Book reviews

Archive for the ‘Orwell – George’ Category

Facing Unpleasant Facts by George Orwell

When I read Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell I was extraordinarily impressed by the clarity of Orwell’s writing and the straightforward, take-it-or leave-it style of his writing voice. I was delighted to find the essays in Facing Unpleasant Facts to be equally as well written, thought-provoking and honest.

One of the qualities I most admire in writing is fearlessness, and Orwell writes what he is thinking and feeling despite knowing that his views will be unpopular in certain quarters. His honesty in certain essays was hard to read, such as in A Hanging, when the sound of the condemned Burmese man’s last prayers left Orwell and those around him wishing for the actual hanging to take place, to bring an end to the man’s prayers which the listeners couldn’t bear hearing. To think such a thing is deplorable but human, to say it is an example of the fearlessness in writing that I admire.

Shooting an Elephant was another extraordinarily frank account. When Orwell was working as a police officer in Burma an elephant went mad and although he could have left the animal peacefully grazing in a paddock after the initial rampage ended, he felt obligated to shoot the elephant dead because of the expectations of the large crowd of watching Burmese people who had become interested in the affair once he had called for a gun. The last sentence of this essay states that his only reason for shooting the elephant was to avoid looking like a fool in front of the watching crowd.

Orwell’s first sentence of every essay is stunning. Each hits the reader with a terrible truth (or an unpleasant fact) and leaves them wanting to know more. For example, Marrakech begins with:

As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.

Or, from England Your England:

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.

A great many of the essays are written around the time of World War Two. Orwell gave his opinion on a variety of topics, including saying that British and American soldiers couldn’t socialise with each other because the American soldiers were paid far more money than the British. In Revenge is Sour he described the incongruity of a former enemy of the Germans sharing his coffee with a German family soon after the end of the war. In Dear Doktor Goebbels – Your British Friends Are Feeding Fine! he wrote about rich people breaking the law to avoid food rationing. I found it interesting that although Orwell didn’t approve of their actions he wasn’t overtly scathing of the rule-breakers, instead using his matter-of-fact voice to describe how they managed to bypass the rules and eat well while poorer people made do with far less, leaving it up to the reader to decide if they disapprove or not.

Domestic matters were addressed in The Case for an Open Fire, where Orwell suggested that a fire was an unrivalled gathering point for a family and that functionalism was overrated, and In Defence of English Cooking he praised English cheeses, puddings, sauces and breads. A Nice Cup of Tea provided Orwell’s eleven outstanding points to be followed to make a perfect cup of tea.

The Moon Under Water described the most idyllic English pub imaginable, but brought the reader back to reality and to their own lack-lustre local with a thud.

I had been particularly looking forward to reading Why I Write and enjoyed it very much when I did. Orwell was very hard on his early writing which according to him contained too much ‘purple prose.’ His reasons for why writers write were interesting too and they included, egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historic impulse and political purpose. I believe my reasons fall into the ‘egoism’ category, although I tell myself that they are for historic purposes (so I can remember what I’ve already read as I grow older).

How the Poor Die was a gut wrenching essay to read. Hospitals and nursing have come a long, long way.

The book ended with Such, Such Were the Joys which told of Orwell’s time as a child at boarding school. St Cyprian’s was a cruel place, however I would have liked to have learn more about how (or if) the school’s teaching program influenced his writing.

The foreword by George Packer introduced Orwell as a master of essays and having read this collection, I couldn’t agree more.

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

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Like many of us, I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 in school because they were on the curriculum and have been thinking about the plots of both ever since.

Down and Out in Paris and London tells stories from Orwell’s time as a young man living from hand-to-mouth in a succession of dirty, bug-infested boarding houses and hostels, always on the lookout for enough money to buy basic foods, tobacco and alcohol. Orwell and his friends weren’t above picking up cigarette butts from the footpaths or pawning their clothes to get by.

Orwell worked primarily as a dishwasher while in Paris, for extraordinarily long hours. He worked alongside other waiters and dishwashers whose only wish was for a better paying job in a better hotel. The last sentences in the book sum up what Orwell learned during his time with the poor, and they include his rule of not eating in small restaurants because of the poor hygiene in their kitchens.

In London, Orwell lived an itinerant life alongside other tramps, receiving food stamps and lodging for a night in cold, dirty ‘spikes’ which were run like prisons, only to be booted out on the morning to make their way on foot to the next spike, usually miles and miles away.

Orwell tells the stories of tramps and beggars, pavement artists and scammers, and wage slaves who work almost around the clock, but who are still poor and malnourished with no hope of a better future. At the end of the book Orwell begs readers to find useful work for these men, to create workhouses on farms or even smaller houses with gardens where the poor could live a more settled life doing real work to help sustain themselves.

Unlike many of his companions in Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell had an aunt in Paris and family in England who gave him money when he asked, although this is never mentioned in the book. Fair enough too, because we might not believe or assist someone asking for social change based on their own experiences if we knew they had resources to fall back on.

Surprisingly, Orwell appears to have it in for the Jewish people he encountered, which seemed odd to me when I remembered that he was the writer who showed us how unfair it is that some animals are more equal than other animals. Orwell’s views may have been in keeping with his time and place but I didn’t expect them from him.

It is sad that so many people exposed in this story were happy to rip off the poorest people in society, but even worse to think that human nature doesn’t change and this still happens today.

I enjoyed Down and Out in Paris and London for the stories, the quality of the writing and the style and will continue to look out for Orwell’s lesser-known works.

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