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Stir Crazy with Orwell

By Graham Nowland

Being confined under the tyranny of COVID-19 makes you stir crazy and people are warning mental health is going to be an issue. Stir craziness has different forms and some are highly questionable. The media and police are picking up victims of dubious stir craziness and subjecting them to pillory and punishment.

Wondering what George Orwell would have made of it all is probably a positive form. At least I hope so. Known as the author of the anti-totalitarian novels, Animal Farm and 1984, he was also probably the best British essayist of his generation (some say for a couple of centuries) and a biting and often funny journalist.

Coming from the far liberal left of the political spectrum didn’t stop him exposing the madness of the left in the Spanish Civil War. His book on it, Homage to Catalonia, flopped at the time (1938) but remains one of his best works. It led to the two above but in some ways as non-fiction it is more important. Here you had the sharpest eye in the news trade on location at a tragic black comedy. He was with the Communists, Independent Labour and Anarchists on the Aragon front, watching everything, until a Fascist bullet hit him, just missing the main artery in his throat, and he was invalided home. Hardly able to speak for a while he could still, thank God, write.

In World War 2 he could not at first find a suitable role until he was set to writing and broadcasting anti-Nazi propaganda to India for the British war coalition government. He lost interest and began working on Animal Farm conceived 1984 for which the final proof was cleared in 1948. The title just comes from reversing the last two figures of that year – it wasn’t supposed to be a prediction. The book actually appeared in 1949.

The targets of Animal Farm and 1984 were glossed over by the publishers though Orwell wrote to his French translator that in Animal Farm he was aiming directly at Stalin. The real Big Brother immediately recognised himself, and his murderous state, in both books and furiously banned them. This led to a lively secret trade in both stories throughout the USSR, mainly as rough copies, until Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s even more pointed novels started circulating the same way. You could argue Orwell helped to bring the whole thing down.

Orwell could write about anything and find a totally unique angle characterised by hard fact-facing, common sense, a deep sense of fairness and his most likeable trademark, an ironic and sorrowful but never bitter sense of humour.

As rationing tightened and food became a central issue of WW2 he wrote a dry, funny and deeply informed essay called ‘British Cookery.’ He described this as a ‘simple, rather heavy, perhaps slightly barbarous diet,’ He showed how universal this was, with some French variations in big private houses, but how it remained still basically the same across all classes. Orwell felt that only in British homes was real British Cookery practised. He thought British restaurants served a very poor imitation and he was right.

He pinpointed the exact different between a French and a British pancake, a a matter of thickness only, while the Brits prefer them with lemon juice and sugar not butter. Spot on again. He correctly identified ‘the joint’ as the universal pivot of the British main meal and how the vegetables should really be cooked in the oven under it. This made them taste succulent and delicious.

When it came to the second half of the midday meal ‘we come upon one of the greatest glories of British cookery – its puddings.’ He breaks these into three classes, suet puddings, pies and tarts and milk puddings. He explores the first two with zeal and enthusiasm and obviously had a sweet tooth.

‘The other main category of puddings – milk puddings – is the kind of thing that one would prefer to pass over in silence, but it must be mentioned, since these dishes are, unfortunately, characteristic of Britain.’ He asserted that macaroni pudding was easily the worst, deeming it ‘intolerable to any civilised palate.’ This reminds he came from a near aristocratic background, his real name was Eric Blair, and that he managed to almost, but not completely, escape his early conditioning.

British Cookery’ was an almost Pythonesque piece to write during wartime rationing and I suppose that is why a ministry censor banned it. The British government apparently later admitted this error and expressed a regret it was not released during the war.

With his powerful and flexible style Orwell would have penetrated this COVID-19 crisis. If he was here he surely would have had something mordant to say about stranded cruise ships. He would have used his caustic wit on the giant ships continuing to flow through Australian ports carrying iron, salt, gas, coal and a myriad of other resources. Also, the mining … and all the other industries which continue. The ordinary Australian can do little more than keep at it in an anti-social distancing regime. Or stay at home, get essential supplies or go out for more or less solitary exercise. We have put our hard-won rights of assembly, association, movement and personal interaction on hold, in trust to a constitutionally questionable emergency coalition. In a sense we are now living in a vast open prison. This is real Orwell territory.

Of course, we don’t need him to tell us what the National Cabinet policy is all about; keeping up our trade while we try to deal with the virus. Business as usual. I do think he would have been able to show some light that I can’t quite get, make us smile knowingly; making ministers take note … making them quietly adjust details in their policies.

I’m sure the British writer would have been with the mothers who trusted their intuition and stopped their children from going to school as the virus took off here. He would now be concerned about plans to partially reopen schools before being certain exactly how the disease is being transmitted. He would not let us forget the evidence from China, Iceland, the town of Vo in Italy, and elsewhere, that asymptomatic cases, i.e. apparently healthy people, might be transmitting the virus by stealth and that long delays might occur before this becomes apparent.

He would have been 100% with the government that we must not relax as figures go down. This nasty virus is potentially as threatening to our way of life as anything the Nazis or Bolsheviks thought up.

But it would not have been Orwell’s left-wing bias that would have led him to urge us to examine at least the principles behind China’s ‘non-pharmaceutical’ solution. It would have been his common sense. He probably would have suggested some degree of door-to door and random testing, using a statistical model, to try to find out exactly what is going on. He would, I feel, have advocated liberal use of both viral and of antibody testing kits.

His unswerving sense of fairness would have also addressed the intrusiveness of this, the necessity of it and some imaginative ideas about how it might be made more tolerable. He might have done all this in a far better way than I am in this fit of stir craziness.

Graham Nowland is an ex-staff news reporter/photographer on world-leading shipping paper, Lloyds List DCN. Graham was also a regular freelance feature writer for West Australian, Sunday Times, and Brisbane Courier-Mail and many others.


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  1. Noel

    This virus would be more appropriately named Covid-1984.

  2. Roland Flickett

    If Orwell wrote 1984 and Animal Farm today, they’d qualify as political commentary.
    Police enthusiasm for exercising their power over citizens doing harmless things is growing here. I am reading a novel about Sarth Efrica at the beginning of apartheid in 1951 or thereabouts, and the arrogance, brutality and impunity of the Afrikaaner police points to the future of Australia under the politicised law enforcement structures if we are not careful.

  3. paul walter

    I doubt whether Orwell saw Stalin as the sole exemplar of totalitarianism after the fascist era, including his own experiences in Spain in the thirties.

    I think Orwell recognised Stalinism as another form of fascism and did want people to understand the underlying characteristics of fascism in ALL its permutations.

    He would have wanted people to understand the contexts and conditions under which totalitarianism can flourish and noted the similarities in all regimes across the globe, including dangerous weaknesses in the British system itself, both at home and as to its colonies and double standards of outlook intrinisic to these.. therein lies the backhander.

  4. John Millar

    Despite the similarities to early Soviet leaders, I believe Animal Farm was about revolution and totalitarianism in general. And housing estate developers should be compelled to read Coming Up For Air before they try and spread more brick veneerial disease

  5. whatever

    Remember in 1984 there was the constant, pointless war with Oceania that caused shortages and generally lowered the standard of living?

    Scotty and his crew are developing a taste for permanent emergency measures.

  6. Josephus

    Excellent article.
    I think that Swift was an even better writer, and for me too John Orwell’s best work is Coming up for Air- the sad lament of Everyman for the obliterated countryside as it is covered with mock Tudor rows of houses inhabited by deluded burghers who think they live in said countryside while in fact destroying it. At present we note astonished citizens hearing birdsong, the lone big cats and elephants venturing into the deserted cities- reminds me of On the Beach, that post apocalypse dystopia.

    Sweet tooth: Bernard Shaw , besotted Stalinist, vegetarian and teetotaller, avoided fresh fruit and got his housekeeper to make sweet puddings and heavy main dishes every day.

    Question: what is this sudden use of the wierd and rapidly hackneyed phrase ‘stir crazy’? why not just crazy or insane?

    Agree, Orwell saw how fascism is not left or right, but a modern product of the powerful seeking to exercise control over vast populations.

  7. Graham Nowland

    Josephus; thanks for compliment, Loved Shaw’s prefaces. I like Swift too Coming Up for Air is maybe my favourite Orwell novel. certainly equals 1984. I like Homage to Catalonia better than both which is not a novel. Stir is slang for prison, and I fee this confinement John Millar: re Animal Farm I was only citing what Orwell said to his French translator. He may well have meant it to be wider.
    Roland Flickett; I think 1984 and Animal Farm were both seen as political commentary. They have since become classified by librarians and booksellers and teachers as science fiction, moral fable, etc.
    Whatever; The three big states including Oceania were all the same but permanently at war and the shortages flowed from that. In the book Orwell explains it in detail and how they got it in that position. He kind of solved a niggling problem in socialist economics of surplus value caused by mechanisation of labour. But it is only fiction of course.
    Noel: I wish now I had called my article Covid-1984. Very witty
    Paul Walter; Your comment argung that Orwell would have regarded Stalinism as ‘another form of fascism’ is v stimulating. However he was active on the non-Bolshevik left. He would have known the origins of fascism as an Italian merging of nationalism and French syndicalism, using the old Roman Empire symbol of power the fasces as a symbol. I’ve thought about this a lot since you commented and feel the word has continually evolved since the Italian National Fascist party appropriated both term and symbol and set Mussolini on his career. In Stalin’s era a fascist hyaena became any big power group who opposed his form of communism. I think that is where the use started to widen. It can now also mean any form of totalitarianism as you say.

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