Orwell “in Life”

The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell

by George Woodcock
Little, Brown, 366 pp., $6.95

George Orwell
George Orwell; drawing by David Levine

The eccentric, the crank, and the thorn in the flesh turn up regularly in British life and in war many of them come into their own. This was certainly true of George Orwell, who, in addition, was two persons: the suppressed figure of Eric Blair, once a police officer in Burma, old Etonian, and poor Scot, briefly soldier of misfortune in the Spanish Civil War; and George Orwell, amateur outcast, Bohemian, and journalist who, as Herbert Read said, raised journalism to the dignity of literature. He was a familiar London figure in BBC circles during World War II—he was in charge of broadcasts to India—in the Soho pubs, the offices of Horizon, and in many districts where poor writers settled in those hungry and seedy times. There is a considerable Orwell anecdotage. It was impossible to know such a complex, straying, and contradictory man well, but George Woodcock, who became a friend after the usual quarrel which established one with Orwell, gives a good account of his personal spell, and has written a very penetrating personal study.

Orwell looked, as Mr. Woodcock says, like Don Quixote and was haunted by his Sancho Panza; better still, like a “frayed sahib” in shabby jacket and corduroy and betraying his class by his insouciance. Tall and bony, the face lined by pain, eyes that stared out of their caves, he looked far away over one’s head as if seeking more discomfort and new indignations. He had a thin-lipped, hard mouth; his general bleakness was relieved by sudden smiles and by a vigorous shock of wiry hair en brosse. The voice had the lazy, almost spiritless, Cockney drawl, but had something like a rusty edge to it that suggested trouble and had been used to authority. He seemed more at home than we were in the bleak noman’s-land that war creates in the mind and in life in general. Among my encounters with him three stand out. I once went back to a half-empty flat he had taken on the top floor of a high and once expensive block of flats in St. John’s Wood. He pointed out that the building was half empty because of the Blitz, the rents had dropped low, and that it was lucky to be able to live close to the roof because you could get out quickly to deal with the fire-bombs. He seemed to want to live as near to a bomb as possible. Another time we stood for a long time in a doorway off Piccadilly while he told me about the advantage of keeping goats in the country with full details of cost and yield—for he was a born small holder and liked manual work. At the BBC he spent his evenings in a parttime job making small parts for aircraft. He tried to get me to bring my family and join him in the disastrous migration…

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