Friday, June 02, 2006

Blair, the party and reasons for going to war

“The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail.”

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, p. 137.

No, this is E. Blair, not T. Had read this while doing my A-levels and took it to Spain to reread. How’s that for diligent?

It’s a vivid, action-packed adventure yarn, as Orwell joins up with the POUM to fight the fascists. The language is straight-forward and simple (not stupid).

Julian Symons makes the point in his introduction that the kind of warfare Orwell describes had changed little since World War One. It’s a sharply observed and detailed account – from memory too, as his notes had been continually nicked or burnt. It’s concise, action-packed and male.

He’s casually brusque about the hardships and I’m not sure whether that’s English reserve or an inability to deal with the emotional. His 1984 is similarly grubby and brutal, and just as sparse on love.
“The human louse somewhat resembles a tiny lobster, and he lives chiefly in your trousers. Short of burning all your clothes there is no known way of getting rid of him. Down the seams of your trousers he lays his glittering white eggs, like tiny grains of rice, which hatch out and breed families of their own at horrible speed. I think the pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice. Glory of war, indeed! In war all soldiers are lousy, at least when it is warm enough. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae – every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.”

Ibid., p. 51.

We only rarely get any hint of how the events affect Orwell himself (or his wife – I’d be fascinated to know what she thought about it all). He’s a bit surly and he could do with more cigarettes, that’s about it.

The factions involved in the Spanish civil war are notoriously complicated, and Orwell keeps the topic for an appendix chapter he says we needn’t even read. I tried to, got about midway and realised I’d not retained any of it. You really just need know that there were all sorts of different anti-fascist groups all getting at one another, a bit like in Life of Brian.

It’s odd to read all this and Orwell’s 1937 predictions about what would happen next when we know about the world war to come. You keep wanting to shout, “Look out behind you!”

It’s interesting to hear of the Russians “sabotaging” the communist revolution in Spain so as not to bother their new-forged diplomatic and trade links with other European counties. And the European neighbours are also keen not to intervene for fear of antagonising Hitler.

Not included, though referred to in the introduction, is Orwell’s 1942 essay looking back on the war. Nor is there anything to let us know what happened to all the people mentioned. Peter Davison (no, not that one) provides a note on the text which mentions how Jorge Kopp might have introduced the second edition. We’d last heard of Kopp languishing in a Spanish jail while the Orwells fled the country – and all the indications are that he won’t be seen again.

Symons’s introduction suggests how near / far Orwell was in his predictions. He also refers to both Raymond Carr and Hugh Thomas sniping at Orwell’s partisan views, though he (Symons) says that neither give specifics on where they think he’s wrong. I’d have liked some kind of afterword to tie all that stuff up.

2 comments:

Will said...

I've not read the book - not really my cup of tea - but, on one of my very rare forays to the theatre a couple of years ago, I did see a dramatisation at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Alas, I can't remember enough to turn this into a proper anecdote, and don't appear to have blogged it. But I recall it being pretty good, and interesting for me as someone who knew very little about the war in question.

Anonymous said...

i always wonder what happen to Kopp. i google around but could not find furhter info whether he ever leave Spain alive...