Round about rainy season in 1991, I happened upon a small clearance sale of foreign-language (i.e., English) books at the then-scandalously overpriced (pre-Amazon) Kinokuniya bookstore in Umeda. None of the novels really caught my eye (can’t imagine what they were – it was just before Grisham and Clancy put their tag-team strangle-hold on defenseless bookshelves everywhere). In amongst the usual ikebana and kanji how-to books in the little non-fiction pile, I saw a blue-covered copy of The Collected Reviews, Essays and Criticism of George Orwell, Volume 3: As I Please. Admittedly, when you’ve got a catchy title like that, you could just about put anything between two covers and brace yourself for the thundering literate herd, but curiously, this volume (volume 3 of 4, but the only one of them on sale at any price) lay unsold. At ¥700, it was something like half the cover price (and a quarter of what Kinokuniya had originally wanted for it), so it seemed like a good deal. And it looked like it had short chapters. So I bought it, looking for nothing more than a good non-fiction train read to get me through the soggy month of June.
I don’t think I’ve ever gotten more of my money’s worth out of a book, before or since. Before the rains ended and the wilting Osaka humidity began in earnest, I read that thing from cover to cover (not a cliché – even the footnotes were good), and over the years I’ve picked it up and reread it more times than I can count. For someone who knew George Orwell mainly from high school readings of Animal Farm, a January 1st, 1985 reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four (I was determined not to jump on the bandwagon), and a few essays, these were a revelation: from 1943 to 1945, Orwell – too unhealthy to fight in the War – wrote a column for the London paper Tribune. It was the first time in his life that Orwell had the chance to write as he pleased (hence the title) to a regular audience, and he did not disappoint.
I found the old Penguin, rather tattered, but still intact, on the bookshelf in my room when I went home at Christmas. When my jet-lag had me waking up at 5:30, I reached for the Orwell and was transported to London in the midst of World War II. Are the columns a series of rousing, bring-’em-on, patriotic essays? Not at all, and they’re all the more powerful for it. For the most part, Orwell recounts the daily routine of an ordinary Londoner under wartime – the rationing queues, the shortages, the general shabbiness of life, the rehousing problems of bombed-out families, the petty quarrels of local politicians. Some of his columns discuss the uneasy interaction between American soldiers and the local population (at this time, the preparations for D-Day were under way, but could not be publicly discussed), the genteel anti-semitism which still pervaded British society even in the midst of the war against Hitler, the mixture of censorship and sensationalism in the wartime media. Even then, people were complaining that the BBC was biassed (it seems to be the national past-time). He also occasionally muses about the post-war world – not just “what will post-war Germany be like?” but “what is the war doing to us? What will the new Britain be like?” There aren’t too many people asking that question these days (on either side of the pond), and under present circumstances, it’s still a perfectly valid one.
Of course, like everyone else, Orwell had to eat, and much of the writing consists of book reviews, wry essays about making the proper cup of tea or the defense of British cooking, county cricket, the search for the perfect pub, letters to friends about family matters and to publishers about the book he was working on (Animal Farm), and reports on the British political situation for magazines in the States (these are a refreshing reality check – not least because Churchill is discussed, not as a Great Historical Figure, but as a familiar and wily old politician who’d already been kicking around the House of Commons for forty years).
That Orwell wrote so much and so diversely in only two years (and that’s only a small slice of his total output) is staggering. I’ve often thought it unfortunate that Nineteen Eighty-four, his darkest and most famous book, now overshadows so much of his journalism. Intellectually challenging, but still witty and not embarrassed to look at the real life all around: the perfect blogger, in fact.