As I Please

in Tribune

6 October 1944

George Orwell

BY PERMISSION of a correspondent, I quote passages from a letter of instruction which she recently received from a well-known school of journalism. I should explain that when she undertook her ‘course’ the instructor asked her to supply the necessary minimum of information about her background and experience, and then told her to write a couple of specimen essays on some subject interesting to her. Being a miner’s wife, she chose to write about coal-mining. Here is the reply she got from someone calling himself the ‘Assistant Director of Studies’. I shall have to quote from it at some length:

I have read your two exercises with care and interest. You should have a good deal to write about: but do be careful of getting a bee in your bonnet. Miners are not the only men who have a hard time. How about young naval officers, earning less than a skilled miner—who must spend three or four years from home and family, in ice or the tropics? How about the many retired folks on a tiny pension or allowance, whose previous £2 or £3 have been reduced by half by the income tax. We all make sacrifices in this war—and the so-called upper classes are being hard hit indeed.

Instead of writing propaganda for Socialist newspapers you will do better to describe—for the housewives—what life is like in a mining village. Do not go out of your way to be hostile to owners and managers—who are ordinary fellow creatures—but, if you must air a grievance, do so tolerantly, and fit it in with your plot or theme.

Many of your readers will be people who are not in the least inclined to regard employers as slave drivers and capitalist villains of society . . . . Write simply and naturally, without any attempt at long words or sentences. Remember that your task is to entertain. No reader will bother after a hard day’s work to read a list of somebody else’s woes. Keep a strict eye on your inclination to write about the ‘wrongs’ of mining. There are millions of people who will not forget that miners did strike while our sons and husbands were fighting the Germans. Where would the miners be if the troops had refused to fight? I mention this to help you keep a sense of perspective. I advise you against writing very controversial things. They are hard to sell. A plain account of mining life will stand a far better chance . . . . The average reader is willing to read facts about other ways of life—but unless he is a fool or knave, he will not listen to one-sided propaganda. So forget your grievances, and tell us something of how you manage in a typical mining village. One of the women’s magazines will, I’m sure, consider a housewife’s article on that subject.

My correspondent, who, it seems, had agreed in advance to pay £11 for this course, sent the letter on to me with the query: Did I think that her instructor was trying to influence her to give her writings an acceptable political slant? Was an attempt being made to talk her out of writing like a Socialist?

I do think so, of course, but the implications of this letter are worse than that. This is not a subtle capitalist plot to dope the workers. The writer of that slovenly letter is not a sinister plotter, but simply an ass (a female ass, I should say by the style) upon whom years of bombing and privation have made no impression. What it demonstrates is the unconquerable, weed-like vitality of pre-war habits of mind. The writer assumes, it will be seen, that the only purpose of journalism is to tickle money out of the pockets of tired businessmen, and that the best way of doing this is to avoid telling unpleasant truths about present-day society. The reading public, so he (or she) reasons, don’t like being made to think: therefore don’t make them think. You are after the big dough, and no other consideration enters.

Anyone who has had anything to do with ‘courses’ in free-lance journalism, or has ever come as near to them as studying the now-defunct Writer and the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook, will recognize the tone of that letter. ‘Remember that your task is to entertain,’ ‘No reader will bother after a hard day’s work to read a list of somebody else’s woes,’ and ‘I advise you against writing very controversial things. They are hard to sell.’ I pass over the fact that even from a commercial point of view such advice is misleading. What is significant is the assumption that nothing ever changes, that the public always will be and always must be the same mob of nit-wits wanting only to be doped, and that no sane person would sit down behind a typewriter with any other object than to produce saleable drivel.

When I started writing, about fifteen years ago, various people—who, however, didn’t succeed in getting £11 out of me in return—gave me advice almost identical with what I have quoted above. Then too, it seemed, the public did not want to hear about ‘unpleasant’ things like unemployment, and articles on ‘controversial’ subjects were ‘hard to sell’. The dreary sub-world of the free-lance journalist, the world of furnished bed-sitting rooms, hired typewriters and self-addressed envelopes, was entirely dominated by the theory that ‘your task is to entertain’. But at that time there was some excuse. To begin with there was widespread unemployment, and every newspaper and magazine was besieged by hordes of amateurs struggling frantically to earn odd guineas; and in addition the press was incomparably sillier than it is now and there was some truth in the claim that editors would not print ‘gloomy’ contributions. If you looked on writing as simply and solely a way of making money, then cheer-up stuff was probably the best line. What is depressing is to see that for the—school of journalism—the world has stood still. The bombs have achieved nothing. And, indeed, when I read that letter I had the same feeling that the pre-war world is back upon us as I had a little while ago when, through the window of some chambers in the Temple, I watched somebody—with great care and evident pleasure in the process—polishing a top-hat.

.     .     .     .     .

IT is superfluous to say that long railway journeys are not pleasant in these days, and for a good deal of the discomfort that people have to suffer, the railway companies are not to blame. It is not their fault that there is an enormous to-and-fro of civilian traffic at a time when the armed forces are monopolizing most of the rolling stock, nor that an English railway carriage is built with the seeming object of wasting as much space as possible. But journeys which often entail standing for six or eight hours in a crowded corridor could be made less intolerable by a few reforms.

To begin with, the First Class nonsense should be scrapped once and for all. Secondly, any woman carrying a baby should have a priority right to a seat. Thirdly, waiting rooms should be left open at night. Fourthly, if time-tables cannot be adhered to, porters and other officials should be in possession of correct information, and not, as at present, tell you that you will have to change when you won’t, and vice versa. Also—a thing that is bad enough in peace time but is even worse at this moment—why is it that there is no cheap way of moving luggage across a big town? What do you do if you have to move a heavy trunk from Paddington to Camden Town? You take a taxi. And suppose you can’t afford a taxi, what do you do then? Presumably you borrow a hand-cart, or balance the trunk on a perambulator. Why are there not cheap luggage-vans, just as there are buses for human passengers? Or why not make it possible to carry luggage on the Underground?

This evening, as King’s Cross discharged another horde of returned evacuees, I saw a man and woman, obviously worn out by a long journey, trying to board a bus. The woman carried a squalling baby and clutched a child of about six by the other hand; the man was carrying a broken suitcase tied with rope and the elder child’s cot. They were refused by one bus after another. Of course, no bus could take a cot on board. How could it be expected to? But, on the other hand, how were those people to get home? It ended by the woman boarding a bus with the two children, while the man trailed off carrying the cot. For all I know he had a five-mile walk ahead of him.

In war-time one must expect this kind of thing. But the point is that if those people had made the same journey, similarly loaded, in peace time, their predicament would have been just the same. For:

The rain it raineth every day
Upon the just and unjust feller,
But more upon the just because
The unjust has the just’s umbrella.

Our society is not only so arranged that if you have money you can buy luxuries with it. After all, that is what money is for. It is also so arranged that if you don’t have money you pay for it at every hour of the day with petty humiliations and totally unnecessary discomforts—such as, for instance, walking home with a suitcase cutting your fingers off when a mere half-crown would get you there in five minutes.

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