As I Please

in Tribune

25 February 1944

George Orwell

A SHORT story in the Home Companion and Family Journal, entitled ‘Hullo, Sweetheart’, recounts the adventures of a young girl named Lucy Fallows who worked on the switchboard of a long-distance telephone exchange. She had ‘sacrificed her yearning to be in uniform’ in order to take this job, but found it dull and uneventful. ‘So many silly people seemed to use long-distance just to blether to each other . . . . She felt fed up; she felt that she was a servant to selfish people’, and there was ‘a cloud in her hazel eyes’. However, as you will readily guess, Lucy’s job soon livened up, and before long she found herself in the middle of thrilling adventures which included the sinking of a U-boat, the capture of a German sabotage crew, and a long motor-ride with a handsome naval officer who had ‘a crisp voice’. Such is life in the Telephone Exchange.

At the end of the story there is a little note: ‘Any of our young readers themselves interested in the work of the Long Distance Telephone Exchange (such work as Lucy Fallows was doing) should apply to the Staff Controller, L.T.R., London, who will inform them as to the opportunities open.’

I do not know whether this is an advertisement likely to have much success. I should doubt whether even girls of the age aimed at would believe that capturing U-boats enters very largely into the lives of telephone operators. But I note with interest the direct correlation between a government recruiting advertisement and a piece of commercial fiction. Before the war the Admiralty, for instance, used to put its advertisements in the boys’ adventure papers, which was a natural place to put them, but stories were not, so far as I know, written to order. Probably they are not definitely commissioned even now. It is more likely that the departments concerned keep their eye on the weekly papers (incidentally I like to think of some stripe-trousered personage in the G.P.O. reading ‘Hullo, Sweetheart’ as part of his official duties) and push in an ad when any story seems likely to form an attractive bait. But from that to the actual commissioning of stories to be written round the A.T.S., Women’s Land Army, or any other body in need of recruits, is only a short step. One can almost hear the tired, cultured voices from the M.O.I. saying:

‘Hullo! Hullo! Is that you, Tony? Oh, hullo. Look here, I’ve got another script for you, Tony, “A Ticket to Paradise”. It’s bus conductress this time. They’re not coming in. I believe the trousers don’t fit, or something. Well, anyway, Peter says make it sexy, but kind of clean—you know. Nothing extra-marital. We want the stuff in by Tuesday. Fifteen thousand words. You can choose the hero. I rather favour the kind of outdoor man that dogs and kiddies all love—you know. Or very tall with a sensitive mouth, I don’t mind, really. But pile on the sex, Peter says.’

Something resembling this already happens with radio features and documentary films, but hitherto there has not been any very direct connexion between fiction and propaganda. That half-inch ad in the Home Companion seems to mark another small stage in the process of ‘co-ordination’ that is gradually happening to all the arts.

.     .     .     .     .

LOOKING through Chesterton’s Introduction to Hard Times in the Everyman Edition (incidentally, Chesterton’s Introductions to Dickens are about the best thing he ever wrote), I note the typically sweeping statement: ‘There are no new ideas.’ Chesterton is here claiming that the ideas which animated the French Revolution were not new ones but simply a revival of doctrines which had flourished earlier and then been abandoned. But the claim that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ is one of the stock arguments of intelligent reactionaries. Catholic apologists, in particular, use it almost automatically. Everything that you can say or think has been said or thought before. Every political theory from Liberalism to Trotskyism can be shown to be a development of some heresy in the early Church. Every system of philosophy springs ultimately from the Greeks. Every scientific theory (if we are to believe the popular Catholic press) was anticipated by Roger Bacon and others in the thirteenth century. Some Hindu thinkers go even further and claim that not merely the scientific theories, but the products of applied science as well, aeroplanes, radio and the whole bag of tricks, were known to the ancient Hindus, who afterwards dropped them as being unworthy of their attention.

It is not very difficult to see that this idea is rooted in the fear of progress. If there is nothing new under the sun, if the past in some shape or another always returns, then the future when it comes will be something familiar. At any rate what will never come—since it has never come before—is that hated, dreaded thing, a world of free and equal human beings. Particularly comforting to reactionary thinkers is the idea of a cyclical universe, in which the same chain of events happens over and over again. In such a universe every seeming advance towards democracy simply means that the coming age of tyranny and privilege is a bit nearer. This belief, obviously superstitious though it is, is widely held nowadays, and is common among Fascists and near-Fascists.

In fact, there are new ideas. The idea that an advanced civilization need not rest on slavery is a relatively new idea, for instance: it is a good deal younger than the Christian religion. But even if Chesterton’s dictum were true, it would only be true in the sense that a statue is contained in every block of stone. Ideas may not change, but emphasis shifts constantly. It could be claimed, for example, that the most important part of Marx’s theory is contained in the saying: ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’ But before Marx developed it, what force had that saying had? Who had paid any attention to it? Who had inferred from it—what it certainly implies—that laws, religions and moral codes are all a superstructure built over existing property relations? It was Christ, according to the Gospel, who uttered the text, but it was Marx who brought it to life. And ever since he did so the motives of politicians, priests, judges, moralists and millionaires have been under the deepest suspicion—which, of course, is why they hate him so much.

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