey toothbrush moustache and a gruff voice. ‘For God's sake hurry up, Francis,’ he said irritably. ‘The man ought to have been dead by this time. Aren't you ready yet?’

A detailed account of an execution in a jail in Burma, effectively and efficiently conveying the horror and pointlessness of the situation.

I found that I was laughing quite loudly. Everyone was laughing. Even the superintendent grinned in a tolerant way. ‘You'd better all come out and have a drink,’ he said quite genially. ‘I've got a bottle of whisky in the car. We could do with it.’

"Politics and the English Language"

Third paragraph:

These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad – I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen – but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative examples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:

This is a tremendous piece on writing clearly. He is particularly interested in political writing, which he felt was especially bad:

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions, and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.

I don't know if things have improved much since Orwell's day. But his six rules for good writing should be on the wall of everyone who writes for a living, or indeed for a hobby:

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

A short book that I picked up at the John Rylands Library in Manchester in November, but you can get it here. It almost immediately hit the top of my unread non-fiction pile. Next on that pile is Lost in Translation, by Ella Frances Sanders.

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