I’m currently reading a collection of George Orwell’s essays, and it’s fantastic. He wrote many of them during the Second World War, reflections on England, on the English and their political sensibilities, on Chamberlain, on why capitalism is the enemy of nationalism and that’s why England took so long to get her shit together, on the stumbling shambling singularity of the British mind.
It’s fascinating to learn about history via contemporary writings – far more interesting, in my opinion, than reading textbooks or even memoirs. There’s a nostalgia that we can’t help but imbue upon the past that simply isn’t there when we write about the present. Writing about the present is often done with the hope of making people aware of what’s happening, of the ramifications of their choices and the choices of their leaders. Writing about the past is mostly an exercise in nostalgia, or else a “Look at what we did and learn from it (you idiots).” Either way there’s a softness to it, or a teaching, that distances the reader from what’s actually happening at the time.
When I was in Year 12 I studied history, and I loved it. We covered the Russian and the Chinese Communist revolutions, Lenin and Mao and the Long March and the Cultural Revolution. The book I read with the most fervour was Leaves of Grass, the memoir of a girl who grew up during this time of upheaval and who saw firsthand the Cultural Revolution and its effects. Her family was heavily involved with the Party, and even though she looks upon the Party with no small amount of bitterness, it was the only history text I’d ever read all the way through, because it was emotional.
Orwell’s essays have the same effect, for me. Even while talking about the sheeplike political sensibilities of the British, there is a clear love for his country, a certainty that England would come out of the Second World War on top, and the kind of love for one’s country that only comes out when we’re giving it a verbal hiding. Orwell’s essays give a clear picture of life in England at that time – for sure, they’re mostly political essays, but they look at the politics through the lens of everyday life. Moving between Orwell’s personal and political essays, as the collection I’m reading does, paints a picture of a writer whose first love was writing, but whose political sensibilities were rudely awakened by the war he found himself living in. Orwell was faced with the challenge of a world in crisis, and he responded to it in the way I hope any writer would: with a clear head, and a sharp tongue, and a steady pen hand.
Penguin Classics, 1994