As I Please

in Tribune

28 April 1944

George Orwell

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, it’ll all be over by Christmas. There’s obviously going to be a compromise peace. I’m pinning my faith to Sir Samuel Hoare. It’s degrading company to be in, I admit, but still Hoare is on our side. So long as Hoare’s in Madrid, there’s always hope of a sell-out.’

Orwell: ‘What about all these preparations that they’re making against invasion—the pill-boxes that they’re building everywhere, the L.D.V.s, and so forth?’

The youth: ‘Oh, that merely means that they’re 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 won’t take long to settle them. Don’t worry, it’ll soon be over.’

Orwell: ‘Do you really want to see your children grow up Nazis?’

The youth: ‘Nonsense! You don’t suppose the Germans are going to encourage Fascism in this country, do you? They don’t want to breed up a race of warriors to fight against them. Their object will be to turn us into slaves. They’ll encourage every pacifist movement they can lay hands on. That’s why I’m a pacifist. They’ll encourage people like me.’

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 course.’

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 countries.

Why is this idea false? I pass over the fact that modern dictatorships don’t, 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 dictators.

.     .     .     .     .

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. Hitler’s ‘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 Swift’s poem, ‘On a Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed’.

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