June 19, 2013
Orwell’s Weather Reports
Posted on Sep 19, 2012
By Michael Dirda
Once hostilities with Germany break out, Orwell grows more interesting again. He describes the Phony War, the Blitz and the declining morale of the bomb-weary Londoners, and he quotes news, rumors and absurdities from the newspapers, such as this letter written by Margot Asquith, Lady Oxford: “Since most London houses are deserted there is little entertaining … in any case, most people have to part with their cooks and live in hotels.” Comments Orwell, confirming his flair for prophecy: “Apparently nothing will ever teach these people that the other 99% of the population exist.”
Throughout the diaries, Orwell regularly displays a copy editor’s passion for exactness and accuracy: “I have seen no bomb crater deeper than about 12 feet.” He records the first uses of the word “blitz” as a verb. He acidly calculates that there are “still 2,000 racehorses in England, each of which will be eating 10-15 lb. of grain a day. I.e., these brutes are devouring every day the equivalent of the bread ration of a division of troops.”
Eventually, the sickly Orwell lands a job as a “Talks Assistant in the Overseas Service of the BBC,” where he broadcasts propaganda. The work is demoralizing: “I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth.” After two years, he resigns for medical reasons, the war ends, his wife, Eileen, dies unexpectedly and he moves to a small island of the Inner Hebrides called Jura.
In the later 1940s, Orwell works on “Nineteen Eighty-Four”—about which the diaries say virtually nothing substantial—and he goes back to digging in his garden, counting his eggs and fishing. Entries once more assume a familiar cast, as with this one for April 13, 1947: “Fine all day, but colder than yesterday.” Perhaps these observations about the weather ultimately inspired the chilling first sentence of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Right up to the end, Orwell kept recording the life around him, down to the clinical details of his hospital care for tuberculosis. He died in 1950 from a burst artery in his lungs. He was 46.
If you’re a fanatical, make that truly fanatical Orwellian, you’ll want to pick up this expertly edited and annotated edition of the writer’s diaries. Anyone else would do better to reread “Down and Out in Paris and London” or a good collection of Orwell’s wonderfully astringent essays. Some books are less equal than others.
Michael Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post Style section and conducts a book discussion for The Post.
©2012, Washington Post Book World Service/
Previous item: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Cult of Personality
Next item: Sweden’s Enfant Terrible
New and Improved Comments