As I Please

in Tribune

3 December 1943

George Orwell

SCENE in a tobacconist’s shop. Two American soldiers sprawling across the counter, one of them just sober enough to make unwanted love to the two young women who run the shop, the other at the stage known as ‘fighting drunk’. Enter Orwell in search of matches. The pugnacious one makes an effort and stands upright.

Soldier: ‘Wharrishay is, perfijious Albion. You heard that? Perfijious Albion. Never trust a Britisher. You can’t trust the British.’

Orwell: ‘Can’t trust them with what?’

Soldier: ‘Wharrishay is, down with Britain. Down with the British. You wanna do anything about that? Then you can—well do it.’ (Sticks his face out like a tomcat on a garden wall.)

Tobacconist: ‘He’ll knock your block off if you don’t shut up.’

Soldier: ‘Wharrishay is, down with Britain.’ (Subsides across the counter again. The tobacconist lifts his head delicately out of the scales.)

This kind of thing is not exceptional. Even if you steer clear of Piccadilly with its seething swarms of drunks and whores, it is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes. On the other hand the Americans have their own justifiable complaints—in particular, they complain of the children who follow them night and day, cadging sweets.

Does this sort of thing matter? The answer is that it might matter at some moment when Anglo-American relations were in the balance, and when the still-powerful forces in this country which want an understanding with Japan were able to show their faces again. At such moments popular prejudice can count for a great deal. Before the war there was no popular anti-American feeling in this country. It all dates from the arrival of the American troops, and it is made vastly worse by the tacit agreement never to discuss it in print.

Seemingly it is our fixed policy in this war not to criticize our allies, nor to answer their criticisms of us. As a result things have happened which are capable of causing the worst kind of trouble sooner or later. An example is the agreement by which American troops in this country are not liable to British courts for offences against British subjects—practically ‘extra-territorial rights’. Not one English person in ten knows of the existence of this agreement; the newspapers barely reported it and refrained from commenting on it. Nor have people been made to realize the extent of anti-British feeling in the United States. Drawing their picture of America from films carefully edited for the British market, they have no notion of the kind of thing that Americans are brought up to believe about us. Suddenly to discover, for instance, that the average American thinks the U.S.A. had more casualties than Britain in the last war comes as a shock, and the kind of shock that can cause a violent quarrel. Even such a fundamental difficulty as the fact that an American soldier’s pay is five times that of a British soldier has never been properly ventilated. No sensible person wants to whip up Anglo-American jealousy. On the contrary, it is just because one does want a good relationship between the two countries that one wants plain speaking. Our official soft-soaping policy does us no good in America, while in this country it allows dangerous resentments to fester just below the surface.

.     .     .     .     .

SINCE 1935, when pamphleteering revived, I have been a steady collector of pamphlets, political, religious and what-not. To anyone who happens to come across it and has a shilling to spare I recommend The 1946 MS by Robin Maugham, published by the War Facts Press. It is a good example of that small but growing school of literature, the non-party radical school. It purports to describe the establishment in Britain of a Fascist dictatorship, starting in 1944 and headed by a successful general who is (I think) drawn from a living model. I found it interesting because it gives you the average middle-class man’s conception of what Fascism would be like, and more important, of the reasons why Fascism might succeed. Its appearance (along with other similar pamphlets I have in my collection) shows how far that average middle-class man has travelled since 1939, when Socialism still meant dividing the money up and what happened in Europe was none of our business.

.     .     .     .     .

WHO wrote this?

    As we walked over the Drury Lane gratings of the cellars a most foul stench came up, and one in particular that I remember to this day. A man half dressed pushed open a broken window beneath us, just as we passed by, and there issued such a blast of corruption, made up of gases bred by filth, air breathed and re-breathed a hundred times, charged with the odours of unnamable personal uncleanliness and disease, that I staggered to the gutter with a qualm which I could scarcely conquer. . . I did not know, until I came in actual contact with them, how far away the classes which lie at the bottom of great cities are from those above them; how completely they are inaccessible to motives which act upon ordinary human beings, and how deeply they are sunk beyond ray of sun or stars, immersed in the selfishness naturally begotten of their incessant struggle for existence and incessant warfare with society. It was an awful thought to me, ever present on those Sundays, and haunting me at other times; that men, women and children were living in brutish degradation, and that as they died others would take their place. Our civilization seemed nothing but a thin film or crust lying over a bottomless pit and I often wondered whether some day the pit would not break up through it and destroy us all.

You would know, at any rate, that this comes from some nineteenth-century writer. Actually it is from a novel, Mark Rutherford’s Deliverance. (Mark Rutherford, whose real name was Hale White, wrote this book as a pseudo-autobiography.) Apart from the prose, you could recognize this as coming from the nineteenth century because of that description of the unendurable filth of the slums. The London slums of that day were like that, and all honest writers so described them. But even more characteristic is that notion of a whole block of the population being so degraded as to be beyond contact and beyond redemption.

Almost all nineteenth-century English writers are agreed upon this, even Dickens. A large part of the town working class, ruined by industrialism, are simply savages. Revolution is not a thing to be hoped for: it simply means the swamping of civilization by the sub-human. In this novel (it is one of the best novels in English) Mark Rutherford describes the opening of a sort of mission or settlement near Drury Lane. Its object was ‘gradually to attract Drury Lane to come and be saved’. Needless to say this was a failure. Drury Lane not only did not want to be saved in the religious sense, it didn’t even want to be civilized. All that Mark Rutherford and his friend succeeded in doing, all that one could do, indeed, at that time, was to provide a sort of refuge for the few people of the neighbourhood who did not belong to their surroundings. The general masses were outside the pale.

Mark Rutherford was writing of the seventies, and in a footnote dated 1884 he remarks that ‘socialism, nationalization of the land and other projects’ have now made their appearance, and may perhaps give a gleam of hope. Nevertheless, he assumes that the condition of the working class will grow worse and not better as time goes on. It was natural to believe this (even Marx seems to have believed it), because it was hard at that time to foresee the enormous increase in the productivity of labour. Actually, such an improvement in the standard of living has taken place as Mark Rutherford and his contemporaries would have considered quite impossible.

The London slums are still bad enough, but they are nothing to those of the nineteenth century. Gone are the days when a single room used to be inhabited by four families, one in each corner, and when incest and infanticide were taken almost for granted. Above all, gone are the days when it seemed natural to write off a whole stratum of the population as irredeemable savages. The most snobbish Tory alive would not now write of the London working class as Mark Rutherford does. And Mark Rutherford—like Dickens, who shared his attitude—was a Radical! Progress does happen, hard though it may be to believe it, in this age of concentration camps and big beautiful bombs.

As I Please - Index

Back    |    Words Home    |    Orwell Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback