Is George Orwell’s view of England still true?

George-orwell-BBCOver on the (unaffiliated) Journeyman blog there is a review of George Orwell’s collection of essays called Why I write, which was originally published in 1946.

The review quotes a couple of passages where Orwell makes observations about England. (I apologise that these opinions are very specifically given about England only, rather than the country as a whole).

The first passage is about the artistic and intellectual characteristics of the English:

Here are a couple of generalizations about England that would be accepted by almost all observers. One is that the English are not gifted artistically…the English are not intellectual… another English characteristic which is so much a part of us that we barely notice it, and that is the addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life… The most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker.
(The Lion & The Unicorn pp14-16)

The second passage reflects on the culture of England:

…in all societies the common people must live to some extent against the existing order. The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities. One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world. They have to satisfy these tastes in the face of astonishing, hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts, etc., etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody but in practice allow everything to happen. Also, the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.
(The Lion & The Unicorn pp16-17)

Is anything of what George Orwell says about England still true today? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

I tried to think of a good example of a mainstream artistic venture today and came up with The Lowry in Salford. It’s a fine example of an accessible and popular cultural venue. The Lowry was funded, in large part, by the National Lottery. That raises an interesting point related to Orwell. Has what he called the ‘inveterate gambling’ of the English, through the Lottery and the many creative ventures it has funded, stimulated an artistic interest in us which was not apparent to George Orwell?

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Discussing Orwell on a blog is probably not the best of mediums because his writing was so wide-ranging and nuanced, but ‘the genuinely popular culture of England’, which I take it excludes now, as then in Orwell’s view, that which the mass media peddles to us, is probably most vital in the area of music. Sadly, in my view, that has associations with drugs and criminality that were not widely part of the cultural mix in Orwell’s time. What is also different is the extent to which the music that develops ‘beneath the surface’ tends to derive its principal energy from urban ethnic minorities, often subsequently becoming part of more mainstream culture (with the assistance of Norman Lamb in one instance!)

  • In ‘Looking back on the Spanish Civil War’ Orwell wrote “All that the working man demands is what … others would consider the indispensable minimum without which human life cannot be lived at all. Enough to eat, freedom from the haunting terror of unemployment, the knowledge that your children will get a fair chance, a bath once a day, clean linen reasonably often, a roof that doesn’t leak, and short enough working hours to leave you with a little energy when the day is done.”

    These modest demands read like the romanticised view of an ascetic even in the 1930’s and even more so today. Incredibly, we still struggle to deliver even these most basic of demands to far too many – young and old alike.

  • Little Jackie Paper 1st Sep '15 - 8:54pm

    tonyhill – Agree about Orwell’s breadth. He was one of the best journalists of the time. He was a sharp, astute essayist. And, sadly, a heavy-handed, clunky and whingey novelist.

    If he were around today I imagine he’d probably be spending a lot of his time on writing a rather pretentious blog.

    And just one aside here. The novel was, ‘nineteen eighty-four.’ Not, ‘1984.’

  • “They [‘the common people’] have to satisfy these tastes in the face of astonishing, hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts, etc., etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody”

    Sounds rather like today. Plenty of Lib Dems appear to want puretanical laws and restrictions on free speech.

  • “the English are not intellectual…”

    Still true.

    “the privateness of English life… The most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker.”

    Well still true in part but eroding fast.

  • Eric Blair (note the surname) was educated at Eton, so all left-thinking liberals should ignore what he says!

  • Ruth Bright 1st Sep '15 - 9:20pm

    Ooh you do come up with some lovely subjects Paul.

    Little Jackie Paper – I don’t agree that Orwell’s blog would be pretentious. He was an amazing essayist on things like clothes and junk shops. Perhaps he would now sit in a Costa Coffee somewhere tweeting about the bland uniformity of modern high streets!

  • Richard Stallard 1st Sep '15 - 9:22pm

    “Liberal: a power worshipper without power.”
    Thank goodness.

  • Christopher 1st Sep '15 - 9:23pm

    “(I apologise that these opinions are very specifically given about England only, rather than the country as a whole).”
    Would a Scottish or Welsh person ever feel the need to make such an apology?

  • Little Jackie Paper 1st Sep '15 - 10:04pm

    Ruth Bright – OK, what would Orwell write about today? It has been some time now since I read him but a part of his earlier work, I seem to recall, was about those living a transient life. In today’s EU he would have a lot of subject material. Would he have liked today’s EU – now there’s a question!

    My guess is that he would have picked up on the decline of the working class and the rise of what might be termed the coping class, and the intergenerational privilege we see.

    I’d agree that conformist High Streets would probably be something he’d be writing about! But, of course he liked foreign affairs – perhaps he’s have taken an interest in Latin America and its leftist models.

  • paul barker 1st Sep '15 - 10:44pm

    “The English are not gifted artistically” ? In 1946, when Neo-Romaticism was at its height, when The (third?) St Ives school was picking up steam, when Moore, Epstein, Hepwoth, Sutherland, Piper & Ben & Winifred Nicholson were all working. What would Orwell know, he was a philistine – read his comments on Gaudis architecture if you still arent convinced. Orwells standing is almost entirely based on one book, 1984 which he largely plagiarised from Zamyatins “We”. Orwell was a hack, such as could be found in almost any culture.
    Sorry about the rant.

  • Christopher 1st Sep '15 - 11:20pm

    Paul, I’m aware that you were born in Cornwall and live in Berkshire. Cornwall is a ceremonial county and unitary authority of England, and is part of the territory of the Liberal Democrats in England, so I made an incorrect assumption that you considered yourself English.

  • Orwell was a journalist and occasionally his writing resorts to broad general assertion, where the thesis relies on excluding contrary evidence much like any opinion piece. The point to me is, was it ever true. It’s a bit like when you find people insisting that this influence that in simplistic terms or the English love the Royals and hate lefties or whatever. It depends on who you talk to. The evidence is that the English hold a variety of opinions, that in fact have they gifted a fair amount to the arts. literature, science, popular culture and sport etc. I am by the way barely English

  • Paul: I always write “Yorkshire” under nationality 🙂

    Orwell’s In Defence Of English Cooking and also the one about how to make a proper cup of tea are my favourites.

  • Paul’s comment about his Cornishness is interesting in this context: when asked my nationality I put ‘European’ (and ‘human’ as my ethnic group). Both Paul and I are resiling in different ways from self-identification with being English, as are groups like ‘Yorkshire First’. Why is that? There have been several recent books which have tried to pin down questions of ‘Englishness’, but it is a vexed question and one about which I am sure Orwell would have had plenty still to say. What, for example, would he have made of ‘English Votes for English Laws’?

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 2nd Sep '15 - 8:14am

    Here’s Orwell’s excellent piece on tea that Jennie referred to

    And here’s Christopher Hitchens discussing it

  • For what it’s worth……

    ……for all his Englishness, he was born in India into the colonial ruling class and spent much of his declining years in an isolated cottage on Jura in Argyll & Bute. This expert on ‘the common people ‘ derived his original family wealth from a slave plantation in Jamaica, was ‘educated’ at Eton, sponged off the Astors and ended up buried in Sutton Courtney quite near our last proper Liberal P.M., Herbert Henry Asquith.

  • Orwell should be celebrated for his exemplary English style and his excoriation of those who seek to gain politically from the abuse of our language. I suspect he would struggle with the language of Twitter and the slovenly approach to English by some current practitioners on his beloved BBC. He knew that power (which liberals want to spread) accrues to those who can express themselves clearly, which is why all children have a right to be able to construct a sentence in their own language.

  • Ruth Bright 2nd Sep '15 - 10:57am

    Jennie and Nick – what a great pamphlet that would make – thinkers and writers on tea! Or has someone done that already? John Wesley thought that tea was the work of the devil. Vaclav Havel wrote loads about tea when he was in prison presumably because it was one of the few subjects that could get through the communist censor.

    I apologise unreservedly for implying earlier that Orwell might have been a coffee drinker.

  • John Tilley 2nd Sep '15 - 11:25am

    Orwell said – ” In a time of universal deceit- telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”.

    LDV moderators are perhaps not too happy with that statement?

    People take from Orwell whatever they like. Since the 1940s some appallingly rightwing people have chosen to misrepresent what he wrote to further their own propaganda.

    Of course today Orwell would be locked up as a dangerous potential terrorist because he went as a “jihadi” to Barcelona to fight against the Fascism of General Franco.

    In reality Orwell’s views about England developed and changed over time.

    What would he have made of LDV and the policy of auto-moderation? See 1984 for The Memory Hole.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Sep '15 - 11:34am

    The book was published in 1949, but is an anagram of 1948.
    For those who romanticize about trade with the world, please read Burmese Days.
    The 1944 Education Act took time to work through. Lots of people doing guard duty had time to read and, unlike today, some publishers deliberatley kept their prices low to encourage such reading, which was a factor in the 1945 general election. Financial depression had become war, war had become a risky peace, they wanted change and got it, including the Beveridge Report.

  • Sarah Olney 2nd Sep '15 - 11:40am

    I hadn’t read Orwell’s comments on the genuinely popular culture in England, but it does strike a chord. There is a real disconnect in this country between what gets talked about at street level and what gets discussed in the media and at Westminster. Compare the films that get five stars in the broadsheet reviews with the box office takings. Ditto TV reviews and viewing figures. I used to work in a bookshop and there was a massive disconnect between what was being reviewed in the media and what was actually sold. I don’t know if this is true in other countries or not.

    I think it’s also true in the wider sense of habits, attitudes and behaviour. The class-based divide continues to exist – people live very different lives depending on what kind of background they come from – but we hear fewer working class voices in the mainstream media today than we have done for decades. Consequently, the national discourse is dominated by the concerns of a fairly narrow elite and ignores the majority

    I don’t believe that UKIP accurately reflects the opinions of the ignored majority but I do think that their electoral success reflect a growing awareness and resentment of how narrowly representative politics and the media have become.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Sep '15 - 1:29pm

    tonyhill 2nd Sep ’15 – 7:39am please look at the cricket scores.

  • Sarah Oiney.
    Interesting point. There is a disconnect between high culture and popular culture, although popular culture has also had a sort hierarchical structure imposed on it. So you end up with these notions of mainstream v independent, Pop v Rock or hip hop, art house v multiplex, popular v serious etc. This is basically what broadsheets reflect. I’m not sure about Europe, but there certainly is some of the same division in America . Essentially, IMO, it’s an attempt to perpetuate the division between the values of high culture with a pluralist culture through the idea of objective superiority. So you sometimes end up with actual popular taste within a popular medium being seen as moronic or even manipulated to the point of brainwashing , whilst “educated” is depicted as an outsider standing against the mindless entertainment. Personally, I think all art is pretty much generic and think virtually anyone could tell an untitled generic Art House movie within the opening shot just as easily as they could spot a Rom Com or Action film because actually they’re just thematically and visually samey within a different set of tropes. , Ditto for most pop music and fiction. However some people insist that this actually is a reflection of objective quality and they are usually the ones that write the books about it and the reviews in the Broadsheets. Years ago John Carey wrote a very interesting book called “What Good Are The Arts”.

  • John Tilley 2nd Sep '15 - 2:20pm

    Richard Underhill 2nd Sep ’15 – 1:29pm
    tonyhill 2nd Sep ’15 – 7:39am please look at the cricket scores.

    Some people here may be aware that Orwell handed over his job at BBC radio to a young John Arlott.

    Cricket legend, long-time opponent of Apartheid and Liberal to his boots, Arlott the former pliceman was also a mate of Dylan Thomas and John Betjeman.

    All four of them would be considered dangerously left wing and anti-establishment in 2015 and would have been on permanent auto-moderation in LDV.

  • I’m not quite sure what Richard means by his comment, but my highlight as a young first time parliamentary agent was going round to John Arlott’s house and drinking wine with him (in the middle of the day) while he wrote a last minute leaflet for the constituency at the February 1974 general election.

  • Nick, thanks for finding the link; Ruth, I believe it IS – or was – availavble as a penguin mini-book

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