As I Please
Tribune, 28 April 1944
On the night in 1940 when
the big ack-ack barrage was fired over London for the first time, I was in Piccadilly
Circus when the guns opened up, and I fled into the Café Royal to take cover. Among the
crowd inside a good-looking, well-made youth of about twenty-five was making somewhat of a
nuisance of himself with a copy of Peace News, which he was forcing upon the
attention of everyone at the neighbouring tables. I got into conversation with him, and
the conversation went something like this:
The youth: I tell you, itll all be over by
Christmas. Theres obviously going to be a compromise peace. Im pinning my
faith to Sir Samuel Hoare.
Its degrading company to be in, I admit, but still Hoare is on our side. So long as
Hoares in Madrid, theres always hope of a sell-out.
Orwell: What about all these preparations that
theyre making against invasion the pill-boxes that theyre building
everywhere, the L.D.V.s, and so forth?
The youth: Oh, that merely means that theyre getting
ready to crush the working class when the Germans get here. I suppose some of them might
be fools enough to try to resist, but Churchill and the Germans between
them wont take long to settle them. Dont worry, itll soon be over.
Orwell: Do you really want to see your children grow up Nazis?
The youth: Nonsense! You dont suppose the Germans
are going to encourage Fascism in
this country, do you? They dont want to breed up a race of warriors to fight against
them. Their object will be to turn us into slaves. Theyll encourage every pacifist movement they can lay
hands on. Thats why Im a pacifist. Theyll encourage people like
Orwell: And shoot people like me?
The youth: That would be just too bad.
Orwell: But why are you so anxious to remain alive?
The youth: So that I can get on with my work, of
It had come out in the conversation that the youth was a painter
whether good or bad I do not know, but, at any rate, sincerely interested in painting and
quite ready to face poverty in pursuit of it. As a painter, he would probably have been
somewhat better off under a German occupation than a writer or journalist would be. But
still, what he said contained a very dangerous fallacy, now very widespread in the
countries where totalitarianism
has not actually established itself.
The fallacy is to believe that under a dictatorial government you can
be free inside. Quite a number of people console themselves with this thought, now
that totalitarianism in one form or another is visibly on the up-grade in every part of
the world. Out in the street the loudspeakers bellow, the flags flutter from the rooftops,
the police with their tommy-guns prowl to and fro, the face of the Leader, four feet wide,
glares from every hoarding; but up in the attics the secret enemies of the régime can
record their thoughts in perfect freedom that is the idea, more or less. And many
people are under the impression that this is going on now in Germany and other dictatorial
Why is this idea false? I pass over the fact that modern dictatorships
dont, in fact, leave the loopholes that the old-fashioned despotisms did; and also
the probable weakening of the desire for intellectual liberty owing to totalitarian
methods of education. The greatest mistake is to imagine that the human being is an
autonomous individual. The secret freedom which you can supposedly enjoy under a despotic
government is nonsense, because your thoughts are never entirely your own. Philosophers,
writers, artists, even scientists, not only need encouragement and an audience, they need
constant stimulation from other people. It is almost impossible to think without talking.
If Defoe had really lived on a
desert island he could not have written Robinson Crusoe, nor would he have wanted
to. Take away freedom of speech, and the creative faculties dry up. Had the Germans really
got to England my acquaintance of the Café Royal would soon have found his painting
deteriorating, even if the Gestapo
had let him alone. And when the lid is taken off Europe, I believe one of the things that
will surprise us will be to find how little worth-while writing of any kind even
such things as diaries, for instance has been produced in secret under the
Mr Basil Henriques, chairman of the East London Juvenile Court, has just
been letting himself go on the subject of the Modern Girl. English boys, he says, are
just grand, but it is a different story with girls:
One seldom comes across a really bad boy. The war seems to have affected
girls more than boys . . . . Children now went to the pictures several times a week and
saw what they imagined was the high life of America, when actually it was a great libel on
that country. They also suffer from the effects of listening through the microphone to
wild raucous jitterbugging noises called music . . . . Girls of 14 now dress and talk like
those of 18 and 19, and put the same filth and muck on their faces.
I wonder whether Mr Henriques knows (a) that well before the other war
it was already usual to attribute juvenile crime to the evil example of the cinematograph,
and (b) that the Modern Girl has been just the same for quite two thousand years?
One of the big failures in human history has been the agelong attempt
to stop women painting their faces. The philosophers of the Roman Empire denounced the
frivolity of the modern woman in almost the same terms as she is denounced today. In the
fifteenth century the Church denounced the damnable habit of plucking the eyebrows. The
English Puritans, the Bolsheviks and the Nazis all
attempted to discourage cosmetics, without success. In Victorian England rouge was
considered so disgraceful that it was usually sold under some other name, but it continued
to be used.
Many styles of dress, from the Elizabethan ruff to the Edwardian hobble
skirt, have been denounced from the pulpit, without effect. In the nineteen-twenties, when
skirts were at their shortest, the Pope decreed that women improperly dressed were not to
be admitted to Catholic churches; but somehow feminine fashions remained unaffected. Hitlers ideal
woman, an exceedingly plain specimen in a mackintosh, was exhibited all over Germany
and much of the rest of the world, but inspired few imitators. I prophesy that English
girls will continue to put filth and muck on their faces in spite of Mr
Henriques. Even in jail, it is said, the female prisoners redden their lips with the dye
from the Post Office mail bags.
Just why women use cosmetics is a different question, but it seems
doubtful whether sex attraction is the main object. It is very unusual to meet a man who
does not think painting your fingernails scarlet is a disgusting habit, but hundreds of
thousands of women go on doing it all the same. Meanwhile it might console Mr Henriques to
know that though make-up persists, it is far less elaborate than it used to be in the days
when Victorian beauties had their faces enamelled, or when it was usual to
alter the contour of your cheeks by means of plumpers, as described in Swifts poem, On a
Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed.