As I Please
Tribune, 3 December 1943
Scene in a tobacconists shop. Two American soldiers sprawling
across the counter, one of them just sober enough to make unwanted love to the two young
women who run the shop, the other at the stage known as fighting drunk. Enter
Orwell in search of matches. The pugnacious one makes an effort and stands upright.
Soldier: Wharrishay is, perfijious Albion. You heard
that? Perfijious Albion. Never trust a Britisher. You cant trust the British.
Orwell: Cant trust them with what?
Soldier: Wharrishay is, down with Britain. Down with
the British. You wanna do anything about that? Then you can well do it.
(Sticks his face out like a tomcat on a garden wall.)
Tobacconist: Hell knock your block off if you
dont shut up.
Soldier: Wharrishay is, down with Britain.
(Subsides across the counter again. The tobacconist lifts his head delicately out of the
This kind of thing is not exceptional. Even if you steer clear of
Piccadilly with its seething swarms of drunks and whores, it is difficult to go anywhere
in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory. The general
consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are
the Negroes. On the other hand the Americans have their own justifiable complaints
in particular, they complain of the children who follow them night and day, cadging
Does this sort of thing matter? The answer is that it might
matter at some moment when Anglo-American relations were in the balance, and when the
still-powerful forces in this country which want an understanding with Japan were able to
show their faces again. At such moments popular prejudice can count for a great deal.
Before the war there was no popular anti-American feeling in this country. It all dates
from the arrival of the American troops, and it is made vastly worse by the tacit
agreement never to discuss it in print.
Seemingly it is our fixed policy in this war not to criticize our
allies, nor to answer their criticisms of us. As a result things have happened which are
capable of causing the worst kind of trouble sooner or later. An example is the agreement
by which American troops in this country are not liable to British courts for offences
against British subjects practically extra-territorial rights. Not one
English person in ten knows of the existence of this agreement; the newspapers barely
reported it and refrained from commenting on it. Nor have people been made to realize the
extent of anti-British feeling in the United States. Drawing their picture of America from
films carefully edited for the British market, they have no notion of the kind of thing
that Americans are brought up to believe about us. Suddenly to discover, for instance,
that the average American thinks the U.S.A. had more casualties than Britain in the last
war comes as a shock, and the kind of shock that can cause a violent quarrel. Even such a
fundamental difficulty as the fact that an American soldiers pay is five times that
of a British soldier has never been properly ventilated. No sensible person wants to whip
up Anglo-American jealousy. On the contrary, it is just because one does want a good
relationship between the two countries that one wants plain speaking. Our official
soft-soaping policy does us no good in America, while in this country it allows dangerous
resentments to fester just below the surface.
Since 1935, when pamphleteering revived, I have
been a steady collector of pamphlets, political, religious and what-not. To anyone who
happens to come across it and has a shilling to spare I recommend The 1946 MS by
Robin Maugham, published by the War Facts Press. It is a good example of that small but
growing school of literature, the non-party radical school. It purports to describe the
establishment in Britain of a Fascist
dictatorship, starting in 1944 and headed by a successful general who is (I think) drawn
from a living model. I found it interesting because it gives you the average middle-class
mans conception of what Fascism would be like, and more important, of the reasons
why Fascism might succeed. Its appearance (along with other similar pamphlets I have in my
collection) shows how far that average middle-class man has travelled since 1939, when Socialism still meant dividing the
money up and what happened in Europe was none of our business.
Who wrote this?
As we walked over the Drury Lane gratings of the
cellars a most foul stench came up, and one in particular that I remember to this day. A
man half dressed pushed open a broken window beneath us, just as we passed by, and there
issued such a blast of corruption, made up of gases bred by filth, air breathed and
re-breathed a hundred times, charged with the odours of unnamable personal uncleanliness
and disease, that I staggered to the gutter with a qualm which I could scarcely conquer. .
. I did not know, until I came in actual contact with them, how far away the classes which
lie at the bottom of great cities are from those above them; how completely they are
inaccessible to motives which act upon ordinary human beings, and how deeply they are sunk
beyond ray of sun or stars, immersed in the selfishness naturally begotten of their
incessant struggle for existence and incessant warfare with society. It was an awful
thought to me, ever present on those Sundays, and haunting me at other times; that men,
women and children were living in brutish degradation, and that as they died others would
take their place. Our civilization seemed nothing but a thin film or crust lying over a
bottomless pit and I often wondered whether some day the pit would not break up through it
and destroy us all.
You would know, at any rate, that this comes from
some nineteenth-century writer. Actually it is from a novel, Mark Rutherfords
Rutherford, whose real name was Hale White, wrote this book as a
pseudo-autobiography.) Apart from the prose, you could recognize this as coming from the
nineteenth century because of that description of the unendurable filth of the slums. The
London slums of that day were like that, and all honest writers so described them.
But even more characteristic is that notion of a whole block of the population being so
degraded as to be beyond contact and beyond redemption.
Almost all nineteenth-century English writers are agreed upon
this, even Dickens. A large part
of the town working class, ruined by industrialism, are simply savages. Revolution is not
a thing to be hoped for: it simply means the swamping of civilization by the sub-human. In
this novel (it is one of the best novels in English) Mark Rutherford describes the opening
of a sort of mission or settlement near Drury Lane. Its object was gradually to
attract Drury Lane to come and be saved. Needless to say this was a failure. Drury
Lane not only did not want to be saved in the religious sense, it didnt even want to
be civilized. All that Mark Rutherford and his friend succeeded in doing, all that one
could do, indeed, at that time, was to provide a sort of refuge for the few people of the
neighbourhood who did not belong to their surroundings. The general masses were outside
Mark Rutherford was writing of the seventies, and in a footnote
dated 1884 he remarks that socialism, nationalization of the land and other
projects have now made their appearance, and may perhaps give a gleam of hope.
Nevertheless, he assumes that the condition of the working class will grow worse and not
better as time goes on. It was natural to believe this (even Marx seems to have believed it),
because it was hard at that time to foresee the enormous increase in the productivity of
labour. Actually, such an improvement in the standard of living has taken place as Mark
Rutherford and his contemporaries would have considered quite impossible.
The London slums are still bad enough, but they are nothing to
those of the nineteenth century. Gone are the days when a single room used to be inhabited
by four families, one in each corner, and when incest and infanticide were taken almost
for granted. Above all, gone are the days when it seemed natural to write off a whole
stratum of the population as irredeemable savages. The most snobbish Tory alive would not now write of the
London working class as Mark Rutherford does. And Mark Rutherford like Dickens, who
shared his attitude was a Radical! Progress does happen, hard though it may be to
believe it, in this age of concentration camps and big beautiful bombs.