The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Orwell's other island

At the beginning of October I spent a week on Jura, courtesy of the Scottish Book Trust and Jura Single Malt Whisky. The Jura Lodge is easily the most wonderful house I've ever stayed in: imagine the holiday home of a wealthy family with improbably good, if eccentric, taste and a magpie's eye for Victoriana and natural history. At first I thought that's what it was. I was surprised to learn that it was all a recent fabrication, designed by a talented interior decorator. Lots of writers have stayed there under various versions of the scheme, and I'm grateful for my week. All I have to do in return is write a short SF story set on Jura, to be published exclusively on the company's website and (in hard-copy) in a collection in the Jura Hotel. I'm not even expected to say a good word for the whisky, though I will: Whyte & MacKay is one of my favourite blends, and the 16-year-old Jura single malt could quite aptly be labelled Revelation (alongside the Jura distillery's two other labelled expressions, Superstition and Prophecy) though it isn't.

I spent a lot of time outdoors, often getting thoroughly cold and wet, but I also had plenty of time and space to read and write. And naturally enough, in this cheery environment I thought about the gloomiest writer who ever stayed on Jura. I'd recently re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the SFX Book Club, and - in dark evenings and the odd torrential afternoon - on Jura I browsed through The Penguin Essays of George Orwell, as well as the informative locally-published booklet 'Orwell on Jura', and an essay on the same subject by Bernard Crick in a nice little collection, Spirit of Jura: Fiction, Essays, Poems from the Jura Lodge, copies of which are liberally scattered around the house.

There's a common misconception about Orwell on Jura: that he went there to die, and that in going there he more or less deliberately made sure that he would. This is usually accompanied by a mental image of Jura as a remote, cold, wet, wind-swept miserable place, more or less ideal for writing a grey dystopia and then pegging out. Not a bit of it! Jura's climate, though indeed wet and windy, is mild. Palm trees grow in front of the hotel. Lizards live in the drystone dykes. The island is only remote in the sense that it's a (breathtakingly scenic) trek to get there. It's less than a hundred miles west of Glasgow. As Bernard Crick put it, Orwell didn't go there to die, he went there to write.

Re-reading his essays brought me to a thought that rather surprised me:

If George Orwell hadn't written Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, he'd be remembered as the author of a few depressing novels. Selections from his non-fiction would now and again be reprinted by AK or Pluto Press, with kindly introductions by Michael Foot or Tony Benn. The political right would have no interest in him at all.

He's always a pleasure to read, but as a political thinker he was neither original nor important. His criticisms of the left were sometimes unfair, but hardly unique. On the rare occasions when he put forward a positive programme of his own, or endorsed that of others, there's not a cigarette paper between him and the state socialists. Considered purely as a platform, 'The Lion and the Unicorn' shares a surprising number of planks with 'The British Road to Socialism' though to be fair the latter doesn't look forward to blood running in the gutters and red militias billeted in the Ritz.

Orwell's writings have an odd place in British culture. For many people, Orwell's essays and books are the only political writings from the 1930s and 40s they'll ever read. A fair bit of Orwell's political writing from that time consists of disparaging other political writing of the period - particularly the writing of the left. From 'Politics and the English Language' you can get the impression that such political writing consisted mostly of crass apologetics in dreadful prose. The result is that nobody bothers to read it, and Orwell's view reigns unchallenged.

'If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.'

I wish.

There's no necessary connection between political truth and verbal clarity. Let's take some writers whose politics Orwell would reject. Nothing could be stronger than Orwell's detestation of Fabianism and Stalinism. George Bernard Shaw stood for the first and more or less endorsed the second, yet The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism is a delight to read. Not all the Communists and fellow-travellers were hacks. (Orwell's citation of a rant from that quarter is tellingly under-referenced: 'Communist pamphlet' - I ask you!) T. A. Jackson and A. L. Morton wrote their best-known books in clear and vivid English. John Strachey was at his most lucid when he was at his most wrong. Professor J. B. S. Haldane's science essays are still read for pleasure. The Trotskyist C. L. R. James wrote one literary masterpiece; Trotsky himself was constitutionally incapable of writing a dull page, and in Max Eastman he found a translator worthy of his style. On the democratic, non-Marxist left, Lancelot Hogben, one of whose lazier paragraphs Orwell's famous essay holds up to scorn, was the author of Mathematics for the Million and Science for the Citizen - he was no Isaac Asimov, I'll give you that, but mastering these two books can set you up for life (or university, at any rate) which is more than can be said for Asimov's Guide to Science, fine volume though that is. Hogben's two big books sold hundreds of thousands. His style can't have stood in many readers' way.

That's not to say Orwell didn't have a point. I've always relished this passage from Perry Anderson's Considerations on Western Marxism:
By contrast [with Marx's published work], the extreme difficulty of language characteristic of much of Western Marxism in the twentieth century was never controlled by the tension of a direct or active relationship to a proletarian audience. On the contrary, its very surplus above the necessary minimum quotient of verbal complexity was the sign of its divorce from any popular practice. The peculiar esotericism of Western Marxist theory was to assume manifold forms: in Lukacs, a cumbersome and abstruse diction, freighted with academicism; in Gramsci, a painful and cryptic fragmentation, imposed by prison; in Benjamin, a gnomic brevity and indirection; in Della Volpe, an impenetrable syntax and circular self-reference; in Sartre, a hermetic and unrelenting maze of neologisms; in Althusser, a sybilline rhetoric of elusion.
What can you say?

Well! - what you can say is that if you work your way through Anderson's egregious collocation of vocables (and yes, I have looked up 'egregious') every word of this makes sense, and for all I know may even be true.

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The Anderson quote is beautifully self-referential. "I'll tell you what was wrong with Western Marxism: it was almostincomprehensible!" he says, incomprehensibly.

It must be deliberate. I know Anderson often writes English that reads like the clues for that insane crossword in the Observer, but this is too good to be true.

Yup! It's a thing of beauty.

An interesting story I came across a while ago.


I heard about this while I was on the island, and it's nice to see it in print. Good drawings, too.

If George Orwell hadn't written Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, he'd be remembered as the author of a few depressing novels...

...and maybe "Homage to Catalonia"? That's still probably the best English-language memoir of the Spanish Civil War around. Good point about his novels, though, I can't see "The Clergyman's Daughter" standing the test of time.

Ken, care to tweak your blogger settings so lazy bums like me can +1 and share the link with ease?

Damn fine post.

Ken! Enough about this Orwell chap. When/where can we find the Jura story?

Ajay - I'm embarrassed to say it's the only memoir of the Spanish Civil War I've read, and as far as I know it's the only one published in a popular edition in the UK by a mainstream publisher. My point was not that it wasn't good, but that if Orwell hadn't written his two famous books it wouldn't be a famous book - it would be published anarchist and Trotskyist presses, and as obscure as any other far-left memoir of the war.

MacLeodCartoons - I had considered the cigarette to complete the effect, but as the Jura Lodge is non-smoking I didn't want to give the wrong impression.

I reckon you're right about that. Bits of it might get quoted in histories of the Spanish Civil War - "English journalist George Orwell, who fought alongside the POUM, described them as, etc" - but I can't see it staying in print.

Anon - I'll let everyone know as soon as the story's available.

How weird. I've been on Skye for a week and found myself thinking about Orwell.

The missus and I decided on a tour of the various islands is on the cards next year. I pointed out that the Scottish islands have a fantastic reputation and many links with writers: Johnson, Orwell and [yes] you cropped up in conversation. . I look at your blog today and see that you've been on Jura.

I can't defend that paragraph that you quoted. I think Orwell is correct when he suggests that the key to communication is clarity. I remember my days in University reading science papers, attempting the occasional piece of political writing and finding myself asleep within a paragraph. There is no need to hide meaning behind complex sentence and passive constructions - it's the absolute bane of academic literature. And in my own line of work people often seem to hide behind jargon and weasel words (even if they are right). It drives me nuts.

*coughs quietly*: CLR James wrote an awful lot and I, shamefully, have only read two of his books but I would think the description 'literary masterpiece' can be used of both of them. In a very different way, Beyond a Boundary is just as wonderfully written as The Black Jacobins.

Ah, yes. I forgot about Beyond a Boundary, perhaps because I haven't read it.

antihippy - I can't defend that paragraph (assuming you mean the Anderson one) either. I like it because, as ajay said, it's so beautifully self-referential.

E.P Thompson, wrote a wonderful essay on Orwell which included one of the most devastating ripostes ever written. The essay is called "Outside the Whale".

Thompson published the essay in a great collection that includes some of his polemics with - Perry Anderson.

“. . . At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. . . . She knew well enough what was happening to her--understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.” –“The Road to Wigan Pier”

BTW - Road to Wiggan Pier is widely understood to not be exactly truthful.

I wish I had a copy of Outside the Whale handy. Thompson's take on Orwell's officer class mentality is so well done, that ever since reading that essay, I associate Orwell with the Kinks song "Yes Sir/No Sir".

Thompson and Ray Williams founded the "New Left Review" and were removed from it in factional struggle. The winning side put Perry Anderson in charge and the history of obfuscated prose has never been the same.

Gary, that's a good quote from a flawed but worthwhile book. And your point is?

Rootless - I have the Thompson essay handy (though if I reach for it, I'll just read The Poverty of Theory again, and I have work to do). Raymond Williams also wrote some sharp criticism of Orwell's work in Culture and Society.

While most American "leftists" at this point could not tell you the difference between Ray Williams and Ray Davies, Amory Lovins (who seems to me to be a sci-fi character) quotes Ray Williams.

I have to also point out that Perry Anderson's claim that Marx wrote clearly is in itself very peculiar. Here's a great quote from the 18th Brumaire that is very similar to Orwell's rant about fruit-juice drinkers although more like a speech in Burning Saddle.

Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel-keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, rag-pickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the Society of December 10

"It's less than a hundred miles west of Glasgow". No Glasgow is less than 100m east of Jura. For context- St Kilda is less than 50 miles west of Benbecula.

The Perry Anderson is toadly AHHHSUM!!!

There's nuthin' like making Marxism accessible to the masses. At which Orwell was brilliant. Oops! Correct but cumbersome. Ahem, which Orwell was brilliant at. Or something. *Reaches for Politics and the English Language *

An editor of the lefty US mag, Jacobin posted this post on his facebook page by another editor and who was somewhat gleeful about it as trashing of Orwell. Though, Ken, your point that Orwell writings would be much more obscure not because there were bad so much as they were embedded in a marginalized socialist culture (which is the point I thought you made in one of your responses) puts a different spin on it. For my part, Homage, Wigan Pier, Down and Out were all important books to me that I think about much more than 1984 etc.

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