Saturday, September 5, 2009

Genius at work

One of my favourite blogs isn't a proper blog at all. It is the Orwell Prize, the first on-line publishing of George Orwell's personal journal. Each entry is released exactly seventy years to the day he wrote it - his life and the world around him, gradually unfolding. It is an extraordinary read.

For months the diary covered little more than his kitchen garden, recording the progress of flowers, vegetables and chickens. Typically he'd write: dug a patch for the leeks, gave liquid manure to the Larkspurs; planted Godetias. 12 eggs (4 small). Orwell seems obsessed with his chickens, recording their broody moods, egg production, the amount he sells and at at what price. Some days he simply writes: 12 eggs (1 small)

But in recent months (the daily publishing makes it seem contemporary) he has also recorded the build up to war. In the entry which follows the one above he writes with equal calm: Invasion of Poland began this morning. Warsaw bombed. General mobilization proclaimed in England, ditto in France plus martial law.

This is typical of Orwell, recording his mundane chores alongside world changing events, the banality of his domestic life contrasting with profound observation of the wider world. Part of Orwell's genius was to pass comment as if he were an innocent outsider - giving the impression of a naive wisdom, and tricking us into believing we might have had the same insight.

In fact, the diary is steeped in careful scrutiny. His recording of the build up to war is meticulous; sources noted, newspaper articles appended, due consideration given to other nations besides Britain. Similarly his garden diary records the seasons and the nature of his district: Blackberries are ripening... many Finches beginning to flock.

Seventy years ago last Tuesday he recorded the British Declaration of War. There is an irony that after following events so diligently he misses the broadcast. I found the transcript on Google, it is worth reading in full, but the extract below illustrates well enough:

We and France are today, in fulfilment of our obligations, going to the aid of Poland... and now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will play your part with calmness and courage...

By Thursday, Orwell has returned to his home after travelling to London. He writes, 'returning to Wallington after 10 days absence find weeds are terrible. Turnips good & some carrots have now reached a very large size. Runner beans fairly good. The last lot of peas did not come to much...

There is something about the juxtaposition of the two worlds that fascinates and moves me. I think it's because my life is so far removed from either of their concerns. If I need eggs or carrots, I go to the supermarket; military conflicts are generally distant, experienced through a TV screen or the Internet. The tone of the British Declaration is from a world beyond my comprehension. I can't imagine a general mobilisation, or how I'd feel if my sons were called up to fight. And yet I know all this happened a mere fifteen years before I was born - and more than that, both of Orwell's concerns (food and war) are still the dominant fears in the world today. Orwell's diaries remind me how lucky I am.

I can't think of a contemporary equivalent to Orwell. At his best, Tim Garton Ash can write with great intelligence and liberalism of thought - but not with Orwell's range or skill. There are others who have written of the same events with the benefit of hindsight and detailed research (Jonathan Glover's, Humanity, a moral history of the twentieth century is a stunning work that comes to mind) - but that is different to writing 'live' and recording the world as it changes around you.

My friend Sara once said to me that Orwell gets better with time; it's only now that we realise just how good a writer he was. I agree. Oddly enough I'm not a huge fan of his most famous books, 1984 and Animal Farm; I prefer his essays and documentary writing. And his diaries too are fascinating insight into genius at work.

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