Orwell on England
0 comment Sunday, August 17, 2014 |
England, Your England
From The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, 1941
George Orwell, it is true, was a leftist; but the leftists of his day were apparently not the same breed as the nihilistic, life-hating leftists of today -- or it may simply be that he was a much more clear-thinking and honest man than his fellow leftists.
But whichever is the case, it is true, without a doubt, that the England of his time bears scant resemblance to the England or the United Kingdom of our day.
In the above-linked essay, England, Your England, written during World War II, he discusses the English character. Now today, the epithet 'English' is rarely used, as it is considered too exclusive, too restricted. It makes all those diverse residents of today's UK feel left out, offended, and persecuted, so the adjective 'English' is used far less than it was in Orwell's day.
But Orwell makes some very interesting observations about the English character, and patriotism, and discussing, as we have been, the present sad state of the UK, it is instructive to look at what he says. As we read his words, we might ponder whether the character of the country still persists, or whether that mysterious force called patriotism can be summoned up to revive Orwell's country.
One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilization it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it. Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in their own countries very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not.
Also, one must admit that the divisions between nation and nation are founded on real differences of outlook. Till recently it was thought proper to pretend that all human beings are very much alike, but in fact anyone able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour differs enormously from country to country. Things that could happen in one country could not happen in another. Hitler's June purge, for instance, could not have happened in England. And, as western peoples go, the English are very highly differentiated. There is a sort of back-handed admission of this in the dislike which nearly all foreigners feel for our national way of life. Few Europeans can endure living in England, and even Americans often feel more at home in Europe.
When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning � all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?
But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.
And above all, it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.
Meanwhile England, together with the rest of the world, is changing. And like everything else it can change only in certain directions, which up to a point can be foreseen. That is not to say that the future is fixed, merely that certain alternatives are possible and others not. A seed may grow or not grow, but at any rate a turnip seed never grows into a parsnip. It is therefore of the deepest importance to try and determine what England is, before guessing what part England can play in the huge events that are happening.''
If only Orwell could have known just how much England would change, and in how short a time. What would he have thought? Of course he foresaw the totalitarian trends which would develop in the years ahead; he was quite prescient in that regard. But I wonder if, as a leftist, he would have envisioned multiculturalism and the 'war against the people' by the Western elites?
Still, if we re-read the passages above, we see that Orwell clearly believed that there was an intrinsic national character, and that it persisted in spite of profound societal changes. He alludes to the changes between 1840 and 1940, and declares, that in spite of those changes, the people are still the same.
He clearly says that the whole nation has 'a single, identifiable character' and he seems to mean that the nation, through time, maintains that character.
He also says something quite important: that the divisions between nations are founded on real differences of outlook; the divisions from one nation to another reflect the innate differences. They are not simply a matter of geopolitical boundaries, or lines arbitrarily drawn on a map. Of course there have been and are 'nations' which are merely artificially-drawn nations, with no unifying genetic or cultural bonds. Iraq comes to mind, and increasingly, our own country -- and the UK. There are unfortunate consequences that follow in creating these unnatural 'nations' which are no nations. We are seeing those consequences playing out in the UK, in our country, and throughout the West.
To return to Orwell's description of the English character:
Here are a couple of generalizations about England that would be accepted by almost all observers. One is that the English are not gifted artistically. They are not as musical as the Germans or Italians, painting and sculpture have never flourished in England as they have in France. Another is that, as Europeans go, the English are not intellectual. They have a horror of abstract thought, they feel no need for any philosophy or systematic 'world-view�. Nor is this because they are 'practical�, as they are so fond of claiming for themselves. [...]
But they have a certain power of acting without taking thought. Their world-famed hypocrisy � their double-faced attitude towards the Empire, for instance � is bound up with this. Also, in moments of supreme crisis the whole nation can suddenly draw together and act upon a species of instinct, really a code of conduct which is understood by almost everyone, though never formulated. The phrase that Hitler coined for the Germans, 'a sleep-walking people�, would have been better applied to the English. Not that there is anything to be proud of in being called a sleep-walker.
But here it is worth noting a minor English trait which is extremely well marked though not often commented on, and that is a love of flowers. This is one of the first things that one notices when one reaches England from abroad, especially if one is coming from southern Europe. Does it not contradict the English indifference to the arts? Not really, because it is found in people who have no aesthetic feelings whatever. What it does link up with, however, is another English characteristic which is so much a part of us that we barely notice it, and that is the addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life. We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official � the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the 'nice cup of tea�. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above. The most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker. It is obvious, of course, that even this purely private liberty is a lost cause. Like all other modern people, the English are in process of being numbered, labelled, conscripted, 'co-ordinated�. But the pull of their impulses is in the other direction, and the kind of regimentation that can be imposed on them will be modified in consequence.'' [Emphasis mine]
First, I am struck by the extent to which much of what Orwell says about the English character can also be applied to Americans, most importantly the part about the belief in the liberty of the individual. Too often we here in America like to claim that we invented this love of liberty, or that it sprang full-grown here among our colonists, like Athena from the head of Zeus. No; it is part of our British heritage. And the more weakened our ties to our old colonial heritage, the more we lose that natural aptitude for freedom. I believe the 'melting pot' philosophy watered down our essential strengths and gifts, and the more 'diverse' our country becomes, the greater the distance between us and our founding ancestors. This is no less true in the UK as they dilute their indigenous heritage via mass immigration.
But here, we come to the part in which Orwell notes the essential gentleness of the English, and their natural aversion to martial pursuits:
One can learn a good deal about the spirit of England from the comic coloured postcards that you see in the windows of cheap stationers� shops. These things are a sort of diary upon which the English people have unconsciously recorded themselves. Their old-fashioned outlook, their graded snobberies, their mixture of bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme gentleness, their deeply moral attitude to life, are all mirrored there.
The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic. You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil. It is a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers. In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement. And with this goes something that is always written off by European observers as 'decadence� or hypocrisy, the English hatred of war and militarism. It is rooted deep in history, and it is strong in the lower-middle class as well as the working class.
In peace time, even when there are two million unemployed, it is difficult to fill the ranks of the tiny standing army, which is officered by the country gentry and a specialized stratum of the middle class, and manned by farm labourers and slum proletarians. The mass of the people are without military knowledge or tradition, and their attitude towards war is invariably defensive. No politician could rise to power by promising them conquests or military 'glory�, no Hymn of Hate has ever made any appeal to them.''
As we saw in the O'Sullivan article which I blogged on, the gentleness of British society is their vulnerability, with the presence of so many hostile and violent outsiders, who have at best a sullen indifference toward the native British people and at worst, a burning hostility to them. We here in this country are probably made vulnerable by the same traits, although they may be less marked in America, because of our mixed heritage. We, too, are by nature more polite, more hospitable, and too welcoming and trusting for our own good. This is true to some extent of all Western European peoples, but especially so of the English and Anglo-derived peoples in the West. It is said that J.R.R. Tolkien modeled the Hobbits after the English; they were essentially a gentle, stay-at-home, family-and-hearth people.
Here again, Orwell describes the English regard for the law, and the idea of the Rule of Law, which we too have traditionally valued very highly in America:
And yet the gentleness of English civilization is mixed up with barbarities and anachronisms. Our criminal law is as out-of-date as the muskets in the Tower. Over against the Nazi Storm Trooper you have got to set that typically English figure, the hanging judge, some gouty old bully with his mind rooted in the nineteenth century, handing out savage sentences. In England people are still hanged by the neck and flogged with the cat o� nine tails. Both of these punishments are obscene as well as cruel, but there has never been any genuinely popular outcry against them. People accept them (and Dartmoor, and Borstal) almost as they accept the weather. They are part of 'the law�, which is assumed to be unalterable.
[Note - Orwell apparently didn't foresee that the British would abolish capital punishment, thanks to leftism, and become very lenient, too lenient, in their treatment of criminals.]
Here one comes upon an all-important English trait: the respect for constitutionalism and legality, the belief in 'the law� as something above the State and above the individual, something which is cruel and stupid, of course, but at any rate incorruptible.
It is not that anyone imagines the law to be just. Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepts the implications of this, everyone takes it for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not. Remarks like 'They can't run me in; I haven't done anything wrong�, or 'They can't do that; it's against the law�, are part of the atmosphere of England. The professed enemies of society have this feeling as strongly as anyone else.
Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power, has never taken root. Even the intelligentsia have only accepted it in theory.
In England such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in. They may be illusions, but they are very powerful illusions.''
I wonder to what extent that last is still true in Britain? Leftism and post-modernism, as taught by the left-controlled media and government, have seemingly weakened such beliefs. And here in America, the same is true, although I think we are a few steps behind the British on that path. We would do well to reverse our course before we reach the point where our British cousins seem to be.
Orwell talks about the sense of national unity, which seems to be very precarious in the UK at this time, with so many nationalities and races, each with their own 'communities' and allegiances, and with the indigenous British people so weakened in their national identity due to leftism and its anti-nationalistic jihad.
Up to a point, the sense of national unity is a substitute for a 'world-view�. Just because patriotism is all but universal and not even the rich are uninfluenced by it, there can be moments when the whole nation suddenly swings together and does the same thing, like a herd of cattle facing a wolf. There was such a moment, unmistakably, at the time of the disaster in France. After eight months of vaguely wondering what the war was about, the people suddenly knew what they had got to do: first, to get the army away from Dunkirk, and secondly to prevent invasion. It was like the awakening of a giant. Quick! Danger! The Philistines be upon thee, Samson! And then the swift unanimous action � and, then, alas, the prompt relapse into sleep. In a divided nation that would have been exactly the moment for a big peace movement to arise. But does this mean that the instinct of the English will always tell them to do the right thing? Not at all, merely that it will tell them to do the same thing. In the 1931 General Election, for instance, we all did the wrong thing in perfect unison. We were as single-minded as the Gadarene swine. But I honestly doubt whether we can say that we were shoved down the slope against our will.''
The sense of unity, the oneness in spirit and in national character, is what enabled Britain during the War to pull together and to survive. Without that sense of national unity, survival is doubtful.
One more little trivial note: Orwell, in that last passage, makes a couple of Biblical allusions: the reference to the Philistines and Samson, and the reference to the Gadarene swine. Do any leftists of today recognize such allusions, and would any leftist dare to refer to the Bible today, other than those leftists wearing backwards collars? I doubt it. And even among the general population, how many British people would recognize those Biblical references or names, or know the symbolism inherent therein? Precious few, and I am afraid that even in a more 'religious' country like America, not many are Biblically literate enough to get the allusions. My point is not just to lament that we in America are not the Biblically-conversant country we once were, or that Britain has lost its religion (though both are cause for lament) but also that we no longer have a common grounding in Western culture; we no longer have these common reference points and cultural bonds which enabled us to speak in shorthand amongst ourselves. We can no longer make such an allusion, whether Biblical or from the old classics, or from Shakespeare, and trust that our readers or hearers will understand. To that extent, we are weaker and less connected. Such is the fruit of multiculturalism. It eats away at the cultural connections and bonds.
But Orwell, later in the essay, concludes that
England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare's much-quoted message, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control � that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.''
I've often used the family as the analogy for our American nation; at first, we were truly a kin group, a nation in the original sense, and later our family circle expanded to welcome in those who became ours by adoption. Now, the family analogy is being stretched to the breaking point. If the family's would-be new members are simply there to exploit and to plunder, and have no wish to join the family circle and conform to the family and its ways, then there is no more family; it's everybody for himself.
And I have no doubt that to use Orwell's analogy, the British family, or what still remains of it, has the wrong members in control -- as do we in America.
Will Britain recover this natural character of which Orwell writes, or will the corrosive influences, in John O'Sullivan's parlance, have destroyed the essential character and the strengths of the British family?
We will see, because it appears that Britain is being tested by very difficult circumstances, just as we are.
And as cousins, we and the British should try to restore the lost connections between us, so as to offer help and support, if only moral support, to each other -- as 'the Philistines are upon us' both.

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