The title of this book is especially apposite. George Orwell’s luminous gift was for seeing things, for noticing what others missed, took for granted or simply found uninteresting, for discovering meaning and wonder in the familiarity of the everyday. In Culture and Anarchy (1869) Matthew Arnold defined culture as “the best which has been thought and said”. But for Orwell, though he was prodigiously well read and deeply learned, culture meant something quite different — “the life most people lead”, as John Carey has put it. Orwell never distinguished between high and low culture: all things were not of equal value to him but they were of equal interest. Nothing escaped or seemed beneath his notice, which was what made him such a good reporter.
There is a scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in which Winston Smith watches a propaganda news film depicting images of war. Amid the slaughter and brutality Winston notices something: a woman attempting to protect a child from the artillery fire that will kill them both. She puts her arm around the boy “before the helicopter blew them both to pieces”. The gesture is futile. What can she really do for the boy? Yet, for Winston, the “enveloping, protective” gesture of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something fundamental, an act of human dignity and selflessness, and an expression of unconditional love in an unforgiving world.
Repeatedly in Orwell’s fiction and essays, one encounters moments of clarity such as this, when the reader is startled by something small but significant that Orwell has seen. One thinks in particular of the essay “A Hanging”, set during his years as an imperial policeman in Burma, in which the writer looks on as a condemned man steps to avoid a puddle as he is being led to the gallows. Why should he care about getting his feet wet when he is about to die? But, Orwell writes: “When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we are alive.”
One thinks too of the essay “Shooting an Elephant”, in which Orwell recalls the day he shot a rogue elephant and left it to die in agony, not because he wanted to or felt the act was just but because he feared the derision of the villagers who were watching if he did not.
Seeing Things As They Are, selected and edited by the veteran Orwell scholar Peter Davison, features none of the most celebrated essays. It is intended to be a collection first and foremost of his journalism, with preference given to lesser-known pieces and reviews as well as some of the poems he wrote. It is full of interest and curiosities, such as the inclusion of “Awake! Young Men of England”, a jingoistic poem about the start of the first world war published in 1914 when Orwell was 11, in the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard.
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