Impossible to imagine the daily fear and precariousness of living in such a state

Finding George Orwell in Burma
by Emma Larkin

When I said I was reading Burmese Days by George Orwell a few people recommended I read this next. I started it almost immediately after the Orwell book, but it took me a while to get through. I agree that it’s a fantastic reference work, but is it a good read?

The title is a fairly good description of the book. Emma Larkin – the pseudonym of an American journalist living in Thailand who has travelled to Myanmar (which she tends to call Burma throughout) many times – used researching Orwell’s time in Burma as a structure (or perhaps an excuse) for her year-long travel across Myanmar, speaking to people there who remembered Orwell or British rule in general, but also to people willing to open up about life in Myanmar.

The first point that strikes me is that this book was first published (under a slightly different title) in 2004, and even this edition with an epilogue from 2011 is a little out of date already. While it’s extremely useful as a recent history, I was always aware while reading it that this probably isn’t the current state of affairs in Myanmar.

Continue reading “Impossible to imagine the daily fear and precariousness of living in such a state”

Ranting is not writing

Why I Write
by George Orwell

I generally like Orwell’s writing in all its forms, but I must admit this essay collection was not, for me, up to his usual standard. It was all a bit too…ranty.

Three of the four essays here are primarily about politics. The fourth is a short piece about a hanging, which surprisingly was by far the best of the lot. It is clever and funny and touching, describing Orwell’s personal experience of observing a death by hanging in Burma. It is an official state execution and Orwell is acting as one of the legal observers. He describes their procession toward the scaffold and how a dog jumps out at them, excited and wanting to play, not understanding why these men try to shoo him away. He describes noticing the condemned man sidestepping a puddle and how that observation brought home to him how this was not a man who wanted to die. A very interesting and surprisingly not gruesome or depressing piece.

The other essays however, are all rants. By and large I agree with Orwell’s points but he is not nearly so entertaining a writer when he has a bee in his bonnet. Which is ironic considering that the last essay here is “Politics and the English language”, an out-and-out attack on political language and its downhill journey. He accuses writers of imprecision, vagueness and using unnecessary foreign words or metaphors in their prose. His recommendations for improving the standards of writing are all familiar. (In fact, this essay’s concluding six rules for good writing are quoted in more than one style guide I have worked with.) But the way he wraps this up with politics is actually a little vague itself.

He has certainly not followed his own advice in the longest essay in the collection. “The lion and the unicorn” is an 84-page meditation on Englishness, the ongoing Second World War and how socialism will answer all ills. Orwell repeats himself, makes grandiose unprovable statements and generally goes on a bit.

Which is a shame because even here Orwell’s writing is wonderful. There are so many quotable phrases I don’t know where to begin picking them out but I certainly annoyed Tim by reading to him randomly.

It is of course the opening essay, “Why I write”, that initially attracted me to this book. While it does diverge into politics more than you might expect from that title, it also provides great insight into Orwell as a person and includes the cracking line:

“Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centred than journalists, though less interested in money.”

Essays originally published 1931–1946.
This edition published 2004 by Penguin Books in the Great Ideas series.

The value of books

Books v. Cigarettes
by George Orwell

This is part of the Great Ideas range, yet another excellent and also stylish set of paperbacks from Penguin that are either excerpts from longer works or collections of shorter essays, as this one is. They’re small and affordable (unless like me you find you want to buy the whole set – there’s 80 of them so far!) and well designed. And from what I can tell from my sample size of two, the contents have been carefully and skillfully chosen.

It would be hard to go wrong with George Orwell, mind, which may be why Penguin already has three books of his writings in this range. Everything I have read by Orwell – fiction, autobiography, letters, newspaper columns – has been exceptionally well crafted, intelligent but also interesting and accessible. He was very open about things like money, social background, politics and patriotism, which are things we can all relate to and yet seem so rarely to be discussed.

I picked this book up in the wonderful Toppings bookshop in Bath, one of that now rare breed of independent bookshops that are bigger than a shoebox and have a genuinely good selection of books, which was appropriate because two of the selected essays deal with buying and selling books, and I found Orwell’s thoughts on the subject and expectations for its future fascinating. In the opening essay, he compares his spending on books with his spending on tobacco, to see whether there is merit in the claims he often hears that books are too expensive for “normal” people. With some lengthy reasoning and a little maths he concludes that this is rubbish and the true reason that people don’t buy books is that they consider reading to be a dull pastime, not the cost. I wonder what he would have made of the breaking of the Net Book Agreement.

Which brings us to his second essay, on bookselling. Orwell worked in a bookshop for a time and makes some lively, often caustic, observations of regular customers that he remembers. But what I found most interesting were his closing remarks. First, that “any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop…combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman” – a surprisingly shortsighted comment from the man who wrote 1984. And second, his description of how working in a bookshop made him fall temporarily out of love with books, almost made them repulsive to him. That was a real surprise to me and I’d like to hear from any booklovers who have worked in a bookshop to see if they felt the same.

The other essays deal with book reviewing (which he is most vicious about, sadly), patriotism (he was just too young to fight in the First World War and felt it very keenly), free speech, his experience of a particularly awful French hospital and his time at boarding school (an endlessly fascinating topic to me, and one that is of great interest here because he was a scholarship boy, so he was an outside observer to the high end of the class system that dominates such schools). It’s a truly excellent selection of writing and I doubt it will be long before I buy more books from this series.

Published 2008 by Penguin. Essays originally published between 1936 and 1952.
Number 57 in the Great Ideas series.
ISBN 978-0-1410-3661-8