How To Become A Great Writer: George Orwell
I think if there is a writer who has had the greatest impact on me it would have to be George Orwell.
My introduction to Orwell was the famous novel ‘1984’ and I remember reading it simply because I believed I ‘ought’ to.
Orwell is a major cultural figure here in England, indeed across the world too, and I felt guilty I had not even read a word of his, being English and all.
This was many years ago and since then I have read most of Orwell’s life work. I have only to read ‘A Clergyman’s Daughter’ and a couple of obscure essays. There is no other writer that has had such a profound impact on me.
I have come to admire George Orwell and I thought would share some of the lessons I have taken from his writings.
George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair was his real name) was born in British India in 1903. He came from a relatively wealthy family. Orwell described his upbringing as “lower-upper middle class”. He wrote how, from an early age, he had come to notice how poor his family was in comparison to the other children at Eton College.
Orwell’s family could not afford to send him to university and so he instead decided to join the Imperial Police, the precursor of the Indian Police Service, choosing to post in Burma. This decision was based on a fascination with the East; Kipling’s work had made a deep impression on him.
He travelled in 1922 on board SS Herefordshire passing through the Suez Canal and beyond Ceylon to join the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. It was here where Orwell’s adventures began.
Orwell would spend five and a half years in Burma. He wrote about his experiences in his 1934 novel ‘Burmese Days’. This novel is a reflection of the withering of the British Empire. It is a personal account of an outsider struggling to fit in with the pomp and routine of the British professional class.
Orwell learnt to speak fluent Burmese and even tattooed his knuckles in the same way the locals did, a practise that is believed to ward off snakes. He later would feel ashamed that he contributed to British rule in the East and this guilty conscience underpins the entirety of ‘Burmese Days’.
“So often like this, in lonely places in the forest, he would come upon something — bird, flower, tree — beautiful beyond all words, if there had been a soul with whom to share it. Beauty is meaningless until it is shared.”
― George Orwell, Burmese Days
‘Shooting an Elephant’ (1936) is a short essay of his experience killing an elephant that had been rampaging through the town where Orwell was stationed.
A crowd of Burmese stirred Orwell to bring down the elephant. Orwell was reluctant, but he felt he could not show weakness to the natives. He sensed the pressure to become a tyrant, to prove the perceived ‘superiority’ of his white skin and ‘avoid looking like a fool’. The essay is a metaphor for British imperialism and a rather brilliant one too.
Orwell returned to England in 1927. He began exploring the poorer regions of London. For a short period, he went undercover as a tramp, abandoning his middle class status and stayed in common lodgings where the conditions were particularly dreadful. It is at this point where Orwell began realising the subject of poverty and empathising with the common man.
“It is worth saying something about the social position of beggars, for when one has consorted with them, and found that they are ordinary human beings, one cannot help being struck by the curious attitude that society takes towards them.”
Down and Out in London and Paris
Orwell’s next adventure was in Paris. He moved to the working class district of rue du Pot de Fer, finding employment in a restaurant. ‘Down and Out in London and Paris’ is a description of his descent into poverty, his strenuous existence with long hours and no time for rest. He wrote about the routine and enslavement of the French poor and the eccentric characters that one finds in Paris’ slums.
In 1929, Orwell fell ill and was taken to a hospital in Paris. Here, he wrote ‘How the Poor Die’, a graphic documentation of death and disease in a deprived French hospital. I particularly like this essay. It is gruesome, but real and authentic; you can tell Orwell is writing from a position of pain and sorrow.
“Dying like animals, for instance, with nobody standing by, nobody interested, the death not even noticed till the morning.”
Orwell returned to England in December 1929. Until 1932, Orwell spent his time writing reviews and acting as a private tutor. During this period, Orwell went on many undercover expeditions as a tramp, exploring England’s underworld. He even deliberately got himself arrested and spent two days in a jail cell.
He then spent the next two years teaching at Hawthorns High School and then later at Frays College. After a bout of pneumonia, Orwell left his role as a teacher and spent time convalescing.
Orwell’s next job was a part-time assistant in a second hand bookshop called Booklovers’ Corner. It was here where Orwell wrote ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’, a tale of how a man tries to withdraw from the societal pressures of money and status. After years of poverty and grief, the man eventually yields and chooses a life of respectability, abandoning his idealistic principles.
“The mistake you make, don’t you see,is in thinking one can live in a corrupt society without being corrupt oneself. After all, what do you achieve by refusing to make money? You’re trying to behave as though one could stand right outside our economic system. But one can’t. One’s got to change the system, or one changes nothing. One can’t put things right in a hole-and-corner way, if you take my meaning.”
― George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying
‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ was published in 1937. This book is a documentation of his investigations into the social conditions in the North of England. During early 1936, Orwell spent time in Wigan, Manchester, Sheffield and Barnsley — the industrial heartlands of Great Britain.
Here, he stayed in cheap common lodgings and made notes on the people’s standard of living. This was during the Great Depression and he found that many people were in a state of hopeless poverty. It was around this time that Orwell began to cement his views on socialism.
He even went down Bryn Hall coalmine in Wigan. He details this experience in the book and I found it truly astonishing. The description of the exhaustion and drudgery suffered by the coalminers was something I could never have imagined. It was brought home more by the fact that many of my ancestors were coalminers.
“If there is one man to whom I do feel myself inferior, it is a coal-miner.”
― George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
Because of his socialist leaning writings, the Special Branch put Orwell under surveillance.
The Spanish Civil War broke out in the summer of 1936 and Orwell set out for Barcelona to join the Republican forces. He met with James McNair, a British socialist politician, in Barcelona to hear about the ongoing political crisis in Spain. McNair quoted Orwell as saying “I’ve come to fight against Fascism”.
Orwell was quickly made a corporal and was sent to the Aragon front. He saw snippets of intense action, but for the majority of the time, the Aragon Front was relatively quiet.
In mid-1937, Orwell was shot through the throat by a sniper, the bullet missing the major artery by a whisker. He was rushed to hospital in Lérida, in the west of Catalonia.
It was around this time that internal conflicts were heating up within the Republican side and the political situation became unpredictable. For a number of difficult political reasons, the Communists had outlawed all organisations that differed from their ideology, this included Trotskyists and Anarchists. This made Orwell a fugitive and he was forced to escape Catalonia.
His wrote about his experiences in the book ‘Homage to Catalonia’ (1938). Anyone who is interested in the political turmoil of the Spanish Civil War should give it a read.
“You always, I notice, feel the same when you are under heavy fire — not so much afraid of being hit as afraid because you don’t know where you will be hit. You are wondering all the while just where the bullet will nip you, and it gives your whole body a most unpleasant sensitiveness.”
― George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
Orwell’s health began to fail and he spent the rest of his life in England writing reviews for literary publications and finishing various novels and essays. He spent a brief amount of time in Marrakech where he wrote an essay detailing the deprived lives of the people in French Morocco.
“All people who work with their hands are partly invisible, and the more important the work they do, the less visible they are.”
George Orwell, ‘Marrakech’.
During the War, he worked for the BBC and later became literary editor at Tribune.
His most famous works ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ were published in 1945 and 1949 respectively. These two books were a culmination of his life’s experiences — all the way from living as a tramp to fighting against Franco in Spain. He brings together his thoughts on fascism, communism, poverty and imperialism into two rather magnificent novels that are as relevant today as they were back then.
“You are a slow learner, Winston.”
“How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
― George Orwell, 1984
His health began to decline drastically from 1947. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent most of his remaining days in a hospital bed. He wrote ‘1984’ in this state of bad health, finishing the novel in December 1948. The doctors who treated Orwell said they would hear the clicking sound of the typewriter throughout the day. Orwell was determined to finish the novel.
On 21 January 1950 (aged 46), George Orwell passed away at the University College Hospital in London.
It is a great shame that George Orwell died at the height of his writing career. I would like to believe that he still had much more to share with the world. However, by dying young, he has seemingly stayed young in the minds of so many, his work no less insightful and prescient now than it was at the time of writing.
I suppose it follows the unremarkable notion that one ought to die before his brightness burns out and fades away from people’s memory.
There is something sinister about this thought although I am under no doubt that it exists for a reason. Many great historical figures died at young ages. Henry V comes to mind. Perhaps we would not celebrate Agincourt so much if he had been around to, eventually, witness the foreseeable loss of the French crown.
George Orwell was led by curiosity and carried by a world of boldness and idealism. I think this is how all writers and artists should be — without fear or doubt. It is certainly how I wish to be.
Orwell was not afraid to explore the darkest corners of the world, to submerge himself into poverty and to fight against fascism.
It is here, steeped in mud and lost in the trenches that all great stories are born. An artist should not be afraid to plunge themselves into the cold, to answer the great questions and stare in the face of bitter truth.
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