Mary Ronan Drew's Reviews > Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays

Facing Unpleasant Facts by George Orwell
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Jan 27, 2012

it was amazing
Read from January 30 to February 16, 2012

Facing Unpleasant Facts, 1937-1939 by George Orwell. This volume of The Complete Works of George Orwell, which is edited by Peter Davison, includes his letters, journals, essays, book reviews, and two timelines of news leading up to the war in Spain and World War II.

Orwell was alert and observant and when commenting on politics and as fair as any writer I've encountered. He was a dedicated socialist and was vehemently anti-war after his return from fighting in Spain. He escaped from that country only steps ahead of the Stalinists who arrested most of his friends and fellow-soldiers. It was this experience that changed his outlook and made him a convinced anti-Communist and eventually led him to write Animal Farm and 1984.

Orwell was in Spain from January to June 1937, returning to England to escape the purge in Barcelona and to recover from a wound he suffered at the front. He was shot through the neck; the bullet managed to clip one of his vocal chords but did no other damage. Shortly after he returned he began hemorrhaging from what was first thought to be tuberculosis but then was diagnosed as bronchiectasis. He spent six months in a sanatorium and then was told by his doctors to go to southern France or North Africa for the winter. He and his wife went to Marrakech.

Orwell told his friends he was glad he was out of the country during the crisis of September 1939 when Chamberlain made his now infamous peace treaty with Hitler in Munich. He was until just before the war broke out in early September 1939, a pacifist, predicting if there was a war England would become a fascist country. His friends were therefore surprised, not to say shocked, when on 8 September, five days after the war began, he applied to the government for war work. His health being extremely fragile they did not take him up on this right away but eventually they found a way to use his talents. The next volume in this 20-volume collection is call, A Patriot After All.

Here is a quote from a piece about his experiences in Morocco that Orwell wrote for John Lehman's New Writing in December 1939. It's a bit long but it is quintessential Orwell - he is attentive to detail and brutally honest about himself:

"Every afternoon a file of very old women passes down the road outside my house, each carrying a load of firewood. All of them are mummified with age and the sun, and all of them are tiny. It seems to be generally the case in primitive communities that the women, when they get beyond a certain age, shrink to the size of children. One day a poor old creature who could not have been more than four feet tall crept past me under a vast load of wood. I stopped her and put a five-sou piece (a little more than a farthing) into her hand. She answered with a shrill wail, almost a scream, which was partly gratitude but mainly surprise. I suppose that from her point of view, by taking any notice of her, I seemed almost to be violating a law of nature. She accepted her status as an old woman, that is to say as a beast of burden. When a family is travelling it is quite usual to see a father and a grown-up son riding ahead on donkeys, and an old woman following on foot, carrying the baggage.

"But what is strange about these people is their invisibility. For several weeks, always at about the same time of day, the file of old women had hobbled past the house with their firewood, and though they had registered themselves on my eyeballs I cannot truly say that I had seen them. Firewood was passing - that was how I saw it. It was only that one day I happened to be walking behind them, and the curious up-and-down motion of a load of wood drew my attention to the human being underneath it. Then for the first time I noticed the poor old earth-coloured bodies, bodies reduced to bones and leathery skin, bent double under the crushing weight. Yet I suppose I had not been five minutes on Moroccan soil before I noticed the overloading of the donkeys and was infuriated by it. There is no question that the donkeys are damnably treated. The Moroccan donkey is hardly bigger than a St Bernard dog, it carries a load which in the British Army would be considered too much for a fifteen-hands mule, and very often its pack-saddle is not taken off its back for weeks together. But what is peculiarly pitiful is that it is the most willing creature on earth, it follows its master like a dog and does not need either bridle or halter. After a dozen years of devoted work it suddenly drops dead, whereupon its master tips it into the ditch and the village dogs have torn its guts out before it is cold.

"This kind of thing makes one's blood boil, whereas - on the whole - the plight of the human beings does not. I am not commenting, merely pointing to a fact. People with brown skins are next door to invisible. Anyone can be sorry for the donkey with its galled back, but it is generally owing to some kind of accident if one even notices the old woman under her load of sticks."

2012 No 27
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