As I Please

in Tribune

7 July 1944

George Orwell

WHEN the Caliph Omar destroyed the libraries of Alexandria he is supposed to have kept the public baths warm for eighteen days with burning manuscripts, and great numbers of tragedies by Euripides and others are said to have perished, quite irrecoverably. I remember that when I read about this as a boy it simply filled me with enthusiastic approval. It was so many less words to look up in the dictionary—that was how I saw it. For, though I am only forty-one, I am old enough to have been educated at a time when Latin and Greek were only escapable with great difficulty, while ‘English’ was hardly regarded as a school subject at all. Classical education is going down the drain at last, but even now there must be far more adults who have been flogged through the entire extant works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Vergil, Horace and various other Latin and Greek authors than have read the English masterpieces of the eighteenth century. People pay lip service to Fielding and the rest of them, of course, but they don’t read them, as you can discover by making a few inquiries among your friends. How many people have ever read Tom Jones, for instance? Not so many have even read the later books of Gulliver’s Travels. Robinson Crusoe has a sort of popularity in nursery versions, but the book as a whole is so little known that few people are even aware that the second part (the journey through Tartary) exists. Smollett, I imagine, is the least read of all. The central plot of Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, is lifted out of Peregrine Pickle, and I believe that no one has ever pointed this out in print, which suggests that few people can have read the book. But what is strangest of all is that Smollett, so far as I know, has never been boosted by the Scottish Nationalists, who are so careful to claim Byron for their own. Yet Smollett, besides being one of the best novelists the English-speaking races have produced, was a Scotsman, and proclaimed it openly at a time when being so was anything but helpful to one’s career.

.     .     .     .     .

LIFE in the civilized world.
(The family are at tea.)
‘Is there an alert on?’
‘No, it’s all clear.’
‘I thought there was an alert on.’
‘There’s another of those things coming!’
‘It’s all right, it’s miles away.’
‘Look out, here it comes! Under the table, quick!’
‘It’s all right, it’s getting fainter.’
‘It’s coming back!’
‘They seem to kind of circle round and come back again. They’ve got something on their tails that makes them do it. Like a torpedo.’
‘Christ! It’s bang overhead!’
Dead silence.
‘Now get right underneath. Keep your head well down. What a mercy baby isn’t here!’
‘Look at the cat! He’s frightened too.’
‘Of course animals know. They can feel the vibrations.’
‘It’s all right, I told you it was miles away.’
(Tea continues.)

.     .     .     .     .

I SEE that Lord Winterton, writing in the Evening Standard, speaks of the ‘remarkable reticence (by no means entirely imposed by rule or regulation) which Parliament and press alike have displayed in this war to avoid endangering national security’ and adds that it has ‘earned the admiration of the civilized world’.

It is not only in war-time that the British press observes this voluntary reticence. One of the most extraordinary things about England is that there is almost no official censorship, and yet nothing that is actually offensive to the governing class gets into print, at least in any place where large numbers of people are likely to read it. If it is ‘not done’ to mention something or other, it just doesn’t get mentioned. The position is summed up in the lines by (I think) Hilaire Belloc:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist
Thank God! the British journalist.
But seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

No bribes, no threats, no penalties—just a nod and a wink and the thing is done. A well-known example was the business of the Abdication. Weeks before the scandal officially broke, tens or hundreds of thousands of people had heard all about Mrs Simpson, and yet not a word got into the press, not even into the Daily Worker, although the American and European papers were having the time of their lives with the story. Yet I believe there was no definite official ban: just an official ‘request’ and a general agreement that to break the news prematurely ‘would not do’. And I can think of other instances of good news stories failing to see the light although there would have been no penalty for printing them.

Nowadays this kind of veiled censorship even extends to books. The M.O.I. does not, of course, dictate a party line or issue an index expurgatorius. It merely ‘advises’. Publishers take manuscripts to the M.O.I. and the M.O.I. ‘suggests’ that this or that is undesirable, or premature, or ‘would serve no good purpose’. And though there is no definite prohibition, no clear statement that this or that must not be printed, official policy is never flouted. Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip. And that is the state we have reached in this country thanks to three hundred years of living together without a civil war.

.     .     .     .     .

HERE is a little problem sometimes used as an intelligence test.

A man walked four miles due south from his house and shot a bear. He then walked two miles due west, then walked another four miles due north and was back at his home again. What was the colour of the bear?

The interesting point is that—so far as my own observations go—men usually see the answer to this problem and women do not.

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