The great critic and editor Cyril Connolly fell into despair over the prolixity of Orwell’s wartime writing: “Being Orwell, nothing he wrote is quite without value and unexpected gems keep popping up. But O the boredom of argument without action, politics without power.”
Connolly was the constitutional opposite of Orwell – a spry wit given to sloth, a portly bon vivant who masticated away his genius. But he recognised, in effect, how awful Orwell would have been as a blogger, and how he would fall into the kind of dross exemplified by the author’s “In Defence of English Cooking”: “Here are some of the things that I myself have sought for in foreign countries and failed to find. First of all, kippers, Yorkshire pudding, Devonshire cream, muffins and crumpets. Then a list of puddings that would be interminable if I gave it in full: I will pick out for special mention Christmas pudding, treacle tart and apple dumplings. Then an almost equally long list of cakes: for instance, dark plum cake.”
The point is, any writer of talent needs the time and peace to produce work that has a chance of enduring. Connolly provided that to Orwell with the influential literary magazine he co-edited, Horizon, a publication that gave Orwell the chance to write some of his most memorable essays.
But the fact is that Orwell, for almost all of his life, had to write lots to survive. In his “Confessions of a book reviewer“, he wrote:
In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups o tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing-grown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room fo his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it. He cannot throw the papers away because the wastepaper basket is already overflowing, and besides somewhere among the unanswered letters and unpaid bills it is possible that there is cheque for two guineas which he is nearly certain he forgot to pay into the bank. …He is a man of thirty-five, but looks fifty. He is bald, has varicose veins and wears spectacles, or would wear them if his only pair were not chronically lost. If things are normal with him he will be suffering from malnutrition, but if he has recently had a lucky streak he will be suffering from a hangover. At present it is half past eleven in the morning, and according to his schedule he should have started work two hours ago; but even if he had made any serious effort to start he would have been frustrated by the almost continuous ringing of the telephone bell, the yells of the baby, the rattle of an electric drill out in the street, and the heavy boots of his creditors clumping up and down the stairs. The most recent interruption was the arrival of the second post, which brought him two circulars and an income-tax demand printed in red.
Of course he wrote too much; he had to, to survive. Animal Farm and 1984 were not financially successful until just about the time he died. Christopher Hitchens was surely right when he said that Orwell died of poverty.
In any case, what’s wrong with writing a ‘defense of English cooking’? Surely a man who starved ‘down and out in Paris and London,’ and nearly died fighting in the Spanish Civil War can write about the pleasures of simple things, and the pain of missing them. Besides that, Orwell was generally on a campaign to stop the left from taking life over-seriously. He thought people should fight the good fight, but should also enjoy the pleasures–nature, food, literature–that surround them. Give me spare prose in praise of simple things instead of the spry wit of masticating sloths any day.