2 JUNE 1961, Page 23


Prophet in a Hair Shirt B Y JOHN MORTIMER A wous HUXLEY lamented the Reformation, when the monks, who up to then had been safely locked up, were pushed out into the world and became Puritans, and a great nuisance to all Concerned. The Puritan is, however, in every respect a more useful figure than the monk. His harsh and often scrannel voice rouses us from our lethargy, he castigates our indifference and frequently prophesies our doom. No doubt it is a sign of congenital human weakness that we are not more moved by his prophecies; and when the hour of doom arrives it often passes un- noticed.

Two of the more valuable Puritans of our century were George Orwell and Bernard Shaw. They shared the same austerity of attitude, the same high purpose, and they were both funda- mentally contemptuous of the Left wing on Which their intelligence placed them. They were both revolted by the indulgence and indiscipline of 'progressive' thought. In Shaw's case this led to a secret tenderness towards millionaires and dictators, and a vaguely Protestant religion founded on an original and ruthless view of evolution. In Orwell it led to a revolt against what he considered the soppiness of the Left-wing intellectual, a secret patriotism, and a final despair. Both wrote without real humour. To both, women seem to have been objects of vague respect and slight terror. Pleasure was alien to them, and their fiercest contempt was reserved for those who most nearly shared their views.

Orwell's face, lean and bony, with the mous- tache as scrubby as a bit df hair-shirt, is familiar. It might be the face of a regular army officer, taking to mysticism in Aldershot. Head of a small school on the East Coast, a man with such a face might be seen, any Armistice Day between the wars, preaching to a huddle of freezing, frightened boys round the Memorial, urging them to cold baths, long runs and a greater respect for those who died on the Somme.

It is remarkable how often his utterances bear this picture out. His hatred of 'Fruit-juice drinkers, nudists, sandal wearers, sex maniacs, Quakers, Nature Cure Quacks, Pacifists and feminists, who come flocking towards the smell Of "progress" like blue bottles to a dead cat' !night have been barked out on any speech day. Stand up straight, boys, get your hair cut and avoid masturbation': such old English crustiness can be forgiven and may even be found endear- ing. What is less attractive is his adoption of what he felt to be working-class life as a sort of penance, or immolation of the flesh.

Sir Richard Rees, in his short guidebook,*

tells how, in Add/phi days, Orwell came to his flat and, changing out of his respectable

suit into rags, went down to the East End in the hope of being picked up for being drunk and disorderly. His down-and-out periods have a ter- rible self-consciousness about them. It is fine to be down-and-out from necessity, or helplessness,

* GEORGE ORWELL.: FUGITIVE FROM THE CAMP OF VICTORY. By Richard Rees. (Seeker and Warburg, 18s.) or because you don't care; but to choose poverty deliberately because you find it so repellent seems to me suspect and an insult to the poor. And Orwell certainly found it repellent. In The Road to Wigan Pier he notices the dirty thumb-marks on the bread and butter made by a man whose thumb he had just seen over the rim of an over- flowing chamber pot. There is nothing wrong with this kind of observation, except the kind of martyred relish with which it is made.

`To succeed in life to the extent of making a few hundreds a year seemed to me spiritually ugly,' Orwell wrote. It is difficult to imagine that being written by a real working-class writer. Neither Mr. Sillitoe nor Miss Shelagh Delaney, for instance, would, I imagine, agree with it, and it would probably draw a healthy raspberry from the hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It is also hard to resist the suspicion that the poor existed for the purpose of making Orwell feel spiritually OK. On one occasion Orwell em- barked on a long explanation to Mr. V. S. Pritchett of the supreme advantage of keeping goats. At the end of it Mr. Pritchett came to the conclusion that the great advantage of goat- keeping to Orwell was that they were sure to cause him endless trouble and certain to lose money. The poor were Orwell's goats, treated finally with unconscious contempt.

The poor worker became the stupid horse of Animal Farm or the 'prole' of his last and worst book, 1984. The proles there are kept as comic sub-characters as if they were still in British films. They even talk in a careful, written-out Noel Coward cockney, painfully reminiscent of the larky plebeians who prance through the produc- tions of Miss Joan Littlewood. At its worst Orwell's attitude can be seen reflected in number- less young men who conceal their university degrees and small private incomes by wearing zipper jackets, sitting in calls, and talking in faintly assumed north country accents.

In spite of all this Orwell's collected essays contain much of the greatest value to us today.t We live at a time, and in a country, where the so-called 'progressive' attitude has become an established cliché. It is not hard to have all the right thoughts about the Bomb, Africa, hanging and Cuba, but it is harder not to feel that merely to have such views is a substitute for action, or that to express them is a substitute for talent. Enlightened thought, tolerant, unexceptional and humane, tends to be the warm bath in which we lie immersed in self-satisfaction; Orwell supplies the cold douche of responsibility. 'Sensible men,' he wrote, 'have no power,' and the British labour Party goes to endless and ingenious lengths to prove that he was right.

We need him to correct the laziness of our thought. We are all guilty of what he calls 'nationalism,' the refusal to admit any incon- venient truths about not merely the country, but the party, we belong to, or the mental attitude we favour. 'Not only will no Tory admit that Britain _

t COLLECTED ESSAYS. By George Orwell. (Seeker and Warburg, 30s.) has come out of the war with reduced power, and prestige. No pacifist will admit that he can only abjure violence because others are committing violence on his behalf.' We have the same feeling of 'nationalism' towards problems of colour. It is almost impossible for an English intellectual to believe that the coloured races are not some- how superior to the white: a feeling which Orwell perhaps rightly attributes to a sort of mystic sexual feeling of inferiority. Films in which the white and black man are shown as brothers have become the condescending cliché of Hollywood. Films in which a negro is allowed to be as disreputable, self-seeking or simply un- sympathetic as a white man are still, as a sign of clear and unprejudiced thought, to 'come. As a typically muddled progressive, 1 found myself recently listening with amused tolerance to a Jewish mother explaining how horrified she would be if her son wished to marry a gentile. If I had heard a gentile mother say the same thing about her son marrying a Jewish girl I should probably have left the room. In the same way, Left-wing playwrights are unable to admit that they are writing to amuse a middle-class, middle-aged audience who like to hear revolu- tionary opinions in the comfort of their stalls, or that good trade unionists prefer to stay at home and watch Saturday night at the London Palladium. To face the truth about ourselves we all need Orwell badly.

We need him, too, in our present attitude to- wards writing. One of the most deadening approaches to literature is to judge each work by the degree to which it conforms to the pre- vailing standards of progressive thought. Orwell pointed out that you can write well from any point of view, provided it is not palpably insane. What a writer needs is not a set of right-minded ideas, but talent and conviction. It is enough for a writer to pick out a single truth and magnify or distort it with passion. It is not enough for him to have merely collected a number of acceptable opinions. Today we are without talented writers of the Right. If one were to emerge, it would be refreshing to think that he would be judged on his talent.

Because what the progressive climate produces, and what Orwell detested, is a terrible uniformity. One of his best essays is on Henry Miller. He speaks of a time, not unlike the present, of 'labels, slogans and evasions.' The following passage can be read as applying to us, if for 'pro-Fascist' 'pro-Establishment' or 'anti-Progressive' is sub- stituted.

At the worst moments you were expected to lock yourself up in a constipating little cage of lies : at the best a sort of voluntary censor- ship (ought I to gay this, is it pro-Fascist?) was at work in nearly everyone's mind. It is almost inconceivable that good novels should be written in such an atmosphere. Good novels arc not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own unorthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.

However cold, proud, aloof or disgusted the Puritan might have been, he was not frightened. He may be suspect, doing penance in the kitchens of Paris restaurants or on the road to Wigan Pier. He may even be slightly absurd, looking for deep • social significance in the adventures of Billy Bunter or in lewd postcards in Brighton tobac- conists' shops. He may in the end, in the shallow negation of 1984, return to the tedious emptiness of his monastic cell. But he was not afraid to be thought unfashionable or unsympathetic or reactionary if he felt he had to tell the truth. It was a rare courage, and worth any 'number of brotherly resolutions.