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Orwell and the Working Classes
An extract from 'Orwell: The New Life' by D. J. Taylor, published 25 May (Constable)
From an early stage in his literary career, almost as far back as the first tramping journeys, Orwell was determined to identify with the working classes. Practised over a period of two decades, surviving regular changes of scene and upticks in material circumstance, this endeavour took several forms. First came a straightforward sympathy with the plight of the oppressed and downtrodden. Travelling in a car with Avril Blair on their way to the funeral in January 1950 and asking her who she thought her brother most admired, David Astor was taken aback when Avril replied, ‘The working-class mother of eight children.’ Then there was the wide-eyed esteem evinced by their physical qualities and intellectual attainments. Orwell’s descriptions of miners glimpsed at the pit head are highly admiring; similarly, he rated the working-class scholarship boy and exam-passer who clambers his way up the ladder of bourgeois life by dint of sheer hard work and application ‘the finest type of person I know’.
And to sympathy and admiration could be added the urge to adopt those characteristics of working-class life which seemed worth emulating, to talk, eat, dress and behave like a working-class person to the point where you could be taken for one yourself. Almost anyone who observed Orwell in action for any length of time – fellow-workers, pub cronies, even old school friends – found themselves gathered up in the slipstream of this social confidence trick. His BBC colleague John Morris remembered him purposefully pouring the liquid from his canteen teacup into a saucer and then sucking it up ‘with a slightly defiant expression’, as if daring Morris to intervene. It was the same with the grey herringbone suit – Orwell’s equivalent of the working man’s Sunday best – in which he was once seen entering the Ritz to lunch with Bertrand Russell, and the not yet fashionable workman’s corduroy trousers. It could be heard in the stylised cockney drawl with which he conducted conversations, seen in the cheap, savage haircuts – essentially the result of a barber running a razor round his neck – to which he treated himself, and smelt in the filter-free, hand-rolled cigarettes he favoured, whose acrid smoke hung in the air like river fog.
Naturally, this serial imposture fooled no one. As Malcolm Muggeridge once put it, whatever steps he took by way of camouflage, the betrayal of his origins was the same. To a man and woman, the casual ward supervisors of his tramping trips, the real-life proletarians met in the course of researching The Road to Wigan Pier and the newspaper vendors who tried to sell him copies of the Daily Worker knew him for what he was – a gentleman trying to pass himself off as someone else, an interloping toff earnestly slumming it in regions where toffs rarely penetrated. If anything gave him away apart from his voice it was the shabby yet genteel wardrobe, the flannel trousers and well-cut sports jackets whose fastenings instantly betrayed the high-class tailoring that had gone into their manufacture. Like Ravelston, the longer Orwell wore the various items he continued to order from Mr Denny, the Southwold tailor, almost until the month he died, the better, or rather the more class-tethered, he seemed to look.
All this was discouraging, but Orwell persevered. If he could not properly identify with the working classes himself, then he could at least offer helpful hints to other aspirants met along the way – if, that is, they were aspirants in the first place. One of his oddest characteristics, here in the field of class warfare, was his assumption that everyone else shared the value he put on the necessity to ‘connect’. His old school chum Denys King-Farlow, who paid a visit to Wallington in the summer of 1936, recorded an unutterably bizarre conversation in which Orwell tried to impress upon him the weight of his own proletarian credentials. Proud of his homemade pickles and a newly acquired sideline as a prison visitor, Orwell loftily assured his guest that, to a man with no experience of manual work, all this might sound rather peculiar. And exactly what work had his friend ever had to do with his hands, King-Farlow demanded, adding that washing a few dishes and staying in miners’ cottages didn’t count. As it happened, he had done quite a few odd jobs of this nature, Orwell declared. Why, at this very moment he was raising chickens . . . King-Farlow, who had spent two years as a roustabout in the Texas oilfields laying pipes and putting up machinery, was unimpressed.
Meanwhile, if you were anxious to identify with the working classes then it was necessary to seek them out in the places where they congregated and went about their leisure activities. Above all, it was necessary to drink and talk with them in an atmosphere where class differences, if they could never be wholly forgotten, could at any rate seem to matter less. But Orwell, all the evidence insists, was no good in pubs. It was not only his disapproving brother-in-law Humphrey Dakin who complained about his lack of small talk and his apparent unease in taprooms and four-ale bars. The much more sympathetic George Woodcock remembered visits to a bona fide working-class gin palace in Islington, a street or two away from the Canonbury Square flat. Orwell’s relish of such classic appurtenances as the cut-glass screens and the beer garden given over to the patrons’ romping children was palpable. At the same time, not knowing any of the working men who frequented the pub, he seemed horribly out of place, ‘a rather frayed sahib wearing shabby clothes with all the insouciance an Old Etonian displays on such occasions’.
Still, pubs offered a prime location for King-Farlow-style lectures, if only because so many of the manifestations of working-class routine lay to hand. Morris, again, who hated pubs, recalled being forced to accompany Orwell to a hostelry near the BBC. What would he have, Orwell wondered. Morris asked for beer. Clearly horrified, Orwell ordered a pint of bitter ‘and a glass of beer for my friend’. Morris had given himself away badly, Orwell remarked: a working-class person would never ask for a glass of beer. To Morris’s protest that he was not working class, Orwell countered that ‘there’s no need to boast about it’. Peter Vansittart suffered a similar experience in a pub near the Tribune office in the Strand. The thing was, Orwell told him, that ‘with an accent like that and a tie like that you will never get the working classes to accept you as one of themselves’. Sound advice, no doubt, but instantly undermined by the advent of the landlord, come in search of the next drinks order, who immediately addressed Vansittart as ‘Peter’ and Orwell as ‘sir’.
Unsurprisingly, there were times when Orwell came to, as it were, and remembered who he was, implicating himself in the racket he was otherwise determined to undermine. One of these moments of self-realisation came at the Cranham sanatorium in early 1949, when he could be found complaining about the twittering upper-class voices on display, and their self-absorbed blathering about nothing in particular. The sting comes in the collectivist sign-off . ‘No wonder everybody hates us so.’ But his attempts to ‘connect’ are transparently sincere. One might take the letter he wrote in 1947 to a working-class man named Taylor who had asked his advice: three and half pages of well-meant counsel on jobs, the position of the artist in society and the dismal financial rewards of authorship, concluding with an exhortation not to let ‘society hoodoo you into conformity . . . In my own life I have always found that what is called prudence merely means wasting years of time for nothing.’ Taylor, who would go on to publish a novel, noted that this ‘seemed to open invisible prison doors for me’.
Exclusive extract from Orwell: The New Life by D. J. Taylor, published 25 May (£30, Constable) | Available to pre-order here.
Find out more about Orwell’s life and legacy - and hear from this year’s Orwell Prize finalists - at the Orwell Festival: in-person in London and online from 6th June 2023. Booking now available via the Orwell Festival website.