As I Please

in Tribune

15 September 1944

George Orwell

ABOUT the end of 1936, as I was passing through Paris on the way to Spain, I had to visit somebody at an address I did not know, and I thought that the quickest way of getting there would probably be to take a taxi. The taxi-driver did not know the address either. However, we drove up the street and asked the nearest policeman, whereupon it turned out that the address I was looking for was only about a hundred yards away. So I had taken the taxi-driver off the rank for a fare which in English money was about threepence.

The taxi-driver was furiously angry. He began accusing me, in a roaring voice and with the maximum of offensiveness, of having ‘done it on purpose’. I protested that I had not known where the place was, and that I obviously would not have taken a taxi if I had known. ‘You knew very well!’ he yelled back at me. He was an old, grey, thick-set man, with ragged grey moustaches and a face of quite unusual malignity. In the end I lost my temper, and, my command of French coming back to me in my rage, I shouted at him, ‘You think you’re too old for me to smash your face in. Don’t be too sure!’ He backed up against the taxi, snarling and full of fight, in spite of his sixty years.

Then the moment came to pay. I had taken out a ten-franc note. ‘I’ve no change,’ he yelled as soon as he saw the money. ‘Go and change it for yourself!’

‘Where can I get change.’

‘How should I know? That’s your business.’

So I had to cross the street, find a tobacconist’s shop and get change. When I came back I gave the taxi-driver the exact fare, telling him that after his behaviour I saw no reason for giving him anything extra; and after exchanging a few more insults we parted.

This sordid squabble left me at the moment violently angry, and a little later saddened and disgusted. ‘Why do people have to behave like that?’ I thought. But that night I left for Spain. The train, a slow one, was packed with Czechs, Germans, Frenchmen, all bound on the same mission. Up and down the train you could hear one phrase repeated over and over again, in the accents of all the languages of Europe—là-bas (down there). My third-class carriage was full of very young. fair-haired, underfed Germans in suits of incredible shoddiness—the first ersatz cloth I had seen—who rushed out at every stopping-place to buy bottles of cheap wine and later fell asleep in a sort of pyramid on the floor of the carriage. About half-way down France the ordinary passengers dropped off. There might still be a few nondescript journalists like myself, but the train was practically a troop train, and the countryside knew it. In the morning, as we crawled across southern France, every peasant working in the fields turned round, stood solemnly upright and gave the anti-Fascist salute. They were like a guard of honour, greeting the train mile after mile.

As I watched this, the behaviour of the old taxi-driver gradually fell into perspective. I saw now what had made him so unnecessarily offensive. This was 1936, the year of the great strikes, and the Blum Government was still in office. The wave of revolutionary feeling which had swept across France had affected people like taxi-drivers as well as factory workers. With my English accent I had appeared to him as a symbol of the idle, patronizing foreign tourists who had done their best to turn France into something midway between a museum and a brothel. In his eyes an English tourist meant a bourgeois. He was getting a bit of his own back on the parasites who were normally his employers. And it struck me that the motives of the polyglot army that filled the train, and of the peasants with raised fists out there in the fields, and my own motive in going to Spain, and the motive of the old taxi-driver in insulting me, were at bottom all the same.

.     .     .     .     .

THE official statement on the doodlebug, even taken together with Churchill’s earlier statement, is not very revealing, because no clear figures have been given of the number of people affected. All we are told is that on average something under thirty bombs have hit London daily. My own estimate, based simply on such ‘incidents’ as I have witnessed, is that on average every doodlebug hitting London makes thirty houses uninhabitable, and that anything up to five thousand people have been rendered homeless daily. At that rate between a quarter and half a million people will have been blitzed out of their homes in the last three months.

It is said that good billiard-players chalk their cues before making a stroke, and bad players afterwards. In the same way, we should have got on splendidly in this war if we had prepared for each type of blitz before and not after it happened. Shortly before the outbreak of war an official, returning from some conference with other officials in London, told me that the authorities were prepared for air-raid casualties of the order of 200,000 in the first week. Enormous supplies of collapsible cardboard coffins had been laid in, and mass graves were being dug. There were also special preparations for a great increase in mental disorders. As it turned out the casualties were comparatively few, while mental disorders, I believe, actually declined. On the other hand, the authorities had failed to foresee that blitzed people would be homeless and would need food, clothes, shelter, and money. They had also, while foreseeing the incendiary bomb, failed to realize that you would need an alternative water supply if the mains were burst by bombs.

By 1942 we were all set for the blitz of 1940. Shelter facilities had been increased, and London was dotted with water tanks which would have saved its historic buildings if only they had been in existence when the fires were happening. And then along came the doodlebug, which, instead of blowing three or four houses out of existence, makes a large number uninhabitable, while leaving their interiors more or less intact. Hence another unforeseen headache—storage of furniture. The furniture from a doodlebugged house is nearly always salvaged, but finding places to put it in, and labour to move it, has been almost too much for the local authorities. In general it has to be dumped in derelict and unguarded houses, where such of it as is not looted is ruined by damp.

The most significant figures in Duncan Sandys’s speech were those dealing with the Allied counter-measures. He stated, for instance, that whereas the Germans shot off 8,000 doodlebugs, or something under 8,000 tons of high explosive, we dropped 100,000 tons of bombs on the bases, besides losing 450 aeroplanes and shooting off hundreds of thousands or millions of A.A. shells. One can only make rough calculations at this date, but it looks as though the doodlebug may have a big future before it in forthcoming wars. Before writing it off as a flop, it is worth remembering that artillery scored only a partial success at the battle of Crécy.

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