Friday, 22 February 2013

Why I Write - George Orwell

Published as part of Penguin's Great Ideas series, this book includes four of Orwell's essays published between 1931 and 1946: Why I Write, The Lion and The Unicorn: Socialism And The English Genius, A Hanging, and Politics And The English Language. 

The essay I most enjoyed was Politics And The English Language, which featured my favourite quotation. I am obviously not the only person who thinks it's great as Penguin chose an abridged version for the front cover,
"Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
This essay also contains Orwell's six rules for the clear expression of thought in prose, which is often quoted in How-to-Write-for-Magazines-type manuals:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The longest essay in the collection is the one about English socialism and politics. The essay was written during World War II and deals with the need for political change at home and the necessity of managing the empire and fighting the war. I always thought that three was the magic number, but it seems that Orwell favoured six, as he includes another six point programme here. This time his six points are intended to transform Britain into a social democracy. They are as follows:

1.Nationalization of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries.
2. Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax-free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.
3. Reform of the educational system along democratic lines.
4. Immediate Dominion status for India, with power to secede when the war is over.
5. Formation of an Imperial General Council, in which the coloured peoples are to be represented.
6. Declaration of formal alliance with China, Abyssinia and all other victims of the Fascist powers.

Sitting here in 2013, I found Orwell's assessment of society in Britain and his plans for political justice rather sad and naive. Nationalisation: that's history! Privatisation is the in-thing now (unless you're talking about pumping public money into the banks). According to the 2011/12 figures, our current education system fails just over 40% of teenagers. Only 58% of young people leave school with 5 or more GCSE passes at A-C. What do those who have failed do in the information age? As for income parity: the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. In some ways it seems that our lives and the wider world have changed so much since Orwell wrote this piece, but in other ways nothing has changed at all.

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