George Orwell Diaries edited by Peter Davison opened the door to George Orwell for me, and I’m forever grateful. I learned why Orwell is the most important writer of the 20th Century, and why he is as relevant and important today as he has ever been. Orwell is the ultimate cold warrior who fought again Imperialism, communism, and fascism.
Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier are two entertaining and vivid works of first-person reporting, and you’ll find both in his diaries as well the seeds to Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The book begins with a fine introduction by the late Christopher Hitchens: “By declining to lie, even as far as possible to himself, and by his determination to seek elusive but verifiable truth, he showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage.”
You’ll find some of the most perceptive examinations on poverty in 1930s England as Orwell goes undercover as a day laborer working in the fields and orchards picking hops and fruit. His writing talent is well served by his acute observation as well as an open nonjudgemental attitude toward everyone and everything he comes across.
“As to our living accommodation, the best quarters on the farm, ironically enough, were disused stables. Most of us sleep in round tin huts about 10 feed across, with no glass in the windows and all kinds of holes to let in the wind and rain.”
His love for animals, nature, and farming is abundantly noted in his journals. There are large sections musing on daily gardening, hens laying eggs, goat’s milk…. One of his goat’s is named Muriel, just like in Animal Farm. He loved to fish. He also gives us a daily weather report. This can be a bit tedious, but it gives us a excellent sense of a man rooted in real things such as the earth or, e.g., the impact of a storm.
The Morocco diaries capture the flavor, politics, animals, and people at that time. “…there is an obvious great difference in the water supply between peasant’s plots and the plantations of Europeans and wealthy Arabs. The difficulty of water makes an immense amount of work.”
My favorite section was his World War II diaries; they show Orwell the patriot and political activist. He is eager to help in any way he can, and he served in the Home Guard and eventually as a BBC propaganda correspondent in England’s efforts in India.
He shows the psychological effects of constant air raids as well as the physical damage in or around London. And the resilience of the English who go about their daily routine despite the bombardments. These are the early days of the war, and we see the confusion and fluid nature of attitudes and the concern that England would be overrun and could possibly lose the war. He saw through all hypocrites, particularly the rich or “patriots.”
“[I]t struck me how easy it is to bamboozle an uneducated audience if you have prepared beforehand a set of repartees with which to evade awkward questions.“
He criticized and praised Churchill and called other politicians imbeciles and explained why their current strategy would likely lose the war. “C said he thought Churchhill, though a good man up to a point, was incapable of doing the necessary thing and turning this into a revolutionary war, and for that reason shielded Chamberlain and Co.”
Like his novels and essays, his diaries would have fit nicely into current American polltics in 2013. Here is a comment he made about the upper classes: “Apparently nothing will ever teach these people that the other 99 percent of the population exist.”
I would like to have seen more about his personal relations to anyone close to him, or a little about his literary life, but there’s not a lot of that.
Orwell’s diary of visiting his wife Eileen’s grave becomes even more poignant after reading Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses in 2021. He writes: “Polyantha roses on E’s grave have all rooted well.”
He is brave until the end, but it is painful to know he is near death while finishing Nineteen Eight-Four at the young age of forty-six. A powerful voice like his does not come along very often. This is an important piece of the Orwell oeuvre.
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