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Orwell’s Weather Reports

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Posted on Sep 19, 2012

By Michael Dirda

“George Orwell: Diaries”

A book edited
by Peter Davison

How appropriate that the political moralist George Orwell (1903-’50) should be published by a company called Liveright! Orwell, who despised every form of careerism, instinctively gravitated to the kind of quiet rural existence that we associate with ancient Greek philosophers or Anglican clergyman of the 18th century. Certainly, these diaries reveal that the author of “Animal Farm” was happiest cultivating his garden, observing the weather, enjoying the beauty of spring flowers and watching over the health of his hens.

These days, there are many reasons “Why Orwell Matters,” to recall the little book by the late Christopher Hitchens, who introduces “George Orwell Diaries” (and whose name on the cover, in an instance of bad taste, is significantly larger than that of the editor, Peter Davison). Orwell is a saint of journalism, a major satirical novelist, a master of the modern essay. Nonetheless, even the heartiest Orwell aficionado is likely to find these diaries a letdown. Apart from perhaps 100 good pages, they are repetitive, relatively trivial and surprisingly dull.

Orwell’s surviving diaries begin in the early 1930s, when he was tramping around England, sleeping rough and picking hops and going down mines and generally chronicling the life of the poor. One night, he writes, “it came out that of about fifteen people round the fire, everyone except myself had been in prison.”

book cover


George Orwell: Diaries

Edited by Peter Davison


Liveright Publishing Corporation, 624 pages


Buy the book

While staying in working-class Wigan, Orwell happens upon a woman, “youngish but very pale and with the usual draggled exhausted look, kneeling by the gutter outside a house and poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe, which was blocked. ... At that moment she looked up and caught my eye, and her expression was as desolate as I have ever seen.” As Davison reminds us, Orwell expanded this entry into a noted passage of “The Road to Wigan Pier,” but diminished something of its emotional sharpness.

All this is, obviously, terrific material, and compulsively readable. So, too, are entries such as this early one, for Aug. 27, 1931: “At about eight in the morning we all had a shave in the Trafalgar Square fountains, and I spent most of the day reading “Eugenie Grandet.” This last is a short French novel by Balzac, and Orwell the hobo adds that it “was the only book I had brought with me.” (It seems an odd choice for a man trying to pass as a Cockney.) Orwell goes on:

“The sight of a French book produced the usual remarks—‘Ah, French? That’ll be something pretty warm, eh?’ etc. Evidently most English people have no idea that there are French books which are not pornographic. Down and out people seem to read exclusively books of the Buffalo Bill type. Every tramp carries one of these, and they have a kind of circulating library, all swapping books when they get to the spike [i.e. workhouse].”

To see long excerpts from “George Orwell: Diaries” at Google Books, click here.

In such a passage, one detects the first sign of Orwell’s fascination with popular culture, a fascination that led to the groundbreaking essays on seaside postcards (“The Art of Donald McGill”), pulpy crime fiction (“Raffles and Miss Blandish”), the adventure stories of childhood (“Boy’s Weeklies”) and the genius of Rudyard Kipling and P.G. Wodehouse. Unfortunately, this is virtually the only time that Orwell even mentions a work of literature. You would never know from the subsequent diaries that he read anything except seed catalogues and newspapers.

As pointed out in the introduction, the diaries kept during the time Eric Blair—Orwell’s real name—was fighting in the Spanish Civil War are now either lost or reposing, forgotten, in some governmental archive. So there are no pages here presenting the raw material for “Homage to Catalonia.” Instead, a typical entry from the late 1930s—for “Domestic Diary Volume I,” when Orwell was living in the village of Wallington—reads: “Raining most of the day, & cold. 14 eggs.” A typical entry from “Domestic Diary Volume II” is a tad livelier: “There was evidently some rain during last night. This morning overcast & rather chilly, then from 4-6 in the afternoon heavy rain.” Entries from the “Diary of Events Leading Up to the War” are, by comparison, almost angst-ridden: “Very windy, & raining lightly most of the day. Too wet to do anything outside.” These agricultural reports are only occasionally interrupted by short summaries of world events, taken from the wireless or newspapers.


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