There’s a faded scrap of paper pinned up over my desk, taken from the NUJ’s magazine a long time ago and setting out Orwell’s often-quoted six rules from his essay ‘Politics and the English Language.’ Apart from the fact that it doesn’t mention the internet or daytime TV, that essay is as relevant to day as it was then, and Orwell’s rules are no worse for being quoted yet again;
1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.
I just have to lift my eyes above the top edge of the laptop’s lid to see these in clear view on the wall and although the magazine article it was scissored from all those years ago is yellowing and faded, it’s a vital reminder that keeping it straightforward generally works best.
It’s also a sometimes painful reminder that all of us fail in this department at some point, letting something go that could have been less pompous or more precise.
I grew up in a houseful of books and after graduating from Biggles, etc, there wasn’t much for it but the grown-up shelves. There were Dad’s books, Maugham, Hardy, Kipling, Tolkien Dylan Thomas. Another shelf up and scattered round the house were Mum’s books, Robert Graves, Georges Simenon, Margery Allingham, Sjöwall & Wahlöo, Evelyn Waugh, Lawrence Durrell, PG Wodehouse and Patricia Highsmith.
Then there was A Homage to Catalonia, which I picked up probably because there was a picture of men with rifles on the cover and something about war on the back cover. I devoured the book during a family holiday in Spain, and considering Franco was still alive and very much in power at the time, I can understand why my parents were relieved when I had finished it.
George Orwell’s stark account of his time fighting on the losing side in the brutal Spanish Civil War that served as a dress rehearsal for WW2 was a revelation and my teenage years were punctuated at intervals by Coming Up for Air, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Animal Farm, the terrifying menace of 1984, the Road to Wigan Pier, Down & Out In Paris & London, and the rest.
It’s said that many of the tastes you develop in your youth will stay with you for the rest of your life and although I’ve managed to leave Biggles (mostly) behind me, I still have a fondness for those now deeply unfashionable children of their own time, Maugham, Hardy and Kipling – and Orwell. Mind you, the sound of a canvas, wood and wire Tiger Moth overhead still brings a lump to the throat.
Writing didn’t come easily to Orwell. What made him a great writer wasn’t so much the adroitness with words that he forced himself to learn, but the questioning sharpness of his eye as an observer that must have come naturally. Writing was something that Orwell fought with and my guess is that his determination was to write, not to be a writer. Nota bene, fledgling writers, there’s a clear difference there between the two. Orwell won his personal battle with the written word, and in the process learned to produce English that is a model of clarity that leaves his work, even sixty-two years after his death, looking remarkably undated.
He had more than his fair share of the 20th century’s best lines; ‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others’, not to mention the concepts of newspeak and thoughtcrime that people who have never read one of his books can quote. I once worked for a company where the staff habitually referred to the offices as the ‘Ministry of Truth’, with the original building, Senate House , that Orwell based his Ministry of Truth on coincidentally less than a mile away.
Whatever is personal failings (Cyril Connolly, a now largely forgotten contemporary of Orwell’s, dropped the remark that Orwell ‘could not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry’), there are few observers and commentators on the twentieth century who have managed to get under the skin of life and events – and stay there – as sharply and accurately as George Orwell did.