London Letter to Partisan Review (March-April 1941)

Partisan Review, March-April 1941.  Completed by Orwell on 3 January 1941. From this date until the summer of 1946 George Orwell wrote a regular “London Letter” for Partisan Review.
Partisan Review (March-April, 1941)

Partisan Review (March/April 1941)

London, NW1 England
3 January 1941

Dear Editors,

As I am writing this letter in answer to a privately addressed one of your own, perhaps I had better start by quoting what you said, so as to make clear what questions I am trying to answer:

There are things the news reports do not tell us. For instance, what’s happening under the surface in the way of politics? Among the labour groups? What is the general mood, if there is such a thing, among writers, artists and intellectuals? What transmutations have their lives and their preoccupations suffered?

Well, as to the political situation, I think it is true to say that at the moment we are in the middle of a backwash which is not going to make very much ultimate difference. The reactionaries, which means roughly the people who read The Times, had a bad scare in the summer, but they saved themselves by the skin of their teeth, and they are now consolidating their position against the new crisis which is likely to arise in the spring. In the summer what amounted to a revolutionary situation existed in England, though there was no one to take advantage of it. After twenty years of being fed on sugar and water the nation had suddenly realized what its rulers were like, and there was a widespread readiness for sweeping economic and social changes, combined with absolute determination to prevent invasion. At that moment, I believe, the opportunity existed to isolate the moneyed class and swing the mass of the nation behind a policy in which resistance to Hitler and destruction.of class-privilege were combined. Clement Greenberg’s remark in his article in Horizon, that the working class is the only class in England that seriously means to defeat Hitler, seems to me quite untrue. The bulk of the middle class are just as anti-Hitler as the working class, and their morale is probably more reliable. The fact which Socialists, especially when they are looking at the English scene from the outside, seldom seem to me to grasp, is that the patriotism of the middle classes is a thing to be made use of. The people who stand to attention during “God Save the King” would readily transfer their loyalty to a Socialist régime, if they were handled with the minimum of tact. However, in the summer months no one saw the opportunity, the Labour leaders (with the possible exception of Bevin) allowed themselves to be made the tame cats of the Government, and when the invasion failed to come off and the air raids were less terrible than everyone had expected, the quasi-revolutionary mood ebbed away. At present the Right are counter-attacking. Margesson’s entry into the Cabinet — the nearest equivalent possible to bringing Chamberlain out of his grave — was a swift cash-in on Wavell’s victory in Egypt. The campaign in the Mediterranean is not finished, but events there have justified the Conservatives as against the Left and they can be expected to take advantage of it. It is not impossible that one or two leftish newspapers will be suppressed before long. Suppression of the Daily Worker is said to have been mooted already in the Cabinet. But this swing of the pendulum is not vitally important unless one believes, as I do not — and I doubt whether many people under fifty believe it either — that England can win the war without passing through revolution and go straight back to pre-1939 “normality”, with three million unemployed etc. etc.

But at present there does not effectively exist any policy between being patriotic in the “King and Country” style and being pro-Hitler. If another wave of anti-capitalist feeling arrived it could at the moment only be canalized into defeatism. At the same time there is little sign of this in England, though the morale is probably worse in the industrial towns than elsewhere. In London, after four months of almost ceaseless bombing, morale is far better than a year ago when the war was stagnant.

The only people who are overtly defeatist are Mosley’s followers, the Communists and the pacifists. The Communists still possess a footing in the factories and may some time stage a come-back by fomenting grievances about working hours etc. But they have difficulty in getting their working-class followers to accept a definitely pro-Hitler policy, and they had to pipe down during the desperate days in the summer. With the general public their influence is nil, as one can see by the votes in the by-elections, and the powerful hold they had on the press in the years 1935-9 has been completely broken. Mosley’s Blackshirts have ceased to exist as a legal organization, but they probably deserve to be taken more seriously than the Communists, if only because the tone of their propaganda is more acceptable to soldiers, sailors and airmen. No left-wing organization in England has ever been able to gain a footing in the armed forces. The Fascists have, of course, tried to put the blame for both the war and the discomfort caused by the air raids on to the Jews, and during the worst of the East End bombings they did succeed in raising a mutter of antisemitism, though only a faint one. The most interesting development of the anti-war front has been the interpretation of the pacifist movement by Fascist ideas, especially antisemitism. After Dick Sheppard’s death British pacifism seems to have suffered a moral collapse; it has not produced any significant gesture nor even many martyrs, and only about fifteen per cent of the membership of the Peace Pledge Union now appear to be active. But many of the surviving pacifists now spin a line of talk indistinguishable from that of the Blackshirts (“Stop this Jewish war” etc.), and the actual membership of the P.P.U.1 and the British Union2 overlap to some extent. Put all together, the various pro-Hitler organizations can hardly number 150,000 members, and they are not likely to achieve much by their own efforts, but they might play an important part at a time when a government of the Pétain type was contemplating surrender. There is some reason to think that Hitler does not want Mosley’s organization to grow too strong. Lord Haw-Haw, the most effective of the English-language German broadcasters, has been identified with fair certainty as Joyce, a member of the split-off Fascist party and a very bitter personal enemy of Mosley.

1. Peace Pledge Union.
2. British Union of Fascists led by Sir Oswald Mosley.

You ask also about the intellectual life of England, the various currents of thought in the literary world etc. I think the dominating factors are these:

  • The complete destruction, owing to the Russo-German Pact, of the left-wing “anti-Fascist” orthodoxy of the past five years.
  • The fact that physically fit people under thirty-five are mostly in the army, or expect soon to be so.
  • The increase in book-consumption owing to the boredom of war, together with the unwillingness of publishers to risk money on unknown writers.
  • The bombing (of which more presently — but I should say here that it is less terrifying and more of a nuisance than you perhaps imagine).

The Russo-German Pact not only brought the Stalinists and near-Stalinists into the pro-Hitler position, but it also put an end to the game of “I told you so” which the left-wing writers had been so profitably playing for five years past. “Anti-Fascism” as interpreted by the News Chronicle, the New Statesman and the Left Book Club had depended on the belief — I think it was also half-consciously a hope — that no British government would ever stand up to Hitler. When the Chamberlain Government finally went to war it took the wind out of the left-wingers’ sails by putting into effect the policy which they themselves had been demanding. In the few days before war was declared it was extremely amusing to watch the behaviour of orthodox Popular Fronters, who were exclaiming dolefully “It’s going to be another Munich”, although in fact it had been obvious for months past that war was inevitable. These people were in reality hoping for another Munich, which would allow them to continue with their Cassandra role without having to face the facts of modern war. I was recently in very severe trouble for saying in print that those who were most ‘anti-Fascist’ during the period 1935-9 were most defeatist now. Nevertheless I believe that this is broadly true, and not only of the Stalinists. It is a fact that as soon as war began all the fire went out of orthodox ‘anti-Fascism’. All the stuff about Fascist atrocities, denunciations of Chamberlain, etc., which it had been completely impossible to get away from in any highbrow magazine in peace time, suddenly came to an end, and far more fuss has been made among the left-wing intelligentsia about the internment of German refugees than about anything done by the enemy. During the Spanish Civil War the left-wing intellectuals felt that this was “their” war and that they were influencing events in it to some extent. In so far as they expected the war against Germany to happen they imagined that it would be a sort of enlarged version of the war in Spain, a left-wing war in which poets and novelists could be important figures. Of course, it is nothing of the kind. It is an all-in modern war fought mainly by technical experts (airmen etc.) and conducted by people who are patriotic according to their lights but entirely reactionary in outlook. At present there is no function in it for intellectuals. From the start the Government have more or less frankly gone on the principle of “keeping the Reds out of it”, and it was not till after the disaster in France that they began to allow men known to have fought in Spain to join the army. Consequently the chief activity among left-wing writers is a rather pettifogging criticism which turns into a kind of dismay when England wins a victory, because this always falsifies their predictions. In the summer the left-wing intelligentsia were completely defeatist, far more so than they allowed to appear in print. At the moment when England seemed likely to be invaded one well-known left-wing writer actually wanted to discourage the idea of mass resistance, on the ground that the Germans would behave more leniently if not opposed. There was also a move on foot, with an eye to the coming Nazi occupation, to get the Scotland Yard Special Branch to destroy the political dossiers which, no doubt, most of us possess. All this was in marked contrast to the attitude of the common people, who either had not woken up to the fact that England was in danger, or were determined to resist to the last ditch. But certain left-wing writers and lecturers who had fought in Spain, notably Tom Wintringham, did a lot to stem the tide of defeatism.

Personally I consider it all to the good that the confident war-mongering mood of the Popular Front period, with its lying propaganda and its horrible atmosphere of orthodoxy, has been destroyed. But it has left a sort of hole. Nobody knows what to think, nothing is being started. It is very difficult to imagine any new “school” of literature arising at a moment when the youngish writers have had their universe punctured and the very young are either in the army or kept.out of print by lack of paper. Moreover the economic foundations of literature are shifting, for the highbrow literary magazine, depending ultimately on leisured people who have been brought up in a minority culture, is becoming less and less possible. Horizon is a sort of modern democratized version of this (compare its general tone with that of the Criterion of ten years ago), and even Horizon keeps going only with difficulty. On the other hand the reading public is increasing and the intellectual level of the popular press has taken a tremendous bound upwards since the outbreak of war. But hardly any good books are appearing. Novels are still being published in great numbers, but they are of a trashiness that passes belief. Only the mentally dead are capable of sitting down and writing novels while this nightmare is going on. The conditions that made it possible for Joyce and Lawrence to do their best work during the war of 1914-18 (i.e. the consciousness that presently the world would be sane again) no longer exist. There is such a doubt about the continuity of civilization as can hardly have existed for hundreds of years, and meanwhile there are the air raids, which make continuous intellectual life very difficult. I don’t mean because of physical danger. It is true that by this time everyone in London has had at least one “providential escape” — these so common that it is now considered bad form to talk about them — but the actual casualties are very few and even the damage, though enormous, is mostly localized to the City of London and the East End slums. But the disorganization of transport, communications, etc. causes endless inconvenience. One seems to spend half one’s time trying to buy a sack of coal because the electricity has failed, or trying to put through telephone calls on a wire that has gone dead, or wandering about looking for a bus — and this is a miserably cold, slushy winter. The night life of London has almost ceased, not because of the bombs but because of the shrapnel, which is often plentiful enough to make it dangerous to go out after dusk. The movies close early and theatres have stopped altogether, except for a few matinées. Only the pubs are much as usual, in spite of the now enormous price of beer. On nights when the raids are bad the deafening racket of the guns makes it difficult to work. It is a time in which it is hard to settle down to anything and even the writing of a silly newspaper article takes twice as long as usual.

I wonder whether, even in what I have said, I exaggerate the seriousness of the air raids? It is worth remembering that at the worst period of the blitz it was calculated that only fifteen per cent of London’s population were sleeping in shelters. The number is added to by those whose homes are destroyed by bombs, but also constantly decreased by those who grow gradually callous. When all is said and done one’s main impression is the immense stolidity of ordinary people, the widespread vague consciousness that things can never be the same again, and yet, together with that, the tendency of life to slip back into the familiar pattern. On the day in September when the Germans broke through and set the docks on fire, I think few people can have watched those enormous fires without feeling that this was the end of an epoch. One seemed to feel that the immense changes through which our society has got to pass were going to happen there and then. But to an astonishing extent things have slipped back to normal. I will end with a few extracts from my diary, to try and give you some idea of the atmosphere:

The aeroplanes come back and back, every few minutes. It is just like in an eastern country, when you keep thinking you have killed the last mosquito inside your net, and every time, as soon as you have turned the light out, another starts droning. . . . The commotion made by the mere passage of a bomb through the air is astonishing. The whole house shakes, enough to rattle objects on the table. Why it is that the electric lights dip when a bomb passes close by, nobody seems to know. . . . Oxford Street yesterday, from Oxford Circus up to the Marble Arch, completely empty of traffic, and only a few pedestrians, with the late afternoon sun shining straight down the empty roadway and glittering on innumerable fragments of broken glass. Outside John Lewis’s, a pile of plaster dress models, very pink and realistic, looking so like a pile of corpses that one could have mistaken them for that at a little distance. Just the same sight in Barcelona, only there it was plaster saints from desecrated churches. . . . Regular features of the time: neatly swept-up piles of glass, litter of stone and splinters of flint, smell of escaping gas, knots of sightseers waiting at the cordons where there are unexploded bombs. . . . Nondescript people wandering about, having been evacuated from their houses because of delayed-action bombs. Yesterday two girls stopping me in the street, very elegant in appearance except that their faces were filthily dirty: “Please, sir, can you tell us where we are?”. . . . Withal, huge areas of London almost normal, and everyone quite happy in the daytime, never seeming to think about the coming night, like animals which are unable to foresee the future so long as they have a bit of food and a place in the sun.

Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender send all the best. Good luck to America.

Yours sincerely,
George Orwell

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Source: CEJL2-16

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