George Orwell – English Rebel
By Robert Colls
Oxford University Press – £25.00
In ‘Last of England,’ the penultimate chapter of this refreshingly vibrant and all round excellent new book, George Orwell – English Rebel, its author Robert Colls writes: ”[…] Orwell’s best hope is a woman, and his England begins to look increasingly feminine after 1940. Being inside a whale (and what a whale) is like being inside a womb.”
To what extent the reader will emphatically agree or perhaps disagree with such a double-edged thought process – is surely open to debate. For like many an Orwellianism (and there were many), there’s no denying its translucent sentiment and quintessential complex clarification. What’s more, it’s just a tiny tip of a literary iceberg that readily brims with the ”crystal spirit” of Orwell’s idiosyncratic writing(s) and complicated, if not sanguine, personal life – a life delicately reflected upon throughout (”Their wedding menu was splendidly English: Roast Aylesbury Duckling and Sherry Cream Trifle. In 1938 they submitted photographs to the British Consulate prior to their trip to Marrakech. He looks handsome and she looks pretty, both in an an English film-star sort of way”).
Indeed, from his early frustrating days at Eton to the eye-opening five years in Burma; from his overtly influential Wigan period through to Barcelona and Catalonia; from the Luftwaffe filled skies of London during the Blitz to the twentieth century classic that is Nineteen Eighty Four, these eight chapters make for nigh mesmerising reading. And they’re so dense yet compact. So pivotal yet simultaneously objective.
Admittedly, I haven’t read every book on Orwell – who has? But English Rebel is as much a stimulating read as it is inspiring. Although more importantly, it’s acutely informative.
According to Melvyn Bragg: ”Rob Colls has taken on the man’s Englishness, his personality, warts and all, and the elusive notion that he was a rebel in his own land.”
I can’t help but agree, as from the very first chapter ‘Angry Old Etonian,’ the author immediately leans towards said rebellious notion wherein he most adroitly writes: ”He loathed nationalism, but defined Englishness for a generation. He was an enemy of the right, but had little to say in favour of the left. He was no friend of the left, but tried to work within it. He was violently opposed to totalitarianism, but had little interest in political parties. He didn’t write well about women but tried, in one novel at least, to write about being a woman, and in his last novel he invested his best hope, such as it was, in one woman and (almost) all women. He did not trust intellectuals, but mixed with them, was one himself, and never tried to pretend otherwise, though sometimes he conveniently forgot the fact.”
The final line here, does suggest that Colls isn’t afraid to shoot from the hip so to speak, although one cannot help but commend the ever so deft consideration of the above. As it’s all true.
George Orwell was, and to a certain degree, remains, all that which the author has written – and a whole lot more besides; which, in a round-a-bout sort of way, is re-confirmed a little later in ‘Angry Old Etonian’: ”Orwell was against all the major world systems of his day, including nationalism and Catholicism. Apart from an early gut attraction to a sort of folk Marxism where ‘the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong,’ he did not believe in political ideologies either.”
The latter is perhaps a little ironic, especially given that Orwell is still considered (by many) to be ”the most significant British political writer of the twentieth century.” In and of itself, this continues to be re-substantiated in countless ways. One of which is the simple fact that he has an entire square named after him in Barcelona – a wonderful, yet inexorable/political/contentious hotspot in Catalonia/Spain if ever there was one.
Replete with eighteen black and white plates in the middle of the book, these 235 pages are, to once again quote Bragg: ”full of zesty prose, fine insights, and a freshness of interpretation which made it a pleasure to read. It’s a major achievement and a major work on George Orwell.”
That, it most definitely is.
To say George Orwell – English Rebel packs a mighty mean punch to the political solar plexus of both naïve distraction and myopic conformity, is a colossal understatement. Then again, as a publication, it is helped along its way by the simple fact that it’s subject ”believed that telling the truth was a revolutionary act.”