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An extract from 'Orwell: The New Life' by D. J. Taylor, published 25 May (Constable)
Orwell’s journals, compiled between 1931 and 1949, extend to eleven individual volumes – two hundred thousand words, say – enough to fill a five-hundred page book, and given extra weight by the well-nigh three hundred press cuttings assembled in his ‘Diary of Events Leading up to the War’. The final entry, written in September 1949, sets out the daily routines of University College Hospital in London, where the diarist had finally come to rest. There is certainly a twelfth diary and possibly even a thirteenth among the items stolen from his Barcelona hotel room in June 1937 by Spanish policemen under the direction of the NKVD and now – it is thought – gathering dust somewhere in the Russian Archive of Social and Political History in Moscow. No Westerner has ever seen them, although the great Orwell scholar Peter Davison once met a man – Miklós Kun, son of the Hungarian communist leader Béla Kun – who had tracked down the file but been unable to fillet it before the archive shut its doors to the public.
Why did Orwell keep a diary, and what does it tell us about him? Most literary diaries are self-conscious affairs, where the reader ends up suspecting that the real audience is only a remote posterity. Orwell’s, by contrast, are notably unvarnished, terse and unornamented, often no more than a lowkey record of domestic detail: the egg in the hen coop; the bird on the wing. Not that this doesn’t make them personally revealing. After all, a shopping list can shed just as much light on a writer’s mental processes as a twelve-hundred word article in the New Statesman. Orwell may not reveal anything about his literary techniques; he may go easy on the confidential remarks; he may be all but deliberately holding himself in check; but when he notes out of nowhere in 1940 that he is ‘thinking always of my island in the Hebrides, which I suppose I shall never possess, nor even see’, there is a sudden glimpse of all kinds of things not previously associated with him – frustrated yearnings, mysterious retreats, the deepest of romantic chasms.
These glimpses are all the more tantalising for what hems them in. If long stretches of the diary are remorselessly mundane (‘All day clearing out strawberries, which have not been touched since last year. It seems one plant will put out anything up to 12 or 15 runners’) then Orwell’s motive in writing them was equally prosaic. On one level he was simply a victim of that instinctive diarist’s urge to set down the most basic details of his life, however bewildering they might seem to a future reader with no interest in plant husbandry. Whether shop-keeping in pre-war Hertfordshire or quietly convalescing in North Africa, no egg-collector was more indefatigable and no observer of the tribal customs of the Atlas Mountains sharper-eyed. There are times, in fact, when the determination to slake such a rapt and exclusive curiosity turns almost parodic, if not practically manic. One of the Moroccan entries notes that ‘large ants can drag two peppercorns & the twig connecting them. Ants of various sizes drag a grain of wheat each.’
All the same, there is more than one diarist on display. To the Orwell who specialised in ground-level nature notes, insect monitoring and harvest forecasts (17.8.38. ‘Th e barley from the 22-acre field is not stacked yet, but the wheat is stacked & makes two stacks reaching so far as I can judge it 30' by 18' by 24'(high) & 18' x 15' x 20' (high)’, etc.) can be added the Orwell who is busily assembling raw material for his published work. An Orwell, more to the point, who was not above refining what he saw and noted down for dramatic effect. His sleight of hand with the Wigan slum-girl seen poking a stick up a blocked drainpipe in a filthy back street is well known (when reintroduced in The Road to Wigan Pier she is glimpsed from a train), but the same kind of manipulation attends the account of the Arab navvy in ‘Marrakech’ to whom Orwell hands a hunk of bread intended for a captive deer. The essayist dwells on the spectacle of the hungry man looking from gazelle to bread and back again ‘with a sort of quiet amazement, as though he had never seen anything quite like this before’. The diarist settles for a laconic ‘I gave it to him and he pocketed it gratefully.’
As for what the diaries tell us about Orwell himself, they confirm – if any confirmation were needed – that ineradicable grounding in the world of his boyhood. To take a tiny detail, nearly half of those three hundred press cuttings turn out to have been snipped from the Daily Telegraph. Adjectivally, too, we are back in the Edwardian nursery. The sex life of tramps is ‘disgusting’. Wolverhampton is a ‘frightful’ place. Cold weather is ‘beastly’, while ‘monstrous’ turns into a multi-purpose garnish ripe to be applied to anything from a slag heap to the remnant of a pie left in a lodging-house pantry. From his upbringing, too, comes that infallible tendency to place people, to generalise about social types and – for all the instinctive fair-mindedness – to arrive at a judgement based on class or gender divides. Ginger, met on the hop-picking excursion, is ‘a fairly typical petty criminal’. The crowd at a political meeting represents ‘a fair cross-section of the more revolutionary element in Wigan’.
What does Orwell know about either of these demographics? Not a great deal, you suppose, but wherever he fetches up in the world – Wigan, Barcelona or the Kentish hop fields – the taxonomist’s urge to classify, segregate and judge goes with him. Introduced to an ex-miner, now elevated to the secretaryship of a working men’s club, Orwell ‘would have taken him for a solicitor from his appearance’. Meanwhile, there are ancestral ghosts forever tugging at his elbow. No point any of the East Enders scrambling for hops trying to form a union, you see, as ‘about half the pickers are women or gypsies, and are too stupid to see the advantages of one’. The denizens of a Southwark lodging house where he stays the night are ‘a pretty low lot – mostly Irish unskilled labourers, and out of work at that’. There are times when Orwell’s generalisations crackle with fugitive comic life (‘All tobacconists are fascists’); other occasions when the significant and the particular perish in the face of one of his most enduring characteristics: that odd disinclination to discriminate.
Exclusive extract from Orwell: The New Life by D. J. Taylor, published 25 May (£30, Constable) | Available to pre-order here.
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