A line from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence gave Orwell’s essay, my particular favorite, its title “Such, Such Were the Joys” which he wrote at the age of 37 although published only posthumously by London’s small quarterly Partisan Review in September 1952. It reflects upon the social discrimination, the near absolute non pragmatic cramming approach followed in his English school (St. Cyprians) for the sake of better school and the wide discrimination that presumably prevailed in the minds of both the young and old between different classes at that time.
But Eric Arthur Blair, (yes the same famously penned George Orwell guy), did not began to think upon these subjects of hitherto great importance the moment he started walking on the floor, in fact, his adroit perceptivity came upon him largely because of what he saw, or should I say ‘what he experimentally chose to saw’ and not what he faced.
He was not good in studies per se, not interested as well (as much as he was in extra-curricular though) and when the realization that Mr. Blair is a neglectful of academics came to his parents, probably on the suggestion of his French tutor Stephen Runciman, they sent him to Burma, where his grandmother was posted, to join the Imperial Police. And that was the first of the many incidents responsible to push George towards writing. His First Novel ‘Burmese Days’ (1934) recounts his police training days from Mandalay, Burma (the name also features in one of his ABCB lyrical poem ‘Ironic Poem about Prostitution’) to his posting in 1924 in Burma Police and narrates the dark side of imperialism and its class bigotry as what ‘he saw’. Blair’s service in Burma as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police taught him more than his school days ever had, as he admitted later. So much so that after sick leave from his post on account of his dengue fever; he chose not to return to Burma and resigned from the Indian Imperial Police to become a writer.
After he returned to the social life and family home in Southwold England, and later moving to London in 1927, his old tutor Gow at Cambridge and Emma Thomas “Ruth” Pitter (herself a famous British poet by that time, a contrasting contemporary to T. S. Eliot) advised him to write about what he knew.
His interest in these subjects was, as I said, a gradual progress accentuated by his surrounding in England and perhaps, who knows, the oppression he might have seen faced by the exiled Nuns who ran the Roman Catholic convent day-boarding school in Henley-on-Thames where he was admitted at the age of five, built an initial subconscious precursor to his later large interest in the conditions of socially rejected and poor.
Not only that, he also did social experiments by himself to know more about what he must know to fuel his writings, beginning with a stay in a workhouse as a poor (he had a rich ancestry although it was not inherited in the same amount) for his first essay ‘The Spike’ (on what it felt like to be poor, said to be inspired by Jack London’s ‘The People of the Abyss’) that later developed into his novel ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ (1933)).
From there on, Orwell pondered upon these subjects more and more, such as poverty, social injustice, class discriminations, and developed fiction to reflect his ideas on the same, his opposition to totalitarianism, support of democracy and so forth. All these were explored in details and became his trademark in fiction and essays including his polemicals and dystopians (the classic being 1984 in this genre), ‘The road to Wigan Pier’ (1937) and many more that till date forms “perhaps the 20th century’s best chronicler of English culture”.
We have already seen two world wars (with one ending in a nuclear disaster which was not even apologized for), enough holocaust and genocides, enough people dying in refugee camps and of hunger and poverty, and leadership, the kind of Winston Smith character, with such an expansionist mindset who, if given a chance, would not deter to claim the whole world as their own. I don’t think there is any devastation left yet to be inflicted upon the Earth that can be characterized as new. In fact, we are devising ever more fancy ways – be it global warming or epidemics – which will work without out intervention after an initial push.
On George Orwell’s 112th birth anniversary (25th June), I realized that never was there a more desperate time before as now when the world needs to seriously introspect about its archaic definition of morality, class, discrimination and democracy through Orwell’s lens and, in such dark times when countries are trying their best not to work for the upliftment of their people but to put down others in theirs. I think we need to borrow from the wisdom of Orwell to see where we are headed wrong.
“A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow”
– George Orwell