George Orwell’s diaries: the archival impulse and how to ‘read’ current events

Over the last week I have been reading George Orwell’s diaries, edited by Peter Davison and published by Harvill Secker in 2009.  The diaries have made an enormous impression on me for several reasons, among them the relentless focus on the practical details of making a garden and living from it, in what Davison calls the Domestic Diaries and his detailed documentation of the earnings, housing and diet of the unemployed and low paid workers in the mines and on farms. I find both of these uses of writing inspiring.

These things are never simple though. The Orwell who put himself into doss houses for unemployed men and hung out for a few weeks with tramps and union organisers was an old boy of Eton and had other choices. There was a strong sense in which he did this to get things to write about. That is something which, as a writer, you have to stop and think about a bit. The boundary between his possible exploitation of the people he stayed with and his ability to write an exposé of subjects other people are ignorant of or are wilfully ignoring, is not straightforward at all.  Or at least I don’t think it is. It has been said too that he ‘stage-managed’ the writing in The Road to Wigan Pier to show himself subject to the same lice and hunger and cold as the families he was in contact with, when in fact he would shortly return to his own way of life, which was also cold and damp and had terrible food but was several steps more secure and comfortable than the lives he was visiting. All of these critiques notwithstanding I still think that writing about the lives of people who are getting a hard time from employers, landlords and whose suffering is being ignored, is a good thing for a writer to do.

Orwell’s domestic diaries, where he records every egg that his hens lay and how many potatoes he harvests and how many peat blocks he cut and how much gas the stove is using and how much meat he will get from half a stag, impress me from the point of view that he does not think the details of life are beneath his notice. To the contrary, he seems to think that paying attention to what you grow and what you need to survive, is as important a part of life as the writing he does or the thinking he does about world affairs. The domestic diaries do have a manic quality though, a hard turning away of his attention from certain things, to be partially achieved by this staunch focus on the details of the garden and the household economy.  Those ‘certain things’ include his own health and his emotions.

In the time immediately before the declaration of war on September 3 1939, Orwell kept two diaries.

One was his usual ‘Domestic Diary’. The other was what Orwell called the ‘Diary of Events Leading Up To The War’. Davison achieves an extremely interesting effect by interposing diary entries from the two diaries for the same days.

For example

12.8.39

Domestic: Warm &fine. Some carnations well out. 10 eggs. (2 small). Sold 25 @2/6 score &10 (pullets) @2/2 score. Total this week: 73 (16 small).

Events Leading Up To The War

Foreign &General

Manchester Guardian correspondent reports that German mobilization will be at full strength halfway through August &that some attempt to terrorise Poland will be made. War stated to be likeliest issue… The striking thing is the perfunctory air with which these statements are made in all the papers, as though with inner certainty that nothing of the kind can happen… [Manchester Guardian Weekly 11.9.39]

Social

Refugee problem stated to be becoming serious in London, especially East End. Mosley said to have not increased his following however.[private source]

It appears that the Post Office authorities are now able to read a letter, sufficient to determine the nature of its contents, without opening it.[private source]

One thing that I intend to attempt to learn and copy is the way Orwell joins facts he can establish with certainty and official propaganda and popular rumours to develop his own interpretations of the international political events and to try and understand what is actually happening.  It’s not easy to explain what Orwell does, but one aspect of his process is that he does not automatically believe or disbelieve rumours. He puts them alongside official information or other snippets of information like what he sees, or even alongside official silences about a topic. He places all that against his own experiences and comes up with a theory about what is happening.  It impresses me a great deal as a way of dealing with the ever present ‘comms’ that everyone including the public sector, government and businesses emits. In general my response to that sort of material is to avert my eyes and wait for it to stop. If you are Orwell, you engage with the ‘comms’, you search the ‘comms’ for themes and grains of truth, and you also look around you to see what you can learn from who is on the roads, in the shops, in the papers, on the radio, what people are doing in towns and cities and you tune in to the conversations of people, friends and strangers alike.

 Here he analyses the impact of air-raids and the official attitude toward the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV), in which he was a sergeant .

25.7.40

No news, really…. Various people who have sent their children to Canada are already regretting it. Casualties, i.e. fatal ones, from air-raids for last month were given out as about 340. If true, this is substantially less than the number of road deaths in the same period…. The LDV, now said to be 1,300,000 strong, is stopping recruiting and is to be renamed the Home Guard. There are rumours that those acting as NCO’s are to be replaced by men from the regular army. This seems to indicate either that the authorities are beginning to take the LDV seriously as a fighting force, or that they are afraid of it.

There are now rumours that Lloyd George is the potential Pétain of England….. The Italian press makes the same claim and says that LG’s silence proves it true. It is of course fairly easy to imagine LG playing this part out of sheer spite and jealousy because he has not been given a job, but much less easy to imagine him collaborating with the Tory clique who would in fact be in favour of such a course.

Constantly, as I walk down the street, I find myself looking up at the windows to see which of them would make good machine gun nests.

Another of the things that has intrigued me about these diary entries is their provenance. The diary sections in this book come from an earlier book, The Complete Works of George Orwell, also edited by Peter Davison and published in 1998.

Orwell himself, presumably with an eye on publication, went back and typed some of his diary entries. Sometimes his wife typed the diary entries. Davidson has presented the Second Wartime Diary in a way which allows the reader to see, for each entry, which text Orwell had typed and which parts of the original diary entries he had decided not to type.

This creates a feeling a bit like someone talking to himself. ‘On the one hand. On the other hand, etc’. Or like an actor speaking certain words for public consumption, and then speaking behind his hand in a different and perhaps less ‘authorised’ tone.

Here is an example:

7.8.42

UNTYPED: Hugh Slater is very despondent about the war. He says that at the rate at which the Russians have been retreating it is not possible that Timoshenko has really got his army away intact, as reported. He also says that the tone of the Moscow press and wireless shows that morale in Russia must be very bad.

TYPED: Like almost everyone I know, except Warburg, High Slater considers that there isn’t going to be a Second Front. This is the inference everyone draws from Churchill’s visit to Moscow. People say, “Why should he go to Moscow to tell them we’re going to open a second front? He must have gone there to tell them we can’t do it. Everyone agrees with my suggestion that it would be a good job if Chruchill were sunk on the way back, like Kitchener.

UNTYPED: [Of course the possibility remains that Churchill isn’t in Moscow.]

TYPED: Last night for the first time took a Sten gun to pieces. There is almost nothing to learn in it. UNTYPED: No spare parts. If the gun goes seriously wrong you simply chuck it away and get another.

The bits Orwell decided not to type seem to be a bit less measured. Sometimes the typed version is better without the untyped material, as with the Sten guns. But sometimes, as with the missing question about Churchill, I think we would miss something by not hearing the full extent of his scepticism. I think I would like to see how it feels to write a text where one part was later disavowed.