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George Orwell Books
ORWELL'S FORGOTTEN CREED
By ANTHONY JAMES
A few years ago I attended a conference of writers which was held in a technical college which had been closed for normal use for the holidays. On the first day, a lecture on George Orwell was given by a well known feminist, I won't name her, but she is still very much alive and writing today. She maintained that for Orwell working class poverty in the 1930s was a matter of the oppression of men and that his descriptions of male industrial workers were 'homo-erotic'. After the lecture, I stood up and pointed out that the best remembered and most quoted passage from Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier is his description of a young working class woman he glimpsed from a train: "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." Positioned as it is in the book, Orwell uses the description of this woman as a symbol for all the oppression he saw.
Sadly, the well known feminist did not mention what is perhaps Orwell's best book, Homage to Catalonia. In this book, Orwell writes with an ecstasy reminiscent of the poet Walt Whitman of the brief period in Barcelona in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, when a genuinely equal society was created. In that society there was hardship, but universal material equality, no privileges, no subservience, an army which functioned without officers or salutes and "comrade meant comrade, not humbug." The book is, among other things, an expression of what Orwell's biographer Bernard Crick called "his rabid egalitarianism".
The egalitarian tradition grew out of the non-Pauline strand in Christianity, out of European humanism, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, it is a tradition which includes feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, anarchists like Emma Goldman, as well as Marx and Engels. In the 1930s it was already in decline and under attack, as Orwell knew very well, since the1980s, when the world swung to intensified conservatism, it has almost disappeared.
On the third and last day of the conference for writers, a large, formal dinner was served and I found myself seated opposite the well known feminist. We were waited on by the female kitchen staff of the college and I got into conversation with one of these women. She told me in a matter of fact way and without bitterness that the kitchen staff had been obliged to work during the holidays in order to provide us with this dinner for no extra pay. If they refused, their contracts would be terminated. I made a point of telling the well known feminist what I had just heard, feeling appalled and ashamed.
"Oh yes, that point you made about Orwell - " she began to say.
"Could we discuss Orwell later?" I persisted, "These women - "
"I used to be a publisher's reader for - " the well known feminist said. I'm afraid that I got up and left the table at that point, not staying to hear or to eat more.
There have been changes in the last thirty years. It is now no longer so easy to insult or to discriminate against people because of their gender, race or sexual preference. Such abuse or discrimination arouses anger, although 'political correctness' is sneered at in the media by those who would like to see the old ways return. However, the mere fact of any kind of inequality among human beings no longer in itself arouses anger. Indignation and hatred towards every kind of inequality between human beings was the driving force of the egalitarian tradition and that tradition is almost extinct. Orwell was one of its last champions.
Whether egalitarianism will ever revive as a serious force in our culture, I do not know. Clearly, most writers and especially most poets are not well rewarded by society today. I do cling to the old fashioned idea that literature is inseparable from a moral vision of the world and from the idea of justice. I hope, therefore, that after successful poetry readings and conferences for writers, some of us will reflect on the question of who will clean up when the writers have gone home.
© All work copyright of Anthony James.
ANTHONY has had poems, fiction, essays, and reviews previously published in journals including ACUMEN, AGENDA, AMBIT, CONTEMPORARY REVIEW, EDINBURGH REVIEW, ENVOI, ORBIS, PARIS TRANSCONTINENTAL, RADICAL WALES, SOCIAL CARE EDUCATION, WESTERN MAIL... Translations from the Finnish published in journals including PASSPORT, EDINBURGH REVIEW, SESHAT. Winner of an EILEEN ILLTYD DAVID Human Rights Essay Award for a study of Alexander Solzhenitsyn later published in CONTEMPORARY REVIEW.
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