On the essays shelf:
A Collection of Essays, by George Orwell
While I admire and love both 1984 and Animal Farm (and have done so, really, since I was first introduced them, in junior high and high school), it was when I was introduced to George Orwell’s essays that I really started to understand the sheer scope of what he accomplished. His scope is broad: he wrote about Dickens, Kipling, about boys’ magazines, about politics and language. As a member of the police in colonial India, he saw first-hand what colonialism/imperialism meant and looked like (His “Shooting an Elephant” is an essential essay on imperialism and what it DID). His political journey is well-known, so I won’t go over that in detail here. Like many of his generation on the Left, the Spanish Civil War was a wake-up call (for those willing to be awakened) and he spoke out about it, wrote a book about it, and was shunned by his more ideologically “pure” comrades. The 20th century, in many ways, is the story of various political ideologies which, when taken to their inevitable extremes, are revealed to be justifications for almost anything, for any horror: genocide, murder, assassination, poverty, oppression. But that was not at all clear in the wild winds of the 1930s, and it took a very clear mind, an autodidactic mind, an independent thinker, to look around him and say, “This is no good. No good at all.”
Nobody congratulates you for proving them wrong. Nobody congratulates you for being right first, before everybody else comes around. Christopher Hitchens’ book Why Orwell Matters goes into those political divisions in terms of Orwell: how the Left see him, how the Right see him, how is “used” by both sides, while both sides conveniently forget the elements that do not line up with their ideology. Orwell does not fit into a neat political box. He was a Marxist. But he also wrote one of the greatest books about totalitarian thinking of all time. Those who say something is “Orwellian” often confuse the matter, conflating the book with the man, as in: he approved of totalitarian thinking. “Orwell” = Fascism. An amazing thing.
But Orwell was a journalist at heart. A thinker and an observer. Personal.
For example, this essay today.
It is a grueling and bitter personal essay about his years in an English boarding school. Christopher Hitchens (again), in his memoir Hitch-22: A Memoir, has an entire chapter about the English boarding school experience, and how it is difficult to get Americans to understand it, since we don’t have that tradition here. Poet W.H. Auden compared the English boarding school to a “totalitarian regime”, and that is just one of many many (many!) quotes from 20th century writers who opened up about what it was like in those places: the hardship, the bullying, the sexual abuse, the horrible food, the beating – and what such deprivation did to the boys who experienced it. It was designed to break a child’s spirit and independence.
Hitchens writes, in Hitch 22:
One of the most awful reproaches in the school’s arsenal of psychological torture – Orwell catches it very well in his essay “Such Such Were the Joys” – was the one about one’s sickly ingratitude: the selfish refusal to shape up after all that had been done on one’s behalf. Of course I now recognize this as the working model, drawn from monotheistic religion, where love is compulsory and must be offered to a higher being whom one must necessarily also fear. This moral blackmail is based on a quintessential servility.
Orwell’s honesty in “Such, Such Were the Joys” is still a high watermark in the way-too-clogged personal essay genre. This is how you do it.
Orwell starts the essay with the sentence:
Soon after I arrived at Crossgates (not immediately, but after a week or two, just when I seemed to be settling into routine of school life) I began wetting my bed. I was now aged eight, so that this was a reversion to a habit which I must have grown out of at least four years earlier.
His descriptions of the terror, the confusion, the shame, are searing to read. Even here, when describing his own childhood experiences, Orwell is always – always – a political writer.
A Collection of Essays, ‘Such, Such Were the Joys …’, by George Orwell
It is curious, the degree – I will not say of actual hardship, but of squalor and neglect, that was taken for granted in upper-class schools of that period. Almost as in the days of Thackeray, it seemed natural that a little boy of eight or ten should be a miserable, snotty-nosed creature, his face almost permanently dirty, his hands chapped, his nails bitten, his handkerchief a sodden horror, his bottom frequently blue with bruises. It was partly the prospect of actual physical discomfort that made the thought of going back to school lie in one’s breast like a lump of lead during the last few days of the holidays. A characteristic memory of Crossgates is the astonishing hardness of one’s bed on the first night of term. Since this was an expensive school, I took a social step upwards by attending it, and yet the standard of comfort was in every way far lower than in my own home, or indeed, than it would have been in a prosperous working-class home. One only had a hot bath once a week, for instance. The food was not only bad, it was also insufficient. Never before or since have I seen butter or jam scraped on bread so thinly. I do not think I can be imagining the fat that we were underfed, when I remember the lengths we would go in order to steal food. On a number of occasions I remember creeping down at two or three o’clock in the morning through what seemed like miles of pitch-dark stairways and passages – barefooted, stopping to listen after each step, paralysed with about equal fear of Sim, ghosts and burglars – to steal stale bread from the pantry. The assistant masters had their meals with us, but they had somewhat better food, and if one got half a chance it was usual to steal left-over scraps of bacon rind or fried potato when their plates were removed.
As usual, I did not see the sound commercial reason for this under-feeding. On the whole I accepted Sim’s view that a boy’s appetite is a sort of morbid growth which should be kept in check as much as possible. A maxim often repeated to us at Crossgates was that it is healthy to get up from a meal feeling as hungry as when you sat down. Only a generation earlier than this it had been common for school dinners to start off with a slab or unsweetened suet pudding, which, it was frankly said, “broke the boys’ appetite”. But the under-feeding was probably less flagrant at preparatory schools, where a boy was wholly dependent on the official diet, than at public schools, where he was allowed – indeed, expected – to buy extra food for himself. At some schools, he would literally not have had enough to eat unless he had bought regular supplies of eggs, sausages, sardines, etc.; and his parents had to allow him money for this purpose. At Eton, for instance, at any rate in College, a boy was given no solid meal after mid-day dinner. For his afternoon tea he was given only tea and bread and butter, and at eight o’clock he was given a miserable supper of soup or fried fish, or more often bread and cheese, with water to drink. Sim went down to see his eldest son at Eton and came back in snobbish ecstasies over the luxury in which the boys lived. “They give them fried fish for supper!” he exclaimed, beaming all over his chubby face. “There’s no school like it in the world.” Fried fish! The habitual supper of the poorest of the working-class! At very cheap boarding-schools it was no doubt worse. A very early memory of mine is of seeing the boarders at a grammar school – the sons, probably, of farmers and shopkeepers – being fed on boiled lights.
Whoever writes about his childhood must beware of exaggeration and self-pity. I do not want to claim that I was a martyr or that Crossgates was a sort of Dotheboys Hall. But I should be falsifying my own memories if I did not record that they are largely memories of disgust. The overcrowded, underfed, underwashed life that we led was disgusting, as I recall it. If I shut my eyes and say “school,” it is of course the physical surroundings that first come back to me: the flat playing-field with its cricket pavilion and the little shed by the rifle range, the draughty dormitories, the dusty splintery passages, the square of asphalt in front of the gymnasium, the raw-looking pinewood chapel at the back. And at almost every point some filthy detail obtrudes itself. For example, there were the pewter bowls out of which we had our porridge. They had overhanging rims, and under the rims there were accumulations of sour porridge, which could be flaked off in long strips. The porridge itself, too, contained more lumps, hairs, and unexplained black things than one would have thought possible, unless someone was putting them there on purpose. It was never safe to start on that porridge without investigating it first. And there was the slimy water of the plunge bath – it was twelve or fifteen feet long, the whole school was supposed to go into it every morning, and I doubt whether the water was changed at all frequently – and the always-damp towels with their cheesy smell: and, on occasional visits in the winter, the murky sea-water of the local Baths, which came straight in from the beach and on which I once saw floating a human turd. And the sweaty smell of the changing-room with its greasy basins, and, giving on this, the row of filthy, dilapidated lavatories, which had no fastenings of any kind on the doors, so that whenever you were sitting there someone was sure to come crashing in. It is not easy for me to think of my schooldays without seeming to breathe in a whiff of something cold and evil-smelling – a sort of compound of sweaty stockings, dirty towels, faecal smells blowing along corridors, forks with old food between the prongs, neck-of-mutton stew, and the banging doors of the lavatories and the echoing chamber-pots in the dormitories.
It is true that I am by nature not gregarious, and the W.C. and dirty-handkerchief side of life is necessarily more obtrusive when great numbers of human beings are crushed together in small space. It is just as bad in an army, and worse, no doubt, in a prison. Besides, boyhood is the age of disgust. After one has learned to differentiate, and before one has become hardened – between seven and eighteen, say – one seems always to be walking the tightrope over a cesspool. Yet I do not think I exaggerate the squalor of school life, when I remember how health and cleanliness were neglected, in spite of the hoo-ha about fresh air and cold water and keeping in hard training. It was common to remain constipated for days together. Indeed, one was hardly encouraged to keep one’s bowels open, since the aperients tolerated were Castor Oil or another almost equally horrible drink called Liquorice Powder. One was supposed to go into the plunge bath every morning, but some boys shirked it for days on end, simply making themselves scarce when the bell sounded, or else slipping along the edge of the bath among the crowd, and then wetting their hair with a little dirty water off the floor. A little boy of eight or nine will not necessarily keep himself clean unless there is something to see that he does it. There was a new boy named Hazel, a pretty, mother’s darling of a boy, who came a little before I left. The first thing I noticed about him was the beautiful pearly whiteness of his teeth. By the end of that term his teeth were an extraordinary shade of green. During all that time, apparently, no one had taken sufficient interest in him to see that he brushed them.