George Orwell: Rose-lover and lie detector

Nick Lezard

Photo: Cassowary Colorizations

I have often wondered, “what would George Orwell think?” when some grievous example of governmental bad faith or outright mendacity has come to light. (There has been a cascade of these over recent years.) But one question that really haunted me, with a not altogether unpleasant frisson, between the years 2015 and 2019, was: what would Orwell have made of Jeremy Corbyn? I think immediately, and cannot unthink, of Orwell’s famous description of a certain kind of left-winger: “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac Quaker, Nature Cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England.” (A similar passage in The Road to Wigan Pier specifically mentions George Bernard Shaw and beards; undoubtedly an influence, though; after all, the man formerly known as Eric Blair gave himself not only the first name of England’s patron saint, the UK’s then king, but also Shaw’s. And yet Orwell included Shaw in his list of “crypto-communists” sent to a secret propaganda arm of the Foreign Office shortly before his death. It might have galled Orwell, in the afterlife, that Shaw outlived him by ten months, despite being almost exactly twice his age.)

The fit between Orwell’s caricature and Jeremy Corbyn – whose affection for sandals, and reluctance to condemn even post-Communist Russia, is a matter of public record – is rather funny (although Jeremy stands as a “Nature Cure quack”, as a distant speck in the rear-view mirror when compared to his brother Piers). By the way, I’m not happy with “feminist” as an insult, but the word had different connotations back then; alas, they seem to be returning. But there is one thing about Corbyn, J., of which Orwell would have approved: his love of gardening.

There is not very much that is good about Rebecca Solnit’s new book about Orwell, Orwell’s Roses; if you know practically nothing about Orwell, don’t want to know much more than the basics, and don’t mind pages, even chapters, of almost totally irrelevant digression, then this may well be the book for you. But at least it does one thing: it places, centre stage, that part of Orwell that celebrated nature and simple human pleasures: birdsong, spring, gardening and, as its title implies, roses.

Solnit misses a trick, in her wild divagations about the flowers – she even goes to a Colombian industrial rose plantation, which does at least tell us how miserably exploited the workers are – she could have mentioned, in his essay about “good bad poetry”, Orwell’s love of Dowson’s Cynara, and his quoting the lines “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind, / Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng, / Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind…”. Maybe she can put it in the paperback. She doesn’t, though, miss a trick when she mentions another aspect to Orwell’s chosen forename: that of The Georgics, by Virgil, his book of poems about agriculture, which I admit had never occurred to me.

The thing is, who, among people prepared to spend £16.99 on a book, knows nothing about Orwell these days? Not only, surely, does practically everyone literate know at least the basics, they also have their own opinion about him. As with Jesus Christ (presumably bearded and sandal-wearing but not, Scripture implies, teetotal), people like to remake Orwell in their own image. Even the Right can do this: for them, he is held up as a fearless denouncer of the Left; and indeed, you can cherry-pick his essays easily enough to make it look as though he was barely left-wing at all, so often is he picking fights with others on the Left. (Plus ça change.) But there he is: a colossus in the literary pantheon.

Orwell’s reputation was not always so secure. In the actual year 1984, my director of studies in English Literature at Trinity, Cambridge, was said to have asked: “who is this Eric Blair I keep hearing about?” It may have been a joke, as his own first name was Eric, but still: Orwell was very much not on the reading list – and this was a reading list that, in many respects, was more up-to-date than that of many other universities. It was just that Orwell was not considered literature. There were a couple of reasons for this: high-mindedness, and a right-wing inclination. This was why it was fine to talk about the Modernists, but not to talk about – to go back an era or two – Hazlitt, another great essayist.

I had to discover Orwell on my own, after, of course, the school-age obligation to read 1984 and Animal Farm. I got the point of these very quickly, because that’s what you’re meant to do; but I never read them more than once (I might have read 1984 twice). But his journalism, as collected in the four-volume Penguin edition, I think I know pretty much by heart. The lessons learned from even a childhood reading of the two famous novels are very simple. As Margaret Atwood has noted, Animal Farm in particular speaks very much to the child’s native sense of injustice; but the interesting way in which Orwell’s journalism survives as more intriguingly nourishing is that, however much it is more nakedly polemical, it offers a point of view to argue against. And this is particularly amazing, given that the thrust of his pieces is always “I am right, and you must be either dishonest or stupid if you disagree.”

The reason we revere Orwell, and must continue to revere him, is that he is the writer to look to when our leaders are telling us lies

I would read his collected journalism, in the years after the actual 1984, in which he confidently predicted the United Kingdom falling into a regime of concentration camps and rubber truncheons, then look around me, at Thatcher’s second administration, and think, “well, things might be bad, but they’re not that bad”. He was so often wrong: but even when he was, he was also, as he would put it when challenged about this, “essentially right”. Did his warning about such things in some way prevent them from happening? Can writing be that potent?

In the end, the reason we revere Orwell, and must continue to revere him, is that he is the writer to look to when our leaders are telling us lies. (In this he reminds me of another great essayist, Samuel Johnson, especially the Johnson who said: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”) And not just our leaders: think of the opposition to this country’s ghastly government, which seems to be engaging in a multi-fronted war in which people who once considered themselves on the same side
now find themselves implacably at odds. That’s a situation his novels didn’t have the scope, or the platform, to consider. But his non-fiction, paradoxically, did. Can you think of a political debate going on right now, among the Left, in which each faction is tearing chunks out of each other? And which side, in case you are bewildered as to which side to take, as if it was as simple a matter as that, is using the kind of techniques, or language, Orwell denounced, and warned us against? I’m sure you must be able to think of one.

Nicholas Lezard was a book reviewer for the Guardian for 25 years and writes the New Statesman’s “Down and Out” column, appropriately enough. “Orwell’s Roses” by Rebecca Solnit (Granta, 308pp, £16.99)



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