Paper is Precious

This script, which survives on microfilm, is filed as anonymous in the BBC Archives. It is adjacent to Money and Guns of 20 January 1942, and its style of presentation is the same. Programmes as Broadcast (PasB) records that the transmission took 8 3/4 minutes and was “by B. Sahni.” It is uncertain whether this means it was simply read by Sahni or read and written by him. Although the evidence is slight, the correction of a spelling with a handwritten “z” and the written “for” in the first sentence (the only alterations) look like Orwell’s hand. The style, content, and attitude all suggest the Orwell of Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air. The broadcast was scheduled to last twelve minutes; a filler was provided by a recording of an “Indian Song” sung by Pankaj Mulloch.

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Broadcast on the BBC’s Through Eastern Eyes programme on 8 January 1942:
Squander Bug poster (UK-WW2)

Don't Take the Squander Bug When You Go Shopping poster

Before the war, the wood pulp for Great Britain’s paper supply came mostly from Sweden, Finland and Soviet Russia. When the Germans invaded Norway the Scandinavian supply was cut off, and though timber could be brought from Russia—indeed, it still is being brought at this moment, for the ships that carry war materials for the Russian front mostly come back laden with wood—the voyage was slow and dangerous. Canada, the other great source of timber, is far away and shipping is precious. So for some months past we have been faced with a shortage of paper—not desperate, but acute enough to make itself felt at almost every moment of the day. Paper is more important than you realise until you are short of it. I want to tell you something about the results of this shortage—and it is a curious fact that though most of them are bad, some of them are good.

Not the biggest, but perhaps the most striking result brought about by the paper shortage is the dwindling of advertisements. England is a country in which, before the war, every available wall was defaced with enormous posters—posters usually advertising food and patent medicines—in brilliant and generally hideous colours. I don’t believe that anyone, except perhaps the advertisers themselves, was sorry to see them disappearing, and the bare walls look much nicer without them. As I walked through a Tube station the other night, I noticed that though a few of the big posters urging you to buy beer or chocolate were still there, all of them were old ones, probably dating from before the war. The only new advertisements—and they were very small and modest in comparison—were for theatres, or were government advertisements calling for recruits in the women’s services, or were the notices of the London County Council, advertising evening classes. The sight encouraged me, even though it does not particularly please me to think that less beer and less chocolate are being consumed nowadays. It seemed to me a sign that we are passing into a new economic period—a period in which private enterprise will count for less and trade will mean more than an endless struggle to induce people to buy things they do not really want.

But the biggest effect of the paper shortage—and here the results are partly bad, partly good—can be seen in the newspapers and the press generally.

English newspapers are now so small, comparatively speaking, that it is becoming difficult to believe that they were ever really the size they used to be. A few weeks back I happened to turn out from the bottom of a drawer a “Times” of before the war. It seemed so enormous that I found myself wondering not only how anyone could have read through such a bulk of print every day, but even how anyone could hold up a document of such weight in order to read it. Would you credit that nowadays the ordinary English newspaper consists only of four pages—that is, two sheets, of which a certain amount is taken up in photographs? And what is more, we have got so used to newspapers of this size that already we can hardly imagine their being any larger.

Now this result of the paper shortage seems to me on the whole a good one, and I will tell you why. English papers of before the war were terribly commercialised, and their huge bulk was filled up not only with advertise­ments for useless luxuries, but with imbecilities of every kind—silly news items about burglaries and the private lives of film stars, gossip about lipstick and silk stockings, enormous articles on sport, pages and pages of horse-racing results, even columns of astrology and fortune-telling—any and every kind of cheap sensation calculated to push the real news out of the reader’s attention. That was not the case with quite all the English newspapers, but it was the case with most of them. Well, all that kind of thing has gone by the board. The newspapers have very little space to fill up, and Britain is at war, so that there are long official communiques to be printed every day. Naturally, it is the rubbish that gets crowded out first. The papers these days may be a little dull, but at least they are serious. They give the headlines to real news and not to trivialities. Gone also are the newsposters that used to appear in the streets, advertising successive editions of the evening papers. Nowadays the men who sell the papers have little blackboards on which they write their own selection of the news, and these are much more informative and responsible than the printed posters used to be.

But if you turn from the daily papers to what one may call high-brow literature, the effects of the paper shortage have been mostly bad. Supplies of paper to publishers are strictly limited, and no publisher can produce anywhere near the number of books that he was producing before the war. It is very difficult for an unknown writer to get his work published now, for no one wants to risk precious paper on a book that may not sell. Very few books are now appearing by writers who were not previously known to the public, and this would still be the case even if most of the younger men were not already in the army. It is also a very bad time for literary reviews and magazines. Except for one or two sheets so tiny that they ought really to be described as pamphlets, no new periodicals have appeared during the past year. Most of the highbrow magazines, “Scrutiny”, “Horizon”, the “New Statesman”, “Poetry”, “Seven” and “Indian Writing”, for example, are still in existence, but most of them are greatly reduced in size. Books, also, besides being fewer, tend to be much shorter. The length of books is more affected by merely mechanical considerations than we sometimes realise, and the vogue of very long novels in the ten years preceding the war was probably bound up with the fact that paper is cheap. It is quite likely that the paper famine will bring in a vogue for the very short novel, the so-called long-short story, a form which has always been popular in France, but has seldom prospered in England.

Make Do and Mend poster (UK-WW2)

Make Do and Mend poster issued by Board of Trade

When you go to a shop nowadays it is difficult to get your goods wrapped up. Shopkeepers are not so generous with paper bags as they used to be. Even cigarettes are often sold loose instead of being done up in a packet. During the Christmas shopping one saw some strange sights, as elderly gentlemen hurried home clutching in their arms unwrapped dolls, teddy bears and toy guns which they had bought for their children. It is said that the nation’s biggest wastage is still in wrapping paper, and it is here that there is most room for economy. In addition there is a nation-wide drive to collect wastepaper and send it back to the mills, where it can be repulped and turned into fresh paper again. It comes out rather grey in colour—this is due to the difficulty of getting the printing ink out of it—but still quite usable, and this process can be repeated almost indefinitely. Now and again in a second hand bookshop you will come on an old book printed on very grey paper, and you can tell at a glance that it dates from the final years of the last war, when the paper shortage was as acute as it is now. It is a strange sight to go round one of the great mills where paper is repulped, and to see, apart from the huge bundles of newspaper and wrapping paper, piles of private letters, torn crackers, official documents, posters, bus tickets and streamers from Christmas trees all waiting to go into the vats together.

The shortage of paper is not one of the major privations of the war, and in any case our own shortage is nothing to what the Germans have suffered from the very beginning. But like all the shifts to which one is put in wartime, it is having its effect upon our national life, and like the disappearance of bananas and the shortage of phosforus for matches, it brings home to one that the world nowadays is a single economic unit and that no part of the world can be separated from any other without suffering hardship in consequence.

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Note: As evidence of the need to save paper, the last three lines of the typescript for this broadcast were single-spaced, to avoid the need for a fresh sheet of paper.

Source: CW13-917

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