George Orwell
As I Please

Tribune, 28 January 1944

I see that Mr Suresh Vaidya, an Indian journalist living in England, has been arrested for refusing military service. This is not the first case of its kind, and if it is the last it will probably be because no more Indians of military age are left to be victimized.
     Everyone knows without being told them the juridical aspects of Mr Vaidya’s case, and I have no wish to dwell on them. But I would like to draw attention to the common-sense aspect, which the British Government so steadily refuses to consider. Putting aside the seamen who come and go, and the handful of troops who are still here, there might perhaps be two thousand Indians in this country, of all kinds and ages. By applying conscription to them you may raise a few score extra soldiers; and by coercing the minority who ‘object’ you may swell the British prison population by about a dozen. That is the net result from the military point of view.
     But unfortunately that isn’t all. By behaviour of this kind you antagonize the entire Indian community in Britain – for no Indian, whatever his views, admits that Britain had the right to declare war on India’s behalf or has the right to impose compulsory service on Indians. Anything that happens in the Indian community here has prompt repercussions in India, and appreciable effects further afield. One Indian war resister victimized does us more harm than ten thousand British ones. It seems a high price to pay for the satisfaction the Blimps probably feel at having another ‘red’ in their clutches. I don’t expect the Blimps to see Mr Vaidya’s point of view. But they really might see, after all their experience, that making martyrs does not pay.

A correspondent has sent us a letter in defence of Ezra Pound, the American poet who transferred his allegiance to Mussolini some years before the war and has been a lively propagandist on the Rome radio. The substance of his claim is (a) that Pound did not sell himself simply for money, and (b) that when you get hold of a true poet you can afford to ignore his political opinions.
     Now, of course, Pound did not sell himself solely for money. No writer ever does that. Anyone who wanted money before all else would choose some more paying profession. But I think it probable that Pound did sell himself partly for prestige, flattery and a professorship. He had a most venomous hatred for both Britain and the U.S.A., where he felt that his talents had not been fully appreciated, and obviously believed that there was a conspiracy against him throughout the English-speaking countries. Then there were several ignominious episodes in which Pound’s phony erudition was shown up, and which he no doubt found it hard to forgive. By the mid-thirties Pound was singing the praises of ‘the Boss’ (Mussolini) in a number of English papers, including Mosley’s quarterly, British Union (to which Vidkun Quisling was also a contributor). At the time of the Abyssinian war Pound was vociferously anti-Abyssinian. In 1938 or thereabouts the Italians gave him a chair at one of their universities, and some time after war broke out he took Italian citizenship. Whether a poet, as such, is to be forgiven his political opinions is a different question. Obviously one mustn’t say ‘X agrees with me: therefore he is a good writer’, and for the last ten years honest literary criticism has largely consisted in combating this outlook. Personally I admire several writers (CÚline, for instance) who have gone over to the Fascists, and many others whose political outlook I strongly object to. But one has the right to expect ordinary decency of a poet. I never listened to Pound’s broadcasts, but I often read them in the B.B.C. Monitoring Reports, and they were intellectually and morally disgusting. Antisemitism, for instance, is simply not the doctrine of a grown-up person. People who go in for that kind of thing must take the consequences. But I do agree with our correspondent in hoping that the American authorities do not catch Pound and shoot him, as they have threatened to do. It would establish his reputation so thoroughly that it might be a good hundred years before anyone could determine dispassionately whether Pound’s much-debated poems are any good or not.

The other night a barmaid informed me that if you pour beer into a damp glass it goes flat much more quickly. She added that to dip your moustache into your beer also turns it flat. I immediately accepted this without further inquiry; in fact, as soon as I got home I clipped my moustache, which I had forgotten to do for some days.
     Only later did it strike me that this was probably one of those superstitions which are able to keep alive because they have the air of being scientific truths. In my note-book I have a long list of fallacies which were taught to me in my childhood, in each case not as an old wives’ tale but as a scientific fact. I can’t give the whole list, but there are a few hardy favourites:
     That a swan can break your leg with a blow of its wing.
     That if you cut yourself between the thumb and forefinger you get lockjaw.
     That powdered glass is poisonous.
     That if you wash your hands in the water eggs have been boiled in (why anyone should do this is a mystery) you will get warts.
     That bulls become infuriated at the sight of red.
     That sulphur in a dog’s drinking water acts as a tonic.
     And so on and so forth. Almost everyone carries some or other of these beliefs into adult life. I have met someone of over thirty who still retained the second of the beliefs I have listed above. As for the third, it is so widespread that in India, for instance, people are constantly trying to poison one another with powdered glass, with disappointing results.

I wish now that I had read Basic English versus the Artificial Languages before and not after reviewing the interesting little book in which Professor Lancelot Hogben sets forth his own artificial language, Interglossa. For in that case I should have realized how comparatively chivalrous Professor Hogben had been towards the inventors of rival international languages. Controversies on serious subjects are often far from polite. Followers of the Stalinist-Trotskyist controversy will have observed that an unfriendly note tends to creep into it, and when the Tablet and the Church Times are having a go at one another the blows are not always above the belt. But for sheer dirtiness of fighting the feud between the inventors of various of the international languages would take a lot of beating.
     Tribune may before long print one or more articles on Basic English. If any language is ever adopted as a world-wide ‘second’ language it is immensely unlikely that it will be a manufactured one, and of the existing natural ones English has much the best chance, though not necessarily in the Basic form. Public opinion is beginning to wake up to the need for an international language, though fantastic misconceptions still exist. For example, many people imagine that the advocates of an international language aim at suppressing the natural languages, a thing no one has ever seriously suggested.
     At present, in spite of the growing recognition of this need, the world is growing more and not less nationalistic in language. This is partly from conscious policy (about half a dozen of the existing languages are being pushed in an imperialistic way in various parts of the world), and partly owing to the dislocation caused by the war. And the difficulties of trade, travel and inter-communication between scientists, and the time-wasting labour of learning foreign languages, still continue. In my life I have learned seven foreign languages, including two dead ones, and out of those seven I retain only one, and that not brilliantly. This would be quite a normal case. A member of a small nationality, a Dane or a Dutchman, say, has to learn three foreign languages as a matter of course, if he wants to be educated at all. Clearly this position could be bettered, and the great difficulty is to decide which language is to be adopted as the international one. But there is going to be some ugly scrapping before that is settled, as anyone who has ever glanced into this subject knows.


Copyright The Estate of Eric Blair
Reproduced here under educational Fair Use law